Audio

The rise of the post-iPod players

High-res audio players come with sophisticated electronics, such as specialised digital-to-analog convertors (DAC), that make them capable of reproducing high-res audio that the iPod, and other MP3 players, cannot.
High-res audio players come with sophisticated electronics, such as specialised digital-to-analog convertors (DAC), that make them capable of reproducing high-res audio that the iPod, and other MP3 players, cannot.ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

High-res audio players have become more affordable and are more feature-packed

New and experienced audio aficionados alike are increasingly flocking to high-resolution digital audio players to meet their music needs while on the go.

These are not your standard MP3 players like the Apple iPod. Instead, they come with sophisticated electronics, such as specialised digital-to-analog convertors (DAC), that make them capable of reproducing high-res audio that the iPod, and other MP3 players, cannot.

Retailers have seen more audio-centric customers shopping for such players, as they have become cheaper and more feature-packed.

Ms Claire Jiang, country manager of popular audiophile hangout Jaben at The Adelphi, estimates that demand for such players has increased 60 per cent in recent years.

Audiophile Raymond Tan, 49, said he has picked up three such players over the past few years.

"The release of cheaper, new models has brought down the price of high-end players to a new low," said the director of a public relations firm, who listens to music about three to four hours a day.

  • High-res players to suit your budget

  • Beginner Tier (under $1,000)

    Lotoo PAW5000

    $438

    Onkyo DP-X1

    $999

    These are the players that will begin your inevitable spiral into expensive audio equipment.

    The Lotoo PAW5000 (left) is a small, portable player which sports a 2.5mm balanced line out for better audio performance - a useful feature, considering the low price of the player.

    The Onkyo DP-X1 (right) is another popular choice for new entrants, as it supports audio up to 24-bit/384kHz and comes with two microSD slots to store hundreds of high-res tracks.

  • Intermediate Tier ($1,000 - $3,000)

    Sony NW-ZX2

    $1,599

    Astell & Kern AK320

    $2, 599

    Audiophiles serious about their hobby and who know what they want out of their players will start venturing into players within this territory.

    Sony's NW-ZX2 (left) is part of the Walkman line which supports high-res audio across a wide range of file formats.

    Its small, curved form factor makes it a very handsome device, and its audio performance is enhanced by Sony's addition of a ClearAudio+ feature for louder, clearer music.

    The Astell & Kern AK320 (right) is a fan favourite among audiophiles, sitting at the sweet spot between entry-level models and expensive high-end ones.

    It can also be used as a secondary digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for your PC or Mac, so that you can listen to the high-res tracks on your computer the way they are meant to be.

    Simply plug it to your computer through the USB cable and run your headphones through the AK320 so that the tracks are processed through the player's dedicated hardware rather than the electronics on the computer.

  • Top Tier (above $3,000)

    Astell & Kern AK380

    $4,999

    When you absolutely need to listen to music befitting the gods and only the most expensive of components will bring you aural satisfaction, the Astell & Kern AK380 is one of the highest-end portable players money can buy.

    The AK380 is made of the same duralumin material used in aircraft, and features a dual-DAC design for both left and right output that processes audio independently.

    It is also capable playing audio all the way up to 32-bit/384kHz playback across a range of formats.

    With an almost slavish attention to high-end electronics and parts to justify its high cost, the AK380 is aimed at a very niche audience who want only the best audio for their ears.

    Lester Hio

High-res audio refers to music that is of even higher quality than that of CDs, which are encoded with a bit depth and sampling frequency of 16-bit/44.1kHz.

High-res audio pushes the bit depth up to 24-bit and sampling to at least 96kHz, resulting in clearer, richer and more authentic audio.

Enthusiasts liken high-res audio to the audio equivalent of 4K video, in terms of better sound quality, clarity, depth and sound reproduction.

Such tracks can be bought and downloaded from websites such as HDtracks.com, or streamed via services like Tidal and Deezer.

Because high-res audio files are uncompressed, each track can be quite large - about 100MB for a 5min track. Storage used to be expensive, so compressed formats like MP3 were used.

"But now, with the very low cost of flash storage, and the accessibility of cloud and streaming services, it's so easy to access high-res music," said Mr Tan.

Coupled with the surge in affordable, yet powerful high-res portable players from mainly Chinese, Korean and Japanese brands over the past three years, audiophiles are now spoilt for choice in a post-iPod era in their search for portable audio satisfaction.

Such brands include Astell & Kern, Cayin, Lotoo, Luxury & Precision, HiFiMan, Fiio, Opus and Calyx, and Japanese companies such as Sony and Onkyo.

They can start as low as $150 and go up to $6,000 - all for a device that fits in the palm of your hand.

They also come with slots for expandable storage via microSD cards, making it easier for audiophiles to carry their library of music files everywhere.

The popularity of such players coincides with a decline in global iPod sales, which have been slipping since 2010.

Last year, Apple quietly removed the iPod as a category within its financial reports, and the players are now included in the "other products" category, which contains products such as the Apple TV.

Most of the high-res players run on the Android operating system, which can be installed with music-streaming apps, and, in doing so, are replacing CD players or larger audio players in the home for home listening.

Speciality audio stores in Singapore, such as Jaben and Stereo Singapore, say sales of such players have increased across the various price points over the past few years.

Jaben's Ms Jiang said bestsellers for newly minted audiophiles are players like the Lotoo Paw 5000 and the Cayin I5, both Chinese brands that go for $438 and $698 respectively. These are in line with Apple's iPod range, where a top- end 128GB iPod Touch costs $588.

But prices can scale dramatically once consumers get into high-end player territory.

Those who demand the absolute highest quality and extravagance of players, with top-end DACs, electronics and construction, can and will splurge on the top-of-the-line models, such as the Astell & Kern AK380 priced at $4,999.

"We are seeing an emergence of more advanced but costlier players over the years, like the AK380, as these companies continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in a hand-held audio player," said Stereo Singapore's senior headphone specialist, Mr Rong Zu.

"Fortunately, we are also seeing such companies trickle down some of the technologies of those top-range players into more affordable options," he said.

But higher prices don't necessarily translate into a better listening experience.

Said Ms Jiang: "Theoretically, the more expensive a player, the better components it has, and so better sound quality.

"But listening to music is very subjective. There will be people who prefer a $300 player more than a $6,000 one."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'The rise of the post-iPod players'. Print Edition | Subscribe