This article is the 2021 Audiophile On the list of the best high definition audio players under $100. We list the best models and offer advice on what you should look for when buying cheap audiophile DAP.
The hunt for the best Hi-Res music player under $100
So you don’t want to break the bank? You have a tight budget. However, you still care about sound, and you want to buy the best-sounding high-resolution music player or MP3 player for under $100. Well, let me tell you that yes, it is indeed possible to have audiophile grade hi-res music on the cheap.
The 5 Best Budget Hi-Res Music Players for 2021
Hiby R2 – A Feature-Rich Portable Music Player
- Very feature-rich
- Color touch screen
- Excellent sound quality
- OS is a little clunky due to size
Hiby has always got a lot of praise for its ability to deliver excellent high-resolution audio players with a ton of features to people on a budget. The R6 players from the company were huge hits in the audiophile community and Hiby has filtered a lot of the high-end features to this lower-priced model.
While it may not be able to match the all-out performance of more expensive units, it is an incredible-sounding player that punches well above its weight.
I love the design of the R2 with its clean lines and simple touch interface. It is well made and very small to the point it disappears in your pocket. The hardware is excellent with ES9218 DAC that is capable of handling a wide range of modern music formats. On top of that, it uses state-of-the-art Bluetooth codecs like Aptx and LDAC to ensure high-quality sound when using wireless headphones.
The R2 audio player is small and weighs just 85g. It’s well made and extremely portable with a zing magnesium alloy body and 2.45-inch touch screen. Battery life is solid at around 10 hours and features USB-C connectivity for charging and use as an external computer DAC. Oh, and if you are worried about storage then you can rest easy knowing that the R2 supports up to 2TB micro SD cards.
If it was my money and the sound quality was a priority, I would be choosing the Hiby R2 as my player of choice under $100.
Sony NWE394 – Best Battery Life
- The ultra-portable design fits easily in the pocket
- Classic Sony Sound with Xbass
- 35 hours battery life
- Internal storage is small and it is not expandable
There is a lot to love about this device, and it’s hard not to start with discussing the super clean looks. Styling is on point despite being a few years old. Sony has put together high-quality components in a small package so that the NWE394 feels like a premium device. Then you see the price is usually well below $100.
Features are solid but not as advanced as some of the other digital music players on the list. Battery life in our tests showed an impressive 32.5 hours runtime at 70% volume, and a full recharge took just under 2 hours. That’s crazy at this price and size.
The sound is good provided you are using easy-to-drive earphones. It has punchy fun and energetic tuning that is typical of Sony’s consumer-level devices.
If you are someone that is just looking to have an easy-to-use player with good battery life then this is the one for you. If you are looking for the latest and greatest file support then the other options we discuss here will be better suited.
FIWWAT Music Player
- Huge battery life (20hrs)
- Ultra lightweight (50g)
- Bluetooth included
- State of the art file support
- The square body is awkward to handle
The FIIWAT is a strange little beast. I had never heard of this budget music player but when I got it into the office for a full review I was impressed. It seemed to have more than ample power to drive my headphones and it handled way more lossless files than I had expected. Have a look at this list as the FIIWAT supports DSD64, DSD128, DSD256 (.dff & .dsf), FLAC (up to 192kHz/24bit), ALAC (up to 192kHz/24bit), APE (up to 96kHz/24bit), WAV (up to 192kHz/24bit.
The body also caught my eye as it was so small but made with tank-like materials. The buttons were nice and clicky and responsive with the basic yet functional operating system. Oh and I love the fact that they included a physical volume pot that allows you to make fine adjustments.
There are two versions of this player and by spending just a touch more you can get the one with Bluetooth audio, so lovers of wireless headphones can also use this DAP.
It supports 256GB micro SD cards and performed well in our battery drain test with 17 hours at 70% volume. One caveat for some is that it doesn’t work well with Apple computers but this isn’t an issue if you drop your files onto the micro SD card.
Sansa Clip Sport Go – The Myth, The Legend… Continued
- Cult following and a strong support community
- Powerful with balanced sound
- Well refined design
- Missing some functionality
The old standard of budget audiophiles and the favorite MP3 player of enthusiasts for many years before the DAP market really took off. When MP3 players were full of junk hardware and distorted sound, the Sansa Clip stood out for its beautifully flat balanced sound. In addition, it was small, had great battery life, and could be rock boxed, thus giving a wealth of options for customizing your music player.
The new Clip Sports Go is the evolution, and it’s not just a cheap MP3 player to be used for running. Instead, it is an overall more refined version of the original that does everything a little better and sounds fantastic.
It drives most headphones and earphones well and plays many high-resolution formats out of the box.
You will also find support for MicroSD cards, multiple playlist functions, and EQ settings to allow you some fine-tuning of the sound.
The clip is the cheapest music player on this list, and it sounds good to boot.
Xuelin Audio Hifi790 – Best Budget DAP with Balanced Output
- Amazing design
- Huge file support including DSD
- Unbelievably small
- Balanced 2.5mm headphone jack
- The screen is very small
Balanced headphone jack… need I say more. This is a powerful little unit and the only budget player with a balanced output that I can recommend this year. if you are using headphones or earphones that need some extra juice (Like the 7hz Timeless)
This little player may look a little odd with its tiny screen but in a range of colors and the metal body I think it’s a really nice design and it has gained a cult following with its amazing feature list and sound quality.
It has amazing codec support and can handle DSD64, DSD 128, and DSD256, along with other lossless music standards like FLAC, ALAC, and WAV. You also get that physical volume pot which smoothly allows you to make adjustments during playback.
Did you know you can convert your phone for high-resolution music player with an external DAC and amplifier?
Ok, so these aren’t DAP’s but a lot of people don’t even know these products exist. Most people will likely carry around their mobile phones with them everywhere they go, but with the removal of headphone jacks, they think they have lost the ability to use high-quality wired headphones. That’s no longer true, and a few audio companies are producing tiny dongles with audiophile DAC and Amp chips inside that can convert your smartphone to a high-resolution audio player.
My favorite External DAC actually has Bluetooth and a balanced connector so you can use it untethered from your phone.
The Audioquest Dragonfly (Original Review Here)is one of the most popular of all time and is a USB stick-sized Amp/DAC unit that seriously ups the audio capabilities of your phone. Similarly, Nextdrive has the Spectre X, and Cozy has the Takt-C. These are all great options and make a big improvement to the sound whilst allowing you to use Spotify and Tidal.
No decent sub $100 audio player supports Spotify and Tidal playback, so that’s one giant plus of using your phone as a transport device. Of course, the other big plus of this method is that these DAC’s uses the excellent ESS Sabre DAC, something you find in daps upwards of $400. It sounds great and doesn’t cost the world.
Advice before you buy a cheap DAP!
Your priorities should be in order, there are steps you can take to get better-sounding music, and there are multiple pieces to the puzzle that create good sound.
Use well-mastered music
It starts with high-quality master tracks. Music produced to a high standard will always sound better, and no amount of money spent on headphones or mp3 players will improve poorly mastered music. In fact, in cases where your source material is sub-par, a good set of headphones will actually expose how bad the music really is.
Upgrade your music file formats for a free boost to sound quality
Next, it’s always best to have high-quality source music files. This means choosing file formats that do as little as possible to degrade the original recording’s sound. Small rate MP3 files, for example, compress the music files so much that the music loses a lot of its detail and nuances. Our suggestion is to source high-quality files like high-bitrate MP3s to FLAC and even DSD. Lossless or near-lossless music formats are important here, making a big difference to the result when used with other audiophile-grade components. We suggest you read out the list of the best music formats to get a better understanding of your options.
Why are cheap high-definition music players worth buying?
The2 areas mentioned above are where you will get 60-70% of your sound improvements in a portable audio setup. Despite what some people profess to believe, the actual improvement in sound when stepping up from one of these budget audiophile DAPs listed below (Digital Audio Player) to something from our best Hi-Res music player list is relatively minimal.
Budget DAPs are awesome, and they have come a long way in the past decade. While they may lack some of the features of the more expensive units, they usually have solid DAC and Amp sections, and that’s what is going to count most at this price.
You will see more of a dramatic jump if you come from something like a mobile phone or a cheap mp3 player. Moving to one of these dedicated music players created with sound quality in mind will make a significant difference.
There are also some extra benefits to using a dedicated audio player to listen to your music when on the go and to be able to handle a broader range of formats compared to simpler devices. In addition, having a dedicated stand-alone unit with increased power to drive high impedance headphones can also be a significant advantage to some. Not to forget, using a separate audio player means less drain on your smartphone battery when out and about.
Many factors make something a great-sounding and fully featured DAP unit, and here are my top 5 picks if cash is a little tight. The best portable audio player solutions are under $100 right now.