Our List of the Top Quality MP3 Players.
NOTE: This list of digital music players runs the range from dedicated high-resolution audiophile devices to the more basic, sub-$100 workout players. Ranking in this list takes into consideration the overall audio quality, retail price, storage capacity, and user experience. Preference is generally given to the value of audio quality-to-price comparison.
MP3 Players have been disappearing from the market over the past few years with the rise of smartphones with built in music players. However, smartphones don’t always deliver the best sound quality and there may be times where you wish to listen to music without being interrupted by texts, phone calls, or push notifications. Perhaps you are looking for something lightweight that you can use while jogging or at the gym. Below is our list of top picks for dedicated MP3 players.
1. Astell & Kern AK Jr
Audiophile-grade digital music players can often command prices north of $500 and beyond, so it is refreshing to find high quality devices with a range of user options that is available at a competitive price point. The Astell & Kern AK Jr. delivers exceptional quality audio, balanced with attention to physical form factor and a noticeably better user interface than other music players in the high-resolution audio space.
With a street price of less than $400, the AK Jr. boasts several premium features like: 64GB built-in memory with support for up to 200GB external memory via microSD card, a Wolfson 8740 DAC, Bluetooth connectivity for wireless audio, high quality headphone output, and a good quality user interface. Users who are new to the world of dedicated audiophile-quality music players may consider the navigational touchscreen to be less responsive than the latest consumer-grade mobile devices, and the file structure for album organization can be a little cumbersome. Listeners desiring to max out the volume of the headphone amp may also notice light distortion with the increased levels.
- 64GB built-in memory with microSD card slot for expansion
- Bluetooth wireless audio connectivity
- great sound and playback of lossless audio file types
- touchscreen can seem less responsive to the touch than the latest consumer mobile devices
- headphone amp can begin to distort when pushed to high volume levels
- file organization and access can be cumbersome for some users
2. Sony NWZ-A17
The Sony Walkman NWZ-A17 is a very close second place finisher in this list, given its high level of audio playback quality and modest price around $300. A 30-hour battery life, Bluetooth streaming support for AAC and aptX codecs, FM radio, and S-Master HX digital amplification features are impressive for casual music listeners and music quality aficionados alike.
The compact design is sleek, but lacks the quality feel of devices using metal enclosures. The playlist organization takes some time to get used to, and users should be aware that lossless WMA files may not be supported. The NWZ-A17 comes with 64GB of storage, with a microSD slot for additional memory capacity. Even with a slower than expected file transfer speed, this digital audio player easily surpasses the audio quality and features of other players in this price range.
- long lasting 30-hour battery life
- Bluetooth wireless audio with AAC and aptX codec support
- FM radio
- S-Master HX digital amplification
- external microSD card slot for added storage
- playlist organization seems difficult to navigate
- lossless WMA files can be difficult to play back
- slow file transfer via USB
3. Pono Player
The Pono Player from Ayre Acoustics entered the market with much fanfare and passionate enthusiasm from co-creator and famed musician Neil Young. While the Pono Player is partly responsible for putting audiophile-quality sound in the hands of the average audio connoisseur, it is not necessarily the best of the high-resolution digital audio players available. However, the Ayre Acoustic DAC does indeed deliver high fidelity audio and the prism-shaped player, though seemingly awkward to carry around in a pocket, is a unique and welcome addition in the quality digital audio market.
The 8-hour battery life is reasonable, and even though it looks like it should be heavier, the yellow audio player is fairly lightweight. The touchscreen sensitivity and resolution are definitely nothing to brag about, but this is a dedicated high-resolution digital music player, not a consumer-grade multi-media device.
- high quality lossless audio file playback
- unique prism-shape design
- Ayre Acoustics DAC
- microSD card slot for memory card access
- touchscreen sensitivity is mediocre,
- slow file transfer speed via USB 2.0 connection,
- user interface design is not great,
- does not typically ship with on-board memory card.
4. Cowon Plenue 1
Competing with the best of the best in audio quality playback, the Cowon Plenue 1 is a favorite in audiophile circles. The clean sound, tonal separation, and wide soundstage are remarkable when listening through quality headphones. The physical design is simple, yet precise, and it speaks to the quality of the internal components.
The Plenue 1 is an audio player first, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the touchscreen is not going to win any awards for resolution or responsiveness, but it does the job. The 8-hour battery life is ok, but it can tend to drain quickly. And the headphone output is specifically designed for that – headphones. The output does not drive line level devices very well, so using it with an external audio system may be challenging.
- 128GB onboard storage with support for up to 200GB storage via microSD card slot
- extremely clean and clear audio
- support for all high-resolution audio file types
- battery can drain quickly
- headphone output does not drive line level device inputs very well
- below average screen resolution compared to current mobile device standards
5. Sony Walkman NW-ZX2
Sporting a premium price point of nearly $1,200, the high-definition Sony Walkman NW-ZX2 positions itself as a cut above the rest, and it could be argued that it indeed does excel in its design and quality. There are almost too many features to list in a short description of this music player, but let’s try: 128GB memory with microSD expansion slot, WiFi capable, Bluetooth wireless audio, S-Master HX digital amp, 33-hour battery life, and an Android operating system for use with apps, photos, movies and more.
The gold-plated copper chassis is solid and feels very high quality. The sound is absolutely immersive and handles expansive audio frequency reproduction with ease. The Android-based operating system is effective, but the processing seems a little slow and can lag when registering commands from the touchscreen. The NW-ZX2 is definitely an audiophile playback device worth considering if you also need the connectivity and convenience of a multi-function mobile device.
- audiophile sound quality
- Android operating system for apps and multi-media file support
- Wifi and Bluetooth NFC connectivity
- operating system can seem sluggish
- battery should be “burned in” to ensure maximum battery life and performance
- may be cost-prohibitive for some potential buyers
6. Apple iPod Touch
It’s hard to beat the convenience, dependability, and elegant design of the Apple iPod Touch. True, this doesn’t have audiophile-grade components, and it doesn’t provide a lot of onboard storage options, but the iPod touch with the upgraded A8 processor is a great portable digital music player, and more.
Still featuring a 4” touchscreen and camera, the iPod Touch is perfect for multi-media file playback, and it will even support lossless FLAC and uncompressed ALC audio files with the right apps. When looking for a reliable audio playback device, the iPod Touch is still a very worthy candidate. Storage sizes range from 16GB to 128GB, and there are plenty of colors to choose from.
- faster A8 processor improves operating system performance
- support for ALC and FLAC audio files
- app store access
- WiFi and Bluetooth capability
- not a high-definition audio player
- mediocre battery life
- especially when playing video files
7. Astell & Kern AK100
The boxy design of the Astell & Kern AK100 digital audio player is reminiscent of early-style mobile electronic devices with simple design and utilitarian functionality. But what the AK100 lacks in physical appeal, it more than makes up for with crystal-clear audiophile-quality digital audio playback. The sound separation and wide soundstage are impressive.
True, the small 320×240 screen, older format Bluetooth 3.0 connectivity, and large external volume knob aren’t going to win any style points, but the compact and effective package and superior audio quality of the AK100 is worth a look, especially if you can find a good used device on sale. Just be sure to update the device with the latest firmware to take advantage of current features and settings.
- long lasting 12-hour battery
- great sound quality
- compact package
- dual microSD card slots
- small screen
- external control knob can catch on clothing
- simplistic aesthetic design
- older Bluetooth 3.0 standard
8. Samsung Galaxy Player
Although it was recently discontinued, the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 is a great alternative to the Apple iPod Touch. The 8GB internal storage isn’t much to write home about, but the expandable microSD card slot provides the user with plenty of options for memory expansion. The Galaxy Player 4.2 features WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, a camera, and it even has two features the iPod Touch is lacking: a built-in FM radio and GPS.
Finding an MP3 player with this much functional flexibility can be a challenge, giving the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 a step up in terms of sheer utility. There are a few notable issues you’ll want to know before searching for a quality used player. First, the built-in camera is less impressive than what you’ll find in the iPod Touch, the GPS functionality can be intermittent at times, and you will likely need to be purchasing a microSD card to expand the diminutive on-board 8GB capacity.
- expandable microSD card slot
- FM radio
- Android OS
- small built-in storage capacity
- GPS can be intermittent
- not all Android apps will perform well on this device
- the Galaxy Player 4.2 has been discontinued by Samsung
9. SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip
In a world of ever-smaller audio playback devices, the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip delivers quality audio playback in a compact package that does not compromise on the user interface. There are several color choices to choose from and the convenient clip-on design allows the Clip Zip to tag along on your workout, commute, or other adventures.
While it is small in size, the feature set is rather impressive. The Sansa Cip Zip includes a stop watch feature, FM radio, voice recording support, several audio playback file options including FLAC, a microSD card slot for expanded storage, and a 15-hour battery life. The playback sound quality is not going to meet audiophile standards, but it is perfectly suited for the average listener with a need for a feature-rich compact music player.
- FM radio
- voice recording
- AAC and FLAC audio file support
- small screen and navigation button pad
- 15-hour battery, expandable storage
- firmware updates can cause unexpected results
- overall reliability of the operating system is average to less than average
- poor quality headphones included
10. iPod Shuffle
The iPod Shuffle is a solid MP3 player in a very compact package. In fact, its small size can be a mark against the Shuffle, as many users report easily losing the tiny devices. The 2GB storage capacity isn’t going to satisfy a memory-hungry music library, but the 12-hour battery life, clip-on design, and lightweight package allow the iPod Shuffle to accompany you on just about any outing.
Besides the notably limited storage and tiny physical size, the control buttons can be easily pressed when clipping or unclipping the device from clothing. This is a small annoyance for the otherwise compact and functional design. The navigational control pad push buttons are an advantage over the iPod Nano, and the multi-language VoiceOver feature makes this a hit for global consumers.
- long lasting battery life
- easy control via navigational push buttons
- integrated clip
- full iTunes compatibility
- easy to press buttons when clipping/unclipping device
- only 2GB built-in storage capacity
11. Sony W Series Walkman
Swimmers are going to enjoy this portable MP3 player from Sony. The W-series Walkman is a fully integrated one-piece digital music player and earbud system featuring a waterproof design that works well for watersport enthusiasts. The control buttons on the earbuds are fairly easy to use by touch and the overall fit is generally comfortable.
The Sony W-series Walkman is available with 4GB or 8GB storage capacity and the 10-hour playback time is pretty decent. However, there are a few downsides to this unique device. The overall sound quality is not the best, the media management software from Sony is probably better left unused, and consistent fitting has been a problem for some users. It should also be noted that these are not Bluetooth headphones; the W-series is a complete player and playback system.
- long battery life
- one-piece player and playback design
- waterproof to 2 meters
- max volume level may be too low for some listeners
- sound quality is OK but not great
- cumbersome media management software
12. Samsung YP-R0
The Samsung YP-R0 MP3 player is adequate, but just doesn’t impress the user with its navigational interface and dated design. The external microSD card storage option is nice, the 30-hour playback time is remarkable, and the included FM radio is a useful feature. Just don’t expect to get great results from the camera and movie playback; the YP-R0 has a rather small screen.
The audio output is solid, and support for FLAC files will allow the listener to enjoy high-definition music. The headphones included with the Samsung YP-R0 are even worth keeping. This is a fine device, but the dated design, user interface, and availability of more competitive solutions causes the YP-R0 to rank last on this list.
- FM radio
- plays videos
- 30-hour battery life
- microSD slot for expanded storage
- quality construction
- good audio quality
- older style user interface,
- inefficient navigation options,
- small screen for video playback,
- discontinued by Samsung.