Listen up! Because the world of portable audio is changing. It’s been almost half a century since Sony launched its first Walkman — a compact cassette player the brand advertised as ‘the world’s first low-cost personal stereo’. At the time, executives in Tokyo were doubtful, predicting that only several thousand units would sell every month. But, in the decade that followed, they ended up shifting over 100 million Walkmans.
Yet times change. Fast-forward to today, and cassettes are out. We’ve also burned through CDs and MP3 players — and landed squarely in the noise-cancelling, dynamically-amplifying, fast-streaming world of high-res audio. These pocket-sized players are the future of quality, portable audio. They’re expensive-but-extraordinary; offering quicker sampling rates and higher bit depths to deliver an unbeatable listening experience.
Below, we’ve plugged in and pulled together five of the finest high-res audio players currently on the market. From Astell&Kern’s tricked-out option to the latest Sony to wear the Walkman name, here’s why you should be investing in this resounding, pioneering tech…
For the full premium package, Astell&Kern SE180
The third model in Astell&Kern’s premium ‘A&futura’ range, the SE180 player packs a lot of innovation into one little, portable package. There’s a full HD display to scroll through your favourite playlists. There’s an easy-to-use wireless file-drop function. There’s even a colourful LED volume wheel.
But the best feature is the brand’s patented ‘TERATON ALPHA’ technology. Through effective power noise removal, efficient power management and minimal distortion amplification, the SE180 can produce playback that is indistinguishably as clear, deep and immersive as musicians’ original recordings.
For a reimagined original, Sony WM1Z Walkman Signature Series
Sony first launched the Walkman in 1979 — when its simple cassette-playing function and blue-and-silver design took the world by storm. Over four decades later, the Walkman brand has had a golden makeover; with the high-res WM1Z Walkman Signature Series taking centre soundstage.
It’s crafted from gold-plated copper — a metal renowned for its acoustic properties. Backed with brown leather, that case contains S-Master HX digital amp technology to reduce distortion and DSD (Direct Stream Digital) support to offer a more authentic, full-bodied sound.
Sony WM1Z Walkman Signature Series
For longer listening sessions, Cowon Plenue R2
Powerful digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) are what give high-res audio players their power. Unlike old MP3 players, or your typical smartphone, these systems pair with high-end circuity and top-line amplifiers to give listeners an audio experience on par with original recordings.
Cowon’s Plenue R2 uses an advanced dual-DAC design and the high compression Qualcomm aptX codec, giving its output a stronger, sharper edge — and zero noise. These next-generation DACs also use very little battery, meaning you can enjoy up to 20 continuous hours of HD playback.
Cowon Plenue R2
For unrivalled connectivity, Shanling M8
The Shanling M8 is a one-stop audio shop. Thanks to a unique interchangeable headphone socket system, this Shenzhen-made high-res audio player can support 3.5mm, 2.5mm, 4.4mm and 3.5mm Pro jacks — giving listeners more versatility and connectivity than any other option.
And that’s not all. The M8 also runs on an Android OS, making it even more practical and adaptable for audiophiles. The 5-inch touchscreen may be slightly smaller than others on this list, but a clever combination of buttons keeps things ergonomic. And, with expanded 2TB storage, there’s room for almost half a million tracks.
For an instant stereo system, FiiO M11 Pro
This high-res audio player is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. It runs on a Samsung Exynos chipset, a THX amplifier and MQA playback technology. Throw in a bit of Bluetooth, some crystal oscillators from Japan-based River Electec and MediaTek’s ‘Pump Express’ fast-charging system and it all sounds like it could be too much.
But it’s not. In fact, FiiO have been clever about thing; cherry-picking the best tech and components from other developers to create one of the most affordable — but dependable — high-res options on the market. And, with a multifunction output jack, you must only hook it up to some speakers for an instant stereo.
FiiO M11 Pro