Which MP3 players are best?
Sure, your smartphone can play music just fine, but there are plenty of reasons to get a standalone music player. You might not want to take up all your phone’s storage space with a large collection of lossless audio files. If you work out a lot, a modern smartphone might be too bulky for easy use. Additionally, most smartphones don’t have the ability to decode advanced music formats such as Master Quality Audio or Direct Stream Digital. If any of these reasons ring true for you, consider getting an MP3 player.
The best-rated MP3 player that doesn’t cost an absolute fortune is the Shanling M3X. It’s a recently updated model from an audiophile-favorite brand and offers just about every high-end feature you could want.
What to know before you buy an MP3 player
Standalone MP3 players vs. smartphones
For casual use, a smartphone might be satisfactory, but it’s not ideal for specifically listening to music. For one thing, smartphones don’t usually have high-end digital to analog converter chips, and a device’s DAC chip is a major factor in its audio quality. Also, in some cases, the internal design of smartphones leads to interference and distortion.
MP3 vs. other audio formats
Once the only game in town when it came to portable music, the MP3 format has lost some ground to other file types, such as FLAC. A decent number of users are unhappy with the compression method that makes MP3 files so small, and if you’ve already invested in high-end headphones, the compression can be even more pronounced.
What to look for in a quality MP3 player
MP3 player wireless connectivity
The most obvious wireless feature to consider is Bluetooth connectivity, which lets you use any pair of Bluetooth-enabled headphones. Slightly less important but still worth considering is an MP3 player’s Wi-Fi connectivity. Wi-Fi compatibility makes it especially easy to load songs and organize your music player.
One less common but still worthwhile connectivity feature is the ability of an MP3 player to act as a Bluetooth receiver instead of a transmitter. This allows you to plug in your favorite pair of wired headphones and stream music from a computer or smartphone to the player, which then decodes the audio with minimal interference and pumps it to your headphones.
Advanced Bluetooth codecs
Codec is a portmanteau of the words coder and decoder, and refers to the algorithm that a device uses to compress the audio data to enable low-bandwidth wireless transmission. The baseline codec for Bluetooth audio transmission is called SBC. One step up are Apple’s AAC and Qualcomm’s aptX codecs. A good number of listeners can tell the difference between SBC and AAC or aptX and especially the upgraded aptX HD codec.
There are additional high-resolution codecs such as Sony’s LDAC, but for the most part, only the most discerning ears can tell the difference between it and slightly less advanced codecs.
High-end audio decoding
There are two emerging formats that until recently were unknown outside of dedicated audiophile circles. Both MQA and DSD are designed to deliver high-resolution audio that’s extremely faithful to the original master recordings. Demanding music lovers will appreciate support for these formats, but keep in mind that you’ll actually need access to MQA and DSD files to make any use of them at all. There’s not a massive library for either format, so casual listeners don’t have to concern themselves too much with such high-end formats.
How much you can expect to spend on an MP3 player
The least expensive MP3 players cost as little as $20. At the extreme high end, you can actually spend a few thousand dollars if you really want to, but the vast majority of users won’t need to spend more than roughly $400.
MP3 player FAQ
Is the iPod Touch still any good?
A. If you really like Apple products, the most recent version of the iPod Touch is a great choice. Otherwise, it’s awfully expensive for what you get, doesn’t allow for microSD storage expansion and doesn’t support any codecs aside from SBC and AAC.
What is balanced output, and do I need it?
A. You probably don’t need an MP3 player with balanced output. Most headphones use a single cable for audio transmission, but balanced output uses a significantly different type of cable that ultimately sends two separate wires to the headphones to minimize distortion and response time. While quite a few high-end headphone amplifiers offer a balanced connection, few portable MP3 players do, and without an expensive (and not very portable) pair of premium over-ear cans, you won’t see any benefit from using it.
What’s the best MP3 player to buy?
Top MP3 player
What you need to know: This high-end MP3 player offers a premium construction and essentially lossless playback.
What you’ll love: Inside this audiophile-approved option is a powerful CPU that allows for decoding of high-quality formats such as MQA and DSD256. It supports a variety of Bluetooth codecs such as aptX HD and LDAC and can even act as a Bluetooth receiver to turn your favorite wired headphones wireless. It has a 4-inch HD touchscreen, and its controls are as simple to use as any others on the market.
What you should consider: It’s relatively expensive, but still not as costly as other audiophile-grade models.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Top MP3 player for the money
What you need to know: This remarkably affordable option makes surprisingly few tradeoffs in terms of connectivity and sound quality.
What you’ll love: Great for both wired and wireless headphones, it boasts Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity and a 50-hour battery life despite taking only two hours to charge fully. This small, lightweight player also accepts microSD cards up to 128 gigabytes and is compatible with a variety of audio formats.
What you should consider: It doesn’t support any advanced codecs, and some users have difficulty uploading album art and making specific playlists.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Worth checking out
What you need to know: While it’s not the newest offering from Sony, it actually gets higher marks than the company’s most recent release and is a great midrange choice.
What you’ll love: It’s compatible with some of the most premium audio formats and can even decode DSD files. It has a high-quality DAC inside and supports Sony’s DSEE HX upscaling, which can improve the sound profile of low-quality MP3 files. It combines physical buttons on the side with precise and in-depth touch controls for a streamlined user experience. There’s even NFC connectivity for extremely easy pairing with wireless headphones.
What you should consider: Unfortunately, it uses a proprietary cable and playback software that not everyone likes.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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