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Best portable high-res music players

Our top picks, plus suggested headphone and speaker pairings

In this article. A look at our top three portable high-res audio players …

I also talk about why you should consider buying a high-res player. And I offer a few suggestions on what speakers and headphones to pair with each player.

T

o find out which high-res music players deserved to make Crutchfield’s list of best picks, I spent some quality time with several popular models. I listened to the same songs in a compressed and uncompressed format. The file formats I had were AIFF, FLAC, and DSD, although these players support more.

I listened through two different headphones: My Sony WH-1000XM3 Bluetooth headphones and a pair of AudioQuest Nighthawk Carbons, an accurate semi-open headphone.

I took the three final players on a road trip to New England to see how they handled in the real world.

The best high-res audio players for 2019

Sony Walkman NW-A45

Sony Walkman NW-A45 — the best high-res player for beginners

The Sony Walkman NW-A45 is a great introduction to high-res audio. It is a pure music player that will sound better than your phone, without breaking the bank.

Sound

Even at an entry-level price, it’s easy to hear the difference a high-res player and high-res tracks can make. Compared to MP3s, the high-res tracks have a deeper, more natural soundscape. Cymbals have a little extra zing.

The Walkman advertises a Digital Sound Enhancement Engine HX (DSEE HX), which upscales compressed songs. Because of this, I also compared how MP3s sounded on my phone versus their performance on the NW-A45.

I noticed improvements in the high end of the MP3s when listening to post-hardcore bands like Balance and Composure that utilize overlaying, distorted guitars. Through the NW-A45, they sounded purposeful and accurate. The same songs on my smartphone had a mess of indistinguishable treble at the high end.

Design

Of all the DAPs I tried out, The Sony Walkman was the perfect size. It fits in your pocket, but the screen is still roomy enough to navigate easily.

I am a sucker for dedicated buttons. They’re quicker and more gratifying to me than touch-screen buttons. The modernized tape-deck-style rewind, play, forward and volume buttons on the side were a nice touch.

Features

One of my favorite features was the VPT (simulated surround sound). You can choose between studio, club, concert hall, and matrix.

I tend to like a little more reverb than is included in the mix, so I spent a lot of listening time in concert hall mode. I was impressed that it was able to enrich the sound without muddying it in any way.

You can also use the Walkman as a personal USB DAC (digital audio converter). I plugged it into my laptop while working at a coffee shop. It noticeably outperformed my brand new laptop’s sound card. Which made me a little upset, to be honest, but I guess it means I need to pick up a Walkman (or another external USB DAC).

Details

  • Plays MP3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, AAC, APE, WAV, and WMA audio files (up to 24-bit/192kHz)
  • Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files (.dff and .dsf formats up to 11.2MHz resolution)
    • DSD files are converted to PCM for playback
  • Supports MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) audio files
  • S-Master® HX amplification offers accurate, detailed playback of high-resolution music files
  • DSEE HX and ClearAudio+ sound modes for enhancing compressed music
  • Rechargeable battery provides up to 45 hours of playback
  • Bluetooth-compatible with LDAC enhanced wireless music streaming

Suggested pairing: Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones.

The Walkman has Sony's LDAC Bluetooth capability. This audio codec transmits 3x the amount of data as standard Bluetooth. The technology is only compatible with a few headphones, including my beloved Sony WH-1000XM3’s. It noticeably improved the wireless performance of my headphones.

Last updated 10/17/2019