I have been using my iAudio X5L for nearly two years now… long enough to really get to know the animal and write a review about it.
Why write a review about a “nearly obsolete” player? Well, for many users the X5 is still in a class of its own. It’s one of the very few 1.8″ hard-disk-based audio players still in production that use the UMS Mass Storage Class for connecting to a computer; most others use the MTP protocol, which can require installation of additional software. The X5 supports a huge variety of audio codecs, and its sound quality still rivals and even surpasses many new players. The X5L’s 35 hours of battery life are unmatched in the field of HDD-based audio players.
The player is available in several different configurations: the slim X5 with a battery life of 14 hours and capacities of 20 and 30GB, and the bulkier X5L rated at 35 hours of battery life and the same capacities. A 60GB version of the X5 also exists, with the same dimensions as the X5L (due to the bigger 60GB hard disk). There is no 60GB version of the X5L.
If you’re interested in a no-nonsense, hassle-free, high quality audio player, read on.
The X5 comes with rebranded Cresyn earphones, AC adaptor, “subpack” (a dongle that sports the AC input, USB port, line-in and -out jacks), 3.5 mm male-to-male audio cable, USB cable, USB-On-The-Go (USB-Host) cable, some screen protectors, manual, and a software CD.
First thing everyone should do is get better phones. The Cresyn phones aren’t too bad, but to really enjoy the sound quality of the X5 you should definitely upgrade. The USB-Host cable connects to the port on the left side of the player. It has a standard USB jack on one end to connect a digital camera or other USB devices for data transfer. The 3.5 mm male-to-male audio cable is included for recording onto the X5 from external sources via line-in. You can buy other accessories separately, such as a cradle (sporting the same connectors as the subpack), a case, or a remote control with screen.
The subpack is a bit annoying. The X5 only has a small Gomadic connector on the bottom to attach the subpack. It doesn’t click into place, so it can slip out of the connector when you move it around or tug on the cables. To charge the player or connect the USB or line-connections, you have to use the subpack. This is an unfortunate design that cuts down on the overall bulk, but adds the hassle of keeping track of a very losable dongle.
Loading music onto the X5 is hassle-free; you don’t need any software to transfer music from any modern computer. It works on Windows 2000/XP/Vista, Mac OS 9/OS X, Linux, and others as soon as you plug it in. Drivers for Windows 98 computers are included on the CD. The player is recognized as a standard removable hard disk, so you can drag and drop files and sort them in folders, the same way you would on your computer’s hard disk.
Nevertheless, Cowon includes two programs on the CD that comes with the player. One is JetShell for syncing your audio collection to the X5 and ripping CDs to MP3s, and the other is JetAudio, a multimedia player and video converter. I don’t use either since I have other programs for these tasks, but both may come in handy if you’re not already accustomed to other software. They both work fairly well. Isn’t freedom of choice wonderful?
Located on the front plate is the five-way joystick, made of aluminum. It feels solid and sturdy compared to the plastic sticks on other players. Operation of the joystick is precise; it clicks when moved in the four directions or when pressed down. On the standard playback screen, it controls the volume on the vertical axis and skips tracks (and fast-forwards and rewinds) on the horizontal axis. When pressed down quickly, it accesses the Explorer-like folder structure on the hard disk, where you select the audio files or videos for playback. When pressed down for about three seconds, it accesses the system settings and the various other modes (FM radio, voice and line-in recorder, image viewer, USB-Host).
On the right side of the player is the slider, which doubles as a hold switch, for powering on the X5. It also turns off the display when flicked. Below that are two buttons, both of which have dual functions. One is for toggling the A-B repeat mode when pressed lightly and for recording when held down. The other is for play/pause and for the EQ settings. It is possible to map the second function of both buttons to any of the following: JetEffect (BBE audio enhancements), Boundary/Shuffle, EQ, Add to playlist, Add to bookmark, Lyrics on/off. My only complaint is that the A-B repeat function can’t be remapped. I never use it, and I believe neither do most other people. Having it hog a precious button should be optional, not mandatory.
Even though the controls were obviously designed for right-handed use, I always operate the X5 with my left hand and have no problems reaching any button.
Graphical User Interface
The main screen of the X5 shows you nearly every bit of information you could possibly wish for. It might overwhelm casual users, but certainly is a good thing for people who like to keep track of what’s going on. The screen shows the ID3 tags in three lines (artist/album/title), track time (elapsed/remaining/total, simultaneously), stereo peak level, bitrate (kb/s) and sample rate (kHz), 5-band EQ settings (yes, it shows the EQ bands on the main screen), BBE enhancement settings (BBE/M3B/3D/MP), volume level (numerically and graphically), realtime clock, random/repeat settings, and battery level.
The settings and options, as well as the music browser, are laid out in a familiar tree structure. It is easy to find any setting with a few clicks of the joystick. Everything is fairly logical. You can quickly exit the settings menu at any time by clicking the record button.
When browsing for music you can play a selected track immediately by pressing the play button, or add it to the dynamic playlist by pressing the joystick. Music is sorted in a folder structure, like on a computer’s hard disk; there is no search function. But when using a logical folder structure—be it by genre, by alphabet, or whatever you wish to use—you should have no trouble finding your files. I’m actually faster with this system than with searching by ID3 tags on other players.
After turning on the X5 for the first time, you might be overwhelmed by the candy colors and tacky icons. But worry not, as this can be changed. You can choose your own background image to display. Furthermore H3Mod, a free firmware modification tool, lets you alter most colors and even fonts in Cowon’s firmware. But be careful, it might void your warranty.
The X5L’s battery life is the best in any HDD-based audio player—period. No other player out there is rated at 35 hours of playback. Of course this is the “optimal” time, as stated by Cowon. But even at playing high-bitrate VBR files with all sound enhancements turned on, I get around 30 hours. This should be enough for two consecutive trans-Atlantic flights. Movies will play for approximately 10 hours.
Of course, this amazing battery life comes at a price: the X5L is 18.3 mm (0.72 inches) thick. The “standard” X5, on the other hand, is 14.3 mm (0.56 inches) thick; it is rated at 14 hours of playback time. That should be enough for most people, and it still is up to the standards of today’s HDD players. It goes without saying that the X5 is more pocketable than the X5L.
The included AC adapter fully charges the X5 in 3 hours, whereas the X5L requires 6 hours charging time. Both can also be charged over USB, which takes longer due to the low 500 mAh rating of USB ports.
The FM radio is fairly basic; it’s possible to auto-scan for stations and store 24 presets. The presets cannot be named, however. Reception is fairly good, but it somewhat depends on what kind of headphones are plugged in since those are used as the antenna. Recording from the radio is simple and works well. It’s possible to record at up to 320kb/s MP3 quality, the maximum possible for the MP3 codec. You can even set a timer for automatic FM recording.
The voice recorder has great sound quality for an all-purpose audio player. It works well even in noisy environments. The hard disk’s spinning noise is very faint, barely noticeable. Maximum possible quality is 128kb/s MP3 mono. The mic’s sensitivity can be switched between “low” and “high.” A voice activation feature is also included that starts recording only when there’s actually audible sound reaching the microphone. The sensitivity is adjustable.
This is where the X5 really shines. It records via the 3.5 mm jack on the subpack at up to 320kb/s MP3 quality—and I mean quality. No noise, no dropouts, no dull sound. In direct comparison to recordings made with a Sony Hi-MD player, the X5 sounds remarkably better. The recording quality is at least semi-professional in my opinion. On a side note, I often use the X5 to record jam sessions and concerts of my band, and it hasn’t let me down once.
It is possible to pause a recording and resume later. The X5 can also split tracks automatically when it detects silence—a pretty nice feature when recording directly from vinyl records, for example. Record gain level and split sensitivity are manually adjustable.The recordings get split in parts when the file size on the disk reaches around 250 MB, regardless of the bitrate used. After that the next file starts recording. That leaves a gap of about two or three seconds between the recorded tracks. This however can be remedied with a firmware hack, making it possible to record for over 12 hours straight into one huge file at 320kb/s. Note that this involves hex-editing the firmware and might void the warranty.
With Rockbox, a replacement open source firmware, you can even record to uncompressed WAV in CD-audio quality (44.1kHz 16-bit stereo).>Removable Disk
Since the X5 is UMS Mass Storage Class compliant, it’s nothing but a removable disk. You can store any files anywhere on the FAT32-formatted HDD and access them on any modern operating system.
USB-Host (also known as USB-On-The-Go or USB-OTG) lets you connect most digital cameras, card readers, flash memory sticks, or external hard drives to the port on the left side of the player, as long as they’re formatted to FAT or FAT32. A list of supported cameras is (more or less) maintained on Cowon’s website. Many more are confirmed to work, however.
In host mode, it is possible to transfer files from the attached device to the X5′s HDD and delete files on the external storage space. Even deleting files on the X5′s internal disk is possible in host mode. The downside of USB-Host is that it only transfers at USB v1.1 speeds: transferring 1 GB takes about an hour. Also the connection isn’t too reliable when transferring large chunks of data. It is recommended to transfer smaller units at a time. Anything below 30 or 40 MB at a time works well for me.
All in all, it isn’t too bad when you run out of space on your digicam and really need some external storage for your photos. But it can’t replace a dedicated image tank.
Thanks to the USB-Host function, the X5 makes a somewhat reasonable image tank for digital photos, apart from the slow USB v1.1 speed. With that said however, the small 160×128 screen of the X5 isn’t optimal at all for viewing pictures.
The supported format for the image viewer is baseline JPEG; progressive JPEGs aren’t supported. It is possible to zoom images, or pan and scan them. The X5 can display nine thumbnails at once on its screen, but building the thumbnails is sluggish and takes a lot of time for large photos. Loading big images generally takes a long time, more than five seconds for a photo from a 5-megapixel camera. The good news is that the X5 only needs to load them once into its buffer, so they load instantly the next time they are accessed.
A big flaw in the implementation of the image viewer is that simultaneous audio playback isn’t supported. You can either listen to music or look at the pretty pictures, but not at the same time.
Other noteworthy features are the alarm clock with three different modes (audio player, FM radio, and FM recording) and a sleep timer, adjustable in 10-minute steps up to 120 minutes. A simple text reader is also included; it’s actually really useful and readable at seven lines per screen and around 30 characters per line. Audio continues playing while displaying text. Lyrics display is also supported, but useless unless your collection is very mainstream music.
Upgrading the firmware is immensely easy compared to other players. You simply drag and drop the firmware into the corresponding folder on the X5′s hard disk and restart. On a side note, the current firmware (v2.10) is extremely stable and mature. The X5 is more or less bug-free; I’ve never had to reset my player once in the nearly two years of usage.
This review would get too long by anything more than scratching the surface of what Rockbox really means for this player. It’s a free open source replacement firmware for the iAudio X5, as well as several other players. It is possible to dual-boot Rockbox beside the original Cowon firmware, retaining the best of both worlds. Here we go again with the disclaimer: installing Rockbox might void your warranty.
With Rockbox installed, the X5 supports even more audio codecs, like Musepack, Shorten, and AAC, next to the already huge variety of the original firmware. WMA playback isn’t supported on Rockbox. It is more energy-efficient than the Cowon firmware at playing back MP3 and Ogg Vorbis files, resulting in longer battery life.
True gapless playback is also supported, and it’s possible to sort and search for music via ID3 tags. Album art can be displayed, and the screen layout is fully customizable. Rockbox sports a professional, fully parametric 5-band EQ. Recording is possible to uncompressed WAV, lossless WavPack, or MP3. At the moment, Rockbox doesn’t support USB-Host and video playback for the X5.
The amount of features can be expanded even further by plug-ins. There are several games included (Snake, Tetris, Arkanoid, Chess, Sudoku, Gameboy emulator, etc.) and it’s even possible to play Doom on the X5. Now that’s something worth showing off. Other useful plug-ins include a stopwatch, calculator, disk-cleanup utility, metronome, calendar, oscilloscope, and so on.
Rockbox supports profiles for all its settings, which is very useful if you use several different headphones with the player or line-out to various amps and loudspeakers. No more hassle tweaking the EQ for varying playback situations.
This is what it’s all about. The photo and video gimmicks are added for good measure, but the X5′s main function is the playback of audio material. It does a damn fine job at that, if you don’t mind me saying so. Without any equalization or enhancements turned on, the X5 reproduces the whole audible frequency spectrum evenly distributed and linear. The treble and mids are there, and so is the exceptional good bass response.
The 20+20mW amp is still reasonably strong for today’s standards; it drives any headphones up to 100 Ohms impedance with ease. Channel separation is very good. The Texas Instruments CODEC used in the X5 has a good signal-to-noise ratio and just sounds great. I could not get the X5 to distort at any reasonable volume settings.
I also do not hear any background noise with most headphones. The most sensitive low-impedance phones I use, the Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 EB (rated at 11 Ohms, 119 dB/mW), are completely silent at any reasonable volume setting, but turning the X5 up to near maximum produces a faint hiss in the background. Mind you, I only tested this when no sound was playing (I would go instantly deaf playing music with these phones at that volume level). Other phones with higher impedance are completely noise-free at even the highest volume level.
Almost any audio format you can throw at the player is supported: MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, ASF, FLAC, and WAV. None are played back truly gapless, but the gaps between MP3 or WAV tracks are very short, almost negligible. The gaps between Ogg Vorbis tracks are significantly longer, even though Ogg is designed to be a gapless audio codec, contrary to MP3. The reason for this might be that Ogg demands more processing power to decode than MP3 or WAV.
EQ and Sound Options
Cowon provides a fairly basic 5-band equalizer on the X5, with a slight design flaw: it only has positive values. It’s not possible to attenuate any band below 0dB. However, even with positive values only, the EQ does not distort when used reasonably. The EQ has six presets (Normal, Rock, Jazz, Classic, Pop, Vocal) and one user-definable setting. The interesting thing is that all seven presets can be modified; tweaking the EQ is not just limited to the user preset. A very intelligent move by Cowon—not forcing any arbitrary presets on their customers, just delivering suggestions for useful settings that can be further tweaked to personal liking.
Audiophiles may want to skip the following paragraphs and continue reading further below. BBE audio enhancements might not be the most suitable topic for purists. Cowon licensed some nifty algorithms from Californian studio-gear manufacturers BBE Sound, Inc., best known for their Sonic Maximizer hardware, which is used by many artists and professional recording studios. For some reason Cowon calls these BBE enhancements “JetEffects.”
If you already know SRS WOW or similar enhancements from other players and think they sound bad . . . well, I have to agree with yo
u. But BBE is several classes better than other psychoacoustic tricks usually found in portable devices. It sounds less unnatural than other algorithms, enriches the audio signal, and crossfeeds (3D Surround) the sound so headphones sound more spacious, more like listening to loudspeakers.
Another BBE option is Mach3Bass, a psychoacoustic bass enhancer that sounds very good and does not distort on quality headphones. It doesn’t sound like Mach3Bass only enhances mid-bass, as most comparable technologies do; it actually really emphasizes the low bass registers without making the overall sound image muddy.
The last, and maybe least useful, feature is MP Enhance, short for “Minimized Polynomial Non-Linear Saturation,” a process trying to restore harmonics and frequencies lost at compressing music to low quality or bitrates. Using it on MP3s at 128kb/s or lower makes the treble sound brighter, but that’s about it according to my ears. The treble might get too bright on some audio material, so I always keep MP Enhance turned off. Using it on high-quality encodes, 192kb/s or better, doesn’t make much difference at all.
Audio Playback Options
The shuffle and repeat modes on the X5 are very well thought-out. Shuffle works on the whole disk, a single folder, or a folder including all subfolders. Repeat can be combined with shuffle, or applied to a single track. A-B repeat is possible within one audio file. As mentioned above, this seldom-used function unfortunately hogs a precious hardware button that can’t be remapped to something more useful.
When using a reasonable folder structure on the X5, there is no need for playlists since shuffling over certain folders is much more intuitive and much less of a hassle to set up. Playlists are supported, however. Tracks can be added to a dynamic playlist with a click of the joystick. Both kinds of playlists are stored in separate folders on the HDD.
The bookmark function can be mapped to one of the keys on the right side of the player, making the X5 very well suited for listening to audio books or long podcasts. Bookmarks are also stored in a folder on the disk, making it possible to export them to a computer.
Setting a fade-in time for resuming playback after the sound is paused can be done, adjustable from one to five seconds. That’s just a small detail, but a very nice one in my opinion that makes the resume less brutal for the ears than jumping to full volume straight away.
Video on the X5 is nothing to write home about. It seems to have been implemented as an afterthought. The screen with its 160×128 resolution (5:4 aspect ratio) is too small to enjoy any full-length movie or TV show, and the 15 fps playback doesn’t cut it for fast-moving scenes. Watching cartoons on the X5 is acceptable, however.
The good thing is that Cowon supports the excellent open source XviD codec for videos, so you can choose from many free software applications for your encoding needs. The most simple and hassle-free is iRiverter.
If you want a real PMP with audio features equal to the X5′s, you might want to look at Cowon’s A2. That one is much better suited for playing videos.
If you’re a person that believes the industry builds most audio players for the “casual user” and want to be able to tweak or hack almost any aspect of the player to your personal liking, then the X5 may be for you. This, however, doesn’t mean that the X5 is complicated to use, in fact, exactly the opposite is true: by not having to use any software or a particular operating system, the X5 is much easier to use than players that, for example, use the MTP protocol. If you can attach a USB flash memory stick to your computer, then you can also use the X5—simple as that.
It’s one of the least restrictive audio players to use, as well as one of the best sounding and sturdiest HDD players with support for many more audio codecs than any other comparable device. And don’t forget about the excellent recording options. Overall, the X5 screams “no-nonsense” and “hassle-free.” If you’re looking for the HDD player with the best battery life, the X5L is the way to go. Rockbox alone is a selling point for many people who want to get the most out of a portable player.
Cowon, however, did not create a satisfying video player or photo viewer with the X5, mostly due to the small screen and low processing power for visual tasks. Also, if your music collection is a mess and you need to search for certain tracks via ID3 tags, the X5 might not be right for you (though Rockbox helps in that situation). Also the subpack can be slightly irritating since none of the important connectors are built directly into the player.
The X5 may not appeal to the mainstream. It is showing its age with a less refined design and interface compared to newer players. But it will definitely appeal to anyone whose primary concern is sound quality or “hackability.” If you’re looking for a no-nonsense audio player with great sound quality and are into tweaking lots of settings, then the X5 is for you.
- Excellent audio quality (playback and recording)
- Large variety of supported audio codecs
- BBE audio enhancements
- Line-in, FM and voice recording
- UMS mass storage class, works on any modern operating system without any software
- Audio tracks sorted by file/folder (ID3 browsing available on Rockbox)
- Informative screen
- Scratch-resistant aluminum housing
- Excellent battery life (on the X5L model)
- Rockbox support
- H3Mod support
- Virtually bug-free firmware
- Sub-par video playback
- Annoying subpack
- No ID3 browsing (but available in Rockbox)
- No gapless playback (but available in Rockbox)
- 10.000 files limit, can be an issue on the 60GB version of the X5 (no limit with Rockbox)
- Slow loading of large photos and a too small screen for viewing them
- USB-Host only supports USB v1.1 speeds
- Gaudy user interface (can be modified with H3Mod)
- X5L is rather bulky for today’s standards
Discuss in the ABi Cowon iAudio X5 Forum
I have yet to see the Cowon iAudio X5 in retail stores. Your best bet is Amazon for a search of the best price. For those of you outside of the US, AdvancedMP3Players will ship them anywhere in the world for a decent price.