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".

Criteria
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.

Connectivity
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.

Miscellaneous
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.

COMMENTS
Jayhawklaw's picture

Hopefully (fingers crossed) the new Astell & Kern AK Jr. will be included.

John Grandberg's picture

I mentioned in the article this is a fast moving segment... it will be hard to keep up with these newly announced models. I think the important thing is to establish a baseline with the main stuff, including a Wall of Fame. That will give us a lay of the land for any future individual reviews to be judged against. Kinda like what we did with custom IEMs.

So far I have enough to expand to three articles (instead of two as originally planned) and that's before adding the newest stuff like AK jr.

Wilderbeast's picture

This site is turning into a useful resource - thanks guys.

I'd like to see the Cowon Plenue P1 included too!

I'm interested to see if there really is a difference between the AK120ii and the AK240. They have the same amp and dac but a very different price.

Akmax57's picture

Has anyone tried the Sony player with the Sennheiser Urbanites? Seems like the warm tonality of the Urbanites and its recessed treble that Tyll had noted, might be a nice match for the Sony and its slightly upper frequency tilt.

The Federalist's picture

Hey John this is a really great review.
Especially since this is an issue I am confronting right now. Whether to retire for good and all my iPod and move to a more upscale portable source like the AK100 V2 AKJR, Pono, or Geek Wave etc.

I actually think a fair number of readers, like myself, would want to use these types of devices as a portable transport that can be connected to an external amp/dac, whether in desktop or portable configuration.

The fact that many OEM's included a digital line out on their devices indicates that they saw this as a likely/possible use of their device as well.

I understand that with the number of devices involved you can't include comments on sound quality in all the different connectivity options like how the X5 or Sony or Calyx sound when externally amped, or when DA conversion is done externally.

But I was curious if in your own listening if you've used any of these as a transport using external converter/ amps and if the sound quality deltas between a high end and lower end (i.e. AK120/240 or Calyx vs. iPod or Sansa Fuse) are less dramatic or disappear if they are used in this capacity.

Any insight would be welcome... and kudos for this review series... The DAP market has been growing stronger and reemerging for a couple few years now (since Apple started neglecting the iPod) and this is the first in depth look at the current state of the art... Good on ya for doing this.

BW

John Grandberg's picture

What you've got there is really two issues - DAPs used as transport, and DAPs used with line out.

Easiest issue first: the differences are fairly easy to spot when using line out to a nice external amp. First off, just getting a true line out with proper voltage is half the battle. That alone separates the more serious contenders from their pedestrian counterparts. Not saying you can't use a portable amp with a Clip Zip in a pinch, but with a reasonably nice desktop amp you'll notice its shortcomings. With an AK100 II, or Pono, or X5, the superior internal DAC quality is noticeable imho. Not sure I'd jump all the way to AK240 just to use it feeding a desktop amp though - it has to make sense for use on the go, and the home use is a sort of bonus in my eyes.

Now, for transport duty, digital out to a DAC, the differences are far smaller. The X5 is the cheapest one I've used to give an easily accessible SPDIF signal (the Sony A17 doesn't make it easy for us), and it works quite well. Depending on the DAC involved, you can do a little better, but the difference is not massive. Then again, choosing the X5 means you are stuck with that interface, so again it's all relative to the larger experience. Keep in mind some models like the Calyx don't have digital out.

The Federalist's picture

That tells me what I need to know... I've been trying to convince myself that I can ditch my iOS devices and my computer completely by buying an AK100 II that would become my full scale source. I could use it as a transportable er umm.. transport. I can plug into my optical input on my dac at work, it'll handle portable duties on the train, and I can plug it in to SPDIF at my home system as well... My entire library travels with me and sounds outstanding anywhere I go.

But I don't know that I need all that yet... May find a jumping off point that is in a bit shallower territory than Astell & Kern... Maybe Cowon J3 or Fiio X3 to start. To see how well a DAP transport integrates and to see how often I reach for it.

Either way this is a great angle you are taking with the review/ roundup... This market is obviously re-emerging with all these new devices hitting the market...

Respect,

BW

mobbaddict's picture

Like someone else suggested, it would be nice to add some RMAA measurements to those surveys, it would make them more in line with your flawless headphones reviews.

Besides would you care to explain your procedure for these tests? Did you rely solely on your memory or did you make direct comparisons between DAPs? And would you consider doing blind tests as well?

I'm sorry for being so boring but I always take subjective impressions with a pinch of salt when it comes to sources, I believe we always tend to overestimate the actual differences. Last audiophile DAP I bought was a Nationite s:flo2, and it was no better than my current Samsung smartphone in direct comparison.

John Grandberg's picture

I've messed with RMAA extensively and found it interesting but also contradictory. After trying various configurations and getting different results with each test rig, I came to the tentative conclusion that I just wasn't comfortable with the results as saying anything definitive about the gear being reviewed. If this was my own blog I might pick a test rig and run with it - at least the results could be compared with my own prior measurements on the same rig. But next to Tyll's impeccable measurements the whole thing seemed amateurish (at best) and I'm not comfortable putting any stock in it. I may revisit the idea in the future.

My procedure is a combination of extended listening and real-world use along with numerous direct A/B comparisons, level matched but not blind. I feel this best approximates the experience of actual users. I know some people will have issues with my approach and I'm fine with that.

I do agree that the differences are not always as clear as reviewers would have us believe, and I hope never overstate things in my own articles. When I describe the character of these DAPs I hope I make it clear enough that in most cases it's a fairly subtle thing. And as you'll see in my next article, a good smartphone can in fact be a viable alternative in many cases.

Gegliosch's picture

Hi, I'm looking forward to the second part since you posted this. It's been a while - are you still gonna write it?

John Grandberg's picture
Almost done with it, hoping to post within a few weeks. It's taking forever for various reasons but I'll get there. Then on to part 3!
lugh_lampfhota's picture

I purchased my NWZ-A17 a couple of weeks ago and promptly purchased a 128GB microSD for additional memory. I was immediately disappointed when I realized that my Windows 8.1 computer could either see the walkman or the card, but not both. I tried every format option without success.

I contacted Sony support who stated that they weren't very familiar with the device, but after some research, they advised that I could only use the walkman or the card, not both. And further they stated that storing music on the card was not permissible.

If anyone has another experience I'd enjoy hearing about it.

Lugh

John Grandberg's picture
I sent the A17 back already but I'm almost positive mine didn't act that way. It integrated the library using tracks from internal memory and the microSD. I could browse by artist or album etc and it would all show up on the same list. If I recall correctly it did keep them separate when browsing by folder, which sort of makes sense if you think about it. I use Windows 7 though so that could be a factor.

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