In 2001, the iPod changed everything. Portable media players began to spring up like weeds in the crack of a fertile driveway, flourishing for a while — until the smartphone arrived. With their limited storage capacities, phones eventually lead to the rise of streaming services like Spotify that quickly antiquated the MP3 model in favor of limitless collections of music hosted from the cloud.
But MP3 players didn’t simply roll over and die when the smartphones showed up. Instead, they pivoted. Most phones, for instance, only ship with around 32GB of native storage space — several gigabytes of which are usually occupied with system files. Those with sizable music collections will find this inadequate, especially since apps and music will end up competing for space. Many dedicated MP3 players offer significantly more storage space, meaning you’ll be able to fit Weird Al’s entire discography on a single device.
The exercise world is another niche that MP3 players have slid comfortably into. While smartphone screens grow larger, smaller media players offer the user a lightweight alternative that won’t make your pocket bounce to and fro during a workout. Audiophiles, too, can find devices built to handle high-quality audio in one of several file formats. Although some of these players find themselves floating up toward (and in excess of) $1,000, there’s one that rises above the tide for a reasonable sum.
To help everyone find the right dedicated music player for them, we’ve picked out our favorite MP3 players below.
Why you should buy this: It’s powerful, versatile, reasonably priced, and produces extremely high resolution audio.
Who it’s for: Music lovers and casual listeners who don’t want to break the bank.
How much will it cost: $300+
Why we chose the Astell & Kern AK Jr.:
Most companies don’t generally charge $300+ for their entry-level MP3 player. Then again, most companies are not Astell & Kern. The AK Jr. — which retails for about 1/7 the cost of the flagship model, the AK380 — produces some of the highest quality sound out there. The beautifully angular Jr., measuring 4.5 x 2 inches and weighing just 3.28 ounces, features Astell & Kern’s signature volume wheel, which offers finer control than the traditional 1-through-10 volume setting on a phone or player.
The player, whose touch screen is framed in an attractive matte aluminum shell and a battery that lasts for 6 – 8 hours. The Jr. features Bluetooth connectivity, but no Wi-Fi.
All the bells and whistles are here to service the sound. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a device that produces the kind of depth, clarity, and balance that the AK Jr. churns out on a song-by-song basis. Its Wolfson WM8740 Digital Audio Converter (DAC) is comfortable processing several different audio formats, from WAV to FLAC to single-rate DSD codecs, and the player features 64GB of native flash storage, with an SD slot so you can add another 64GB if need be.
Never before has there been a device this affordable that produces true hi-res audio. Put simply, the AK Jr is a top-flight portable music player whose reasonable price belies the power within.
Best fitness MP3 player
Why you should buy this: It’s lightweight, durable, and built for exercise, with reasonable storage capacity and an excellent battery lifespan.
Who it’s for: Anyone looking to listen to music while they work out.
How much will it cost: $44
Why we chose the Sandisk Clip Sport:
Using your smartphone to listen to music while exercising is nearly always a hassle. If you’re running, the phone is probably bouncing uncomfortably in your pocket, or you’re forced to hold it with a vice grip because you wore shorts without pockets (stop forgetting the shorts with pockets!).
Thankfully, MP3 players with clips — like the SanDisk Clip Sport — were built specifically to resolve that issue. What the Clip Sport lacks in audio quality, it more than makes up for with several useful features and a rock-solid 25-hour battery life.
Apart from the eponymous clip, SanDisk equipped their workout buddy with an FM radio tuner, so you can listen to your favorite morning talk show as you take your brisk pre-breakfast stroll. The player features an LCD screen so you don’t need to rely on the ‘shuffle’ function; the Clip Sport includes 8GB of onboard flash storage, as well as an SD card slot that allows for more storage space to be added in later. Capable of handling most audio file types (including .FLAC files), this little guy is perfectly equipped to handle a marathon or a Tough Mudder. Plus, its low-risk price tag means you won’t need to panic if it somehow falls into a puddle.
The best Apple iPod
Why you should buy this: You’re an Apple devotee and you prefer the iPod family.
Who it’s for: Casual listeners.
How much will it cost: $150
Why we chose the iPod Nano:
Despite the iPod’s iconic nature, the rise of the iPhone has taken some of the shine off the gadget that reinvented the way we listen to music. Apple no longer rolls out new editions of each iPod every year, and some unfortunate limitations keep the player from reaching its true potential. Still, the ever-friendly user interface and the sleek beauty of the experience (and the iPod itself) earn the seventh generation Nano a spot on our list.
The Nano debuted as the replacement for the iPod Mini: an incredibly small MP3 player that you can take anywhere, and a low-cost alternative to the regular iPod.
These days, the Nano functions as a jack of all trades. It’s still small (about 1 ounce), but it is also powerful; a 2.5-inch touch screen dominates its face, inlaid with a white plastic bezel wrapped in Apple’s trademark anodized aluminum.
The Nano is Bluetooth-capable, and comes pre-loaded with the Nike+ Fitness tracker (which functions as a pedometer, a workout tracker, and a calorie counter) and an FM radio tuner. Regrettably, the player is still only compatible with iTunes — meaning the iPod itself doesn’t connect to Apple Music or the Music Store — and you cannot upgrade its meager 16GB capacity.
The best smartphone for music lovers
Why you should buy this: Dual BoomSound Hi-Fi speakers, a standalone DAC, customizable Personal Audio Profiles … oh, and it doubles as a phone.
Who it’s for: Music lovers who’d rather just use their phone.
How much will it cost: $700+
Why we chose the HTC 10:
Most smartphones’ music capabilities are extremely limited. Having access to streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music is important, but not everyone is willing to sacrifice sound quality and functionality for a bigger library of music.
Thankfully, with the HTC 10, you don’t have to choose. The BoomSound Hi-Fi speakers that made HTC’s One M9 so popular are back, and they’ve been moved from the front of the device to the top (tweeters) and bottom (woofer). The speakers’ relocation helped to clear space for the new, standalone DAC and the headphone amp, which bump the audio resolution from ‘pretty good’ to ‘outstanding.’
The phone also features a unique ‘Personal Audio Profile’ that allows you to choose from five different frequencies to craft a sound that your ears prefer. The Profile can be switched on or off at any point, and it’s easy to tell the difference — especially through headphones. The phone’s Android 6.0 operating system is sleek and simple to navigate, though many of the features might seem extraneous if you’re simply here for the music.
Ultimately, the HTC 10 is worth a buy if you’re in need of both a smartphone and a hi-res music player. It’s not the king of either category, necessarily, but there are few — if any — phones that can match the quality of its audio output.
What is hi-res audio?
High resolution audio uses a higher sampling rate and a higher bitrate than regular audio files. A typical hi-res audio file is sampled at 96 kHz/24 bit, which means that the audio is ‘sampled’ more frequently each second than a typical MP3 file, which loses around 90 percent of its information during the compression process. Hi-res files (like .FLAC files) process information more than 20 times faster than MP3 files, which means that those little details in the music — such as the attack and decay of a single guitar pluck — can be heard more clearly by the human ear. MP3 files are quick and dirty representations of actual songs that have been compressed in order to save storage space. High resolution audio, on the other hand, is compressed in such a way that those little details are preserved.
How we test
You might be wondering how, exactly, we came to these conclusions. As the market for MP3 players has thinned, devices must fit snugly into a niche — or be left out in the cold. For hi-res options like the AK Jr., there’s only one way to test: with variety. We tested the AK with several different genres of music across several different file codecs, with several different pairs of headphones. When it performed admirably across the gamut of variables, we knew we had our pick. We also do extensive phone reviewing, and picked other MP3 music players based on their ease of use or usefulness in a particular situation.