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Can digital audio players still compete with your smartphone?

Last month, I created a sound installation for an art organization in Fukuoka, Japan, as part of an art residency program. When the time came to upload the nine-hour sound installation to some playback device and run it through the PA system in the gallery, it turned out my good old MP3 player, connected to a power bank charger, was the best option.

I don’t even remember why I took it with me, and yet it turned out to be quite a useful thing to have at the time.

The funny thing is, when you ask music listeners, it’s not uncommon to hear that having a digital audio player is still the best option for their needs, whether for deep listening sessions, creative tasks, or even commuting or working out.

Working in the music industry, it might be I see and use digital audio players more than the average music listener, but there’s no doubt that in 2024, these potable playback devices still have a place in the lives and hearts of music aficionados across generations.

Is it a comeback, like the one we’ve experienced with records, cassette tapes, and even wired headphones? Only time will tell.

Regardless of their future, in today’s article, we’ll discuss whether digital audio players are still a valid option for the music enthusiast, as opposed to the omnipresent smartphones. Can you get something extra from your listening experience by investing in a DAP? Let’s find out.

About me

I consider myself a music person rather than a musician or music writer. I’m both, as a matter of fact, and I also run a small record label focused on electronic, avant-garde music.

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, author and contributor at Higher Hz

I listen to the dozen demos I receive every month with a dedicated DAP, which I also use for deep listening sessions when I have to evaluate the mix or master of an album we’ll publish.

As a result, I’ve learned a thing or two about digital audio players, and I consider mine as a sort of sanctuary: a digital space where the music I need at that moment, and only that, is stored and can be experienced at its highest quality.

From MP3 players to smartphones: A timeline

You might say that we millennials have experienced it all: my first experience with music was through my parents’ record collection, followed by the first tape bought at the record store in the mid-90s. Then came the CDs, file-sharing, and finally, streaming.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, MP3 players became popular and single-handedly freed music from the confines of physical formats, allowing users to store and listen to their favorite songs on the go.

It was a crucial change in the way people experienced and considered music: from the perspective of many, the sacrality of records was gradually replaced by the endless availability of music, which is something we simply take for granted nowadays.

The popularity of MP3 players was encouraged by the rise of file-sharing technology and peer-to-peer platforms like Napster. These platforms went against traditional distribution models and started the digital music revolution that defined the last two decades of the industry and shaped the way listeners consume music.

original Apple iPod
The original iPod MP3 player | Image: Apple

In that context, the introduction of the iPod by Apple in 2001 was a game changer. With a sleek design, intuitive interface, seamless integration with iTunes, and large storage capacity, the iPod quickly became a must-have device for everyone.

It didn’t take long for the music landscape to change once more through the rise of streaming technology. Spotify, launched in 2008, was the first to offer users instant access to vast libraries of music without the need for physical storage.

Streaming platforms introduced new revenue streams for artists and record labels, and this became a valid alternative to traditional distribution methods, which are still suffering from the digital revolutions the music industry is going through.

Throughout the 2010s and 2020s, smartphone technology has continued to evolve to the point that streaming platforms have apps that work seamlessly with all smartphones, allowing users to enjoy their favorite music without needing an MP3 player or any other playback system.

This is why, to a layperson, digital audio players might seem like a thing of the past. But as smartphone tech evolved, digital audio players have shifted their attention towards audio quality, something never properly addressed by the mobile phone industry.

So, while you still can find those cheap MP3 players that defined the early era of digital music, the best audio players today are the ones that can offer a high-fidelity experience, which goes hand in hand with the recent developments of several streaming services, offering better sound quality and immersive audio experiences.

Different types of audio players explained

Before we start comparing digital audio players and smartphones, it might be useful to clarify the terminology around portable audio players.

Honestly, sometimes, these distinctions still confuse me; however, if you’re serious about your listening experience, I’m sure you’ll find this clarification useful.

Digital audio player, or DAP for short, is a term that includes all portable music players that range from entry-level models to high-end, audiophile-grade units.

DAPs usually feature high-quality DACs (digital-to-analog converters), support for multiple audio formats, large storage options, and customizable audio settings.

Hi-res audio players are designed to deliver better sound quality than standard CD quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz) and support high-resolution audio formats such as FLAC, WAV, and DSD.

Hi-res players come with higher-quality components and advanced DACs, making them ideal for serious audiophiles.

Similarly, HD music players support lossless audio formats, customizable EQ settings, and high-bitrate audio files.

Finally, MP3 players are simple and affordable devices that allow you to listen to digital music files in the MP3 format.

MP3 players were extremely popular before the advent of smartphones and streaming technology, and despite their limitations in audio quality or sound settings, they offer long battery life in a compact size.

Digital audio player vs smartphone: An in-depth comparison

Now, let’s check out both of these devices side by side and see which one performs better in each category.

Sound quality: DAP wins

Let’s start with the most crucial aspect. When you compare digital audio players and smartphones, the DAC is the main factor to consider.

A DAC translates digital audio files into analog signals for playback through speakers or headphones: a high-quality DAC can reproduce the original recording’s nuances, which gives you a more immersive listening experience.

To give you an idea of the power hidden within these portable music players, let’s go a bit technical.

The DAC of the FiiO M17 is run by two ES9038PRO chips with eight channels each. This means that for each channel (right and left), the audio output comes from the sum of the eight channels of each chip, which greatly reduces noise and maximizes sound clarity.

The amplification stage of the FiiO M17 is run by two THX788+ chips, providing over 3 W output at 32 ohms and more than 500 mW at 300 ohms.

FiiO M17 and iPhone 13 Pro Max
FiiO M17 and iPhone 13 Pro Max | Image: FiiO

Smartphones, on the other hand, are versatile tools that we use to listen to music, as well as do hundreds of other things every day. As a result, their built-in DACs don’t match the fidelity of dedicated DACs you find in digital audio players.

As far as I know, LG was the only company that tried to provide professional-level DAC in their smartphones, but they don’t produce mobile phones anymore.

Another thing to note is that the Android OS resamples digital audio to 48 kHz. This can result in downsampling or upsampling tracks to the CD-standard 44.1 kHz, which will affect your listening experience considerably. That’s not the case for iPhones though.

How does a better DAC translate into the audio experience?

Well, that also depends on your headphones and the quality of your music files. But if you have audiophile-grade headphones, listen to lossless files, or use high-fidelity streaming services like Tidal or Qobuz, then the difference is night and day.

Your music will gain in clarity, spatiality, and detail, bringing to life a whole new high-fidelity soundstage.

Battery life: DAP wins

Digital audio players are all about music and don’t have the additional background processes of smartphones. As a result, many top-quality DAPs offer impressive battery life, usually ranging between 10 and 40 hours of continuous playback (depending on the audio quality and the output you use).

Smartphones generally offer 5 to 15 hours of music playback. That said, by getting a digital audio player, you’d have two devices to charge daily instead of one, which might be a nuisance for some.

Customization: DAP wins

A great thing about digital audio players is that they offer a personalized listening experience with advanced sound customization options.

DAPs often come with multiple equalization settings so that you can adjust the frequency response and create a unique sound signature. Plus, some DAPs offer sound filtering options that can improve clarity, reduce distortion, or add warmth to the sound and make it sound more “vintage.”

Another great thing is the DSP (digital signal processing) option, which can help you by adjusting spatial sound processing, reverb, surround sound emulation, and dynamic range compression.

Finally, the best portable music players also come with parametric equalization and digital room correction that can help enhance the fidelity and immersion of music in every environment.

As you can see, the beauty of these digital audio players lies in their ability to empower the listeners, giving them the opportunity to sculpt their unique sound and carry it with them at all times.

If this is what you’re after, then getting a DAP might change the way you experience music forever.

Price: DAP wins

I think we’re all familiar with how much a smartphone costs nowadays, so I won’t focus on that.

The ecosystem of DAPs is vast and includes music players that cost a few dollars and ones that cost thousands. Unsurprisingly, what defines the price of a portable audio player is its DAC and the resolution playback it provides.

A cheap MP3 player won’t deliver a higher quality sound than your smartphone. The files are already compressed, and chances are that the chip that runs the DAC is not designed to capture subtleties and nuances in music.

However, if you’re willing to spend $100 or more, you can get a good digital audio player that can improve your listening experience. For instance, the Ruizu A55 is a great high-resolution audio player that supports a plethora of formats and delivers excellent sound quality, all for roughly $100.

Ruizu A55 hi-res audio player
A55, affordable hi-res audio player | Image: Ruizu

A whole world opens as you enter the $500/1000 range of portable audio players, with high-end DACs, endless sound customization options, compatibility with multiple formats, hi-fi streaming capabilities, and, most of all, a clear and transparent reproduction with most headphones.

As when it comes to speakers and record players, there’s no limit in how much you can spend to get the ultimate sonic experience.

Final thoughts

I hope this guide helped clarify the role and importance of digital audio players and whether getting one is the right option for you.

Here’s my final take on the subject. A digital audio player can be a great way to valorize your music collection or simply help you find the mental space to focus on music without distractions. If you’re an audiophile, you’ll probably want one to carry your music outside of your listening room.

Probably nine people out of ten can live without digital audio players. After all, smartphones provide a good enough listening experience for most situations unless you feel the need to listen to Wagner in high resolution during your morning run.

We’re constantly surrounded by noise and attracted by endless stimuli that prevent us from focusing on one thing at a time. A digital audio player, with its no-nonsense design and great sound quality, can help you strengthen your relationship with music.

They’re not cheap, especially if you aim at nothing but the best sound quality, but if you’re serious about your listening experience, they’re definitely worth a try.