Best high-resolution digital audio player: Which DAP reigns supreme?

Rob Schultz/IDG
Table of Contents

While TVs have become better and better over the past 15 years, audio has taken several steps backwards. Many of us have sacrificed fidelity in pursuit of convenience and portability, adopting inferior audio codecs such as MP3 and making them our new benchmarks. Lossy formats such as that strip music of its dynamics, detail, and vitality. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Pick up a high-resolution digital audio player (DAP) and you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Unlike old-school MP3 players, Apple’s iPod touch, or the typical smartphone, high-res DAPs are designed with high-end audio circuitry, high-powered digital-to-analog converters (DACs), and amplifiers that can drive a wide range of audiophile-class headphones. Their exclusive purpose is to play music, and while they can play just about any type of music file, they’re really designed for the formats and codecs that deliver better-than-CD quality.

Updated August 7, 2019 to add our review of the Astell&Kern SR15, a superb high-res digital audio player that features dual Cirrus Logic CS43198 DACs, 3.5mm unbalanced and 2.5mm balanced analog outputs, aptX HD support, and native support for 24bit/192kHz PCM audio and DSD64 files. This is a superb player that becomes our new runner-up in this category.

Best high-res digital audio player

If money is no obstacle in your pursuit of the best in mobile digital audio, there is no finer player than Astell&Kern’s KANN Cube. And if you buy one, it would be a shame if you used it only while out and about. With a five-pin mini XLR audio output, dual-mono ESS Sabre ES9038PRO DACs, and the ability to stream music from any DLNA media server, this player can also operate as the beating heart of any Hi-Fi system it’s incorporated into.

Runner-up

It’s a one-two finish for Astell&Kern. If your budget can’t support the $1,499 KANN Cube, consider the company’s Astell&Norma SR15. It substitues dual Cirrus Logic DACs for the ESS Sabre parts in the Cube, and it doesn’t have that player’s five-pin mini XLR balanced headphone output, but it does support aptX HD and it is capable of handling 24bit/192kHz PCM audio and DSD64 files. Best of all: It costs half as much as the KANN Cube.

Best budget-priced high-res digital audio player

You can pay a whole lot more for a high-resolution digital audio player, but this model from Activo delivers almost everything you’ll get in a considerably more expensive model for just $299, including MQA and aptX HD support.

Feature comparison

The following table will give you a side-by-side comparison of the players, along with a mainstream media player—Apple’s iPod touch—as a reference point. 

Theo Nicolakis

The feature sets of high-res DAPs vary considerably.

How we tested

We tested each player with Bowers & Wilkins’ P7, B&W P5 Wireless, and B&W C5 (Series 2) headphones in a variety of listening environments. Bowers & Wilkins’ P7 was my go-to headphone for all critical listening.

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Source : Macworld