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Best portable high-res music players

Our top picks, plus suggested headphone and speaker pairings

Heads up!

Welcome to this article from the Crutchfield archives. Have fun reading it, but be aware that the information may be outdated and links may be broken.

In this article. A look at our top three portable high-res audio players …

I also talk about why you should consider buying a high-res player. And I offer a few suggestions on what speakers and headphones to pair with each player.

T

o find out which high-res music players deserved to make Crutchfield’s list of best picks, I spent some quality time with several popular models. I listened to the same songs in a compressed and uncompressed format. The file formats I had were AIFF, FLAC, and DSD, although these players support more.

I listened through two different headphones: My Sony WH-1000XM3 Bluetooth headphones and a pair of AudioQuest Nighthawk Carbons, an accurate semi-open headphone.

I took the three final players on a road trip to New England to see how they handled in the real world.

The best high-res audio players for 2019

Sony Walkman NW-A45

Sony Walkman NW-A45 — the best high-res player for beginners

The Sony Walkman NW-A45 is a great introduction to high-res audio. It is a pure music player that will sound better than your phone, without breaking the bank.

Sound

Even at an entry-level price, it’s easy to hear the difference a high-res player and high-res tracks can make. Compared to MP3s, the high-res tracks have a deeper, more natural soundscape. Cymbals have a little extra zing.

The Walkman advertises a Digital Sound Enhancement Engine HX (DSEE HX), which upscales compressed songs. Because of this, I also compared how MP3s sounded on my phone versus their performance on the NW-A45.

I noticed improvements in the high end of the MP3s when listening to post-hardcore bands like Balance and Composure that utilize overlaying, distorted guitars. Through the NW-A45, they sounded purposeful and accurate. The same songs on my smartphone had a mess of indistinguishable treble at the high end.

Design

Of all the DAPs I tried out, The Sony Walkman was the perfect size. It fits in your pocket, but the screen is still roomy enough to navigate easily.

I am a sucker for dedicated buttons. They’re quicker and more gratifying to me than touch-screen buttons. The modernized tape-deck-style rewind, play, forward and volume buttons on the side were a nice touch.

Features

One of my favorite features was the VPT (simulated surround sound). You can choose between studio, club, concert hall, and matrix.

I tend to like a little more reverb than is included in the mix, so I spent a lot of listening time in concert hall mode. I was impressed that it was able to enrich the sound without muddying it in any way.

You can also use the Walkman as a personal USB DAC (digital audio converter). I plugged it into my laptop while working at a coffee shop. It noticeably outperformed my brand new laptop’s sound card. Which made me a little upset, to be honest, but I guess it means I need to pick up a Walkman (or another external USB DAC).

Details

  • Plays MP3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, AAC, APE, WAV, and WMA audio files (up to 24-bit/192kHz)
  • Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files (.dff and .dsf formats up to 11.2MHz resolution)
    • DSD files are converted to PCM for playback
  • Supports MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) audio files
  • S-Master® HX amplification offers accurate, detailed playback of high-resolution music files
  • DSEE HX and ClearAudio+ sound modes for enhancing compressed music
  • Rechargeable battery provides up to 45 hours of playback
  • Bluetooth-compatible with LDAC enhanced wireless music streaming

Suggested pairing: Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones.

The Walkman has Sony's LDAC Bluetooth capability. This audio codec transmits 3x the amount of data as standard Bluetooth. The technology is only compatible with a few headphones, including my beloved Sony WH-1000XM3’s. It noticeably improved the wireless performance of my headphones.

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