“Good news, everyone,” as Hubert J. Farnsworth would say.
One might believe not much has changed since Cowon released the S9. On paper, the J3 is basically the same player, just with and additional MicroSD slot and a speaker. Fans of Cowon players already know: the company is usually trying to reinvent the wheel with every new player – changing hardware layout, user interface, and general design cues willy-nilly, as if there’s no brand recognition to worry about.
So Cowon actually trying to improve on a winning player like the S9, trying to go an evolutionary route rather than the ‘revolutionary’ way is something that doesn’t happen very often. Whoever read my reviews of the Cowon O2 and V5 video players knows what I’m talking about – the latter is in many aspects worse than the former, even if it has the same basic form factor and feature set premise. No evolution, no building on tried and proven interface aspects, Cowon starting from scratch once again, and failing.
The J3 however is a very different beast. It took all the good aspects of the S9’s design, hardware- and firmware-wise, and made them better, seemingly organically and effortlessly. The form factor is an improvement, the tactile buttons are better placed and have a better feel to them, the interface is even more responsive, and easier to operate. The additional MicroSD slot is a godsend, and the battery life is even better than on the S9.
No need to play the suspense card and the old “read on to find out” teaser – the J3 is simply the best player Cowon ever made. Be my guest if you still want to read on, though.
- Cowon J3 Specs
- Capacity: 4/8/16/32GB internal, MicroSDHC slot up to 32GB
- Display: 3.3″ 480x272px capacitive AMOLED touchscreen
- Battery life: max. 64h for music, max. 11 hours for video
- Audio: MP3, WMA, OGG Vorbis, FLAC, APE, WAV, AAC/M4A (unofficially)
- Video: AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4 (unofficially) / DivX, XviD, WMV7/8/9, h.264 (unofficially)
- Subtitles: SMI, SRT (unofficially)
- Image viewer: JPEG, baseline and progressive
- Document viewer: TXT
- Bluetooth: 2.0, A2DP, AVCRP
- Transfer modes: MSC, MTP
- Additional features: Speaker, FM radio, voice recorder, line-in recorder, Flash 7 support, calculator, notepad, typist, stop watch, countdown, comic viewer, alarm, sleep timer, pan/balance
- Included accessories: earbuds, USB cable, software CD, quick start manual
Accessories are on the very basic side. The J3 comes with an almost proprietary USB cable, a set of cheap earbuds, and not much else. Not much else meaning, a CD with some software that doesn’t need to be installed, and a quick start manual that doesn’t mention half the features of the J3.
I wrote ‘almost proprietary’ for the cable because the J3’s USB port is actually a standard in South Korea, enforced by the Korean Telecom, and used by almost all cellphones and many MP3 players there, including most new iRiver and Samsung models. It is the same cable the S9 already used, and we’re probably going to see it on many more players to come. It’s nice seeing Cowon cables becoming standardized, slowly but steady. For the eight Cowon players I have, I only need six different cables in the meantime.
The included earbuds are not worth mentioning, they’re don’t do justice to the sound quality the J3 is capable of. People using Cowon players usually provide their own higher quality headphones or IEMs anyways, so in reality Cowon could actually save a few cents and stop bundling those sub-par earbuds with their players altogether.
Other accessories have to be bought separately, such as the TV-out cable (composite, 3xRCA), and the line-in cable (female 3.5mm stereo jack). Any standard USB AC charger will work with the J3, but Cowon sells one of those too in their JetMall store. Of course there are also official and third-party cases and silicone skins to be had.
Design, Build, Specs
The J3 certainly looks fetching, understated. While the S9 felt a bit hollow and the side panels – especially on the ‘chrome’ version – were fake plastic/metal, the J3 feels more substantial, yet not heavier. It has the exact same measurements, length- and width-wise, but it’s a bit thinner than its predecessor. It’s very pocketable. The strip of anodized aluminum at the bottom is real metal. It doesn’t have any functionality, but it doesn’t hurt either. The slightly curved bottom edge seems to be Cowon’s new thing – the iAudio 9 and the X7 have a similar form factor. It’s the first generation of Cowon players that share some similar design cues; most players before the current batch were uniquely shaped.
The rest of the J3’s front real estate is occupied by the gorgeous 3.3” AMOLED screen, protected by a fairly scratch- and impact-proof layer of Corning Gorilla Glass. It’s a capacitive touch screen that’s very responsive, provides excellent contrast ratio, and doesn’t suffer from washed out viewing angles at all. Contrary to AMOLED screens found on Sony players and such, the J3’s color rendition is much more natural, not as oversaturated by far. With a resolution of 480 x 272, the pixel density is just right for a 3.3” screen, not blocky looking at all. It’s no good in direct sunlight, same as most other OLEDs and TFTs, but that’s to be expected.
The buttons on the J3 are perfectly fine, better than on the S9. They’re all placed in ergonomic positions on the sides of the player, and have a good tactile feedback. The best improvement Cowon made with the J3 is the power button. Almost all Cowon players before the J3 had a slider that turned the player on and doubled for a hold switch. While this was ok, the J3’s push-button is just better, much more elegant, in my opinion. A long push turns the player on or off, a short push engages hold, a second short press turns the screen off. While the screen is in hold mode, the buttons can still be used, which is immensely practical as well. This feature can be turned off, but it’s really better the other way. Another great feature is sleep mode, which can be mapped on the power button. Instead of a full power-off, which would require a ~10-15 second database refresh on every startup, the played starts up instantly that way. I didn’t notice any battery drain from sleep mode, so I use it all the time.
The J3 provides all the tactile buttons one needs on the go – contrary to the D2, i9, O2, V5, and other Cowon players that lack those buttons and are a hassle to use while out and about, without looking at the screen. There’s dedicated volume buttons that work on any screen (not just the music screen), FFWD/REW/skip buttons, and a play/pause button that doubles as a ‘home’ button when pushed longer.
On the backside of the player there’s the slot for the speaker, the microphone, and the reset hole. I never had to use the reset hole, since the player never acted up on me. The microphone is the microphone is the microphone – it’s what one would expect from a player such as this. Voice recordings sound ok, nothing special. The same can be said about the speaker. Don’t sell your B&W or Dynaudio home setup, the J3’s speaker is no match for them. It works ok for audiobooks or TV shows where you don’t care about sound quality, but that’s about it. It sure is a welcome addition for some people, but it’s of course neither overly good sounding nor overly loud.
The one thing I dislike about all modern Cowon players is the latch that hides the USB port and SD slot. I’m not aware of many other manufacturers feeling the need to hide those – it’s just one more needless step to perform when connecting the player or swapping the MicroSDHC card. On the J3 you need a decent length finger nail to get the tiny latch open. When a headphone with an angled plug is plugged in, it gets in the way – it needs to be turned to the side or unplugged first. It’s not a really big deal, but one of these days I might just cut that latch off.
On the inside of the J3, among other things, is the battery (or at least I hope so). Cowon’s battery life claim of 64 hours for audio and 11 hours for video are of course exaggerated as always, using synthetic benchmarks, but real usage shows that the J3 is still among the best, as far as stamina goes. With regular ~640×480 XviD videos and EQ/BBE turned on I get 7 or 8 hours movies galore on average; with LAME VBR MP3s and EQ/BBE turned on I certainly get over 40 hours of listening.
It’s pretty simple: the J3 has the best UI Cowon ever managed to create. It took all the good ideas of the S9’s interface and improved them. It’s easier and more natural to use than the S9, and it stomps all over their older players like the D2, or their painfully counterintuitive PMPs.
In general the capacitive touchscreen UI is very snappy, no lag to be noticed anywhere – in that aspect it’s right up there with the best of the best, like the iPod Touch or Zune – but of course the J3 has about ten times more features than those players, so creating an UI that handles as nicely as this one is especially laudable.
Like most Cowon UIs, the J3’s speaks mostly ‘icon’, not English or any other language. Some of the icons don’t make much sense at first, but after a short round of trial and error (or by actually reading the manual) everyone should be able to familiarize themselves with the logic of the menu items in no time.
There are three main menu screens to choose from, depending on one’s taste. The first one resembles basically the standard iPod Touch interface, as already found on the Cowon S9, the second is like the Zune HD interface, with a vertically scrolling text list, and the third one is the average ‘Korean’ interface – overly cute and colorful icons and widgets, as found on Samsung players and such. Those main screens can be customized to varying degrees – all three support wallpaper backdrops, the list-style one can be reordered, and the widget screen is a veritable playground where everything can be moved around, and shiny animated items can be added and removed.
File/tag browser lists, the text reader, and the image viewer have rudimentary multi-touch support. Text and image sizes can be altered easily with a two finger pinch-to-zoom gesture, which is rather practical. The J3 is also the first Cowon player that has a file/folder search function with onscreen keyboard. For music, it works for both file/folder and ID3 tag browsing mode. Search isn’t limited to music, however – videos, images, documents, and basically everything else on the player’s memory can be searched for.
For music files, the internal memory and SD card are separated when using file/folder browsing, and they’re merged into one when using tag browsing. That’s the usual way as far as music browsing goes (except for Creative players and other broken ones) – but for video files Cowon pulled a new trick out of the hat. When browsing movies from within the video player interface, the internal and external memory are merged into one as well. This is a first, as far as I know, and sure is very practical.
Same as the S9, the J3′s interface is built entirely in Flash 7, and the necessary ActionScript developer guides can be found for download from Cowon’s site. This means anyone – with the necessary skills – can build their own user interface. I must admit, I actually didn’t try any third-party user interfaces on the J3 yet, since I’m perfectly happy with the stock one. However, all the readily available UIs made by the S9 community should work with very little tweaking on the J3 as well.
A video says more than a thousand words, so here’s the interface in all its glory. (The video has no sound; do not adjust your set.)
The J3 supports default USB MSC (mass storage class) transfer mode, the same any external USB hard disk or memory stick uses. Using this mode, the J3 shows up as a device with a drive letter in Windows Explorer, OS X Finder, Nautilus, or what-have-you. It’s a standard, and it just works. One can drag and drop with MSC, or use any media manager app to sync files with the player.
The other transfer mode supported by the J3 is MTP (media transfer protocol), a protocol conceived by Microsoft to support locked down DRM files which you rent – but don’t own. Luckily, DRM for audio is a concept that’s almost dead, especially since the biggest of all online music stores, iTunes, went DRM-free. DRM only punishes legit customers anyways; it doesn’t stop piracy in the least. In an ideal world, MTP would be a standard like MSC, and it would work – but on the J3 it clearly doesn’t. The way Cowon implemented MTP on the J3 is questionable and a real hassle to use.
Some examples: you cannot drag’n’drop videos over to the J3 in MTP mode (at least on Windows XP with WMP11 installed), it simply refuses to transfer them to the player, quits with an error. For JPEGs you always get the obnoxious message, “this file type is not supported, do you really want to transfer it?” – while of course JPEGs are indeed supported on the J3. For no apparent reason all MP3s transferred to the J3 in MTP mode will lose their embedded album art. Album art for MP3s transferred in MSC mode works perfectly fine. Average transfer speed of MTP is much slower than MSC (database rebuild takes equally long for both modes). The list goes on… some of these issues can be fixed by using a decent media manager app, such as J.River, which lets you transfer videos and images without silly error messages, but other features like embedded album art are simply broken.
All in all, the MTP ‘experience’ on the J3 is a rather frustrating one. If you don’t plan to rent DRMed music, there’s no reason to put up with all those nuisances, since MSC mode works perfectly fine. One other valid reason to use MTP mode is if you like to scrobble your listened tracks to Last.fm – in MTP mode you can use apps like QTscrobbler for transferring your play counts, which doesn’t work in MSC mode.
A word of warning to close this chapter: there have been some reports that the J3 (or any other new Cowon player) might get bricked when it’s connected to a Mac OS X computer. OS X writes garbage files, such as “.Trashes” or “.DS_Store”, to the memory of the player, and Cowons don’t like that at all. They might stall at next bootup, won’t connect to a computer anymore, which renders them unusable. Luckily, there’s the TCCtool application made by a Rockbox developer, which effectively lets you unbrick the J3 (and other Cowon players based on a Telechips SoC), no matter what state it is in.
As an audio player, the J3 is nearly perfect, at least for my needs. The music screen looks clean, tidy, all necessary options are accessible with a few taps. It’s elegant and easily controlled on the go with the five tactile buttons on the side of the player (play/pause, volume +/-, FFWD/REW/skip).
Same as all newer Cowon players, the J3 supports gapless playback, there are no annoying pauses or clicks/pops between tracks where there shouldn’t be any. I haven’t had gapless failing on me with even a single file, it really works well.
The J3 plays all regular and not so regular audio formats, lossy and lossless. It also supports AAC/M4A audio perfectly fine, even if the specs don’t say so. If you bought your DRM-free albums from iTunes you don’t have to convert them. AAC tags are correctly supported; the only thing not supported with AAC is embedded album art, but having a cover.jpg in the folder fixes that easily.
Album art spans the whole screen width and looks gorgeous on the AMOLED display. It can either be embedded for most formats that allow it, or one simply puts a cover.jpg in the album’s folder. There are no issues using 1000x1000px JPEGs or even higher, the J3 doesn’t skip a beat (as long as they’re no progressive JPEGs). Tilting the J3 from portrait to landscape mode reveals a cover art based browser, with 10 album covers per page. I’ve seen better implementations than Cowon’s, mainly on the Sony A845 and Samsung R0, but Cowon’s cover art browser works fairly well to. It’s much faster and more responsive than the one found on the older Cowon S9.
Another feature to mention is the J3′s capability of changing playback speed in a 50% to 150% range, in 10% steps. Optional pitch correction is available too.
So, how does it sound? It sounds perfectly fine, it can drive low and not so low impedance phones without any issues. The really good part about the J3 is that it doesn’t hiss much, even with the most sensitive and finicky to drive multi-armature IEMs, such as the Shure SE530 or Ultimate Ears UE11. Other Cowons generally hiss more and aren’t that enjoyable with low-impedance/high-sensitivity IEMs as the J3, especially in quiet surroundings at low listening levels.
I’m not going into any delusional audiophile ramblings here, instead I AB-tested the J3 against two of my references, my Echo AudioFire sound card and my Sansa Clip+ (yes, this inconspicuous $30 player is a reference product), in a volume matched setting. Conclusion: they all sound the same with a ‘flat’ output (without EQ or other sound enhancements), which of course is a very good thing. Same as any other decent player, the J3 reproduces audio material faithfully, and you can’t really top that. It can go loud enough and provides enough power for even 150 Ohm phones, or even more. Just remember to not choose Europe as region on first startup; otherwise the player will be crippled by arbitrary EU volume restriction laws. If you already chose Europe, you can simply delete the param.cfg file from your J3′s system folder. This will reset the player to defaults, and on next startup you can choose ‘worldwide’ as a region without restrictions. Just make sure to write down your favorite BBE/EQ settings, since they will be lost too (your files on the J3 will stay untouched).
Of course the ace up the J3’s sleeve, setting it apart from other brand players, is its DSP-laden assortment of BBE sound enhancements and its well working pseudo-parametric EQ. BBE is arguably the best sounding bunch of algorithms found on portable players nowadays. Listening to BBE side by side with Sony’s DSEE, Samsung’s DNSe, or the rather awful SRS WOW audio stuff shows that there’s simply no comparison. BBE just sounds clearer, more natural, and more dynamic than the competition. Of course some people might prefer a different sound signature – boomier, more bloated bass than BBE M3B can achieve, or similar – but at least from a technical standpoint BBE is the clear winner.
I called the EQ ‘pseudo’ parametric, because the center frequencies for all five EQ bands can’t be chosen arbitrarily, there’s only three frequencies per band to chose from. This is usually plenty enough for most needs, and after all it’s a hardware limitation of the Wolfson DAC chip used in the J3, no way around that. Being a hardware EQ means it doesn’t hog CPU cycles and is easier on the battery than an EQ implemented in software.
For the various BBE settings and the EQ there’s four user preset slots, letting one mix and match the various enhancements to fit one’s taste. There are also some hard-coded BBE presets such as BBE ViVA and BBE Headphone, which sound rather nice. Then there are also over 30 of Cowon’s own presets, which aren’t really that great in general. These presets have names such as ‘Maestro’, ‘Rap’, ‘Feel the Wind’, and so on. They also implemented a cheesy reverb algorithm which sounds like the usual ‘bathroom’ reverb found on Realtek soundcard drivers. This somehow devaluates the whole upper-class BBE tweaks, but one doesn’t have to use it, so all is fine.
Playlists, Bookmarks, Audiobooks
Multiple bookmarks per file are supported, and stored in a browse- and searchable list. The J3 also remembers where it was in a file, after powering off. Cowon call that feature ‘resume’ – but actual playback doesn’t resume, the J3 just remembers its place. One has to manually push play after powering on, even if ‘resume’ is turned on. It’s a weird design decision, I wish they just made it resume properly.
People complained about Cowon’s sub-par playlist support in the past, and the J3 shows no improvement. It supports only one on-the-go playlist, called ‘favorites’, which can be edited on the player itself. A further limit is that only 250 files are allowed in the favorite list.
Multiple playlists, made on a computer, can be used on the J3 as well. Unfortunately it’s a major hassle to do so, and Cowon’s manual and support website doesn’t provide any help or explanations on how to create them successfully. Lately, users on various forums found that standard M3U playlists won’t work well (they only work for the internal memory), the J3 rather accepts PLA playlists transferred in MTP mode. Those should work more or less, but they still suffer from various unnecessary issues. For example, these playlists are automatically lost once the J3 is connected to a computer in MSC mode. Personally, I don’t use playlists, but I can feel for the people that do. Cowon really needs to improve in that aspect.
Another issue is audiobook and podcast support – or rather, the complete lack thereof. While other brands, like Sansa for example, has really nifty support for audiobooks, completely separating them from music files, with auto-bookmarking, auto-resume, and file skip prevention, there’s no such thing on the J3. Shuffling the whole music selection stored on the J3 doesn’t prevent audiobook chapters from being in the mix, and folder advance often goes from music to audiobooks (or vice versa) as well. When I try falling asleep to an audiobook, I sometimes wake up again to some not quite as calming – and much louder, since the J3 doesn’t support Replaygain – Black Metal or Dubstep track.
I would really appreciate if Cowon implemented proper audiobook features – and Replaygain, for that matter.
Despite the fact that the J3 doesn’t support modern video codecs and containers, such as main/high h.264 profiles, MP4 or MKV, I prefer its video interface and AMOLED screen so much over the O2 and V5 that I don’t mind transcoding the occasional movie for the J3 to make it compatible. It unofficially supports h.264 baseline profile (no CABAC), which is rather weird since Cowon keeps quiet about it. Maybe that’s due to licensing issues? I don’t know, it’s as curious as the J3’s AAC support, which isn’t mentioned anywhere.
The J3 does support all average MPEG4-SP codecs, such as DivX and XviD, but h.264 just saves a lot of space and looks noticeably better at the same – or even lower – bitrates. WMV/ASF is also supported, as expected – yet basic MPEG1 isn’t. As far as regular XviD AVIs go, I’ve had no issues playing up to ca. 800×600 movies, with bitrates far above 2000-3000kbps. The J3 is pretty powerful in that aspect, yet unfortunately for h.264 encoded videos one has to use some very specific settings to get it working.
Another undocumented feature is SRT subtitle support. The official specs only mention SMI, which really isn’t that popular. SRT is arguably the most widespread basic soft-sub format, so it’s very good to have that on the player. Anime fans, forget about fancy styled formats like SSA/ASS, those won’t work. Subtitle support on the J3 is in general rather advanced. One can change font size and color, resync the subs – even dual subs are supported. That seems to be a popular feature in Korea, having native and foreign language subs at once.
Seeing how well subtitle support is implemented makes me wonder why they forgot dual-audio track support. To watch movies with commentary on the secondary audio track one has to transcode the movie and put it a second time on the player. I hope a future firmware update might fix that, to save me some hassle.
The one thing I always found to be the most ridiculous flaw on Cowon’s full-fledged PMPs is that they do not support BBE sound enhancements or EQ for movies – yet their ‘non-PMPs’ such as the J3, S9, i9 perform perfectly well in that aspect. Once you watched a movie with BBE Mach3Bass or ViVA, it’s hard to go back to boring flat sound.
Same as in audio mode, video playback speed can be altered in a 50% to 150% range, in 10% steps, with optional pitch correction.
Back to the excellent interface I already rambled on about above. The main video screen is mostly transparent, icons and bars are semi-transparent. That’s a huge improvement over the usual interfaces Cowon used in their PMPs. They were mostly too busy, hogging too much screen real estate, and distracted from the movie when one wants to just have a quick look at the progress bar or such.
All relevant settings, such as EQ/BBE, subtitle controls, or pan/scan/zoom are just a click away. My favorite feature is a very subtle one, by the way – while a movie is playing, one can’t skip to the next one by accident. The FFWD/REW buttons (both onscreen and tactile) only act for forwarding and rewinding. If one wants to skip to the next or previous movie, one has to pause the movie, and only then the buttons act as skip. Simple, yet ingenious. Tactile buttons are another major complaint with Cowon’s PMPs as well – they only have two buttons for volume (or FFWD/REV in hold mode), not even a play/pause button that can be easily hit, which is a joke. Having all tactile controls on the J3 is a major advantage.
Clicking the file browser button from within the video screen brings up the aforementioned specific video list, which merges the internal and external memory into one coherent list – something I’ve never seen before on any other player. This video list view also generates thumbnails from the first few seconds of the movies, in remarkable speed. Probably not the most important feature, but due to its speed it doesn’t get in the way either. The J3 also remembers the place in all videos, letting one continue to watch right where one left off. This is shown in percents below the single video thumbnails. This is usability done right.
The J3’s FM radio works fairly well, its reception is strong enough in most locations I tried. It’s not as strong as a dedicated quality FM radio, but I’ve heard much worse in MP3 players.
It has auto- and manual scan modes and can store up to 24 presets. As a hidden bonus, one can edit the radio.ini file found in the J3’s system folder, and add names to the station presets. That’s not quite up to RDS standards, but practical nevertheless. Radio can be recorded, either manually or automatically, with a set timer. Recordings are in WMA, up to 256kbps 44.1kHz.
A really shnazzy feature is that the radio supports EQ and BBE sound enhancements as well, same as the audio- and video player.
One feature I would like to see for the J3’s radio is the play/pause button mapped to work as a mute switch. It doesn’t do that, but it should be fairly trivial to implement.
The image viewer does its job, more or less. It’s not particularly great from a usability standpoint, but of course photos look stunning on the AMOLED screen. It’s not smart enough to auto-rotate images to fit the screen; instead one has to turn the screen until the J3’s tilt-sensor feels inclined to turn the image, or push the rotate icon. Images can be zoomed to their original size by a double-tap on the screen, or pinch-zoomed to any size with a two finger multitouch gesture.
Somehow the touchscreen response in the image viewer is quite a bit worse than on other screens of the UI, and taps/double-taps often misfire and don’t do anything. Same goes for the tilt-sensor, images sometimes just don’t rotate. I’d rather have a two-finger-rotate multitouch gesture than being dependent on the tilt sensor. Going to the next or previous image is also a bit laggy – depending on image size – which means the viewer doesn’t pre-cache the next image.
The only other features the image viewer provides are a basic slideshow where you can change the delay between images, and the functionality to set the current image as wallpaper for the main screens. The wallpaper function respects the currently set zoom/crop factor chosen on the screen, which is rather nice.
The pompously named ‘Documents’ feature is just a basic text reader. It doesn’t support any advanced document formats such as RTF, DOC, PDF, or ePub – just plain text. The good thing about it is that there’s no obvious file size limit. I read a full 400-page novel on the J3 without issues (thanks to Project Gutenberg).
The text reader supports bookmarks, different font- and background colors, and adjustable page auto-scroll. Same as for browser lists and images, pinch-to-zoom is supported to change the font size. Audio playback continues in the background, if one wishes to listen to some tunes while reading.
Calculator, Stopwatch, Typist, Notepad, Comix
All those apps do their job, not much else to say about them. The difference between notepad and typist is that one lets you scribble on the screen (with various colors and stroke widths), the other one has an on-screen keyboard. The stopwatch has a lap mode, and also a nifty countdown timer, which comes in handy when I brew some tea or boil some eggs.
The comic viewer is basically useless; a 480×272 screen is way too small to read average comic scans comfortably. That would need at least an 800×480 screen, or preferably a screen with over 1024px width to eliminate the need to pan/scroll around like crazy. The J3 doesn’t support standard CBR/CBZ comic archives or PDFs either, only plain JPEGs.
With the line-in cable (sold separately) the J3 is capable of recording from external sources; with its built-in microphone it makes for a decent basic voice recorder. Microphone and line sensitivity can be adjusted in five volume steps.
Recordings are unfortunately only possible in WMA format, up to 256kbps, 44.1kHz. There’s no MP3, WAV, or other – more open, practical – formats to choose from. For serious recordings one certainly has to look at a more professional recorder.
The alarm function is well thought out. It allows setting an alarm that goes off once, or a daily repeating one. Sources can be the audio player, radio playback, or scheduled radio recording. Alarm duration can be set to always on, or up to 120 minutes, in 20 minute steps.
The sleep timer can be set to up to 120 minutes, in 10 minute steps. Same as most other players out there, the sleep timer resets after each player startup. Since I use the J3 almost daily while falling asleep to some music or videos, I wish it had a persistent sleep timer, so I don’t have to set it daily. It’s quite the hassle to constantly set it up, since it’s hidden quite deep in the system menu.
Two Bluetooth profiles, A2DP (audio streaming) and AVRCP (audio remote), are supported on the J3. Any kind of syncing or file transfer isn’t supported – considering the slow speed of Bluetooth that wouldn’t be a really useful feature anyways. Pairing the J3 with a Bluetooth transmitter works instantly and hassle-free, the J3 can store profiles for up to seven Bluetooth devices in its settings.
I’ve tested the J3’s Bluetooth capabilities with a rather good receiver, the Sony HBH-DS205, and sound quality was actually quite pleasing. BBE effects and EQ are supported over Bluetooth. Remote functions, such as play/pause or track skipping, worked flawlessly as well.
Same as most other new Cowons, there’s support for Flash apps and games. It’s limited to Flash 7/Flash Mobile, so don’t expect super-fancy new stuff to work on it. Some amusing time wasters can be found, but generally Flash is nowhere as tightly integrated as, say, iPod or Android apps – so don’t expect too much from that feature.
For some reason Cowon chose to hide the left/right pan/balance setting for audio in the system settings menu, not in the audio menu. For me – and many other people, as I learned in our forums – this feature is a dealbreaker when it’s missing on a player. My ears are imbalanced, my left ear is quieter than my right one, thus I can’t use any player without pan/balance setting – which means I can’t use most brand players out there, except for Cowon, Archos, or Rockboxed ones. Why almost all manufacturers don’t implement that most basic of all features – next to a volume control – is beyond me.
Cowon chose a somewhat weird approach for pan/balance on their newer players, such as the J3, S9, and i9 – balance doesn’t go 100% to the left or right, but only about 50%. For me that’s more than enough, but for some people with even more defective ears than mine this might be an issue. Nevertheless – thank you Cowon, for caring about the not so small number of ‘imbalanced’ people out there.
Well, that should more or less cover the basics of the J3. Needless to say, it’s my favorite player at the moment. It does very much right and very little wrong. It might look like an iPod Touch or Zune HD on a cursory glance, but it doesn’t try to be a jack of all trades: the J3 is simply an excellent audio and video player, and that’s about it. Its focus on those two main features shows – it is a delight to use, and it can be tailored to meet ones needs, contrary to players with fewer audio/video features and less customizations, where the user has to follow the direction the manufacturer dictates.
People who read my forum posts know that I’m an avid supporter of the free open source Rockbox project (well, my name is in the Rockbox credits list, so I’m probably not hating it that much). I like freedom, useful features, usability, and quality. For my personal audio player needs, Rockbox only has two advantages over the J3: Replaygain support and Last.fm scrobbling in MSC mode. Other than that, the J3 does everything I want, I couldn’t ask for more. To be fair, the J3 of course does have features as well that are missing from Rockbox, such as FFWD/REW with sound, support for embedded album art, BBE sound enhancements, and so on. It’s basically a tie – which is more than can be said for most other players out there, at least from my subjective point of view.
As a video player the J3 is very pleasing to use as well, it’s just hindered a bit by not supporting modern container formats like MP4, not playing HD movies, and no support for secondary audio tracks and other delicacies that can be found on dedicated PMPs. Still, it’s way easier to use than Cowon’s own (sub-par) PMPs, and it rocks BBE and EQ for video too. I’m very satisfied with that and rather convert MP4s and MKVs to play on the J3 than using my O2 or V5 for videos.
Dear Cowon, since it’s almost Christmas, here’s my wish list: please make a 4.7” 800×480 AMOLED PMP with the UI, tactile buttons, and features of the J3, just with more modern video codec/container support – this would surpass the A3, O2, V5 by so much, it wouldn’t even be funny. That’s just a little advice for reclaiming your PMP market share and credibility in the ‘Western’ world (seems Koreans like your PMPs the way they are), and for rekindling my enthusiasm for your video players. The J3 is the best you ever achieved – just stick with that and go from there, for your future audio- and video players.
Final words? Player of the year. Not cheap, but definitely worth it – highly recommended for people looking for a serious audio/video player.
- Excellent build quality, excellent AMOLED screen
- Excellent user interface, snappy capacitive touchscreen
- Excellent battery life
- Great assortment of tactile buttons, easy to use on the go
- BBE sound enhancements and 5-band pseudo-parametric EQ (for audio and video)
- Gapless playback
- Little to no hiss with even the most sensitive in-ear phones
- Unofficial AAC/M4A audio and rudimentary h.264/MP4 video support
- MicroSDHC expansion slot, good integration of internal and external memories
- Annoying latch/cover for USB and SD slot
- Doesn’t support modern video codecs/containers
- Sub-par playlist support
- Sub-par audiobook/podcast support
- Broken, buggy MTP support