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Best portable high-res music players for 2023

How to take great sound on the go

Heads up!

Welcome to this article from the Crutchfield archives. Have fun reading it, but be aware that the information may be outdated and links may be broken.

In this article: We'll look at what portable high-resolution music players are, and how they can bring out the most in your digital music. And then I’ll share my top picks…

  1. Most affordable portable high-resolution player — Sony NW-A306 Walkman®
  2. Most value-packed portable high-resolution player — Sony NW-ZX707 Walkman
  3. Best audiophile portable music player — Sony NW-WM1ZM2 Signature Series Walkman
  4. Most built-in storage — Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000

…along with some headphones to pair with them.

Portable high-res music players are the hypercars of the personal audio world. They're purpose-built to handle high-resolution audio. High-res files have a resolution that's greater than CD quality (which is 16-bit/44.1kHz). Some players can even handle special formats, like DSD and MQA.

If you'd like to know more about the ins and outs of high-res audio, check out the article we did on all its nuances.

You might ask, "Isn’t a portable high-res player just a glorified MP3 player?" Not quite.

More than just an MP3 player

Portable high-res players can play MP3 files just fine, but they were designed to tackle much more. They use top-of-the-line digital-to-analog converters, specialized digital filters, and premium headphone amplifier chips to set themselves above your run-of-the-mill MP3 player. All have high-quality circuitry and components designed to bring out the most in your favorite albums.

Picking out the right portable player can be a challenge. Here are my top picks to help you get started.

Sony NW-A306 Walkman

Most affordable portable high-resolution player — Sony NW-A306 Walkman

If you're chasing great sound on a budget, you can't go wrong with Sony's NW-A306. It's the company's entry-level portable high-res player, and it packs quite a bit under its sleek hood. It has a 32-bit/384kHz digital-to-analog converter chip inside that faithfully reproduces the nuances of your tunes.

The player uses the Android operating system, so its user interface should be familiar to Android smartphone users. You can download music streaming apps straight from the Google Play store and start playing your favorite tunes right away.

This player streams and downloads music over Wi-Fi and can also transmit via Bluetooth to headphones, speakers, and more. On top of that, you don't have to worry about losing fidelity when streaming to other devices since the 'A306 has high-resolution Bluetooth codecs like LDAC and aptX built right in.

You can rock out for between 26 to 36 hours (depending on what you're listening to and the volume level) thanks to the player's generous battery life — more than enough juice for getting you through a busy day.

Details

  • 32GB internal flash memory (SD card slot accepts up to 1TB SD cards)
  • built-in rechargeable battery lasts up to 36 hours
  • Bluetooth with support for aptX HD and LDAC formats for high-fidelity streaming
  • plays a wide range of digital music formats, including MP3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, AAC, HE-AAC, APE, WMA, WAV, AIFF, DSD, and MQA
Sony NW-Z6707 Walkman

Most value-packed portable high resolution music player — Sony NW-ZX707 Walkman

Sony's new NW-ZX707 gives you a lot of audiophile goodness for under $1,000. For starters, Sony added a lot of high-end components to its circuit board to optimize the sound quality, like a beefy high polymer capacitor and custom bypass capacitors.

They also gave the 'ZX707's balanced headphone output a large coil filter to further reduce distortion. There's even a milled copper block that covers the digital components to prevent noise from trickling in.

The player's 32-bit/384kHz digital-to-analog converter chip is a real workhorse, giving your tunes a nice polish before they reach your ears. Speaking of digital signals, the way the 'ZX707 handles them is pretty interesting. The player will convert PCM audio files to 11.2MHz DSD files before they hit the DAC, and the DAC natively renders that DSD audio stream to give your music a sound that's similar to analog.

If you've got a collection of lossy tracks like MP3s, Sony's Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) Ultimate™ uses artificial intelligence to upscale them in real time for greater detail and clarity.

The top of the player has a balanced 4.4mm headphone output and an unbalanced 3.5mm headphone output, making it compatible with just about every pair of headphones out there. And if you're worried about the amount of listening time you'll get, you'll be happy to know that this player can last for almost an entire day of constant listening before needing to be recharged.

Details

  • 64GB internal flash memory (expandable with SD cards up to 1TB)
  • 25 hours of playback on a single charge
  • DSD Remastering Engine resamples PCM files to 11.2MHz DSD for greater clarity and accuracy
  • supports MP3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, AAC, HE-AAC, APE, WMA, WAV, AIFF, DSD, and MQA audio files
Sony NW-WM1ZM2 Signature Series Walkman

Best audiophile portable music player — Sony NW-WM1ZM2 Signature Series Walkman

A product bearing Sony's "Signature Series" name means there's a lot for the product to live up to. Luckily, the NW-WM1ZM2 more than exceeds all expectations. This audiophile-grade player oozes with luxury and sound quality.

For starters, the chassis is made of gold-plated oxygen-free copper that helps reject noise. The internal components use hand-crafted braided KIMBER KABLE® connections for optimum signal stability and sound quality. The headphone amplifier section is pretty stout as well. Sony's S-Master® HX amplifier pumps out 60mW through the 3.5mm output and up to 250mW through the balanced 4.4mm output.

And this mean machine doesn't skimp on signal processing, either. The digital-to-analog converter does a phenomenal job and reveals new, previously unheard details and complexities in your music. There's also a cool vinyl processing engine that gives your music the analog warmth of vinyl for when you feel like kicking it old school.

The 'WM1ZM2 connects to your Wi-Fi for streaming and uses an Android interface to make operating the unit easy. That also means you can access the app store and download your favorite music streaming service. The player also has Bluetooth with LDAC for high-fidelity music streaming to a pair of Bluetooth headphones or wireless speakers.

Details

  • 256GB internal flash memory (expandable with SD cards)
  • rechargeable battery provides up to 40 hours of music playback
  • Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) Ultimate upscales compressed digital formats like MP3
  • plays MP3, FLAC, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, WMA, DSD, and LPCM audio files
Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000

Most built-in storage — Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000

The A&ultima SP3000 is Astell&Kern's flagship portable high-res player player, and perhaps the cleanest sounding player they've ever produced. It touts advanced, custom-designed electronics for maximum playback accuracy. Every piece of the 'SP3000 was selected to give you the best sound quality possible.

The player uses A&K's famed Teraton Alpha module, which houses the DAC chips, digital clock, and headphone amplifier. There are six audiophile-grade digital-to-analog converters housed inside the module. Four of those are top-of-the-line AKM AK4499EX chips, and the remaining two are AKM AK4191EQ chips. The DACs are distributed between the left and right channels to help with separation and to negate any potential crosstalk between the channels.

On top of that, the circuits leading into and out of the DACs are physically separated and are isolated with silver-plated shielding. The headphone amplifier section efficiently powers headphones while keeping noise to a minimum.

Being a flagship player, A&K made sure the SP3000 was as source-inclusive as possible. It can stream music over Wi-Fi from NAS drives or computers, and can also pair with Bluetooth headphones for streaming. It even natively supports MQA files.

The player offers 512GB of internal storage and can be expanded with a 1TB SD card for a max of 1.5TB of storage, giving you ample space for all your high-res files.

Details

  • 512GB internal flash memory (expandable with SD card)
  • stream music stored on NAS drives or computers to the player
  • six digital-to-analog converter chips; four AKM AK4499EX chips and two AKM AK4191EQ process left and right channels independently
  • balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm headphone outputs; unbalanced 3.5mm outputs
  • plays MP3, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, AIFF, WMA, DFF, DSF, and MQA files
Meze Audio 99 Classics Over-ear wired headphones

Headphone recommendations

Once you've got your portable high-res player picked out, you may want to grab a pair of headphones as a complement if you don't already have some.

If you've picked out a player with Bluetooth and plan on listening to music wirelessly, I'd strongly recommend Sony's noise-cancelling WH-1000XM5s. They're comfy, offer great noise cancellation, and support LDAC for hi-fi Bluetooth streaming from compatible devices.

If you're going the wired route, I'd recommend checking out Meze Audio's 99 Classics. These gorgeous over-ears are the comfiest headphones we carry. Their warm sound signature is incredibly inviting and they're some of the easiest headphones to drive. The detail they're able to reproduce is incredible, given their sub-$400 price tag.

The next level up from the 99 Classics is Sennheiser's HD660S2 headphones. Sennheiser's legendary HD600 series has served as the entry point to the audiophile world since its creation, and the 660S2 carries that legacy on with grace. Their timeless look, transparent drivers, and incredible detail make them a great companion for a mid-tier portable player.

Focal's Celestee headphones are the next step up the ladder. These closed-back headphones use Focal's famed M-shaped drivers to deliver tightly controlled, lighting-quick sound. For closed-back headphones, the Celestees have an impressively wide soundstage. They also look pretty sharp.

Rounding out the list are Meze Audio's Empyrean headphones. Machined and hand-built in Meze's headquarters in Romania, they're a true labor of love. These headphones offer exceptional resolution and detail, and have some of the deepest, most effortless bass out there.

Any Questions?

Don’t hesitate to reach out to any of our advisors if you have any questions or need a bit more direction. They’re extremely knowledgeable and get hands-on with a lot of the gear we carry. They're more than happy to delve into your needs and help you pick out the right portable player.

Popular questions customers ask

Yes. Many of the portable high-res players we carry have built-in Bluetooth and support high-quality Bluetooth codecs like LDAC and aptX.

A lot of portable high-res players allow you to download apps straight from the Google Play store. They give you access to your favorite music streaming apps, from TIDAL to Qobuz to Spotify.

All the portable high-res players we carry have an unbalanced 3.5mm output and a balanced output, usually 2.5mm or 4.4mm (or both).

Portable high-res players support all popular audio formats, like MP3, FLAC, AAC, WMV, AIFF, and even DSD. Some models can also natively decode MQA files.

All the portable high-res players we carry come with some form of internal storage. They provide 64GB of storage at the very least. Some models have up to 512GB. The good news is that in either case, the storage can be expanded by using a separate microSD card.

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