best portable mp3 players 2021: from budget to hi-res music players

© Provided by What Hi-Fi? Best portable MP3 players 2021

Best portable music and MP3 players Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best portable music players you can buy in 2021.

Whether you want to save your phone's memory and battery or simply need your on-the-go sound to be as lossless and/or hi-res as it can possibly be, look no further than our pick of the best portable music players on the planet.

With the demise of the Apple iPod in recent years (only the Touch survives, and it is included below), the music player market has plenty of reputable players in it today.

Starting with our current 2020 What Hi-Fi? Award winners, we've rounded-up the best portable music players across a range of prices, from budget Cowons right through to higher-end Astell & Kerns, plus ever-reliable Sony Walkmans and the Apple Touch in between.

You'll be surprised at what you can get for your money these days. Every player supports MP3 and AAC files of course, but we can all do better than that in 2021. Nearly all of the models below also support hi-res DSD, FLAC and PCM files plus native MQA playback, so you can listen to downloaded digital music in the best sound quality possible.

Many have microSD memory slots, too, so your music collection need never stop growing. It also means you can keep all your audio at the highest quality possible without worrying about running out of space. 

There are even those that can double up as a DAC to enhance the sound between your smartphone/laptop and headphones/speakers. Some have built-in access to streaming services, others have functionality that mirrors a phone. 

But all in this list below share one thing: excellent sound quality.

High-resolution audio: everything you need to know

Now into its third iteration, Cowon has added Bluetooth, a volume wheel and a dual DAC to its 2021-issue bijou matchbox-sized player – and produced another class leader. The cracking new volume dial on the top right of the player feels like an homage to Astell & Kern players (several of which are listed below) and makes this little machine feel much more expensive than it is. 

The PD3 boasts a seriously impressive battery life of up to 45 hours if you’re playing MP3 files, or a solid 30 hours when listening to hi-res files at 'normal' volume. There is support for 24-bit/192kHz WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF and DSD128 file compatibility too – and that support is native, so DSD files aren’t converted to PCM during playback.

This is a talented player that's sonically similar in character to its older siblings, but there are small upgrades here in terms of rhythm, timing, detail and musicality. It’s important to note that wi-fi streaming is still off the menu – so you will have to go without on-the-go streaming of Tidal, Deezer and others – but if you have the files and like the idea of pairing your portable music player either to a wireless speaker or pair of headphones for one of the smallest wireless systems you’ve seen, there’s no better shout currently on the market for the money. We gave it five stars across the board – what more do you need to know? 

Read the full review: Cowon Plenue D3

The Kann Alpha is the third player in the Kann series, yet the first Astell & Kern player to implement Bluetooth 5.0 (complete with aptX HD). It boasts a more powerful built-in headphone amplifier than the previous Kann series players it succeeds, too. And thanks to the rearrangement of various components and the use of smaller resistors and capacitors, it promises added power in a smaller and more portable chassis.

It's still slightly bulky but will fit in a coat pocket and supports most music file formats, including  MQA, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and native DSD256. It's similarly wide-ranging when it comes to wireless codec support (LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, AAC and, naturally, SBC Bluetooth). The Alpha also supports MQA-CD playback, by way of Astell & Kern’s CD-Ripper. There's 24-bit and DSD file compatibility; three headphone outputs (2.5mm and a new balanced 4.4mm, plus a 3.5mm unbalanced headphone jack/optical); a microSD card slot to expand the 64GB of onboard storage; and support for 33 music streaming services over wi-fi (although these are a little hit and miss to implement). 

The biggest selling point? Sound quality. We cannot fault its sonic chops. The Alpha is as meticulous and honest as it is zealous, with an expansive presentation, punchy bass and good levels of detail. Fundamentally, players such as this must deliver hi-res music in a portable design – and it delivers this in spades. Live recordings are leant a degree of spaciousness and realism rarely heard.

Read the full Astell & Kern Kann Alpha review

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 is the latest in what has been a long line of excellent, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning, ‘entry-level’ portable music players. And each new generation invariably proves more talented than the last. 

The SR25 doesn’t let us down, propelling its lineage forward from the 2018-introduced A&norma SR15 (at spot four in this list) to set a new performance – and battery life – benchmark. That's why it's our 2020 Product of the Year in the PMP category.

Notably more expressive and eloquent than any other portable music player we’ve encountered at this price, and far beyond anything that smartphones are capable of, the SR25 demonstrates just how good music on the move can sound, while also remaining reasonably affordable. And we stress the word 'reasonably': because while it pushes performance forward, it also pushes what's acceptable as an entry-level price.

Still, if you budget can stretch to it, this is a truly stunning player, with superb build quality to match. 

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&norma SR25

In the six years since Sony introduced its first high-resolution Walkman, the Japanese giant has offered hi-res audio support across a variety of portable players, from the very affordable to the very high end.

The firm is most focused on the budget end of the market, though, and last year reaped its reward in the form of a 2019 What Hi-Fi? Award for the NW-A45. Clearly not one to rest on its laurels, Sony has now replaced that budget belter with this NW-A55L, and with it has set a new benchmark for affordable hi-res portable player.

In fact, it picked up a 2020 What Hi-Fi? Award for its trouble.

The NW-A55L is fuller and cleaner, fleshing out notes (the bass is notably better defined) and presenting them with a more upfront sound. If you’re looking for a sonic upgrade over your phone, the Sony will offer it across the board. 

Read the full review: Sony NW-A55L

Our 2019 Product of the Year Award winner and one of the best portable music players at around this price bracket, the Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 is the predecessor to the A&norma SR25 that sits at the top of this list (which means it can currently be picked up at a tasty discount.)

Boasting an easy-to-use interface, stacks of storage and plenty of hi-res file support – not to mention serious levels of detail and a dynamic sound that's synonymous with the brand – it promises a severe step up from your smartphone sound.

The device can also be used as a DAC/preamp, allowing you to use it to enhance the performance of your smartphone and/or laptop.

Hurry while end of stocks last!

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&norma SR15

Given the iPod Touch’s extensive feature set and comparably low price, it would only need to be decent for us to be able to recommend it. However, this seventh generation is more than that: it proves there is still a place for the iPod in this market of smartphone streaming and premium hi-res PMPs.

In terms of tonality and overall character, it is a very Apple-sounding product. It gets everything right, without overstretching itself in any regard. Balance is even, rhythms snap in time and there is enough dynamic interest to discern between varying moods and genre. Natural, neutral... typically Apple, in other words.

That's before you consider its HD screen, extensive app access, gaming capabilities and even front and rear-facing cameras. It is essentially a smartphone without the cellular connection, making it perhaps the most versatile of the best portable music players on this list. Hence it comes highly recommended.

Read the full review: Apple iPod Touch (2019)

Another 2020 What Hi-Fi? Award winner, the A&futura SE200 is the first portable music player to give the user a choice of DACs; there’s ESS’s latest chip in a dual configuration, as well as one of AKM's flagship chips as found in Astell & Kern’s flagship SP2000 (below). Why? It’s down to letting the user pick the sonic signature they prefer. Each DAC type feeds 2.5mm balanced and the standard 3.5mm outputs, and has a set of audio filters for further fine-tuning.

This gives you an unprecedented level of control over how the unit sounds.

Though it does seem a little unnecessary. Ultimately we don’t see the need for the inferior-sounding ESS performance when the AKM output performs so much better. But that aside, the company has still managed to set a new performance benchmark for the price with the SE200. It serves up a sound that trumps every Astell & Kern player before it, bar the flagship SP2000. Which is no mean feat.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&futura SE200

For those with grand portable ambitions, high-end headphones and – crucially – the budget, the supreme SE100 (our priciest 2019 PMP Award winner) is both a luxury and a logical buy.

As a quick peruse of this list will tell you, Astell & Kern knows a thing or two about making superb high-end music players. But the SE100 takes this up a notch – it represents a serious evolution of Astell & Kern’s already excellent previous efforts, delivering an engaging sound, bold design and a feature-heavy music player experience. 

Sonically, it's a real step up from A&K's cheaper models. That's thanks to its 32-bit, eight-channel ESS Sabre ES9038Pro DAC and its crystal oscillator clock’s jitter-reducing efforts. What’s most noticeable is its stark openness, which not only expands the presentation’s soundstage, but also serves as an invitation for more detail to be heard.

It even retains the A&K trademark DAC alter-ego, which allows it to be the sound-enhancing middleman between a computer and headphones.

Of course, you will need a headphone partner of equally decent calibre to make the most of the SE100’s transparency. Any less would be sacrilege.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&futura SE100

For over a dozen years now, digital audio obsessive Fiio has been living a bit of a double life. In its native China and throughout Asia, the brand is acknowledged as one of the frontrunners in portable digital audio players and their peripheries. Here, though, Fiio is much more of an underground success, a kind of hipster alternative to all those gauche Apple and Sony PMPs – and its M11 is widely regarded as one of the best music players around at its price.

One listen and you can see why. The M11 Pro (2mm thicker than its non-Pro variant) does the brand proud: it's an intuitive Android-based player with a hugely likeable and entertaining sound. 

Indeed, it sounds as good as anything at this money and better than most. The soundstage isn’t quite as expansive as some rivals, but it's still far from cramped. It doesn’t force anything unduly, but the M11 Pro is impressively prompt where tempos and overall rhythm management is concerned. And not at the expense of weight.

Sure, there are better-sounding PMPs around. But you'd have to spend a lot more money to best this.

Read the full review: Fiio M11 Pro review

This near-flagship model is pretty much faultless when it comes to sound quality. But it's not perfect. It's pricey, for starters. And we have some minor quibbles with the controls – while the unit is smaller than its predecessor, it still requires two hands to operate, most noticeably to reach the screen on/off button. The jogwheel is easy to reach for a right-hander's thumb, albeit it requires a fair old scroll to make noticeable volume adjustments. We also found ourselves knocking it unintentionally from time to time. Perhaps we’re just a bit clumsy.

However, when it comes to the all-important business of playing music, it’s impossible to find holes in the performance. The presentation is clean, clear, punchy and detailed, and music sounds as it should. Its crisp transparency can make similarly priced machines sound dull, muffled or lifeless. And more affordable players? They don't stand a chance.

Astell & Kern listened to user feedback and made a machine that's smaller and lighter than the company's flagship. And now, we’re delighted to say, it’s our turn to do the listening.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&ultima SP100M

This isn't the latest and greatest budget Cowon Plenue player (that'd be the Plenue D3 at the top of this list), but for its modest asking price it's a really tough player to fault. Your very reasonable outlay gets you a feature-rich device capable of supporting 24bit/192kHz sample rates and FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, WAV, WMA and MP3 file formats. 

It's spec'd pretty well, too. A 3.7-inch colour touchscreen, 32GB of storage (upgradeable to 128GB via microSD), 100-hour battery life (playing MP3s) and solid-yet-lightweight build quality all make this a premium product at a low price. 

And it sounds pretty great, to boot. It boasts more insight than most similarly priced rivals, and the Plenue D has a solid control of its tonal balance too. Big bass drums don’t overpower the vocal, the treble can soar without feeling strained or harsh – the Plenue D is an even-handed performer.

Instruments are given enough space to breathe, and the D's good organisational ability manages to separate one disparate element from another while maintaining a cohesive and coherent sound.

The result is detailed, sophisticated and well-defined. Just how we like it.

Read the full review: Cowon Plenue D

Arguably the ultimate high resolution portable music player in this price bracket, the Kann's solid build combines with impressive battery life and a long list of features.

There are both unbalanced (3.5mm) and balanced (2.5mm) outputs, aptX Bluetooth for wireless streaming at better-than-CD quality, and native support for 32bit/384kHz and DSD256 files. 

As for the performance, there’s lashings of depth, detail, and dynamism that will make you reluctant to take off your headphones. It keep instruments precisely organised in a spacious presentation, while bass drums are conveyed with tenacity and force – the Kann digs down into the lower frequencies and presents them with a good deal of thump so you get a clear indication of the drummer’s force.

Even when fed lower resolution tracks via streaming services, the Kann maintains its character. While there’s an expected drop in detail, it’s still punchy and fun. If you want to show off how impressive good hi-fi can be, it’s not compulsory to buy more hi-res files.

Admittedly the aesthetics might raise a few eyebrows. But make no mistake, this is a talented machine you'll struggle to put down.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern Kann

Not many portable music players will find common ground with the SP2000 – not in terms of price, build or performance. This is a one-of-a-kind player, which is as impractically portable as it is inaccessibly priced.

If it was a car, it would be a Bentley Arnage – a luxurious ride for special occasions, rather than something to use for the weekly shop.

As a high-end music player – both as a straight-up PMP in a desirable headphones set-up and as a streaming-capable source for your speaker-led hi-fi – the A&ultima SP2000 is the sort of musical and multi-talented device that’s otherwise hard to come by. 

Its neutral balance opts for refinement and sophistication over outright liveliness, but that’s no criticism. This is a subtle presentation, rather than a barnstormer, which befits its high-end price tag. Forgive its weight and average battery life, and you won’t be sorry you chose this fantastic-sounding device.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000

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