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It’s great that phones can play music, but they aren’t ideal for music playback. Even leaving the quality of the audio components aside, they play notifications in the middle of songs. It’s far too easy to answer a call when you’re singing along, too.
You may not need a dedicated digital music player to play your music as you would have 15 years ago, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful. Today’s digital music players offer expandable storage, support for lossless music, and superior audio quality.
Everything from the name to the look of the Astell&Kern A&futura SE100 is retro-futuristic. While it may look like a device from a sci-fi movie, it’s the sound that matters here. And on that front, the A&futura SE100 is worth the price.
The device can handle playback of lossless files up to 32-bit/384kHz as well as DSD 256. Inside it packs an ES9038 Pro 8-channel digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and an octa-core CPU for silky-smooth performance. The player comes with 128GB of internal storage and a microSD slot for even more music. A balanced headphone-out in addition to the standard 3.5mm jack means you can plug in any headphones you like.
It makes sense for Sony to use the Walkman name, as, dated though it is, it’s forever tied to portable music. That said, the Sony Walkman NW-WM1A is a far cry from the portable cassette players of old.
This Walkman will deal with your hi-res DSD files with as much ease as playing your MP3s. It has a balanced headphone jack for high-end cans as well, as a standard 3.5mm jack for your everyday headphones. It packs a powerful headphone amplifier as well, so even power-hungry headphones will work perfectly here too.
3. Onkyo DP-X1A
Onkyo is a well-established audio brand, so it isn’t too surprising the company still offers a handful of digital audio players. Still, you may be surprised with just how good the Onkyo DP-X1A is. To start, you’ve got dual Sabre ES9018K2M DACs, with support for uncompressed music up to 384kHz.
This model packs 64GB of internal storage, but you can expand it with a microSD card. This is combined with built-in Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) support. So, you can pack the player full of great-sounding files that don’t take up as much space as lossless formats like FLAC or ALAC.
The Astell&Kern A&Norma SR15 is what passes for entry-level in the company’s current lineup. That said, this model is still beyond what would classify as top-of-the-range even 10 years ago. It will play 24-bit/192kHz files and DSD64 natively, while higher-resolution files are downsampled.
In addition to wired balanced and unbalanced headphones, this player also streams via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It even has Tidal streaming built-in. The deliberately off-kilter design may not be for everyone, but this company has a style it’s going for, and the SR15 nails it.
After combining a few years ago, Pioneer and Onkyo must have been sharing their audio expertise back and forth. That would explain why the Pioneer XDP-300R is so feature-packed for the price. Like Onkyo’s DP-X1 digital audio player, this model features MQA support for high-quality audio at small file sizes.
The XDP-300R also features balanced and unbalanced headphone jacks. Combined with the ESS SABRE amp and a DAC inside, you should be able to power most headphones with ease.
For a long while, Apple fans feared the iPod Touch might have played its last note. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case, as, in May 2019, the company introduced the first new model in four years. It’s not a revolutionary redesign, but the seventh-generation Apple iPod Touch does exactly what you’ve come to expect.
The iPod Touch has more in common with an iPhone than it does most digital audio players. It has a camera, for example, and it can run the same apps you’d use on your iPhone. This reliance on the iOS operating system is either a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view. For fans of Apple’s ecosystem, this is a great bet.
7. Activo CT10
Though you may not have heard the Activo brand name, you’ve surely heard of related companies. Its parent company, iRiver, has long been a name in the portable audio market, and also happens to be the parent company of Astell&Kern. While the Activo CT10 may not be as high-profile, it’s certainly in good company.
The CT10 supports 24-bit/192kHz uncompressed music in common lossless formats as well as streaming via Tidal, Spotify, and Apple Music. That said, it doesn’t feature a balanced headphone jack or some other high-end features. However, if you’re looking for a step up from your phone in audio quality, this will do the trick.
The Sony Walkman NW-A45/B shows that the company’s entry-level range doesn’t skimp on features. This model doesn’t have a balanced headphone out but does feature the same hi-res compatibility and the classic Walkman look.
The internal storage is a reasonably low 16GB, but you can expand it via the microSD card slot. The Walkman NW-A45/B will play DSD files, though it converts them to PCM first. You also get MQA support, so if you’d rather bring the file sizes down, you do have the option.
9. FiiO M7
FiiO has made a name for itself in providing surprisingly great-sounding audio hardware at affordable prices. The company does standalone DACs and headphone amps, but its audio players tend to get the most praise. Looking at the FiiO M7, it’s easy to see why.
This model features native DSD decoding; a feature not always available on even the most expensive players. An ESS Sabre 9018 chip powers the output, providing both the DAC and the headphone amp. This helps keep the size small and the price relatively low.
10. FiiO X1
The FiiO X1 features support for all the major lossless file formats. It will play any of these up to 32-bit/192kHz, showing just how far we’ve come from old-school MP3 players.
The X1 doesn’t offer much in the way of fancy features, but it doesn’t have to. If you’re looking for a way to play your music while out on a run without risking your phone, this the perfect solution. The fact that it may sound better than your phone is just the icing on the cake.
The Best Digital Audio Player for You
For all the positives that a bespoke digital music player has, not everyone wants to spend the money on another gadget. If you use an Android phone with a headphone jack and a quality audio chipset, you’ve got everything you need. All you need to do is download an app that plays all the files you want.
If you use an iOS device without a headphone jack, there’s a little more work involved to play all your music. That said, all you need is our guide to playing hi-res audio on your iPhone or iPad and you’ll be good to go.