While TVs have become better and better over the past 15 years, audio has taken several steps backwards. Many of us have sacrificed fidelity in pursuit of convenience and portability, adopting inferior audio codecs such as MP3 and making them our new benchmarks. Lossy formats such as that strip music of its dynamics, detail, and vitality. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Pick up a high-resolution digital audio player (DAP) and you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Unlike old-school MP3 players, Apple’s iPod touch, or a smartphone, high-res DAPs are designed with high-end audio circuitry, high-powered digital-to-analog converters (DACs), and amplifiers that can drive a wide range of audiophile-class headphones. Their exclusive purpose is to play music, and while they can play just about any type of music file, they’re really designed for the formats and codecs that deliver better-than-CD quality.

Editor’s note: This story was updated March 28, 2018 to add our take on the Astell&Kern AK70 MKII, which is our new top pick in this category.

Best high-res digital audio player

Until now, the Astell&Kern AK70 was our top recommendation in high-resolution digital audio players, so it’s fitting that its successor–the Astell&Kern AK70 MKII–should displace it. The older model remains on the market, but an additional $100 delivers a raft of new features and even higher performance.

Runner-up

Support for MQA files and the presence of a balanced headphone output are just two of the best features in our runner-up pick, Onkyo’s DP-X1. This player is beautifully designed, easy to use, and it sounds fantastic. We’d like it even better if it supported aptX HD.

Feature comparison

The following table will give you a side-by-side comparison of the players, along with a mainstream media player—Apple’s iPod touch—as a reference point. 

Best DAP featire table Theo Nicolakis

The feature sets of high-res DAPs vary considerably.

How we tested

We tested each player with Bowers & Wilkins’ P7, B&W P5 Wireless, and B&W C5 (Series 2) headphones in a variety of listening environments. Bowers & Wilkins’ P7 was my go-to headphone for all critical listening.

B&W P7 headphones Bowers & Wilkins

We used Bowers & Wilkins’ P7 over-the-ear headphones for our critical listening tests.

We copied a collection of high-res ALAC, FLAC, and DSD music files to 64GB microSD cards and used them with all three players. Test files were encoded with 24-bit resolution at sampling rates ranging from 48- to 192kHz. Some of the music files we used were supplied by the manufacturers; others were purchased from HDTracks, B&W’s Society of Sound, AcousticSounds, and similar high-res music-download sites. We also purchased some of the same albums on CD and from the iTunes store (the latter as lossy AAC-encoded files) for comparison.



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