A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 1
Outside of our little circle of audio enthusiasts, the majority of music listening probably happens via smartphone or tablet. I don't have any hard numbers to back this up, and there are plenty of competing methods for mass music consumptioncar stereo, computer, clock radio, whatever. But I'd still wager smartphones/tablets are the preeminent source of music for the largest number of folks, either via headphones or streaming to a Bluetooth speaker. There's just so many of those devices out there these days, and research indicates their owners do indeed use them for music. I've had my eyes (and ears) on that topic for a while now and will have something to say about it soon enough.
Still, many of us prefer a dedicated player, aka DAP, for a variety of reasons. Better sound is a big one. For all the improvement I've noticed in smartphones over the past few years, a dedicated player can typically still offer superior audio quality. Especially when driving a somewhat inefficient headphone or an IEM with multiple balanced armatures. There are other things to consider as well such as format support and maximum storage. Many phones still don't handle FLAC files, and the average phone with 16GB doesn't leave a lot of room for music. Not to mention battery lifefor business and sometimes personal reasons, many folks simply can't afford to run out of phone battery... ever. Which makes the added drain of music playing somewhat risky.
Despite being almost dead for a while there, the DAP market is on a major upswing lately. I'd say the continued advancements in IEMs probably helped a lot. It's now much easier to get excellent sound on the go, in a wide variety of price ranges. An example of this resurgence is found in HiFiMAN, once known primarily for their in-ear monitors, being now more focused on their DAP line (among other things). In any case, there are quite a few DAP options to choose from at the moment. I set out to discover the relevant models and report the good, the bad, and the ugly. As I researched, I found there were more so many choices worth discussing that I'd have to break it into two articles. Consider this "part one".
In order to keep this from become a novel, I'm going to borrow an approach Tyll used in his article about flagship headphonespick some specific aspects and judge each model on those particular things. To do a full-sized review on each DAP would be a bit much, and by the time I publish would most certainly be out of date anyway. This is a rapidly-evolving segment with new stuff coming out all the time, so this approach hopefully allows me to be more timely.
I judged each DAP on the following:
This is fairly self explanatory. Some of these devices are very compact and some are brickseach type can be well done (or not), and I'm more concerned with the layout being efficient, regardless of size. Quality and durability are certainly factorsan expensive DAP should look the part, but as a portable device should also feel robust enough to withstand normal use on the go.
DACs, output stages, playback formats, etc. Some of these devices are fairly straight forward while others have a lot more to them than initially meets the eye.
Where the rubber meets the road. For me, a make-or-break category, especially on the more expensive devices. I can handle simplicity and complexity is fine too, assuming it adds something to the equation. Either way it has to feel natural. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get the hang of basic use, and no more than a day or two in order to completely master.
Line out? Digital transport? Balanced headphone option? Some of these can be used in a number of ways while others have a more closed ecosystem. Expandable memory, wireless streaming, it all goes in this category.
Pretty self explanatory. Obviously results will vary based on volume levels, headphone load, and the type of file being played. Lossless FLAC files use considerably more CPU resources than low bitrate MP3, to say nothing of high resolution PCM, DSD, or the potential differences between internal memory and SD card playback. I'll simply report my general experience based on mixed use.
The main reason to consider buying a DAP in the first place. The baseline requirement should be enough of an improvement over the average smartphone to make the endeavor worthwhile. That's bare minimum. The more expensive a device is, the higher my expectations climb. I recognize that a portable device will require compromise as compared to a similarly priced desktop setup, and I'm fine with that as long as the divide isn't too great.
I used several Wall of Fame custom in-ear monitors including the Noble Audio Kaiser 10 and 1964 Ears V3. When applicable, I used the line out jack to feed a Leckerton UHA-6S MKII, or used digital out to an iQube V5. I also tried full sized headphones, from easier loads like VMODA M100 and Grado PS500, to the higher impedance Sennheiser HD650, and finally more demanding planar magnetic models like Mr Speakers Alpha Dogs. Aside from the M100 I don't consider any of these headphones truly portable, but I wanted to get a better picture of how well these DAPs perform as stand-ins for a desktop system. If they do a credible job there, and sound appreciably better than a smartphone while used on the go, then it may be easier to justify the purchase.
I have to mention, my high water mark in the DAP category is the AK240. I agree with Tyll's assessment on that devicewhile certainly VERY expensive, it has such a good UI, superb sound quality, well thought out design, etc, that it arguably becomes "worth it" for well-heeled audiophiles seeking the ultimate DAP. That's the standard by which these others will be judged.
This first round is comprised of offerings from the major players in the segment. Part two will showcase the remaining well known models as well as some smaller or less common brands. I found a few that have something worth talking about, and of course many more that aren't worth the trouble (those won't get a writeup). You might notice there's nothing here from iBassodespite having an early entry in their DX100, and multiple subsequent models, I've yet to find one that really impresses me. That, and I'm still upset about their DX50. Among multiple other firmware bugs, it had a habit of unexpectedly increasing volume to max levelsI tried to bump it up one notch, and it rapidly kept going until it was full blast. This problem was widespread and though iBasso eventually fixed it, I haven't gotten over my anger.... it contributed to the early death of a nice pair of custom in-ear monitors. Considering all the great alternatives currently available, I see no reason to give them a second chance at this stage. That could change in the future but you can bet I'll be waiting until stability is well established before trying a device.
That's not to say iBasso has a corner on the market when it comes to firmware bugs. Nearly every DAP has some form of issue, ranging from minor to significant, in their early days. Firmware updates typically offer improvements for months and even years after initial release. Some brands are better at this than others. The following reviews will cover each device in its current state at time of writingI obviously can't anticipate any changes that may happen down the road.