Ultra-compact, stylish and great sounding, the iAudio U2 by Cowon America is a worthy competitor to any other digital music player in its class. Whether you are trying to decide between the multitude of options, you already own one, or you just have a general interest, I hope that you find the information contained herein useful.

Overview

The iAudio U2 is a compact flash-based digital audio player from Cowon. It offers high-fidelity sound, support for multiple formats, advanced features and great style in a very small unit. Combined with its ease of use, this makes the U2 ideal for both the seasoned gadget freak and the newest convert to digital music. A wide range of storage capacities and colors are are available to satisfy your budget and personal style.

Exterior

The exterior of the U2 is elegant in its functionality, which contributes to its attractiveness. The lines are straight, and the corners are slightly rounded. Its shape is comparable to a cigarette lighter, though it is slightly thicker. The U2's body fits comfortably into a trouser pocket.

On the front of the player sit the control stick and the display, logically positioned. The display, though smallish, is adequate and visually dominant. The metal control stick is placed toward the right edge, and allows for easy one-handed control. Left-handers may have a little harder time, but should adapt quickly.

On the left end of the U2 is the USB port. It is a female "B" type connection and is protected by a soft rubber cover that swings to one side. The cover can be a bit frustrating as it is a tight fit, and can require some maneuvering to line it up. On the other end you will find the line-in and line-out connections, each one a standard mini stereo plug. Below those there is a convenient hole for a neck strap or key ring.

On the top you will find the REC/A-B and Play/Pause buttons in roughly the center. A contoured Hold switch lies to the right of the playback controls. The buttons are silver-colored like the control stick, and though small they are simple to use and require just enough pressure to operate. Turn the player over and all that is there is a small pin-type reset button directly below the control stick.

Cowon provides four unique color choices to suit your tastes. Ocean Blue and Ruby Red have a metallic tone and the back half of the player is silver. You get the same two-tone scheme with Platinum Black, which is a smooth, semi-glossy color. The White is reminiscent of the classic iPod color, probably not by accident.

Features

Versatility is one of the U2's greatest strengths. It supports not one or two file formats, but eight: ASF, MP3, MPEG 1, MPEG 2, MPEG 2.5, WAV, WMA and Ogg Vorbis. With support for variable bit rate, file size can be kept at a minimum without sacrificing fidelity. Cowon's proprietary chipset with BBE Sound affords the listener excellent sound reproduction, with a dynamic range of 20Hz to 20KHz and a signal-to-noise ratio of 95dB. Power output is 13mW per channel, which means plenty of volume. Sound can be customized on the U2 with JetEffect, including a 5-band equalizer with predefined and custom settings, BBE, Mach3Bass,MP Enhance, 3D Surround, and Pan. Notwithstanding, the sound is good enough that it doesn't need any of that.

The five-directional control stick allows rapid access to most of the U2's functions. The menu is comprehensive and intuitive, and almost all features are only two or three levels into it. Navigation is simple, using a basic Windows-style directory and file structure. Clicking on a file or folder raises a pop-up menu with a list of the available options. The folder system is virtually unlimited, so it is possible to organize your songs down to the genre, year, artist, album...whatever you want. You can also create playlists on the fly or from your desktop. Playback modes include playlist, random and repeat. You can also create bookmarks in a track by pressing the REC/A-B button.

Besides playing digital music, the U2 has an FM radio as well. You can create up to 24 digital presets, and name them as you like. Alternatively, the control stick can be used to tune around the dial, or you can use the autoscan feature to set the presets for you. Reception is strong and clear.

The U2's onboard encoder lets you record from the radio, the built-in microphone, or even from any outside source you can pipe in through the line-in port. This is a feature that can be nice if you like to record meetings and lectures, or if you have a collection of tapes and LPs that you would like to transfer to digital. Recording is limited to just two quality settings: 96Kbps and 128Kbps.

USB 2.0 compatibility is nice for transferring files. The speed is 20MB/s for downloading and 25MB/s up. You just plug the U2 into an available USB port and the operating system should pick it up as a removable drive. Not only can you then easily add, delete and organize your music files, you can also put all kinds of other files on the device as well, for storage, transport or whatever.

Charging is also done through the USB port. One charge will last for as long as 20 hours, and only takes 2 hours in normal charge mode. There is also a slow charge mode that takes 6 hours, which might be easier on the battery. The battery itself is one of the things that makes the U2 great. It is a lightweight and high-capacity lithium polymer battery, that could be made small enough to allow the U2's tiny size.

Another one of the great strengths of the iAudio U2 is the display. With four lines and just 8,192 pixels, it accomplishes a lot. It shows the artist, album and track names, time elapsed/remaining, progress bar, sound levels, and file statistics. The indigo blue backlight is bright, pleasant, and it looks cool too. You can display ID3 tag info of course, or you can upload lyrics and display them while you listen.

Another great advantage with the U2 is its cross-platform compatibility. Whether you use Windows, Linux or Macintosh, the U2 is supposed to work with any of them, without drivers even. Not only that, it is multilingual as well, not limited to just english.

Software and Accessories

The iAudio U2 comes with a few nice things to have. The neck strap is an adjustable metallic cord that is sturdy and attractive. You get a decent snap-on case to keep the player free of scratches and maybe offer a little shock absorption if dropped. Some colors come with a black leather-look case, others with a clear plastic one that does not hide the U2's good looks so much. The included earbuds are made by Cresyn and actually sound pretty decent if you are not terribly picky. Besides a standard USB cable, there is also a stubby little USB adapter that you can use to plug the U2 directly into a USB port.

The software bundle included with the U2 may not replace Windows Media Player if you are used to it, but it is still above par for bundled software. JetAudio is a nice media player that plays a variety of formats and can be used to rip, burn and organize your music collection. One of its best traits is the ability to rip and convert music to a large variety of different file formats. JetShell is a desktop interface for managing files and settings on the player when it is connected. JetLogo gives you the ability to create your own custom logo for the player, complete with animations. Although I haven't tried it, I've heard good things.

Real World Experience

Whereas the preceding portion of this article may have sounded a bit like a piece of marketing material from Cowon, this is where you get to hear about a bit of personal experience with the iAudio U2. I have owned my White 1GB iAudio U2 for six months now, and have been using it frequently.

The sound is excellent. Paired with a good set of earbuds, the sound reproduction is about as good as I could ask for. In every part of the range - bass, mid and treble - it is clear and well balanced. The JetEffect suite does everything I would like to customize my music. Noise is imperceptible. The output volume leaves nothing to be desired. I commonly listen at 25-30, which seems loud to me, and there are 40 levels of volume adjustment.

The U2 is very easy to use. Half of the time I listen to it is in the car plugged into the tape deck, and I seldom have trouble operating it while driving. It turns on and off easily, and using the control stick is a cinch. When you do turn it off, it effortlessly returns to the song you were listening to, and the exact spot in the song you were at. My only gripe with the user interface is that when you select a song or folder to play from the directory structure, it does not go back to the main screen but stays where you are for several seconds. Yet, that may not be a bad thing, if you want to continue browsing folders and don't want to have to go back in and find where you were.

The battery life is very good. Since I spend most of my day in front of a computer, I usually plug it in and charge it as I work. A few times, however, I haven't charged it for a few days, and it takes at least that long before it runs out. There is one weakness in this area I see with the player, though. Since you have to use a USB port to charge the thing, that means you can't recharge it without a computer. If you spend a period of time, like a long vacation, away from a computer and take your U2, you might get stuck with a dead battery and no way to charge it. On the other hand, I understand there are wall adapters that can be bought to charge USB devices.

One of the greatest things about the U2 for me is the ability to use it both as a digital music player and as a storage device. Between home, work and school, I constantly have to transfer files back and forth. I haven't had a single problem with stability or compatibility out of all the times I have used it. The only downside is that you can't listen to music through the player while it is plugged in. You can, however, listen through the PC, so that isn't so much of a problem.

Conclusion

I have found the iAudio U2 to be a very capable and extremely likeable digital music player. It easily lives up to all of the manufacturer's claims, and probably even beyond. Every time I see someone with an iPod or a Creative player, I feel compelled to urge them to try out the iAudio (I don't though). I have been so happy with it, I have already ordered the new iAudio U3 for my wife. If you are looking around, there are certainly other competent entries in the market, but be sure to give the iAudio U2 or U3 a very close look.

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