The current marketplace is saturated with portable music players aiming for audiophile sound on the move. This up-to-date comprehensive guide breaks down the latest and greatest digital audio players (DAPs) in sound quality, internal specs, operating system, ease of use and much more.
Note this is a dynamic and evolving list reflecting the best DAPs at present.
DAC: AKM 4497EQ (x2)
Amplification: Single-ended (Miniature Direct Heated Triode), Balanced (Quadruple Solid-State)
Storage: 128 GB + TF (up to 512 GB), USB-OTG
The Cayin N8 represents the world’s first digital audio player (DAP) to include Korg NuTube technology. This allows audiophiles to get a taste of that euphonic sweet timbre of the tube in a portable music player format. In addition, the swiss-army knife of an amp features solid-state modalities (both single-ended and balanced) as well as five-stage amplification to upgrade the sound of any headphone or in-ear monitor. While the N8 is on the pricy side of things, it scales tremendously well and deserves a spot in the best high-end DAP territory.
Amplification: Single-ended (LME49600), Balanced (OPA1622)
Storage: SD Card, Support up to 2 TB UHS II
The Lotoo PAW Gold Touch is a beautifully referenced digital audio player with fantastic build and a sleek design. It provides a great complement to the Cayin N8 for a its neutral and linear sound allowing transducers to shine for what they are. This, coupled with its optimised OS, make it a highly recommended purchase for those seeking high-fidelity sound on the move. Users are also able to select from a variety of Parametric EQ (PMEQ) settings allowing the fine tuning of sound. Like the Cayin N8, there is no option for streaming, but it features bi-directional Bluetooth allowing it to be used as a wireless Bluetooth DAC.
Storage: SD Card, Support up to 2 TB UHS II
The Lotoo PAW 6000 is clearly cut from the same cloth as the flagship Lotoo PAW Gold Touch. While it shares the same house sound, there is also a touch of warmth with vocals possessing slightly more body and roundedness. The PAW Gold Touch, on the other hand, excels more in imaging and separation. However, at a fraction of the price, the PAW 6000 renders a fantastic sound. It is also features one of the largest battery life (at 16 hours) of any high-tier DAP. With an incredibly fast boot-up time of 2 seconds and blistering OS, the PAW 6000 is an essential DAP for any audiophile’s inventory.
DAC: AK4499EQ (x2)
Amplification: PA221 (x2) +OPA1622 (x4) + OPA1612 (x4)
Storage: 64GB in-built storage, up to 2TB expandable storage (via SD Card)
The FiiO M15 is the most complete and thought out DAP that FiiO have ever created. With dual AK4499EQ DAC implementation and an NDK Femtosecond crystal, the sound is transparent, airy and resolving. To top it all, the M15 brings the familiar Android experience with capabilities of streaming and duplex Bluetooth options. The player is also one of a few Android devices capable of driving high-sensitivity IEMs to full-sized headphones with ease. The excellent battery life of 15 hours and quick charging time only further consolidate its status as a fantastic all-rounder. Neutral with a hint of bright, the M15 should make a fine addition to any collection.
DAC: AK4493EQ (x2)
Amplification: Raytheon JAN6418 x 2 vacuum tubes +/- opamps
Storage: One TF card (up to 1TB)
The Cayin N3Pro draws inspiration from the flagship Cayin N8 to deliver ‘Dual Timbre’ functionality to the masses. It is the world’s first digital audio player to incorporate miniature vacuum tubes (as a buffer) and solid-state opamps to offer 4 different sound profiles (3.5 mm solid state, 3.5 mm tube (ultralinear), 3.5 mm tube (triode) & 4.4 mm balanced). With a slim and compact profile, impeccable build and superior versatility – it is one of the best DAPs within its price category. While the N3Pro does not have the capabilities for streaming, it supports duplex Bluetooth allowing it to be used as a ‘Bluetooth DAC’. It also outputs an impressive 800 mW (for a given 32 Ω load) from the balanced state allowing it to drive full-sized headphones without difficulty.
DAC: AK4497EQ (x2)
Amplification: Dual THX AAA-78 opamps
Storage: 64GB internal storage + 2TB expandable
The M11 Pro brings a high-quality sound to consumers for under $1000. Built on Android OS, the player features a familiar experience for the end-user with ability for streaming and music apps. With many years of experience in the DAP market, FiiO have produced an elegant and futuristic player in the M11 Pro. The overall sound is neutral with excellent transients and detail retrieval. Users can also benefit from the Bluetooth codec support and advanced graphical user interface for ease of convenience. As Google Play Store is not supported currently, third party APK are needed to be able to use popular streaming apps such as Spotify & Tidal.
Best value for money
DAC: ESS Sabre ES9218P
Storage: 1 TB (TF card)
The Hidizs AP80 is an accomplished compact DAP which capitalizes on fantastic dynamics, EQ settings, ease of convenience in the sub $200 category. While there is no streaming, users can access a large library of offline lossless audio within the palm of their hand. The sound is very clear whilst being responsive to EQ changes. For those that wish to maximize their bang for buck, the Hidizs is a very recommended purchase.
DAC: ESS Sabre ES9218P
Storage: 512 GB TF card
The Shanling M0 is a highly ultra-portable DAP which is perfect for running or other forms of exercise. The overall sound quality is pleasant out of the box with good punchy bass, clear midrange, and linear treble. Yes, it will not drive the more demanding of headphones, but it does technically well with lower ohm transducers. For those with rather active lifestyle wishing for better sound quality, the M0 suffices.
Amplification: Dual TI OPA1611
Storage: 2 TB (Exfat) card
The Prelude DTR1 is an interesting digital audio player which focuses on a music-first approach. Stripping down the bells and whistle of modern DAPs, the DTR1’s sound philosophy concentrates on high quality amplification to provide the best sound. It certainly succeeds as the overall tonality is highly detailed with one of the best transients and rapid dynamics of any DAP in its price category. Moreover, for a compact DAP of it size, it is easily able to drive more resistant headphones and in-ear monitors. The only downside is its battery life and proprietary charger (which may not be the most convenient for some).