Best portable music player

best portable music player list

Even though some would confine the portable music players to the history books, they’re being made, and if you’re on this very list, you’re interested in buying one. So allow us to help you find the best portable music player for you.

There’s no doubt that smartphones are ubiquitous and convenient, but they offer a level of compromise. They’re a jack of all trades, master of very few; so for those who invest time and money in their music and want to hear it in its bets quality on-the-go, only a dedicated portable music player can do that.

We test music players by listening to high quality music files whether through audio files or streaming. We’ll perform battery drains to see if the last as long as they’re claimed to, striving to test as many features as we can, to get a better sense of their overall performance.  

If you are considering a mobile device to go along with your new fancy portable player, have a look out our best smartphones. And don’t forget to have a look at our best headphones list to find a partner for your portable music player.

Best portable music players at a glance

  • Best premium music player: Astell Kern SP3000 – check price
  • Best portable music player £1999+: Astell Kern SP2000T – check price
  • Best portable music player £1499 – £1999: FiiO M17 – check price
  • Best portable music player £999 – £1499: Astell Kern SE180 – check price
  • Best portable music player £500 – £999: Astell Kern SR35 – check price
  • Best portable music player under £500: FiiO M11S – check price

How we test

Learn more about how we test portable music players

We play a lot of music, different genres and at different file resolutions to get an idea of how well portable music players.

If there are features then we make sure we fiddle with them until we’re satisfied. We gauge on how long their battery life is and whether the player holds up to the manufacturer’s claims. We try them on their various wireless connections to see if they offer a smooth performance, and we’ll delve into their sub-menus and see if they work as they’re meant to.

Of course, it always comes back to the music. Portable music players are tested by reviewers who have a love of music, a knowledge of sound quality, as well as a context of the market. We’ll compare to similarly priced rivals, so when we recommend a particular model, it’s among the best you can buy for the money.

Obviously, we know not everyone has the same taste in music, so we won’t only test with the same perfectly mastered album, but with a variety of genres and file qualities, from MP3 to Hi-Res FLAC. Find out more about how we test in our ethics policy.

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Astell and Kern Aultima SP3000

Best premium portable player

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Pros

  • Thrillingly complete audio quality
  • A luxury accessory as much as a music player
  • Brilliantly over-the-top specification

Cons

  • Not what you’d call ‘affordable’
  • ‘Portable’ is a relative term, too
  • Not altogether suitable for vegetarians

The price of the Astell Kern SP3000 puts all other portable players on this list to shame. At $3699 / £3799, this is one of the most expensive music players we’ve come across, and one that meets the hype with its performance.

Like the other Astell and FiiO players on this list, the SP3000 takes the word portable rather loosely but it’s a fine looking device. It’s less angular than other Astell Kern devices, and the build quality is outstanding. Built from 904L stainless steel, it’s the same material Rolex uses for its watches, helping to make this portable player resistant to corrosion (which should mean it lasts a long time). The front and back faces use glass, the front features a 5.4-inch 1080 x 1920 touchscreen.

Our reviewer found the touchscreen to be extremely responsive in use. Battery life is similar to the FiiO M17 at around ten hours, though the overall feature set is less comprehensive than what the FiiO offers. There are fewer inputs and outputs, and while the built-in storage is bigger (256GB), the SP3000 can only expand to 1TB with the help of a microSD card.

MQA is supported however, as well as aptX and LDAC Bluetooth, with sample rates of up to DSD512 and 32-bit/784kHz supported as well. There are several DAC filters to play around with too, the Crossfeed aims to create a soundstage that’s similar to listening to a pair of loudspeakers in a room.

When it comes to listening to music on the SP3000, the player gives music a consistently convincing and lifelike sound. While it performs best with bigger, high-res files, we found the Astell Kern to be no snob either, happy enough to take lower resolution content and make it sound better. It’s similarly easy-going in terms of headphone partners, but you’ll still want to pair this music player with high quality headphones.

Detail levels are high, control over decay and attack of notes is well-judged, dynamism is conveyed whether it’s on a small or large scale and integration across the frequency range is superbly well-realised. Its sense of timing is about as good as you can get from a portable player. The price is ridiculous, but in terms of its performance, we found the Astell Kern SP3000 simply didn’t put a foot wrong.

Reviewer: Simon Lucas
Full Review: Astell & Kern A&Ultima SP3000

Astell and Kern Aultima SP2000T

Best premium portable music player

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Pros

  • Endlessly revealing, utterly musical sound
  • Extensive specification
  • Nicely made, finished and presented

Cons

  • Punishingly expensive
  • Big and heavy by ‘portable’ standards
  • Battery life is nothing special

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000T, like most A&K products, has a striking look with its asymmetric design and it feels premium too, although our reviewer felt it wasn’t too comfortable to hold. That’s down to the heft and bulk of the product, which for a portable music player is not the most desirable attribute.

But what the SP2000T lacks in portability, it makes up for in its feature set. As well as various headphone outputs with 3.5mm unbalanced jack alongside 2.5 and 4.4mm balanced outputs, the SP2000T has wide wireless connectivity in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, with AAC, aptX HD and LDAC codecs, with file support that ranges from MP3 to DSD512 and four ESS ES9068AS DACs that can decode up to 32-bit/384kHz. Internal memory is only 256GB, but can be expanded by 1TB via microSD cards.

The 5-inch FHD touchscreen paired with a Quad Core processor is one we found especially responsive, and while the total nine hours of runtime is decent, we did feel that charge time of 3 hours is a little leisurely by contrast.

As a tri-amp device, the SP2000T offers a choice in the presentation it offers with Astell’s standard OP AMP circuitry or the dual-triode KORG Nutube amplification for a lusher, warmer sound. To tweak the sound further, there are 5 hybrid positions to change things up.

Our reviewer found the SP2000T served up an engrossing listen, with extraordinary levels of detail within an expansive soundstage. The bottom end of the frequency range is weighty, solid and textured in description, with the top end dealing in extensive levels of detail, with as much bite and crunch to those treble notes as it can possibly deliver, though with that in mind you’ll want to find the headphone partner to avoid high frequency notes sounding too coarse and unforgiving.

Reviewer: Simon Lucas
Full Review: Astell & Kern A&Ultima SP2000T

FiiO M17

Best portable music player £1499 to £1999

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Pros

  • Always sounds accomplished and entertaining
  • Built to last, and if anything, overspecified
  • Will bring out the best in any of your headphones

Cons

  • Bigger and heavier than you might expect
  • Deserves equally impressive headphones
  • Not without competition

Astell & Kern doesn’t have the portable player market all to itself. The Korean firm does have competition, and the FiiO M17 is more than a match with its performance.

The M17 is big in everyway: from its build quality, price, specs and performance. Starting with the first point, while our reviewer found that the M17 could be held in one hand, it is a big and heavy portable player and the best means of transporting when you’re out and about is to stick in a bag (it also comes with a leather case to protect it from scratches).

It has a 6-inch touchscreen with a 18:9 aspect ratio and 1080 x 2180p resolution, which makes for a crisp, clear display as well as a responsive touchscreen interface. It’s a generously specified device with an array of inputs and outputs that include 3.5 and 4.4mm headphone outputs, an RCA socket that can function as an digital coaxial in or output and two USB-C inputs. The built-in storage is 64GB, but can be expanded to up to 2TB with a microSD card.

In terms of Bluetooth there’s aptX and LDAC support included for higher quality audio playback, although there’s no MQA support in case you were looking to play Tidal Master files. The M17 can also function as an external DAC to boost music listening on another device, making for a versatile device.

And the sound the M17 outputted impressed us greatly over our time using it, never coming across as anything less than accomplished and delivering a thoroughly enjoyable performance. Used with capable headphones (and sources), the FiiO eloquently describes the midrange of tracks in Steve Wonder’s Innervisions album, offering sky-high detail, impressive dynamics and skilfully identifies transient sounds and brings them to life.

With harder-hitting tracks it’s just as capable, producing a convincingly musical sense of tone and a fine sense of rhythm too. It also delivers a neutral presentation for those that prefer to hear their music unaltered. There’s no disputing that the FiiO M17 is an expensive piece of portable kit, but we feel it delivers a performance that warrants the price tag.

Reviewer: Simon Lucas
Full Review: FiiO M17

Astell and Kern Afutura SE180

Best portable music player £999 to £1499

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Pros

  • Open, expansive soundstage with lots of detail
  • Premium build quality
  • Intuitive user interface and operation
  • Extensive specification
  • Swappable DAC feature

Cons

  • Player and DAC modules are expensive
  • Not exactly portable
  • Battery life not the longest

The Astell & Kern A&futura SE180 is one of the South Korean brand’s most advanced players thanks to its DAC switching modules that allows the user to remove the DAC inside and replace with it another.

It’s an innovative idea within the portable music player market, though we found the process of swapping DAC modules required some force. That’s an area Astell & Kern could make easier and swifter in future editions.

The SE180 carries itself well, although like the SP2000T, its 280g isn’t exactly portable (the similarly-sized iPhone 13 is merely 173g by comparison). It is well-built, less asymmetric in look that Astell’s other players and features wonderfully tactile volume wheel that mimics a dial on a expensive watch. Headphone outputs are catered for by 3.5mm unbalanced and 2.5 and 4.4mm balanced, with a USB-C port for charging and microSD expansion that supports cards up to 1TB.

The Quad Core processor offers a snappy and responsive performance, the 5-inch colour screen offers some lovely looking colours, while we liked the Android-esque interface which is intuitive to use and easy to grasp its workings. File support extends MP3 to DSD256 and resolutions up to 384kHz, though by changing the DAC modules the file support can be extended further. With support for aptX HD and LDAC, the SE180 is covered on the wireless High-Res Audio front.

All of that Hi-Res support allows the SE180 to hit a high marker for sound quality. We tested the device with several headphones and found it brought a neutral and noise-free sound to whichever pair we used, featuring terrific amounts of clarity and detail. The soundstage is big and spacious, with the sE180’s sense of precision wringing as much out of music as it can. While it’s capable with lower-resolution files, this is a player that shines with higher bit-rates and resolutions, making this a true portable player for the audiophile listener.

Reviewer: Kob Monney
Full Review: Astell & Kern SE180

Astell and Kern Aultima SR35

Best portable music player £500 – £999

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Pros

  • Brings refinement to music library
  • Compact size
  • Easy to use
  • Wide file support

Cons

  • Wi-Fi performance can be a little slow
  • Battery life doesn’t feel too extensive
  • Getting pricey for an entry level product

The A&ultima SR35 is the latest in Astell & Kern’s more affordable portable player line-up, though at £799 / $800, it’s more expensive than the SR25 and SR25 MkII, putting a slight dent in those ‘affordable’ credentials.

Still, you get a lot of features and performance packed into the SR35’s compact frame. As usual, it comes with an off-axis screen that does look odd but we adjusted to it in time. The touch screen goes up to 720p but is bright and colourful, while operation is simple enough with buttons on the side for power and playback, as well as the lovely tactile volume wheel. Certainly compared to the cheaper FiiO M11S, the SR35 feels like a premium product.

Its feature set mirrors that of the other Astell & Kern players on this list with its wide array of support for audio formats up 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support is also accounted for, though we did find with the former that it takes a while for the Wi-Fi connection to boot up when the player has been powered on.

Built-in storage is only 64GB, but the SR35 does support expandable storage up to 1TB with a microSD card. Battery life is rated at around 20 hours, but in our experience, the player has a habit of chewing through its battery life quicker than expected. There’s also a choice of Normal and High gain settings to match the impedance of whichever headphone it’s connected to.

In terms of its audio performance, the SR35 doesn’t show too heavy a hand in altering the sound of the headphone it’s partnered with. Unlike the SE180 model where you can hear the effect of the different DAC modules upon music, the SR35 takes the audio signal and gives it more polish and refinement while still keeping true to the headphone’s sonic signature. Compared to the FiiO M115, it’s sharper across the frequency range, offers more insight in terms of detail, and is more expressive in terms of dynamics.

It’s the more assertive and exciting listen of the two similarly priced players. While the SR35 isn’t perfect in all areas, in our opinion, it’s the best portable music player you can buy in the £500 to £1000 range.

Reviewer: Kob Monney
Full Review: Astell & Kern SR35

FiiO M11S

Best portable music player under £500

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Pros

  • Balanced, informative sound
  • Easy to use
  • Colourful display
  • Android integration
  • Wide specification

Cons

  • Some may hanker for more excitement
  • Fairly big in size

Astell & Kern’s main rivals in recent years has been FiiO, who’ve tended to undercut their competitor’s offering and the M11S is a good example of it undercutting the A&Norma SR35.

Like the M17, the M11S is a big , chunky player, much bigger than the SR35. In that context it does stretch the notion of being a ‘portable’ music player. This isn’t a player we’d recommend for those with smaller, daintier hands and fingers.

Build quality is good, and the player boasts a bright 5-inch IPS screen that’s easy to read, album artwork looks especially colourful on this screen. Used outside and it’s not bright enough to withstand the glare of sunlight, but we doubt many mobile devices would be free from reflections anyhow. The plastic protective case does serve to dampen the aesthetics of the unit, the M11S feels cheaper with it on.

For outputs there are 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm ports for headphones, along with a USB-C port for either charging the device or connecting it to another source (say a laptop) and using it as a USB DAC to improve audio quality. Built-in storage is 32GB but it is expandable with a microSD card up to 2TB.

In terms of Bluetooth everything is covered from as low as SBC, to aptX, LDAC and LHDC audio (which is popular in Asia). Unlike the M17 there is support for MQA audio that you can get through the Tidal music streaming service, and as this player supports the Android OS, there’s access to the Google Play Store, so you can download whatever apps, music or otherwise, to this device.

The sound quality of the M11S is one we found to be convincingly neutral and balanced across the frequency range. There’s a sure hand guiding the bass, which is weighty and doesn’t dominate proceedings. The midrange is full of information and detail, spacious described with plenty of clarity. The top end of the frequency range isn’t the brightest, but treble is always relayed in the clear manner.

It’s not the most exciting portable music player we’ve ever heard, but it easily improves upon the quality of the sources we use it with. If you find Astell & Kern’s offering a little too premium, the FiiO M11S is a much less expensive alternative.

Reviewer: Kob Monney
Full Review: FiiO M11S

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FAQs

Is it worth buying a portable music player?

Smartphones are compromised in terms of their performance because they’re designed to do multiple things. A portable music player is expressly designed for one thing, so if you love your music and want to hear it in its best quality, it is worth investing in a portable music player.

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Comparison specs

Manufacturer
Outputs
Inputs
Screen
Bluetooth
Headphone port
USB charging
Wifi Spec
Touch Screen
Audio Formats
Ports
RAM
Connectivity
Colours
Weight
Resolution
ASIN
Operating System
Release Date
Model Number
USB DAC Mode
DAC
Size (Dimensions)
Battery
IP rating
CPU
AUD RRP
Screen Size
EU RRP
USA RRP
UK RRP
Storage Capacity

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