Tech Roundup: Choosing Digital Audio Players in 2019
Since their invention by Sony forty years ago, the audio player has much evolved. Like the rest of the audio world, listening to music on an audio player has dematerialised. Long gone are the days of the cassette, CD and MiniDisc. While early models date back to the beginning of the 2000s, notably the iPod, the DAP has seen a resurgence through its ability to read Hi-Res audio files.
There are many ways to listen to music on the move, on transport and away from home. In order to be as close as possible to your music without bothering people, listening through a headset is ideal. The most obvious source would be the smartphone, or a tablet, but unfortunately these devices’ sound production is often lacking.
Smartphones are almost always sold with sub-par wired headphones. A recent evolution for the smartphone concerns the removal of the headphone jack as everything now moves onto Bluetooth. If you own a wired headset, what do you do? The best solution today is to make the move back to a Digital Audio Player or DAP.
Some of these DAPs come with both wired and Bluetooth connectivity for compatible headsets. This doesn’t hold them back but, on the contrary, allows them to support music in the best conditions possible compared with a smartphone, as playing music is all they are intended to do.
The DAP also allows one to listen to music on a device with its own battery source meaning that your smartphone’s battery can be conserved for other functions. Audio players integrate their own DACs and high-quality amplifiers and therefore replace the portable DACs that we connect to our smartphones. To fully benefit from music in nomad mode, you have two possible solutions: a smartphone linked to a portable DAC or a Digital Audio Player.
1. FiiO M3k: an entry-level Hi-Res DAP at an unbeatable price
Price: 75 euros
Features: DAC 384kHz/32 bits, micro-USB, micro-SD, 42 MW power, 3.5mm jack, 26-hour battery life, 78 grams
Despite its tiny size, FiiO has managed to include a colour screen for display of album covers that works in conjunction with a control pad positioned underneath for navigation of its menus. The M3K is FiiO’s entry-level DAP and yet no concessions have been made with its DAC: the Asahi Kasei AK4376A reaches 384 KHz and 25 bits with WAV files. Other formats are read in 192/24.
The FiiO M3K is autonomous thanks to its micro-SD card reader that accepts cards up to 2TB. And thanks to its USB port, it can take on the role of an external DAC, for a PC for example. The power of the headphone jack is rather limited but would be comfortable with more common headsets of 16 or 32 ohms, but not with more complex ones that might reach over 100 ohms. With a weight of only 78 grams, you could almost forget it was in your pocket.
26-hour battery life
No internal storage
2. HiFiMAN MegaMini: the DAP that gets straight to the point
Price: 99 euros
Features: DAC 192 kHz/24 bits, micro-USB, micro-SD, 54 MW power, 3.5mm jack, 15-hour battery life, 69 grams
It would be difficult to get your hands on anything as small or as simple as the HiFiMAN MegaMini. Four buttons control its small non-touch screen for navigation of its library and menus. The DAC reads digital files up to 192 kHz/24 bits as well as DSD64s. Audio is stored on a micro-SD inserted into the device that must not exceed 256GB. It reads all the main file formats including WAV, WMA, FLAC, ALAC, etc.
The MegaMini is a universal DAP for common headsets with weak impedance for which more luxurious HiFiMAN models are to be avoided. It comes with one simple 3.5mm headphone jack. The USB port is there for recharging and the transferral of files to the SD card. The MegaMini is not equipped with USB DAC functionality.
Mediocre battery life
3. xDuoo X3 II: an easy-to-use DAP
Price: 119 euros
Features: DAC 384 kHz/32 bits, USB-C, micro-SD, 210 MW power, 3.5mm jack, output line, Bluetooth, 13-hour battery life, 112 grams
Chinese manufacturer xDuoo produces quality DAPs at very accessible prices and the same is the case with the X3 II. The device has a colour screen but opts out of touch control; it is controlled with traditional buttons that many believe to be more practical. The DAC AKM4490 enables the playing of Hi-Res files up to 384 kHz/32 bits and can double-up as an external DAC thanks to its USB-C port.
Audio output is twofold, with a 3.5mm jack for a headset and another that links to a separate amplifier. In this case, the X3 II’s Bluetooth works through the application HiByMusic. The device can also play music to a Bluetooth headset but only in aptX. It has no internal storage, accepting micro-SD cards up to 256GB.
Storage limited to 256GB
Mediocre battery life
No Hi-Res Bluetooth
4. Shanling M2X: a well-priced DAP with a lot of features
Price: 219 euros
Features: DAC 384 kHz/32 bits, USB-C, 212 MW power, 3.5mm and symmetrical 2.5mm jacks, Bluetooth, wi-fi, 10.5-hour battery life, 147 grams
For over twenty years Shanling has been a player in Hi-Fi technologies and is renowned within the DAP market for its many models that satisfy all needs. The M2X is dressed in more classical attire with a touchscreen imbedded behind its glass casing. It can read Hi-Res files up to 384 kHz/32 bits; the DSD256 converts everything through a DAC Asahi Kasei AK4490EN. The micro-SD card reader accepts up to 2TB of storage.
Again, rare at this price level, the M2X possesses two output jacks: one asymmetrical 3.5mm minijack and one symmetrical 2.5mm. The device can also connect to a headset via Bluetooth through codecs aptX and LDAC. Equipped with Wi-Fi, it can access a DLNA server or play content through AirPlay. Its USB-C port allows the player to double up as a charger and external DAC.
Symmetrical audio output
Limited battery life
Limited Wi-Fi connectivity
5. Cowon Plenue D2: the DAP with the unbeatlable battery life
Price: 349 euros
Features: DAC 192 kHz/24 bits, micro-USB, 64GB + micro-SD, 250 MW power, 3.5mm and symmetrical 2.5mm jacks, 45-hour battery life, 85 grams
For its new version, the Cowon Plenue D2 his now equipped with an additional 2.5mm symmetrical minijack. It’s powerful and produces 250MW under 32 ohms. The Cirrus Logic CS43131 DAC accepts most common Hi-Res files up to 192 kHz/24 bits as well as DSD128. Numerous filters allow one to adjust sound according to the characteristics of their headphones and their own tastes, a common feature with Cowon devices.
The Plenue D2 is made from a light aluminium with a large sheet of glass protecting the 2.8-inch colour touchscreen. What’s more, the SD card reader accepts cards up to 128GB and the DAP itself has an integrated storage of 64GB. The device also comes with an excellent battery life, 45 hours of MP3 play time and a little less when playing Hi-Res files.
Up to 45 hours of battery life
Mediocre screen resolution
Only accepts SD cards up to 128GB
No DAC features
6. iBasso DX120: Up to 2TB of music in a sturdy DAP
Price: 399 euros
Features: DAC 384 kHz/32 bits, USB-C, SDXC/SDHC, 225 MW power, 3.5mm and symmetrical 2.5mm jacks, output line, 10.5-hour battery life, 165 grams
The iBasso DX120 comes in a massive, reassuring casing and is available in blue or brown. Ergonomics are shared between a large 3.2-inch touchscreen and physical buttons for basic commands on one side. The two asymmetrical and symmetrical jacks are accompanied by an export line and a USB-C port to allow it to function as an external DAC, an Asahi Kasei AK4495EQ Velvet.
The interface is entrusted to Mango OS, an operating system dedicated to the management of music libraries. The DX120 does not come with integrated storage, but in its place are two SD card readers capable of dealing with 1TB of storage each. Output in symmetrical mode is strong, a large 3.6V, enough to power a great deal of headsets including some of the most demanding.
No integrated storage
Limited battery life
7. Onkyo PD-S10: A symmetrical design for a Hi-Fi player
Price: 449 euros
Features: DAC 192 kHz/32 bits, micro-USB, 16GB + two micro-SD, 150 MW power, 3.5mm and symmetrical 2.5mm jacks, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 15-hour battery life, 135 grams
Onkyo are now directing their Hi-Fi product-making expertise toward the DAP market. With regard to the implementation of its components, the PDS10 player is constructed on a very symmetrical level and flaunts a DAC ESS Sabre ES9018C2M. It takes Hi-Res files up to 192 kHz/32 bits. For lesser formats, an oversampling can be implemented to make the most of the PD-S10.
There are two headphone jacks, one asymmetrical 3.5mm and one symmetrical 2.5mm. The USB port doubles up as a charger and an external DAC for a computer. Onkyo has equipped the PD-S10 with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi increasing the number of music sources. The device’s design consists of a colour touchscreen and a large wheel located on the side of the player for adjusting volume.
Perfect for audiophiles
Limited internal storage
No Hi-Res Bluetooth
Limited Wi-Fi features
8. Cayin N6 II: A top-of-the-range and upgradeable audio player
Price: 1099 euros
Features: DAC 384 kHz/64 bits, USB-C, 64GB + SDHC/SDXC, 530 MW power, 3.5mm and symmetrical 4.4mm jacks, output line, mini-HDMI i2s, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 14-hour battery life, 290 grams
With the Cayin N6II, we enter the world of top-of-the-range DAPs. Its DAC AK4497EQ is compatible with Hi-Res files up to 384 kHz/64 bits, DSD256 and ISO files from SACD disks. The symmetrical output from its 4.4mm minijack delivers 530 MW of power that supports virtually all headsets on the market. In Bluetooth mode, you can connect premium headsets thanks to its LDAC and aptX HD.
The N6 holds 64GB of storage and an SD card port that takes up to 512GB. Wi-Fi compatible, the device runs Android allowing usage of music apps such as Qobuz. Cayin’s device is created with a modular and upgradeable design. All DACs and amplifiers can be removed from the device and replaced when necessary by more up-to-date tech in the future.
aptX HD and LDAC Bluetooth
Capacity limited to 576GB
Mediocre battery life
9. Astell&Kern SE100: An ideal DAP for audiophiles on the move
Price: 1799 euros
Features: DAC 384 kHz/32 bits, USB-C, 128GB + micro-SD, 250 MW power, 3.5mm and symmetrical 2.5mm jacks, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 11-hour battery life, 241 grams
Astell&Kern, a world-leading player for quality DAPs, proposes the SE100, also known as the A&futura. This large audio player is crafted from top-of-the-range materials along with an eight-channel ESS Sabre 9038 DAC capable of independently handling end to end left and right output. The device also comes equipped with an ultra-precise gauge that reduces jitter. The USB-C port allows rapid recharging, but the player cannot be used as an external DAC.
The two headphone jacks allow symmetrical and asymmetrical connection with 4.1V of output meaning the SE100 is unmatched by no headset. The large 13cm screen provides unequalled navigational quality for its music library. In addition to its Wi-Fi that reads files online via DLNA, this audio player also boasts Bluetooth capability in aptX HD. While less equipped than some lesser models, the SE100’s strength lies in its top-level treatment of digital signals.
Dedicated gauge for jitter
No USB DAC functionality
Wi-Fi restricted to DLNA
Limited battery life
10. Sony NW-WM1Z: An audio player for the 21st Century
Price: 3199 euros
Features: DAC 384 kHz/32 bits, brand-unique USB, 128GB + micro SD, power N.A., 3.5mm and symmetrical 4.4mm jacks, Bluetooth, NFC, 32-hour battery, 267 grams
With the NW-WM1Z, Sony has developed one of the most advanced digital audio players on the market. It looks towards music more so than additional accessories and functions. Enclosed in a one-piece aluminium shell, this DAP holds a Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAP and contains a signal processing chain made from the best audio technologies available to Sony. Crammed inside are the DSEE HX, ClearAudio+ and the Dynamic Normalizer.
Along with its S-Master HX digital amplification, sound output is available through one asymmetrical jack and one 4.4mm symmetrical jack. Navigation of the Sony NW1Z is carried out through a range of physical touches on the side of the device and its large 5.6-inch screen. No Wi-Fi, but there is Bluetooth support through its LDAC codec. Its 256GB of internal memory can be increased through use of a micro-SD card.
256 GB internal memory
Quality digital treatment
No aptX HD Bluetooth
The choice of a DAP as a replacement or addition to a smartphone allows the owner a device completely dedicated to music. With quality components and the possibility to read all types of Hi-Res files, the pleasure of listening with a good headset is largely increased. Many accessible models such as the FiiO and HiFiMAN exists. Nevertheless, shelling out the extra cash for a premium device has its advantages: more memory, a better DAC, longer battery life, more connectivity… Some models are multipurpose and can serve as an external and mobile DAC. Some can be used at home as well as on the move with the possibility of connecting to Hi-Fi systems. With regard to Bluetooth, especially Hi-Res Bluetooth, one can ditch the cables – an advantage that needs no further explanation. Finally, top-of-the-range DAPs like the Astell&Kern or the Sony tend to hold less accessories as they are often intended for an equally high-quality headset.
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