Remember the very first chrome-dipped iPod from fifteen years ago? No? Damn, we’re old. Anyway, it sold like three hundred and sixty million units. Apart from saving Apple, whose business was kind of struggling back then, it gave its owners a newly found purpose for having a pocket - to carry their complete music library with them. A pretty novel thing, revolutionary even, considering that the second best option was a portable (but still massive) CD player. It changed the way we listen to music forever - and today, Apple is no longer the market leader. Dozens of companies have sprung up, offering players that can deliver audio of a much higher quality than any iPod. Here are some of the best available right now.
 

How We Choose

Today’s high-end Digital Audio Players (DAPs), as MP3 players have become known, are killer. There’s a healthy demand for high quality models and where there’s demand, there’s supply - you’ll find a ton of great units out there. They feature hundreds of gigabytes of storage, killer digital-to-analog audio conversion hardware, and the ability to play high-res (way-better-than-CD-audio) files as well as ordinary MP3s. Check out our Buyer’s Advice section below - we outline the cool features and technologies that make a really great DAP player.

Our list starts with the very best - right at the expensive end - and although some of the prices may seem shocking for just an audio player (no, you can’t make calls with that) they are actually quite justified considering the super high-end audiophile components present inside. We gradually descend through virtually all price tiers - all the way down to the double digits, making sure that at least one or two of the picks might suit your budget.
 

Our DAP Picks:

1. Astell&Kern AK380 ($3,499)

Astell&Kern AK380Inputs: microUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm, 2.5mm Line Out (Balanced - 4-pole TRRS plug)
Storage: 256GB (expandable to 512GB)
File Support: MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA, DFF, DSF
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: Yes/Yes
What We Like: Space-tech grade design, file support, resolution and audio quality are all second to none.
What We Don't: It costs as much as a ticket to the moon.

Pretty much universally recognised as the industry standard high-end DAP (Digital Audio Player) right now, the Astell&Kern AK380 can do it all. OK, the $4K price tag might cause a large coffee spill, but considering how easily people spend a grand on a smartphone, the cost of the AK380 might seem far less shocking considering the beyond-studio audio quality technology housed inside. 

This DAP is capable of withstanding the elements, with its shell made of carbon and metal. The touch-sensitive 4” screen is also suitably tough and A&K offer additional (optional) tempered-glass protective kits. All controls are handled via the touch screen with the exception of the large side volume control thumbwheel. Connections are easy - a mini USB for charging/file transfer and a 3.5mm (1/8") minijack out, and nestling on the inside of this minijack port is one of the main reasons for A&K AK380’s famed audio quality - their in-house designed dual AKM AK4490 DACs (Digital to Analog Converters). Yep, two of them - each one handling one side of the stereo signal. DACs are the hardware chipsets converting digital file data into actual audio. We’ve explained their significance here, and the quality of the hardware is directly linked to audio quality, dynamic range, soundstage and perceived width and depth of the sound. The audiophile-grade audio delivered by the AK4490 chipsets can be of stupefyingly high-resolution playback, supporting files of up to 32-bit/384kHz. All this spec talk deserves a rounding off by saying that such high-res audio files do take a lot of storage space, and the AK380 comes with a 256GB of storage, expandable to double that with an optional SD card. If you can afford the best, click buy now. You won’t regret it. 
See the Astell&Kern AK380
 

2. Hifiman HM901S ($1,499)

HIFIMAN HM901sInputs: Docking Port/PC, Digital S/PDIF
Outputs: 3.5mm, 2.5mm Line Out (Balanced - 4-pole TRRS plug)
Storage: 256GB (Expandable)
File Support: MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: No/No
What We Like: Stunning sound, expandable amp circuitry, balanced out option and S/PDIF.
What We Don't: A USB rather than ‘docking’ port would have been better, playlist creation not straightforward, no artwork display, no wireless.

The Hifiman HM901S is less than half the cost of the Astell&Kern but it’s still firmly at the top of the current DAP market. Despite not having some of the A&K AK380’s ultra high-end resolution playback, this is only a theoretical disadvantage. For starters, not many people have music library sampled higher than 192 kHz (which is the HM901S top bitrate). In reality the audio coming out of the HM901S is every bit as good, courtesy of its dual ES9018 DAC chips, which are, by the way, some of the most expensive chipsets on the market. The HM901S follows in the steps of the original HM901, and Hifiman spent a year tweaking the oscillator filters of the said ES9018 DACs, just to get the top end (high frequencies) right. A head- to-head comparison between the two versions gives the HM901S a slight but noticeable sonic advantage: the somewhat more silky-sounding treble registers. The overall audio character is big, warm and generous with lots of depth - all courtesy of the superb DACs on board. 

In addition, while we often talk of the headphone amp capabilities of portable players - many of them can struggle with high-impedance audiophile-grade headphones. Not this Hifiman, it’s loud and proud, and a very special feature of this unit is also its upgradable amp circuitry. Just like inserting a simcard within a smartphone, you get various ‘amp card’ options, which may suit the impedance or character of different headphone brands or models. Another interesting addition is the second mini-jack out offering a balanced connection (again check our explainer below). The 1/8" jack also serves for connecting the HM901S to external equipment (say A/V Receiver) via a digital S/PDIF cable, in effect turning it into a high-end headphone DAC. Hifiman make a variety of incredible A/V solutions and the last hidden feature of the HM901S is its ability to dock in its dedicated station which turns is into a high-end hi-fi DAC/component. The modular approach to design makes this audio player a superb investment for any audiophile. Total win. 
See the Hifiman HM901S 
 

3. Sony NW-WM1A ($1,199)

Sony NW-WM1A BInputs: WM-PORT, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm, 4.4mm Line Out (Balanced - 4-pole TRRS plug)
Storage: 128GB (Expandable)
File Support: AAC (Non-DRM), AIFF, ALAC, DSD, FLAC, HE-AAC, Linear PCM, MP3, WMA 
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: No/Yes
What We Like: Superb sound, great battery life, decent headphone amp power, playlist capable. 
What We Don't: File search is a bit of a pain.

If there ever was a more legendary portable player than the iPod, it would certainly be the one and the only Sony Walkman. The Sony NW-WM1A is a Walkman alright, though by name only. Features, design and approach are all in line with the current trends - this impressive performer incorporates many of the company’s top audio trademark features.

The NW-WM1A (not the sexiest model name out there - something of a habit with Sony) is housed in sturdy aluminum frame, sporting some very tactile side buttons, despite the fact that all functions are accessible through its 4” touch sensitive screen. The unit offers the regular 3.5mm output connection as well as Sony’s 4.4mm standard balanced plug output. The digital tech spec is impressive, and most popular audio files are natively recognised and playable, including the highest DSD quad layer files (all will be explained below in our jargon-breaker section). This Walkman features Sony’s excellent DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) which analyzes and replaces ‘missing’ ones and zeros from lossy audio files. Although Sony are a but hush-hush about the choice of DACs, the audio quality is nothing but superb with all formats up to 384kHz. The DSEE really works, and there is a noticeable improvement in the perceived soundstage and depth even with lossy files such as MP3 or AAC. And if you did choose to load high-res files only (really easy - drag and drop) the 128GB internal memory should be enough for most people, though you could of course expand the memory with a suitable microSD card. Although we found some of the file search menu options to be a little quirky, the audio clarity is a total winner and of course let’s not forget the unit’s Bluetooth capabilities and the 33 hours (high resolution audio) playback on a single charge - longer than most. 
See the Sony NW-WM1A
 

4. Astell&Kern AK120 II ($1,199)

Astell&Kern AK120IIInputs: MicroUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm, 2.5mm Line Out (Balanced - 4-pole TRRS plug)
Storage: 128GB (Expandable)
File Support: MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: Yes/No
What We Like: Honestly, this ticks all the boxes.
What We Don't: We’re struggling to not like something. More memory might have been nice?

Another Astell&Kern here, but although AK120 II is more than three times cheaper than its flagship sibling, it is hardly cheap. For people who have finally waved goodbye to an old iPod or simply frustrated with the clunky interfaces of generic audio players, this unit might be the perfect upgrade as it is one of the best DAPs on the market.  Just like in the flagship AK380, you will see a large bevelled volume control knob on the top right side and as for remaining functions, the AK120 will feel super intuitive if you have ever used a smartphone - just tap its AMOLED LCD screen. 

Astell&Kern designs are renowned for sturdiness, and the brushed-metal enclosure does indeed feels bulletproof, but we were especially interested in the internal components at this price bracket. The dual Cirrus-Logic CS4398 audio converter chips are incorporated in the circuit to act as dual-mono DACs - each handling one half of the stereo signal. This is quite a big deal for audio quality - just like a dual CPU affects a computer’s processing power, a dual DAC chipset results in a more meticulous translation of digital file data into analog audio. The K120 can, in fact, be used as a high-quality USB DAC unit -effectively doubling as a soundcard. I planning to use it like that, you might also want to check the optional dock. It features 2.5mm balanced output (again we talk about balanced connections further below) and this out can also double as an optical connection. And if you want to beam music wirelessly? The impressive spec continues with WiFi integration and streaming and Bluetooth (4.0) wireless playback with aptX codec support.  
See the Astell&Kern AK120 II
 

5. Pioneer XDP-300R-B ($699)

Pioneer XDP-300R-BInputs: MicroUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm , 2.5mm Line Out (Balanced - 4-pole TRRS plug)
Storage: 64GB (Expandable)
File Support: MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/384kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: Yes/Yes
What We Like: Google Play app capable, WiFi/Bluetooth/aptX streaming, killer sound.
What We Don't: No issues for the price.

Pioneer’s famed audio knowhow and versatility surely help in jumping that important brand recognition queue. Falling in the mid-to-high price bracket, their XDP-300-B DAP is armed to the teeth with impressively specced hardware and this is hardly a surprise knowing the brand’s history. We can’t fail to notice a significant resemblance to the Astell&Kern AK380’s slightly offset body design. There are differences of course - and what goes under that 4.7” HD screen is mighty impressive indeed. 

For starters, this unit is very much like an Android smartphone, but without the phone function. Google Play is active and you can download and run pretty much any audio app available - streaming services, and so on. The device is primed for high-res lossless streaming services such as Tidal. Memory is not huge (for a high-res library) - only 64GB, but you do have two microSD slots here, each capable of additional 200GB. The XDP-300-B can also stream via WiFi playing music directly from your DLNA server (or from said third party streaming service apps) which is great for high-res files. Bluetooth 4.0 is also present and although this cannot beam ultra-high definition audio, the aptX codec support (we explain the term in our Buyer’s Guide) allows up-to CD quality wireless audio streaming. Wired audio quality is sublime, too. In addition to the standard 3.5mm headphone out, the XDP-300-B DAP features a second, pro-standard 2.5mm balanced output connection. 
See the Pioneer XDP-300R-B
 

6. ONKYO DP-X1A ($633)

ONKYO DP-X1AInputs: MicroUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm , 2.5mm Line Out (Balanced - 4-pole TRRS plug)
Storage: 32GB (Expandable to 432GB)
File Support: MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/384kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: Yes/Yes
What We Like: Great audio, lots of cool Onkyo smart tech.
What We Don't: X-DAP Link app which syncs your files is clunky.

Onkyo joins the ranks with the DP-X1A - a DAP nearly identical looking and specced to Pioneer’s XDP-300R-B. It again features a heavy duty shell, same size (4.7”) touchscreen and runs Android OS (5.1), granting it the same nearly unlimited Google Play app download privileges. The similarities continue with the choice of audio conversion chips - the same ESS Technology Sabre ES9018K2M DACs and Sabre 9601K amps. 

Onkyo have incorporated their unique up-sampling  tech which converts ‘regular’ CD audio (16-bit/44.1kHz) to high-res (24-bit/192kHz) and even DSD files (we explain about Direct Stream Digital files in Buyer’s Guide). Any material up to 192kHz can be handled natively and although the DP-X1A can handle even higher - up to 384kHz - those are manageable only through the microUSB-B port which doubles as a OTG digital output. Audio quality here is very similar to our previous pick (the Pioneer’s XDP-300R-B) on account of the same converters used. WiFi, Bluetooth and aptX (high-res Bluetooth streaming) are all present, but if you happen to own other wireless Onkyo devices, the Onkyo Remote App allows for peer-to-peer streaming and remote control of playback and features. Our only slight complaint would be about the file syncing, which uses Onkyo’s X-DAP Link app, which feels quite clunky.  
See the ONKYO DP-X1A
 

7. FiiO X7 ($479)

FiiO X7Inputs: MicroUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm headphone jack, 3.5mm/1/8" Line Out/Coaxial Digital, (2.5mm Balanced TRRS - on AM3 module only)
Storage: 32GB (Expandable to 128GB)
File Support: MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: Yes/Yes
What We Like: The audio conversion is one of the best for the price, we like the headphone amp module/dock options.
What We Don't: Fairly short battery power, mini-jack input slot could have had a better fit, more memory would have been nice.

FiiO have had their X series audio players out for a while now - the X7 is the latest and most advanced to date. We have featured some of their standalone DACs in our ‘Best of’ series and their expertise in this field is evident in the choice of audio chip featured in the FiiO X7 - one of the newest and arguably best (for the money) ESS ES9018S. The improvement over the ES9018K2M (featured in both of the previous picks by Pioneer and Onkyo) is apparently substantial - according to FiiO - and this extra ‘hungry’ chip apparently explains the somewhat shorter battery life (8.5 hours).

We have to admit that the X7 sounds sublime, with the crucial mid frequencies displaying a to-die-for clarity. Of course, audio results depend on so many other factors than just a DAC chip and one very interesting part of the X7 design concept is the modular approach to headphone amplification. The unit comes with a detachable bottom, which allows for different amp modules (four at the time of writing) to be chosen. Each of them feature slightly different spec (impedance, frequency response and even physical connections) and the great thing is that you could purchase the X7 without a module, meaning that you can add your preferred choice later, and that of course includes the K5 Dock which allows for turning the player into a mighty USB DAC. All lossy and lossless files are supported and of course wireless streaming is also supported. Pity, however, about the small hard drive - 32GB (expandable to 128GB) - but other than that, this is what seriously grown-up audio should sound like. 
See the FiiO X7
 

8. Pono Music ($399)

Pono MusicInputs: MicroUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 2 x 3.5mm (Second out doubles as Headphone/Line Out)
Storage: 64GB (Expandable)
File Support: MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, WMA
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: No/No
What We Like: Quirky design, superb audio quality, twin headphone out.
What We Don't: Playlists/search/sync functions a bit messy, no wireless options, dated screen, runs on the hot side after prolonged use, limited storage.

Pono is the child of a multi-million dollar crowd-funding campaign spearheaded by none other than guitar-wilding legend Neil Young. Pono Music was designed as a complete experience - a great high resolution music player backed up by a huge library of lossless FLAC catalog ( Music Vault). You know, sort of like a less corporate iPod/iTunes experience. It’s a great idea with a great patron behind it, but whether it’s that novel, that’s another story. 

Holding the Toblerone-shaped Pono player itself feels great to the touch - it’s got quite a tactile feel, and although bulky, it isn’t huge so the shape actually gets in the way. The inclusion of two headphone outputs is a neat touch, and the second can be switched to a Line Out mode in case you want to run it into an A/V receiver or an amp. We were impressed with the headphone amp on board, which managed to feed high-impedance cans (up to 300 ohms) with ease. It is a bit of a pity that there is no wireless streaming options, but the design team stress that Pono is all about the audio quality. Which is impressive - it manages to challenge some far more expensive DAPs and all due to the Sabre ES9018S DAC and the custom Ayre-designed headphone amp circuit. We found the process of syncing files from Music Vault a bit clunky but it’s fair to say that the whole package is still in a state of flux - as it is evident at Pono Music’s website (at the time of writing). Overall, this is a great sounding DAP, but still quite a lot of attention is needed in the finer details - especially from a user experience perspective.  
See the Pono Music
 

9. iBasso DX90 ($369)

iBasso DX90Inputs: MicroUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm/1/8" Headphone, 3.5mm/1/8" Line Out/Coaxial Digital
Storage: 8GB (Expandable to 2TB)
File Support: APE, FLAC, WAV, WMA, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, OGG, MP3
DSD: Yes 
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: No/No
What We Like: Great value for money.
What We Don't: You need to splash out on SD cards - only 8GB memory.

iBasso is a well known brand, and the DX90’s popularity is built entirely on its audio performance and fairly affordable price. A testimony to that fact is the army of audiophiles who have chosen the iBasso over other more wallet-busting choices on the market! Again, similarly to the Pono, there are hardly any bells and whistles here, but the overall theme focuses on quality components combined with a bit of a barebones approach. With an internal memory of only 8GB, it’s obvious that upgrades will be needed, but at least it’s good to know that any sized microSD card will be accepted - up to 2TB in fact. 

Obviously, limiting storage has helped iBasso to keep the unit within a more affordable price bracket. The rest of the spec is impressive though - the very same dual ESS Sabre ES9018K2M DACs featured in the twice more expensive Pioneer above - appear here, and the headphone amp chipsets are of equal pedigree (Dual Soundplus OPAMP OPA1611 with dual high current output buffer BUF634 (by Texas Instrument). All that, plus the inclusion of dual outputs (the second one featuring a hybrid Line Out/Coaxial Digital port) already make this into a formidable spec and the audio performance doesn’t disappoint. Most files up to 192kHz will be played natively - as expected and that includes DSD Audio. It is a bit of pity that when used as a USB DAC, the iBasso limits itself at 16-bit/44.1kHz (this is at the time of writing). Despite its lack of wireless (and other fancy) features, the iBasso DX90 is probably one of the hardest hitters as far as audio quality vs price goes. Highly recommended. 
See the iBasso DX90
 

10. Cowon M2 ($153)

Cowon M2Inputs: MicroUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm/1/8", built-in speaker
Storage: 16GB (Expandable to 48GB)
File Support: MP3/2, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA, AVI, WMV, ASF
DSD: No 
Max Sampling Rate: 16-bit/48kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: No/No
What We Like: One-stop travel entertainment, ninety hours of playback!
What We Don't: Audio quality is good but hardly audiophile.

Cowon make some stupendously-specced DAPs, like the Plenue PM2 for instance, which would certainly land a place way high on this list. We think the best, and certainly the most versatile and affordable, one on their product roster is this: the M2. 

If we say that this is a pure DAP, we would be lying. This is more of a PMP (portable multimedia player), focusing its attentions on wider range of file recognition and playability (including video, image and even text files) than audiophile quality per se. It still sounds mighty fine, with the ability to play 48kHz FLAC files, CD quality audio (44.1kHz) as well as ordinary MP3s. This is quite a like a smartphone, in fact, but again, without the call/text functions. There are no wireless options, but instead you get a wealth of features, such as voice recorder (yep, there’s a built-in mic), FM radio, movie playback, BBE effects (equalizer, reverb, surround and bass processor) with tons of presets and tweakability. And best of all, the M2 lasts up to 90 hours on a single charge - a perfect player for the frequent flyer/traveler.
See the Cowon M2
 

11. SHIKU P3000 ($60)

SHIKU MP3 PlayerInputs: MicroUSB port
Outputs: 3.5mm/1/8" 
Storage: 16GB 
File Support: DSF/DFF/MP3/WMA/WAV/APE/FLAC/AAC/OGG/AIFF
DSD: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: No/No
What We Like: Unbelievable spec for the money.
What We Don't: Nothing for the price.

The Shiku P3000 is impressive. Yeah, we know, it is a budget affair, but with 24 months warranty, who cares? This thing will play any high-res audio file - even up to DSD128. Which is shocking for the $60 price tag. Everything has been thought of here and the unit even manages to look expensive with its sturdy CNC-machined aluminum frame. Its lack of a touch-sensitive screen puts it firmly in old-school territory, but at least the physical controls and buttons are solid and functional. 

The menu interface is simple and easy and we just wish there was more hard drive space - 16GB isn’t that much if you are planning to play DSD audio files. It is fair to expect that although the DAC (Actions' ATJ2167) can handle up to 192kHz of audio conversion, it is still a budget chipset - the audio is capable and more than satisfactory, if a little mellow in the detail department. For sports, travelling or just enjoying high definition music with a great pair of cans, the Shiku is just the business. 
See the SHIKU P3000
 

12. SanDisk Clip Sport ($34)

SanDisk Clip SportInputs: MicroUSB port, microSD slot
Outputs: 3.5mm
Storage: 8GB (Expandable)
File Support: MP3, WMA (NO DRM), AAC, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, FLAC, and Audible (DRM only)
DSD: No
Max Sampling Rate: 16-bit/48kHz
WiFi / Bluetooth: No/No
What We Like: Easy to use, portable, decent-sounding.
What We Don't: Nothing to dislike, as long as you don’t expect high-res audio.

Several years after its release, the SanDisk Sport remains a hugely popular MP3 player. Designed as a jogging audio player, it is probably a bit more than that, as it plays a multitude of lossless files as well - no proper high-resolution here, but at least FLACs and WAVs are managed with ease. Sound quality and battery life are decent - on a par with most legacy iPods, and we should really ignore the somewhat pixelated display and remember the Clip Sport’s low cost. 

File transfer is super easy, and the 8gb memory would be enough for several albums of CD or FLAC quality and of course it’s all expandable with an (optional) microSD card. Great for audiobooks, the Sport also features FM radio, and the only question here really is about sturdiness and longevity - but that is always the case with low budgets. 
See the SanDisk Clip Sport
 

Specs Table:

We haven't included inputs, outputs or accepted file types as here, as each player has a long list! Check the entry for each one our list for those stats.

DAP Price DSD Storage WiFi/B'Tooth Max Sampling
Astell&Kern AK380 $4,399 Yes 256GB (Exp. to 512GB) Yes/Yes 32-bit/384kHz
Hifiman HM901S $1,499 Yes 256GB (Expandable) No/No 24-bit/192kHz
Sony NW-WM1A $1,199 Yes 128GB (Expandable) No/Yes 32-bit/384kHz
Astell&Kern AK120 II $1,199 Yes 128GB (Expandable) Yes/No 24-bit/192kHz
Pioneer XDP-300R-B $699 Yes 64GB (Expandable) Yes/Yes 24-bit/384kHz
ONKYO DP-X1A $633 Yes 32GB (Exp. to 432GB) Yes/Yes 24-bit/384kHz
FiiO X7 $479 Yes 32GB (Exp. to 128GB) Yes/Yes 32-bit/384kHz
Pono Music $399 Yes 64GB (Expandable) No/No 24-bit/192kHz
iBasso DX90 $369 Yes 8GB (Exp. to 2TB) No/No 24-bit/192kHz
Cowon M2 $153 No 16GB (Exp. to 48GB) No/No 16-bit/48kHz
SHIKU P3000 $60 Yes 16GB No/No 24-bit/192kHz
SanDisk Clip Sport $34 No 8GB (Expandable) No/No 16-bit/48kHz

Hifiman HM901S | Alexlux

Buying Advice:

What Is A DAP?

Digital Audio Players (or DAPs) are a bit like MP3 players...but to call them just that would be a massive understatement. They certainly can play MP3s (or any other low-res / lossy file format), but their ability to play full resolution digital audio, and we mean way higher than CD quality audio, is their special trick. You’ll also see them called high-res (high resolution) audio players, portable media players (PMP), and even multi-media players (MMP), though we need to point that the last one would be incorrect - DAPs don’t dabble with video files. Audio with capital A is the name of the game. 

Either way, if, like us, you want to call them MP3 players…we won’t tell anyone.

Astell&Kern AK380 | Astell&Kern

What Do They Do Differently To Smartphones?

First and foremost is their ability to recognise and play any high-resolution audio file format. High definition audio files can take huge amounts of hard drive space compared to MP3s, and based on that, the next feature is just a necessity: DAPs feature an increased storage capacity (normally starting at 128 gigabytes and going up to half a terabyte). 

Secondly, professional-grade balanced analog connections are more or less standard, and many models also feature a selection of digital ports as well. But possibly the biggest factor for the often mastering-grade (think sublime) audio quality is the choice of internal DACs (Digital to Analog Converter) chipsets, which we’ll discuss below.
 

Audio Conversion Explained

The quality of audio playback depends almost entirely on the quality of the DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Conversion) chipset. Their quality often determines why some DAPs are so much more expensive…

Higher-resolution files do sound better than lower ones (and much better than compressed ones), and the processing power of the DAC chip determines such audio characteristics as transient clarity, harmonics, depth, stereo width and more. The difference between, say, a $50 converter and a $500 will be as clear as night and day - even to untrained ears. The great thing about great DA converters is that your amazing speakers and headphones will sound even more amazing.

We recently ran a massive comparison of the best USB/Standalone DACs of this year and we explain the importance of digital audio conversion in detail. There is in fact a close relation. DAPs are like standalone DACs, but with added hard drive memory and playback menu - so much so that in many cases, when connected to a computer, DAPs can bypass most of their functions and just stream super high-quality audio, ’replacing’ your machine’s sound card and effectively becoming...USB DACs. Ta da!

Hifiman HM901S | Alexlux

What File Types Can I Play?

As already mentioned, high-resolution Digital Audio Players feel at home with pretty much any audio format - MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, AIFF, Pirate Ninja, APE, WMA, DFF, DSF. One of those may be made up. 

Not only are all of these handled natively (without the need of conversion) but each of them can be encoded at different bitrates. Audio bitrate quality is quite like megapixels in digital cameras - the higher the pixel count in an image, the higher the detail. 

The ability of DAPs to play super-high bitrates is also directly linked to the above mentioned DAC chipsets, and we do quote the highest possible values - in many cases those can be as high as 384kHz, which is eight times the density of a CD uncompressed audio (44.1kHz). Audio encoding keeps evolving though and you’ll often see the term DSD Audio, which has of recent become the benchmark for high definition sound.

What is DSD Audio? We’ve got a full explainer here, but if you’d like a TL;DR:

DSD file playability has become a criteria for a DAC’s quality - mainly for audiophiles with extremely high-resolution libraries. It’s definitely not something you have to use if you buy a DAC, but it sure is nice to have. DSD stands for Direct Stream Digital, and is an audio protocol also known as 1-bit SACD bitstream - a file associated with Super Audio CDs. 

DSD files come in several ‘resolution densities’ and the highest resolution currently used commercially is the DSD256 (Quad-DSD), which samples audio of rates up to 11.2 MHz, which is four times the SACD rate. If this leaves you scratching your head, let’s say that the 256 number stands for 256 times the audio quality of a regular CD. Try that and you’re in for a wild ride. 
 

Balanced Output Connections Explained

Let’s talk balanced vs unbalanced connections - quite important, actually. 

Balanced and unbalanced connections are often referred to as pro and semi-pro respectively. Using a balanced output may have a dramatic (positive) effect on audio performance, and it’s important to mention that the balanced circuitry takes place after the point of conversion from digital to analog audio. 

In short, the effect of using balanced connections is to provide a better signal-to-noise ratio. The slightly theory-heavy explanation is that balanced outputs offer an impedance-balancing (between the individual wires) effect on the connected cable, resulting in a better transference of the audio signal. 

Better than what you might ask? Well, unbalanced outs, naturally. In the real world, spaces with lots of wiring and/or light dimmers (commercial buildings, offices etc) are notorious for affecting unbalanced connections, causing ground loops and hums to audio equipment. This is really when balanced outputs can come handy and act as effective hum-destroyers, as we discussed in our breakdown of the 10 Most Common Home Theater Problems.

Balanced connections found on portable audio equipment require the so called 4-point plugs TRRS jacks (Tip, Ring, Ring, Sleeve). They have the same shape as regular small headphone jacks (3.5mm), but are either slightly smaller (2.5mm) or in very few instances slightly larger (4.4mm).

Hifiman HM901S | Alexlux

The Most Common Connections Found In DAPs

Connection What It Does
Stereo mini-jack (1/8" / 3.5mm) Headphone out, Analog The most common mini-jack connection as found on smartphones, laptops etc.
Stereo mini-jack 2.5mm (Balanced, with a 4-point, TRRS). Line out, Analog A jack that is smaller/thinner than regular headphone jack, featuring tip/ring/ring/sleeve ending, or a 4-point connection on its end. On very rare occasions you may see two 2.5mm balanced outs - splitting the stereo feed into two mono feeds: left (L) and right (R).
Stereo mini-jack 4.4mm (Balanced, with a 4-point, TRRS). Line out, Analog Commonly found on Sony products with balanced outputs. A jack slightly larger than regular headphone jack, featuring tip/ring/ring/sleeve ending, or a 4-point connection on its end.
Optical (3.5mm), Digital Same as above but with an ending of the same size as a minijack (3.5mm) but a carrying a stereo digital audio (as found on some Mac computers).
USB (micro B, mini, c-type) USB connections are the most common way of linking an external DAC to a computer. Depending on the size of the interface, different types of USB plugs may be present.
USB (micro B) OTG (on-the-go) Digital Protocol These are regular USB connections which can link a DAP to an external DAC. This would of course be an unit which features even higher resolution DACs!  

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