Cowon iAudio A3 Review

cowon a3 main Cowon iAudio A3 Review

The iAudio A3 is Cowon’s flagship PMP with a very thorough list of supported codecs in both music and video. The 800×480 16.7 million color screen is crisp and will do justice to your video collection. There is a lot of good going on with the A3, and it’s probably the best PMP of its size on the market.

However, the A3 is still has plenty of issues. The user interface is weak (as is many of Cowon’s interfaces), the firmware could use some work and the advertised 1280×720 HD playback is anything but refined. Again, the A3 is a great PMP, but read on for the caution areas.

  • Quick Look
  • Size: 133.4 x 78.5 x 22.0 mm
  • Weight: 280 g.
  • Screen: 4″ 16.7m color, 800×480 pixel
  • Capacity: 30GB / 60GB
  • MSRP: $350 / $400
  • Battery Time: 9 hrs audio, 7 hrs video
  • Video Formats / Codecs: AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MATROSKA(MKV), MPG/MPEG, VOB, DAT, MTV, OGM / DivX 3.11/4/5/6, XviD, MPEG-4 SP/ASP, WMV 9/8/7, H.264 MP, M-JPEG, MPEG 1/2
  • Audio Formats / Codecs: MP3/2/1, ASF, WMA, FLAC, OGG, M4A, MATROSKA(MKA), TTA, APE, MPC, WV, WAV, AC3 / MPEG1 Layer 1/2/3, WMA, FLAC, OGG Vorbis, OGG FLAC, APPLE Lossless, AAC/AAC+, AC3, True Audio, Monkey’s Audio, MusePack, WavPack, G.726, PCM
  • Photo Formats: JPG, GIF, PNG, TIF, BMP, RAW
  • Video Recording: ASF 720×480 3Mbps Max
  • Audio Recording: FLAC, WMA
  • Other Features: USB Host, Document Viewer, BBE Sound Enhancements, Optional TV Tuner (Japan, Korea, & EU Only)
  • Full Specs
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Accessories

The iAudio A3 comes with all the accessories required to use all the features: earbuds, standard USB cable, composite AV cable, component / Svideo cable, AC power adapter, hand strap, USB host adapter, and of course the player itself. No additional stuff needed for things like video out or video recording.

Currently the few additional accessories available directly from Cowon include a crystal case, silicone case, and a leather case. There are some other third party cases for the A3 as well.

Design

The A3 is nearly identical to the A2, so there is not much innovation or even a design refresh with the A3. The build quality is solid and fairly rugged even though it is a bit retro, so to speak. The housing is made of a standard, relatively soft, plastic and will scratch when lightly rubbed with a metal object- the grey showing more so than the black. The plastic is molded of a solid color and not painted like some cheaper electronics so it will ware more elegantly. For those who want to keep their A3 in pristine condition may want to invest in a case. Cowon should have made both pieces of the housing jet black to better distinguish it from the A2.

The plastic screen is very scratch resistant and will hold up to normal wear and tear. Lightly rubbing blunt metal objects did not show scratches. The plastic screen is too reflective and shows glare relatively easily which can impede watching video, depending on your environment’s lighting conditions.

The buttons are plastic but are well made, depressing nicely with a firm click- the same can be said for the bottom hold/LCD slider. The joystick is rugged and made of metal.

Screen

The 16.7 million color 800×480 pixel screen looks great, hands down. It is very detailed and accurately represents colors. Pixel response times are quick and 30 frames per second looks great. It is comparable to the Archos 605 but looks a little bit crisper since the 605′s touch screen has a matte texture.

User Interface

Oh Cowon, how you fail me. No thought, no rhyme, no reason is ever put into iAudio player interfaces (The D2 is an exception) and this is no different from the A3. The interfaces are fragmented and inconsistent. Important and most used features are not easily accessible and buttons take on too many roles. It is hard to criticize parts the interface when I feel that it just needs to be thrown out and started from zero. The bottom line is there is a learning curve and it is far from a “pick up and use” interface.

GUI

The GUI goes hand in hand with the overall UI, but one part of the interface I really do appreciate is the detail and information displayed. For instance, when a folder is highlighted, the information box shows the number of files for each file type. If a file is highlighted, it shows the file details to the right in this box. The now playing screen is equally informative showing everything you need to know with a quick glance. The clear and hi-res screen lends well to this detail allowing you to easily read even the small fonts.


Controls

As I mentioned in the design section, the buttons are well made and do have a nice solid tactile feel to them. There is a problem with the usability of the joystick. It is similar to many of the other 5-way joysticks on several of the other Cowon iAudio players, but the down press on this is not as tight as the others and is too close to the other directional clicks. So many times when you down press, you end up clicking a directional button and then the center button.

Software

Since the A3 acts like a standard MSC drive and many codecs are supported, you really don’t need software. However, you will need it to convert documents. The included software is Cowon’s own JetAudio media player. It’s a standard media player but will allow you to convert unsupported video and documents to readable CSD format.

Battery

Battery life is rated as 7 hours for video and 9 hours for audio. From my tests I got 4.5 to 5 hours for video and about 8 hours for audio, falling quite short of the rated. Bring a charger for long road trips for flight.

The A3 will charge in 5.5 hours with the AC adapter. It will also charge over USB, but will take significantly longer. Also to note, the A3 will not charge over USB when the battery is completely dead. I found this out the hard way on my trip to CES 2008. Luckily I was able to drop it off at the Cowon booth and have them charge me up. How is that for hands-on tech support?

File Browser

The file browser simply gives you a view of the entire player from the root directory. It will allow you delete files and folders or display/play them. It is not that different from the media browsing under the individual modes for music, movies, txt, etc. I am a little disappointed that you can’t move files and folder.

USB Host

USB host allows you to connect USB drives and transfer content from them to the A3. Some devices and drives worked some did not – it was very hit or miss. Some devices did work, but only after a few tries and reboots of the A3. If you are depending on this as a feature, you will be disappointed.

Documents

The A3 reads standard TXT files and CSD files. CSD format is what the A3 reads. You can converts many different files to CSD with the supplied software. The formats that it will convert are PDF, DOC, PPT, XLS, and HTML. Viewing these docs are simple with the ability to bookmark long files.

Photo

The A3 has a great screen, and what better way to show it off than with your photos. Browsing your photos is straight forward in the form of files in a list. When a file is highlighted, a thumbnail is shown in the top right and information about the photo below. This info is pretty extensive showing file size, size, date taken, camera, shutter speed, etc. This may be pretty useful for photographers, especially with the USB host and support for RAW photo formats. Additionally, it supports JPEG, GIF, PNG, TIF, and BMP. Photos can be zoomed in on in two steps, but do seem to get a bit distorted. Output to TV looks great and the photo playlist lends well to displaying a slide show. The only real downside to the photo viewing is that it can be somewhat sluggish for larger file sizes.

Recording

On the video side, the A3 can record Mobile TV, S-video in, and composite in. It will record in 720×480 at 3mbps only in ASF format. Too bad it is not something more palatable like a plain MPEG. Here are two sample recordings taken from an HD cable box over S-Video: 720×480 3mbps Video 192kbps Audio

For audio you are able to record radio, voice though the mic, and line-in. Voice and radio are recordable in WMA 128 & 192 Kbps and line-in can record the same in addition to FLAC. Being able to record to a compressed lossless format is fantastic – it doesn’t get much better than that.

FM Radio

The radio reception is about average. The auto preset worked well picking up the best stations. It did pick a few fuzzy channels, but it was just a matter of pressing a button to delete it. Recording is also a single button press allowing you to record in 128 and 192kbps WMA files. On the downside you will need to have headphones plugged in to listen to the radio since they act as an antennae. So if you want to use the external speakers as a portable radio, you will still need headphones.

Music

Audio codec support is fantastic. As advertised, the A3 support: MP3/2/1, WMA, FLAC, OGG, Apple Lossless, AAC, AC3, True Audio, Monkey Audio, MusePack, avPack, G.726, PMC. All were tested and all played well.

Playlists/Bookmarks

On the go playlisting is almost perfect where as you can fully manipulate the order of a playlist on the go. However, you can only make one playlist on the move, but Cowon’s software will allow you to add more playlists from your desktop. The A3 has the ability to add bookmarks to the middle of tracks, but oddly it is twisted into the playlist feature. When you add a bookmark, it puts it in to your on the go playlist. I would really like to see these separated and to have a separate “bookmark playlist”.

Sound Quality

The A3 has the classic warm, rich, and clear Cowon sound – just what you’d expect from the Cowon brand. There was enough power to drive my Sennheiser HD650s to a decent listening volume, but it lost half of its volume/power when any BBE or EQ adjustments were turned on (I believe this is a overload or clipping preventative measure), so a cautious note when using the EQ and demanding headphones. There was more than enough volume with IEMs such as the Future Sonics Atrio M5s.

This is a shame since the EQ on the A2 (and other Cowon iAudio players) is the best you can get on a portable device. Not only do you have the ability to adjust the levels of 10 bands, you also have the ability to adjust these bands frequencies and width. On top of that, you will also get BBE which is a very natural sound enhancement that can add tighter bass.

Mobile TV

Unfortunately I could not test this feature since Cowon does not make a tuner for the US market. The tuner is a separate attachment that clips into the left side USB port. It is available for three different markets: Korea (DVB-T), Japan (1-Seg), and Europe (DVB). I would really hope that Cowon will release an ATSC version for the US since it would be a great addition to this already feature-filled player. The great thing about this is you are able to record TV.

Video

File Types / Codecs

Video is the A3′s strong point, but it is not as robust as you think in that it seems to choke on some supposedly compatible formats. The advertised supported file types and codecs are AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MKV, MPG, VOB, DAT, MTV, DivX, XviD, MPEG-4 SP/ASP, H.264 MP, and M-JPEG. The player did play most anything I threw at it, but it wouldn’t play some encodes of a hand full of the abovementioned files which otherwise played fine on a desktop computer.

I did notice that it won’t play H.264 MP (as advertised) or HP, but it will play SP- this includes these codecs wrapped in MKV. One of the things I was really looking forward to on the A3 was the ability to play direct VOB rips from DVDs. VOB support was spotty, some played flawlessly and some were choppy. This was very disappointing and I hope that this get ironed out, but I would also like to see the addition of DVD ISO support.

Codec and file support is better than any PMP on the market, but do not expect it to be flawless. It still has plenty of playback problems. I do, however, expect this to get better as the firmware improves since Cowon is known for their constant, but rocky, firmware upgrades.

HD Resolutions

I thought the A3 was going to be a killer PMP for the fact that I was able to play “high def” over its component outputs, but nothing played well at those resolutions. 720p video was either choppy or the audio was not synched. I really hope Cowon optimize these resolutions in future firmware updates so the component outs can be fully taken advantage of.

TV-Out

I tested the TV output on a Samsung 46″ LCD TV- it’s full 1920×1080 HD so it is very revealing to poor looking video. It was difficult to tell the difference between a VOB on the A3 (component 720×480) compared to an upscale DVD player over HDMI. The difference was slight with the DVD player showing color scaling better and a slightly crisper picture. This was typical component vs HDMI. I next compared the A3 to the same DVD but over component cables instead of HDMI. The gap closed a little more, but the A3 still had slight color scaling issue with some whites being a little washed.

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When I could get a few frames of 720p content to play, it looked very good, an obvious step above the DVD resolution video – all the more reason I hope the HD codecs get sorted out.

Overall output is great and hands down the on any PMP currently on the market. It will play great with an HDTV.

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Conclusion

The A3 was a bit of a disappointment to me since I was really looking forward to the HD playback which failed to perform. This, along with the unorganized user interface and finicky joystick, makes me shy away from the A3. Despite my complaints, I still think that the A3 is the best PMP on the market due to its comprehensive (but still lacking) file support, component out, video recording, lossless audio recording, and gorgeous high resolution screen. Cowon has some kinks to work out with codec support, and I am fairly certain they will improve over the next few iterations of firmware updates. I recommend the A3, but know that advertised HD does not work well and future firmware updates will do it some justice.

Pros

  • Best TV-Out on a PMP
  • Great Sound Quality
  • Crisp LCD
  • Solid Build Quality
  • Codec Support

Cons

  • Weak HD output
  • Limited H.264 Support
  • Not a User Friendly Interface
  • Inaccurate Joystick
  • Occasional GUI Lag

Comparisons

Purchase

The A3 is not available in brick and mortar retailers- they are strictly internet distributed. Check out Amazon for the best price. For UK, EU, and the rest of the world AdvanceMP3Players offers the best service and lowest price online.




18 Comments

Steve on February 19, 2008 2:20 AM

It’s 2008. Apple’s only hard drive based players are 80 and 160 GB, and these companies are still topping out at 60 GB? Just give it up already and admit no one has the balls to bother competing with Apple and make a decent product.

Seija on February 19, 2008 2:41 AM

Thanks for another great review!Also it would be very nice to see some TV video recording samples (those in .asf format) since it wasn’t the strongest point of A2.

Chris on February 19, 2008 3:12 AM

High-def makes A3 feel: C-

Zoodar on February 19, 2008 9:38 AM

Great review. However for the videoclip, it would be better if you posted what specs the videos and the music are. I mean, sure the videos looks awesome, but what’s the resolution and so on.@Steve: Does Apple even have a player like this? No. I wouldn’t by an iPod if I was going to buy a video player. And it’s not all about the storage capacity.

nywytboy68 on February 19, 2008 10:16 AM

Now I’m not feeling so bad about selling my D2 last week (8gb), too bad they just can’t get it right (so much promise and so few successes). Thanks for a great review – I was starting to worry that you were closin’ up shop [LOL].

EnzoTen (Grahm) on February 19, 2008 10:20 AM

I added some recording samples for download. See above recording section.

alf on February 19, 2008 11:26 AM

What are those issues with the directional button keep talking about. Ive had my a2 for 1,5 year, and i never user the center click, only in the main menu and for pause and play inside a file. By navigating to the right on a folder or file you get the same options as center click, yet faster and more convenient. The same way if you wanna go back to folders you go left. (like a webbrowser)I can see and hear in your review that you dont take these facts in consideration (you dont use right nav. in your video).When wanting to play a video just navigate right once for options and second time for play. It goes very fast.

EnzoTen (Grahm) on February 19, 2008 11:49 AM

@alfAside from the 5-way click. You just showed how backwards and haphazard the A2/A3 UI is. It shouldnt be that complicated and random. The UI is something i dont think Cowon will ever get right since it mainly sells to Asian markets.Also- I have not used an A2 but i know that the X5′s center press is not as sensitive as the A3. So maybe the A2 has the same joystick as the X5?

Steve on February 19, 2008 3:40 PM

@Zoodar: Storage capacity is my biggest criteria, much more important than having a 3-inch screen to watch videos on.But it seems to me that if a primary selling point of a product is video capabilities, they could at least compete with Apple and offer something bigger than 60 GB.

alf on February 24, 2008 6:14 AM

@SteveSo you would rather prefer to have 160gb tied to boring apple content?.Seriously if anyone needs more than 60gb its because they either A: carry photoshop files around alot, B: theyre full of themselves and the music they listen too, or C: even more boring that a dead possum and demand listening to the same shit all the time while being too lazy to exchange a few of the albums they never listen to anyway.

Eric on March 29, 2008 2:05 PM

Does the A3 support gapless playback? I have a bunch of classical music recordings where the track points are within a movement of a symphony for study purposes, so I don’t want a momentary glitch between notes.

ToParIs on April 5, 2008 11:22 PM

LOLL@SteveHey Scr00bz, if you really pay $$$$$ for a freaking noob Apple ”Woah 160Gb” than your a freaking dumb, there’re better Mp3 player with more space than that, And even there, Yes 160go is too much for a mp3 player… at this point start thinkin about paying 2x less for an Extern HDD (Western’s passport)with 2x more space… Noob

Scott on May 11, 2008 11:04 AM

Hi – just a quick question: I’m not sure if this feature has a specific name, but I’d like to be able to transfer photos directly from my camera to a PMP via USB; is that possible on the A3? Thanks in advance for anyone who can answer this for me.

Scott on May 11, 2008 11:22 AM

Never mind! I should have gone to the COWON site before posting my question… “USB Host Function” is what it’s called, and the A3 has that.

Joe on July 11, 2008 7:53 PM

Are there any audible or inaudible (yet significant) differences between the D2 and A3 in terms of sound and output? The section of the A3 review with regards to the EQ and the “half-volume” effect have me confused. Does this mean that the volume level on the D2 is not affected by EQing?

Paul Simpson on October 15, 2008 6:44 PM

Does the Cowon A3 maintain its charge when switched off? My Archos was always going flat.

Josh Meney on November 4, 2008 1:28 AM

With the audio line-in recording, i would be just able to plug in a mic and record like that right?

gaming memory card on January 28, 2010 12:56 AM

The Cowon A3 portable video player is a fantastic value when judged on the merits of its file support and integrated video-recording capabilities. If you’ve got nimble fingers and an eclectic assortment of audio and video formats, the Cowon A3 should be at the top of your list.

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