Best MP3 Players, Portable Media Players and Digital Audio Players (2023) | WIRED

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Best MP3 Players, Portable Media Players and Digital Audio Players (2023) | WIRED

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we’ve got nothing against your smartphone, not really. After all, it’s a handy GPS, a very acceptable camera, a brilliant internet portal, and probably quite a decent telephone. But you know as well as we do that it’s not much of a music player.

How could it be? After all, the digital-to-analog converter, the headphone amplification, and all the other hardware that goes into delivering a great music player are nothing more than afterthoughts when a company is specifying a smartphone. It’s the same as the sound of your laptop in this respect—the design prioritizes loads of other things, and there’s an incredible amount of electrical activity and noise going on inside that basically scuppers the chances of it sounding in any way good. Even if you toss out those dreadful headphones that came with it, your smartphone sounds dull or hazy or weedy—or all three all at once. It’s sad but it’s true.

So if you’re serious about portable listening, leave your smartphone to do what it’s good for and get yourself a dedicated music player. Because no matter if it’s called a digital audio player, a portable music player, or (for those who enjoy the old skool) an MP3 player, it has been designed to take care of one very specific piece of business. Apple knew the truth of this, but it couldn’t prevent the iPod in all its forms from being cannibalized by the iPhone.

But there are more dedicated, more intrepid brands than Apple that understand the benefit of keeping the music player alive. Here we’ve selected your five most compelling options, from sub-£100 entry-level charmers to entire “pocket-size high-end audio system-cum-lavish accessory” devices that cost almost £4K. It’s a wide-ranging and disparate bunch, but they all have one thing in common. To a lesser or greater extent, they’ll all make you wonder what you ever heard in that smartphone in the first place.

For more WIRED audio guides, check out our Best Gifts for Audiophiles, Best Bluetooth Speakers, Best Soundbars and Best Wired Headphones lists.

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It seems a strange decision on Sony’s part to give its NW-A306 portable music player (the first Sony product called a “Walkman” in an awfully long time) an Android 12 operating system that duplicates a lot of the functions of your smartphone. After all, you’ve decided to take music playback responsibilities away from your phone, haven’t you? Oh, and the touchscreen could be more responsive too.

Fortunately, the biggest effect this has is not on sound quality (which is—spoiler alert—very agreeable indeed) but on internal memory. The NW-A306 has a nominal 32 GB, but Android 12 knocks that down to more like 18 GB. Luckily there’s a microSD card slot here that can handle cards of 512 GB (for sure) and 1 TB (anecdotally).

From here, all the news is good. The dinky little NW-A306 is built and finished to the standard you expect from Sony, has an absolute fistful of functionality where both wired and wireless listening is concerned, and with careful use can eke a single charge out to over 30 hours of playback. And given a decent quality of digital audio file to deal with, the Sony is a spacious, detailed, and quite spirited listen that will have you choosing “just one more song” long after you should have started doing something else.

If it’s true portability you want, don’t look any further. Despite being able to deal with properly high-resolution digital audio files, despite having a bright, full-color touchscreen and a battery that should last you for 15 hours from a single charge, the Shanling M0 Pro weighs virtually nothing and is around the same size as an Apple Watch.

Sacrifices have to be made to create a hi-res audio player for this sort of money, of course, but they’re not obvious in the aluminum and glass construction. The lack of built-in memory is a bit of a giveaway, though—any music you want to play will have to be stored on a microSD card. (The M0 Pro can accept cards up to 512 GB.) This, along with a touchscreen that’s trickier to operate than it might be, are the only accommodations you’ll have to make.

The Shanling is equipped with fully balanced audio circuitry with ESS ES9219C DACs and sounds decently punchy. There’s good texture to the bass if not outright substance, detail levels are good, and integration of the frequency range is pretty smooth too. It could sound more dynamic, certainly, and be a little more positive about the attack and decay of sounds—but put the M0 Pro into proper context and it’s a very capable little device indeed.

Astell & Kern’s “entry-level” digital audio player won’t be everyone’s idea of what entry level should cost. But it’s safe to say there’s no obvious profiteering going on here—the SR25 MKII might cost a fair bit more than many a rival brand’s entry-level alternative, but you only have to see and feel this player to know why that is. And when you hear it, the case Astell & Kern is trying to make becomes watertight.

A&K’s edgy, pointy design language is strongly to the fore, and the aluminum-and-glass,  sharp-cornered SR25 MKII has three different headphone outputs as well as two-way wireless connectivity, the ability to deal with audio files approaching the highest resolution available, and a bright, responsive touchscreen interface. The exquisitely machined volume control is good, and the 20 hours of battery life is even better. (A minor annoyance: This should have more memory at this price.)

Best of all is the sound the SR25 MKII is capable of producing. We’ve reached the point where we’re no longer discussing “audio” but “hi-fi”—and the A&K is a lovely piece of hi-fi. Give it the right stuff to work with and it’s an insightful, implacably punchy, and beautifully balanced listen, able to organize a soundstage with just as much confidence as it describes rhythms and tempos.

The FiiO M17 is “portable” inasmuch as it can be easily transported from place to place. But your tailor won’t thank you for putting this chunkily capable device in your pocket—a bag or a backpack would seem to be in order. Still, FiiO had to put all this high-end specification somewhere—and it means there’s room for a nice, big, crisp, and colorful touchscreen display and four—count 'em!—different headphone sockets too.

And as well as being a gloriously judicious, articulate, and revealing listen when you use it as a portable music player, the M17 is also a brilliant piece of desktop hi-fi. Use it as a DAC for your laptop, for example, and all the music stored on your computer or your local network can be attended to by the 16 parallel DAC outputs the FiiO brings to bear on stereo music before it reaches your ears.

Of course, this kind of kit demands premium headphones. And the amount of power that’s on board the M17, both in terms of amplification and the size of its battery, means it gets quite warm quite quickly. But FiiO is nothing if not pragmatic—and so the M17 is supplied with a dock that features an integrated fan. Which is a talking point all by itself.

Make no mistake, the law of diminishing returns is at work here as surely as anywhere. But at the same time, Astell & Kern has gone to significant lengths to ensure that not only is the SP3000 the best-sounding portable music player you can buy, but it also puts in an admirable shift as a luxury accessory in the manner of a watch or a pair of earrings.

So let’s take the absolutely virtuoso sonic performance and extraordinarily complete audio quality as a given. Let’s accept that an asking price such as this demands (and, in the case of the SP3000, receives) top-of-the-line, uncompromised specification at every turn. Let’s just touch on the fact that the Snapdragon octa-core processor delivers a seamless user experience. Let’s overlook the fact that the package includes an exquisite protective case from storied French tannery ALRA that’s only available in goatskin (so long vegetarians). Let’s consider the fact that the SP3000 is made of 904L stainless steel.

904L stainless steel is exceptionally resistant to corrosion, which is all well and good. But it’s also renowned for accepting an extremely high polish—which is why it’s a favorite material for the likes of Rolex. And it serves to make the SP3000 seem as premium a product as a Rolex or a Bentley or something like that. Which is really no more than the asking price demands.

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Best MP3 Players, Portable Media Players and Digital Audio Players (2023) | WIRED

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