A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 1

Editors Note: In an effort to produce a Wall of Fame page for digital audio players, John Grandberg has set about surveying the territory to uncover the the great from the merely good. In this first installment, seven players are considered.

Outside of our little circle of audio enthusiasts, the majority of music listening probably happens via smartphone or tablet. I don't have any hard numbers to back this up, and there are plenty of competing methods for mass music consumption—car stereo, computer, clock radio, whatever. But I'd still wager smartphones/tablets are the preeminent source of music for the largest number of folks, either via headphones or streaming to a Bluetooth speaker. There's just so many of those devices out there these days, and research indicates their owners do indeed use them for music. I've had my eyes (and ears) on that topic for a while now and will have something to say about it soon enough.

Still, many of us prefer a dedicated player, aka DAP, for a variety of reasons. Better sound is a big one. For all the improvement I've noticed in smartphones over the past few years, a dedicated player can typically still offer superior audio quality. Especially when driving a somewhat inefficient headphone or an IEM with multiple balanced armatures. There are other things to consider as well such as format support and maximum storage. Many phones still don't handle FLAC files, and the average phone with 16GB doesn't leave a lot of room for music. Not to mention battery life—for business and sometimes personal reasons, many folks simply can't afford to run out of phone battery... ever. Which makes the added drain of music playing somewhat risky.

Despite being almost dead for a while there, the DAP market is on a major upswing lately. I'd say the continued advancements in IEMs probably helped a lot. It's now much easier to get excellent sound on the go, in a wide variety of price ranges. An example of this resurgence is found in HiFiMAN, once known primarily for their in-ear monitors, being now more focused on their DAP line (among other things). In any case, there are quite a few DAP options to choose from at the moment. I set out to discover the relevant models and report the good, the bad, and the ugly. As I researched, I found there were more so many choices worth discussing that I'd have to break it into two articles. Consider this "part one".

In order to keep this from become a novel, I'm going to borrow an approach Tyll used in his article about flagship headphones—pick some specific aspects and judge each model on those particular things. To do a full-sized review on each DAP would be a bit much, and by the time I publish would most certainly be out of date anyway. This is a rapidly-evolving segment with new stuff coming out all the time, so this approach hopefully allows me to be more timely.

I judged each DAP on the following:

External Design
This is fairly self explanatory. Some of these devices are very compact and some are bricks—each type can be well done (or not), and I'm more concerned with the layout being efficient, regardless of size. Quality and durability are certainly factors—an expensive DAP should look the part, but as a portable device should also feel robust enough to withstand normal use on the go.

Internal Design
DACs, output stages, playback formats, etc. Some of these devices are fairly straight forward while others have a lot more to them than initially meets the eye.

User Experience
Where the rubber meets the road. For me, a make-or-break category, especially on the more expensive devices. I can handle simplicity and complexity is fine too, assuming it adds something to the equation. Either way it has to feel natural. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get the hang of basic use, and no more than a day or two in order to completely master.

Line out? Digital transport? Balanced headphone option? Some of these can be used in a number of ways while others have a more closed ecosystem. Expandable memory, wireless streaming, it all goes in this category.

Battery Life
Pretty self explanatory. Obviously results will vary based on volume levels, headphone load, and the type of file being played. Lossless FLAC files use considerably more CPU resources than low bitrate MP3, to say nothing of high resolution PCM, DSD, or the potential differences between internal memory and SD card playback. I'll simply report my general experience based on mixed use.

Sound Quality
The main reason to consider buying a DAP in the first place. The baseline requirement should be enough of an improvement over the average smartphone to make the endeavor worthwhile. That's bare minimum. The more expensive a device is, the higher my expectations climb. I recognize that a portable device will require compromise as compared to a similarly priced desktop setup, and I'm fine with that as long as the divide isn't too great.

Gear List
I used several Wall of Fame custom in-ear monitors including the Noble Audio Kaiser 10 and 1964 Ears V3. When applicable, I used the line out jack to feed a Leckerton UHA-6S MKII, or used digital out to an iQube V5. I also tried full sized headphones, from easier loads like VMODA M100 and Grado PS500, to the higher impedance Sennheiser HD650, and finally more demanding planar magnetic models like Mr Speakers Alpha Dogs. Aside from the M100 I don't consider any of these headphones truly portable, but I wanted to get a better picture of how well these DAPs perform as stand-ins for a desktop system. If they do a credible job there, and sound appreciably better than a smartphone while used on the go, then it may be easier to justify the purchase.

I have to mention, my high water mark in the DAP category is the AK240. I agree with Tyll's assessment on that device—while certainly VERY expensive, it has such a good UI, superb sound quality, well thought out design, etc, that it arguably becomes "worth it" for well-heeled audiophiles seeking the ultimate DAP. That's the standard by which these others will be judged.

This first round is comprised of offerings from the major players in the segment. Part two will showcase the remaining well known models as well as some smaller or less common brands. I found a few that have something worth talking about, and of course many more that aren't worth the trouble (those won't get a writeup). You might notice there's nothing here from iBasso—despite having an early entry in their DX100, and multiple subsequent models, I've yet to find one that really impresses me. That, and I'm still upset about their DX50. Among multiple other firmware bugs, it had a habit of unexpectedly increasing volume to max levels—I tried to bump it up one notch, and it rapidly kept going until it was full blast. This problem was widespread and though iBasso eventually fixed it, I haven't gotten over my anger.... it contributed to the early death of a nice pair of custom in-ear monitors. Considering all the great alternatives currently available, I see no reason to give them a second chance at this stage. That could change in the future but you can bet I'll be waiting until stability is well established before trying a device.

That's not to say iBasso has a corner on the market when it comes to firmware bugs. Nearly every DAP has some form of issue, ranging from minor to significant, in their early days. Firmware updates typically offer improvements for months and even years after initial release. Some brands are better at this than others. The following reviews will cover each device in its current state at time of writing—I obviously can't anticipate any changes that may happen down the road.

castleofargh's picture

cool to see something about DAPs.
I usually whine a lot when reading reviews as they always are too nice with the devices, forgetting to tell about the shameful side of a device. well I must say, this time the practical reports felt spot on for the stuff I own or could try(and I really don't say that often).

I also wondered about the hm802 not getting much love. it's too big for me, I'd rather have smaller and use an amp when necessary, but it seemed like a pretty good product.

John Grandberg's picture
If everyone writes fawning reviews and leaves out all the disappointing aspects, how will the companies making these DAPs ever learn?
Dopaminer's picture

Great review so far; really looking forward to Part II. I think you should reconsider your iBasso stance and include the DX90. Judging by the headfi threads, the DX50 and DX90 have been the `gateway` daps for many audiophiles who transitioned from smart phones or ipods, and then subsequently `moved up` to higher priced (sometimes MUCH higher priced) daps like AK240, etc. The DX50 and DX90 are highly relevant in any comparison, especially the DX90 with its power and dual sabre dacs, and its huge following.

John Grandberg's picture
I have to admit, I'm still sore at iBasso for blowing out my $750 set of CIEMs with their stupid volume bug. You're totally right about their relevance, but I'm just not sure I'm "there" yet.
tony's picture

Thank you for explaining the differences in all these players.

I'm reading and trying to imagine each player vs. my iMac/Schiit system.

Does anyone offer an iMac in shirt pocket size?

Anyway, nice bit of work here.

Tyll, Joker, Katz and Grandberg make a pretty strong group of journalists.

Tony in Michigan

potterpastor's picture

Tremendous survey so far! I love my Sansa Clip and my Sansa Clip+. By the way, I prefer the sound quality of the original Sansa Clip over the 2nd gen Sansa Clip +, but the original clip doesn't have a slot for micro sd cards.

John Grandberg's picture
I haven't had an original Clip in ages. No memory expansion = no go for me. But it's interesting that you like it more for SQ. I know they switched to a newer AMS SoC for the Clip+ and newer models, so I can see how it might be a little different. Personally I recall them sounding the same but I can't say I spent a lot of time comparing.
potterpastor's picture

The Sansa clip firmware is really sluggish and slow. It takes hours and hours to refresh the media every time you intentionally or accidentally move the microSD card. It is just not feasible.

You didn't review the iPod touch fifth-generation, but it probably is the best of all the players. It is so easy and fast to load music, and it sounds great.

Impulse's picture

I've been using a Clip Zip for running for a few years now, along with a pair of MEElec M6. Tempted to swap them for my Xiaomi Pistons but I like the fit of the M6 a lot when it comes to being active.

I used to take along the Zip when traveling but my Nexus 5 doesn't really burn thru battery much while playing music. I'm usually sending it via Bluetooth anyway to a Sony MW600 receiver (and my V-Moda XS or Ety IEM).

That's one category of devices I'd love you guys to survey, ClieOS tested some of the Sony/Samsung BT receivers on Head-Fi a while ago but it was not an exhaustive review. I feel like they kill two birds with one stone...

It takes the burden of output (DAC and amplification) off your phone or tablet, while also cutting down on wires, particularly when used with something like the XS with removable cables you can swap for short ones.

Impulse's picture

A BT receiver lets you enjoy the headphones you already have with a minimum of wires without getting pricey dedicated BT cans or a compromised set...

It's not something I use at home, at all, because I know BT is ultimately a bottleneck to what my cans are capable of (never mind my Asgard 2); but it's ultra convenient on the go...

As much as Tyll complains about how cramming batteries and BT electronics into a pair of cans tends to hurt their design you'd think these things would've come up in the conversation a few times.

John Grandberg's picture
I have a Noble BTS on the way, hoping it accomplishes just what you mention. From a design perspective it looks like just what the doctor ordered for a smartphone with high output impedance or just generally lazy sound quality. We'll see.
Impulse's picture

Looks kinda pricey compared to some of Sony's BT receivers with comparable battery life AND a display for track info, caller ID, etc... But if the sound quality is a cut above the rest it might very well be worth a look.

I'm definitely looking forward to your take on it. I don't particularly need the display on my Sony anymore since my smart watch accomplishes the same function. Being BT 4.0 that Noble unit might get better battery life than advertised with BT4.0 compatible phones.

I've heard great AptX BT devices as well as awful ones, not putting much stock that, the standard SBC codec seems decent enough if a device uses the highest bitrate... I've wondered whether AptX is more efficient but, no one tests for that kinda thing.

John Grandberg's picture

We'll see. The sub-1 ohm output impedance is promising. You don't typically see that spec on gear from other brands.

Which Sony model do you use?

Impulse's picture

I'm using a Sony MW600, pretty old unit, I think it's discontinued now but still widely available at close to it's original price. I believe they replaced it with the MW1 but that seems discounted too, not sure if the SBH5x models are their most current or what.

I get pretty good battery life out of it tho (over 7hrs still after a few years), I remember comparing it to my Clip Zip with my Ety hf3 but it's been a while... Now I'm curious to do so again.

Ended up settling on it basically based off Amazon reviews, a couple positive comments about it or the MW1 on Head-Fi, and just the fact that it looked better than a similar unit by LG. It's hard to find detailed specs like output impedance or DAC used, much less anyone that has more than one of these things for comparative purposes.

ManiaC's picture

Please if you can add Cayin N6 and Fiio X3 2-nd generation.

John Grandberg's picture
I have the Cayin N6 here now, as well as QLS QA360. Both are worth talking about. Should be able to get the Consonance Suzanne as well, but I'm not sure if the Questyle QP1 will be done in time.
Tyll Hertsens's picture
Yeah, but by the time the Questyle comes out you'll have a lot of great experience to evaluate it with. Thanks, John, great work here.
tony's picture

Another Wiki type of reference work.

You guys keep hitting home runs.

This portable comparison is doing Tons of work for me and probably for everyone else.

I'd buy a plane ticket to see a Seminar with all four of you lads.

You 4 are becoming a "Top Gear" type of experience, you might be able to do a weekly show ( remote kind of thing, like that TV guy does ). Betcha you'd be getting a huge following.

Tony in Michigan

elfary's picture

iPhone 6 output impedance is 2.3 ohms. Check your facts (or measurements).

tony's picture

Nice catch here elfary,

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture
And so did Ken Rockwell on his site. He got 3.18 ohms on the 6+, and I got a bit higher than that. Within margin of error/unit to unit variability I suppose. The point stands that it's pretty good as-is, but not perfect - there is some improvement to be found with a lower output impedance, when using certain IEMs.
Stefraki's picture

Have been increasingly falling in love with my Pono. Functionally speaking, it's very silly in several aspects... sound quality-to-price ratio? It's amazing.

John Grandberg's picture
Pono will be included in Part 2.
ednaz's picture

It's difficult in these online shopping days to do good research on your own. When I decided I wanted to step up from the iDevices, I couldn't find anyplace where I could listen to 2 or 3 alternatives with the IEMs and headphones I own. As fraught with argument as an exercise like this can be, it's a necessary tool (unless someone wants to order four or five units and sell off the ones they don't like.)

I agree on your assessment of the Fiio X5 sound, that's agreement from someone who enjoys listening to the device. But I think it's a problem with some earphones, but not at all with others. With my Westone ES5, it's edgy metallic for sure. But with other earphones or headphones - Xiaomi Piston 2, Ety custom sleeved, ACS T1 CIEMs, my AKG Quincy Jones portable headphones - it's not noticeable at all.

That's where the YMMV comes in - really seems to me that in a lot of cases you need to look at DAP/headphone combinations. Which makes for a combinatorial nightmare. Still, with good roundup reviews like this, and knowledge of your own headphones, it's possible to get to happy.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

I absolutely enjoyed this first collective look at DAPs.
Thank you very much John for compiling your thoughts and sharing them with the innerfidelity gang.

I share @ManiaC's interest in the Fiio X3ii as its been getting some pretty great buzz on other audio sites. However im guessing its sound quality wouldnt exceed the X5 and we have your review for that one.

Keep up the great work and keep sharing your thoughts and reviews. We headphone fans love our electronic toys..having more DAP reviews and wall-o-fame entries are a perfect fit for this site!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo


PS: What about adding Zunes, Archos Jukeboxes, Creative NOMADs, Diamond Rios, or the audiophile-standard-setting coby usb player!?

tnelson's picture

I'd be interested to know more about the target users of dedicated DAPs with higher SQ than iPhones and other smartphones. I honestly am curious about this issue…I understand wanting the best possible source for an environment in which you can discern SQ clearly and maybe wanting a physically small personal source that can be moved from quiet listening site to site (home, office, etc).

However, I am skeptical that benefits of a high-SQ DAP can be heard if used as a portable player. On streets, planes, cars, in coffee shops…there's no way I'd be able to hear an enhancement beyond my iPhone, regardless of how good the source or IEMs. Too much isolation or noise-cancellation can be dangerous on the street, so there's always going to be ambient noise.

I would still need my phone for streaming (or lossless downloaded) TIDAL, internet radio, plus all the non-audio smartphone functions. Why carry another device? It would be interesting to evaluate a current iPhone and Android phone among the DAPs being compared for SQ, for folks like me who are skeptical about the audible benefits of carrying a second audio device. Doesn't fit my lifestyle, but what is the target listening market for these?

John Grandberg's picture
I definitely agree that any benefit is lost in a noisy environment. That almost goes without saying. But each situation is different - two people commuting to work might have vastly different ambient noise situations. One might not be a good candidate for anything beyond a phone and decent IEMs, the other might be well served by a nice DAP and higher-end IEM. So you have to examine your own scenario and go from there.
On Song Audio's picture

Hi I am the U.S. representative for the M. Please keep in mind that the M can play while plugged into a 5 volt USB supply. The 4 to 5 hour battery life applies when a power outlet is not within reach.

Laistrogian's picture

I'm wondering if it's possible to do measurement for these DAPs. While I can understand why some people would want to by DAPs, something like A&K240 comes across me as being "unnecessary."

You could call me objectivist or something like that but for me it's still physics, if the numbers are the same they should sound the same.

SixChannel's picture

2 years ago I settled on a Samsung Galaxy because it 1)has a true FM radio, 2)has open architecture for music player and 3)allows me to peruse the innumerable internet stations. Although I see FM a lesser draw these days, opening up to the internet swung the deal for me. The only unfortunate part is that the amplifying stage isn't the best for my big cans, but I fixed it by strapping it to an amp.