Top 10 Best Portable Music Players from Entry Level to Mid-Fi – Q4 2016 Edition
Many can’t afford to buy those high end portable digital audio players we have listed here. Well, fear not because there are a lot of more affordable and budget friendly options in the market. You don’t necessary have to pay for a hefty amount of cash to enjoy great sounding hi-fi and hi-res audio. In this article, I’m going to list the best or most recommended budget-fi or mid-fi portable audio players currently available in the market. Don’t underestimate this mid-fi DAPs, it doesn’t mean that just because they are priced (way) cheaper than their high end cousins would mean they sound worse. No! In fact some of the portable DAPs listed below sound nearly as good as the more expensive ones. Remember, diminishing returns in audio equipment is exponential. Most of the time, it’s more practical to invest on these mid-fi DAPs since they also produce a very good audio quality. And many of these DAPs have digital output, meaning you can use it as a transport and pair it with a much better external DAC/Amp device, like a Chord Mojo/Hugo. Like what I always do, I’ll list down all the 10 entry to mid-fi DAPs according to price, from low to high. I’ll also update the list from time to time whenever something new and better comes out. Without further delays, go ahead and pick your DAP…
Best Entry to Mid-Fi Portable Digital Audio Players
FiiO X1-II Hi-Res Lossless Music Player (2nd Gen)
The FiiO X1-II is the company’s latest entry level hi-res lossless music player that comes with a retail price of $99 only. Well, technically speaking their cheapest entry level music player is the FiiO M3 we reviewed here. But I don’t really count that since I think it’s targeted towards another market, and not really for the audiophiles or demanding ears. The FiiO X1-II is the 2nd generation and comes with a number of improvements from its predecessors the FiiO X1.
The FiiO X1-II is thinner, lighter, has a touch wheel control, comes with wireless Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity and (slightly) better sound quality. Under the hood, the FiiO X1-II is powered by a JZ4760B SoC, a BB Ti PCM5242 DAC, TI OPA2322 LPF and ISL28291 OP. It supports all major lossless music formats, features Car mode, deep-sleep standby, in-line remote control function and an all-new UI themed interface.
It doesn’t have an internal memory, but the FiiO X1-II is built with a micro SD card slot that supports up to 256GB of microSDXC. However, you can’t use this one as a transport since it doesn’t have a digital output. The FiiO X1-II is intended to be used directly with a headphone or IEM, with 16~100 Ω impedance.
FiiO X3-II High Resolution Music Player (2nd Gen)
The FiiO X3-II hi-res music player is also the 2nd generation of its kind, currently priced at $169.99. It’s “two steps higher” from the X1-II and is built with more features than the X1-II. The FiiO X3-II features dual crystal oscillators dedicated to multiples of 44.1kHz and 48kHz frequencies for lowest jitter at all sample rates. It uses a Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC, together with OPA1642 LPF and OPA1612+LMH6643 OP. It supports major lossless audio formats including native DSD support.
The device itself is powered by a JZ4760B SoC, and features a 2-inch LCD display. Fiio has updated its design with an all-metal chassis and fine grained matte finish; and also features a new user interface. Some of these features includes a 10-band equalizer (±6dB), two gain settings (low at 2.6dB and high at 8.6dB); has more driving force at 16~150 Ω and comes with a microSD card slot that can support up to 200GB.
Again, there is no internal memory, and storage is via microSD card only. What’s good with the Fiio X3-II is that is has a standard 3.5mm port that serves as line out and S/PDIF coaxial out. This means you can use this device as a transport, and connect it to an external DAC/AMP.
Cowon Plenue D High Resolution Music Player
Cowon is also one of the companies making hi-resolution portable audio player, and this year they also released a mid-fi hi-resolution DAP in the form of Cowon Plenue D, with a price tag of $199.99. The Plenue D is the little brother of the Plenue S and the Plenue M2. It features 24bit/192kHz high definition sound, a 24bit DAC and features the company’s JetEffect 5 & BBE+. It also features a 2.8″ wide angle capacitive touch screen display with a resolution of 240×320.
The Cowon Plenue D is powered by a TCC7901 SoC from Telechips and it is paired with a Wolfson WM8998 as its DAC component. It supports major lossless and lossy formats, and has a 32GB of internal memory that can be expanded via a microSD card slot. The Plenue D makes use of a Matrix Browser that is quite user friendly and easy to use.
Unfortunately, unlike Fiio’s X3-II, the Plenue D doesn’t support DSD and doesn’t have other output options other than the 3.5mm unbalanced output. This means you can’t use the Plenue D as a transport.
Fiio X5-II Hi-Res Portable Music Player
If you think those three DAPs mentioned above are still not enough for your needs, then check out the Fiio X5-II (2nd generation), with a retail price of $299.99. It’s almost double the price from the X3-II but it’s also larger and more capable compared to the X3-II. Basically speaking the Fiio X5-II is the big brother of the X3-II. It has a larger 2.4″ display, a little larger and heavier body, has higher gain settings, twice the external storage slot, and has more output power.
The Fiio X5-II is powered by the same SoC that powered the X3-II, a JZ4760B SoC, but uses different audio components. It has a PCM1792A DAC chip from Texas Instrument paired with an OPA1652, two OPA1612 for low pass filtering and voltage amplification, and two BUF643U that buffers supply up to 250mA output to headphones. It supports native DSD64 and DSD 128, SACD ISOs and the usual lossless formats like WAV, FLAC, APE, WMA, ALAC, AIFF up to 192kHz/24bit, as well as the lossly formats.
Like the X3-II, the Fiio X5-II has a 3.5mm line and S/PDIF coaxial out aside from the 3.5mm unbalanced headphone out. This means you can use it as a transport and pair it with an external DAC/Amp.
Sony NWA26HNBM Hi-Res Walkman Digital Music Player
Sony has been offering a lot of portable music players since the early days, and even the time of the cassette tapes. Sony is definitely not new into this market and has years and years of experience. One thing that I don’t like though is how they name their products with letters and numbers like -> “NWA26HNBM”. The Sony NWA26 is one of their newer portable digital player released early this year, and currently retails for around $318 USD.
The Sony NWA26 is the 32GB variant, while the NWA27 is the 64GB variant. It’s also available in (at least) six difference colors. Sony has been using their own audio components (DAC and Amp) and doesn’t really reveal any of the internal components. They like to use marketing terms like “Hi-Res quality with DSEE HX, S-Master HX digital amp”. It supports popular music formats like FLAC, WAV, AIFF, ALAC, MP3 files and more.
Other features include a 2.2″ QVGA LCD display, a micro SD card slot, wireless connection via NFC and Bluetooth and boast up to 50 hours of music playback. The Sony NWA26HN is intended to be used directly with a headphone or earphone or pair with a wireless device. You can’t use an external DAC/Amp with this player.
iBasso DX80 Hi-Res Portable Audio Player
iBasso didn’t want to be left behind on the “touch screen craze” and “dual microSD slots” on portable DAPs. Early this year, they released the iBasso DX80 (currently retails for around $320) to compete with other Android based DAPs in the market. The iBasso DX80 features a heavy modified and closed user interface based on Android. Meaning, it doesn’t support third party Android apps; instead it’s a player through and through just like the Opus#1.
The iBasso DX80 features a 3.2″ IPS touch screen display with a resolution of 400×800. It is powered by dual Cirrus CS4398 DAC chips that support 24bit/192kHz and native DSD64 and DSD128 audio formats. It’s also built with XMOS USB receiver with Thesycon USB audio driver and can be easily use as an external DAC for your PC. It also features dual Si Time MEMS oscillators, eMMC onboard memory for increased stability, 150-steps digital volume control and many more.
It doesn’t have an internal memory storage, but is has two micro SD card slots that supports SDHC and SDXC cards. It has a flexible output option that includes a mini optical output, coaxial output, line out, and headphone out. This means you can use the iBasso DX80 as a transport and pair it with an external DAC/Amp.
Astell&Kern AK Jr Portable Hi-Res Audio Player
Just as we though Astell&Kern wouldn’t release something on the entry-level side, the company released the AK Jr last year, currently with a price tag of around $368. Well, it’s not really cheap compared to other mid-fi DAPs, and considering the set of features that it offers. But A&K is known for their premium products that also come with premium price tag.
The AK Jr features a single Wolfson 8740 DAC providing high resolution audio, and supports various lossless (and lossy) formats including DSDS64 (1bit 2.8MHz) playback. It has an ultra-slim and light body made of aluminum and has a 64GB of internal storage that can be expanded up to 200GB via a microSD card slot. You can also connect the AK Jr to your computer and use it as a DAC via the USB connection.
While the AK Jr doesn’t have any digital output, it does have Bluetooth connection for wireless devices. The AK Jr also looks nice, but I think it somehow expensive considering the limited set of features it can offer.
Cayin i5 Portable HiFi Audio Player
This is Cayin’s latest portable DAP, the Cayin i5 with a retail price of $499. This is the company’s first DAP that is based on Android OS, plus it also supports third party app installation, just like the Fiio X7. The Cayin i5 features an all metal aluminum alloy body with a dedicated volume knob on its upper right corner, paired with a nice 4″ touch screen TFT IPS display. It uses HiBy Music’s music player app as the base player or main UI of the i5.
Under the hood, the Cayin i5 uses AKM’s AK4490 DAC chipset, the same DAC used in the AK300s, has 2x BUF634 high current headphone amplifier, and other components such as PGA2311 and LME49720. In terms of connectivity options, it uses USB Type-C connector, standard 3.5mm headphone out and 3.5mm line out, plus WiFi and Bluetooth connections. It can also be used as a USB-DAC and supports up to 32bit/384kHz audio format.
Aside from the popular lossless and lossy formats, it also supports native decode SACD ISO, including DST encoded and DSD formats. This is actually a very capable DAC and between the X7 and i5, I’m leaning towards this one due to better sound quality (for me).
OPUS#1 Portable Mastering Quality Sound Audio Player
The Opus#1 is the first portable digital audio player from a Korean company called The Bit. They entered the market early this year with the Opus#1 and Opus#11 (a portable DAC/Amp). The Opus#1, currently priced at $529, is based on a heavily modified Android OS, just like the DX80. Unlike the majority of the mid-fi DAPs in this list, the Opus#1’s body is made of ABS plastic. Many would say that it’s somewhat a look-alike of the A&K DAPs, or some calls it the “poor man’s AK”.
Despite having a plastic body, its audio performance is quite impressive. It features a dual DAC setup with two Cirrus Logic CS4398 that supports 24bit/192kHz high resolution sound. The unit itself is powered by an ARM Cortex-A9 1.4GHz, Quad-Core CPU with 1GB DDR3 memory and a 32GB of internal storage. It has two microSD card slots that supports up to 200GB of microSDXC. It has a standard 3.5mm unbalanced output / shared with 3.5mm optical out, and another 2.5mm balanced output.
The Opus#1 is basically a portable audio player through and through. It doesn’t support third party apps and doesn’t have any wireless connectivity options, like WiFi and BT. But you can use the Opus#1 as a transport via its optical out. The Opus#1 is a promising portable DAP and was able to garner a lot of fans. Its success paved the way for the company to release its successor the Opus#2.
Astell&Kern AK70 Portable Hi-Res Audio Player
Astell&Kern not only wants to dominate the high-end portable DAP, but they also want to target the mid-fi section as well, thus releasing the AK70. The AK70, currently priced at around $599, is basically the next step higher from the AK Jr offered by the company, and aims to compete with other budget friendly DAPs in this list.
The AK70 features a single Cirrus-Logic CS4398 DAC that supports 24bit/192kHz bit to bit PCM Audio Playback and DSD64, DSD128 (DSF, DFF) Playback Through DoP. It has a 64GB of internal storage and can be expanded via a microSD card slot. It has a 3.5mm single ended output and a 2.5mm balanced output; it also has a USB DAC function via the micro USB port. It comes with wireless connectivity such as WiFi 802.11 g/b/n and Bluetooth V4.0 (A2DP, AVRCP, aptX™ HD).
Like all high-end DAPs from AK, the AK70 is DLNA network compatible with AK Connect. Oh, you can also connect the AK70 with external device since it supports USB audio digital out, the first from AK DAPs.
There you have it guys, this is my list (and personal pick) of the top 10 best portable audio players, starting from entry level up to mid-fi level. If you want to check out what’s beyond this mid-fi DAPs, check out our Top 10 Best Portable Music Players For Audiophiles.
Good luck and happy listening!