More than 10 years have passed since the original iPod upended the portable music world and eventually spawned its own demise in the form of the iPhone. Along the way, almost every element of mobile technology has been systematically improved by leaps and bounds except for one notable hole wide enough to fly an A-10 “Warthog” through: support for high-quality audio.
It’s taken some time, but the lack of attention on the part of major tech manufacturers hasn’t gone unnoticed. Artist Neil Young recently seized the opportunity to spark an internet revolution that generated over $6 million in just seven days. His goal? To create the latest offering in a category of devices known as digital audio players or (DAPS). Young’s resulting Pono Player turned out to be a spectacular failure, but other niche companies have succeeded where he couldn’t. And now Sony’s finally decided to go after a piece of the action.
So how exactly are these devices different from the MP3 players of yore? Think of them like an iPod on steroids. They combine integrated storage, a digital transport, digital-to-analog conversions chips and a headphone amplifier into a portable hi-fi machine capable of replaying high-resolution audio tracks in all of their detailed glory. Here’s a look at the best portable hi-fi music players on the market today.
Astell&Kern AK Jr
Astell&Kern (previously known as iRiver in the early MP3 player years) was one of the first companies to address the portable hi-fi music player market. While early models focused on the high-end buyer looking for the absolute best sound quality at any cost, the brand has diligently added options at lower price points to reach a wider customer base. One of the main selling points of the new AK Jr DAP is sleek form factor. It’s roughly a third of the width of other popular DAPs — even matching the iPhone 6’s width at its skinniest point — and significantly lighter at 3.2 ounces. At an estimated price of $500, it’s also the most affordable offering from the brand to date.
Notable hardware details include a 3.1-inch 240 x 400-pixel touchscreen display and 64GB of internal storage with the option to expand with an additional 64GB via a microSD slot. Audio features are headlined by a Wolfson WM8740 single DAC chip capable of 24bit/192kHz bit-to-bit decoding, as well as increased power output and a lowered impedance to improve fidelity across a wide range of headphones. There’s also the option to use the AK Jr as an external DAC for computer audio via USB in addition to support for DSD audio via PCM conversion and Bluetooth 4.0.
Those who follow the category closely may lament Astell&Kern’s choice to push aesthetics at the expense of relying on a somewhat older DAC, but we’re guessing concerns over power consumption played a strong role in the decision. The same goes for pricing. Overall, this is still an attractive option for those looking to wade into the portable hi-fi portable sector for the first time who really intend to take it out on the road.
A strong contingent in the audiophile community feel iBasso’s DX90 offers the best bang for the buck on the DAP market today, especially with recent price drops and a bevy of firmware updates. For less than $400 the device packs an impressive amount of firepower including dual mono ESS Sabre32 ES9018k2M chips built specifically for the mobile market that provide a neutral and expansive soundstage the competition can’t replicate.
Though it’s no where near the pocketable dimensions of the AK Jr, the DX90 is still one of the most portable form factors in the category, mirroring the same silhouette of the entry-level DX50. Battery life is comparably short, but the reliance on removable batteries originally made for the Samsung Galaxy S3 means it’s easy to stay powered up if you’re truly concerned. Burning it in also creates a tremendous improvement in the DX90’s audio quality according to user community at Head-fi.org. So make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and use the included burn-in cable for the best possible sound.
Fiio X3 2nd Generation
The latest member of the Fiio family is a major improvement over what was already a highly lauded device. Aesthetically, it looks like a metallic doppelgänger of the iPod Classic, complete with a physical clickwheel and a few extra buttons stuck on seemingly to avoid patent infringement.
Inside, a new Cirrus Logic CS4398 Dac chip provides 24-bit delivery with improved low pass filtering and jitter control, not to mention native support for DSD audio decoding — quite the feat at this price point. The new brains also improves power management, giving the X3 2nd Gen a respectable 11+ hours of playback time. Internal storage isn’t included, but a microSD card slot means up to 128GB can be added for now. Like other options on this list, buyers also have the flexibility to use the X3 as an external DAC for both digital and analog sources.
Whether it fully matches the brilliant sound qualities of the competing mid-range DX90 is a hot topic for debate. The inclusion of native DSD audio decoding on X3 2nd Gen does gives it a leg up in terms of future-proofing. Combined with a very approachable price point, this DAP’s value is second to none in the market today.
HiFiMAN was one of the early leaders in the DAP market and their HM-901 represents a significant step up in quality (and cost) compared to the other players mentioned so far. CNET’s legendary audio guru Steve Guttenberg went so far as to call it “easily the best-sounding portable music player on the planet” when he reviewed it last summer.”
Unlike other brands which offer DAPs as set packages of components for ease of use and performance, the internal amp module can be swapped out in HiFiMAN’s products, letting buyers tinker with their setup to find the best sonic match for a wide array of listening scenarios. Up to four amp options — standard, balanced, Minibox and a card for in-ear monitors — are available today.
Two highly admired and relatively pricey Sabre ES9018 32-bit DACs form the core of the 901’s audio chops, providing excellent jitter reduction and up to 192/24-bit decoding, along with DSD audio support. Amp card selection has a notable influence on the 901’s sound, though even the stock version is generally praised for its natural tonality and transparency. Upgrading to one of the other three options is still highly recommended for those after peak performance (Headfonics provides an excellent breakdown of the differences between the three if you’re curious).
Other important details include a low-gain/high-gain external switch, which makes it easy to select the right output settings when switching between in-ear and full-sized headphone options, and a high-end step attenuator for precise volume control. A balanced and normal playback mode switch similarly lets users connect headphones via either a four-pin plug or a standard three-pin mini-jack output. A sole microSD card slot is provided for storage.
Plastic construction and faux leather detailing on the casing are a few notable downsides, as well as thicker body and a lack of touch screen controls. The use of a proprietary port (versus USB) for file transfers in addition to a bulky power supply are another source of annoyance. Still, few DAPs can compete with the HM-901’s sound quality and ability to push even hard-to-drive headphones to their full potential at this price point, especially in the case of buyers choosing the right amp card to complement their listening preferences.
If you’re considering this pick, it’s worth noting that HiFiMAN has revealed a replacement to this device that’s scheduled to go on sale later this year. The new HM901s offer some notable improvements including a speedy 2-second start time, an all-metal body with an improved scroll wheel and UI among other upgrades. The HiFiMAN HM-802 is also a solid choice if you’d prefer spending a few Benjamins less.
Sony Walkman NWZ-ZX2
The latest in a wave of statement hi-fi products from Sony doesn’t reach the same aural heights of other options on this list. What it does offer is the traditional conveniences you’re used to in a smartphone. It runs a version of Android Jelly Bean that most will feel familiar with. The addition of wi-fi also means it has the ability to run third-party music apps like Tidal, giving users access to a wide library of quality audio tracks that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Then there’s nice touches like its whopping 128GB storage with an option to add 64GB via microSD, plus an integrated lithium ion battery capable of over 30 hours of hi-res playback. But this isn’t just an overpriced iPod Touch. The weighty carved aluminum case contains Sony’s S-Master HX digital AMP that supports playback of virtually every hi-res formats including DSD and Bluetooth LDAC.
Unfortunately for Sony, reviewers, including the team at CNET, find the NWZ-ZX2 struggles with the kind of power-hungry headphones many audiophiles prefer. Its sound quality also isn’t as distanced as you would expect from Sony’s Sony Walkman NWZA17SLV 64, which costs significantly less.
Editor’s Note: Since the time of this article, Astell and Kern has announced a new flagship device dubbed the AK380. It’s significantly more expensive than the 240 with an MSRP of $3,400 and boasts several notable enhancements including 32bit/384kHz playback capabilities, plus a new DAC offering a “true Dual-Mono setup”. We’ll be sure to update this guide once we get sometime with the device, but it looks to be the new standard for those who care only about peak performance at all costs.
The flagship model in A&K’s portfolio spares no expense in the pursuit of sonic fidelity. A total of two Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips are onboard, allowing the device to play pretty much anything, including PCM up to 24/192, DSD64x and DSD128x thanks to an additional dedicated XMOS processor. 256GB of internal storage is included and can be expanded by an additional 128GB via microSD. Built-in wi-fi and Bluetooth support is another rare feature in this category that the AK240 uses to its advantage. Specifically, the connectivity allows the player to stream audio from home stereos using Bluetooth and computers using wi-fi without any noticeable drop-off in sound quality compared to playing tracks stored directly on the device. Dual jacks for balanced analog output as well as a traditional mini-stereo also are available to suit any set of headphones.
There’s no mistaking the duraluminum chassis and carbon fiber backplate of the AK240 for another device on this list either. Its two cut corners and slanted edges look like something born from Superman’s fortress of solitude. A 3.31-inch AMOLED screen combined with a best-in-class touch UI can’t compete with today’s modern smartphones, but still represent a step up in usability and looks for the market.
Sonically speaking, this goliath is in a class all its own. Its output is painstakingly faithful and dedicated to removing distractions such as distortion and noise so that music can speak for itself. Whether it’s worth the steep asking price, however, depends on your perspective. $2,400 for an integrated hi-fi system of this quality is an absolute steal in some ways. Then again, all of the other players on this list do a fine job of elevating your mobile listening experience to a level most devices can’t match.
If funds aren’t an issue, there’s no question the AK240 is the best of the DAPs on the market today. For the rest of us, the extra level of performance offered by this beast likely isn’t worth a $1,000 premium.