For some odd reason, the technology used to listen to some of our favorites tunes and other forms of audio has stagnated, taking a backseat to the likes of our cell phones, television sets, and laptop computers. Some may blame our incessant need for convenience for this phenomenon, sticking with subpar and low-fi audio codecs such as MP3s that sacrifice sound for portability. We appeared to be on the right track with compact discs (though we all can attest to the fate of those devices) but seemed to divert ourselves into the path of complacency once digital became the status quo and music streaming services ubiquitous across our smartphones and online lifestyle.
Don’t get us twisted, however, the vinyl revival does in fact act as a sort of rebellion against such tendencies. In this case, quality takes the wheel, albeit in a non-portable manner. Fortunately enough, we appear to have been redirected back onto the right track with the help of hi-fi portable audio players. Now, if you’re asking yourself what makes these devices different in the world or audio and where you should begin if portable hi-fi audio is of interest to you then worry not, we have you covered. While relatively new to the market, there are some premium choices out there for the best hi-fi music players that should fit just about any budget. Check out some of our picks below.
What Are Hi-Fi Music Players?
An Introductory briefing
In case you’re wondering, try to think of these digital audio players (DAPs) are a superhuman version of your iPod. They’re designed with high-end audio circuitry, high-powered digital to audio converters (otherwise knows as DACs) and amplifiers that cater to a wide variety of hi-fi headphones. Naturally, their purpose is to play music, however, the goal is to deliver an outstanding quality full of dynamics and offering listeners an experience they couldn’t attain even when CDs were the accepted means of exploring new sounds.
These devices are relatively new, only recently hitting the market a few years ago. Now, in addition to a couple small independent companies dishing out their versions of hi-fi digital audio players (the Pono was actually a highly successful Kickstarter campaign spearheaded by Neil Young) some bigger players are entering into the foray. Sony, for example, has decided to take this market head-on with their Hi-Fi Walkman. So, at least for now, it appears that hi-fi portable audio players are here to stay.
Cowon Plenue D
Small and light yet powerful in practice, Cowon’s sought-after Plenue D hi-fi audio player is just one of those devices that gets the job done right. Offering both beautiful sound and a sleek design, Plenue D is capable or reproducing that sought-after clean studio sound wherever your travels may take you. The player supports 192kHz/24bit audio and produces a level of original sound highly unmatched by others in their competitive space.
It also hosts a high-quality 24bit stereo DAC and a wide angle touch display for a convenient user interface. Also, with a music playback life of over 100 hours, 32GB of internal memory, and a microSD card slot, keeping the tunes going during that extended vacation will never be a problem. The Plenue SD also supports FLAC, MP3, WMA, OGG, and APE file types, up to 123dB of SNR, 0.004% THD+N, and -105dB of crosstalk. Straightforward, slightly minimal in design, yet powerful in performance, it’s what makes the Penue D a great introductory buy for those interested the hi-fi audio market.
FiiO X5 2nd Gen
Borrowing a bit of their design from the famed iPod, the FiiO is a high-res music player that takes a bit of old charm and repurposes that into a futuristic listening experience. The device utilizes two two crystal oscillators that are good for 44.1kHz and 48kHz frequency multiples and is lighter and smaller than its predecessor (the 1st gen X5) for what it’s worth. The screen also clocks in at 2.4 inches and comes complete with an LCD panel and a powerful screen saturation to boot.
Functionality-wise, the X5 features native DSD decoding, and with the same DAC chip as the previous iteration but with an upgraded opamp design, listeners will enjoy a more dynamic listening experience featuring lower distortion, and great noise control. On a full battery (which takes about 3 hours to charge) you’ll also get over 10 hours of high-res 192kHz/24bit lossless playback. Appearing Apple-esque surely helps the piece become recognizable in design and with a hi-fi audio playback that outdoes your typical MP3 and streaming services, this is sure to be yet another a guilt-free purchase for anyone entering the realm of hi-fi portable audio players.
Pono Portable Music Player
As a Kickstarter success story (raising over $6 million funding) the Pono was propagated by none other than Neil Young himself who was looking for an answer to the subpar listening experiences we often find ourselves within due to our obsession with convenience. That being said, it would be naive for us not to mention that the Pono did catch its fair share of harsh criticism upon its initial release. However, the highly-affordable hi-fi audio player had not been accomplished at this time. And for that we can thank this nifty little player for showing us the possibilities.
As far as performance is concerned, the Pono supports FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF and DSD file formats, comes with 64GB of internal memory, boast a lossless playback up to 192/24 bit, an Arye Acoustics DAC, and features a playback that actually becomes more enjoyable the longer you use the device (like a fine wine some would say). You can listen via personal headphones, powered speakers in you own home, shared through a second pair of headphones, and boasts a user-friendly touchscreen experience.
Working to set the standard for the rest of the heard of hi-fi portable audio players, Onkyo recently released their DP-X1 DAP that’s backed by two ESS Technology Sabre DAC and two Sabre 9601 amps for a magnificently balanced headphone output. Two types of balanced drives – ACG and BTL – also offer greater stability and clear/clean sound for users to enjoy. In terms of UX, the DP-X1 utilizes an intuitive Android platform complete with a fast quad core, and boasts a high precision equalizer with up to 16,384 bands to select from and the ability to save up to 1,000 EQ profiles.
For storage, the DP-X1 hosts 32Gb of internal memory along with dual micro SD card slots that can expand you music library by up to 432GB. Battery life also gives you up to 16 hours of hi-res playback based on 96kHz/24-bit output. You can turn on real-tim DSD conversion as well that will convert your favorite MP3, WAV, and FLAC files into DSD-quality audio and the device is even Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capablel. Crystal clear sound combined with an enjoyable user experience. This is a future we could get used to.
Working strictly to build some of the most high-performance audio playback devices on the market, Astell&Kern view themselves as the center of music and a benchmark for where musical enjoyment is heading here in the near future. Their AK70, one of the more popular models, comes complete with a 64GB Internal Flash Memory and Single Cirrus Logic DAC. Listeners will also take solace in the fact that the AK70 is both USB Audio and USB DAC Output Compatible as well.
In terms of performance, Astell&Kern delivers some outstanding quality. We’re talking a 24bit/192kHz bit to bit PCM audio playback and that ability to support a handful of common file formats. The device can also convert DSD into PCM for portable amps that don’t support DoP and the AK70 can also function doubly as an embedded sound card through a connection to either a PC or MAC. It also hosts user ergonomics, runs off a singular lithium polymer battery and weighs under 5 ounces.
Not missing out on their opportunity to grab some spotlight in the hi-fi audio game, Pioneer is sure to be trusted in the production of this desirable music player. It’s all thanks to their already established reputation in the music industry, which is partially why the XPD-300R is such an easy sell in our book. The device supports all forms of audio – including streaming services – and boast playback support for up to 11.2MHz DSD, 384kHz/24 bit PCM, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, and MQA. Therefore it is possible to enjoy hi-fi audio in all its glory on the go.
Satisfied listeners can also thank Pioneer’s twin unit ESS Technology DAC and AMP for such an experience. This results in extremely high resolution audio. The XDP-300R boasts complete separation between the audio circuit board and the CPU board in order to limit the effects of noise as well. Also, with two types of balanced drives, a high precision equalizer, intuitive user experience, up to 32GBs of memory, and two 200GB micro SD card slots at your disposal, enjoying and storing thousands of hi-fi audio tracks was never easier.
Entering the hi-fi game in full force, Sony recently released their refined Walkman boasting a memory size upwards of 128GB. This piece is simply one of the best, delivering an impressive on-the-go listening experience. Thanks to a precision, gold-plated, copper chassis complete with a high-power circuitry and an S-Master HX digital amplifier each listening experience is a one of a kind nirvana with soothing natural sound.
Also, a high-output battery powers the device’s high-efficiency, thick film Printed Circuit Board that allows for stable power supply and a low noise floor so just about every note comes to life with this audio player. The Walkman also supports playback of a multitude of digital formats including DSD, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, Apple lossless, WMA lossless, AAC, WMA, and MP3. Battery life also ranges depending on the type of playback and the device comes stock with Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-Fi capabilities.
Just released last Fall, the Opus #2 is the likely extension of the first Opus hi-fi audio player back in 2015. It’s outfitted to please those audiophiles looking to experience high-resolution music playback at all hours of the day thanks to the device’s 32 bit/384Hz resolution sound. The #2 also runs off reliable Cirrus Logic, boasts a full aluminum body, and is Bluetooth capable.
Additionally, with an internal memory of 128 GB and external memory capacity that supports Micro SD cards up to 200GB, you’ll never be short of something to listen to. And with wifi connectivity, the ability to stream music from all your favorite services, native DSD playback, and an ultra power saving mode for those trying times when power sources are scarce but the desire for music is strong, OPUS certainly maintains their integrity with this release.
Hi-Fi Music Players Deserve Hi-Fi Headphones
Do your ears a favor and get yourself a pair of high-fidelity headphones to complement one of these portable music players.