F inding the best MP3 player these days is a bit like looking for a needle in a 4G haystack. Dedicated MP3 players have been squeezed out of the market by more connected digital devices – smartphones and tablets – that offer music-on-the-go plus so much more. My free mp3 music.
However, that's not to say the single-function MP3 player has disappeared into thin air completely. They're still out there – and it's probably because the humble MP3 player has some very real benefits. It's cheaper than your average smartphone, so ideal for those who don’t want to risk dropping their phone when they’re out for a run; straight-forward to use; and free from all those attention-distracting aspects of connected life, like text alerts and social media notifactions.
The other major benefit of most decent MP3 players is that the battery will far outlast a smartphone on even the lowest power settings. For those who are traveling and don’t have access to a plug socket, that could be a major boon.
Still, given that MP3 players have suddenly become quite an archaic piece of tech, a lot of the noteworthy producers have dropped out of the game altogether (even Apple, who popularised the form with their iPod range, have discontinued all but the iPod Touch.) In their place, knock-offs and cheap, poor-quality options have sprung up all over the place.
T o help you separate the wheat from the chaff, I reviewed a range of the top music players, testing them for sound quality, ease of use, durability and more. Here's what I found, starting with the very best MP3 player of them all...
1. Bragi Dash Pro
Why we like it: A flawless cross between an MP3 player, wireless headphones, and so much more
A nd, of course, the buds are good for working out. No wires means no tangles, and no box in your pocket means no fuss. If you're looking for an MP3 to exercise with, you'll also be pleased to note that the Dash Pro headphones are waterproof up to one metre so you can use them while swimming or in the rain. Oh, and they include an easy-to-use fitness tracker, but that's for another article.
On a full charge, Bragi say you'll get five hours of playtime – I managed around four hours and 40 minutes on average. Handily, the case they come in also acts as a charger with up to five charges in it, so you could conceivably get thirty hours out of the headphones before you need to plug them in again.
2. Astell&Kern SR15
Why we like it: Premium audio quality for well trained ears
U nder the hood, it's all about the music. As you'd expect, you can play songs individually, by album, artist, genre, playlist, or folder. You can even select 'favourites' and put them into their own little playlists.
As you might expect, given the price, the sound quality is stunning – jaw-droppingly excellent. The best of the best. The player can handle what Astell&Kern calls Mastering Sound Quality or MQS, which is essentially studio-quality sound. You won't find a better audio player out there (aside from more expensive versions from Astell&Kern.)
The quality is so good thanks to a specially designed high-performance digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and some top of the range processors. All MP3 players have these microchips but the quality can vary. Essentially, the DAC is the chip which turns your music from a binary data stream of ones and zeros into audio you can actually listen to. Lower quality ones can’t keep up with some files’ data rate, making music sound distorted or adding unwanted extra noises.
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Long story short, good quality digital-to-analogue converter = good quality music. And the SR15's DAC is very, very good quality: it can keep up with music from the highest quality files. That won’t mean much to the average person, but for true audiophiles the difference will be immediately noticeable.
U ltimately, this device is definitely not for the average person. True music lovers will adore the stunning audio quality.
3. Victure M3 Music Player
What we like about it: Cheap and exercise friendly
I 'll admit I didn't expect much from the Victure M3, but, actually, it's a pretty impressive piece of technology, considering the price.
For just over £20, you get a little device that's fully capable of playing everything from MP3s to top quality FLAC audio files – a rare capability for such a cheap music player. The quality is strong considering the price; although in the same breath it's obviously nowhere near the SR15.
Still, that bargain price becomes even more impressive when you realise that the Victure M3 isn’t limited to just playing audio files. It can also play video, text, and image files. Considering the tiny screen is only about an inch across, you can’t expect brilliant quality, but honestly, I was surprised at how clear the picture is.
This particular MP3 player seems designed for active users and comes with a belt clip and a pedometer. The latter was surprisingly good when I took a walk around the office. I counted 133 steps from my desk to our reception and back. The Victure M3 thought it was 138; not a bad margin of error, and the same as my top-of-the-line FitBit, which counted 128.
O ne serious flaw in the Victure M3’s ‘active’ credentials, though, is that the Bluetooth mode is absurdly restrictive. You can’t use the pedometer or any other apps while Bluetooth is running. When Bluetooth is on, you can play music and that’s literally it. It’s a real shame, because if Victure had nailed the Bluetooth, there’d be basically no flaws in this little gem.
There’s also a handy voice recorder which, despite not being as good as my phone or a proper dictaphone, does hold its own and was capable of picking up my voice from about two metres away.
The radio is also great and I had absolutely no problems connecting to any station. This MP3 player comes with the ability to record anything you’re listening to on live radio. Pretty handy if a song you enjoy comes on and you want to add it to your collection.
Overall, considering the price, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this device, which absolutely transcends the quality of its budget brethren.
4. FiiO M7
Why we like it: The audio is excellent from this premium yet well priced product
T he M7 runs on a heavily modified version of Android which is clearly designed to mimic iOS. It includes only the most basic functions. You can’t connect to the internet to download or even sideload apps. The operating system is essentially there to allow you to flick through your music.
The music itself is of an impressive quality (though it's not quite up to the same levels as the Astell&Kern product). It’s worth noting that you’ll need a decent pair of headphones to get the most out of the M7 – if the quality gets a too much for your headphones to handle the M7 will immediately pause playing.
Speaking of headphones, you’ll also need them to access the FM radio. Most MP3 players don’t have a radio antenna built in, so the wires of your headphones becomes one. Without wired headphones, you won’t be able to use the radio. Having said that, I did have a bit of trouble listening into two major stations, and I struggled with others when my headphone wire was twisted.
Overall though, the M7 is a brilliant little MP3 player with a refreshingly back-to-basics approach in terms of functionality. For audiophiles looking for a bargain, this one is a good choice.
5. Apple iPod Touch (6th Gen)
Why we like it: It’s basically a smartphone
A las, these are questions for Apple CEO Tim Cook; I can only review what I have in front of me, which is a smartphone-MP3 player hybrid. And, to be fair, it's a really good device in its own right. I took some great photos, enjoyed my free trial of Apple Music, and was fairly impressed with the sound quality.
If you’re a major Appleholic, this is the device for you. It functions just like an iPhone 6S but lacks a few key features including Touch ID, 3D Touch, NFC, GPS, an earpiece speaker and a noise-cancelling microphone. The camera and screen quality certainly hold their own – the best on this list – although they still look outdated compared to the newer iPhones.
Probably the big advantage of the iPod Touch over others I reviewed is that you’re not limited to just listening to music that you’ve downloaded. You can also stream with services like Apple Music or Spotify, watch music videos on YouTube, or play a time-wasting game downloaded from the App Store. It’s a phone without the phone part.
Ultimately though, despite being a top quality product, it’s hard to find a reason to recommend buying an iPod Touch over just using your phone. In fact, there are newer, cheaper smartphones with better functionality. And it’s not like Apple have dumbed down their iPod for those put off by the idea of using an overly complicated phone.
6. SanDisk Clip Jam
Why we like it: It packs a lot of features into its budget body
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I was expecting to be disappointed by the Clip Jam. It’s small, it’s cheap, and it feels very plasticky and lightweight.
However, once I turned it on, I was actually pretty impressed. The little device has tonnes of cool features (listed above). The FM radio is noteworthy as it worked even more easily for me than the same feature on much more expensive products.
Of course, the music playback is the main function and it works well with decent sound quality. You can play music on shuffle, or by artist, album, or select individual songs which are played in alphabetical order by title. You can also make playlists on your computer and drag them into the relevant files on the device using File Explorer.
The SanDisk MP3 player is very basic, to be sure. It’s clearly designed for activity, with the titular clip on the back of the device fitting perfectly over a pocket or on a waistband. Sadly, there’s no Bluetooth mode so you’ll need wired headphones, but the device does come with a set if you haven’t got any of your own.
D espite being seriously basic, it’s very easy to use, works very well, and is packed with a plenty of useful features. You get what you pay for in this life, but the Clip Jam is worth every penny.
7. SanDisk Clip Sport Plus
T his is basically the Clip Jam, with a larger colour display, a bigger battery, and more memory (16GB). It's also water resistant and has Bluetooth capability. Hence the slightly higher price point.
8. Groov-e MP3 Player
Frequently asked questions about MP3 players
What is an MP3 player?
Simply put, an MP3 player is a small music player. An MP3 file carries audio information, but no visual data. Therefore it is the ideal file to use to store music or audio clips which do not require visuals. However, the term ‘MP3 player’ is a bit of a misnomer for modern devices. Most also play other file types such as AAC, WAV, and WMA. Some can even play lossless audio files such as FLAC or ALAC.
Lossless vs Lossy audio files
When it comes to sound quality, it’s worth noting what type of files your MP3 player can work with. The best quality audio files are termed ‘lossless’. These include file types such as FLAC or ALAC. These file types compress audio, but don’t necessarily strip out any of the quality. MP3 and AAC formats found in songs downloaded from iTunes are both termed ‘lossy’ audio files. This means that they are compressed into a much smaller file than FLAC or ALAC, but in order to do so, they strip out some of the sound quality.
Do all MP3 players have Bluetooth?
Most modern MP3 players have Bluetooth but that’s not to say all do. If you’re not sure, be sure to check the box for the Bluetooth logo which should appear pretty prominently. Still, if you accidentally buy one without Bluetooth and you only own wireless headphones, don’t panic – all of the non-Bluetooth MP3 players I tested came with some cheap wired headphones that should see you through for a while.