Why I've Gone Back To A Portable Music Player

Image: Sol Republic

Smartphones might be the epitome of convenience, but it wasn't until I recently rekindled my love for a dedicated portable music player that I realised what we had lost along the way. And no, it wasn't just the headphone jack.

I still fondly remember my first MP3 player. It was an iRiver H320, which replaced my trusty Sony Discman. This was in a time before we used one single device as our music player, point-and-shoot camera, email machine, GPS navigation system, time waster and everything in between.

The transition to wireless headphones and streaming services has made it difficult to get high quality music through your smartphone, but the greatest cost of convergence is focus. When opening Spotify on our phones we're bombarded with notifications and apps calling for our attention, to the point that music has become mere background noise. It's simply too hard to block out the noise and temptation of competing applications.

Since moving back to a dedicated portable music player, I've found myself listening to music more deeply. In other words, it's made me listen to music the way we used to. If you, like me, are trying to reduce your screen time, walking out of the house without an all-in-one messaging / social media / game machine like your smartphone may be exactly what you're after.

Of course the sound can be far superior too, and audiophiles have preferred dedicated portable music players from the start. Not all music players are created equal, so it's important to keep a few things in mind when shopping for one.

I'm a big fan of the SR15 from Astel&Kern (which, in a twist of fate, is wholly owned by iRiver) for a couple of key reasons.

The SR15 is Astell&Kern's most affordable dedicated music player, coming in at $850.

Unlike other high-end portable players, the SR15 is super compact and sports a striking angular design that is anything but boring. The user interface is slick and responsive but, more importantly, it uses its own version of Android that is devoid of Google's apps and services. This means you won't be tempted to install non-music-related apps, because there is no app store.

In order to get your favourite music apps onto the device, you use Astel&Kern's 'Open App' feature. Admittedly it's a bit of a clunky installation process, but it works and it's something you'll only have to do once. I was able to download and install Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and Soundcloud to complement the pre-installed Tidal and Deezer.

For best results you'll want to have music files on the device rather than streaming in through the internet. Dedicated music players will play just about any type of music file, but they're really designed for the lossless formats and codecs that deliver better-than-CD quality audio. If you don't yet have a music library of hi-res audio then it's easy enough to acquire some through legitimate means with places like HDtracks.com or on Tidal's 'Hi-Fi' subscription tier. Alternatively, you can always rip your CD collection to a lossless format like FLAC.

Any device that outputs music contains a DAC in some form. This is what allows your digital music files to be converted into the analogue music you hear through your headphones. The audio chip or DAC contained inside smartphones is low quality, and this is what separates the best dedicated portable players from the rest.

The SR15 uses not one but two high quality DACs to do the heavy lifting, and it sounds incredible. It also boasts two headphone jacks; one regular 3.5mm and one 2.5mm balanced output for those interested in a cleaner sound. I tested the SR15 with Astell&Kern's own AK T9iE in-ear monitors, along with Sony's MDR-1A over-the-ear headphones, and while they both sounded good the player is better suited to sensitive in-ear monitors like the AK T9iE.

High-end portable players like the SR15 can improve the audio coming from your PC as well via the player's onboard USB-port, bypassing the PC's DAC altogether, to massively improve your computer's tinny output.

At $999, the SR15 is Astell&Kern’s most 'affordable' high-end portable player, and offers the most bang for your buck in a lineup that tops out at $4999 with the SP1000. Keep in mind that high-end portable music players are built to last, so there's no need to go on an endless two-year upgrade cycle like you might with a smartphone.

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This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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Comments

    I'm sorry but calling yourself an audiophile while listening to music over earbuds using a portable media player is a joke. There is typically so much ambient noise in locations where people use them that any actual benefit you'd get from a better DAC or lossless recordings is lost. Where are you using this player? The bus or train, in the car, at the gym, walking/jogging? None of those scenarios are conducive to an "audiophile experience". And if you're actually sitting at home in a nice (relatively) quiet listening environment why on earth would you use a portable as opposed to a decent stereo?

    Don't get me wrong, you absolutely can improve the quality of your music with better headphones, better encoding and a better player but the reality is most of that quality improvement is lost the moment you go mobile (mobile as in moving not mobile as in phone).

    And honestly, if you're old enough to have used a Sony Discman your hearing has probably started to degrade already. Your own ears are reducing the quality of the audio you're hearing. No fancy DAC can make up for that (sadly).

    Oh and the AK T9iE are listed at $1699. What a bargain... Makes that portable player experience $2700.

    I can't wait to read her article when she discovers home HiFi
    positive point : rediscovering focus and an uninterrupted experience.
    With a bit more effort and a lower budget, an old iPod with https://www.rockbox.org/ could give life back to a pre loved object, where the battery could be changed, and a dead memory could be replaced by micro SD's with an adapter. ( ifixit.com )

    Ha ha. Not only did you walk into that one with a pretty ingenuous article - but I don't think one needs to have the conspiracy hat on to guess the memo that went across the LH network: "People, we get a good commission on that A&K gear, can someone write something and get a few sucker-clicks?"
    Bought my little daughter a Diamond Rio One player in '99. Something like 32MB, which was way enough to play "No Scrubs" (and Shania/Britney/Christina) on repeat. Kept hanging every few hours. And sounded the same to me as the A&K probably would now.
    Dang-nab it... where did those pesky highs go?....

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