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Testing Ground

Top DAPs & Portable Music Players: which one to choose in 2021?

By Alban Amouroux |

Do we still need digital music players? The question has to be asked, but the answer is a resounding yes. A smartphone can already act as a music player. So why bother with an additional device with the same function? Because that's all a portable music player does: it plays music under the best possible conditions. All of its components are designed for one purpose only, to give you the maximum pleasure from your music library.

The primary objective of a mobile music player is playing music without constraints. On the move, on holiday or simply in the garden, a DAP used with your favourite headphones offers the best possible audio quality. All today's models are Hi-Res compatible. From around 300 to 400 euros, they come WiFi enabled to give you access to your Qobuz streaming plan. Their advantage over a smartphone is that they specialise on the music playback function and nothing else. When you turn on your DAP, it is ready to play the last tune or playlist you stopped at.

A DAP can be used with headphones, but sometimes also with a HiFi system. More and more models have configurable outputs: either headphone or line level out Using a mini-jack/RCA cable, you can connect the player to an amplifier, and thus to your speakers. The top-of-the-range DAPs are even equipped with digital outputs to drive your HiFi system's DAC. To exploit this function to the max, some DAPs can be controlled remotely, via an app installed on your smartphone. Used in this way, the DAP simply replaces a traditional audio streamer with the dual capability: streamer in the home, mobile player outside. More than ever, the DAP remains a shrewd investment.

1. Fiio M3 Pro: the lossless Hi-Res music player providing the bare essentials.

Price : 89 €
Features : 92mW, 15h battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, 1x 3.5mm mini-jack, USB-C port, micro SD slot, 45 x 95 x 10mm, 70g

Even in the entry-level market, Fiio ensures the quality of its music players. The M3 Pro is no exception to this, with its aluminium chassis and multi-layer glass back. The front consists of a large vertical screen of 8.9 cm diagonal. Four function keys are on the side.

The MP3 Pro is a portable music player and nothing else. As there is no Bluetooth, the headphones need to be wired. There is no WiFi either, but it has a slot for a micro SD card up to 2 TB. This allows you to store Hi-Res files purchased from your Qobuz account. A simple, lightweight, no-frills, really affordable music player.

Pros :
Hi-Res
Value for money
Compact

Cons :
No internal memory
No connectivity

2. Shanling M0: the most discreet Hi-Res music player

Price : 99 €
Features : 80mW, 15h battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, Bluetooth LDAC/aptX, 1x 3.5mm mini-jack, USB-C port, micro SD slot, 40 x 45 x 13.5 mm, 38g

The Shanling MO is scarcely bigger than a connected watch. It would be difficult to find a more discreet DAP. It has no network connectivity but has Bluetooth with aptX and LDAC codecs. A wired mini-jack connection is also provided. With no internal memory, you will need a microSD card to store your music.

With its DAC it can play Hi-Res files. It can then send them via Bluetooth, and it can also receive sound from another source through its bi-directional link. Its USB connection also works in both directions, acting as a DAC. The Shanling M0's multiple functions make it as much a music player as an audio receiver.

Pros :
Hi-Res
Tiny format
Bi-directional Bluetooth and USB

Cons :
No internal memory
Micro SD card limited to 512 GB

3. Hidizs AP80 Pro: a mini portable music player with balanced output

Price : 169 €
Features : 190mW (balanced), 15h battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, Bluetooth aptX, 1x 3.5mm mini-jack, 1x 2.5mm mini-jack, FM tuner, USB-C port, micro SD slot, 61 x 56 x 13.8 mm, 68g

Hidizs has recently upgraded its AP80 to a Pro version. This major advance in sound quality comes from the addition of a second ES9218P chip. The result is a 2.5mm balanced audio output with comfortable power handling. The AP80 Pro thus offers the pleasure of a balanced link at a lower cost.

The thought-out construction is reminiscent of another well-known brand with the volume control wheel on the side. The IPS screen is bright enough for use in every situation. Like the Shanling M0, with no internal storage you will need to buy a micro SD card with this Hidiszs DAP. Its bonus point is the built-in FM tuner.

Pros :
Hi-Res
Fully balanced output
Bi-directional Bluetooth and USB

Cons :
No internal memory
MicroSD card limited to 512 GB

4. Cowon Plenue D3: the DAP with record battery life

Price : 369 €
Features : 500mW (balanced), 45h battery life, 192kHz/24-bit, Bluetooth aptX, 1x 3.5mm mini jack, 1x 2.5mm mini jack, USB-C port, 64 GB internal, micro SD slot, 79.2 x 53.1 x 16.2mm, 103g

The higher up the range, the bigger a DAP becomes. Being built with better quality components, and also because of the larger battery. This is the case with the Cowon Plenue D3, which has 45 hours of use between charges. Its weight is restrained at scarcely more than 100 grams.

The D3 comes with dual outlets, balanced and unbalanced. Powerful, they will accommodate the most demanding headphones. Hi-Res is limited to 192/24, less than its competitors, but is still enough to play your favourite tracks downloaded from Qobuz. But its capacity is limited. While it does have 64 GB of internal storage, the micro SD card slot is limited to 128 GB.

Pros :
Battery life of 45 hours
Powerful balanced output
Double DAC

Cons :
Limited total storage

5. iBasso DX120: 2 TB of music in a generous DAP

Price : 399 €
Features : 400mW (balanced), 10hrs battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, 1x 3.5mm mini-jack, 1x 2.5mm mini-jack headphone/line/coaxial, USB-C port, 2x micro SD slots, 113 x 63 x 15mm, 165g

Its curvaceous design makes it easily recognisable as the iBasso DAP. The DX120 comes in sky blue or earth brown, original colours for a music player. Through its two output jacks, it actually offers four output modes: a 2.5mm balanced headphone jack, and a triple 3.5mm jack for headphones, line or coaxial mode. In the absence of any wireless connectivity, these different outputs mean the DX120 can be used as an audio player for a HiFi system. Its storage can reach 2 TB thanks to the two micro SD slots. Its musical pretensions are met with a DAC AK4495EQ. On the other hand, battery life is merely medium given the size of this DAP

Pros :
Attractive design and original colours
Four audio outlets
Up to 2 TB of storage

Cons :
Medium battery life
No wireless connectivity

6. Cayin N3 Pro: the audiophile tube sound player

Price : 499 €
Features : 800mW (balanced), 11hrs battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, Bluetooth Hi-Res, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack, 1x 3.5mm line jack, 1x 4.4mm headphone/line jack, USB-C port, micro SD slot, 115.2 x 63.5 x 18.9mm, 195g

The Cayin N3 Pro plays on its originality with a tube pre-amplification stage. These are small in size to fit in the DAP. Fitted in a shock-absorbing silicon cradle, they are visible through the front glass. This reduces the available screen size. Cayin offers you the option of listening and comparing pre-amplification with or without tubes.

Both the battery life and the output level will vary depending on whether or not you opt for the tube output. The two headphone and two line jacks are split between 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced connectors. In this respect, the conversion is handled by a double DAC AK4493. The N3 Pro also acts as a Bluetooth Hi-Res receiver mainly for home audio mode.

Pros :
Tube pre-amplification
Bi-directional Hi-Res Bluetooth
Quadruple output

Cons :
Limited display size
Medium battery life in tube mode

7. Sony NW-ZX507: the lightest premium music player

Price : 829 €
Features : 200mW (balanced), 20h battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, WiFi, Bluetooth, 1x 3.5mm mini jack, 1x 4.4mm mini jack, USB-C port, 64 GB internal, micro SD slot, 115.2 x 63.5 x 18.9mm, 195g

With the NW-ZX507, the Walkman King has created a compact DAP with all the functions expected of a top-of-the-range device. It runs on Android and has wireless connectivity, which enables it to offer you access to Hi-Res Qobuz. It has Bluetooth, naturally with the Sony LDAC codec. As well as its 64 GB internal storage, it accepts micro SD cards up to 2 TB.

Proprietary Sony conversion chips are combined with Sony's in-house S-Master HX digital amplification. The battery life is very good when playing compressed files. But you have to halve that for playing the highest resolution files. The wired connection remains simple with two headphone jacks: one unbalanced 3.5mm and one balanced 4.4mm.

Pros :
WiFi and Android
Light and compact
Sound processing and equalizer

Cons :
No line output

8. Fiio M15: the most comprehensive audiophile DAP

Price : 1,399 €
Features : 800mW (balanced), 15h battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, WiFi, Bluetooth, 1x 3.5mm headphone/line/coaxial mini-jack, 1x 2.5mm mini-jack, 1x 4.4mm mini-jack, USB-C port, 64 GB internal, micro SD slot, 134 x 75 x 18mm, 307g

The Fiio M15 enjoys an excellent word of mouth reputation, justified by an impressive number of features. Not to mention a sound quality to satisfy the most demanding listener. Don't hesitate to take advantage of its powerful balanced output. In addition, the 3.5mm jack can be configured for home audio mode, linked to an amplifier or an external DAC.

Two high-end AK4499EQ converters are linked to a programmable chip (FGPA) and high capacity capacitors look after the audio processing. All this takes up space, explaining the M15's smartphone size. Its custom Android interface offers multiple possibilities such as WiFi playback for Qobuz, Bluetooth with all HiFi codecs, and even AirPlay transfer.

Pros :
Quality components
Powerful output
Extensive connectivity

Cons :
Large size

9. A&K SE180: the music player with customisable DAC

Price : 1,599 €
Features : 1100mW (balanced), 10.5hrs battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, WiFi, Bluetooth, 1x 3.5mm headphone/line jack, 1x 2.5mm jack, 1x 4.4mm headphone/line jack, USB-C port, 256 GB internal, micro SD slot, 129 x 77 x 19.9mm, 280g

This Astell&Kern player is a UFO. The maker has pushed innovation to the point of offering interchangeable DACs. ESS or AKM chip, you can choose the sound signature that you prefer. Its luxurious construction uses an extruded aluminium chassis, a mirrored back panel and a large Full HD touch screen on the front.

There are numerous playing options, Hi-Res Qobuz being accessible through WiFi. It is possible to select the output gain to match the impedance of your headphones, but you can also switch them to line output. The SE180 can also be controlled remotely from a smartphone, it then becomes a home audio digital player to be linked to a quality HiFi system.

Pros :
Interchangeable DAC card
Home audio mode
Adjustable gain

Cons :
Medium battery life
Generous size

10. Cayin N8: a luxury DAP both nomadic and home audio mode

Price : 3,499 €
Features : 750mW (balanced), 9.5hrs battery life, 384kHz/32-bit, WiFi, Bluetooth, 1x 3.5mm headphone/line jack, 1x 2.5mm headphone/line jack, 1x 4.4mm headphone/line jack, 1x mini HDMI I2S, USB-C port, 256 GB internal, micro SD slot, 128 x 70 x 21mm, 380g

The elitist positioning of the Cayin N8 is clear to see. Finished in stainless steel or black brass, the luxurious look is enhanced by two gilded side dials for volume control and playback features. Whilst talking of exclusivity, this is the first DAP to use electronic nano tubes, a technology developed by Korg.

The various specific features seen on previous players are all brought together in the N8: dual DAC, WiFi, bi-directional Bluetooth, remote control, etc. It also adds MQA file playback and an I2S digital audio output for linking to a high-end home converter. The weight of this DAP reflects this.

Pros :
The very essence of a mobile player
Components and concept
Home audio mode

Cons :
Top-of-the-range pricing
Weight

Conclusion

As you can see, many of the essential features are the same on most DAPs: touchscreen, Hi-Res playback, hundreds of gigabytes of storage, minimum 10 hours of battery life, and so on. The differences are found in the design and components. Their DACs will be more or less sophisticated, the amplification section more or less powerful. Other features can be found, such as proprietary audio modes, the presence of an equalizer or tube pre-amplification. Concerning power, it is essential to connect your headphones in balanced mode whenever possible to enjoy the highest possible performance levels. Connectivity can also play a role, with Bluetooth or bi-directional USB to maximise the audio link possibilities. That leaves the question of real portability. The higher up the range, the more the players become heavy and bulky The price and luxury of these products cry out for a cover. Their place is sooner in a bag than in a pocket. An acceptable compromise given the audio quality they provide. This overview should allow you to make an informed choice.