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Best portable music player: Great quality portable sound

While smartphones offer convenience by being able to do it all, they’re also compromised in that they can’t do everything to high levels. If you listen and appreciate high quality music, this is a problem.

But that isn’t an issue for the portable music player. These devices are dedicated to playing music at their highest quality, reducing signal noise and optimising audio playback so you can hear your favourite artists and albums in the best quality.

So if you value your music collection, picking a portable music player is a serious business, with some costing as much as the best smartphones on the market. Despite the prevalence of smartphones, there are still many brands in the portable music player market from Astell & Kern, FiiO and Sony.

We’re here to help you make sure you make the right purchase for you. Our team of experts have tested many players to compile this list, listening to high quality music files, testing as many features as we can, and with real world use to judge how well they perform.  

This current list is a Astell & Kern-centric selection, but we’re also 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 warrant being on it.

If, somehow, you’ve wondered on this list by chance and haven’t found what you’re looking for, have a look out our best smartphones list for a more general player and check out our other audio list such as best headphones if you need 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 SP2000T

Best premium portable music player
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Pros

  • Endlessly revealing, utterly musical sound
  • Extensive specification
  • Nicely made, finished and presented

Cons

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

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T is currently our favourite premium portable music player. Like all Astell & Kern products it 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

Astell and Kern Afutura SE180

Best mid-range portable music player
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Pros

  • Open, expansive soundstage with lots of detail
  • Premium build quality
  • Intuitive user interface and operation
  • Extensive specification
  • Swappable DAC feature

Cons

  • 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

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FAQs

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.

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