Believe it or not, the MP3 player is not dead. Well, that actually depends on what you think of when you think of an MP3 player. Sure, the classic iPods of yesteryear might be out of the picture, as our smartphones can do everything they could and a whole lot more. But, there is still room for a dedicated device for audio, whether it be for a much higher quality of audio or simply to have a compact, affordable device that doesn’t get weighed down with all the additional functions of a phone.
You can find MP3 players (though playing lossy MP3 files may be the least of what they can do) that feature powerful DACs and amplifiers, giving you the premium sound and power that you’ll need if you use high-end, over-ear headphones or earbuds. You’ll also find substantial support for a wide variety of audio formats, various connectivity options, and more storage flexibility in many of these devices. So, if you’re looking for a portable home for your music library, you’ll find it here.
TL;DR – These are the Best MP3 Players:
1. Apple iPod Touch
Best MP3 Player
Apple’s iPod Touch leads the way in the MP3 player market for all the versatility it offers at such a low price point. It may not come boasting the highest-end DACs or heaps of storage, but if you just want to load up on a library of MP3s (and we’re talking real MP3 files), the iPod Touch is more than ready to facilitate.
The iPod Touch has a sleek and slim form factor paired with a dependable touchscreen display and a familiar operating system. If you’re coming from an iPhone (or even an Android phone, honestly), the learning curve to get up and running with the iPod Touch will be minimal. And, you’ll get plenty of battery life. You can plug headphones right into the iPod Touch, or enjoy wireless playback with Bluetooth. If you want to listen to Spotify or just about any other streaming app, you’ll be able to do so over Wi-Fi. And, if you’re done listening to music, you can use the iPod Touch for just about anything else an iPhone can do short of connecting to cellular networks.
2. Sony NW-A55
Best Budget MP3 Player
When it comes to audio, though, the Sony NW-A55 goes much further than an iPod Touch. You can plug a pair of wired headphones into the unit and enjoy your favorite lossless audio files pumped out by an S-Master HX amplifier, or you can even use DSEE HX to upscale compressed audio files. You’re not limited to wired headphones, either.
The Sony NW-A55 includes NFC for easy pairing with Bluetooth headphones, and it offers up support for both aptX HD and LDAC codecs to let you enjoy excellent audio quality over Bluetooth. And, when you’re at home and don’t need a portable music player, you can plug the NW-A55 into your computer and use it as a USB DAC.
3. Astell & Kern Kann
Best MP3 Player Under $1000
The Astell & Kern Kann music player isn’t for the casual music listener. Its price tag all but ensures that, but it does manage to stay under $1,000 (especially with a discount that’s live right now from Astell & Kern that see the price drop to $600). You get a solid device with physical buttons for playback control and a volume dial built into the side of the device to match the design. 64GB of built-in storage will get you started, but if you have a large collection of high-res audio, you’ll likely want to use the SD and microSD card slots.
This music player has a broad range of supported file formats from classics like WAV and MP3 to FLAC, OGG, and more. Inside, it’s packing a 32-bit AKM AK4490 DAC and its own amplifier with up to 7 Vrms of output to support high-impedance headphones or low-impedance speakers. You’ll also get plenty of options for how you use it, as you can plug into an unbalanced 3.5mm jack or balanced 2.5mm audio jack powered by the internal amplifier or connect with balanced or unbalanced line-level outputs. There’s even Bluetooth for wireless audio with support for the aptX codec to boot. As an added perk, the Kann can also take audio input over USB, letting it serve as an external DAC for your computer.
4. Astell & Kern AK Jr
Best MP3 Player Under $500
The market for high-end MP3 players is almost shockingly expensive, but when you consider the kind of quality amps and audio converters they have to pack into a portable device, it starts to make a bit more sense. That said, you can still snag a premium one for under $500 with the Astell & Kern AK Jr.
This little music player is thinner and lighter than Astell & Kern’s Kann, making it more friendly for regular listening on the go. You can go for casual listening with this player, as it supports MP3 and Bluetooth, and it even has 64GB of internal storage to keep a little music library. But you can also opt for a hi-fi library. There’s room for a microSD card to store the extra-large files that come from lossless audio formats like FLAC and WAV. You even get support for high-res DSD audio. And, if you want to use the Astell & Kern AK Jr’s DAC and amp for your computer, you can plug it in and sent audio out to your headphones or speakers through it.
5. Astell & Kern A&futura SE200
Best MP3 Player When Price is No Object
If you’re all-in on high-fidelity audio, then you shouldn’t shy away from the Astell & Kern A&future SE200. This high-end audio player is an upgrade over its already-impressive predecessor, the SE100, and it brings some notable improvements. It’s still got a handy, five-inch touchscreen display to help you navigate your music library while offering a simple volume dial and side buttons for easy playback control.
Inside the chic aluminum and ceramic chassis, Astell & Kern have packed in a single AK4499EQ DAC from AKM and dual ES9068AS DACs from ESS, making the SE200 the first Multi-DAC digital audio player. Astell & Kern have also gone with multiple amp designs to let the different DACs’ audio characteristics shine. All of this capability will let you take your favorite lossless audio files (with 256GB of built-in storage) and play them through your favorite headphones on the go, whether they be balanced, unbalanced, or even wireless Bluetooth headphones with aptX HD support.
6. SanDisk Clip Jam
Best Impulse Buy MP3 Player
As long as you set your expectations appropriately, you might be surprised what you can get for $30. The SanDisk Clip Jam might be a good portable player for a kid, or for situations in which you don’t want to carry an expensive portable device. You don’t get wireless connectivity, nor does it support apps or streaming. But you can add a microSD card to augment the 8GB of onboard memory for a total of 40GB.
It comes in a handful of bright colors, and as its name implies, it has a built-in clip you can use to attach it to your clothes. Since it also plays MP3, WMA, AASC, OGG, WAV, and FLAC tracks, this might be all you need.
What to Look for in a Portable Music Player
We tend to call portable music players “MP3 players,” a tacit acknowledgement of the overwhelming popularity of that lossy, highly compromised audio format. But the most important consideration when shopping for a player is to make sure it supports the format your music happens to be stored in. That might include Apple iTunes tracks in AAC format, or high quality “audiophile” tracks in FLAC, OGG, or lossless DSD files. Keep an eye on storage capacity as well: A modestly sized music collection of high bitrate music can easily climb into the hundreds of gigabytes.
Most audiophiles already know the value of a high quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC). An MP3 player with a high-quality DAC can easily sound better than your PC’s on-board sound card. And while the advantages of putting a pair of DACs in an MP3 player are debatable, driving the left and right stereo channels with discrete amplifiers can certainly ensure accurate sound reproduction.
Should you care about getting an MP3 with a balanced audio port? It depends upon how good your headphones – and your hearing – is. A balanced port can reduce line hum and increase the signal to noise ratio, letting you hear more of your music. But you need to be able to swap a standard 3.5mm headphone cable for a 2.5mm balanced cable – and your headphones ideally need to be designed for balanced connections, or there’s no point.
And if you want to connect your player wirelessly, look for Bluetooth support – ideally, with aptX wireless codec support for higher quality audio. Otherwise, shop for your audio player by asking the same questions you’d ask for any portable device – do you like the interface, for example, how long does the battery last, and do you want it to do anything besides play music, like run apps or play games.
Dave Johnson has been writing about gaming and tech since the days of the Palm Pilot. See him shout into the Twitter void @davejoh.
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