The A20 is an impressive audio and video player, with a big 4-inch screen. But it's expensive and a little heavy.
The 20GB Cowon A2 ($380 as of 7/21/06) is an impressive audio and video player that has a big, bright, wide-aspect screen that looks great playing back videos. But it's a bulky device that won't fit into a shirt pocket.
The wide-aspect screen is the highlight of the A2: At 4 inches diagonally, it's the biggest of the players we tested. Colors looked accurate, and movement appeared smooth; with a high-bandwidth video file, I saw no evidence of smearing or ghosting. This made for a very comfortable experience watching videos; you can comfortably watch for an hour or so.
But the large screen also means that the player is big: At 5.3 by 3.9 inches and nearly an inch deep, the A2 isn't pocket-size. And it's no lightweight, at 10.8 ounces. It does come with a nice leather case that covers the screen, though, so you can throw it into a bag or briefcase without worrying about scratches. And the battery life is quite long: The player lasted an impressive 18 hours in an informal test.
Managing audio and video files is relatively easy. You access most of the controls through what Cowon calls the "joggle lever" (a joystick to the rest of us), and four buttons reside below the lever. One button returns you to the previous menu, but the functions of the other three change depending on what you're doing; each one's current function is shown at the bottom of the screen. This flexible approach puts some commonly used options within easy reach without adding a bewildering number of buttons; you can add a currently playing track to a playlist with just one button press, for example.
The audio quality was good, presenting only a few minor issues: High frequencies were a bit lacking, and the bass was missing some oomph. A better set of headphones would certainly help. In the PC World Test Center's new audio-quality tests (which don't measure the quality of the included earbuds), the A2 delivered some impressive scores in individual tests, but its overall score was about Average. The A2 was able to play at a very high volume before its audio reached 1 percent distortion (a common industry threshold). Its signal-to-noise ratio was well below average, however.
The A2 can play back files in MP3, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and Ogg Vorbis formats, but it won't work with DRM-protected music from online music stores like Napster or iTunes.
An FM tuner is included, and the A2 is a little unusual in that it can record from both the FM tuner and an external video source. The device is also compatible with both NTSC and PAL video signals, so if you visit Europe, you can bring some foreign soap operas home with you. A composite video/stereo audio output lets you connect the player to a TV.
As a video player, the A2 is very flexible--it can play back files in DivX, XviD, MPEG-4, and WMV formats. This means that with many files, you won't need to convert them: You can copy them over to the player (which appears as a USB hard drive when connected to a PC) and they'll play straight away. Video and audio conversion software called JetAudio is included, and is relatively easy to use, automating the conversion and copying process.
The A20 is a great pick if you regularly want to watch videos as well as listening to music. If you want to listen to music mostly, there are plenty of smaller players that can handle the occasional video. Though the A20 is impressive, it's expensive and a little heavy.