Yes, your smartphone is very smart indeed. But while it’s a great camera, a useful GPS, an excellent internet portal and a decent telephone, let’s face it: it’s almost certainly a rotten music player. Even if you discard the appalling headphones it came with, your phone still sounds weedy, or dull, or hazy. Sometimes, in extreme circumstances, all three.
That’s because your smartphone’s digital-to-analogue convertor, and its headphone amplifier, and all the other techy bits and pieces that go into make a great music player, are more often than not afterthoughts. They’re better than those in your laptop, true, but that’s not saying much. Which means, if you’re serious about portable listening, you leave your smartphone to do what it’s actually good at and you get a dedicated portable music player, MP3 player (or however you want to refer to it) to take care of what’s really important.
From less than £100 to getting on for £2K, from ‘make the commute more bearable’ to ‘pocket-sized high-end music system’, our six picks all have something in common. They’ll make you wonder how you ever tolerated the sound of your smartphone in the first place.
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What's the best MP3 player to buy in 2020?
The best digital music player you can buy right now is FiiO's mighty M11 Pro (£599) - it's specified without compromise, it's a pleasure to use and, most important of all, it sounds authentically excellent.
The Shanling M0 (£99) is a brilliant choice for those on a budget - change from £100 buys a tactile little pebble of entertainment, one that's capable of audio quality that can put many a smartphone to shame. It's our best budget MP3 player.
Of course, if you're deep in the Apple ecosystem then the iPod Touch (£199) is your only choice. Happily, it's a great little device with a lot of functionality and a very grown-up sound - which make it easy to recommend as our iOS choice. It's the best MP3 player under £250.
FiiO M11 Pro
WIRED Recommends: The FiiO M11 Pro makes no compromises
Storage: 64GB | Screen size: 5.2in | Battery life: 9.5 hrs
Maximum file support: 32bit/384kHz; DSD256
Dimensions (h/w/d): 13x7x2cm | Weight: 232g
FiiO has been an authentically big deal in Asia where digital audio is concerned, ever since its first products launched in 2007. It’s been making headway in the West ever since - and there’s a chance the M11 Pro (£599) could be the portable music player to turn the company from cult hero to mainstream success story around here.
At this price the M11 Pro couldn’t be described as a bargain. But everything’s relative, of course - and if you consider the FiiO’s painstaking specification, premium materials, bank-vault construction and beautifully realised interface, you might consider the asking price could be worse.
And then when you hear the M11 Pro in action, you realise it’s among the most effective and enjoyable ways of becoming £599 poorer imaginable. In sonic terms it just doesn’t put a foot wrong: its sound is hefty but deft, astonishingly detailed, completely uncluttered and absolutely wide open.
It doesn’t sacrifice momentum in order to bring all the subtleties of a recording to life, and it doesn’t overplay any area of the frequency range. There’s an almost instinctive correctness to the way the FiiO sounds than makes most of its rivals sound mechanical and laboured by comparison.
In short, then, £599 is only a lot of money if you didn’t spend it on one of these.
Pros: Thrillingly direct; expansive, informative sound; built to last
Cons: Relatively chunky dimensions
The best personal media player under £100
Storage: 0GB (up to 512GB via TF card) | Screen size: 1.5in
Battery life: 15 hrs | Maximum file support: 32bit/384kHz Dimensions (h/w/d): 4x1.5x0.5cm | Weight: 38g
There’s ‘portable’, and then there’s the Shanling M0 (£99). Despite being able to handle hi-res digital audio files, despite having a bright full-colour touch-screen and a battery that’s good for 15 hours of playback from a single charge, the M0 weighs next-to nothing and is practically the same size as an Apple Watch with a nice aluminium and glass construction.
Of course, sacrifices have to be made to bring in a hi-res music player for this kind of money, and sure enough the Shanling has no built-in memory. Any music you want it to play will have to be stored on a microSD card - the M0 can support anything up to 512GB. Other than that, though, and the fact that the touchscreen is predictably tricky to operate, there are no further concessions necessary.
Sound from the Shanling is modestly punchy, with great bass texture if not out-and-out weight. Detail levels are acceptable, and the M0 even has a decent stab at unifying all the individual elements of a recording into a whole. It could be more dynamic, certainly, and reveal a little more about the attack and decay of sounds, but put into proper context this is a very capable little device indeed.
Pros: Nice construction; quite poised, informative sound
Cons: No internal memory
Apple iPod Touch
The best sub-£250 player for iOS loyalists
Storage: 32GB | Screen size: 4in | Battery life: 40 hrs
Maximum file support: 24bit/292kHz
Dimensions (h/w/d): 12x6x1cm | Weight: 88g
Portable digital audio didn’t gain mainstream legitimacy until Apple launched its game-changing iPod back in 2001. A big part of the reason this current, 7th generation of the Touch is the only iPod you can buy, of course, is the globe-munching success of the iPhone - so it seems only fitting that the iPod Touch (£199) looks and feels so much like a tiny iPhone from back in the day. It even has a zizzy little built-in speaker and a torch.
Away from all peripherals (the 8MP camera, the numerous apps crammed on the bright 4in retina display) the iPod Touch, as a music player, is all business. It has a 3.5mm analogue headphone socket, for a start off, which gives it far wider headphone compatibility than the iPhone. And while Apple is characteristically coy about the technical specifics of the Touch, it can handle most high-res audio files without alarm.
And most importantly of all, it’s a really enjoyable listen. There’s not an awful lot of vigour to the Apple’s sound, but it’s nicely balanced and seems to get out of the way of most recordings rather than sticking its oar in. Detail levels are good, and it’s capable of meaningful volume. So if you’re all about iOS to start with, the seventh Touch is more than worthy of the iPod name.
Pros: Compact; looks and feels good; neutral audio balance
Cons: Very Apple-centric (of course); could sound livelier
The best Android player under £250
Storage: 16GB | Screen size: 3.1in | Battery life: 30 hrs
Maximum file support: 32bit/384kHz; DSD128
Dimensions (h/w/d): 10x6x1cm | Weight: 99g
Apple may think ‘20 years of iPod’ is a milestone, but Sony’s first portable music player (TPS-L2, the original Walkman) celebrated its 40th birthday last year. There’s one in every Design Museum worthy of the description.
These days, Sony uses the ‘Walkman’ sub-brand on a series of portable digital audio players - and this NW-A55 (£179), while far from the most expensive, might be the sweet-spot of the entire range. It’s a staunchly off-line player - there’s no installing your favourite streaming apps here. But it’s usefully compact, sturdy and well made, with proper hi-res audio specification and the ability to work as a DAC to give your computer’s audio an upgrade - which means it’s quite a bargain.
That’s mostly because of the sound it makes. By the standards of sub-£200 players, it’s an expansive and detailed listen, with a tonal balance that’s just the right side of ‘punchy’. There’s sufficient weight to low frequencies, enough information in the midrange to make a singer’s character explicit, and plenty of properly controlled top-end shine. It’s not afraid to tackle big dynamic variances head on, and has enough subtlety to make quiet musical passages just as engaging as the blood-and-thunder stuff. In short, it’s a much bigger performer than it looks.
Pros: Discreet design; good spec; open, weighty sound
Cons: No online functionality
Our favourite PMP £250 - £500
Storage: 32GB | Screen size: 5in | Battery life: 13 hrs
Maximum file support: 32bit/384kHz; DSD256 | Dimensions (h/w/d): 11x7x2cm | Weight: 178g
It’s almost 10 years since iBasso developed the world’s first high-resolution Android portable music player (24bit/192kHz, numbers fans), and it’s been honing its range of players ever since. So by rights the new DX160 should represent the state of the midrange PMP art.
Certainly the iBasso DX160 (£349) looks the part: its 5in high-def touch-screen is bright and reasonably responsive, and as it’s running Android 8.1 it can be tweaked like a smartphone display to give a bespoke user experience. It doesn’t feel quite as impressive, though - it’s properly built, of course, but the chassis feels a little plasticky and gets noticeably warm when charging or working hard.
If you like a driving, upfront, slightly over-caffeinated sort of sound to your music, though, forget how inexpensive the DX160 feels and concentrate instead on how exciting (and excited) it sounds. No matter if you listen to music stored on its internal memory or streamed from one of the apps it’s so easy to install, it’ll be lively in the extreme.
So while it’s not all that comfortable with more laid-back music, for the up-tempo stuff it’s absolute mustard - the sound is rapid and detailed, packed with energy, and the soundstage it’s on is broad and well-defined. This sort of balance won’t suit everyone - but those who enjoy a big night out will love it.
Pros: Vigorous tonal balance; nice Android interface
Cons: Not the most relaxing listen; doesn’t feel too luxurious
Astell & Kern A&ultima SP1000m
The money no object pick
Storage: 128GB | Screen size: 4.1in | Battery life: 10 hrs
Maximum file support: 32bit/384kHz; DSD256 | Dimensions (h/w/d): 12x7x2cm | Weight: 203g
Hilariously, this isn’t the most expensive portable music player in Astell & Kern’s formidable line-up. That honour belongs to the SP2000, which is yours for £3,399. You can relax, though - the SP1000m (a mere £1,699) is so very accomplished you can keep those extra pennies in your pocket.
It’s tricky to make a product look and feel like a super-premium item when it’s important to keep size and weight down, but the Astell & Kern aura is strong around the SP1000m. Specification measures up too, as does the user interface experience.
But most importantly of all, the SP1000m sounds almost transparently clear, utterly in control and entirely assured. No detail is too fine or too transient to elude it, and no bass frequency is too deep or too textured to defeat it. It communicates in torrents, but never in an analytical or show-off sort of way - it just paints a big, full picture and uses all the colours.
In absolute terms, is it three times better than the FiiO? No, not a chance. But it is better - larger-scale and even more lavishly detailed. So if you have the wherewithal, you can secure maximum digital music pleasure right here.
Pros: Expressive, eloquent and entirely convincing sound
Cons: Unblinkingly expensive