Best MP3 Players: TechRadar’s guide to the best portable music players
Best MP3 Player: Welcome to our guide to the best portable MP3 players.
As Bob Dylan sang way back in 1964, “the times, they are a-changin’.”
These days, even the best MP3 players are no longer the go-to music devices like they were 10-15 years ago. Smartphones have almost entirely taken over the music scene, at least in the mainstream, and not without reason. Most smartphones will allow you to carry around thousands of songs wherever you go – without having to cart around an extra device. Not to mention that they do this while also allowing you to talk on the phone and capture photos.
However, don’t write off MP3 players as useless yet. As far as sound quality, and even durability, you’ll be hard pressed to find a smartphone that’s even in the same ballpark as the best MP3 players. They’re simply the best devices for listening to music – hands down. And it’s because of this unprecedented and unrivaled sound quality that the core audience is almost entirely comprised of audiophiles.
But, if you already own a smartphone, is it really worth upgrading to a standalone MP3 player? Well, yes, it’s completely worth it, especially if you care about listening to music. As far as mobile technology has come in recent years, smartphone manufacturers still have to make some necessary compromises in order to pack in all the features that consumers demand. This means that other than a few notable exceptions, you simply cannot reach the same level of audio fidelity that the best MP3 players offer with a smartphone. You’ll also be limiting yourself to diminished storage space (not to mention more expensive) with a smartphone. Now streaming services go a long way towards bridging this gap, but even if you have unlimited data, the lower audio quality is a sacrifice that we’re simply not ready to make – the DACs in the best MP3 players simply blow smartphones out of the water.
However, if you are an audiophile (even if you’re still on the way to becoming one), it’s important to consider that the device, like an MP3 player, is only one link in a long audio chain. You’ll also need to think about what audio codec your library is in, and you will obviously also need an great pair of headphones, (high-fidelity DACs are meaningless if you’re using a cheap pair of earbuds), of which you can check out the best ones here: Best Headphones 2017.
What MP3 players does TechRadar recommend?
So, what should you be considering if you’re thinking about buying an MP3 player? The most important thing you’ll need to take into account is what audio codec your music library is in.
If you’re using iTunes, your music library is probably in Apple’s AAC codec – and, luckily, most MP3 players support that codec. If you’re an audiophile though, you’ll likely need support for FLAC, WAV and ALAC, hi-fi lossless audio formats that don’t use the compression methods used on lossy codecs like AAC and MP3.
You’ll also need to consider how large your music collection is and then how much storage you’ll need. This is especially the case when you’re using codecs like FLAC, which just devour space. Often MP3 players also have an included microSD card slot, which allows you to expand upon the included storage as your library expands – but normally only up to a certain size, normally around 512GB.
Here’s the best part though: unlike smartphones, MP3 players are built to last, so there’s no need to go on an sisyphean two-year upgrade-cycle like you might with a smartphone. This means it’s probably in your best interests to take some time and find the one that’s right for you, as you will probably be using it for a few years to come.
We’ve arranged our list of the best MP3 players by use case. Looking for portability? Check. What about something with enough space to archive your entire library? Easy! Here are some of the best MP3 players on the market right now.
Best MP3 player overall: Onkyo DP-X1A
Powerful, spacious and easy-to-use, the Onkyo DP-X1A is at the top of its class
Onkyo has been a well-known and esteemed name in audio for years, and for good reason. The Onkyo DP-X1A may not be the most compact player on this list, but it is the best all-around, offering huge customizability, an intuitive interface, and an fantastic sound quality.
Let’s start with the design, which is pretty nice. In general, the DP-X1A looks a little bit like a phone, but much thicker, and is completely optimized for audio use. How so? Well, for starters, it has two audio ports – one headphone jack and one balanced output for those interested in a cleaner and overall better quality sound. Additionally, the device has an easy-to-use volume wheel, as well as physical playback buttons and two microSD card slots for those with a sizable collection of music.
It’s a very nice setup, and while it may take you a minute or two to get accustomed to the button placement, once it clicks it’ll feel as natural as breathing.
Then there’s the software and interface, which again, is simple to use.
The player is built with a full version of Android 5.1, complete with features like Wi-Fi connectivity and the Google Play Store. Which results in an MP3 Player that is to Android what the iPod Touch is to iOS.
Unlike the iPod, however, the Onkyo DP-X1A is built for super-high-quality audio – but the overall experience of owning a player that can go far beyond simply playing music is the same. The Android experience is pretty stock, though there is an Onkyo-built music app, which gives more control over things like EQ, DSP features, and so on.
Then there’s the sound quality, which is an absolute dream.It supports a range of music formats, including FLAC, OGG, WAV, MP3, ALAC, and more. In terms of hardware, the device has two chipsets, one to power the overall device, and one to handle the DAC and amplifier – resulting in a noise-free experience.
We tested the player with multiple pairs of headphones across multiple price ranges, and were stunned with the clarity and exceptional quality of the audio. There’s a reason the Onkyo DP-X1A sits atop this list – it’s a beast in the portable audio world.
Read our full review: Onkyo DP-X1A Digital Audio Player
Best compact MP3 player: HiFiMan SuperMini
Need something a bit more portable? Try the HiFiMan SuperMini
HiFiMan is perhaps best known for its headphones, but it makes some pretty great MP3 players, too. For an example, look no further than the SuperMini.
The SuperMini, as the name suggests, is a little smaller than most of the other players on this list, but that doesn’t seem to come at a huge cost – it’ll still deliver excellent audio quality and it’s pretty easy to use, too.
The device, which has a price tag of $399 (£400, AU$399), doesn’t have any onboard storage – you’ll have to buy a microSD card separately. It does, however, support a pretty huge range of audio formats, including FLAC, DSD, WAV, MP3, and AIFF, and audio with a sample rate of up to 192kHz.
The user interface may not be as flashy as some others on this list, but it’s still pretty easy to use. It’s a monochrome display, and is controlled via three buttons located under the screen. The tradeoff to using a monochrome display, however, is that the battery life is pretty long, sitting in at a hefty 22 hours.
Then on to sound, which, as you would expect from a company like HiFiMan, is great. The high-end on this player is nice and crisp, without being too aggressive by any means. On top of that, there are plenty of mids to go around, without the player at all straying into inaccurate territory. We were a little skeptical of the idea of a player from a company that offers players well into the multi-thousands dollar range, but the SuperMini holds its own, and at a decent price.
Read the full review: HiFiMan SuperMini
Best mid-range MP3 player: Astell & Kern AK Jr
Looking for the middle-of-the-road option? Check out the AK Jr
Astell & Kern is known for building top-notch audio devices at reasonable prices, and for that reason we think the Astell & Kern AK Jr is the best mid-range MP3 player. In fact, after spending some time using it, we would argue that it’s a pretty serious contender against even much more expensive players.
Before diving into the player’s capabilities, you’ll notice how well-designed it is. The sleek, metallic look is very classy, and using it gives you a similar “status symbol” feel you’ll get with the iPhone.
The AK Jr comes in at $259 (£250, AU$399), which is a very reasonable price for a device of this calibre. For that price, you’ll get 64GB of onboard storage, though there is a microSD card slot in case you want to expand upon that storage. On top of that, it supports all major audio formats, including FLAC, WAV, MP3, AAC, AIFF, and more – and it’s able to play at sample rates of up to 192kHz.
The interface of the device is relatively easy to control, too. The home screen simply gives you options for songs, albums, artists, and so on.
Tap through using the touchscreen, and you’ll be able to select the music you want to listen to. It would be nice if that touchscreen was a little more responsive, but you will get used to it. Battery life sits in at around nine hours, which is not amazing, but not terrible either.
So how does it sound? In one word: beautiful.
Music is dynamic and crisp, with a nice and powerful sound in every aspect. The soundstage on these, when paired with a great pair of headphones, is huge – that’s to say the left and right are clearly defined, while instruments placed at the center of a mix are given plenty of room to breathe. We particularly enjoyed the guitar solo on AC/DC’s Back in Black, while Eminem’s rap on Lose Yourself cut straight through the mix – exactly the way it was supposed to.
Best MP3 player for iTunes users: Apple iPod Touch
Bought into the Apple ecosphere? iPod Touch is the player for you!
We all know the name “iPod” … which is probably due to the fact that it changed the game when it comes to consumer audio in the early aughts. All these years later, though, they’re still some of the easiest to use, most versatile and best-looking players on the market – especially the iPod Touch.
Why’s that? Well, it’s practically an iPhone that’s not a phone. The device is able to run most apps on the app store, making it much more than an MP3 player.
It’s not as audiophile-targeted as most other MP3 players, for example, it doesn’t support FLAC or DSD formats, either. But it does support WAV, MP3, AAC, and so on. It also tops out at 44.1kHz – though for most people that will be more than enough considering it’s CD-level audio.
The iPod Touch is probably the easiest MP3 player on the market to use. It’s controlled using a touch screen, which is ultra-responsive, and boasts a colorful look and bright display. Of course, you probably didn’t need us to tell you that. The device starts at $199 (£209, AU$299) for the 32GB version, or $299 (£299, AU$449) for the 128GB version.
As mentioned, the iPod Touch does cap out at 44.1kHz audio, but it still sounds pretty good – and if you really want it to it can provide an audiophile experience through an external DAC connected to the Lightning port. Of course, if you’re going to go to all that trouble, why not just buy an audiophile player?
Best MP3 player for athletes: SanDisk Clip Sport Plus
Heading to practice? Don’t forget your SanDisk Clip Sport Plus
Looking for an MP3 player to take running with you? If so, you probably want something small and light – it probably doesn’t need to hold day’s worth of music, and it probably doesn’t need to offer the highest audio quality out there. Most of all, you probably don’t want to fork out a ton of cash for it.
If that’s you, in our view, the SanDisk Clip Sport Plus is the best option.
For starters, the device offers 16GB of storage, and while that may not be much for your phone, 16GB can hold a ton of songs. On top of that, despite being built for sport, it actually supports a pretty wide range of audio formats – including MP3, AAC, FLAC, WAV, and WMA. Perhaps most important for a device like this is the battery life, and it’ll last you a good 20 hours. You’ll even get Bluetooth, which is a huge deal for many who will be using this while running or performing other activities and don’t want cables to get in the way.
The interface is relatively easy to use too. Sure, it’s a little dated, and isn’t as powerful as what you’ll find on your smartphone, but it’s still capable as a music player. It’s not touch-sensitive, though. Instead, you’ll navigate through hardware buttons that also serve as playback controls when music is playing – but we didn’t have any issue with that.
As for the sound, as long as you don’t expect full audiophile-level quality here (you won’t get it), we think you’ll find the sound very capable. Overall it’s slightly muddy with a small dip in clarity, but for most that won’t matter – especially when you’re out on a run or hitting the weights at the gym.
- Looking for a something to listen to on your new MP3 player? Check out our list of the best podcasts around.
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