This overlooked feature turns your portable music player into the ultimate desktop hi-fi device

Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 plugged into a laptop and headphones
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Portable music players, PMPs, DAPs, MP3 players – whatever you want to call them, these dinky, dedicated music machines will to many people seem as redundant today as car aux-cassette adaptors. Your phone can store and play music, access stored music from the cloud, and stream from any service to its heart’s content. It may not play all audio file formats or qualities, nor feed music to your headphones or connected system with the quality of a good music player – alas, that’s why they still exist! – but for most people a phone will be a good enough gateway to music playback. And that’s OK.

If you do, however, care for sound quality more than most and are on the fence about investing in such a source for your portable (and perhaps also hi-fi) set-up, perhaps I can give you that final little push over it. So, here it goes…

What if I told you that there are music players with a bonus feature that makes them more than just superior sounding to, and storage savvier than, phones? It struck me that a music player can be the ultimate portable and desktop device if it has the bonus functionality of accepting other digital sources and operating as a DAC/headphone amplifier. And an increasing number do.

Indeed, just this month FiiO launched the M23, which can receive audio over Bluetooth and use its built-in DAC and headphone amplifier to convert and output it. The Award-winning Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 is another player that can act as a Bluetooth DAC/headphone amp, as well as accept PC/laptop/computer audio via its USB-C input. Meanwhile, our favourite budget player, the Sony NW-A306, can also accept wired sources for alter-ego DAC operation (but not Bluetooth’d ones; it has a Bluetooth transmitter but not a receiver).

For a period I used an older version of the entry-level Astell & Kern player this way, as the sound-boosting middleman between my MacBook Air and wired headphones (and would still today had I not the fortune of having Chord Electronics' standalone Hugo 2 DAC). You shouldn’t expect a £500-odd (as it was) player to perform as well as a dedicated USB DAC costing the same money – just as you shouldn’t expect a £1000 phone to sound like a £1000 player – but the quality was in line with an external DAC I owned back then that was just under half the player’s asking price, and I liked how the tonal balance and character mirrored that when it operated as a traditional player.

It’s a not-too-dissimilar story with the current A&norma SR35 (£799/$799/AU$1299). As penned in our SR35 review, “that same sonic signature also shines through our favoured Grado RS1x headphones when the SR35 handily steps in as a budget-level DAC between them and a Macbook Pro. Think somewhere between AudioQuest DragonFly Red [£170/$250/AU$420] and Cobalt [£269/$300/AU$600] DAC levels.”

You could of course simply buy a standalone DAC to boost portable (phone-based) and desktop (laptop-based) setups, but for those who want to a) put their distracting phone down, and/or b) have one single device to deliver excellent on-the-go sound with better storage and battery life than a phone, plus a boost to their desktop sound, a music player with such talents is a fine answer indeed.

Bonus desktop DAC/headphone amplifier operation aside, PMP manufacturers are realising the logic of players working as player/DAC/digital source hybrids across portable, desktop and hi-fi scenarios and increasingly offer extra features. For example, the Fiio M23 can be powered over USB to enable a ‘Super-High’ gain mode that delivers a hefty 1000m/W per channel at 32 ohms, while several players out there can operate solely as a digital source when their USB output is connected to an external DAC or amplifier with a USB input. It all piles on the relevance points as a versatile digital device.

So are music players really redundant today? For most people, sure, but they do still sit in an alcove of significance.


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Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10 years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.