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Best Apple iPod Touch alternatives 2021: budget and premium

What Hi-Fi? 9/20/2021 What Hi-Fi?
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Best Apple iPod alternatives Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best Apple iPod alternatives you can buy in 2021.

There’s no getting away from it: the Apple iPod in all its guises was (and still is) a great portable music player. But as Apple's iPhones have taken over music playing duties for many, the Cupertino giant has scaled back its range of music players. In fact, only the iPod Touch survives.

But what if you want a dedicated music player that isn't the Touch? A better-sounding player? Or a portable music player that, unlike the iPod, plays hi-res music out of the box? The good news is that there are plenty of excellent iPod alternatives out there.

The portable music players listed below tend to have decent storage that can be expanded by microSD memory cards to cater for a library of hi-res tunes. They often support hi-res 24-bit/192kHz files and beyond, with some also able to playback DSD and MQA files. Some can even double up as a DAC to enhance the sound from your laptop.

We've tested a wide range and rounded up the best iPod alternatives across a range of prices, from eminent brands such as Sony, Astell & Kern and Cowon. Budget accordingly for a decent pair of headphones, and you'll have a formidable on-the-fly system.

Check out our list of the best iPod alternatives below...

In the seven years since Sony introduced its first high-resolution Walkman, the Japanese giant has offered hi-res audio support across a variety of portable players, from the very affordable to the very high end.

It is most focused on the budget end of the market, though, and nearly two years ago the firm reaped its reward in the form of a 2019 What Hi-Fi? Award for the NW-A45. Clearly not one to rest on its laurels, Sony has now replaced that budget belter with this NW-A55L, and with it has set a new benchmark for affordable hi-res portable player.

The NW-A55L is fuller and cleaner, fleshing out notes (the bass is notably better defined) and presenting them with a more upfront sound. If you’re looking for a sonic upgrade over your phone, the Sony will offer it across the board. 

Read the full Sony NW-A55L review

Now into its third iteration, Cowon has added Bluetooth, a volume wheel and a dual DAC to its 2021-issue bijou matchbox-sized player – and produced another class leader. The cracking new volume dial on the top right of the player feels like an homage to Astell & Kern players (several of which are listed below) and makes this little machine feel much more expensive than it is. 

The PD3 boasts a seriously impressive battery life of up to 45 hours if you’re playing MP3 files, or a solid 30 hours when listening to hi-res files at 'normal' volume. There is support for 24-bit/192kHz WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF and DSD128 file compatibility too – and that support is native, so DSD files aren’t converted to PCM during playback.

This is a talented player that's sonically similar in character to its older siblings, but there are small upgrades here in terms of rhythm, timing, detail and musicality. It’s important to note that wi-fi streaming is still off the menu – so you will have to go without on-the-go streaming of TidalDeezer and others – but if you have the files and like the idea of pairing your portable music player either to a wireless speaker or pair of headphones for one of the smallest wireless systems you’ve seen, there’s no better shout currently on the market for the money. We gave it five stars across the board – what more do you need to know? 

Read the full review: Cowon Plenue D3

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 is the latest in what has been a long line of excellent, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning, ‘entry-level’ portable music players, with each new generation invariably proving more talented than the last. The SR25 doesn’t let us down, propelling its lineage forward from the 2018-introduced A&norma SR15 (below) to set a new performance benchmark.

Notably more expressive and eloquent than any other portable music player we’ve encountered at this price, and far beyond anything that smartphones are capable of, the SR25 demonstrates just how good music on the move can sound, while also remaining reasonably affordable. 

Read the full Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 review

In light of the arrival of its successor (above), the SR15 is a bona fide bargain thanks to a recent price drop. It doesn't have the same level of insight of its new sibling, but it's still a fantastic player, boasting an easy-to-use interface, expandable storage and plenty of hi-res file support – not to mention an entertaining and dynamic sound that's synonymous with the brand. 

It promises a severe step up from your smartphone and the iPod Touch. This device can also be used as a DAC/preamp, allowing you to use it to enhance the performance of your smartphone and/or laptop.

Read the full Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 review

The demise of the Apple iPod has opened up the market for other portable music player brands, including Cowon.

The Cowon Plenue D2 (or PD2) is the next-gen version of one of the most impressive budget players we’ve encountered – the Award winning Plenue D. This budget portable music player has vast file support, pocket-size practicality, an accessible price and sounds great too.

It may not be quite such a budget bargain as its predecessor, but it manages to justify the premium. If you want a dedicated music player device, this Cowon should be high on your list – we haven’t heard a better-sounding portable music player at the money.

Read the full Cowon Plenue D2 review

The Kann Alpha is the third player in the Kann series, yet the first Astell & Kern player to implement Bluetooth 5.0. It boasts a more powerful built-in headphone amplifier than the previous Kann series players it succeeds, too. And thanks to the rearrangement of various components and the use of smaller resistors and capacitors, it promises added power in a smaller and more portable chassis.

It's still bulky, but will fit in a coat pocket, and supports most music file formats, including  MQA, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and native DSD256. It's similarly wide-ranging when it comes to wireless codec support (LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, AAC and, naturally, SBC Bluetooth). The Alpha also supports MQA-CD playback, by way of Astell & Kern’s CD-Ripper.

Sonically, it's suitably impressive. The presentation is expansive, and we're bowled over by its low-end capabilities. It handles difficult and detailed musical passages with a masterful hand, and live recordings are leant a degree of spaciousness and realism rarely heard. The closest we'll get to a gig for some time yet.

Read the full Astell & Kern Kann Alpha review

The A&futura SE200 is the first portable music player to give the user a choice of DACs; there’s ESS’s latest chip in a dual configuration, as well as one of AKM's flagship chips as found in Astell & Kern’s flagship SP2000. Why? It’s down to letting the user pick the sonic signature they prefer. Each DAC type feeds 2.5mm balanced and the standard 3.5mm outputs, and has a set of audio filters for further fine-tuning.

Ultimately we don’t see the need for the inferior-sounding ESS performance when the AKM output performs so much better, but that aside the company has still managed to set a new performance benchmark for the price with the SE200. It serves up a sound that trumps every Astell & Kern player before it, bar the flagship SP2000.

Read the full Astell & Kern A&futura SE200 review

The Astell & Kern Kann player’s larger-than-life design won’t be to all tastes, but its superb sound quality is unquestionable, making it a great alternative for the iPod Touch.

The Kann might be chunky, but that extra space leaves room for a lot of physical features. And when it comes to performance per pound, there’s no mistaking the Kann’s sonic chops.

It’s dynamic, has a great sense of timing, and gives an insightful performance. Other portable players at the Kann’s price point need to watch their step – it's a formidable machine.

Read the full Astell & Kern Kann review

MORE:

Now check out the best headphones to listen with

These are the best portable music players

And 10 of the best hi-res albums on Tidal Masters

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