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Best portable MP3 players 2021: from budget to hi-res music players

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 memory and battery on your phone or simply need your on-the-go sound to be as good as it can, look no further than our educated 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's 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, and ever-reliable Sony Walkmans and the Apple Touch in between of course. 

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. Nearly all of them also support hi-res DSD and PCM files too, 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. 

Some can even 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.

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

1. Astell & Kern A&norma SR25

Astell & Kern has squeezed even more performance out of its entry-level player.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 64GB + microSD expandable | Screen size: 3.6-inch | Battery life: 21hrs | Dimensions: 10.8 x 6.3 x 1.6cm | Weight: 178g

Reasons to Buy

Sets benchmark for transparency
Native DSD playback
Improved battery and UI

Reasons to Avoid

Pushes entry-level price higher

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 (below) 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

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Sony)

2. Sony NW-A55L

An improvement on last year’s Award-winning budget Walkman

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 16GB + mircoSD expandable | Screen size: 3.1-inch | Battery life: 45hr | Dimensions: 9.7 x 5.6 x 1.1 cm | Weight: 99g

Reasons to Buy

Clean, insightful, upfront sound
Bluetooth receiver/transmitter
All-encompassing file support

Reasons to Avoid

MicroSD card required

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

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

3. Astell & Kern Kann Alpha

Listening to hi-res music on the Kann Alpha is a pure joy

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 64GB + mircoSD expandable | Screen size: 4.1-inch | Battery life: 14.5hr | File support: 24-bit/192kHz PCM, DSD128 | Dimensions: 11.7 x 6.8 x 2.5cm | Weight: 316g

Reasons to Buy

Expansive presentation
Punchy bass
Good levels of detail

Reasons to Avoid

Clunky streaming service integration

Astell & Kern is one of the best-known providers of premium portable music players, and its Kann Alpha is the third player in the Kann series – yet the company's first player to implement Bluetooth 5.0 (complete with aptX HD). It's well featured elsewhere too: 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.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern Kann Alpha

Astell & Kern A&norma SR15

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

4. Astell & Kern A&norma SR15

An all-rounder for DAC, pre-amp and quality sound

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 64GB + mircoSD expandable | Screen size: 3.3-inch | Battery life: 9hr | Dimensions: 9.9 × 5.7 x 1.6 cm | Weight: 154g

Reasons to Buy

Subtle and clear sound
Intuitive interface
DAC and preamp

Reasons to Avoid

Design may not appeal to all

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

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Apple)

5. Apple iPod Touch (2019)

The last of the iPod family proves it still has its place.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 32GB/128GB/256GB | Screen size: 4-inch | Battery life: 40hr | Dimensions: 12.3 x 5.9 x 0.6 cm | Weight: 88g

Reasons to Buy

Spritely, entertaining sound
Good picture quality
Long battery life

Reasons to Avoid

Nothing at this price

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)

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

6. Astell & Kern A&futura SE200

Offering a choice of DACs and a benchmark-setting performance.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 256GB + microSD expandable | Screen size: 5-inch | Battery life: 14hr | Dimensions: 13 x 7.7 x 1.6cm | Weight: 274g

Reasons to Buy

Articulate and subtle performer
Sonically versatile
Lots of features

Reasons to Avoid

One output sufficient

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

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Future)

7. Astell & Kern A&futura SE100

If you have the budget, this portable music player is a no-brainer.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 128GB + microSD expandable | Screen size: 5-inch | Battery life: 11hr | Dimensions: 13 x 7.5 x 1.5cm | Weight: 240g

Reasons to Buy

Hugely capable sound
Extensive file support
Bright, punchy screen

Reasons to Avoid

Sharp edges

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

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Future)

8. FiiO M11 Pro

It is possible to buy a better PMP than this... but not without spending an awful lot more money.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 64GB + microSD expandable | Screen size: 5.15-inch | Battery life: 9.5hr | Dimensions: 13 x 7 x 1.7cm | Weight: 232g

Reasons to Buy

Articulate, weighty and subtle sound
Great UI
Extensive functionality

Reasons to Avoid

Could sound even broader

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

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

9. Astell & Kern A&ultima SP1000M

Pretty much faultless when it comes to sound quality.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 128GB + microSD expandable | Screen size: 4.1-inch | Battery life: 10hr | Dimensions: 11.7 x 6.7 x 1.6cm | Weight: 203g

Reasons to Buy

Small and light
Clean, clear sound
Articulate and detailed

Reasons to Avoid

Controls are occasionally fiddly

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

Best portable music players 2021

10. Cowon Plenue D

Great sound without the cost.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 32GB + mircoSD expandable | Screen size: 3.7-inch | Battery life: 100hr | Dimensions: 7.7 x 5.3 x 1.5 cm | Weight: 94g

Reasons to Buy

Punchy bass
Insightful midrange
Good tonal balance

Reasons to Avoid

Nothing of note at this price

This isn't the latest and greatest budget Cowon Plenue player (that'd be the Plenue D2 nearer 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

Best portable music players 2021

11. Astell & Kern Kann

For those that don't mind spending a little more for the ultimate in high-res sound quality.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 64GB + dualSD expandable | Screen size: 3.3-inch | Battery life: 14hr | Dimensions: 11.5 × 7.1 x 2.5 cm | Weight: 278g

Reasons to Buy

Good array of features
Superb detail
Strong, dynamic presentation

Reasons to Avoid

Design might not appeal to everyone

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

Best portable music players 2021

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

12. Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000

Not very portable or accessibly priced, but it sounds like no other PMP we’ve heard.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 512GB + 1TB microSD expandable | Screen size: 5-inch | Battery life: 8hr | Dimensions: 13 x 8 x 1.6 cm | Weight: 430g

Reasons to Buy

Best music player we've heard
Streaming features
Gorgeous and intuitive

Reasons to Avoid

Average battery life
Chunky build

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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  • Escudos999
    I definitely think either, or both, the Shanling M0 or new Q1 DAP/DACs should be on this list, great UI, flexibility, sound and prices £80 for M0 and around £110 for Q1. I love the 1950s retro style of the Q1.
    Reply
  • Blasterinn
    Where is the Fiio M15? The Ibasso players and Hiby too?
    And this astell & kern adoration is getting a bit tired, they are quality players but do not deserve all this adoration.
    How about Luxury Precision P6 R2R DAP?
    I just think this list is in desperate need of a rethink/refresh.
    Reply
  • Navanski
    I own an LG V30 smartphone. It cost me €150 new, open box. It has a quad DAC and can drive my 300ohm HD580s.
    Previous to getting this phone I bought a Fiio X3 mk II and a Fiio M6. The UI on the phone is many times better than either of the DAPs. In a blind test I doubt very much whether I would be able to distinguish the audio output of the phone against either DAP.
    Not only that but the V30 is really good phone despite it's age.
    I am selling both the DAPs if I can find some one who is willing to buy them, given the above. LG phones are just killing the DAP.
    Reply
  • crunchbangyou
    This is a freaking Astell & Kern list, needs a serious rethinking.

    @Navanski - Completely agree with you. LG phones with dacs are so much better for a great price. Apart from owning two FiiO players and a FiiO amp, I have a LG G7 which I use only for music. Also picked a brand new LG G7 One to stock till LG G7 gives away. The user experience is so much better and no compromise on SQ too.
    Reply
  • Navanski
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    You can listen to music on your phone of course, but if you want optimum sound quality, only a dedicated player will do.

    Best portable music players 2019: from budget to hi-res music : Read more
    I own an LG V30 smartphone. It cost me €150 new, open box. It has a quad DAC and can drive my 300ohm HD580s.
    Previous to getting this phone I bought a Fiio X3 mk II and a Fiio M6. The UI on the phone is many times better than either of the DAPs. In a blind test I doubt very much whether I would be able to distinguish the audio output of the phone against either DAP.
    Not only that but the V30 is really good phone despite it's age. This was a top spec flagship phone less than 4 years ago
    I am selling both the DAPs if I can find some one who is willing to buy them, given the above. LG phones are just killing the DAP.

    Disagree with this and John Darko's similar experience if you think you can.
    Reply