IGN Article: Best MP3 Player 2020: Pick the Right Portable Music Player to Carry Your Tunes with You

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Believe it or not, the MP3 player is not dead. Well, that actually depends on what you think of when you think of an MP3 player. Sure, the classic iPods of yesteryear might be out of the picture, as our smartphones can do everything they could and a whole lot more. But, there is still room for a dedicated device for audio, whether it be for a much higher quality of audio or simply to have a compact, affordable device that doesn’t get weighed down with all the additional functions of a phone.

You can find MP3 players (though playing lossy MP3 files may be the least of what they can do) that feature powerful DACs and amplifiers, giving you the premium sound and power that you’ll need if you use high-end, over-ear headphones. You’ll also find substantial support for a wide variety of audio formats, various connectivity options, and more storage flexibility in many of these devices. So, if you’re looking for a portable home for your music library, you’ll find it here.

TL;DR – These are the Best MP3 Players:

1. Onkyo DP-X1A

Best MP3 Player

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Our Pick
Onkyo DP-X1A
On Amazon

You can spend more on an MP3 player, but any improvements over the DP-X1A will be incremental at best. This player has a generous 4.7-inch-inch touchscreen and is built on a full implementation of Android 5.1, so it can run pretty much any Android app on the Google Play Store. That includes streaming apps like Spotify. More importantly, it supports virtually any audio format you might care about, including OGG, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, AAC, WAV, and MP3.

It comes with 64GB of internal storage, which you can expand to a total of 576GB via the pair of microSD slots. Under the hood, the player is driven by dual Sabre amplifiers and DACs, each one dedicated to their own stereo channel. There are also a pair of audio inputs: an ordinary 3.5mm headphone jack and balanced port in case your headphone is wired to support it.

2. Sony NW-A55

Best Budget MP3 Player

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Sony NW-A55
On Amazon

If you look at price and design first and foremost, the Apple iPod Touch may look like a much better option than the Sony NW-A55. But, when it comes to audio capabilities, there’s almost no room for comparison. The Sony NW-A55 is an audio-first device, and has extensive support for various audio formats. You can enjoy basic MP3 files or load the device up with lossless music tracks for the audiophile experience. And, though the Sony NW-A55 only starts with 16GB of storage, it can readily be expanded with a microSD card, letting the room for music grow as your music library grows.

The Sony NW-A55 will also give you access to FM radio. If you connect a pair of wired headphones to the device, you can pick up FM radio broadcasts and enjoy local radio with no internet connection needed. But, if you want to use this with wireless headsets instead, you’ll also enjoy some of the best Bluetooth support you can get. The Sony NW-A55 supports both LDAC and aptX HD (with an update) over Bluetooth connections, delivering much higher-fidelity audio to supported headphones than a standard Bluetooth connection can offer. This all makes it far more suited to a high-quality music experience than an iPod Touch.

3. Astell & Kern Kann

Best MP3 Player Under $1000

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Astell & Kern Kann
On Amazon

If you think that your MP3 player should have an imposing physical presence – some heft, both literally and figuratively – then Astell & Kern’s Kann has your name written all over it. Looking more like a 20,000mAh battery that happens to have a color screen, the Kann is oversized, but uses that real estate for four outputs – two headphone ports and two line-out ports, both standard and balanced. You can easily plug this into your home audio rig and get the benefit of its high quality AK4490 DAC.

In addition to 64GB of onboard storage, you get a microSD slot as well as a full-size SD card slot, for a total possible storage of 2,112GB. It also includes a pair of amps to separate drive left and right headphone audio. The player supports file formats like WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, AAC, ALAXC, AIFF, and DSF and has Tidal integrated, but no Spotify.

4. Astell & Kern AK Jr

Best MP3 Player Under $500

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Astell & Kern AK Jr
On Amazon

This is the second to last time that Astell & Kern is showing up in this list. The reality is that Astell & Kern happens to make some outstanding portable audio players, and it’s hard to find a better one for under $500 – even though this model is several years old.

Unlike the Kann, the Jr is thin and light, making it easy to take on the go. It has a 3.1-inch touchscreen and 64GB of on-board storage. You can expand it with as much as another 256GB via microSD. The Jr also supports all the major file formats, Including MP3, FLAC, WAV, AAC, AIFF, and even supports high-res DSD like some much more expensive models.

5. Apple iPod Touch

Most Versatile MP3 Player

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Apple iPod Touch
On Amazon

Yes, Apple still sells an iPad Touch. The presence of iOS 13 makes it a versatile portable device that you can use for books, video, gaming, and pretty much anything else you’d do with an iPhone (except make calls). You even get access to Apple Arcade.

Of course, the iPod Touch is a little different than other MP3 players. Like any iOS device, you don’t get an expansion slot, but you can buy the Touch with 32GB, 128GB, or 256GB of storage. And despite being like a miniture iPad, it’s not really a music-first sort of device. It supports the most common file formats, like MP3, AAC, WAV, and AIFF, but that’s it.

6. Astell & Kern A&futura SE100

Best MP3 Player When Price is No Object

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Astell & Kern A&futura SE100
On Moon Audio

There’s a way of thinking about portable music players that goes something like this: In an age of smartphones, if you feel the need to have an MP3 player, you might as well go all in. Like with the A&futura SE100, which looks stunning, with a gorgeously textured carbon webbing back and five-inch display on front, plus an artistically knurled volume control.

The A&futura SE100 relies on a 32-bit, eight-channel ESS Sabre ES9038Pro DAC and a pair of matching amplifiers – all of which adds up to an impressive signal to noise ratio. Pretty much all file formats are supported including WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, OGG, AAC, AIFF, MQA, with native DSD playback as well.

It also comes with a generous 128GB on board, which can be expanded to a terabyte via the microSD slot. The SE100 has a USB Type-C port for fast charging (plugging in for two hours gives you 112 hours of playback) and higher transfer speeds. You get both a standard headphone jack and a balanced port.

7. SanDisk Clip Jam

Best Impulse Buy MP3 Player

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SanDisk Clip Jam
On Amazon

As long as you set your expectations appropriately, you might be surprised what you can get for $30. The SanDisk Clip Jam might be a good portable player for a kid, or for situations in which you don’t want to carry an expensive portable device. You don’t get wireless connectivity, nor does it support apps or streaming. But you can add a microSD card to augment the 8GB of onboard memory for a total of 40GB.

It comes in a handful of bright colors, and as its name implies, it has a built-in clip you can use to attach it to your clothes. Since it also plays MP3, WMA, AASC, OGG, WAV, and FLAC tracks, this might be all you need.

What to Look for in a Portable Music Player

We tend to call portable music players “MP3 players,” a tacit acknowledgement of the overwhelming popularity of that lossy, highly compromised audio format. But the most important consideration when shopping for a player is to make sure it supports the format your music happens to be stored in. That might include Apple iTunes tracks in AAC format, or high quality “audiophile” tracks in FLAC, OGG, or lossless DSD files. Keep an eye on storage capacity as well: A modestly sized music collection of high bitrate music can easily climb into the hundreds of gigabytes.

Most audiophiles already know the value of a high quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC). An MP3 player with a high-quality DAC can easily sound better than your PC’s on-board sound card. And while the advantages of putting a pair of DACs in an MP3 player are debatable, driving the left and right stereo channels with discrete amplifiers can certainly ensure accurate sound reproduction.

Should you care about getting an MP3 with a balanced audio port? It depends upon how good your headphones – and your hearing – is. A balanced port can reduce line hum and increase the signal to noise ratio, letting you hear more of your music. But you need to be able to swap a standard 3.5mm headphone cable for a 2.5mm balanced cable – and your headphones ideally need to be designed for balanced connections, or there’s no point.

And if you want to connect your player wirelessly, look for Bluetooth support – ideally, with aptX wireless codec support for higher quality audio. Otherwise, shop for your audio player by asking the same questions you’d ask for any portable device – do you like the interface, for example, how long does the battery last, and do you want it to do anything besides play music, like run apps or play games.


Dave Johnson has been writing about gaming and tech since the days of the Palm Pilot. See him shout into the Twitter void @davejoh.

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