Things finally improve with sound quality, however. To add to its already-notable video performance, the Q5W impresses again with its sheer drive and punch. It's capable of the sort of scale of attack that conveys real drama and atmosphere to movies. Watching the opening scenes to Joss Whedon's gritty, cult sci-fi adventure, Serenity, hooked up with my favourite headphones (a pair of Grado SR325i's) I was convinced of the Q5W's abilities. The great screen coupled with that awesome sound involves you to an extent that no other media player I've reviewed is capable of.
Music sounds equally impressive, but it's not perfect. The bass and drive are there, but when pushed hard this player starts to crack up. Newton Faulkner's acoustic guitar sounds holographically realistic, but his voice sounds a little grainy at top volume and it lacks the ultimate in control when things get really hairy. It could do with a bit more warmth too. Coupled with headphones like the Grados - which are unforgiving on the detail front - certain types of music can be tiring to listen to. But this is a small complaint, and the overall quality of the output is as good as anything I've listened to.
Listening to Faulkner's stunning cover of Massive Attack's Teardrop is enough to raise the hairs on the backs of your arms, and was superior in all departments in a back-to-back comparison with the Sansa View. Each part of the music was more clearly defined, including low notes, which have a punch and focus that's lacking in most other MP3 players. It's on a par with Creative's Zen Vision W for sheer drive - an impressive feat.
It helps, of course, that Flac is supported, as well as Ogg and the more usual WMA and MP3, but there's another of those infuriating caveats to deal with here. To get the former to work smoothly without random interruptions every 30 seconds or so, you have to install a firmware update. Battery life for audio also isn't wonderful at 13 hours continuous playback compared with the Archos 605 WiFi's maximum of 25 hours.
There's no doubting that Cowon's Q5W is a powerhouse of a PMP. But does it make the case for its size and weight successfully? I'm afraid to say it doesn't. For while it may have an impressive array of connections, a fantastic screen and awesome sound quality, there are simply too many issues.
At this sort of a price, you'd be rightly justified to expect perfection - £400 is an awful lot of money for a plain media player - but the Q5W doesn't provide it. Its capacity is low, with even flash-based players now snapping at its heels, its usability is suspect and its video format compatibility doesn't match up to its lofty claims.