5 portable music players that are good iPod alternatives
On July 1st, 1979, the first portable music player was released on sale to the public. The Sony Walkman was created for the co-founder Masaur Ibuka so he was able to listen to the opera on the move. Little did he know that this one innovative request would later lead to a product being created that is now a staple device in every tech user’s consumer diet.
What are the benefits of a dedicated digital audio player?
Since the introduction of the portable music player in 79′, the popularity has increased dramatically year upon year. However, large amounts of users still only rely on their smartphone as a means of listening to music on the go. Sure, it’s handy to have everything in one place, but it has its drawbacks. Here are some reasons why you might choose to ditch your smartphone audio and take an alternative approach.
They support wireless headphones!
As wireless headphones are becoming a more common feature for high-end headphones, so is the increase in quality. But why would you buy such an expensive pair of headphones if you can’t get the full enjoyment of the high-quality audio through your smartphone? iPods also support wireless headphones, but due to the limited range of audio file type, the best listening experience is still achieved through digital audio players. DAPs are built to support higher resolution files, and a larger majority of file types, when paired with a high-end set of wireless headphones the results are astounding.
For mid-range priced digital audio players connectivity is a key feature. Not only does it allow for the connection to many other gadgets which are Bluetooth compatible, but it also saves time and minimises the hassle of dealing with multiple wires and cables.
Long battery life
Ever been on a long-haul flight and you’ve realised at the last minute that your phone is at 5%? Well, I have. Luckily, I had my trusty portable music player on hand which was able to keep me going for the rest of my trip. Seriously, the battery life is incredible on some MP3 players. Manufacturers are very aware that this is an important issue to consumers and are constantly looking for innovative ways to increase the battery life, which is why some devices can offer over 30 hours of continuous play!
With so many functions and gadgets on a smartphone, it’s easy to use up your memory in a short space of time. As your portable music player will only be for storing songs and audio, this means you will be able to hold a much larger amount of music. Unlike many smartphones, you can also get additional storage components for digital audio players. Although it may seem like a hassle to carry around an extra memory card it sure beats having to buy the latest phone just to get a storage upgrade. Also, lots of audio players have the functionality to support multiple SD cards and even slots which allow up to 400GB!
Cheaper (In some cases…)
With the race to become the leader in the personal portable audio market, companies are increasingly creating cheaper products which function like their high-end counterparts. This means the savings are passed onto you and me and we can now get 32 GB devices for as little as £20.
Multiple Audio Formats
High-end and mid-range models have the capabilities to support over 10 different audio formats. Now, for the average listener who may not hear the difference between uncompressed and compressed audio, this probably isn’t an issue. However, for the audiophiles, this is normally one of the most important factors to consider when deciding on which brand or model to buy.
DAP stands for Digital Audio Player and this defines any device which is capable of handling the playback of files which are supported by MP3, WMA, WAV, AAC and FLAC etc.
Why should you look for an iPod alternative?
When the iPod first came out it was a game changer for the industry. The iPod classic offered portable music, in a sleek design with an incredibly friendly UI. But times change, and so did Apple’s priorities. With a gradual decrease in sales and diminishing support options available for the classic iPod, Apple finally waved goodbye to one of its flagship products in 2014.
Three years later and Apple has again decided to discontinue more devices. The iPod shuffle and Nano have been axed this year and now we have two options when looking to purchase an Apple device with audio playback capabilities. These are the iPhone or the iPod touch. It’s probably a smart move by Apple to focus on these two devices as each year there is a natural tremendous buzz around the new iPhone model. So, focusing more on the sound capabilities of the iPhones is a good step in the right direction. Also, an increase in R&D spend on the iPod touch to increase the range of playable formats can only mean great things for the future. But for now, it’s still lacking in some features which truly allow for the best sound listening experience.
Memory upgrades are not possible with iPods
If you’re an iPhone/iPod user you will be painfully aware that what you buy is what you get in terms of the allocated memory. iPod alternatives solve this issue by allowing for upgrades to bigger memory cards and the functionality to be able to swap them around the SD cards.
Some battery issues present
Sure, when you first acquire your iPod it has a great battery life, but a common problem with iPods is that after a few years of frequent use the battery life becomes much less proficient at an alarming rate. Choosing an iPod alternative which main features consider the longevity of the battery can really end up saving you some serious money in the long run.
Price for components
When you buy an Apple product you pay for the brand. Yes, they are still great gadgets and are truly revolutionising the industry, but the price tag isn’t as feasible for everyone. Especially when you can get a digital audio player, that has the exact same features as an iPod for a fraction of the cost.
Smartphones and Apple are slowly bridging the sound quality gap between their devices and alternative high-end audio digital players. However, for now, they still haven’t caught up and if you’re truly looking for the best possible listening experience, which really immerses you within the flow and beat of the song, then a high-end digital audio player is the way to go.
Apple’s limited sound files
In recent years Apple has definitely stepped up its game on audio file playback, but it’s still not “quite” there for the audio enthusiasts. If you really want to get the fullest range of options, and not be limited, then your best bet is to take a look at the high-end audio players. Some can even support over 10 different digital formats! The really high-end devices, such as the ONKYO-DP-X1A, are now starting to support MQA (Mastered Quality Authenticated) audio, which in a few years is no doubt going to the be an industry standard.
What is MQA? – MQA is the practice of storing digital files in a way which doesn’t minimise the sonic capabilities, which are often seen with digital downloads and streaming services.
What type of high-res audio players are out there?
When purchasing a digital audio player there are many factors which should be taken into account. If you’re looking for a high-end make, with the capabilities an avid audiophile would love, then you will be able to find one. Or, if you’re just looking for a way to free up space on your phone and are not as fussed about the higher end sound quality, you will be able to find a cheaper alternative.
However, there are still some flaws with purchasing a digital audio player. Sometimes the user interface and GUI will be somewhat confusing and in some cases just horribly streamlined. Size is also an issue, with some companies opting for the “bigger is better” approach, which leads to some DAP’s feeling too heavy and bulky to really be considered as “portable” audio devices.
Below you’ll find our recommendations on some of the best DAPs currently available.
FiiO M7 (£159.99, $200)
Positives: Fiio M7 is straight forward to use, suitable for Audiophiles and consumers alike. Negatives: Custom Android OS has its limitations.
FiiO is a Chinese manufacturer of pro audio devices and whilst they do offer some high-ticket items, the first thing to mention about the FiiO M7 is that it’s the cheapest DAP on this list by a huge margin. At this price, you lose any decent internal storage capacity as the device has only 2GB and you also lose some of the spectacular battery life that some players on this list offer. Still, battery life extends up to 20 hours when listening via Bluetooth and that’s good enough for most people. You can expand with a micro SD up to 512GB which I think we’d all agree is enough. Cards like this are expensive right now but we live in an era where 128GB cards have reduced in price by almost 80-90% over the last 12 months!
What you gain from the M7 is simplicity, reliability and features which actually matter to consumer listeners. For audiophiles, the M7 still packs a weighty punch for its price as it does feature a competent DAC/headphone amp, the ESS Sabre 9018. It provides quality audio for its price; I found it to be clear, punchy and well-balanced across the frequency spectrum. One of the main benefits of the M7 is that it’s compatible with the very latest Bluetooth codec, LDAC. LDAC is suitable for outputting lossless high-res audio to Bluetooth devices. Many devices on this list lack that feature.
Pioneer XDP-300R-B ($699, £499)
Release date: 1/11/2016 – Battery life: 16 hours – Shipping: Worldwide
Audio formats supported: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, MP3, AAC.
Positives: Simple and clean design, two 200GB SD card slots, WIFI Connectivity. Negatives: Small initial storage capabilities.
Pioneer is a well-known brand within the audio industry and for a good reason. They consistently make fantastic products, by using consumer feedback and actively pushing the standards of digital audio players. The Pioneer XDP is no exception, with it’s sleek and modern design, easy to use interface and incredibly optimisable EQ settings, it’s no wonder why it’s a best seller. Measuring at 128 x 76 x 13mm (HxWxDmm) and weighing in at 200grams this audio player packs a punch in more than one way. Internally it has been kitted out with two top-class D/A converters and separate channels, allowing files to be transformed with resolution as high as 24-bit quality.
As it runs on the Android system (OS:5.1) it can be combined with a large range of applications, including the standard streaming services. The 4.7″ touchscreen makes navigating through the various features an enjoyable experience, also included is the capabilities to support a wide range of image and video formats such as MPEG-4, JPEG, GIF and PNG, as well as being Bluetooth and wifi compatible, so you can connect on the go. A slight problem is the initial size of the memory, however, it has the option to support 32GB of data with two micro SD cards so it can easily be expanded up to 432GB. Which in my opinion, is more than enough.
ONKYO DP-X1A ($633, £534)
Release date: 4/07/2016 – Battery life: 16 hours – Shipping: Worldwide
Audio formats supported: ACC, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV.
Positives: Reliable and very sturdy, large screen size, simple to use interface. Negatives: Not the most attractive design and quite large, no covered tray SD card slot.
A little on the bulky side but the DP-X1A from ONKYO packs a fantastic punch. Being one of the first digital audio players to offer the option of supporting MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) audio files is a great step in the right direction for portable music players. The only downside, which is a personal design preference, is that the volume button is a little loose. Whilst it’s been in my pocket I’ve had the audio accidentally turn up or down.
At 5 x 3 x 5″ (HxWxD”) the ONKYO DP is larger than other digital audio players currently on the market. For me, this is a slight issue as I do prefer my audio players to be of the smaller size. However, I will take a larger screen size if it means being able to use this bassy beast on a regular basis. Compatible with the Android OS system and having 2 GB of RAM means you will be able to multitask many different apps and features without seeing performance issues. Also included is a large 64GB internal storage system and the ability to add up to two 256GB micro SD cards, allowing for a massive 512GB of potential space. Like the XDP, it also supports video formats, which is always a nice added feature which we expect to see in the high-end audio players.
Astell & Kern AK70 MKII ($699, £599)
Release date: 01/09/2017 – Battery life: 6-8 hours – Shipping: Worldwide
Audio formats supported: WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, APE, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, AFF, DSF.
Positives: Beauitful design, dual DAC, compatible with Windows & Mac OS. Negatives: Operating system can be slow sometimes, no MQA support.
The first thing most people notice about the AK70-MKII is the sleek and stylish design. When in your hand the lightweight body and ergonomic slope make it feel like an extension of your own body. Astell & Kern have made a significant amount of changes to the AK70-MKII since its predecessor, the AK70. The battery has been upgraded from 2200mAh to 2500mAh, to provide a longer battery life, and a dual DAC has now been implemented.
The built-in storage starts at a decent 64GB which can be extended up to 200GB with the addition of a micro SD card. A feature that would be great to see in the future is compatibility with MQA files, however, the Ak70-II has many more redeeming features to make this flaw a deal breaker.
Acoustic Research AR-M20 ($550, £499)
Release date: 01/05/2015 – Battery life: 15 hours – Shipping: Worldwide
Audio formats supported: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, DSD, DXD.
Positives: Stylish build and design, excellent sound quality, easy to use. Negatives: Some android apps not compatible, volume dial is somewhat funky.
My first impression of the AR-M20 from Acoustic Research was how similar it looks to the generic smartphone designs. Don’t get me wrong, it still looks great but when comparing it to the look and feel of the ONKYO or Pioneer models I think it falls a little short. However, like all of the audio players on the list, the main priority is the sound. The AR-M20 provides a superb listening experience and also supports an extra micro USB card which can support up to 200GB of data.
Following the award-winning M2 was no easy task for the M20, however, I like to think that it lives up to the high standard set by its predecessor. A key feature in the M20 is the use of Acoustic Research owns M-Class Hi-Res audio engine, allowing for extreme accuracy within the audio playback. Also included is a large range of sound effects which dramatically change the feel of the songs, and can even offer inspiration if you’re a music producer looking for new and authentic samples. The memory is a little on the small size as it only allows for up to one 200GB micro SD card, which could easily be too small for some people. Finally, you will find all connectivity features which are expected of a high-end digital audio player.
Cowon Plenue D ($299, £199)
Release date: 8/09/2017 – Battery life: 100 hours – Shipping: Worldwide
Audio formats supported: MP3, WMA, FLAC, WAV.
Positives: Great price, easy to use interface, punchy bass. Negatives: Minimal audio file range.
Finishing off the list we have the Plenue D from Cowon. Priced much lower than the other models but the CPD is worth every penny. The sound quality difference can be heard between higher-end models and the Plenue D, but if you’re looking for an audio player which doesn’t break the bank, it’s the perfect compromise.
The key selling point for the Plenue D has got to be the music playback capability. Offering an absolutely massive 100 hours of battery life you’ll be hard pressed to ever find yourself in the annoying situation of not being able to listen to your music on the go. Measuring at 2.8″ and only weighing a tiny 94G this DAP is truly a master of transportable audio.
Buy Plenue D