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Remember the very first iPod from seventeen years ago? No? Damn, we're old. Anyway, it sold around three hundred and sixty million units. 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. For more background information on digital audio players, see our comparison tables and buying advice below the picks.
 

Best Overall DAP

1. FiiO M9 ($300)

FiiO M9Storage: 2GB (Expandable to 512GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/192kHz
File Types: DSD, OGG, APE (Multiple), ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, WMA Lossless, AAC, MP3, WMA
What We Like: Adds Wi-Fi streaming and higher file sizes to an already amazing product line.
What We Don't: Max sample rate rate is a little low.

The top spot on this list was previously held by the FiiO M7, and we think the company's new M9 player deserves to retain it. The FiiO M9 takes everything we loved about the original – the great price, the solid sound, the excellent operating system – and adds a few crucial wrinkles. The biggest addition is Wi-Fi streaming. You can install third-party apps, like Tidal and Spotify, which is a feature that few DAPs offer. The sound has been fine tuned, with a higher bit depth of 32-bit (the M7 is 24-bit). Even the design has been reworked – say what you like about the M7, but its form factor was slightly awkward. FiiO have fixed this in the M9. The housing is great, and the touchscreen and operating system are a dream.

There's so little to dislike about the M9 that we genuinely don't think competition comes close. Unless you're an exceptionally demanding listener, requiring four figures worth of DAP to do the job, then this will satisfy all your needs. It's the absolute best DAP for most people. Yes, you will definitely see improvements in overall sound quality with models like the Astell&Kern A&futura SE100 or the Questyle QP2R, but the FiiO M9 gets so much right for such a good price. We couldn't put anything else in the top spot.
See the FiiO M9
 

A Close Second (And $129 More)

2. Shanling M5S ($429)

Shanling M5sStorage: None (Exp. to 2TB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/768kHz
File Types: DSD, DFF, ISO, DXD, APE, FLAC, WAV, AIF, AIFF, DTS, MP3, WMA, ACC, OGG, ALAC, MP2, M4C, AC3, M3U, M3U8
What We Like: Excellent sound for the price, huge range of file handling.
What We Don't: Built-in EQ isn't amazing, not a quantum leap from the original M5.

Shanling have been one of the biggest audio surprises in the past few years. Their M5S player keeps them at the top of our list. It's an improvement on the original M5 – albeit not a massive one – that switches up the design and boosts the sound quality. The original M5 can only handle 192kHz, whereas the M5S supports up to 768kHz files. We think the FiiO M9 offers far more value, but the M5S is an easy second place. Its excellent operating system and robust, punchy sound quality give it a spot above the rest.

This DAP is definitely not perfect. We aren't big fans of the built-in EQ, which feels clunky and unnecessary. The product itself also feels just a touch expensive for what you get. However, neither of those points cause too many problems. The M5S is an excellent alternative to the M9, and one that anybody who enjoys large, detail-rich audio files should consider. Compared to other similar models in this price range, like the HiBy R6, the Shanling M5S is the clear choice.
See the Shanling M5S
 

Best Budget DAP

3. Hidizs AP80 ($150)

HIDIZS AP80Storage: None (Exp. to 1TB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/348kHz
File Types: DSD, FLAC, APE, WMA, WAV, ALAC, DSF, DFF
What We Like: Incredible value for what you get.
What We Don't: Sensitive headphones can be a little noisy with this DAP.

The Hidizs AP80 is, without a doubt, the best budget DAP available. Nothing else even comes close. For just $150, the AP80 supports a wide range of files types, up to 32-bit/348kHz - the top-rated FiiO M9 only supports up to 192kHz - and an excellent operating system. While the FiiO M9 is a better overall pick, and the Shanling M5S offers improved sound, the Hidizs AP80 is a genuine winner at this price point. It's an improvement on the original AP60, and although it isn't a complete overhaul, it definitely ticks the right boxes. We were tempted to put the cute little Shanling M0 here, but in a world where the AP80 exists, we know exactly which one we pick.

That being said, you should probably reconsider the AP80 if you have sensitive headphones or IEMs – we picked up some noise in our testing that feels like a hangover from the AP60. Regardless of this issue, we had tremendous fun with this little beauty. If you're in the market for a budget DAP, we'd strongly recommend checking this one out. It's damn good.
See the Hidizs AP80
 

Best High-End DAP

4. Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP1000M ($2,399)

Astell & Kern A&Ultima SP1000M Storage: 128GB (Expandable to 400GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
File Types: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF
What We Like: An outstanding upgrade on a landmark product for a much cheaper price.
What We Don't: Price may put some people off.

Ignore the name, which looks like HTML gone wrong. The SP1000M - A&K's upgrade on the SP1000 – not only drops the price, but manages to completely revamp the system. This ultra high-end player adds in support for streaming services, a new user interface, USB-C functionality, and a whole lot more. The original SP1000 costs well over $3,000, and A&K clearly decided that it was a little bit overkill. That's a decision we welcome.

It sounds just as good as the previous model, too. One of the main reasons for the SP1000M's impressive audio quality: the dual AKM AK4497EQ DACs (Digital to Analog Converters) which are upgraded from the AK380's chipset. And yes, there are two of them - each one handling one side of the stereo signal. DACs are the hardware chipsets that convert digital file data into actual audio. The quality of the hardware is directly linked to audio quality, dynamic range, soundstage and perceived width and depth of the sound. If you can afford the best, the SP1000M is the one.
See the Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP1000M


Best DAP for Tidal

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

Pioneer XDP-300R-BStorage: 32GB (Expandable to 400GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/384kHz
File Types: DSD, MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
What We Like: Capable of streaming Tidal and Google Play, reasonably-priced.
What We Don't: Feels very slightly clunky to use.

Pioneer's famed audio knowhow and versatility surely help in jumping that important brand recognition queue. Their XDP-300-B DAP is armed to the teeth with impressively specced hardware. We can't fail to notice a significant resemblance to the Astell&Kern A&futura SE100's body design. There are differences of course - and what goes under that 4.7" HD screen is mighty impressive indeed. In particular, it manages to excel when streaming from the high-resolution audio service Tidal – the player is specifically designed for it, and its MQA audio format.

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 Wi-Fi 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
 

Best of the Rest

6. Cowon Plenue D2 ($320)

COWON Plenue D2Storage: 64GB (Exp. to 192GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
File Types: DSD, FLAC, APE, WMA, WAV, ALAC, DSF, SACD, MP3, OGG, AAC, AIFF
What We Like: Excellent sound, superb EQ options.
What We Don't: No wireless options, awkward size.

We think there's a strong argument to be made that the Cowon Plenue D2 has better audio quality than the FiiO M9, the Shanling M5S, or even the Cayin N5iiS. It's a dual DAC machine, with crystal clear sound and a fantastic range of in-depth EQ options, thanks to the built-in JetEffect 5 and BBE+ software. It also boasts a superb battery life, at around 40 hours played at a moderate volume. No matter which way you slice it, the D2 - an update on the original Plenue D – is a top ten DAP.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite squeak into the top five, for a couple of reasons. The first is the utter lack of wireless options, which is awkward in a price range containing models like the cheaper FiiO M9, which let you stream through either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. We also aren't wild about the size – it's a small player, but it feels a strange to hold in the hand. As good as the sound is, we think there are better players available. If you want superb audio quality at an affordable price, the Cowon Plenue D2 is the model to go for. But it still doesn't beat out the Hidizs AP80 for the Best Budget spot.
See the Cowon Plenue D2
 

7. HiBy R6 ($499)

HiBy R6Storage: 32GB (Exp. to 2TB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
File Types: DSD, DXD, APE, ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, WMA, MP3, AAC OGG
What We Like: Excellent design and operating system.
What We Don't: Sound may be too dark for some, laggy Wi-Fi connectivity.

Like the Cowon Plenue D2, the HiBy R6 just misses out on a top five spot. Because, like the Cowon, the HiBy R6 is an outstanding player with just a few issues that leave it shy of a must-buy. We'll highlight the good parts first: the R6 has an Android operating system that is an absolute breeze to use, and the outer housing feels suitably weighty in the hand, with solid physical controls. It supports a decent range of file types and sizes for the price, and its expandable 2TB storage easily beats other models, like the FiiO M9.

However, we had a few issues with the sound. We loved the bass, but the treble felt a little dark for us. We never really got the sense of clarity from the high-end, and it lacked bite. We also had some issues with the Wi-Fi, particularly when using Tidal. We found that there was significant lag between changing songs, which was frustrating for testing and general listening. The R6 might be a very good player, but with issues like this, it doesn't beat some of the monsters on our list. The company itself has many fans – quite rabid ones, judging by some of the emails we've received in the past – but it has a way to go to reach perfection. On that note: watch this space for our thoughts on the upcoming R6 Pro...
See the HiBy R6
 

8. Cayin N5iiS ($499)

Cayin N5iiSStorage: 64GB (Expandable to 800GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
File Types: ALAC, AAC, OGG, APE, MP3, FLAC, WAV, SACD ISO, DSD, DSF, AIFF, WMA, WMA Lossless
What We Like: Enormous storage capacity
What We Don't: Doesn't do anything particularly special.

The sub-$500 category has plenty of winners – we've already mentioned a few of them. The Cayin N5iiS isn't as good as the models above it, but it's still solid. One of its big selling features is its twin 400GB SD card slots, giving you an absolutely enormous 800GB memory – 864GB, if you count the internal storage. That's great to have, and it makes this player ideal for those with a large library, but we're not sure it justifies the cost, which is nearly $200 more than the amazing FiiO M9. Sure, you sacrifice storage with that model, but the sound quality is almost as good.

We don't mean to sell it short. It's an excellent player in its own right – it just fails by comparison. In a crowded market, Cayin are going to have to put in a little bit more effort and ingenuity in order to win listeners over. For now, this is a decent DAP that could use a little tinkering to make it truly special.
See the Cayin N5iiS
 

9. FiiO X7 Mark II ($800)

FiiO X7 Mark IIStorage: 64GB (Expandable to 512GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
File Types: DSD, MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
What We Like: Audio conversion, headphone amp module/dock options, Wi-Fi / Bluetooth streaming.
What We Don't: Fairly short battery power, mini-jack input slot could have had a better fit, more memory needed.

The X7 Mark II features one of the best DAC chips (for the money) in the ESS ES9028PRO. It replaces the Mark I's ESS ES9018S which was no slouch either. The X7 Mark II sounds sublime, especially in the mid frequencies. The Mark I's fairly small storage has also now been bumped up to 64GB (expandable to 576GB) in the Mark II. It's all about the sound though - and this is what seriously grown-up audio should sound like.

Of course, audio results depend on so many other factors and one very interesting part of the X7 (Mark I and Mark II) design is its modular approach to headphone amplification. The unit comes with the AM3A amp, which can then be swapped out - similar to the Q5 headphone amp - and each module features slightly different impedances, frequency responses and even physical connections. That of course includes the K5 Dock which allows for turning the player into a mighty USB DAC.
See the FiiO X7 Mark II
 

10. iBasso DX120 ($320)

iBasso Dx120Storage: None (Expandable to 2TB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
File Types: ALAC, AAC, OGG, APE, MP3, FLAC, WAV, SACD ISO, DSD, DSF, AIFF, WMA, WMA Lossless
What We Like: Excellent interface which feels light and responsive.
What We Don't: No Bluetooth.

iBasso don't make a lot of noise in the United States. Perhaps they should: the company makes some excellent DAPs, including the iBasso DX120 - an update on the DX90 that completely revamped the interface. The new Mango OS is based on Linux, and it's one of the finest interfaces we've ever played with, easily comparable to the FiiO M9's. In addition, iBasso deliver excellent sound quality for the price; while we think the FiiO X7 Mark II sounds a little better, it's also more expensive. For the money you pay, you get an awful lot here.

Unfortunately, one of the things you don't get is Bluetooth functionality. We'll be honest: there is absolutely no reason for this feature to be excluded - especially now, when the technology has become so popular. Some listeners may value wires for the audio quality, but wireless audio has improved in leaps and bounds, and it's a real pity not to see it here. All the same, the DX120 is an excellent alternative to our top models.
See the iBasso DX120


11. Questyle QP2R ($2,700)

Questyle High-Res DAPStorage: 256GB (Expandable to 512GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
File Types: DSD, MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, OGG, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA, DFF, DSF
What We Like: Incredible spec sheet, and it’s great alternative to the known top brands.
What We Don't: Doesn’t quite have the finesse of the Astell&Kern.

Founded in Shenzhen, China in 2012, Questyle have already amassed quite a few industry awards and conquered the difficult Japanese audio-visual market. The QP2R is the follow up to Questyle's high-end QP1R DAP player, and all we can say is: wow. Literally every important aspect of what makes a great DAP has been taken into account: the ability to play any audio file, including 384kHz PCMs and DSD256 natively, heavyweight audio performance courtesy of the AKM AK 4490 conversion chips, and one of the lowest noise floor / distortion figures on this list. We have to admit that Questyle's insistence on comparing the QP2R to a sports car can be a bit annoying, but what the hell: let them be proud with their achievement. It is deserved.

Interestingly, the QP2R internal operating system is based on RedHat's Linux open platform, arguably offering a more stable and crash-free experience than the Android OS on the Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP1000M. One thing this player does do that the A&K one does not is impedance-match headphones, meaning you can use just about any pair you like. Questyle still need a bit more mileage to catch up with Astell&Kern - but their bleeding-edge tech here certainly has all of our attention.
See the Questyle QP2R
 

12. Lotoo PAW Gold Touch ($3,888)

Lotoo PAW Gold TouchStorage: None (Expandable to 2TB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/768kHz
File Types: DSD, DFF, DSF, WAV, FLAC, APE OGG, M4A, AAC, MP3
What We Like: Excellent interface which feels light and responsive.
What We Don't: Only the truly rich need apply.

Lotoo is another name from China - a branch of the massive Infomedia company specializing in broadcast and audio recording equipment. Lotoo have already made a few splashes in the DAP world, and the PAW Gold Touch is their latest flagship. Portable DAPs above $2K are a ferociously competitive club; to deal with the pressure, the new PAW Gold Touch comes equipped with a PCM1792 DAC chip, LME49600 headphone amplifier and a dedicated Blackfin 514 DSP processor chip, responsible for running the DAP's operating system as well as all other aspects of digital processing. Very solid!

Build quality is what you'd expect for the price: super solid, perfectly sized and made from machined duralumin, with certain buttons and the alpha wheel covered in 24-karat gold. We really like the choice of sapphire glass (the third toughest natural material) which guarantees scratch-, smash- and worry-free longevity and protection. We were very impressed with this DAP - the carefully selected components and design result in a sum greater than its parts.
See the Lotoo PAW Gold Touch
 

13. Astell&Kern A&futura SE100 ($1,699)

Astell&Kern A&futura SE100Storage: 128GB (Exp. to 400GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/348kHz
File Types: DSD, FLAC, APE, WMA, WAV, ALAC, DSF, DFF, MP3, OGG, AAC, AIFF
What We Like: Significant improvement on previous model.
What We Don't: Low storage compared to other DAPs.

The Astell&Kern A&futura SE100 is a direct upgrade from the old AK380 - it may have had a more sensible name but was getting a little bit long in the tooth. And it's a serious upgrade, too. You get a bigger touchscreen, an improved ESS Sabre DAC, and tweaks to the distortion levels, which were already pretty microscopic to begin with. To put it simply, this is the AK380 on crack - a better, faster model that offers scintillating sound. It doesn't quite beat the more powerful A&Ultima SP1000M, which costs around $800 more, but it's one of the better models in its price range.

The SE100 does have its issues, however. Chief among these is the low storage space. Admittedly, 128GB is pretty solid, and in line with other DAPs in this price range. The problem is the expansion. You can expand the SE100's memory to 400GB through the SD card slot. But considering that the much cheaper FiiO M9 allows you to expand to 500GB, and the Shanling M5S up to 2TB, that's not exactly a huge amount. And while the SE100 does have Wi-Fi, there's no option to add streaming services, which is a bit of a black mark. It's an excellent DAP, and a great upgrade, but it does have enough drawbacks to keep it from our top 10.
See the Astell&Kern A&futura SE100


14. OPUS#2 ($1,899)

OPUS#2Storage: 128GB (Expandable up to 200GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
File Types: DSD, MP3, FLAC, WAV, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA, DFF, DSF
What We Like: Fabulous sound and build.
What We Don't: Would really benefit from bigger storage capacity.

DAP prices can be mind-boggling. But if you care about great audio, this OPUS#2 deserves your attention. Its aluminum body houses some serious processing power and the all-important audio spec features a 32-bit/384kHz capable dual Cirrus Logic SABRE32 conversion, native DSD playback, quad-core ARM Cortex CPU chipset, SPDIF out, and last but not least, balanced connections compatible with the Opus' own line of balanced 2.5'' TRRS cables (check our explainer below the picks).

This DAP's audio signature is very open, and in our opinion would easily win in double-blind listening tests over, say, the FiiO player, below. We really liked the controlled, punchy low end, as well as the super detailed mids (especially on vocals and distorted guitars). DAP hard drive storage is important for performance and glitch-free playback; the internal 128GB capacity here is an OK start, though we really expected external storage expansion to be more than the quoted 128GB (to find out why we insist on why storage space is so important, check our Buying Advice below these picks). This DAP might seem expensive, but in our opinion the OPUS#2 represents a bit of a bargain.
See the OPUS#2
 

15. ONKYO DP-X1A ($540)

ONKYO DP-X1AStorage: 64GB (Expandable to 576GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/384kHz
File Types: DSDMP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
What We Like: Great audio, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality.
What We Don't: X-DAP Link app is clunky.

Onkyo joins the ranks with the DP-X1A - a DAP nearly identical looking and specced to Pioneer's XDP-300R-B, above. It 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. 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. Wi-Fi, 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 clunky X-DAP Link app.
See the ONKYO DP-X1A
 

16. AGPTEK H3 ($140)

AGPTEK H3Storage: 32GB
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/192Hz
File Types: ALAC, AIFF, WMA, FLAC, MP3, WAVE, DSD 64, DSD 128, DFF, DSF, ISO, APE, OGG, M4A, AAC, CUE
What We Like: Good DAC, audio performance, two-way Bluetooth streaming.
What We Don't: Nothing for the price.

The AGPTEK H3 is another seriously-specced player (for this budget), commanding an impressive digital-to-analog audio conversion (up to 32-bit/192Hz for PCM files as well as DSD128 file playback). This is, of course, due to its high-quality Texas Instruments PCM5102 DAC chip . Although its internal storage is 32GB, the full capacity goes up to 256GB when upgraded with extra memory - not a huge amount, but acceptable. What saves the day in the storage department is the mini-USB On The Go (OTG) port, which allows the AGPTEK to read and stream data off an external hard drive. The OTG port has other uses too - for instance, allowing the H3 to act as a standalone DAC/headphone amp when connected to a computer.

Featuring fast Bluetooth 4,0 which supports aptX (hi-res audio streaming), the AGPTEK DAP can stream Bluetooth audio in both directions - if you have another (Bluetooth 4.0 capable) device with hi-res audio files, it can beam the audio wirelessly to the H3, taking advantage of its high quality DAC chip - clever stuff! The H3 is built to last, too - the aluminum CNC-machined body really inspires confidence, and both the buttons and the wheel on the front feel sturdy and responsive. The 2.0 inch TFT display screen is not touch sensitive, though it's nice that the OS menu supports album cover and lyrics display. All of that goodness is not wasted by a poor battery - the unit supports up to 24 hours of music playback time via headphones. We simply love the specs, and if you can't afford the really expensive DAPs on this list, you could just grab this now - it won't let you down.
See the AGPTEK H3
 

17. SanDisk Clip Sport ($47)

SanDisk Clip SportStorage: 8GB (Expandable up to 32GB)
Max Sampling Rate: 16-bit/48kHz
File Types: MP3, WMA (NO DRM), AAC, OGG, WAV, FLAC, and Audible (DRM only)
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. Only 8GB.

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
 

New Digital Audio Players Coming Soon

At the recent CanJam New York City event, we got a chance to test the Cayin N8. It absolutely blew us away, mostly because the concept was just wild. It's the first DAP with an integrated tube, and the sound quality has to be heard to be believed. We loved how the tube revealed itself through a transparent window when it was active, and although the player is pricey - upwards of $3,000 - we think it's going to dominate this list. We would like more time with it, but we'll be sharing our initial impression soon.

It's also worth mentioning the HiBy R6 Pro, which we noted before. This forthcoming upgrade to the R6 - currently in our top ten on the list above - makes it even more beefy, with a souped up operating system and additional features. We haven't heard it yet, and we don't have a release date, but we think it'll supersede the R6 before long. Hopefully moving up the list as well, granted HiBy can fix some of the issues we had with the R6.

Another product worth mentioning - even if we don't think it will appear on this list - is the Sony DMP-Z1. Just click the link and look at the bloody thing. Does it even count as a DAP? Forget carrying it around in a pocket – you'd need a backpack or a special pouch. And before you ask, yes, such a pouch exists. We saw it at this year's CanJam NYC, where Sony was showing off this leviathan. The sound was absolutely massive - rich, textured, and dark – and we can foresee this player popping up in high-end hi-fi stores before long. The price? A mere $12,000. Yikes.
 

DAP Comparison Tables

We have two tables here - the list of file types was two long to include in a single table, so we've separated them for easy comparison.

Firstly, let's compare price, storage, sample rate and wireless connections:

DAP Price Storage Max Sampling Wi-Fi/BT
FiiO M9 $300 2GB (exp. to 512GB) 24-bit/192kHz Yes/Yes
Shanling M5S $429 None (Exp. to 2TB) 32-bit/768kHz No/Yes
Hidizs AP80 $150 None (Exp. to 1TB) 32-bit/384kHz No/Yes
Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP1000M $2,399 128GB (Exp. to 400GB) 32-bit/384kHz Yes/Yes
Pioneer XDP-300R-B $699 32GB (Exp. to 400GB) 24-bit/384kHz Yes/Yes
Cowon Plenue D2 $320 64GB (Exp. to 192GB) 24-bit/192kHz No/No
HiBy R6 $499 32GB (Exp. to 2TB) 32-bit/384kHz Yes/Yes
Cayin N5iiS $499 64GB (Exp. to 800GB) 32-bit/384kHz No/Yes
FiiO X7 Mark II $800 64GB (Exp. to 512GB) 32-bit/384kHz Yes/Yes
iBasso DX120 $320 None (Exp. to 2TB) 32-bit/384kHz No/No
Questyle QP2R $2,700 256GB (Exp. to 512GB) 32-bit/384kHz Yes/Yes
Lotoo PAW Gold Touch $3,888 None (Exp. to 2TB) 32-bit/768kHz Yes/Yes
Astell&Kern A&futura SE100 $1,699 128GB (Exp. to 400GB) 32-bit/384kHz Yes/Yes
OPUS#2 $1,899 128GB (Exp. to 200GB) 32-bit/384kHz Yes/Yes
ONKYO DP-X1A $540 64GB (Exp. to 576GB) 24-bit/384kHz Yes/Yes
AGPTEK H3 $140 32GB 32-bit/192Hz Yes/No
SanDisk Clip Sport $47 8GB (Exp. to 32GB) 16-bit/48kHz No/No

And secondly, file types:

DAP File Types Supported:
FiiO M9 DSD, OGG, APE (Multiple), ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, WMA Lossless, AAC, MP3, WMA
Shanling M5S DSD, DFF, ISO, DXD, APE, FLAC, WAV, AIF, AIFF, DTS, MP3, WMA, ACC, OGG, ALAC, MP2, M4C, AC3, M3U, M3U8
Hidizs AP80 DSD, FLAC, APE, WMA, WAV, ALAC, DSF, DFF
Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP1000M WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, DFF, DSF
Pioneer XDP-300R-B MQA, DSD, DSF, DSD-IFF, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, OGG, MP3, AAC
Cowon Plenue D2 DSD, FLAC, APE, WMA, WAV, ALAC, DSF, SACD, MP3, OGG, AAC, AIFF
Cayin N5iiS ALAC, AAC, OGG, APE, MP3, FLAC, WAV, SACD ISO, DSD, DSF, AIFF, WMA, WMA Lossless
HiBy R6 DSD, DXD, APE, ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, WMA, MP3, AAC OGG
FiiO X7 Mark II DSD, MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
iBasso DX120 ALAC, AAC, OGG, APE, MP3, FLAC, WAV, SACD ISO, DSD, DSF, AIFF, WMA, WMA Lossless
Questyle QP2R DSD, MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, OGG, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA, DFF, DSF
Lotoo PAW Gold Touch DSD, DFF, DSF, WAV, FLAC, APE OGG, M4A, AAC, MP3
Astell&Kern A&futura SE100 DSD, FLAC, APE, WMA, WAV, ALAC, DSF, DFF, MP3, OGG, AAC, AIFF
OPUS#2 DSD, MP3, FLAC, WAV, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA, DFF, DSF
ONKYO DP-X1A DSDMP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AAC, AIFF, APE, WMA
AGPTEK H3 ALAC, AIFF, WMA, FLAC, MP3, WAV, DSD 128, DFF, DSF, ISO, APE, OGG, M4A, AAC, CUE
SanDisk Clip Sport MP3, WMA (NO DRM), AAC, OGG, WAV, FLAC, and Audible (DRM only)

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SHanling M5S DAP | The Master Switch

DAP 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.

Unlike the plastic build and appearance of cheaper and older units, newer DAPs are housed in space-age chassis, and many come with touch-sensitive screens, recessed volume controls, tactile buttons, balanced outs, and last but not least, Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth wireless streaming. The circuitry inside easily justifies the often astonishing price tags - they can often cost as much as a complete audiophile home setup. Just look at something like the astonishingly-expensive Sony NW-WM1Z N, which costs upwards of $3,000. Clearly, they should be treated as serious audio hubs. Either way, if, like us, you want to call them MP3 players…we won’t tell anyone. But if you want to find out what makes DAPs so much more special, read on.
 

How We Chose our List of DAPs

Today's high-end Digital Audio Players (DAPs), as MP3 players are often called, 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, great digital-to-analog audio conversion hardware, and the ability to play high-res (way-better-than-CD-audio) files, as well as ordinary MP3s. We've used our extensive experience with DAPs to pick the best ones, and sort them into categories. Whether you want the best budget DAP, or the best one for Tidal streaming, we've got you covered. Just check the list above.

The FiiO X7, pictured here, is a great mid-range player | The Master Switch

Common DAP Features Explained

The first thing to note about DAPs is unquestioningly their stupendous audio detail - Audio with a capital A is the name of the game. There’s also their ability to recognise and play any lossy, lossless or high-resolution audio file format - we’ve dedicated a separate explainer on these file formats below, but let us just say that never before in the history of consumer audio have we had it so good. The ability to enjoy digital audio sampled at up to 384kHz in ‘standard’ PCM wav formats, plus of course, the highest order DSD files, is all present and correct.

This leads to another important DAP feature. High-definition audio files can take huge amounts of hard drive space - tens or even hundreds of times bigger than MP3s. Based on that, DAPs need a massive storage capacity. There’s quite a lot about to be said about hard drives, high-res libraries and DAP file transfers, so again, we’ve dedicated an easy explainer a bit further below.

Since many first-time DAP users comment on the incredible transient detail and increased headroom and soundstage, we need to mention the internal components responsible for those. The main proponents for audio clarity would be the internal DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) chipsets, combined with the noise/distortion-free headphone amplifiers capable of driving even the hungriest cans. In terms of connecting DAPs to line-level equipment such as A/V receivers and amps, the professional-grade balanced analog connections are a must. Even the digital ports play an important role, as they open possibilities for further expansion and sonic improvement. 


Audio Conversion Explained

The quality of playback of any digital audio player depends almost entirely on the quality of the DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Conversion) chipset. The quality of these components is proportionate to their price which in turn determines why some DAPs are so much more expensive…Higher-resolution files do sound better than lower ones (and much better than compressed (lossy) ones), and the processing power of the DAC chip determines how such audio characteristics such as transient clarity, harmonics, depth, stereo width and more, are translated from digital to analog. 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 DACs of this year, where 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!

DAP file types | The Master Switch

File Types Explained

Digital Audio Players feel at home with pretty much any audio format - MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, OGG (or 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 some cases those can be as high as 768 kHz, which is seventeen times the density of a CD uncompressed audio (44.1kHz)! Audio encoding keeps evolving 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 on audio file formats here, but if you’d like a brief explanation:

DSD file playability has become a criteria for a DAP (and DAC)’s quality - mainly for audiophiles with extremely high-resolution libraries. It’s definitely not something you have to use if you buy a DAP, 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 DSD512 (Octa-DSD), which samples audio of rates up to 22.5792 MHz, which is eight times the SACD rate. If this leaves you scratching your head, let’s say that the 512 number stands for 512 times the audio quality of a regular CD. Try that and you’re in for a wild ride.

Cayiin N8 DAP | The Master Switch

DAP Storage Explained

If you’ve never uploaded a super-high resolution (say DSD256) audio library into a top notch DAP player, you might be forgiven for thinking that, yeah, everything is pretty much like dumping your favorite iTunes albums into your iPod. While the same principles apply, you’ll see your hard drive space getting filled up fairly quickly. One minute of DSD256 audio, for example, exceeds 160mb of drive space, which means that an average album takes somewhere between 8 and 12GB. The case is very similar with hi-res PCM files - say of 24-bit/192kHz recordings. You may have noticed us ranting about ‘not enough hard drive space’ in the above picks. Well, that’s why.

Good DAPs normally ship with at least 64GB of internal hard drive space, and manufacturers quote the maximum space that one can upgrade to. This varies between half a terabyte and up to two; a great example for the latter is the $3,888 Lotoo PAW Gold Touch, which has a stunning two terabytes of storage. Other issues that we should make you aware of are things like compatibility with external memory cards; some DAPs support external storage expansions of only particular size and even type (SDHC or SDXC), so do check your manual before purchasing the wrong card. It goes without saying that due to the large-sized hi-res files, library transfers can often prove time consuming. The majority of digital audio players on the market currently use a micro USB port (2.0) which transfer data at roughly 35mb/s - which means that uploading a few favorite albums might take as long as brewing a pot of coffee and drinking it.

The DAP market has become very competitive, and thankfully, many manufacturers have started to address this issue. Newly-released models are beginning to feature USB 3.0 (up to 640mb/s transfer speed). They can even, as is the case with the $2,000-plus Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP1000M, feature SuperSpeed certified USB-C (3.1) connections, which support up to 10Gbps (1250mb/s) upload speeds. Also, USB 3.2 SuperSpeed+ is already released and effectively further doubling speeds up to 20Gbps - it is not yet implemented on any DAP to our knowledge, but as the saying goes, watch this space.  

Opus2 DAP | The Master Switch

DAP Operating Systems Explained

On a few occasions further up in this roundup, with picks such as the Questyle QP2R, we talk about their operating systems (OS). The reason for that is these are exceptions. Most DAPs employ Android OS as their operating system of choice. What is an operating system exactly you might ask? It’s the software system that lets you interact with your player, allowing you to play songs, skip tracks, connect to Bluetooth and the like, all through a dedicated interface. Everything you’re used to seeing in your smart phone. If you are an Android smart device user, you will immediately feel at home with the majority of DAPs.

In regards to the exceptions, we have noticed and flagged some library indexing anomalies with Sony’s own OS - stuff like lack of (or awkward) playlist support, and so on. We feel that many future DAP models might embrace Linux, as it is an OS famed for its glitch-free stability. It’s just worth keeping your ears perked for reviews mentioning OS bugs when shopping around - they can prove more annoying than one might think.
 

Integrating DAPs in Your Home Setup

If you happen to have an overwhelmingly-large super hi-res audio library and the current maximum storage of your digital audio player is not sufficient, then the streaming capabilities of DAPs may be something worth looking at. Although standalone installation-grade DAPs exist (and we mean the big A/V receiver sized units), handheld DAPs don’t just belong in your pocket. When connected to a computer server, they can also act as standalone DACs, streaming audio from a hard drive into your state-of-the-art amp and speakers. The process is identical to connecting an external DAC to a computer and in most cases, drivers (which are like device recognition apps if you like) are either not necessary or automatically found by the computer’s OS.  

This, again, is a good place to mention that data stream transfer speeds are crucial for smooth and uninterrupted server playback - having a USB 3.0 (or later) connection on your DAP really makes streaming a breeze. Additional factors come into play - even if your DAP might recognise every audio file in existence, your computer might not, and you might need a dedicated hi-res audio media player installed on your computer. Even then, certain files might be limited to a certain bitrate. Lastly, providing all  your digital connections are optimised, you’d need to take good care of how you connect your DAP to your A/V receiver or stereo amp. DAPs give you the utmost in audio quality - all you’ve got to do is preserve this quality by using good quality cables, and whenever possible, use balanced connections.

Astell&Kern DAP | The Master Switch

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).
 

DAP Accessories Explained

When we talk accessories, the first thoughts include protective cases, screen protector kits, and so on, which are a little more than necessary when you are enjoying your music through a few grand worth of a handheld hardware. The cool part is that many DAPs can be expanded in a modular way to fit a particular setup. A lot of additional kit is offered (by normally high-end manufacturers) - such as balanced-out kits, or specific headphone amps reserved for ‘hungry’ headphones (we mean high-impedance units of course, an explanation of which can be found here.)

We mentioned FiiO’s different amp modules which fit that bill, and Astell&Kern also offer an equivalent. Things can go a lot further than that allowing audio professionals to turn their AK300-series DAP in a fully-equipped ultra high-end field audio recorder by adding A/D (analog to digital) conversion and support for external condenser microphones and recording. Don’t be surprised if the location audio for the next Star Wars flicks is captured on such or similar devices - the audio quality on offer is nothing short of staggering.
 

Common DAP Connections

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!  

Back To Our DAP Picks Back To Our Comparison Tables

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