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Best portable music player: Five great quality portable players

While smartphones are ubiquitous and offer plenty convenience, if you’re someone who wants to hear their music library at their best then only a dedicated portable music player can offer that level of performance.

Even though some would confine the portable music players to the history books, audio brands are still making and people are still buying them, so we’re here to help you find the best portable music player that suits you.

We test music players by listening to high quality music files whether through audio files or streaming. We use the interface to see if it’s easy to navigate and responsive, and we’ll also perform battery drains to see if the last as long as the manufacturer says they do. We strive to test as many features as we can, using them with real world use to get a greater sense of their overall performance.  

We’re continuously looking to review the latest portable music players on the market, and we’ll be updating this list as and when we find ones that merit a position on this list.

If you’re still deciding on what mobile device to get, or perhaps you’re on the hunt for a new one, have a look out our best smartphones. And also don’t forget to have a look at our best headphones list to find a partner for your new portable music player.

Best portable music players at a glance

How we test

Learn more about how we test portable music players

We play a lot of music, different genres and at different file resolutions to get an idea of how well portable music players.

If there are features then we make sure we fiddle with them until we’re satisfied. We gauge on how long their battery life is and whether the player holds up to the manufacturer’s claims. We try them on their various wireless connections to see if they offer a smooth performance, and we’ll delve into their sub-menus and see if they work as they’re meant to.

Of course, it always comes back to the music. Portable music players are tested by reviewers who have a love of music, a knowledge of sound quality, as well as a context of the market. We’ll compare to similarly priced rivals, so when we recommend a particular model, it’s among the best you can buy for the money.

Obviously, we know not everyone has the same taste in music, so we won’t only test with the same perfectly mastered album, but with a variety of genres and file qualities, from MP3 to Hi-Res FLAC. Find out more about how we test in our ethics policy.

Astell and Kern Aultima SP3000

Best premium portable player
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  • Thrillingly complete audio quality
  • A luxury accessory as much as a music player
  • Brilliantly over-the-top specification


  • Not what you’d call ‘affordable’
  • ‘Portable’ is a relative term, too
  • Not altogether suitable for vegetarians

The price of the Astell Kern SP3000 puts all other portable players on this list to shame. At $3699 / £3799, this is one of the most expensive music players we’ve come across, and one that meets the hype with its performance.

Like the other Astell and FiiO players on this list, the SP3000 takes the word portable rather loosely but it’s a fine looking device. It’s less angular than other Astell Kern devices, and the build quality is outstanding. Built from 904L stainless steel, it’s the same material Rolex uses for its watches, helping to make this portable player resistant to corrosion (which should mean it lasts a long time). The front and back faces use glass, the front features a 5.4-inch 1080 x 1920 touchscreen.

Our reviewer found the touchscreen to be extremely responsive in use. Battery life is similar to the FiiO M17 at around ten hours, though the overall feature set is less comprehensive than what the FiiO offers. There are fewer inputs and outputs, and while the built-in storage is bigger (256GB), the SP3000 can only expand to 1TB with the help of a microSD card.

MQA is supported however, as well as aptX and LDAC Bluetooth, with sample rates of up to DSD512 and 32-bit/784kHz supported as well. There are several DAC filters to play around with too, the Crossfeed aims to create a soundstage that’s similar to listening to a pair of loudspeakers in a room.

When it comes to listening to music on the SP3000, the player gives music a consistently convincing and lifelike sound. While it performs best with bigger, high-res files, we found the Astell Kern to be no snob either, happy enough to take lower resolution content and make it sound better. It’s similarly easy-going in terms of headphone partners, but you’ll still want to pair this music player with high quality headphones.

Detail levels are high, control over decay and attack of notes is well-judged, dynamism is conveyed whether it’s on a small or large scale and integration across the frequency range is superbly well-realised. Its sense of timing is about as good as you can get from a portable player. The price is ridiculous, but in terms of its performance, we found the Astell Kern SP3000 simply didn’t put a foot wrong.

Reviewer: Simon Lucas
Full Review: Astell & Kern A&Ultima SP3000

Astell and Kern Aultima SP2000T

Best premium portable music player
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  • Endlessly revealing, utterly musical sound
  • Extensive specification
  • Nicely made, finished and presented


  • Punishingly expensive
  • Big and heavy by ‘portable’ standards
  • Battery life is nothing special

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T, like most A&K products, has a striking look with its asymmetric design and it feels premium too, although our reviewer felt it wasn’t too comfortable to hold. That’s down to the heft and bulk of the product, which for a portable music player is not the most desirable attribute.

But what the SP2000T lacks in portability, it makes up for in its feature set. As well as various headphone outputs with 3.5mm unbalanced jack alongside 2.5 and 4.4mm balanced outputs, the SP2000T has wide wireless connectivity in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, with AAC, aptX HD and LDAC codecs, with file support that ranges from MP3 to DSD512 and four ESS ES9068AS DACs that can decode up to 32-bit/384kHz. Internal memory is only 256GB, but can be expanded by 1TB via microSD cards.

The 5-inch FHD touchscreen paired with a Quad Core processor is one we found especially responsive, and while the total nine hours of runtime is decent, we did feel that charge time of 3 hours is a little leisurely by contrast.

As a tri-amp device, the SP2000T offers a choice in the presentation it offers with Astell’s standard OP AMP circuitry or the dual-triode KORG Nutube amplification for a lusher, warmer sound. To tweak the sound further, there are 5 hybrid positions to change things up.

Our reviewer found the SP2000T served up an engrossing listen, with extraordinary levels of detail within an expansive soundstage. The bottom end of the frequency range is weighty, solid and textured in description, with the top end dealing in extensive levels of detail, with as much bite and crunch to those treble notes as it can possibly deliver, though with that in mind you’ll want to find the headphone partner to avoid high frequency notes sounding too coarse and unforgiving.

Reviewer: Simon Lucas
Full Review: Astell & Kern A&Ultima SP2000T

FiiO M17

Best portable music player £1499 to £1999
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  • Always sounds accomplished and entertaining
  • Built to last, and if anything, overspecified
  • Will bring out the best in any of your headphones


  • Bigger and heavier than you might expect
  • Deserves equally impressive headphones
  • Not without competition

Astell & Kern doesn’t have the portable player market all to itself. The Korean firm does have competition, and the FiiO M17 is more than a match with its performance.

The M17 is big in everyway: from its build quality, price, specs and performance. Starting with the first point, while our reviewer found that the M17 could be held in one hand, it is a big and heavy portable player and the best means of transporting when you’re out and about is to stick in a bag (it also comes with a leather case to protect it from scratches).

It has a 6-inch touchscreen with a 18:9 aspect ratio and 1080 x 2180p resolution, which makes for a crisp, clear display as well as a responsive touchscreen interface. It’s a generously specified device with an array of inputs and outputs that include 3.5 and 4.4mm headphone outputs, an RCA socket that can function as an digital coaxial in or output and two USB-C inputs. The built-in storage is 64GB, but can be expanded to up to 2TB with a microSD card.

In terms of Bluetooth there’s aptX and LDAC support included for higher quality audio playback, although there’s no MQA support in case you were looking to play Tidal Master files. The M17 can also function as an external DAC to boost music listening on another device, making for a versatile device.

And the sound the M17 outputted impressed us greatly over our time using it, never coming across as anything less than accomplished and delivering a thoroughly enjoyable performance. Used with capable headphones (and sources), the FiiO eloquently describes the midrange of tracks in Steve Wonder’s Innervisions album, offering sky-high detail, impressive dynamics and skilfully identifies transient sounds and brings them to life.

With harder-hitting tracks it’s just as capable, producing a convincingly musical sense of tone and a fine sense of rhythm too. It also delivers a neutral presentation for those that prefer to hear their music unaltered. There’s no disputing that the FiiO M17 is an expensive piece of portable kit, but we feel it delivers a performance that warrants the price tag.

Reviewer: Simon Lucas
Full Review: FiiO M17

Astell and Kern Afutura SE180

Best portable music player £999 to £1499
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  • Open, expansive soundstage with lots of detail
  • Premium build quality
  • Intuitive user interface and operation
  • Extensive specification
  • Swappable DAC feature


  • Player and DAC modules are expensive
  • Not exactly portable
  • Battery life not the longest

The Astell & Kern A&futura SE180 is one of the South Korean brand’s most advanced players thanks to its DAC switching modules that allows the user to remove the DAC inside and replace with it another.

It’s an innovative idea within the portable music player market, though we found the process of swapping DAC modules required some force. That’s an area Astell & Kern could make easier and swifter in future editions.

The SE180 carries itself well, although like the SP2000T, its 280g isn’t exactly portable (the similarly-sized iPhone 13 is merely 173g by comparison). It is well-built, less asymmetric in look that Astell’s other players and features wonderfully tactile volume wheel that mimics a dial on a expensive watch. Headphone outputs are catered for by 3.5mm unbalanced and 2.5 and 4.4mm balanced, with a USB-C port for charging and microSD expansion that supports cards up to 1TB.

The Quad Core processor offers a snappy and responsive performance, the 5-inch colour screen offers some lovely looking colours, while we liked the Android-esque interface which is intuitive to use and easy to grasp its workings. File support extends MP3 to DSD256 and resolutions up to 384kHz, though by changing the DAC modules the file support can be extended further. With support for aptX HD and LDAC, the SE180 is covered on the wireless High-Res Audio front.

All of that Hi-Res support allows the SE180 to hit a high marker for sound quality. We tested the device with several headphones and found it brought a neutral and noise-free sound to whichever pair we used, featuring terrific amounts of clarity and detail. The soundstage is big and spacious, with the sE180’s sense of precision wringing as much out of music as it can. While it’s capable with lower-resolution files, this is a player that shines with higher bit-rates and resolutions, making this a true portable player for the audiophile listener.

Reviewer: Kob Monney
Full Review: Astell & Kern SE180

FiiO M11S

Best portable music player under £500
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  • Balanced, informative sound
  • Easy to use
  • Colourful display
  • Android integration
  • Wide specification


  • Some may hanker for more excitement
  • Fairly big in size

Astell & Kern’s main rivals in recent years has been FiiO, who’ve tended to undercut their competitor’s offering and the M11S is a good example of it undercutting the A&Norma SR35.

Like the M17, the M11S is a big , chunky player, much bigger than the SR35. In that context it does stretch the notion of being a ‘portable’ music player. This isn’t a player we’d recommend for those with smaller, daintier hands and fingers.

Build quality is good, and the player boasts a bright 5-inch IPS screen that’s easy to read, album artwork looks especially colourful on this screen. Used outside and it’s not bright enough to withstand the glare of sunlight, but we doubt many mobile devices would be free from reflections anyhow. The plastic protective case does serve to dampen the aesthetics of the unit, the M11S feels cheaper with it on.

For outputs there are 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm ports for headphones, along with a USB-C port for either charging the device or connecting it to another source (say a laptop) and using it as a USB DAC to improve audio quality. Built-in storage is 32GB but it is expandable with a microSD card up to 2TB.

In terms of Bluetooth everything is covered from as low as SBC, to aptX, LDAC and LHDC audio (which is popular in Asia). Unlike the M17 there is support for MQA audio that you can get through the Tidal music streaming service, and as this player supports the Android OS, there’s access to the Google Play Store, so you can download whatever apps, music or otherwise, to this device.

The sound quality of the M11S is one we found to be convincingly neutral and balanced across the frequency range. There’s a sure hand guiding the bass, which is weighty and doesn’t dominate proceedings. The midrange is full of information and detail, spacious described with plenty of clarity. The top end of the frequency range isn’t the brightest, but treble is always relayed in the clear manner.

It’s not the most exciting portable music player we’ve ever heard, but it easily improves upon the quality of the sources we use it with. If you find Astell & Kern’s offering a little too premium, the FiiO M11S is a much less expensive alternative.

Reviewer: Kob Monney
Full Review: FiiO M11S

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Is it worth buying a portable music player?

Smartphones are compromised in terms of their performance because they’re designed to do multiple things. A portable music player is expressly designed for one thing, so if you love your music and want to hear it in its best quality, it is worth investing in a portable music player.

Comparison specs

Screen Size
Storage Capacity
IP rating
Size (Dimensions)
Operating System
Release Date
Model Number
Audio Formats
Touch Screen
Wifi Spec
USB charging
Headphone port

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