In 2001, the iPod changed everything. Portable media players began to spring up like weeds in the crack of a driveway, until the smartphone arrived. With their limited storage capacities, phones eventually led to the rise of streaming services like Spotify, which quickly rendered the MP3 model antiquated, and favored the limitless collections of music hosted from the cloud.
Those with sizable music collections may still find their smartphone‘s storage inadequate, especially since apps and music are competing for space. This give a clear edge to dedicated MP3 players, which offer big hard drives. Plus, 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 vigorous 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 their specific needs and wants, we’ve picked out our favorite MP3 (and other portable audio media) players below.
At a glance
|Activo CT10||Best overall||4.5 out of 5|
|SanDisk Clip Sport||Best fitness MP3 player||Not yet rated|
|iPod Touch||Best Apple iPod||Not yet rated|
|LG V40||Best smartphone for music lovers||3.5 out of 5|
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.
How much it will cost: $299
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.
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 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.
SanDisk Clip Sport
The best fitness MP3 player
Why you should buy this: It’s lightweight, durable, and built for exercise, with reasonable storage capacity and an excellent battery life.
Who it’s for: Anyone looking to listen to music while they work out.
How much it will cost: $35
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 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 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
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 it will cost: $150
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, as well as 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. There’s also up to 40 hours of battery life, enough for a full workweek of listening.
LG V40 ThinQ
The best smartphone for music lovers
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 it will cost: $980
Why we chose the LG V40 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 V40 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 (!). The V40 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 V40 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 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 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.