The Best Portable Music Players For Audiophiles – 2021 Edition (Updated)
Portable music players or Digital Audio Players (DAP) are popular nowadays. Music lovers and audiophiles are looking of DAPs than can drive their HiFi, Hi-Res headphones and IEMs to enjoy music wherever they go. If you are in the market looking for the best portable music players currently available, then you are in luck because there are several options to choose from. I have updated this list to highlight some of the latest and best portable DAPs in the market according to different categories. There’s no “one DAP fits all”, each has its own unique features, pros and cons; and the best DAP for you might not be the best for someone else. Go ahead and check them out below.
Best Sounding Portable Lossless Audio Players
Like I said earlier, there is no one DAP fits all, or one DAP to rule them all, yet. True that there are several high-end DAPs nowadays that can do a lot of things. However, these DAPs tend to be (very) expensive, and some may have a tuning that doesn’t fit your taste or “not your cup of tea”.
It doesn’t mean that if a DAP is the most expensive in the market, then it is the best. Usually it is, but nowadays, there are a lot of DAPs that are affordable or mid-range-priced and are really good sounding. Some DAPs are expensive due to brand name, while other are expensive due to the set of features they offer.
In this article, I highlighted several DAPs that are best in their own category and price range. There are other DAPs that are good as well, but I didn’t include them to avoid the list from being too long. Instead, I’ll create a table later and include them there. Without further delay, let’s check out the best portable audio players now.
The Best Budget DAPs
Shanling M2X Portable Music Player
(Release date: March 2019 | MSRP $219 USD) First in the list is the Shanling M2X. This small and compact portable music player features a 3.2” touch screen display and is powered by Shanling’s MTouch 2.0 system. It features a single AKM AK4490EN DAC chip, with single TI OPA1612 chip as the low-pass filter and a dual AD8397 amplifier chip.
The M2X supports 32bit/384kHz PCM format up to DSD256 audio formats. It has a 2.5mm balanced and 3.5mm single-ended output as well as Bluetooth 4.2 wireless connection. Its main storage is via a single microSD card slot. It’s a simple and straightforward music player for people who are in a budget.
For latest pricing and availability: the Shanling M2X is available on Amazon.com here.
iBasso DX160 2020 ver. High Performance DAP
(Release date: March 2020 | MSRP $399 USD) Up next is the iBasso DX160, which is one of the company’s newer semi mid-level DAP. It features a nice 5-inch 1080p touchscreen display and runs on a modified Android 8.1 with MQA decoding. It features two Cirrus CS43198 DAC chips with support for PCM 32bit/384kHz and native DSD256.
The unit itself is powered by an octa-core CPU with 2GB DDR3 RAM and 32GB internal storage. Its main storage is via a microSD card slot as well. For connectivity, it has a 3.5mm single-ended / lineout and 4.4mm balanced output; as well as Bluetooth 5.0 and WiFi 802.11 ac. Consider this if you want a much better user experience.
The iBasso DX160 high performance DAP is available here.
Best Portable Music Players – No Compromise
We are now moving to the mid-range to higher-end level of DAPs. These are more feature rich, overall better sounding than the budget options and are more versatile without breaking the bank.
HiBy R5 Saber Edition Portable Android Music Player
(Release Date: December 2020 | MSRP $399) The HiBy R5 Saber edition “cuts through the most complex of recording to reveal detail for all to hear“. Compared to the R5 standard edition, the R5 is smoother and warmer than the R5 Saber. At its heart, it features a dual CS43198 DAC configuration; with support for Native DSD256, and MQA 8x unfolding, aside from the usual PCM audio format. The unit itself is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 425 SoC and runs on a modified Android 8.1 operating system.
It also sports 2GB of memory and 16GB of internal storage. 16GB of storage is obviously not enough. So, it has expandable storage via a microSD card slot that supports up to 2TB of microSDXC. Battery life is around 18 hours of continuous playtime, and has quick charge QC3.0 support.
The HiBy R5 Saber also features Direct Transport Architecture; and high quality Panasonic capacitors like 4 470µF electrolytic, 7 200 µF and 4 47µF capacitors. For output ports, it has a 4.4mm balanced out and a 3.5mm single-ended output. It also has a USB-C connector for charging, data and USB-DAC functionality.
The HiBy R5 Saber Android music player is now available on Amazon.com here.
Cayin N3Pro Dual Timbre DAP
(Release date: August 2020 | MSRP $479) The Cayin N3Pro is one of the unique DAPs listed here. It features a solid state and vacuum tube resulting in a dual timbre output. Actually, it is “triple timbre” since in tube mode, you can choose triode or ultra-linear mode. All three modes have a unique sound signature and characteristics.
The N3Pro is a fully balanced digital audio player with both a 3.5mm single-ended and 4.4mm balanced output. It features two AK4493 DAC chips that can support up to 32bit/384kHz and native DSD256 formats. Its headphone output can drive up to 800mW@32Ω using the balanced output.
However, it runs on a custom OS based on Linux. So don’t expect a similar experience with an Android-based DAP. It does have WiFi for updating and a Bluetooth connection for BT devices. With the latest firmware update, it’s also able to support MQA formats.
The Cayin N3Pro is now available in the US. You can check out its latest pricing and availability on Amazon.com here.
HiBy R6 Pro Portable Hi-Fi Music Player
(Release date: January 2019 | MSRP $599) First in this category is the HiBy R6 Pro, the successor and an upgraded / refined version of the older R6. It features a dual ES9028Q2M DAC chip configuration with four MUSES8920 as I/V, two SSM6322 for low pass filter and Amp; and a Direct Transport Architecture bypassing Android.
It runs on Android 8.1 and is powered by a Snapdragon 425 SoC, with 32GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot that can support up to 512GB microSDXC. It has a 3.5mm headphone out, a 4.4mm balanced out and WiFi 208.11 a/b/g/n with Bluetooth 4.2 for wireless connection.
The R6 Pro’s pricing seem to change from time to time. For latest pricing and availability of the R6 Pro check it here.
FiiO M11 Pro Android Lossless Portable Music Player
(Release date: August 2019 | MSRP $649.99) The Fiio M11 Pro is the company’s answer to the R6 Pro. The M11 Pro is also an upgraded and refined version of its predecessor, the FiiO M11. The Pro features two AK4497EQ DAC chips, a Samsung Exynos 7872 SoC, 64GB of internal storage with one microSD card slot can that “support up to 2TB” of microSDXC.
The M11 Pro has three outputs, a 2.5mm balanced, a 3.5mm single-ended and a 4.4mm balanced output. It also has Bluetooth and dual-band WiFi wireless connection. This DAP has more features and capabilities, so if you are a FiiO fan, this is currently the best they have.
FiiO M11 Pro Android Music Player is available on Amazon.com here.
Sony NW-ZX500 Walkman Hi-Res Digital Music Player
(Release date: November 2019 | MSRP $779.99) The Sony NW-ZX500 is the successor to the NW-ZX300, which was quite a popular DAP back then. The ZX300 was the budget alternative to the WM1A and WM1Z for those who are looking for the Sony sound signature.
The design is somewhat similar to its predecessor but now with rounded corners. It features Sony’s S-Master HX and DSEE Ultimate and supports up to PCM 384kHz and native DSD 11.2MHz. Just like the ZX300, the ZX500 also has a 3.5mm single-ended and Ø4.4 mm balanced connectors on top.
Sony is using a newly developed FT high polymer capacitors that, according to Sony, helps in delivering expansive vocals and instrumentation, plus powerful bass notes. It also offers WiFi and Bluetooth 5.0 along with Android 9.0. With the new OS, you can do more with the new ZX500 compared to the ZX300.
iBasso DX220 Reference DAP
(Release date: April 2019 | MSRP $899) Now for my personal choice, the iBasso DX220 Reference DAP. Unlike the other DAPs I mentioned so far, this one features a removable AMP section. Meaning you can change the output type and the amplifier of your unit; resulting also in a change of sound signature. Inside are two ES9028PRO DAC chips with support for PCM 32bit/384kHz up to native DSD512.
The DX220 has a huge 4400mAh battery, a really nice and detailed professional equalizer software and runs on Android 8.1 + Mango OS (dual system). It also features a nice 5-inch Sharp 1080p display, with 95% sRGB, 445ppi and 2.5D Corning glass panel. Among the DAPs mentioned in this list, for me the iBasso DX220 is the best, especially when paired with the iBasso AMP9 Nutube Vacuum tube amplifier module. You simply can’t go wrong with this DAP.
The iBasso DX220 Reference Digital Audio Player is available on Amazon.com here.
Sony NW-WM1A Premium Walkman Digital Music Player
(Release date: October 2016 | MSRP $1,199) For the Sony fans and mainstream lovers out there, the Sony NW-WM1A is currently one of the best. It’s not the best since Sony has still one DAP above the NW-WM1A, which I will talk about shortly. The NW-WM1A runs on Sony’s proprietary software, so unlike most DAPs in this list, this one is a pure music player.
It supports PCM 32bit/384kHz up to Native DSD 11.2MHz. It has a 3.5mm single-ended output and a 4.4mm balanced output. There’s also a 128GB built-in storage with one microSD card slot for storage expansion. The Sony NW-WM1A features DSEE HX and S-Master HX digital amp technology. In fact, most of the features in this player are Sony’s proprietary technology.
The Sony NW-WM1A Premium Walkman is getting older, so there may be changes to its price by now. Check its latest pricing and availability here.
Fiio M15 Flagship Android Hi-Res Smart DAP
(Release date: January 2020 | MSRP $1299.99) The Fiio M15 is the company’s flagship “Android Hi-Red Lossless Smart Portable Music Player”. It features two AK4499EQ DAC chips that are capable of decoding up to 768kHz sampling rate and native DSD512. The unit itself is powered by a Samsung Exynos 7872 SoC, meaning this DAP is no slouch at all.
It also features an XMOS XUF208 USB chip for USB DAC that supports 768kHz/32bit and DSD512 input. When it comes to wireless connectivity, it has a Qualcomm CSR8675 Bluetooth chip that can support various formats like aptX-HD, LDAC, and more. The M15 also features Fiio’s 3rd gen FPGA that comes with advanced algorithms, more accurate clocks, and even further reduced jitter.
It’s powered with a 7,490 mAh battery and offers 15 hours of battery life or 1800 hours of standby time. Charging this device won’t take long as it supports QC2.0, MTK PE, and USB PD fast charging. The M15 has more features under its sleeves, too many to include in this summary. It’s really a no-compromise, multi-functional “smart” digital audio player; best DAP in its class. If you’re looking for a “modern player”, I’d point you towards this.
The Fiio M15 flagship DAP is now available on Amazon.com here.
Best DAP for Full-Size Headphones on the Go
AK KANN Cube Portable High-Resolution Music Player
(Release date: June 2019 | MSRP $1,499.00) For those who wants a portable DAP, but needs a DAP with a powerful amplifier that can drive full-sized headphones properly, the AK Kann Cube is perhaps your best option; offering up to 12V of power. This thing is larger compared to the other DAPs listed here. It features a dual ESS ES9038PRO DAC design for Pro audio equipment and supports 32bit/384kHz up to native DSD256. Aside from the usual, 2.5mm balanced and 3.5mm headphone out, the KANN Cube even has a 5-pin mini XLR output, with 4Vrms, for even less noise. It also has a 128GB built-in memory, a nice 5-inch HD touch display, USB Type-C connector with fast charging support, WiFi and Bluetooth aptX HD for wireless streaming, and many more. If not for the software and versatility of the iBasso DX220, this is going to be my next best DAP.
Check latest pricing and availability of AK KANN Cube on Amazon.com here.
Best Portable Music Players – Money No Object
For those who have the money to burn on a DAP and money is no object in the pursuit of ultimate audio bliss, then these last two DAPs may be what you are looking for.
Sony NW-WM1Z Signature Series Hi-Res Walkman
(Release date: October 2016 | MSRP $3,199.99) The Sony NW-WM1Z is part of Sony’s Signature series lineup. It’s Sony’s current flagship digital audio player, despite being available in the market for quite some time now. Compared to the NW-WM1A, the NW-WM1Z features better components; uses high quality Kimber Kable inside; double the storage capacity (256GB) and a much better sound quality than the WM1A.
Of course, at this point, it is going to be subjective already. It doesn’t mean that since it’s doubled in almost all aspects, sound quality is also “doubled”. But it does offer a much better sound quality than the WM1A.
The Sony NW-WM1Z has been in the market for quite some time now, so check the latest pricing and availability here.
Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP2000 Hi-Res Music Player
(Release date: July 2019 | MSRP $3,499.00) Astell&Kern’s latest flagship portable hi-resolution music player is the A&Ultima SP2000. It is said to be “a true high-resolution music player, with bit-to-bit playback up to 32bit/768kHz and native DSD512 support”. The SP2000 features two AKM AK4499EQ DAC chips, octa-core CPU, Parametric EQ, Femto Clock, a 6Vrms balanced output and a 3Vrms unbalanced output.
It also has 512GB of internal memory, 5” HD touch screen display, open App support for music streaming, dual band WiFi and Bluetooth with aptX HD support, and many more. The SP2000 is definitely not a value-oriented product; it is more of a luxury DAP, just like its predecessors.
Bonus: Best Smartphone DAP
Okay, for those who wants something more than just a music player; like a “smartphone DAP”, currently the best I could think of are the LG V40 or the LG G8 series. LG’s latest smartphones are built with a 32-bit Hi-Fi Quad DAC made by ESS Technology. I think the specific chip is called ES9218P. In the previous LG V20 and V30 series, it was Bang&Olufsen who tuned LG’s smartphones. They have a warmer and “consumer-friendly” tuning. Meanwhile, the newer LG V40 and G8 series are tuned by Meridian, and has a more linear and detailed tuning with better clarity.
This is currently my list of the best portable music players available in the market that are geared towards the hobbyist, enthusiasts and audiophiles alike. All of these portable music players have great to fantastic sound quality; and it comes down to personal preference. Audio is a subjective topic, and what’s good for you may not be good for me. Just one thing, do yourself a favor, if ever you are going to buy one of these DAPs, be sure to load them with high resolution lossless audio files, at least. Please don’t load them with a lossy and sometimes poorly encoded MP3 files. Otherwise it would defeat the purpose of getting one and you’re better off using your smartphone instead. Good luck!