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The best MP3 players

Music can follow you everywhere these days, thanks to our smartphones and streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. Whether you’re hiking with earbuds, cruising in your car, or vibing out with your Bluetooth speaker, there are plenty of ways to engage your phone’s musical skills. But what if you’re tired of dumping more music downloads onto your already-loaded iPhone? Fortunately, there are still dedicated MP3 players to help take the load off your mobile device.

If it’s been a while since you’ve used an MP3 player, but you’re looking to purchase one, we’re here to help. We’ve spent time with plenty of the best MP3 devices on the market and have put together this exhaustive guide to help you choose the player that’s right for you.

At a glance

The best: Activo CT10

Activo CT10

Why you should buy this: It’s small, affordable, and sounds fantastic.

Who it’s for: Those who want the highest quality sound on the go, but have an iPod-level budget.

Why we chose the Activo CT10:

If you are really serious about sound quality but you don’t have the budget of a corporate bigwig, the Activo CT10 may just be the perfect portable music player for you. Created by Groovers Japan in partnership with Astell & Kern parent company iRiver, this tiny touchscreen player offers fantastic sound and 16GB of onboard storage, which is expandable via a built-in SD card slot. It also has a Wi-Fi connection, allowing you to listen to Tidal and other hi-fi music-streaming services. It can handle virtually any hi-res file format including WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, and DSD at up to 24-bit/192kHz.

A beautiful 3.4-inch touchscreen allows you to easily pick between media and adjust settings like EQ, and an easy-to-use volume knob on the upper-right side lets you pick how loud you want things to be. The CT10 has a simple 3.5mm connection on the top, allowing you to plug in your favorite pair of headphones with ease. It’s also got Bluetooth and aptX HD support, so you can listen wirelessly in very high quality as well.

The Activo CT10 is charged via a Micro USB port, and offers up to 10 hours of playing time on the go. The sound is fantastic, easily besting the similarly priced iPod in terms of fidelity. Everything sounds open and true from the tiny little player, making it a favorite listening device when we’re out and about. If you’re after something that sounds great, is hyper-portable, and won’t break the piggy bank, we highly recommend you check out this little player.

The best fitness MP3 player: SanDisk Clip Sport

Sandisk Clip

Why you should buy this: It’s lightweight, durable, and built for exercise, with reasonable storage capacity and excellent battery life.

Who it’s for: Anyone looking to listen to music while they work out.

Why we chose the Sandisk Clip Sport:

Using your smartphone to listen to music while exercising is nearly always a hassle. If you’re running, the phone is probably bouncing uncomfortably in your pocket, or you’re forced to hold it with a vice grip because you wore shorts without pockets (stop forgetting the shorts with pockets!).

Thankfully, MP3 players with clips — like the SanDisk Clip Sport — were built specifically to resolve that issue. What the Clip Sport lacks in audio quality, it more than makes up for with several useful features and rock-solid 25-hour battery life.

Apart from the eponymous clip, SanDisk equipped this workout buddy with an FM radio tuner so you can listen to your favorite morning talk show as you take your brisk pre-breakfast stroll. The player features an LCD screen so you don’t need to rely on the “shuffle” function. The Clip Sport includes 8GB of onboard flash storage, as well as an SD card slot that allows for more storage space to be added in later. Capable of handling most non-hi-res 16-bit audio file types (including FLAC files), this little guy is perfectly equipped for a marathon or a Tough Mudder. Plus, its low-risk price tag means you won’t need to panic if it somehow falls into a puddle.

The best Apple iPod: iPod Touch

iPod Touch

Why you should buy this: You’re an Apple devotee and you prefer the iPod family.

Who it’s for: Casual listeners, intentional users of non-smartphones.

Why we chose the iPod Touch:

Despite the iPod’s iconic nature, the rise of the iPhone has taken most of the shine off the gadget that reinvented the way we listen to music. Apple no longer rolls out new editions of each iPod every year, and some unfortunate limitations keep the player from reaching its true potential. Still, the ever-friendly user interface and the sleek beauty of the experience (and of the iPod itself) earn the sixth-generation iPod Touch a spot on our list.

With the ability to store up to 128 gigabytes of your favorite tunes, plus smartphone-like functionality including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity and access to the Apple App Store, there is no better iPod for casual listeners and those who don’t want to carry a smartphone or drain its battery.

The iPod Touch is small and light and comes wrapped in cool metal finishes, with a gorgeous retina display that makes browsing between albums easy. It even has both forward and rear-facing cameras for snapping the odd picture on the go. There’s also up to 40 hours of battery life, enough for a full work week of listening.

The best for audiophiles: Astell & Kern SR25

Astell & Kern SR25

Why you should buy this: You want the best sound that a portable player can deliver.

Who it’s for: Audio enthusiasts that refuse to skimp on sound quality.

Why we chose the Astell & Kern SR25:

One of the biggest drawbacks of the MP3 format is the compression your tunes get hit with. Especially if you need to compress formats like FLAC and WAV files into the MP3 format. Especially when uploading to a portable listening device that can’t handle richer audio files. Fortunately, the Astell & Kern SR25 is designed to uphold the integrity of high-quality audio files.

The player’s quad-core CPU with a dedicated Performance Mode ensures the best real-time processing of your loaded music tracks, producing a full-bellied and balanced sound that rings true through any pair of headphones. And with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, you can even link up your favorite wireless earbuds to the SR25.

The Astell & Kern SR25‘s 21 hours of playback guarantees continuous listening for almost the entire day, and 64GB of internal memory means you can store close to 15,000 songs without additional SD storage. If you need the extra space though, there’s a microSD card slot for up to 1TB of additional music.

The best smartphone for music lovers: LG V50 ThinQ 5G

LG V50 ThinQ 5G
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Loud, “Boombox” speaker, a stand-alone quad DAC, DTS.X 3D support … oh, and it doubles as a phone.

Who it’s for: Music lovers who would rather just use their phone.

Why we chose the LG V50 ThinQ 5G :

Most smartphones’ music capabilities are extremely limited. Having access to streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music is important, but not everyone is willing to sacrifice sound quality and functionality for a bigger library of music.

Thankfully, with the LG V50 ThinQ 5G, you don’t have to choose. LG continues its quest to preserve the sanctity of your audio, bringing full hi-res support and pristine audio quality to anything you plug into the phone’s 3.5 mm audio jack. The V50 ThinQ also supports DTS:X 3D surround sound, a technology similar to Dolby Atmos. Add up to 1TB of storage to the 128GB you get as standard, and you won’t have to worry about moving tracks in and out of the rotation.

Also returning is its unique “Boombox” speaker, which is a single, bottom-firing mono speaker that uses the phone’s entire body as a resonance chamber. It may seem like a gimmick on paper, but we found the speaker to be extremely rich and loud, offering some of the best fidelity we’ve ever heard from the sometimes-tinny smartphone segment. It’s good enough to lessen the need for a Bluetooth speaker in intimate listening environments.

Ultimately, the LG V50 ThinQ is worth a buy if you’re in need of both a smartphone and a hi-res music player. It’s not the king of either category, necessarily, but there are few — if any — phones that can match the quality of its audio output. The V50 ThinQ is a fully capable smartphone from a brand with a lot of trusted skin in the game. Plus, it’s ready for a 5G future that brings even more speed to handle data-intensive streaming services like Tidal.

Our full LG V50 ThinQ 5G review

What is hi-res audio?

High-resolution audio uses a higher sampling rate and a higher bit rate than regular audio files. A typical hi-res audio file is sampled at 96kHz/24bit, which means that the audio is “sampled” more frequently each second than a typical MP3 file, which loses around 90% of its information during the compression process.

Hi-res files (like 24/96 FLAC files) process information more than 20 times faster than MP3 files, which means that those little details in the music — such as the attack and decay of a single guitar pluck — can be heard more clearly by the human ear. MP3 files (especially low bitrate files) are often quick and dirty representations of actual songs that have been compressed in order to save storage space. High-resolution audio, on the other hand, is compressed in such a way that those little details are preserved, or not compressed at all.

You may not be able to find hi-res tracks on streaming sites or in many digital music stores. And if they are available, you won’t hear about it. There’s no need to worry, though, as you can get a hold of these tracks through a variety of other ways. We invite you to look at these quality hi-res music sources, but please be aware that they also force you to collect, save, and manage your music library. If this doesn’t appeal to you and sounds like too much work, we suggest Tidal, which is well-known for its modernized music transfer approach. 

How we test

You may be questioning how we determined the best of the best in home theater music players. As the MP3 player market has diminished over the years, devices have been compelled to fit snugly into a niche. It’s either that or lose popularity and eventually die out. There’s really only one way you can effectively test these players, especially when it comes to hi-res options like the Activo CT10. And to do this, we experimented with a variety. 

We tested out the CT10 with various musical genres across multiple file codecs, using many different types of headphones. Once we got through every last headphone, genre, and codec, we saw that the CT10 was the best choice, as it performed remarkably no matter what variable we threw at it. In addition, we also conducted a thorough headphone review and selected other MP3 players solely based on their user-friendliness and practicality in certain situations.

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