Whether it’s for listening to music in public transport, in the garden, beside the pool or on your living room hi-fi system, DAPs are a versatile and intuitive solution for enjoying high quality sound wherever you are. When used with a pair of hi-fi headphones, IEMs or Bluetooth headphones, HD DAPs provide high quality sound, provided you choose the right model. What output power should you choose for a good digital audio player? What is the purpose of a Bluetooth connection? What is the best brand? In this comparative guide about the best DAPs of 2020, we will provide all of the elements necessary to help you choose a DAP that is adapted to your needs and budget.
Why choose a DAP?
Faced with increasingly powerful smartphones, the utility of a digital audio player can be questioned. However, by delving a little deeper into the subject it becomes clear that these two systems provide different solutions. DAPs have significant advantages, with the integration of higher quality DACs and genuine high fidelity headphone amplifiers. These components aren’t found in smartphones or tablets because they are too expensive and require too much power. Even a high-end smartphone like the latest iPhone is unable to play Hi-Res files and doesn’t even have a headphone output. Yet these features are available in entry-level DAPs.
Classic or connected DAP?
There are two main categories of players: those that are exclusively designed to play audio files stored in their internal memory or on a memory card like the Shanling Q1, and those with streaming features. You should opt for the second type if you want to enjoy online music services such as Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal and Apple Music, web radios and music shared over the local network (DLNA). These connected DAPs often use an Android operating system which allows you to install many different apps the same way you would with a smartphone. This greatly increases the possibilities for listening to music and even watching HD movies and series. Some of the best Android DAPs are the Sony NW-A105, iBasso DX160, Shanling M6 and the amazing FiiO M15.
The best DAP is one that can play all the various audio files in your personal collection. If your collection includes MP3, AAC, OGG, ALAC, WAV, FLAC and DSD files, you need to ensure that the player can read all of these formats. In addition to compatibility, it is also important to look at the maximum resolutions the DAP can support. For example, the FiiO M15 DAP can read PCM, WAV, WMA, and AIFF files up to 32-bit/384kHz (up to 768kHz in USB DAC mode), while DSD 64/128/256 files (up to DSD512 in USB DAC mode) are read in ISO, DSF and DFF. Finally, if you use a Hi-Res online music service, it is also necessary to check if the digital audio player is compatible with the file format used by the service. For Tidal, for example, an MQA compatible DAP is a must to fully enjoy the platform’s HD music.
What output power should you choose?
All DAPs have an amplification section to power the associated headphones or in-ear monitors. However, the characteristics of the amplifier can vary from one model to another, so it is necessary to do some research to ensure a good match for your headphones or IEMs. A minimum power output between 40 and 60mW is recommended to obtain a suitable volume with low impedance and/or high sensitivity headphones. For this level of power, the best DAPs are the Shanling Q1 (80mW into 32 ohms), FiiO M6 (70mW into 32 ohms) and FiiO M7 (40mW into 32 ohms).
With high impedance headphones or those reputed to be difficult to drive, you will have to choose a player with a more powerful amplification section. For example, the FiiO M11 Pro DAP delivers 200mW into 32 ohms and 22mW into 300 ohms. Therefore, it can easily drive headphones and IEMs with an impedance of 32 ohms and even up to 200 ohms. Beyond that, a more powerful walkman such as the Astell&Kern KANN Cube (6 Vrms) is preferable to benefit from an optimal sound reproduction.
As well as the power, it is also interesting to take a look at the connectors offered by a DAP. It is important to know that every DAP has at least one 3.5 mm mini-jack unbalanced headphone output. This ensures perfect compatibility with the vast majority of headphones and in-ear monitors on the market. High-end models often have a dual headphone output, one unbalanced and one balanced. The latter delivers a higher output power and more precision compared to a classic unbalanced output. To take advantage of this, make sure the unbalanced cable of your headphones can be swapped with a balanced cable.
In addition to headphone outputs, DAPs also feature a USB input for copying files onto the microSD card or internal memory. On some digital audio players, this connector also lets you use the DAP as a USB DAC to listen to your music or online music services through your computer with a pair of headphones. The player acts as an external sound card to decode Hi-Res Audio files and provide much better conversion and sound quality than the computer’s headphone output.
Some DAPs come with internal memory, but it is usually pretty limited and needs to be extended with a microSD card to accommodate an entire music library. All DAPs are compatible with this card format and can handle very large capacities, sometimes up to several TB. The choice of storage capacity is dependent on the type of files you own. The average size of an album in MP3 format is about 100MB, a FLAC album in 24-bit HD quality takes up about 1GB and an album in DSD format takes up about 2GB. This means that a 256GB card can store approximately 2560 MP3 albums, 512 CD albums, 256 HD albums and 128 DSD albums. For large music libraries which are constantly expanding, it’s best to choose a DAP that supports large-capacity microSD cards (1 or 2 TB) or has multiple card readers.
A growing number of DAPs now incorporate a Bluetooth chip to stream music to Bluetooth headphones, Bluetooth IEMs, a connected speaker or a connected amplifier. It is preferable to choose a DAP compatible with the aptX HD or LDAC codec to ensure high-quality transmissions, up to 24-bit/48kHz for the former and 24-bit/96kHz for the latter. Examples of such DACs include the Sony NW-A55 and Shanling M2X. Naturally, your headphones must also support these codecs in order to benefit from them.
On some digital audio players, the Bluetooth module is bidirectional. This means that it is also capable of receiving music streamed from a smartphone, tablet or computer. This feature can be very interesting if you want to enjoy your wired headphones with a smartphone that doesn’t have a headphone output. However, you must be careful because the codecs used aren’t always the same for reception and transmission. For example, the excellent Shanling Q1 compact DAP in LDAC compatible, but only for reception. In transmission, the codec switches to aptX Bluetooth.
Which is the best DAP of 2020?
Throughout this guide we have studied and compared the best DAPs of 2020 according to many criteria, such as connectivity, storage capacity, etc. However, it is difficult to name the best DAP, as it varies depending on the needs and preferences of each user. That said, based on these criteria we have made three selections of the best digital audio players for less than €300, from €300 to €700 and, finally, for more than €700.
The best DAPs under €300
The best DAPs between €300 and €700
The best DAPs over €700