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.

elfary's picture

BTW complete measurements for iPhone and some boutique daps can be found at:


Skilled guy with pro gear. Source measurements seldom get better than this (unless nwavguy comes back from hereafter).

It would be nice to give a shot to an iPhone 5s/6. Superb iem drivers in my book.

veggieboy2001's picture

...thank you John! Really well thought out and enjoyable.

If you can get your hands on one, I'd love it if you can try one of the LH Labs Geek Wave DAPs...They put a lot of work into them with their indiegogo campaign, I'd enjoy hearing your take.

some links if you haven't seen/heard of it:



John Grandberg's picture

I can't say I'm a fan of their marketing practices... the gear well end up being very nice, but the circus act surrounding it is another matter entirely.

I would be rather upset if I was a backer on some prior offering, still waiting for delivery, watching announcements for new models keep popping up.

I'm happy to evaluate a final product once it becomes available. Until then I see no point in discussing renderings or specs or prototypes.

veggieboy2001's picture

I'm much more interested in the end result...the "marketing practices" are nothing but smoke & mirrors...I can't say I (totaly) blame them for trying to get a "buzz", but I thought they were closer to a "final" production model. Thanks for the response, (and the reviews!)

elfary's picture


Even if we are nitpicking here... you can trust me: iPhone 6 is 2.3 and it is identical as that of iPhone 5s.

Ftr iPhone 6 Plus does not sound nor measure identical to iPhone 6.

In any case given the ubiquity and convience of iPhones it would be nice to read you opinion about how it does stack against competition.

A few weeks back a former musician blindtested a bunch of guys (Pono/iPhone 6) and great majority chose iPhone. Bottom line is do not understimate iPhone headphone outs just because they are too mainstream.

John Grandberg's picture

I find it difficult because Apple seems to change each time. I remember the iPhone 4 was around 1 ohm, the 4S was double that, the original iPhone 5 was well over 3 ohms... perhaps my mistake was thinking the 6 and 6+ were identical.

I do think iPhone/iPad sound quite good in general (which I mentioned in the article), and only a select few Android phones can match them.

echineko's picture

I've just been thinking of upgrading my current Sony NWZ ZX1, and was actually looking up most of the DAPs listed here. Looking forward for part 2 and your overall conclusion on these :)

elfary's picture

Android handsets have come a long way in the last few years but output power is usally on the dire zone(seldom it goes past 0.5 Volts with no load). Only HTC and Meizu seem to strive for more serious voltage.

Still UI glitches, interference and hiccups are a common place in the Android marketplace whereas Apple is pretty much a bugless experience audio wise (As long as its volt suffices to your earphones). And UI and ergonomy are beyond what words can convey.

ashutoshp's picture

Great review John as, always. I would love to hear your opinion on the sound quality of a DAP vs. that from a smartphone streaming digital audio via USB to a portable DAC/amp like oppo's HA-2 (eg, Lightning for iDevices and USB OTG for Android)? Recent updates to Android and Apple devices allow compatibility with a lot more external DAC/amps than ever before.
Despite the benefits, I can't seem to justify buying music anymore considering the streaming (TiDAL) options available. I come from a generation where we had no option but to buy music CDs, which was a 50:50 option, at best, so I ended up having so much junk in my collection that I fell on my knees when I first heard of streaming. I have little desire for a DAP and and I have even less patience for clunky user interfaces. I could be wrong but it seems the ones with the good interfaces are either extremely expensive (Sony and A&K) or lack 'juice' (I'm looking at you Sony).

bikermanlax's picture

I've come to the same conclusion as John on the use of an amp with the X5. I'm using a Alo MKIIB w/ great results. My "sorta porta" set up.

My go to recommendation for a newcomer is the Sansa Clip, you can't go wrong with that one.

Agree that the X3 (2nd gen) should be thrown into the next review.

BadEars's picture

With all of the hype around the Pono player, I was dissapointed that it didn't make it into the round up... If only as an A-B compare or post script.

John Grandberg's picture
Pono will be included in part 2. I didn't receive it soon enough to make it fit here but don't worry, its coming.
jk47's picture

thank you for this review. i look forward to the next installment. some other daps i'd love to see included are:

1. the dx90 - i understand your annoyance with ibasso for making you an unwilling beta tester for the dx50, but the dx90 is the dap i use along with a lot of other head-fi members. it is thus a useful reference for comparison for a lot of your readers.

2. i'd like to second the inclusion of the cayin n6. this dap has generated an enthusiastic thread at head-fi and members there are lauding it highly. its price is such that if it is really as good as its owners say, it would be an incredibly great value, price/performance piece of equipment.

3. the lotoo paw - almost as expensive as the ak240. of course there are diminishing returns with increases in price, but how does it compare with the ak240, and with daps a rung or two down - the new hifiman 901s, the calyx, the cayin? is there really much extra value in reaching up into the stratosphere to purchase a $2000-$2500 dap?

4. if it's out in time, the soundaware esther. similarly, if it's out in time, the geekwave.

in all these reviews, i'm really interested both in the absolute quality of the sound, but also in the price/performance of the sq. that's part of my interest in hoping you include the dx90 - think it's quite high on the price/performance measure.

lastly, whatever you include, i'd like to applaud you doing this kind of round up. most of us do not have the opportunity to audition equipment, and rely on the impressions of others to make a purchase as a leap of faith. people who've already spent their money on something have a tendency to praise it highly, justifying the money they've already spent. thus, these deliberately comparative reviews are especially helpful.

John Grandberg's picture

Thanks for the post! Let's see:

1) I'll consider it, still mad at them though.

2) I have the N6 here now, So far so good, it's pretty impressive.

3) I'll shoot them an email and see if I can get my hands on the PAW. It would have to be blindingly impressive to justify the price.

4) Doubtful, but we'll see.

jk47's picture

oh yeah, i forgot the acoustic research ar-m2. these things are coming so fast you could make it a whole career. ;-)

julian67's picture

The "Clip Zip" in the images is not a Clip Zip, it's a Clip Sport - different hardware and fairly horrible even by budget standards.

The "Fuse" should be called a Fuze, and I think that is a Fuze v2, not the original Fuze. It is obsolete. There was a newer model with different hardware (much better in fact), the Fuze + or Plus. That is also obsolete.

The AMS based players (Clip, Clip+, Clip Zip and Fuze v1 and v2) all play back with a pitch error. This is audible, though a lot of people won't notice. In any case I don't think I'm alone in thinking that playing music back at the wrong speed and pitch is something of a disqualification. Rockbox firmware fixes this on the Clip, Clip+,Clip Zip, Fuze v1 and v2. The Fuze+ doesn't have this error (as mentioned it's different hardware). The Clip Sport supposedly sounds bad enough that a pitch error is the least of its problems, though I haven't heard one myself.

John Grandberg's picture

Yep, I didn't explain my pics well enough and Tyll just took a stab at the labels when he posted this. Will have to get it fixed. That yellow one is indeed a Sport which, as I mention in the article, is not recommended at all.

The Fuze shown is definitely the original. I don't recommend the Fuze+ and made that clear in the write-up. I also did explain how Fuze is discontinued but easily found all over the place.

The pitch error has been overstated imho. Many DAPs have slight pitch errors, it's just a question of magnitude. The original Clip had an error of more than 1% which should have been somewhat obvious to certain listeners. On the Clip+ it was down to ~.25% which equates to playing 440Hz as 441Hz, or 90 beats per minute as 90.2 beats per minute. I seriously doubt most people could actually notice it. Rockbox fixes it altogether, and the Clip Zip never had it in the first place.

julian67's picture

You're right, the Clip Zip didn't have the pitch error.

see stuff.caudec.net/rmaa

However it's worth pointing out that the pitch error was not discovered by measurements. It was noticed by people listening and the measurements followed as part of the verification and diagnosis.

As well as being difficult to live with for anyone with ears silver, golden or better (ha ha) it is impossible to live with for anyone wanting to keep time to the playback.

Not playing the music back at correct speed/pitch is not a small failing or just an esoteric complaint. It's an audible error in an audio playback device! Core function much?

The Clip Sport and Fuze+ do have hardware that is different from the AMS Sansas but they do not share the same hardware with each other - totally different in fact. They probably should not be dismissed as though somehow comparable or similar.

The Fuze+ is excellent. For example it offers more dynamic range, lower noise, lower distortion, lower crosstalk than the AMS Sansas. It does actually sound very, very good too! A forum member at anythingbutipod did RMAA tests on the Fuze+ and several other players (including Clip+, iPod Classic with and without Line Out Dock, and others), loaded and unloaded, and the Fuze+ is very good performer objectively and in terms of pushing play and enjoying the music.

I have owned a Clip+, A Fuze v2 and currently have a Fuze+ (and a few other players as well) and imo the Fuze+ is the best sounding Sansa player so far (also has huge battery life between 25 and 30 something hours in Rockbox). The Sansa UI is pretty but horrible to use. Fortunately Rockbox transforms it into a highly usable device.

OK I'll stop picking now.

Nice article btw!

julian67's picture

sorry, the link to caudec is in wrong place - should be in para 5, it's the RMAA tests.

julian67's picture

..of the Sansa players the only one which *maybe* sounds better than my Galaxy Note II (GT-N7105) smartphone is the Fuze+.

The others all have too annoying a collection of hisses, squeaks, clicks and all the usual EMI noise. The Note 2 is dead black silent even with sensitive IEMs, measures well, has low output impedance, and sounds great.

I really doubt that any budget player these days can outperform a premium smartphone, whether that's an iPhone or a top flight Android device. Cheap smartphones have crummy sound but the good ones really are good.

I use mine on 4G and VPN to home and so I have my entire lossless collection (over 1600 albums which is over 500GB inc scanned artwork) available anywhere I have a connection. I can't do that with a Sansa.

John Grandberg's picture

My recollection of the pitch issue is that users first noticed it with the original Clip. That model was roughly 20 cents off, which should be audible for some or even most users if they listen carefully. The Clip+ and Fuze brought that error down to roughly 4 cents which is certainly bumping up against the threshold of audibility. People knew about it from the earlier and more egregious version - had it not been for the larger error on the first Clip, the later instances may well never have been discovered. As for timing, the Clip+ and friends have a speed difference of roughly 1.5 seconds for a 10 minute track, or .2 beats per minute. Short of using it for metronome duty, that's rather difficult to detect.

As you say, it's a non-issue when using Rockbox.

For the Fuze+, I tried it when it first came out, and found it shockingly bad. They took arguably the best scroll-wheel concept around and scrapped it in favor of a touch panel, because touch panels were becoming popular.... in smartphones. Never mind that their panel was completely unresponsive, and their menu actually a big step backwards compared to what came before. But hey, TOUCH PANEL!!!

The launch unit I tried was also a step down in SQ. I heard the same from many friends and forum dwellers at the time, and even some "civilian" tech review sites who don't normally concern themselves with such things. It was "mushy" sounding and had significant hiss with IEMs, where my other Sansa gear has none. My Clip+ abd Clip Zips don't have any of the clicks or other noise you mention so I can't account for that. Perhaps it varies from unit to unit.

No Rockbox port yet existed so I wrote the Fuze+ off as unusable and moved on. If a later Sansa FW update and/or Rockbox ended up improving the sound, I obviously missed it. Wouldn't surprise me as they had nowhere to go but up.

As for the smartphones, I totally agree the Note series is excellent, as are many other top models. But the "average" Android phone is still lacking. I've got about a dozen here (long story) and maybe 4 out of that lot sound great, the rest are all seriously flawed in one way or another. Talk about clicks and pops and EMI issues.... yep, I hear it on many of those phones.

julian67's picture

Yes, Rockbox on the Fuze+ is transformative. I'd suggest it makes revisiting product well worth while and quite an eye opener...or should that be an ear opener? You can now configure the sensitivity of the touchpad areas and make the damn thing behave like any sensible person might expect. Another benefit of the player over the AMS versions is that it has more processing power and RAM and so it does a much better job of running a database and the pictureflow plug-in.

All official Sansa firmwares for the Fuze+ are ess aich eye tee, don't waste a minute on them.

I know I'm not alone in experiencing an unwelcome assortment of unwanted noises on the AMS Sansas (and I've owned more than one!). It's even noted as a known problem on the Rockbox wiki. Some people never notice it, or else they have players which don't exhibit the fault. To my mind known inconsistent build or component quality is not a positive selling point but it seems that getting a good one inoculates one to this strange and curmudgeonly point of view. he he he.

John Grandberg's picture
You've convinced me, I'll hunt one down and give it a try. I see lots of refurbs available which doesn't inspire confidence about Sansa's QA process, but I suppose the same could be said for the large quantities of Apple refurbs too.... so maybe it doesn't mean much in the end.
purk's picture

Thanks for a great and very comprehensive review!

When you conduct a review on the Pono, please make sure to utilize its balanced output for optimum sound quality. I do like the Pono in SE but the balanced output is considerably better in all counts. Please also add the Sony NW-ZX2 to the list as well.

John Grandberg's picture

Have a balanced adapter that Tyll sent over, not sure the brand but it's very well built.

I am still patiently waiting on Sony's PR people for a ZX2.

julian67's picture

I bought my Fuze+ 8GB as a refurb for about £20. It was as new with no faults. The seller at the time was Sansa's official agent for refurbs and had many thousands available at low prices. I got the impression that lots of these returns must be due to the terrible UI/touchpad experience because this kind of hardware is intrinsically reliable and with no moving parts is pretty difficult to damage short of immersing it or attacking it.

Anyway I hope you like it! Try a recent rockbox daily as the last official release was in 2013 and lots of stuff changed a lot since then, especially on new and "unstable" ports.

John Grandberg's picture
They appear to go for around $50 for the 8GB model these days, so I'll snag one ASAP. Supposedly a 16GB model exists but I can't find one anywhere. Expandable memory makes these distinctions irrelevant anyway.
julian67's picture

The 16GB models were always expensive even as refurbs and as you say the microSD slot makes 8GB here or there irrelevant. Also the flash memory in Sansa players has very slow write speeds so paying a premium for even more of it would not get good value. A Class 10 microSDHC card is ideal in these. 128GB cards work fine if formatted from exFAT to FAT32 (you'll probably have to change the partition type as well). I found the Fuze+ with Rockbox easily copes with a 128GB card containing hundreds of flac albums, both in database and file browser usage.

Jayhawklaw's picture

Great article. I love comparisons. I wish all publications did them. Dare I ask, do you have a guesstimate as to when part two will be published? I'm in the market for a DAP that plays High Res files and no one close to where I live carries all three of the one's I'm considering, but you've reviewed two of the three already and I bet you'll include the other in part two. I bet you'll give me more and others to consider to boot. I don't know whether to thank you or curse you for that.

John Grandberg's picture
Best I can say is "soon" and apologize for being vague. The format is set, the explanations for each category are already explained so no need to rehash that. It's just a matter of getting the appropriate amount of listening in and then going from there. Some of the DAPs I've had for a while so I already have a handle on them, but others just barely arrived. So we'll see.