The Best Portable Music Players

Posted: August 12, 2018
The Best Portable Music Players

From small and simple portable music players made with athletes and workouts in mind, to mildly evolved MP3 players suited to those who still thumb their noses at smartphones, to the audiophile ear candy that are high-end digital audio players, devices that do nothing but pump out your jams aren't just still around, I'd argue they're still relevant. Maybe not to everyone, but to more people than you'd think.

And if you're reading this like, What the fast forward button on my Sony Walkman? Are they republishing an article from 1999? Who uses a portable music player anymore? then read on. One of those more people than you'd think may end up being you.

Why Not Just Use My Phone to Play Music?

With WiFi and cellular data, the ability to stream and store music, smartphones are the reason portable music players have faded out like "Hey Jude." But in my opinion there are 3 main groups of people who are better served by a dedicated portable music player than their phone.

  1. Athletes, Outdoor Enthusiasts & Gym Goers. When you're running indoors or out, cycling indoors or out, or rowing indoors or out, having your giant iPhone or Galaxy strapped to your arm is a nuisance. Its physical presence is cumbersome. Incoming calls, texts, and notifications during your workout are distracting. And if you drop it or get it wet, phones tend to be a lot more fragile than music players, which are designed with jostling, sweat, and impact in mind. Music players also typically have a much, much longer battery life.
  2. People with Extensive Music Collections. Ripped CDs or vinyls, music libraries you inherited from your great aunt who was a Velvet Underground groupie for a few years in her 20s, deep (deep!) cuts you downloaded back in the Napster days. Maybe you don't listen to all of your music all that often, but let's say you're backpacking in Peru for 3 months (where your cell phone won't do you much good anyway) or just going on a long ass flight to Asia. What better time to take an audio trip down memory lane? Various types of portable music players have way more built-in storage or SD card slot space you can suck up with music files worry-free.
  3. Audiophiles Who Want Better Sound. In addition to not sucking up your phone's storage capacity and battery, some digital audio players, or DAPs, are designed specifically not to suck up your listening experience either. DAPs that support high-resolution music file formats are able to deliver studio quality playback. The pricy headphones you invested in to enhance your listening experience can't achieve their peak performance if you connect them to a device that wasn't made to deliver high fidelity sound (and vice versa if you get a hi-res, HiFi DAP, and then plug some headphones they gave you on the airplane into it.)

    But the right headphones paired with the right DAP is an audiophile's wet dream of sound immersion, playing back every nuance of the original recording, and giving you access to the subtleties of individual notes, instruments, and voices. Here's how hi-res music file formats compare to your standard MP3s and MP4s, and to each other:

High-resolution Sampling Rate Comparison

What Types of Portable Music Players Are Out There?

RIP to my OG iPod, lost to the toilet. And to my iPod Shuffle, lost to a combination of the treadmill and my foot. And to my iPod Nano, lost to...I don't even know where I lost that one. It just happened a few weeks ago too, which is what led me to begin researching new options for portable music players.

What I found was a lot of iPod wannabes, Chinese or other no-name brand knockoffs, with touch buttons positioned around the familiar scroll wheel. And that's fine, as long as they're compatible with my music library and various audio file formats. PMPS come with a set amount of built-in memory, an SD card for music storage and transfer that you can upgrade on your own - higher end music players typically support larger or more SD cards - or both.

There are your standard, inexpensive music players, most capable of playing MP3, WMA, AAC, and Audible audio codec formats. More advanced options will also play hi-res FLAC, DSD, Apple Lossless, APE, WAV, AIFF, MQA, etc. files.

The next price tier sees the addition of Bluetooth compatibility to the music player, so you can pair it with wireless headphones or Bluetooth speakers. Many of these are still inexpensive, though they also vary greatly in sound and connection quality. Then you get into the music players that also come with NFC compatibility, WiFi, and access to music stores and apps. Most of these are DAPs that fall into the $150 and up - way up - range.

Portable Music Player Rating System

My assessment of the best portable music players is probably a little different than most others. Rather than focusing on one of the 3 groups of buyers I mentioned above, I've tried to average out the pros and cons of cheap and expensive, phone-sized and bite-sized, and simple and complex DAPs to create an overall rating reflecting how good of an investment they would be to anyone looking for a supplemental music player.

In other words, this is more of a survey course of the best music players than a 400-level graduate study.

#1 - Mighty On-The-Go Spotify Music Player

#1 - Mighty On-The-Go Spotify Music Player

The Mighty music player will pump your Spotify playlists on the run. Really, when you're running. Also when you're on the bike. On the yoga mat. On the slopes. On the trail. On the bench press. Anywhere you want to stream your music without feeling the heft, pull, and clunkiness of your phone. Or without your phone feeling the sweat, jostling, and emphatic thrusts of its owner on the move. You don't need an internet connection with this tiny but Mighty machine either.

Mighty both looks and functions a lot like an iPod Shuffle. The mini square clips to a strap or waistband and starts / stops, skips songs, scrolls, and pumps up / pipes down with push button controls. The differences are: 1) Mighty connects to iPhones and Androids via Bluetooth and syncs Spotify playlists via WiFi; and 2) Mighty syncs Spotify playlists via WiFi. And then plays them back regardless of how far you wander from your phone, and regardless of whether or not you maintain an internet connection.

Mighty has taken Spotify's listen offline feature, and combined it with a listen off-device one of its own.

While the Mighty can do great things with Spotify, Spotify is the only great thing it can do as of now. The system doesn't support any other streaming services and you won't be able to transfer audio files from your desktop music library to the device.

  • Phone-free access to your Spotify playlists, Daily Mixes, and podcasts.
  • 1,000-song storage capacity.
  • Ultra-small and lightweight at 1.5" x 1.5" x 0.7"; 0.6 ounces.
  • The only streaming music player of this size and price range currently available.
  • Works with Bluetooth and wired headphones.
  • Drop-proof and water-resistant.

  • Supports only Spotify streaming service.
  • Users must have a Spotify Premium account.
  • <
$85.99 ➠ Mighty

#2 -Sony NW-A45/B Walkman with Hi-Res Audio

#2 -Sony NW-A45/B Walkman with Hi-Res Audio

Sony's mid-range Hi-Res DAP comes with 16GB of internal storage, plus room for a micro SD card up to - rumor has it, I have not confirmed - 400GB. The NW-A45/B also plays almost every Hi-Res format out there, including AIFF, FLAC, WAV, and DSD.

In addition, Sony's 2018 walkman has DSD playback, DSEE HX, and S-Master HX audio features to convert, restore, and amplify your digital files for studio-style playback.

Sony NW-A45/B player dimensions are 3.47" x 1.69" x 5.35".

  • Hi-Res audio.
  • Up to 45 hours of playback time.
  • Massive SD card storage capabilities.
  • NFC one-touch Bluetooth pairing.
  • Physically well built, and nice aesthetic design.

  • No WiFi connectivity for streaming music.
  • Expensive if you just want a music player to run or work out with.
  • Charges only via USB; no A/C option.
$149.99 ➠ Amazon

#3 - Pioneer XDP-300R Hi-Res Portable Digital Audio Player

#4 - Pioneer XDP-300R Hi-Res Portable Digital Audio Player

I remember Pioneer from my post-college days of pimping out my car stereo. And the Japanese brand is still known for their automotive audio installations. Lately they've dabbled in the the Hi-Res DAP market too. The XDP-300R is one of their newer, mid-range models, still made for audiophiles, but almost half the cost of their XDP-100R.

The XDP-300R has playback support for up to 11.2MHz DSD, 384kHz/24 bit PCM, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, and MQA. It has both a 2.5mm balanced output and a 3.5 mm headphone output, plus a Micro USB-B/OTG digital output, and wireless output options.

  • Built-in WiFi, Bluetooth, aptX, and Android OS, with access to Google Play, OnkyoMusic, TIDAL, Spotify, and other music streaming services.
  • Can download albums from streaming services (that support it) and listen offine.
  • Excellent twin DAC and amplifier setup.
  • 32GB of internal memory, plus 2 MicroSD card slots for up to 432 GB of storage.

  • Expensive.
  • International version, not originally intended for sale in US - could have usage / compatibility issues.
  • Steep usage learning curve for DAP beginners.
  • 5- to 7-hour battery life.
  • Slow data transfer rate.
$383.99 ➠ Amazon

#4 - Echobox Explorer Hi-Res Digital Audio Player

#3 - Echobox Explorer Hi-Res Digital Audio Player

I first saw the Echobox music flask at CES 2015, and was impressed with what I saw. A small company that also makes titanium earphones, Echobox products were clearly developed and built with audiophiles in mind.

The Echobox Explorer is a portable HiFi audio player that combines digital audio conversion tech with a 300mw amplifier to "experience your favorite music in the way the artist intended you to hear it."

Based on the Echobox's design, I'd imagine the DAP's intent is to get you drunk on sound.

The Echobox also comes with WiFi, Bluetooth, and DLNA connectivity, plus an open-source Android 6.0 OS, so you can use it to connect to your favorite streaming services. Such as TIDAL HiFi, a 48.5-million-track strong music streaming service Echobox includes a free 3-month subscription to with your player purchase.

  • Can use as a streaming music player.
  • 64GB of internal memory, plus a MicroSD card slot.
  • Familiar touchscreen interface.
  • Clever design with hand-crafted solid hardwood body.

  • Expensive.
  • New product, few reviews, hasn't "withstood the test of time".
  • A bit big/clunky at 8.5" x 4.8" x 3.5" and 1.06 pounds.
$499 ➠ Amazon
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