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Best portable MP3 players 2020: 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 2020.

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 the best portable music players.

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

Starting with our 2019 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 – you'll be surprised at what you can get for your money these days.

All of these players support MP3 and AAC files of course, but we can all do better than that. To that end, most 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 streaming built-in, others have functionality that mirrors a phone. 

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

Best portable music players 2020

1. Cowon Plenue D2

A class-leading performer with the features and practicality to boot.

SPECIFICATIONS

Storage: 64GB + mircoSD expandable | Screen size: 3.7-inch | Battery life: 45hr | File support: 24-bit/192kHz PCM, DSD128 | Dimensions: 5.3 x 7.9 x 1.5 cm | Weight: 97g

Reasons to Buy

Balanced, dynamic and punchy
Pocket-friendly size
More subtle than predecessor (Plenue D)

Reasons to Avoid

Interface looks dated

The new PD2 (or Plenue D2) is the latest edition of a 2018 What Hi-Fi? Award winner, the Plenue D (see below) – and now it's an Award winner itself, claiming a 2019 award. It makes clear gains for its £60 price hike: it sounds clearer and subtler, taking transparency to the next level. 

Add to that class-leading sound with an expandable 64GB memory, both 2.5mm (balanced) and 3.5mm outputs and PCM 24-bit/192kHz and DSD128 file support, and you have yourself a winner. Looking for the best portable music player on a budget? This is it.

Read the full review: Cowon Plenue D2

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

2. 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. Each new generation invariably proving 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 benchmark.

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. 

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

Best portable music players 2020

(Image credit: Sony)

3. 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.

It 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.

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 2020

(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 under £1000/$1000, the Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 may look a little less than normal. Still, that suits this player's extraordinary spread of abilities. 

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.

Now that a successor has just arrived in the form of the A&norma SR25, the SR15 can currently be picked up at a tasty discount. Hurry while end of stocks last!

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

Best portable music players 2020

(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.

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.

Read the full review: Apple iPod Touch (2019)

Best portable music players 2020

(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

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.

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.

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

Best portable music players 2020

(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.

The SE100 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. It even retains the A&K trademark DAC alter-ego, which allows it to be the sound-enhancing middleman between a computer and headphones.

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

Best portable music players 2020

(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 the one of the best music players around at its price.

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.

Read the full review: Fiio M11 Pro review

Best portable music players 2020

(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. It’s not cheap and we have minor quibbles with the controls, but when it comes to the business of playing music it’s impossible to find holes in the performance. 

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 2020

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

For the money, this is a really tough portable music player to fault. For your money you get a feature rich device capable of supporting 24bit/192kHz sample rates and FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, WAV, WMA and MP3 file formats. 

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. The result is a detailed, sophisticated and well-defined sound. 

Read the full review: Cowon Plenue D

Best portable music players 2020

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 under a grand, 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, you can expect layers upon layers of depth, detail and dynamism with real texture. 

A talented machine you'll find it tough to put down.

Read the full review: Astell & Kern Kann

Best portable music players 2020

(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. 

But 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. 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