There’s no getting away from it: the Apple iPod in all its guises was a great portable music player. But the relentless progression of Apple's miraculously versatile iPhone all but took over music-playing duties for most users, making the Touch essentially redundant as time wore on. When Apple killed the iPod after 21 years (!), its demise simply felt like an inescapable inevitability.
So where do you go now if you simply want a dedicated music player? What if you're after a better-sounding option or a portable player that, unlike the iPhone, plays hi-res music out of the box? The good news is that there are plenty of excellent alternatives out there that can offer these things and more to fill the void left in the wake of the much-missed iPod touch.
The below guide lists the best portable hi-res music players that we've tried and tested in recent years across a variety of budgets, with each offering its own set of features, design and performance quality to suit your needs.
How to choose the best iPod Touch alternative for you
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All of the portable music players listed below have decent storage, but note that some can be expanded further using a microSD memory card and thus can accommodate an entire library of hi-res tunes.
In terms of resolution, these players often support hi-res 24-bit/192kHz files and beyond, with several supporting DSD and MQA decoding and file playback. Some can even double up as a DAC to enhance the sound from your laptop – we've listed the perks and specifications of each player below. Many let you even download your favourite streaming apps, and deliver sound quality beyond what you'd get from a smartphone.
We have tested and rounded up the best iPod alternatives across a range of prices from the likes of Astell & Kern, FiiO and Sony. You'll need to budget accordingly for a decent pair of headphones or maybe even a DAC, but get everything right and you'll have a formidable on-the-fly system.
The SR35 stretches the definition of ‘entry level’, sitting a rung or two up the ladder from the affordable Sony NW-A306 and even pricier than the previous 'entry level' SR25 MKII it replaces. But there's no arguing with the astonishing level of performance you get from it.
The excellent SR35 boasts many of the features that made its five-star, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning predecessor so successful – including three headphone outputs (3.5mm, 4.4mm and 2.5mm), native playback of MQA, DSD256 and PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz files, 64GB of built-in storage (expandable by up to 1TB via a microSD card), and the neat ability to use the player as a performance-enhancing DAC device between your wired headphones and, say, laptop.
There's not a chance of the SR35 missing a beat with the music you send its way. The five-star player has the punch and rhythmic drive to keep you tapping along to upbeat tracks, and the insight to draw you into the details of those calmer ones. Presentation is hugely likeable, with a tonal balance slightly on the rich side and a combination of power and finesse that feels very mature for a source at this level that most headphones will get along with just fine. Happy days all around.
Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&norma SR35
How about a customisable PMP with interchangeable DAC modules? That's the idea here – and we liked it so much, we gave it What Hi-Fi? 2021 and 2022 Awards trophies.
To personally tailor your sound, the SE180 goes one step further than the slightly older SE200 (which has two user-selectable DAC configurations built into the player) in that it features an interchangeable DAC module design. The concept: Astell & Kern releases a series of DAC modules, all with different sonic characters, so that owners can purchase them and swap them in over the standard supplied module if they so wish.
The SE180 is an all-in-one player in itself, too, with the default module containing the ESS ES9038PRO DAC. It supports 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256 and MQA audio and has 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs to cater for a wide range of headphones.
With built-in wi-fi as well as direct access to streaming service apps in its menu, the SE180 doesn’t make hard work of your music however you would like to play it. Whether you consider the modular design valuable or not, even straight from the box, the SE180 is one of the best performance-per-pound offerings in the company’s line-up.
Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&futura SE180
As an affordable alternative to the iPod Touch, the new NW-A306 fits the brief perfectly. It's compact and fits in palms and pockets alike comfortably, and we love the scalloped textured back that gives us a good grip without sacrificing on style. Even Apple didn't think of that.
The NW-A306's connections are minimal, but that's no bad thing: the USB-C cable lets you charge, transfer files and use the Walkman as a DAC, while the 3.5mm headphone jack can be used with a variety of good-to-great headphones. The available onboard storage is rather small in comparison to other players, but it is possible to expand the storage thanks to the microSD slot.
Internally, NW-A306 is packed to the gill with features: the hi-res file support is extensive and excellent at this affordable price, the full Android OS means it effectively operates similarly to a smartphone (for better or worse) and lets you download your favourite music streaming app, and it even supports LDAC and aptX codecs over Bluetooth.
The Sony player is adept enough to turn its hand to various genres and can even discern the differences in file qualities, while all sounding comfortable to listen to for long periods. It's a pleasingly detailed and clean performance, and we're impressed at how mature and evenly balanced it sounds for this price. We'd like a tad more dynamic punch and drive to songs that need it though; the Sony can sound a touch reserved when a song demands outright fun or aggression.
Definitely a neat compact player worthy of your consideration, especially if your budget doesn’t stretch to the more premium Astell & Kern SR35.
Read the full review: Sony NW-A306
While our lists of the best portable music players are somewhat dominated by Astell & Kern, it's been gratifying to find some market variety in the shape of the Sony NW-A306 (above) and the recently-released FiiO M11S. The Chinese brand hasn't quite cracked the nut by edging out the more established class leader in this 'entry-level' price bracket, but it's done a fine job of at least making us think that there could be other runners in this particular race.
The M11S is a decent iPod Touch alternative, a chunky, well-built item that benefits from a logically laid out interface that most people will become au fait with within a few minutes. The feature list is admirable, with full hi-res audio support, multiple headphone outputs, streaming via Bluetooth (LDAC, aptX HD, LHDC codecs supported) and AirPlay.
Sound-wise, the M11S offers a wide-open, comfortable sound that's easy to listen to. There's sonic clarity and openness, but it does tend to give its songs a more easygoing, unobtrusive presentation instead of opting for a fun, expressive punch. It's not quite as adept as the Astell & Kern players in underpinning the rhythmic elements of a song, so you might find peppy, upbeat numbers slightly dulled by FiiO's lack of fizz.
Still, it's great to see more choices appear in this 'entry-level' price bracket, and the M11S is a solid alternative with its smooth sound and pleasingly broad feature set.
Read the full review: FiiO M11S
How we choose the best Apple iPod Touch alternatives
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our doors.
Of course, testing portable iPod Touch alternatives doesn't always require such facilities – though we do try each player using various audiophile headphones, both in wired and (if the player supports it) wireless varieties to thoroughly appraise the sound quality. Most importantly, every product we review is compared to the best in its price and class – whether that's one standout player or a few we favour the highest among the many we listen to each year for reviews and What Hi-Fi? Awards judging. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we keep our Award winners nearby to enable unbiased comparisons between new products and ones we know to have performed highly in the category.
We are always impartial and do our best to make sure we're hearing every product at its very best, so we'll try plenty of different types of music and give each plenty of listening time (and time to run in). It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a product has noteworthy features (enviable battery life, removable DAC modules, full MQA decoding) we'll ensure that a big part of our testing involves testing the claims made by its makers.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the entire team, rather than an individual reviewer, to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict. At What Hi-Fi?, we are proud to have consistently delivered honest, unbiased reviews for over 45 years.
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These are the best portable music players