Best MP3 player 2021: TechRadar’s guide to the best portable music players

Onkyo dp-x1a

(Image credit: Onkyo)

The best MP3 players of 2021 are far more innovative than you might have imagined. Sure they might not be as popular as they were 10 years ago now that music streaming services are so popular, but they’re not an obsolete technology  by any means.

There’s still a lot to love about MP3 players and plenty of devices to choose from – and no, we’re not going to recommend a bunch of old iPods to you (though the latest iPod Touch is on this list). 

These days, the best MP3 players on the market do a way better job at storing your music library at a much higher bitrate than your 2009 iPod Shuffle ever could. What that means for you, is that high-quality music than can travel with you wherever you go. 

Many MP3 players have also had a significant design upgrade, which means added durability and sleeker styles to slip in your pocket. Thanks to new innovations in audio engineering, they’re also constantly getting better and improving on sound, with features like Hi-Res Audio support and built-in DACs (Digtial- to-Analogue Converters) becoming commonplace. 

But why might you want an MP3 player over using your regular phone to play music? Maybe you just don’t want your phone on you all the time. It’s also a solid option if you’re trying to reduce your screen time, allowing you to leave the house without your smartphone – but still access all of your favorite tunes. 

If you’re on the hunt for the best MP3 players that you can buy in 2021, you’ve landed in the right place. We’ve selected the top choices and we’ve included everything you need to know to make the best buying decision. 

Our top picks

Onkyo DP-X1a

(Image credit: Onkyo)

1. Onkyo DP-X1A

Powerful, spacious and easy-to-use, the Onkyo DP-X1A is at the top of its class

Reasons to buy

Amazing sound quality Android makes for top ease-of-use Two microSD card slots!

Reasons to avoid

A little chunky

Onkyo has been a well-known and esteemed name in audio for years, and for good reason. The Onkyo DP-X1A may not be the most compact player on this list, but it is the best all-rounder, offering lots of customizability, an intuitive interface, and fantastic sound quality.

Let’s start with the design, which is pretty attractive. In general, the DP-X1A looks a little bit like a phone, but much thicker, and is completely optimized for audio use. How so? Well, for starters, it has two audio ports – one headphone jack and one balanced output for those interested in a cleaner and overall better quality sound. Additionally, the device has an easy-to-use volume wheel, as well as physical playback buttons and two microSD card slots for those with a sizable collection of music. 

The player is built with a full version of Android 5.1, complete with features like Wi-Fi connectivity and the Google Play Store. Which results in an MP3 Player that is to Android what the iPod Touch is to iOS. Unlike the iPod, however, the Onkyo DP-X1A is built for super-high-quality audio.

Speaking of the sound quality, it’s an absolute dream. It supports a range of music formats, including FLAC, OGG, WAV, MP3, ALAC, and more. In terms of hardware, the device has two chipsets, one to power the overall device, and one to handle the DAC and amplifier – resulting in a noise-free experience. 

We tested the player with multiple pairs of headphones across multiple price ranges, and were stunned with the clarity and exceptional quality of the audio. There’s a reason the Onkyo DP-X1A sits atop this list – it’s a beast in the portable audio world. 

Read our full review: Onkyo DP-X1A Digital Audio Player

It seems the Onkyo DP-X1A is currently sold out in the UK – for a fantastic alternative, check out the Astell & Kern model below:

mp3 player

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

2. Astell & Kern A&norma SR25

An impressive MP3 player that will make Hi-Res Audio files sing

Reasons to buy

Great design 21-hour battery life Bluetooth LDAC

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 is an impressive MP3 player that’s designed to make your Hi-Res Audio files really sing, thanks to a new performance mode, support for balanced audio connections, and Bluetooth LDAC wireless compatibility. 

With a unique, off-center design and aluminum body, it certainly looks the part, and its touch screen is bright and easy to use. 

Inside the SR25 is the Dual Cirrus Logic CS43198 Master Hi-Fi level DAC, while native support for DSD256 and 32-bit/384kHz audio is more than enough to satisfy even the most discerning audiophiles.

With Wi-Fi connectivity, you have access to streaming services including Deezer and Tidal, while Bluetooth aptX ensure listening with wireless headphones needn’t sound inferior to wired connections.

iPod 7th gen

(Image credit: Apple)

3. Apple iPod Touch (7th Generation)

The age of the iPod isn’t over yet – this is still one of the best MP3 players

Reasons to buy

Well-designed Tons of apps

Reasons to avoid

Audio formats limited No Touch ID

Apple took us all by surprise when it announced the iPod touch 7, the first upgrade to its portable music and video player since 2015. 

With “enhancements to power, capability, and communication”, the updated iPod touch is fully geared towards gaming, with the release coming just in time for the launch of Apple’s gaming service, Apple Arcade

The bigger upgrade, at least for audio enthusiasts, is the support for the Hi-Res Audio codec FLAC, as well as Apple Lossless, giving you more options than ever when it comes to accessing audiophile-quality music.

Using a Hi-Res Audio playback app for iOS called Vox, we listened to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. The strings had a warm and natural quality, while soprano vocal duets soared sweetly above the mix without ever sounding harsh. 

In our review we also tested out the inbuilt speaker at the bottom of the iPod touch, and it packs quite a punch despite its size. It won’t do for listening to your Hi-Res music, but if just want a little background music for your gaming sessions and can’t be bothered to dig your headphones out, it works just fine. 

If you need a new MP3 player, and you don’t mind using iTunes, the iPod Touch will do just fine.

Read the full review: iPod Touch (7th Generation)

astell & kern ak jr

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

4. Astell & Kern AK Jr

Looking for the middle-of-the-road option? Check out the AK Jr

Reasons to buy

Beautifully designed Audio sounds great Offers Bluetooth

Reasons to avoid

Touchscreen isn’t responsive enough

Astell & Kern is known for building top-notch audio devices at reasonable prices, and for that reason we think the Astell & Kern AK Jr is the best mid-range MP3 player out of the ones we’ve seen (and heard). In fact, after spending some time using it, we would argue that it’s a pretty serious contender against even much more expensive players.

Before diving into the player’s capabilities, you’ll notice how well-designed it is. The sleek, metallic look is very classy, and using it gives you a similar “status symbol” feel as you’ll get with the iPhone.

The AK Jr comes in at $259 / £250 / AU$399, which is a very reasonable price for a device of this calibre. For that price, you’ll get 64GB of onboard storage, though there is a microSD card slot in case you want to expand upon that storage. On top of that, it supports all major audio formats, including FLAC, WAV, MP3, AAC, AIFF, and more – and it’s able to play at sample rates of up to 192kHz.

The interface of the device is relatively easy to control, too. The home screen simply gives you options for songs, albums, artists, and so on. 

Tap through using the touchscreen, and you’ll be able to select the music you want to listen to. It would be nice if that touchscreen was a little more responsive, but you get used to it. Battery life sits in at around nine hours, which isn’t amazing, but not terrible either. 

So how does it sound? In one word: beautiful. 

Music is dynamic and crisp, with a nice and powerful sound in every aspect. The soundstage on these, when paired with a great pair of headphones, is huge – that’s to say the left and right are clearly defined, while instruments placed at the center of a mix are given plenty of room to breathe. We particularly enjoyed the guitar solo on AC/DC’s Back in Black, while Eminem’s rap on Lose Yourself cut straight through the mix – exactly the way it was supposed to.

This model is currently out of stock in the US – check out the Astell & Kern SR25 for a fantastic alternative.

sandisk clip plus

(Image credit: SanDisk)

5. SanDisk Clip Sport Plus

Heading to practice? Don’t forget your SanDisk Clip Sport Plus

Reasons to buy

Ultra-portable Inexpensive Easy-to-use

Reasons to avoid

Audio quality isn’t as good as others

Looking for an MP3 player to take running with you? If so, you probably want something small and light – it probably doesn’t need to hold day’s worth of music, and it probably doesn’t need to offer the highest audio quality out there. Most of all, you probably don’t want to fork out a ton of cash for it.

If that’s you, in our view, the SanDisk Clip Sport Plus is the best option. 

For starters, the device offers 16GB of storage, and while that may not be much for your phone, 16GB can hold a ton of songs. On top of that, despite being built for sport, it actually supports a pretty wide range of audio formats – including MP3, AAC, FLAC, WAV, and WMA.

Perhaps most important for a device like this is the battery life, and it’ll last you a good 20 hours. You’ll even get Bluetooth, which is a huge deal for many who will be using this while running or performing other activities and don’t want cables to get in the way.

The interface is relatively easy to use too. Sure, it’s a little dated, and isn’t as powerful as what you’ll find on your smartphone, but it’s still capable as a music player. It’s not touch-sensitive, though: instead, you navigate through hardware buttons that also serve as playback controls when music is playing, but we didn’t have any issues.

As for the sound, as long as you don’t expect full audiophile-level quality here (you won’t get it), we think you’ll find the sound very capable. Overall it’s slightly muddy with a small dip in clarity, but for most that won’t matter – especially when you’re out on a run or hitting the weights at the gym.

Tips and tricks

How to choose the best MP3 player for you

So, what do you need to look for in an MP3 player? Well, the most important thing you need to think about is the audio codec your music library is in.

Anyone who uses Apple Music will probably have a music library completely filled with Apple’s proprietary AAC codec, and luckily most MP3 players will support that codec. However, if you consider yourself an audiophile, you’ll need support for lossless codecs like FLAC, WAV and ALAC, as these codecs don’t use the compression methods used on lossy codecs like AAC or MP3. However, they will take up more space.

You’ll also need to consider how much music is in your, well, music collection and then how much storage you’ll need. This is especially the case when you’re using codecs like FLAC, which just devour space. Often MP3 players also have an included microSD card slot, which allows you to expand upon the included storage as your library expands – but normally only up to a certain size, normally around 512GB.

Here’s the best part though: unlike smartphones, MP3 players are built to last, so there’s no need to go on an endless two-year upgrade-cycle like you might with a smartphone. This means it’s probably in your best interests to take some time and find the one that’s right for you, as you will probably be using it for a few years to come.

  • Looking for a something to listen to on your new MP3 player? Check out our list of the best podcasts around.

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January 18, 2021
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