Hardware & design: austerity in the air
Although it wasn't exactly revolutionary, we really liked the design of the S9. The J3, however, goes back to basics with a harsher rectangular design that makes the S9 look positively racy. That said, some sleek metal detail sets the product off nicely, and although the design is somewhat austere, it looks clean and sharp, and the device does have a noticeably high-quality finish.
The audio control buttons on the top of the S9 have been moved to the right-hand edge of the J3, while the On/Off/Hold controls can be found on the left-hand edge. Although still easier to access than buttons on the front of a device, the layout of the S9 made it easier to control from your pocket. Cowon is hanging on firmly to its proprietary USB connection for charging too, whereas a micro-USB connection could be more practical for some (so you can use the same cable to charge your MP3 player and mobile phone, for example).
The AMOLED screen is excellent and is easy to read in all kinds of conditions. Plus, screen sensitivity and accuracy have been improved compared with previous generations of Cowon devices, which is always good to see.
Cowon seems to have tidied up its Flash-based internal software. Although it's based on the interface already seen in the S9, various changes could well confuse Cowon regulars. All in all, it'll take a little longer to get the hang of, but there are more options and controls to play around with. There are, for example, three different display modes to choose from: Dynamic Square (classic icons), Smart Widget (a smartphone-style customisable homescreen with three pages) and Counting Text (a giant text-based menu list, similar to the Zune HD and upcoming WinPho7 mobiles ... hang on, didn't Cowon want to try its hand in the mobile market?). Don't hesitate to take a look at what's available online too though. The Cowon owners' community is very active, and users have developed a good selection of custom interfaces.
Sound quality: a heavyweight contender
Searching and browsing content in the J3 is exactly the same as in other Cowon multimedia players, i.e. there's a genuine explorer tool and you can browse tracks by folder or by tag. This flexibility is great. What's more, Cowon still seamlessly fuses content stored on the internal memory with that stored on a microSD card. We reckon it's about time other manufacturers starting doing the same (see insert).
The bad, and yet somehow unsurprising, news is that the headphones supplied simply don't do justice to this MP3 player. In fact, they're the same headphones Cowon has been supplying as standard for the last five years! Given the price of the J3 and Cowon's strong reputation for audio quality, why is a decent pair of headphones too much to ask? Especially since Cowon has just launched a pair of in-ear headphones which aren't too expensive and which have got to be better than these terrible things.
Otherwise, as usual with Cowon, the sound quality is flawless. The J3 pushes quality even higher than the S9, which was already excellent. With a user-expandable memory thanks to the microSD slot and impeccable sound quality, our number one product of reference—none other than the Cowon X5— looks like it may well have its work cut out.
The JetEffect audio effects are back again in version 3.0, together with the BBE+ bass enhancement function. When used in moderation, these can actually have quite good results.
Video & multimedia: make your own video chapters
There's no H.264 support, which is a bit of a shame. For the rest though, just like the S9, the J3 can play 720p HD videos with no prior reformatting required. They do take up a fair bit of memory, but you'll save loads of time and hassle.
Given the size of its screen, the J3 isn't really suitable for watching four-hour-long epic movie masterpieces. However, it's perfectly fine for watching TV series thanks its the excellent display and playback quality. The J3 even supports SMI and SRT subtitles files complete with user-customisable display options!
Another great idea from Cowon is a function for splitting videos into chapters, so you can split any video into manageable chunks, just like a DVD or Blu-ray.
Other features include a photo viewer (which is pretty bog-standard), an FM tuner (no RDS but plenty of preset stations), a document viewer, support for Flash games, a calculator and more. It's also compatible with Bluetooth 2.0 for transmitting a decent stereo sound output. Unfortunately, though, the Bluetooth connection is restricted and can't be used for file transfer.
Battery life is advertised at 64 hours for audio playback. It may look unbelievably enormous, but it's actually true! In fact, with 20 hours more audio playback time than the S9, Cowon seems to have broken all kinds of new records, as no competitor can currently do anywhere near as well.
The J3 picks up where the S9 left off and raises the bar in many key fields. For anyone who's not necessarily looking to browse the web, download applications and all those other things that have sealed the success of the Apple iPod touch, the Cowon J3 makes an excellent choice. It's also a must-have for anyone who's serious about sound quality. So once again, Cowon has proven its ability to design and manufacture high-quality portable multimedia players. In fact, with a track record like this, we're keen to see what the Korean manufacturer can do in other market sectors.
- Exceptional quality sound
- Subtle design, practical and well finished
- Physical playback controls can be used without looking at the player
- Supports external subtitles files for video playback
- Video playback with no reformatting
- Terrible headphones
- No H.264 compatibility
- Software interface can be confusing
The J3 sees the reappearance of one of Cowon's star features: the microSD slot that was missing on the S9. All in all, the J3 is probably still not the ultimate portable multimedia player, but it's certainly one of the best products currently on the market.