World of Apex

Thursday, March 16, 2006

"X" Because It's Extra, Baby

In case you're wondering, the title is from a They Might Be Giants song. Furthermore, it's a TMBG song that happens to be currently residing on my new, wonderful Cowon iAudio X5L music player. In FLAC format. Booyah.

I now present to you the first hardware review I've done since the Xbox 360 launched...

Cowon iAudio X5L

I've been using my Zodiac as a surrogate MP3 player for almost two years now, and it finally got to me last week. I'd been mulling over buying a new player for a couple months, and had recently fallen in love with the FLAC lossless format, so finding a new one that could meet my hefty demands was tough. Luckily it's extremely difficult for me to convince myself of buying anything, which means I always spend weeks researching and comparing every single aspect of a product to other, similar ones. My list included basically two brands, iRiver and Creative, but neither played the FLAC format I held so dearly. I knew for sure I wouldn't be buying the overpriced, cheaply made rubbish that Apple puts out and mistakenly labels an "mp3 player," nor would I settle for an old Rio Karma. I was running out of hope I would ever find a player to fit my needs...then I found Cowon. After a few days of studious comparing, reading user reviews and interrogating my friend Ender about his, I decided to make the purchase.

Only two days later I recieved my brand spanking new Cowon iAudio X5L via UPS. I'd gotten a killer deal on it from Newegg: the normally $329 30GB model was on sale for $289. I viciously murdered the annoying, sealed plastic packaging and snatched the player from its evil clutches. The sleek black and silver design caught my eye right away, as well as the well placed buttons and ports along the sides. I noticed that while the player isn't feather light, its weight was reassuring; it was sturdy and well built. The five-way navigator seemed strangely placed, to the bottom right of the screen. The power button was one of those little slide things that you hold to turn on, and it went two directions, one for power, the other for hold mode. I unpacked the rest of the kit, which included the essentials: power pack, USB cable, software CD, and a little black thing. The little black thing was the charger/USB sub-pack, which plugs into the bottom port and has the aforementioned cables plug into it, as well as a line-in and line-out for recording and playing, respectively. The sub-pack seemed a bit awkward at first, but turned out to be no big hassle as I plugged it all in, and then...

BLEEM! I was practically blinded by the screen's brightness and clarity. The screaming blue and white charging screen gave me my first objective: turn down the brightness! A friend of mine said his only real complaint was the menus are a bit difficult to get through, but I had no trouble with it myself. The only difficulty was finding the brightness option in the myriad of other ones, from programmable buttons to display options, playback options and effects. I cranked down the brightness from five to two, noticing you can increase it all the way to ten, which apparently is Holy Light and can destroy undead. I poked about the options some more, trying out the equalizer settings, BBE bass management and the like, until I decided it was time to try out the playback. Luckily, the guys at Cowon decided to use the player as a propaganda medium, with included info videos on each product line they make, as well as a song modestly titled "iAudio Theme Song." I tried a video or two out and was impressed by the quality, which was exceptional for such a small screen. The R&B theme song didn't give much of an impression of the sound, though, so I was off to install it on my PC. I plugged the USB connector into my PC, then the mini-USB side into the player, forgetting all about the software, and probably important drivers on the CD...

Found new hardware: iAudo X5L
Found new hardware: USB Mass Storage Device
Your new hardware is installed and ready to use.

It was that easy. No software to install. In fact, you don't even need to pop in the CD. The included software is decent; one is a media player and the other is a conversion and backup utility. The latter converts most any video to the MPEG-2 format the player uses at a good speed, but otherwise is a fancier looking VirtualDub. Anyway, Windows popped up with a window asking what do with the files on the disk, so I opened it up and looked around the file structure. A folder was there for each media type: pictures, music, movies, textfile. There was also a folder for firmware, so upgrading the firmware is only a matter of drag, drop, and reset. From there I proceeded to copy music from my drive like mad, piling in precisely 444 songs in about an hour's time. Along with the music, which is arranged like so: Genre-->Sub-Category-->Artist-->Album, I tossed my *.m3u playlists for each album into the, you guessed it, playlists folder. My 444 tracks were spread out across a few genres like classic rock, techno and orchestral, and ranged from high-bitrate MP3 to OGG and FLAC. Figuring that was a pretty good spread, I disconnected it from the USB, plugged in my headphones and queued up the Oblivion soundtrack...

Just as I was dazzled by the brightness and clarity of the screen, I was amazed by the quality of the audio. If I were to close my eyes and just listen, I could imagine myself sitting in Tamriel, the quality (and music) was just that good. Thanks in part to a great 3D surround effect built into the player, the BBE bass, MP enhancement, and a nice graphical equalizer, the audio practically came to life. At first I thought it might just be the lossless FLAC doing it, but I was pleased to find out even the mundane, lossy MP3 format sounded much better. Finally assured the quality was in fact as stellar as I first thought, I decided to check out some of the other features...

Getting better aquainted with the menu system took a small bit of thinking. The five way stick thinger wasn't a new experience, since I've used many PDA's before, however I never think of the most obvious way to do things. It makes perfect sense to click down the stick and hold it to bring up the menu, since the horizontal controls skipping and verticle controls volume. A single click will take you to the file browser and let you move about your folders, where you can select songs or folders to either play or add to the Winamp-esque Dynamic PlayList (DPL). Since the nav-stick takes care of moving and selecting, the Pause/Play button on the right side of the player does the actual, well, pausing and playing. Both this key, and the Record key directly above it, can be programmed to do one of a handful of handy functions when you hold it down. Mine are set to change play mode and bring up the equalizer. Speaking of play modes, the ability to change between bounded, which only plays tracks within the specified area in order, and shuffle, which randomizes the tracks in that bounded area, is extremely useful. When I say "bounded area," I'm referring to another option, which allows you to set the area which the player can pick songs from to the entire hard disk, main folders (like genre), or only sub-folder (artist or album). The amount of options you can toy with is huge. After I emerged from the settings menu, I decided to wander over to the picture display feature and check that out, too. Displaying pictures by themselves isn't very useful to me, but you can set your wallpaper that displays behind the track info on the main player screen here. I resized a few desktop backgrounds and made a couple myself for the hell of it, so I've got enough background images to last me awhile. Also listed on the main menu is FM radio, which doesn't interest me much. I've got a library of high or perfect quality music, why use FM? It's nice to know it's there though, and I can record straight from the radio to MP3 if I need to. Upon further inspection of the little sub-pack thing, I can record tracks through line-in, which could come in very handy. Speaking of recording, there's a nice voice recorder built in as well, which has surprisingly good quality.

During the course of the last day and a half, I've been using it almost constantly and haven't made a dent in the battery power whatsoever. The X5L is designated as such because of the larger battery, which adds a whole 1 ounce of weight and 4 milimeters of width to the unit, but raises the battery life to around thirty hours.

All in all, the X5L is an amazing piece of hardware. It's got twice the capacity of my old brick of a player, it's less than half the weight and thickness, has a full color screen that's incredibly clear and bright, and has awesome battery life. The onboard menus and browsing is easy, natural and pretty fast (especially if you use playlists often). Playback quality is stellar, and it even improves those lossy MP3's. The support of FLAC lossless and OGG along with the standard codecs is great, and the effects, equalizer and enhancements make the sound come to life.

Apex's Rating: 9/10

This is the best player out there if you want great audio quality and ease of use rather than a trendy fashion accessory.

ADDENDUM: I experimented with the USB a bit and connected it to my Xbox 360 without a hitch. It works perfectly and playing music off of it is a breeze.


  • Dangit, now I want one....

    By Anonymous Sean, at 9:18 AM  

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