Looking at build quality and interface alone, the Cowon seems like an under-performing also-ran. Next to an iPod Touch, Sony E845 or Creative Zen Style, it seems either poorly designed or horribly expensive, but it beats them all in the sound quality stakes.
Using the stock settings, the Cowon J3 makes an iPod Classic sound flat and muddled. It reveals additional high-end detail, offering a sound that's clear and focused.
What seals the deal though, making the Cowon J3 a worthwhile buy for audio enthusiasts, in spite of the faulty interface and high price tag, is the JetEffect 3.0 engine. It boasts an array of ways to tweak the sound, and far outclasses the efforts from better-known brands.
The 5-band EQ wins top billing. Each band has four different frequency settings, letting you customise the audio landscape from 80Hz up to 13kHz. With 25 gradations of strength and control over whether the band's narrow, wide or "normal", this EQ is incredibly flexible. It's also very good.
You can make your music sound terrible using this EQ, but it doesn't cause distortion even if you apply ridiculous, unbalanced settings. With our test iPod Classic, even applying a simple bass boost was enough to introduce occasional distortion - not so here.
JetEffect 3.0 also includes BBE and Mach3Bass extension. BBE adds detail and presence to the top-end without creating additional harshness or sibilance, while Mach3Bass is a simpler bass boost, which can cause booming if over-egged. Both can produce good results if used sparingly though. Also on the list is 3D surround, which messes with channels to give the impression of a wider audio field, MP Enhance, Stereo Enhance and Reverb.
MP Enhance is designed for use with lower-quality MP3 files, and seemingly just ups dynamics a tad, Stereo Enhance presumably seeks to widen the stereo image but seemed to have little effect while Reverb does what's written on the tin. We can't imagine many audio experts wanting to add reverb to their music, but it could be used to soften the sound of recordings made using the built-in mic.
There are four customisable JetEffect 3.0 slots, so you could program ones for different types of music/speech, while the Cowon J3 also offers three bass-boosting presets. Sound quality and customisation quickly rises to the top as the player's best feature.
Cowon claims that the J3 will last for up to 64 hours when playing audio, almost double the time quoted for the iPod Classic by Apple. The average user will see significantly less than this though. While battery life was still impressive in our tests, it drained fairly quickly when the screen was active. After a few hours of getting to grips with the navigation system, playing around with its apps and its one game, battery life had dropped to 75 per cent. Expect excellent battery life by all means, but 64 hours in real-life usage is probably not going to happen.
Great sound quality aside, the Cowon J3's price is a sticking point. The 16GB of the Sony a845 is available for £30 less, and the iPod Touch 8GB is just £30 more. You need to care a lot about the sound quality benefits of this player for the sacrifices in usability and tangential app functionality to be worthwhile.
Excellent sound quality and now-rare audio recording features make the Cowon J3 a top buy for sound quality enthusiasts. However, navigation's not particularly intuitive and the additional "app" style features are gimmicky.