In 2001, the iPod changed everything. Portable media players began to spring up like weeds in the crack of a fertile driveway, flourishing for a while — until the smartphone arrived. With their limited storage capacities, phones eventually lead to the rise of streaming services like Spotify that quickly rendered the MP3 model antiquated, and favored the limitless collections of music hosted from the cloud.
But MP3 players didn’t simply roll over and die when the smartphones showed up. Instead, they pivoted. Those with sizable music collections will often find their smartphone‘s storage inadequate, especially since apps and music will end up competing for space. Many dedicated MP3 players offer big hard drives, meaning you’ll be able to fit your favorite band’s entire discography on a single device.
The exercise world is another niche that MP3 players have slid comfortably into. While smartphone screens grow larger, smaller media players offer the user a lightweight alternative that won’t make your pocket bounce to and fro during a workout.
Audiophiles, too, can find devices built to handle high-quality audio in one of several file formats. Although some of these players find themselves floating up toward (and in excess of) $1,000, there’s one that rises above the tide for a reasonable sum.
To help everyone find the right dedicated music player for them, we’ve picked out our favorite MP3 players below.
Astell & Kern AK Jr
Why you should buy this: It’s powerful, versatile, reasonably priced, and produces extremely high resolution audio.
Who it’s for: Music lovers and casual listeners who don’t want to break the bank.
How much will it cost: $300+
Why we chose the Astell & Kern AK Jr:
Most companies don’t generally charge over $300 for their entry-level MP3 player. Then again, most companies are not Astell & Kern. The AK Jr. — which retails for about one-seventh of the cost of the flagship model, the AK380 — produces some of the highest quality sound out there. The beautifully angular Jr., measuring 4.5 x 2 inches and weighing just 3.28 ounces, features Astell & Kern’s signature volume wheel, which offers finer control than the traditional 1-through-10 volume setting on a phone or player.
The player’s touchscreen is framed in an attractive matte aluminum shell and its battery lasts for 6 – 8 hours. The Jr. features Bluetooth connectivity, but no Wi-Fi.
All the bells and whistles are here to service the sound. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a device that produces the kind of depth, clarity, and balance that the AK Jr. churns out on a song-by-song basis. Its Wolfson WM8740 Digital Audio Converter (DAC) is comfortable processing several different audio formats, from WAV to FLAC to single-rate DSD codecs, and the player features 64GB of native flash storage, with an SD slot so you can add another 64GB if need be.
Never before has there been a device this affordable that produces true hi-res audio. Put simply, the AK Jr is a top-flight portable music player whose reasonable price belies the power within.
Best fitness MP3 player
SanDisk Clip Sport
Why you should buy this: It’s lightweight, durable, and built for exercise, with reasonable storage capacity and an excellent battery lifespan.
Who it’s for: Anyone looking to listen to music while they work out.
How much will it cost: $44 to $54
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 a rock-solid 25-hour battery life.
Apart from the eponymous clip, SanDisk equipped their 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 audio file types (including .FLAC files), this little guy is perfectly equipped to handle 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
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-smart phones.
How much will it cost: $150 to $280
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 like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and app integrations (including the ability to use Apple Music for streaming), there is no better iPod for casual listeners and those who don’t want to carry a smartphone.
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. Plus, up to 40 hours of battery life is enough for a full work week of listening.
The best smartphone for music lovers
LG G7 ThinQ
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’d rather just use their phone.
How much will it cost: $750+
Why we chose the LG G7 ThinQ:
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 G7 ThinQ, you don’t have to choose. The same Quad digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that we loved on the LG V30 returns in the company’s latest model, bringing pristine audio quality to anything you plug into the phone’s 3.5 mm audio jack (!). In addition, the g7 ThinQ also supports DTS.X 3D surround sound, a technology similar to Dolby Atmos.
The phone also features a 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.
Ultimately, the LG G7 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.
What is hi-res audio?
High resolution audio uses a higher sampling rate and a higher bitrate than regular audio files. A typical hi-res audio file is sampled at 96 kHz/24 bit, which means that the audio is ‘sampled’ more frequently each second than a typical MP3 file, which loses around 90 percent of its information during the compression process. Hi-res files (like .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 are 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.
How we test
You might be wondering how, exactly, we came to these conclusions. As the market for MP3 players has thinned, devices must fit snugly into a niche — or be left out in the cold. For hi-res options like the AK Jr., there’s only one way to test: with variety. We tested the AK with several different genres of music across several different file codecs, with several different pairs of headphones. When it performed admirably across the gamut of variables, we knew we had our pick. We also do extensive phone reviewing, and picked other MP3 music players based on their ease of use or usefulness in a particular situation.