Considering a dedicated portable audio player? I like this. Maybe you have a thriving collection of FLAC files that never seem to play well with your phone (or just eat up its storage to the point that you choose which app to ditch), or maybe you just don’t want to be Interrupted by phone calls or WhatsApp notifications when trying to listen to music?
We applaud you. We are here for you, just like the best MP3 players currently on the market, that is, portable audio players that play much more than the old lossy MP3 files.
While streaming from Spotify is fine for a quick music fix, digital hi-res audio files stored on a portable music player (often abbreviated as PMP) or digital audio player (you may hear it called DAP) may sound so much better, and they don’t care if you’re online — or if your Tidal or Apple Music subscription is still valid. That said, some players will access your streaming service of choice. But let’s not rush…
And the portable audio experience will be particularly good if you plan to use your shiny new player with compatible over-ear headphones – as long as your DAP is powerful enough to drive them. (Again, more on that later.)
But which player to choose? Don’t worry, we can help, because we love these things and we want you to love one too. (Full disclosure, I still own an iPod Classic, and while it doesn’t have Hi-Res or Bluetooth support and you can’t really buy them from established online retailers these days, I really like it. .)
1. Light or heavy travel? Storage and microSD cards
Do you have a collection of digitally stored music or do you plan to stream it all? We probably all know that keeping downloaded hi-res files on your phone tends to eat up its onboard storage, and the same goes for portable music players.
Now, if you’re planning on streaming all your tracks from your pick of the best music streaming services, the built-in storage won’t be of much concern to you, but if you’re packing files, it’s worth considering the numbers.
For example, I saved my pennies in 2007 for the larger 160GB iPod storage option, simply because 40,000 songs seemed like a jaw-dropping number; it still does today – I never managed to fill it – but with AAC, AIFF, ALAC and my dear old friend MP3 (aka Lossy but Little) music files.
But if there’s no struggle, there’s no progress, and progress has certainly been made to build more storage and high-resolution file support into portable players. How? Removable microSD cards are one-way, and it’s worth checking to see if the drive you have your heart set on comes with a small slot for one.
The slick Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII, for example, packs “only” 64GB of built-in memory, but it’s expandable. Buy a 1TB microSD card, pop it in and get that glorious extra storage.
The gloriously gem Cowon Plenue D3 also has 64GB of built-in storage, which is expandable to 192GB with the addition of a 128GB microSD card – note it can’t take a 1TB card, you have to so check the spec sheet of your potential reader to avoid disappointment if you’ve already purchased one of the more accommodating microSD cards (yes, I’m speaking from personal experience here).
2. Court records
Just to continue with the two options above for a second, the A&K SR25 MKII easily handles a huge range of high-resolution music formats and sample rates, including native playback support for DSD256 and 32-bit/384KHz PCM high-res audio, while the cheaper and smaller (but still good-looking) Cowon Plenue D3 supports 24-bit/192kHz WAV, FLAC, ALAC and AIFF files, as well than native DSD playback up to DSD128 – ie. dual DSD support, but not quad DSD.
Now, chances are that if you haven’t heard of DSD until now – it stands for Direct Stream Digital and was created by Sony – you won’t miss any lack of support for it. However, if you’ve paid extra to get all that glorious extra audio information in digital form (a The DSD256 album is around 8GB, so it’s a data-heavy purchase), you’ll definitely want to be able to get the most out of it.
As mentioned, my old iPod Classic only supports AAC, AIFF, ALAC and MP3 files and because FLAC is such a popular format now, this list is more than a little dated in 2022. Younger Player (and now discontinued) from Apple, the iPod Touch (7th Gen) meanwhile, upped the ante with support for AAC-LC, HE-AAC, HE-AAC v2, Protected AAC, MP3, Linear PCM, Apple Lossless, FLAC, Dolby Digital (AC‑3), Dolby Digital Plus (E-AC‑3) and Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX and AAX+).
You’ll probably have to head to an auction site to find one, but if an Apple-centric (and dare we say, slightly retro?) vibe is your thing, this might be the one for you.
Essentially what we urge you to do is check the file support on your potential drive, folks…
3. Wireless connectivity and additional extras
My old iPod Classic is a relatively basic beast. I can’t get there with a pair of the best wireless earbuds. Why? There’s no Bluetooth receiver chip tucked inside. There is however Bluetooth support in newer iPods (iPod Nano 7G, iPod touch 2G and later all support Bluetooth), but that’s only part of the story.
Some players are only offline; see the Sony NW-A55L to start with. The lack of Wi-Fi rules out direct streaming of networked files and music services, but its absence is hardly surprising given its budget price, and because there’s a Bluetooth receiver, you box Pair a laptop or phone and listen to its music content with this much newer Walkman from Sony.
The beauty of offline players is that they won’t be thwarted by guest Wi-Fi networks, Siri misunderstandings, Spotify Free playlists, Bluetooth dropouts, advertisements, app updates, a call incoming phone call, Google notification or important email.
But if you want to make full use of your Tidal HiFi Plus subscription, you’ll also need something that can skip online. Astell & Kern’s A&ultima SP2000T would be our best shout out there, but you’ll have to pay for it.
You don’t have that kind of money? Alright, the A&norma SR25 MKII also has Wi-Fi access and high-quality Bluetooth LDAC and aptX HD wireless codecs for accessing streaming services, including Tidal (which, helpfully, is just waiting to be discovered in the “services” tab here ) and the battery life, at 20 hours, runs the A&ultima SP2000T to just 9 hours.
4. It’s all about the Benjamins
Isn’t it always? You can’t buy what you can’t afford (or, as they say), as rudimentary as it sounds, keep in mind the most you’re comfortable spending when looking for the DAP of your dreams.
You can get a cheap portable MP3 player for about the price of a coffee, but they’ll be fairly basic affairs that might only hold 32GB of MP3-quality music and play for maybe three hours before you need to be recharged – but if it’s good enough for you, we’ll support you along the way.
The products mentioned in this particular guide range from $220 / £160 / AU$339 for the Sony NW-A55L, up to $2,399 / £1,999 / AU$3,599 for the portable piece de resistance that is the Sony NW-A55L. ‘Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T. Yes really.
The thing is, there’s a product for every budget, so don’t assume your desire for high-res files will totally bankrupt you.
We wish you a long future of musical contentment with yours. After all, my iPod Classic and I have been doing well for 15 years, and we are very happy together…