Best Digital Audio Players 2022 (Part 1) Under £500
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Best Digital Audio Players 2022 (Part 1) Under £500

by OTIC 07 Oct 2022

It's been an exceptional Year for Digital Audio Players particularly with Astell&Kern, FiiO, Shanling and iBasso all launching new Flagship Hi Res Players, we ask for those on a budget. What are the best Mid Range Digital Audio Players on the market in 2022/23

To Start we need to determine our budget - If Flagships such as the Astell&Kern SP3000 can cost over £3k and Shanling's M9 Player costing `£2800 plus we can allow our budget to range from £300 all the way up to £1500. That gives us plenty of room for manoeuvre.

So what are we looking for in terms of the best player in 2022? We we need to have Lossless capabilities as well as streaming so wifi is a must. We also need to have excellent storage so we need at least 32GB storage that has the option of expansion. FLAC and MQA files are not small files. Lastly we need a stylish finish and robust build quality.

We'll split this Blog into 3 sections

Best Player under £500, Best Player up to £1000 and Best player up to £1500.

Best Digital Audio Player under £500

To begin we'll start at the lower end of our budget and work our way up. There are 3 contenders for this price point in our current product catalogue at OTIC

iBasso DX170 Digital Audio Player

The IBasso DX170 Digital Audio Player is the latest mid-fi level Hi-Res Player equipped with a flagship-grade Dual DAC chipset from Cirrus Logics and Rockchip’s latest four-core SoC chip. DX170 packs an authentic high-resolution audio experience with full 8x MQA decoding, 32-Bit/384kHz PCM, and native DSD256 signal decoding. iBasso DX170 comes stock with the latest Android 11 OS that allows the users to easily install their favourite media application on the device. iBasso DX170 is a compact yet excellent Hi-Res Digital Audio Player designed for easy use and a top-quality sound experience.

The audio components are really what matters here, and iBasso has done a great job of delivering there. It uses a pair of Cirrus-Logic CS43131 DAC chips which deliver outstanding sound reproduction up to 32-bits/384kHz, with a superbly low noise floor and vanishingly low levels of distortion. The DX170 also support all of the major files types: MQA, APE, FLAC, WAV, WMA, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, OGG, MP3, DFF, DSF, DXD, CUE, ISO. Suffice it to say, if you’re wondering if the DX170 can play it, the answer is probably yes.

The DAP is also quite powerful for its size. It features of balanced (4.4mm pentaconn) and single-ended (3.5mm) outputs. The single-ended output is able to put out up to 3.2 VRMS of power. The balanced connector doubles that to 6.4 VRMS. That’s enough to drive most headphones you’re likely to encounter today and blows any IEM I know of out of the water.

The IBasso DX170 retails for £379 and is available in Blue / Grey / Black

Shanling M3x HiRes Audio Player

Shanling designed the M3X as a scaled-down version of their flagship M8, to be a more practical and smaller player, with only a 4.2-inch touch screen. This makes it 25% smaller and lighter than their M6 and M6 Pro players.

The Shanling M3X HiRes Audio Player packs a lot of good features for its price. It utilises the Snapdragon 430 SoC with 2 gigabytes of RAM. Additionally, it is the first Hi-Res player to use the new ESS Sabre ES9219C chip. Shanling is using these chips in dual DAC configuration to offer a balanced 4.4mm output for better sound and more power. The device can decode PCM up to 32-bit 384kHz and DSD up to 256. Additionally, the device features x16 MQA unfolding, for all the fans of the Master Quality albums. The highlights include the long battery as well, M3X will stand out with its superb battery life, offering up to 23 hours of playback on a single charge.

The M3X features an open Android 7.1 OS and you can download and install any APK you want. The Google Play Store application is not pre-installed but you can download it from the pre-installed APKPure application and use it without any problems. All the apps you installed on the Android of the M3X will be processed by AGLO and they will bypass the Androids SRC. Shanling has developed and optimised the Android of the M3X to correctly process music and bypass the OS’s default limitations. AGLO technology correctly processes music from apps to avoid degradation.

The ”AGLO” stands for Android Global Lossless Output. This is very important because Android has put audiophiles in some trouble at its early stages where it did some kind of resampling that applied to all apps, so you could not benefit from the DACs fully. Android phones had DACs that were limited to 48khz or 96 at most, so that was not a problem for the daily user but of course we, the audiophile bunch suffered from this. Native and bit-perfect playback was necessary to increase the dynamic range of Android-based players and most importantly, their 3rd apps. Tidal and similar high fidelity focused apps needed to utilise DACs to their full extent. AGLO system enables that exactly, up to DAC’s limitations, which are, in this case, up to 32bit-384kHz. AGLO is optimised for bit-perfect audio, and it completely bypasses Android’s limitations and SRC thanks to the work of Shanling’s skilled engineers. Of course, this means that any app that you can install on M3X will benefit from the integrated DACs to the full extent.

Apart from that, the device has 2 gigabytes of RAM and this may come as a red flag to some of you, hardware junkies. However, it is safe to say that the RAM is quite sufficient because this is a special and optimised version of Android. The operation is fast and smooth, without any stutter. Applications like Tidal work seamlessly without any system delay. The UI experience is simple and straightforward. Gesture-based control looks and feels great and it is quite easy to learn how to use it. You can also toggle on the virtual buttons if you like, but I like the gestures as they offer a cleaner look into the UI. There is also a mode present in the DAP that is called the Prime Mode. It terminates all the other processes and 3rd party apps of the Android and lets you use the Shanling app without any interruptions.

The Shanling M3X Digital Audio Player is a brilliantly designed player that offers a good feature set and sound for the price. In a compact package, it offers hi-res streaming, dual DAC circuit, LDAC, a fast processor, and a neat UI. It has a very good balanced out with plenty of power for all your IEMs and easy-to-drive headphones.

It offers an excellent user experience and the sound is quite good from a technical standpoint. It offers a fairly balanced signature with good detail-retrieval capabilities and thus it is a great contender in this price bracket.

The Shanling M3x HiRes Player retails at £379 and is available in Black / Ice Blue / Aurora Purple

FiiO M11s Digital Audio Player

The FiiO M11s Digital Audio Player is FiiO's latest DAP which adopts the high-performance model "ES9038Q2M" of the DAC chip for portable made by ESS Technology. As a result, the M11S supports playback of PCM384kHz and DSD256 (up to DSD128 during USB input DoP playback). In addition, it has a dual configuration with one "ES9038Q2M" installed in each of the left and right audio channels, and uses all the capabilities of the DAC chip that can originally reproduce the left and right channels with only one channel. Combined with FiiO's new-generation amplifier circuit it provides a pure audio experience unique to a player created for music playback while having extremely high output.

As usual, you can top that with 32-bit HyperStream architecture, Time Domain Jitter Eliminator and a mono mode for those who seek the highest performance, in a multi-channel system, or a dual-mono setup like the one used in FiiO’s players.

Downstream, the M11S doesn’t get the glorious THX-AA78 amps, found in all and every player since the first M11 Pro, but Texas Instruments OPA926 chips, fed by OPA1642 LPF chips. A downgrade on paper, but at the same time, the brand announced no power loss in the transition, the new player offering a solid 670mW, in balanced mode on a 32ohm load.

To ensure the best performances, FiiO developed a fourth-generation FPGA chip with “more advanced algorithms, more accurate clocks, and even further reduced jitter”. Unlike Chord which uses an FPGA chip as a DAC, here it’s used as a middle-man between the SPDIF circuitry and the dual ESS DAC – working in I2S/DSD

Add a set of two custom Japanese NDK femtosecond crystals, working hard to ensure everything is phase-locked / 100% bit-perfect, and you have your full DSD512 / PCM 32bit/768kHz support.

All of those chips are covered by custom anti-EMI modules that ensure perfect isolation from each other and avoid the annoying buzz while playing files from your streaming app, or just when you use Bluetooth.

The FiiO M11s Digital AudioPlayer retails at £489.99 and is available in Black only

Either one of these is a great Mid level Digital Audio player and as each has wifi capabilities so you'll be able to stream your favourite music service such as Tidal, Qobuz or Deezer.

Winner - The iBasso DX170 just edges this time, a combination of build quality, sound quality, the offer of HiRes MQA Streaming and the overall design makes this our pick for Digital Audio Players under £500

Next Week - Best Digital Audio Player under £1000

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