InnerFidelity's "Wall of Fame" Portable Music Players

Portable Music Players
In the era of the Smartphone, that iPhone or Android in your pocket is likely perfectly adequate to the task of casual music listening...especially when using wireless Bluetooth headphones. But when a superior listening experience is desired on the move, a dedicated Portable Music Player (often called Digital Audio Player or DAP) is the order of the day.

Sound quality and the ability to drive a variety of headphones without tonal compromise are of prime importance in InnerFidelity DAP reviews. However, many other features are important to headphone enthusiasts: supported file formats and data rates; storage capacity; build quality; styling; user interface; operating system; support for third party apps; battery life; and analog and digital wired and wireless connectivity are all covered in InnerFidelity reviews.

The following Portable Media Players have been placed on the Wall of Fame for their excellent performance at various price points.

Astell&Kern KANN ($999)
Astell&Kern took a gamble by tapping a different design team on their KANN player. The resulting product looks fairly unique compared to prior AK designs, and handles very differently thanks to those front panel controls. Obviously that massive battery is the headlining feature, but we also get increased power and connectivity thanks to the expanded real estate. The $999 price tag is certainly not cheap, though for an Astell&Kern product it is actually on the low side.

What to make of all this? Well, for starters, KANN has very little competition when it comes to potent output plus extended battery life. Other brands have models which are either powerful (Fiio X7 with AM5 amp module) or long lasting (Sony WM1A/Z), but nothing pulls off both aspects quite like KANN. This combination, plus its superb sound quality, makes KANN a rather compelling option...yet I can't quite universally recommend it.

Potential owners really need to do some reflection about their needs. Are they ever going to actually drive a difficult full-size headphone with a portable player? Will they regularly listen for 12+ hours per day without access to a charger? Are they fine with only using Tidal via WiFi? And, most importantly, can they stomach the bulk and weight of this player? If the answer to those questions is universally "yes", KANN is absolutely recommended.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Questyle QP1R ($899)
WoF_Photo_QuestyleQP1RThe QP1R may seem perhaps a bit disappointing on paper. There's the wonky scroll wheel, simplistic UI, mediocre battery life, and somewhat limited output capability. Then you actually use the device and find out those things don't bother you much—the experience just "works".

Questyle's DAP is a favorite in terms of sound signature. It really has very few peers. The low output power isn't a bother in real-world use, especially with IEM compatibility being excellent. The money you'll save buying this thing compared to a twice-as-expensive competitor can be directly funneled into better CIEMs, or just more music. Seems like a fair trade. A quirky, but lovely DAP.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Retired from the Wall of Fame

Sony NW-ZX2 ($1199)
WoF_Photo_SonyMWZX2This player was retired from the WoF because it's been discontinued.

This is a no brainer. In nearly every category—build quality, ergonomics, user interface, battery life, and of course sound quality—the ZX2 is either at or very near the top of InnerFidleity rankings. It's easily the most well-rounded device experienced to date. Tidal integration plus generous storage size and wide format support means you always have plenty of music on hand, and it all sounds terrific.

The Sony ZX2 has a 4 inch, 854 x 480 display; a thick PCB; gold-plated copper insulation on the chassis; more capacitors in the critical analog circuit; a "super capacitor" for more stable voltage reserves; a larger capacity battery; dual oscillators for native sample-rate playback (the ZX1 had to upsample 44.1kHz material to 48kHz due to its single clock design); and on and on. With spectacular build quality, Tidal integration, and the best battery performance by a substantial margin to date, the ZX2 is a clear winner.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Cowon Plenue 1 ($699)
WoF_Photo_CowonPlenue1This player was retired from the WoF because it's been discontinued.

In a way, the Plenue 1 feels like something of a guilty pleasure. It's just such a warm, inviting DAP that I don't feel like it belongs in the same sentence as the QP1R, ZX2, or 901S. And yet here it is on the Wall of Fame for exactly that reason—this is "analog" sound done right.

The fact that Cowon has added newer and more expensive models to the line does nothing to diminish the appeal of the Plenue 1. Since getting a major price drop some months back, the value proposition on this thing went up several notches to the point where it is hard to recommend anything else sporting a similar signature. Yes, you can get warm and smooth sound elsewhere, but the Cowon offers a more complete experience than the rest, and at a compelling price too. Very highly recommended despite its age.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Sony NWZ-A17 ($299)
WoF_Photo_SonyNWZA17This player was retired from the WoF because it's been discontinued.

Sony strikes again! For a compact and relatively affordable device, the A17 really delivers. It captures a good portion of the lovely sound from the ZX2 at a mere 25% of the price. This is a real world DAP which goes places other chunky models wouldn't dare, and there have been many times where I actually preferred grabbing it over the ZX2 as I headed out the door.

The NWZ-A17 is small, easy to use, and costs less than most of the competition. I would have liked to see DSD support just because that's Sony's format, and the build is a little underwhelming in some respects, but I still really enjoy this thing. If you can make due without much power, and don't have wacky armature-based IEMs that demand a <1 ohm output impedance, the A17 is an excellent choice for everyday use, and is very easy to recommend.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.