It’s like buses: we wait months for new budget hi-res music players to finally rival Astell & Kern’s award-winning entry-level A&norma SR25 MKII, but then two come along in a row.
Earlier this month, Sony announced the NW-A306 (£350 / $350 / AU$499), its first budget Walkman since the NW-A55L, which has a Which Hi-Fi? Award in 2020 before being discontinued with no immediate successor. This news came shortly after FiiO launched its next reasonably priced budget offering, the M11S (£489 / $499 / AU$819). Both significantly undercut the price of the aforementioned Astell & Kern (£699 / $749 / AU$1099), giving anyone who wants a portable Hi-Res audio experience on a dedicated device a more affordable way.
But is the world still big enough for a hi-res player at this modest level, let alone some of them, as the ever-expanding portable DAC market offers an on-the-go hi-res audio experience in a device that’s much less physically independent – basically tethered to the phone you’d want in the first place? Frankly, 10 years ago we would have voiced uncertainty, and now the doubt seems even more legitimate. So, we wonder in 2023, will entry-level walkmans and the like still have a place?
Well, phone audio is no less terrible
I’m sorry to say that your phone doesn’t sound great. It’s okay, mine isn’t either. In the phone world, audio quality just wasn’t (and still is) a priority. Phone and chipset manufacturers have done some truly amazing things over the past two decades developing phones. Most people’s phone screens are going to be better than their TV screens these days for God’s sake. Over there has been a significant advancement in the wireless audio space, with phones now able to transmit music to headphones a lot Better quality Bluetooth than was available a few years ago, but that quality is still a long way from “hi-res”, both technically and audibly.
It could be argued – and I will – that the quality of listening to phone audio in general has declined since the near-universal removal of the 3.5mm jack and the epidemic reliance on Bluetooth. Even those who do plug wired headphones into their phones are at the mercy of audio output stages that were probably a second thought compared to other features during the design of the handsets.
Hooray, portable DACs are here to help…
As a result, one of the most visibly growing markets in audio technology has been the portable DAC (digital-to-analog converter) – a small device, often dongle-like in shape, that acts as an intermediary between phones and (usually wired) headphones to to provide better sound quality than the former can output through its own DAC. For those who want that better sound quality but value the convenience of everything linked to your all-rounder phone, and who are willing to pay one, two, maybe three hundred pounds/dollars/euro for the privilege, it’s a problem resolved to some extent.
… but are they better solutions than hi-res music players?
I’m sure many would agree that it’s more convenient to discreetly upgrade your phone’s audio this way rather than carrying around and managing another phone-sized device. And for the majority of the minority who care enough about audio to see beyond their phone’s capabilities, this convenience probably wins nine times out of ten. After all, that’s why we don’t see Walkmans and iPods in the wild as much as phones, AirPods, Kindles and, to a lesser extent, DAC dongles. That’s why two of the world’s largest consumer electronics companies have only one model with a price for everyone in their catalogs, and why I can only name a handful of music player brands off the top of my head.
But their relevance in the audiophile crowd isn’t completely lost. They have practical advantages over a telephone/DAC setup. While music players at the modest level don’t have particularly large onboard storage – both the new Sony and FiiO have 32GB, which a phone could reasonably siphon for music files – they do have microSD expansions that phones don’t have these days. Of course, they also prevent your phone’s battery from running out. And some may support hi-res file formats (such as MQA and DSD) to a greater extent.
They have been forced to adapt beyond their primary purpose in order to also keep up with the times. Wi-fi and music streaming services are often on board, while some such as the FiiO and Astell & Kern can be used as USB DACs to enhance the sound from your laptop/computer as well. Of course, just as some (most?) people turn their noses up at having a second device to carry around, some might like the thought of a separate music-only player without all the distractions that phones bring. This handful of reasons must be why cheap music players are still a thing in 2023, even if they are a niche, one-by-specialist brand affair.
Whether a high-resolution player or similarly priced DAC (when paired with a phone) would sound better is a tough choice and, in my experience, there’s no categorical winner here; it would depend on the quality of the devices. It could be argued that the combination of phone and DAC would be a much more expensive combination than a cheap music player, although that would hardly be a buying decision for someone wanting a better audio experience since everyone already owns a ‘must-have’. phone.
More exotic than everyday?
With all this in mind, cheap hi-res audio players may now be just a luxury travel or hobby device for those who care about audio quality, rather than the everyday accompaniment they once were. To me, the case for owning a high-quality portable music player is much easier to make. They’re not trying to provide an enhanced audio experience over a phone; they aim to be a personal hi-fi system in your pocket and, in the more extreme cases, to rival the performance capabilities of serious digital source components housed in much larger boxes. Indeed, the £3399 / $3499 / AU$4999 Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000 more than held its own as a resource within our tens of thousands of reference system, as well as fueling the best headphones we had at our fingertips.
Still, the death of the affordable portable music player isn’t here yet, as long as Sony et al keep pushing them every few years. Maybe it’s not even close. The fantasist in me even optimistically wonders if they’ll experience a massive vinyl revival-esque renaissance in time!
In the meantime, the Which Hi-Fi? team has two new affordable hi-res players that we’d like to dissect within the contextual frameworks of the category’s arguably declining relevance. But as good as they rate, I wonder how many of each will actually sell.
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