A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 3 Conclusions and Recommendations

DAP3_Photo_Main

Survey 3 Conclusions
As the third and final chapter of my DAP roundup project comes to a close, I can't help but notice how this group is clearly superior to the last two. While each of those collections had some strong contenders, they also had quite a few "also ran" devices. This time around there's not a single model that I wouldn't recommend to certain users. I'd say this shows the market as generally improving over time—a good thing for those folks still undecided on what to buy. I'll discuss my conclusions on this group, and then make my final recommendations based on the entirety of this lengthy survey.

Sony ZX2 - I found Sony's original ZX1 to be a big disappointment, which really got me suspicious about the even more expensive ZX2. But I'm willing to admit my expectations were off-base—the ZX2 is fantastic. For the most even-handed, well-balanced sound of this group, look no further...as long as you stay within its limitations for headphone sensitivity. With spectacular build quality, Tidal integration, and the best battery performance by a substantial margin, the ZX2 is a clear winner.

iBasso DX90 - The little DX90 is a good example of how much can be achieved without requiring a massive price tag. It drives most headphones surprisingly well and its detailed sound signature is impressive, not feeling out of place with more expensive players in this group. Downsides? It isn't amazing in terms of build, it shows no mercy for poor recordings, and the user interface is fairly bland. That last issue is rectified by installing Rockbox which brings the experience up to another level. All things considered, the DX90 is worth a serious look for anyone shopping in the sub-$500 range.

Cowon Plenue 1 - While the newer Plenue S has taken the top spot in Cowon's lineup, the Plenue 1 still seems a worthy choice—the key difference seems to be balanced drive which a lot of users won't really care about. The Plenue 1 remains a very compelling option, especially considering the recent price drop. If you value warmth and musicality along with a plethora of sound tweaking options, this is is the DAP for you, surpassing the overall experience of the similarly-tuned Calyx M and HiFiMAN HM802.

Questyle QP1R - Questyle comes surprisingly close to perfection with their very first entry into this field. At what I consider a middle-ground price, the QP1R is up there with the best of the best in several aspects—specifically build quality and sound. It doesn't have a ton of drive for difficult headphones, and that scroll wheel is less than ideal, but otherwise I find very little to complain about. Some might find the simplistic menu a bit limiting and I can understand that complaint, though it works well enough for me. And that sound...ravishingly clear, detailed, yet not annoying in an "artificial hi-fi" way. Very, very impressive!

HiFiMAN HM901S - I have mixed feelings about the 901S. For one thing, the modular nature of the design makes it a bit hard to pin down. It can take on different characteristics based on the amp card being used, but generally speaking the focus seems more on clarity and resolution. No matter the card, this is an exceptional sounding DAP, among the best I've heard. The UI is a bit primitive though and, despite improvements over the original 901, still a little sluggish. I do love the available dock which adds plenty of functionality to the system, but I also find the whole thing a bit overpriced considering how much SQ can be had elsewhere for less money. Still, if you can handle the price and the UI, there's a lot to like about HiFiMAN's flagship DAP.

Acoustic Research M2 - Again, something of a mixed bag here. Simply put, I'm disappointed in the performance of this device when used with my favorite CIEMs and low impedance dynamic headphones. It just doesn't pair well in those cases, resulting in altered frequency response—almost universally a negative change. That calls for careful consideration as to your intended use. If your headphone of choice is a higher impedance Sennheiser or beyerdynamic model, or a planar magnetic headphone which doesn't much care about a 10 Ohm output impedance, the M2 is an exceptional choice. DAPs which handle Tidal streaming—including offline listening—remain hard to come by. If you seek a rich, dynamic presentation with a Tidal-capable device, place the M2 on the very top of your list.

Overall Survey Recommendations So, here we are. 20 months and 19 devices later, I've finally got something of a handle on the DAP situation. Enough to feel comfortable making Wall of Fame nominations. Reluctantly, I have to admit this is merely a temporary win—my first article covered the Fiio X5 and by now Fiio is up to their 3rd generation of that device. So goes progress.

That pace makes it tough for reviewers and is something of a double-edged sword for buyers. Looking for a DAP with a specific set of features? If it doesn't yet exist, it likely will soon. Then again, whatever you buy now has a good chance of being superseded by a better/faster/cheaper model within the next year or two. In that respect, buying a DAP is a lot like buying a laptop or tablet or smartphone. There's always something better just around the corner. Hold out for the next big thing, and you might find yourself waiting indefinitely. My advice is to find something that fits most of your needs, and then enjoy the heck out of it—regardless of what comes out next month or next year.

Stuff We Like
Cayin N6 - The N6 is a solid performer which actually comes extremely close to Wall of Fame status. It's got a powerful output capable of driving most headphones quite nicely, along with an organic, crowd-pleasing tonal balance well suited for long-term listening. The only things really holding it back are the somewhat plain UI and general size/weight of the design. Battery life is mediocre which I admit is the norm for these devices, but I'd like to see that improve across the board. All things considered—especially the price which is lower than most competitors—the N6 is definitely worth a listen if you can handle those relatively minor downsides.

Acoustic Research M2 - Another device which falls just short of making the Wall of Fame. This time the limiting factors include battery (again), a somewhat high price tag, and a headphone stage which I feel holds back the potential for ultimate sound quality. Even so, the M2 remains one of the best sounding DAPs around, capturing the dynamics and rhythmic bounce I'd normally associate with good full-size components. The Tidal integration is a huge benefit as well. I get the feeling Acoustic Research will be a major player in this segment if they keep making stuff like the M2.

HiFiMAN HM901S - HiFiMAN has a unique approach to DAP design, and that will surely inform your opinion of the 901S. The modular amplification concept with a fairly large selection of amp cards and the extremely useful desktop dock aren't things you'll find in other devices. The 901S also has the distinction of being among the most clean, detailed DAPs around, with exceptional imaging and a wide open soundstage. Keeping it off the Wall is the somewhat underwhelming UI performance, complete with occasional sluggishness not found in other top tier DAPs. Factor in the high price and this otherwise appealing DAP becomes a little less easy to recommend. Still, HiFiMAN is getting better and better, so watch out for their eventual replacement to be a major contender.

Wall of Fame
Sony NW-ZX2 - This is a no brainer for me. 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 my rankings. It's easily the most well-rounded device in this entire shootout. Tidal integration plus generous storage size and wide format support mean I always have plenty of music on hand, and it all sounds terrific. All things considered, I'd call this my favorite DAP for general purpose use.

Yes, it's expensive. And yes, I wish it had some form of SPDIF output. I'd also much prefer a microUSB port rather than that proprietary Sony plug. The hardware is rather dated internally, and at some point the older Android version will become an issue for running the latest apps. The output is not very potent either, which to some degree limits the variety of headphones it can comfortably drive. None of this is compelling enough to knock the ZX2 from the top of my list.

This was probably the biggest surprise of all 19 devices I evaluated. I went into it with relatively low expectations and ended up highly impressed. I'm saddened that Sony is moving away from Android on their recently released flagship, which means no more Tidal support, and I'm not excited that the price has more than doubled from the already pricey ZX2. We'll have to see if it does anything to justify those decisions, but for now the ZX2 is still available from a variety of sellers—I highly recommend it.

Sony NWZ-A17 - Sony strikes again! For a compact and relatively affordable device, the A17 really delivers. It captures a good portion of the sound I love 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.

Premium DAP makers seem to have moved away from making compact devices of this nature and I can't say I blame them—the smaller size and price means strategic compromise in multiple areas, and there's clearly less profit to be had on each unit sold. So it's not surprising we don't see more like this, yet I'm very glad Sony found it worthwhile to pursue. For a "daily driver" of sorts, the A17 (and A20 series which is essentially the same thing) gets top honors.

Questyle QP1R - The QP1R, like Sony's ZX2, seems 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 among my favorites in terms of sound signature. It really has very few peers. The low output power doesn't bother me 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 to me. If Questyle eventually drops a QP2R and fixes the various niggles of the original...other DAP makers had better be ready.

Cowon Plenue 1 - 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.

Final Thoughts
As I look back over these recommendations as well as the prior entries into this series, I again get the impression that these devices are clearly improving with each new generation. Not only that, but the individual devices often get better with time thanks to firmware updates. That's something to make note of—Acoustic Research, Cayin, Astell & Kern, and many others do a great job of actively improving their products, with bug fixes and even new functionality being unlocked on a regular basis. On the flip side, Calyx and Consonance seem to have abandoned their players, and Pono looks similarly stagnant at the moment. Just something to keep in mind.

Ultimately, despite the constant march forward in this segment, I think we are at a point where solid performance can be had right now. The category is mature enough to produce winners like the recommended DAPs listed above, all of which I suspect would satisfy most users. Others, like the Astell & Kern models, didn't make my list but would perhaps make yours—they obviously have their share of fans.

It's a great time to be in the market for quality portable audio. I'll keep my eyes peeled for interesting new designs and will continue my coverage as I discover worthy contenders—one device at a time, thank you very much.

COMMENTS
tony's picture

This is one hell-of-a-summary!

Battery life, efficiency, Streaming, Quality, Design Integrity, you're hitting all the key points. What do I owe you for this? Buying the wrong feature Set is an expensive mistake.

Can you offer an opinion on the New Phones as Audio Players? the V20 for example.

It would seem that the World will be using their Phones as DAPs, I hope to encourage you to continue your "important" work in this new area.

Thank you for all this work!

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture

...are getting better (at least some of them). Unfortunately it seems like LG and others don't want to bother with us lowly audio journalists. I have a heck of a time getting replies from their PR people, which makes it tough to properly investigate. I'll keep at it though.

I'm currently using a ZTE Axon 7 as my daily driver and it's pretty impressive, both as a phone and in terms of audio quality. Not a true "DAP replacement" but very impressive for what it is.

flohmann's picture

A big omission, it seems to me, since the X1a is about $650, supports up to 400gb, and runs a newer version of Android than the Sony player (so runs all the apps that the Sony player does). Maybe Part 4?

John Grandberg's picture

I had the original DP-X1 when it first came out. Weird battery issues, and then the 3.5mm jack went sideways. I figured it was just an anomaly, but then a friend with a pretty decent measurement rig got some wild results with his DP-X1 - *extreme* deviation from the published specs. Those two experiences were enough to put me off when it comes to Onkyo.

Don't know if those issues are still present with the DP-X1a, and honestly I haven't kept up with it. But from now on I'll be doing updates one DAP at a time so I should manage to be more nimble going forward. Perhaps an Onkyo is in my future one of these days.

logscool's picture

I also had issues with my original DP-X1 and almost didn't get a second one after trying the not very good OPUS#1 I went ahead and got a second DP-X1 I've had no issues with the new unit. There is a pioneer unit coming out that looks to be identical (XDP-300R). There is also the single ended only version Pioneer makes (XDP-100R).

Meshail's picture

Why do you find the opus #1 bad or ( not good ) where is it lacking, I'm asking as I want to grab one now as price is like 290$ & you are the second person who is saying it is not good

logscool's picture

It just didn't have a lot of weight or dynamics to the sound pretty "digital" sounding in comparison to better sources. If you have a chance to try it then definitely try it as you might like it's signature.

Meshail's picture

Can you please suggest me a better dap in the sub 300 $ range as the opus#1 runs for 289$ on amazon

Long time listener's picture

I note you mention the Fiio X5, but they now also have an X7--disappointed not to see it as I would appreciate comparisons. I trust the Fiio brand, they use a good DAC chip, and the sound seems very good at the $600-700 range. But is there better?

Also, to Tyll, a review of the new Shure electrostatic IEM would be appreciated. Thanks

John Grandberg's picture
See, there's the dilemma I mentioned - always another worthy model coming out. I finally had to put my foot down and just go with what I had, else it all became irrelevant. But I definitely intend to catch up on newer models from Fiio, Cayin, Astell&Kern, and perhaps the new Sony models. One at a time though!
thefitz's picture

I use the DX90 because you can plug in a USB hard drive via OTG. Use Western Digital drives. 2TB+ at my fingertips!

John Grandberg's picture
The literature for the Acoustic Research M2 also mentions the same OTG functionality. I never actually tried it but I can see how that might come in handy in some cases. Thanks for the info!
jcheadphone's picture

Thanks John. Really enjoyed reading your three part series on DAPs. I used to own the Calyx M and agree it sounded wonderful. I ended up selling it because of the shortcomings that your mentioned and others. I currently own a ZX2. It sounds great and is able to drive all my headphones from my Shure SE846 to Audeze LCD-XCs with good results (although the XCs as expected certainly benefit from a desktop headphone amp). I also picked up a pair of Sony MDR-1000x wireless noise cancelling headphones for travel. The LDAC streaming with the ZX2 sounds very good. In A/B tests with 16/44 ALAC and FLAC tracks I can't distinguish a difference between the wired connection and the LDAC wireless streaming. I note that Sony has now made LDAC available on the licensing market so maybe we'll see it on other non Sony Bluetooth products in the future.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

As a big fan of better quality sound on-the-go, the ever evolving DAP market is of big interest to me. I very much appreciate you taking the time to review so many entries. Its great to see this site evolve in its review and wall-o-fame offerings.

Great stuff...keep it up...even if you dont do the huge comparison reviews (takes loads o time im sure), drop in with a 1-off review of a DAP every now and then. Would be much appreciated

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF

GlennT's picture

I own a Questyle QP1R and I love it. However, I agree that the scroll wheel's functionality is disappointing. Before I bought the QP1R I had the expectation that the scroll wheel on it would be as useful as the old iPod scroll wheels used to be, but that's not the case. I find that the touch-sensitive buttons around the outside of the scroll wheel as well as the button in the center of the wheel become usability obstacles when scrolling. It's too easy to accidentally brush against the touch-sensitive buttons when scrolling. It can be very frustrating when trying to scroll to a specific selection only to suddenly be dumped back at the home screen because your finger accidentally brushed against one of the touch-sensitive buttons surrounding the scroll wheel. The wheel is also pretty slippery, making it sometimes difficult to grip. However, they have an adhesive film that goes over the scroll wheel that Questyle will provide to you upon request at no cost that mostly solves this problem.

husafreak's picture

I am a huge fan of my QP1R. It is beautiful and sounds fantastic. Clean, dynamic, and detailed. Your review is on the money. I would say that the scroll wheel cover is a must to facilitate its use. I believe the unit ships with them now but they are free and easy to get, actually something as simple as a generic stick on rubber dot can solve this design flaw.
I use mine with a set of 64 Audio U6's, TH-X00's, and now Mr Speakers Ether Flows. It is amazing to me how much detail and life I can hear with the Ether Flows. I had to comment because my son is a drummer, a professional now, and so I really get into the nuances of drums and cymbals. I swear I could hear the double bass chain mechanism rattling away when I was auditioning the Flows through my QP1R! I look forward to hearing the Spark album you used in your review.
By the way there is a very active QP1R thread on the Head-Fi forums and the company has been very proactive in releasing timely updates. In only one year they have solved many requests.

John Grandberg's picture
...for the comment. Glad you are enjoying the QP1R. The firmware aspect is yet another category which I probably could have used to judge each model, or at least each brand. Questyle is indeed one of the better ones in terms of frequent updates.
Jayhawklaw's picture

I love comparisons like this. I hope you (and your sister publications) do more. So much more meaningful data for the "everyman." I would love to see a similar survey for portable dac/amps (e.g.: Audioquest Dragon Flies Red and Black, Oppo HA-2SE, Chord Mojo, etc.)and how a smartphone with one of said dac/amps connect compares to the dedicated DAPs.

jcheadphone's picture

At first I was disappointed that Sony decided to go with a proprietary WM port rather than micro USB. When I contacted Sony tech support via phone to ask about this the tech rep said the WM port was intentional because it allowed the left and right channels to be separated for optimum line out sound quality. Don't know how much this explanation holds water but thought I would mention it.

John Grandberg's picture
They say the same thing about their 3.5mm jack. Not sure it really makes a notable improvement of any sort in terms of SQ, but it's a perfect example of Sony being Sony.
Martin.'s picture

The only DAP that seems "consumer friendly" in my eyes is the Sony NWZ-A17, which is priced at 300$. Is it even worth buying a DAP for 300 usd when you can save a bit more for a mojo at ca 500? The real question being, other than portability, what advantage would a 800$+ DAP have over a 500$ portable DAC like the mojo and, most importantly, would it make a discernible, audible difference? Thanks for any answer :)

John Grandberg's picture

Different folks will have different priorities, and each solution has pros and cons.

I like a dedicated DAP because it's smaller and easier to manage than a phone-plus-Mojo type solution. Also many phones don't have expandable storage so a DAP with 128GB or 200GB (or more) can be useful if your phone is stuck at 32GB or even 16GB. If we're talking Sony ZX2, then battery life is supremely better than a Mojo. Last but not least, there are various sound signatures to be had with different DAP models. Not everyone loves the Mojo presentation, as popular as it seems to be. The target market who prefers the sound of a Cowon Plenue 1, for example, is not likely to be thrilled with the Chord.

On the other side, it could be argued that you always carry your phone with you anyway, so a DAP isn't really saving any space over a Mojo setup. And a decent phone is usually superior when it comes to display quality, ability to run apps, etc. In some (many?) cases the Mojo sound will be superior depending on your criteria.

I agree that there aren't enough affordable options right now. I'm still looking for a true replacement for the Sansa Clip/Clip+/Clip Zip. Only reason I can't put those on the Wall of Fame is the fact that they are long since discontinued.

Martin.'s picture

Thanks for your answer. Being a novice, I usually want a "this is best" answer because I feel I need to be told what is best by veterans in the field. It is nice to be reminded that audiogear is personal and that "different strokes for different folks". Your well balanced answer is much appreciated.

br777's picture

has convinced me yet to give up my sansa clip zip.

Rblnr's picture

Very comprehensive and useful reviews. I've been using the Plenue 1 for a couple of years after testing it against others at the time of purchase and am still very happy with it driving JH Audio Angies and some over the ear headphones as well. Surprised that Cowon doesn't get more attention. The sound is as described, smooth and easy, but by no means lacking dynamics micro or macro. Sometimes I want a more 'in your face' sound and the BBE and other profiles ( as noted in the review) can provide that to a point.

I also have to say that I have little tolerance for wonky interfaces anymore -- time for those manufacturers to enter the 21st century, whether or not interface is really their expertise. The Cowon's ergonomics, while perhaps 'merely' utilitarian, are at least direct and unfussy.

Peragulator's picture

No love here for the X7 I see.

John Grandberg's picture
I just had to stop accepting or seeking out new models at some point, or else I'd never get this thing finished. I intend to revisit different models from time to time, so a Fiio of some sort is certainly on the horizon.
Trebor74's picture

Hi, great review! Are there, or will there be, any measurements available at some point to complement the reviews? I'm especially interested in the Cowon measurements - Cowon and a couple of other sites have posted THD figures for the player but these are probably not with any load. I'm curious to see how well it performs (in terms of THD both in earphone and headphone modes) on some low impedance cans. Thank you!

Peragulator's picture

AK300 ($899.00) Sony 1a ($1,199.00) FiiO X5 3rd gen ($400.00) Pioneer 300r OPUS #2 ($1,400.00)

yc627's picture

I'd Love to see some flagship phones' real world comparison in their ability to reproduce sound through headphones... Such as:

Sony Xperia XZ premium: they say it can do 24bit 192kHz audio. And Sony's own LDAC bluetooth codec. How does it sound like with Sony h.ear go SRS‑HG1 bluetooth speaker compared to other devices... + Sony Xperia Z series and to the XZ lineup, they had this noise cancelling earphones that needs no battery boxes like the Sony MDR-NC750 and MDR-NC31E I also wonder what you guys think about those earphones.

Samsung Galaxy S8: I hear it can do 32-bit/384kHz audio and I wonder what audiophile people would think about that.

LG V10, V20, V30: I heard they got 32-bit/192kHz audio and B&O Play certified. LG seems like they don't really do a lot of marketing on the audio parts what do you think about the B&O Play certification?

Just a question from a college student who is somewhat regretting getting a Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 just because it had a huge discount on Amazon and is thinking that I should have gotten the V-Moda M100 or Sony H.ear on MDR100ABN or just go crazy and go with Sennheiser Momentum Wireless...

trl's picture

Based on https://reviewzorro.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/HifimanHM901s3.jpg seems that Hifiman 901S has 2 x ES9018S inside. Quite impressive, so that explains the price indeed.

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