I have seen countless posts on the internet of people rating the best portable player or DAP on the market and to be honest I think it is almost impossible to have a “best on the market”. Each and every player has different capabilities and functionality where some players suit one person over another as their requirements change. It isn’t quite as cut and dry as the previous article – World’s Top 5 Most Expensive Earphones – as this can be a much more definitive list, a list I actually need to update over the next week or so as qdc have recently released their Blue Dragon earphone at a lofty 12 and a bit thousand.
What is a DAP? You may ask…. A DAP stands for Digital Audio Player, a dedicated piece of electronics that you can carry around with you and enjoy your music from it using your favourite earphones or headphones. Many people I speak to quite rightly tell me their phone plays music and that’s all they need, even when they purchase earphones up to a thousand pounds. They don’t need a dedicated player and yet something else to carry around with them. I have to admit, smartphones have become a lot more audio focused over the last half a decade with more investment being made in the audio quality and my rule of thumb is if you don’t want to spend more than £300 on a dedicated player then stick to your phone. In all honesty many players I have heard sub £300 haven’t sounded drastically better than my Samsung Galaxy S10 5g. There is a caveat for things like the FiiO BTR5 bluetooth dongle, but that isn’t quite classed as a DAP.
The advantage of a DAP over a standard phone is multifarious, especially now many phone manufacturers are ditching the 3.5mm jack. I fear that this is to push people towards wireless earphones and headphones, however, as convenient as they are, they are still a way away from being in the same audio quality of a wired pair of earphones. DAPs often provide far more power output for your earphones, expandable storage and with a number of brands now opting to use a balanced 2.5mm or 4.4mm connection on their cables, the players themselves are incorporating that as an option for their jack outputs.
I want to list a number of DAPs that I personally feel are some of the best around, but this list is in no way exhaustive and by all means, I implore you to contact me for further suggestions as your needs and requirements will be specific to you. I can advise a suitable player in your price category that caters for your feature set and also something that offers great synergy with your earphones or headphones.
5. Cayin N3Pro (£399 – 17th Sept 2020)
First on the list is a newcomer that was only launched at the beginning of Sept. The Cayin N3Pro borrows a substantial amount of technological knowledge from the brand’s flagship player the N8 and incorporates Raytheon JAN6418 mini pentode tubes to offer a sound that is completely unique in this price segment. The valves in either Triode or Ultra Linear mode provide a best in class sonic signature that surpasses many of the players up to the £800 to £1000 mark. The player also features both 4.4 balanced and 3.5mm unbalanced output. The compact size and form factor make it supremely easy to transport around and use on-the-go. At £399 the N3Pro is a class act but doesn’t contain a few features that are often a staple requirement for those wanting a DAP or portable audio player. As it comes packaged with Cayin’s own operating system, it lacks any built in streaming solution from the likes of Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz etc, however you can stream to it using LDAC from a compatible device. The N3Pro is a superb player if you have a large amount of music files stored on a micro SD that you want to transport around and are not too fussed about streaming. Many companies feel that incorporating streaming into their players creates more background noise that can degrade the sonic performance of their player.
4. Shanling M6 Pro (£749 – 17th September 2020)
The M6 Pro is a feature packed android based portable player with an awesome sound to boot. Stepping up from the standard M6 the Pro features a high quality AKM AK4497EQ digital to analogue converter that converts the digital 0’s and 1’s to audible sound waves. Where the M6 Pro comes into it’s own is with it’s use of FPGA’s or field programmable gate array’s. These chips have been utilised to shape the sound signature of the M6 Pro by using custom code that has been independently developed by Shanling. Unlike the N3Pro the M6 Pro arrives with an Android operating system that can be loaded with Tidal and Spotify etc for any streaming requirements. This is a real benefit for anyone not wanting to use music that’s been stored on a micro SD card. The M6 Pro has both unbalanced and balanced outputs for great flexibility and enough power to drive many different earphones and also some headphones.
3. Cayin N6ii (from £999 – 17th September 2020)
This little player is currently my favourite…. by a country mile. So much so that I even have the Audio Concierge Special Edition bundled with a Special Edition qdc Anole VX earphone. The N6ii is quite possibly the best jack of all trades player we have come across and satisfies the needs of so many clients wanting a dedicated player for their musical requirements. The N6ii’s USP is that it has a user removable audio board where you can easily replace not just the DAC board but also the amplification section too. Cayin have so far released four different connotations of audio board featuring AKM DAC’s, ESS DAC’s and even legacy Burr Brown DAC’s to give completely different sonic signatures. Each card arrives with a combination of either 3.5mm output or 4.4mm output or both on the one card. This adds to the flexibility of the N6ii and can accommodate a wide range of client use cases. The N6ii unlike the Shanling M6 Pro comes installed with Google Play, meaning that you can simply and easily install all your favourite apps including my personal favourite, UAPP. Using this with TIDAL and Qobuz, the sonic performance is incredible. The card of the moment is the E02 which has a balanced 4.4mm output that can be converted to an unbalanced 3.5mm output using the DJ30A adapter. The E02 bundle arrives at just £1099 and provides an incredible amount of performance at that price. The N6ii has a single micro SD card slot for up to 1TB of storage and also some storage physically built into the player. Sound wise I would personally struggle to find a player sub £2000 that can compete with the sound and functionality that this can offer.
2. Astell & Kern SP2000 (£3399 – 17th September 2020)
The SP2000 is still quite possibly one of the best current DAPs money can buy. It suits everyone who requires the need for music streaming and also high quality playback from the internal storage. It is stunningly made and can be purchased in either a luxurious copper or stainless steel chassis. The sound is very unique and offers an exceptional, holographic sound stage that completely immerses you within your favourite music. The SP2000 provides both balanced output using the 2.5mm and unbalanced using the 3.5mm jack. This enables you to choose a balanced pair of earphones, and it is highly recommended when purchasing a player of this calibre to have a pair of transducers that have a balanced cable. The SP2000 enables users to stream music using TIDAL and Spotify etc. Also providing the added ability of being able to take your downloaded music offline for ultimate convenience when traveling. The SP2000 in either guise would be a solid recommendation for anyone wanting the ultimate player but also requiring the streaming capability.
1. Lotoo Paw Gold Touch LPGT (£2799 – 17th September 2020)
The LPGT is quite possibly the best sounding player in my opinion. I would strongly suggest this player if you are not requiring the possibility to stream using TIDAL and Spotify etc. If you are after the ultimate sound with a stunningly black background then this is the perfect match. Paired with a variety of earphones or headphones the LPGT has breathtaking musicality that lets you enjoy all the detail of your favourite music without it becoming overpowering or tiring. The LPGT has an output of 500mW into 32ohm so it’s capable of driving some pretty tricky earphones and features the lightning fast LTOS that can boot up the player in 2 seconds. Providing you the ability of being able to listen to your music as fast as possible. The player is also available in a limited edition Titanium chassis, making for an even more exclusive model. In my opinion the LPGT really is the best around at the moment for it’s sonic capability, with those needing the streaming functionality best going for the SP2000 instead. The Lotoo does however have LDAC bluetooth codec, similar to that of the Cayin N3 Pro and N6ii enabling you to stream music from your phone directly to the player if you so require. This gives you the ability to use TIDAL or other streaming services from your phone and get the LPGT to convert the data for you via the bluetooth connection.
There is sadly a caveat to my list of favourite DAP’s and it lies within the definition of a DAP itself. If a DAP requires a screen then this is my top 5 list, however, if you don’t mind losing your screen and can control a device using your smartphone then I HAVE to include the extraordinary Hugo2Go solution in this list. The Hugo2go benefits from high quality code lying on the built in FPGA chipset to provide best in class digital conversion and with the 2go addon provides streaming capabilities via DLNA, MLP or Roon. With it’s dual SDcard slot it can also hold music on board meaning that you do not have to have a data connection to listen to your music. In comparison to the other DAPs in my list, the Hugo2go is on the larger side of portable and may be regarded as transportable, but the sound is simply incredible. When using the 2go alongside Hugo the black background around every single instrument is insane and you get to hear every little nuance with ease. I would highly recommend the Hugo2go system if size isn’t too much of a factor.
Please let me know what player you find is the best for you on our FACEBOOK channel. I would love to hear people’s thoughts on what solution fits your best.