Proving that good things come in small packages, the 4GB Cowon E2 MP3 player ($64.99) delivers outstanding, iPod-crushing sound in a space no larger than a key ring. In fact, the big metal ring built into the top of the E2 can literally attach to your key ring. It can't clip, though, so fitness types will need to find a way to get the E2 on a necklace, wrist strap, or carabiner (none are included).
Aside from the lack of a built-in clip, the Cowon E2 further distinguishes itself from the iPod Shuffle by including actual buttons for volume and track skip control. The right edge offers a small square power button along with a rocker switch for track skip control. The same button configuration is mirrored on the left side, only the rocker controls volume and the small button toggles the shuffle mode with a long press and flips through JetEffect EQ presets with short presses.
The buttons are handy compared with the iPod Shuffle's headphone remote, but Cowon didn't exactly go out of its way to distinguish the buttons from one another. Beyond a few faint, gray icons, there's practically no way to tell the buttons on the left side of the E2 from the ones on the right. Without squinting directly at the device, something as simple as a change in volume has a 50 percent chance of turning into a track skip.
Compared with the iPod Shuffle, the inclusion of Cowon's phenomenal EQ presets (eight in total) offers a distinct advantage in sound quality. In a nod to the iPod Shuffle's VoiceOver feature, each EQ preset is announced in a pleasant recorded female voice. Unfortunately, the same voice feature doesn't apply to song information, so the track, album, and playlist navigation available on the third-generation iPod Shuffle (or any Sansa Clip) isn't available on the E2--tracks are either shuffled or played in sequence--that's it.
All in all, though, the Cowon iAudio E2 packs great sound into a stylish design that's sure to turn some heads when people see you listening to your key chain. A rated battery life of 11.5 hours is just about what we'd expect from a player this small. We have a slideshow below. Stay tuned for a full review.