Fighting against the might of Apple isn't easy, but unlike the now-defunct MP3 player manufacturers that did the rounds in the early 2000s, Cowon soldiers on. The J3, is remeniscent of a cross between an old-style iPod nano and an iPod touch. It retails for around £155 making the 8GB model cheaper than the 8GB iPod touch. But without the App Store to rely on, it's also a much less flexible device. Like most Cowon devices though, sound quality is on its side.
The Cowon J3 is a plastic-bodied player, and our first impression on picking up the device was how light and insubstantial it feels. With a 3.3in screen and generous bezel it's not a tiny device, but it weighs just 76g - significantly less than the Apple iPod touch's 101g. After this initial shock, you realise that there's nothing wrong with the build of this MP3 player, but if you like your gadgets reassuringly hefty, you may be disappointed.
The screen is equipped with an extremely responsive capacitive touchscreen but Cowon has sensibly included some hardware buttons on the player's side. On the right side of the player are track change buttons, a pause/play button and volume controls. These are contoured differently to let you operate them from within a pocket.
The power button is on the other side of the player and also doubles as a touchscreen lock. There's no way to disable the hardware buttons.
The headphone jack sits on the J3's bottom, so you have to plunge it into a pocket head-first which is actually the most intuitive method to our minds.This bottom edge is also home to a flap hiding the microSD slot, allowing for expandable storage, and proprietary dock connector, used for transferring files and as a video output. There's no video output cable included in the package though, so you'll have to fork out for an additional cable if this feature is of interest.
All you get bundled with the player are a USB cable and a pair of iAudio earphones. They offer sound quality superior to that of most bundled buds, with plenty of bass and a detailed, slightly compressed-sounding signature but we can't imagine many people buying Cowon are planning on making do with bundled earphones.
As an audiophile player, we're not surprised to see FLAC lossless codec support feature alongside MP3, WAV and OGG, but codec compatibility is much less impressive on the video side, limited to MPEG 1/2/3 and WMA. Video-playing is a fringe benefit of the Cowon J3 though - while the screen uses a high-quality AMOLED display, at 3.3in it's arguably too small to comfortably watch video on for more than a few minutes.
There's also an FM radio, which you can record from directly with a simple button press. These files are then saved within the player's internal memory, and can be played-back from within the music player interface.