- Huge Storage Capacity
- Extensive format support
- Superb sound quality
- It's massive!
- Screen quality isn't that great
- Interface is a bit clunky
- App support limited
- Review Price: £209.00
- 120/160GB hard drive
- 4.3in screen
- JetEffect 3.0 audio engine
- 103 hours music, 10 hours video battery
- Divx video support
The Cowon X7 seems huge next to almost all current portable devices. The 120GB internal hard drive makes sure it’s not slim at 14.5mm, and the 4.3in screen is large even by today’s giant touchscreen standards. The body stretches out beyond the screen too, with a generous bezel making the X7 significantly larger than the iPod Classic 160GB – the only big-name rival for this media player at present.
Yes, it’s a biggie, but it doesn’t feel that much heavier than the iPod Classic in-hand, even though at 212g it is aroun 50g more. What makes the Cowon X7 feel so grand, so oversized, is its width. At 78.6mm wide it’ll fill even the largest mitt, and those with smaller hands will have trouble wrapping your digits comfortably around its body. Anyone thinking they’re getting a svelte, ultra-pocketable media player with the X7 is clearly looking in the wrong place.
Build quality is great though, and the touchscreen removes the need for a set of design-diluting physical playback controls. There’s a pair of volume controls on the left hand-side, a power button on the right and a menu button front and centre, but these are the only physical buttons on-show. On the Cowon X7’s bottom are the 3.5mm headphone jack, power socket and a flap containing the connector port that doubles as a USB connection, video out and audio in – the last two requiring extra cables not included in the box.
A utilitarian workhorse, the Cowon X7’s front also features a speaker, and there’s a mic around the back, both of which are missing from the iPod Classic. The closer you look into the player, the more you see that its features start to justify its bulky body. It doesn’t have the desirability of an iPod Touch. But it does have a few features that the Touch can’t replace with its wealth of apps, and of course it has the advantage of it’s all-too-rare huge storage.
The Cowon X7 offers two kinds of interface, and you can switch between them freely. The first is an iPod style menu that lays-out the main features of the player in a list – one that you don’t have to scroll through thanks to the expansive 4.3in screen. It’s simple, clean and our interface of choice.
The second is seemingly inspired by Android smartphones, offering you home screens to fill with widgets and shortcuts. As nice an idea as this may be on paper, it’s limited by the lack of an app store – at your disposal are 12 widgets, few of which justify a spot on a home screen. The clock and calendar are possible candidates for a place, but a brightness switch and snapshot widget? Well, maybe, but it’s hardly compelling stuff. It feels a little like Cowon was clutching at straws with this extra-customisable UI. If it offered other features like web connectivity, GPS or a games library, this interface would make more sense, but it doesn’t. And it doesn’t need to – this is a media player after all, not a smartphone.
This is the same set of interfaces used in the Cowon J3, but they feel a little less nimble on the X7 because it uses a resistive touchscreen rather than a capacitive model. It’s responsive enough but suffers from the traditional problem of finger-operated resistive touchscreens – accuracy. Most of the interface elements are large enough to escape from this effect, but you have to be more conscious of the way the touchscreen works – and which part of your finger actually connects with the touchscreen – than with the slicker Cowon J3.
The screen is highly reflective but viewing angles are good and the X7 comes with a handful of wallpaper images to best show it off. However, just as its body shape is living in the distant past, so is its screen resolution. Where a smartphone using this screen size would typically use a 480×800 pixel resolution, this media player is 272×480 pixels. That’s 384,000 pixels total versus 130,560 – the Cowon has around a third the number of pixels of what might be considered the new “industry standard”.
This leaves interface text looking a little blocky and images visibly pixellated, but it doesn’t spoil the media player’s surprisingly good video skills. The Cowon X7 plays DivX and Xvid files, and when watching a movie or TV episode the low-res effect is less noticeable. Well-encoded video is very watchable when the device is held 30cm or so from your face – and the 10-hour video-watching battery life makes this device worth considering as a portable video buddy, an alternative to one of Archos’s older PMPs. The viewing angles here are superior to most of Archos’s players too.
Although it’s adept with video, music is where the Cowon X7’s forte lies. It handles a variety of formats including FLAC, APE and OGG alongside the standard MP3, WMA and WAVE, and sound quality is great. Next to our test iPod Classic 160GB, the Cowon X7 offers a more detailed mid-range on standard settings, giving vocals a more defined sense of texture, and greater presence.
If you’re thinking of buying this player primarily on the merits of its sound quality, make sure you have a decent set of earphones already – you’ll hear more of a difference upgrading from a £15 set of buds to a £50 set of IEM earphones than from a less capable MP3 player to this. If you already have a setup to do it justice though, the Cowon X7’s JetEffect 3.0 engine offers a great way to tweak your sound.
JetEffect 3.0 is comprised of an EQ, an aural exciter, bass booster and a handful of other processing effects. It comes with a huge 35 presets, plus four that you can customise manually. And there’s a whole lot of customisation to be done.
There’s a 5-band EQ, each working to a /-12dB scale that you set manually. You also set the frequency for each of these bands, and whether they’re wide or narrow in their effect. This EQ feature is unusually flexible and powerful, and even when taken to extreme settings didn’t cause distortion. It’s versatile and subtle enough to let you mitigate for the shortcomings of your headphones or earphones, which most media player equalisers simply aren’t sophisticated enough to do.
Less time-consuming are JetEffect 3.0’s BBE and Mach3Bass frequency boosters. BBE enhances the high-end subtly, increasing clarity without adding sibilance – although it may introduce harshness and sibilance when using very bright-sounding headphones. Mach3Bass is a similarly intelligent bass boost, although as it’s quite powerful you can leave your music sounding like a boomy mess if you overdo it.
Used in tandem with the EQ, Mach3Bass can effectively sculpt the bottom-end entirely, which is impressive. We managed to turn an high-quality but overly bassy pair of buds into a restrained pair by severely restricting bass at 80Hz, then upping the Mach3Bass to replace it. The effect was surprisingly convincing.
These are JetEffect 3.0’s best bits, and audio nuts will be able to spend hours fiddling with the EQ to get cymbals splashing as they desire, but there are a few extras too. 3D Surround fiddles with channels to give the impression of a wider, more dynamic stereo image. MP Enhance is designed to mitigate for low-quality digital audio files, but makes little difference to decent-quality MP3s. STE (Stereo Enhance) is a much less invasive alternative to 3D Surround, but therefore also much more usable. The final feature, reverb, won’t be of much use when playing music, but you may want to add some to soften recordings made using the built-in mic.
All told, this may be the best-sounding hard drive MP3 player on the market. Anywhere.
We’ve already covered the Cowon X7’s top features – the excellent audio and video capabilities – but if you’re still teetering on the balance there are a few more goodies to cover. It supports Bluetooth, features an FM radio and can be used as a Dictaphone and audio recorder.
We tried out a set of Bluetooth earphones with the X7 and had no trouble connecting. Doing so is very simple too. There’s a separate Bluetooth menu within the main Settings menu, which lists all of your devices. A tap on one will attempt to make the connection.
The FM radio also has its own menu spot, this time on the main menu within the iPod-style interface. Like most FM radios within media players, the headphone cable is used as the antenna. You can record the radio signal with the press of a button and there’s a huge 24 station presets to fill up. It is, however, one of the elements that suffers from the resistive touchscreen’s lack of sensitivity the most – the frequency selector being a bit too small and fiddly to control without the occasional frustrating moment.
Audio recording from the built-in microphone is versatile, giving you control over the quality of the recording, 32kbps to 256kbps, and volume. To unleash the X7’s potential as a higher-quality recording device, you’ll need the optional line-in cable, available from Advanced MP3 Players for around ten pounds. This offers the same settings as microphone recordings, but won’t be held back by the quality limitations of a tiny pinhole microphone.
The Cowon X7 is the kind of device we didn’t expect to see at this point. It’s big, too big for many, and offers features rarely seen in a portable media player these days. An iPod Classic is simpler to use, but also lacks many of its best bits without selling for that much less money. They’re not all features for techy nuts who spend their evenings tinkering with motherboards either – we can imagine using the X7 frequently as a video player, especially when that 120GB hard drive has enough room for more than a hundred movies, or more than a thousand albums.
Cowon has carved out a niche within a niche with the X7. It offers better sound quality and superior video capabilities than an iPod Classic, but it’s also much bigger. The sheer size of the player is a tricky issue to scale, but if you can it offers surprisingly good value – with far greater storage than its series rivals, like the J3, at a similar price.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 9