Digital Audio Player (DAP) Buyer's Guide

Originally posted: 6/24/2020, Updated 12/14/2020 to add Astell & Kern KANN Alpha and SE200, and Cayin N3Pro.

One way or another, if you want your headphones to do something other than look pretty, you’re going to need to connect them to something that plays music. Maybe that’s your phone or laptop, but for many people it’s going to be a dedicated portable digital audio player (DAP). DAPs have everything you need to listen to music – the amp, the DAC, and the player – all in one package.

While for some, having a rack of carefully selected equipment with a dedicated DAC, preamp, and amp is the only way to enjoy Hi-Fi portable audio, for others it’s all about being able to plug in and start listening to music right away. For the second group, a DAP is the beginning and end, but even for those who want control over every aspect of their sound, a good dedicated player might be the start of their signal chain. While this won't be exhaustive, and there are other players that we won't cover today – like the excellent KANN CUBE – we’ll look at several DAPs from Astell&Kern and iBasso and compare the interface, connectivity options, and playback quality to help you choose the player that’s right for you.

iBasso DX160

Cayin N3Pro

A&K SR25

iBasso DX220

A&K Kann Alpha

A&K SA700

A&K SE200

A&K SP2000

Price

$399

$479

$699

$979

$1099

$1299

$1799

$3499

Internal Storage

32GB

0

64GB

64GB

64GB

128GB

256GB

512GB

Balanced Output

4.4mm

4.4mm

2.5mm

2.5mm

2.5mm, 4.4mm

2.5mm

2.5mm

2.5mm

Bluetooth Output

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

Bluetooth Input

X

X

X

Estimated Battery Life

13 Hours

9-11 Hours

21 Hours

8 Hours

14 Hours

8.5 Hours

10-14 Hours

8 Hours

Pairs best with:

Most IEMs, easy to drive headphones

Most IEMs, easy to drive headphones

IEMs, easy to drive headphones

IEMs, most headphones

Full range of IEMs and headphones

IEMs, most headphones

Large range of IEMs and headphones

Large range of IEMs and headphones

MQA /PCM/DSD Support

X

No MQA

X

X

X

X

X

X

Processor

8 Core

N/A

4 Core

8 Core

4 Core

4 Core

8 Core

8 Core

DAC

Dual CS43198

Dual AK4493EQ

Dual CS43198

Dual ES9028Pro

Dual  ES9068AS

Dual AKM AK4492ECB

Dual  ES9068AS, Single AKM AK4499EQ

Dual AKM AK4499EQ

SPDIF/Coax Output

X

X

App Support

APKPure Store

None

OpenApp via connection to PC/Mac

APKPure Store

OpenApp via connection to PC/Mac

OpenApp via connection to PC/Mac

OpenApp via connection to PC/Mac

OpenApp via connection to PC/Mac



iBasso DX160 - $399

The iBasso DX160 is a great all around player, particularly for its $399 price point. It’s key features are it’s easy to use interface and versatility. You can check out our full review for more details.

iBasso DX160

Design and Interface

The DX160 basically looks like a double-thick smartphone. It has a large touchscreen with a small bezel, and the hardware includes a volume wheel, skip and pause buttons, and a microSD card slot. The interface is straight Android. Out of the box, you can load an SD Card into it or connect it to a computer to load it up with music, and then get to listening. You can also connect it to WiFi to download music, or use the included APKPure store to download various streaming services (or even games).

The default music app, Mango Player, is a perfectly competent player, and it includes a number of settings for managing the devices output, including EQ, balance, digital filters, and high/low gain. You can also run the player in DAC mode, which bypasses the player and runs it strictly as a DAC which will serve as a bridge between the source and the amp.

Connectivity Options

The DX160 has 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced outputs. You can also switch the 3.5mm output to work as a line out or a digital coax output to connect to an external amp and bypass the DX160’s amp. The DX160 features Bluetooth output to work with wireless headphones, and can connect to another player (like a phone) via Bluetooth to be used “headlessly” as a DAC/Amp.

Hardware and Playback

The DX160 uses Dual Cirrus Logic chips for the DAC and supports MQA decoding, PCM decoding up to 32-Bit/384kHz, and DSD256 natively. In the interest of supporting the full Android featureset, the DX160 uses a surprisingly powerful octa-core CPU, and has 2GB of RAM with 32GB of internal storage.

The output is generally very neutral and reference-like. It pairs well with most IEMs, but highly sensitive IEMs like the Empire Ears Wraith might generate some light hiss. It’s powerful enough to drive many over-ear headphones in high gain mode, but larger planars which need a lot of power, might be underpowered or feel flat.



Cayin N3Pro - $479

The Cayin N3Pro is a unique player that focuses more on the pure player experience than many other players which function more like smartphones. It also features a tube amp stage, something you'll be hard pressed to find in a DAP in this price range. You can read our full review for more details.

Cayin N3Pro

Design and Interface

The Cayin N3Pro is a pure player. It has no built in storage and no apps. You plug in a microSD card full of music, and use it to play music back. There are no frills, no bell, and no whistles. The player itself is quite smooth and sleek, and the interface is responsive.

Connectivity Options

The Cayin N3Pro has minimal connectivity options. You can plug in headphones via 3.5mm unbalanced or 4.4mm balanced jacks. You can connect to the player via USB or Bluetooth to use it as a DAC and play music off another device, and you can connect it to wifi to run OTA updates.

Hardware and Playback

The N3Pro uses Dual AKM AK4493 chips for the DAC. It decodes up to 32Bit/384kHz and DSD256 native. It also features line outs for connection to other devices.

You can select between solid state and two different tube modes. The output is warm and musical, especially in the tube modes. It pairs well with most IEMs and less power hungry over-ear headphones.


Astell&Kern SR25 - $699

The SR25 is a compact, affordable entry into Astell&Kern’s DAP lineup. It features top end Astell&Kern sound in a more affordable package. 

Astell&Kern SR25

Design and Interface

The SR25 has a bit of an odd, angular shape. It has the vague look of a movie prop from a near future sci-fi movie. The screen is on the smaller side, and placed at an angle with a somewhat large bezel. The volume wheel is very nice and has a great feel, as do the hardware skip and pause buttons. Like most modern DAPs, it features a microSD card to expand the internal storage. The SR25 also boasts best in class battery life with an estimated 21 hours of playback time.

Astell&Kern uses a more limited interface for their DACs. While the DX160 opens up with the Android home screen, the SR25 drops you right into the player. Additionally, you can install select streaming apps on the SR25, but only a curated selection and those can only be installed by copying them directly from a computer to your player via USB connection. The SR25 also has software EQ balance controls.

Connectivity Options

The SR25 features 3.5mm unbalanced and 2.5mm balanced headphone connections. You can also connect wireless headphones via Bluetooth. This is also the first player from Astell&Kern with LDAC.

Hardware and Playback

The SR25 uses the same Dual Cirrus Logic DAC as the DX160 and features the same MQA decoding, PCM decoding up to 32-Bit/384kHz, and native DSD256 capabilities. It uses a quad-core CPU, and has 64GB of internal storage.

The SR25 has a very smooth rich output, with perhaps a touch of warmth. Despite using similar hardware, the SR25 has a noticeably different sound than the DX160. With the DX160 sounding a bit flat next to the more refined output of the SR25.



iBasso DX220 - $979

At first glance, the DX220 is simply the big brother to the DX160, with more features and a more refined output, but it also boasts some unique features that help it stand out.

iBasso DX220

Design and Interface 

The main interface of the DX220 is essentially identical to the DX160 with a few more configuration options available. However, the DX220 features the ability to boot into iBasso’s Mango OS which leaves only the music player and removes all the distractions. This provides a cleaner experience if you just want to listen to digital music files that you have stored on your DAP, and frees up processing power so that everything is 100% dedicated to the DAC and music playback functions.

Connectivity Options

The DX220 includes all of the same connectivity options of the DX160, except that it uses 2.5mm balanced instead of 4.4mm. It also has separate ports for line out, unbalanced, and SPDIF, whereas the DX160 has a single multi-use port.

Hardware and Playback

The DX220 uses the same platform as the DX160 for the main functions of the DAP, upgraded with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. For the DAC it uses a Dual ES9028Pro configuration. The DX220 also features replaceable amp cards.You can replace the standard amp card with a number of different amps, ranging from warmer simulated tube sounds, to the more aggressive amps (sold separately).

The DX220, with the default amp card, sounds like an all around improved version of the DX160. The main characteristics of the output are that it is neutral and energetic, but DX220 feels smoother and more responsive then the DX160 and possibly a little less fatiguing over time. The DX160 also boasts a more robust amp stage, which will be able to power a larger range of headphones.


Astell&Kern KANN Alpha - $1099

The A&K KANN Alpha is a beast of a player. It's a little on the big side, but that's because it provides desktop level power in a portable form factor. You can read our full review for more details.

Astell&Kern KANN Alpha

Design and Interface

The KANN Alpha features a matte black finish on a somewhat large body. The height and width are fairly average, however it's quite thick. The software and interface is identical to the SR25, with the same player, and same ability to add various streaming apps via USB connection.

Connectivity Options

The KANN Alpha has a 3.5mm unbalanced headphone jack and 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced headphone connections. It also has the ability to connect wireless headphones via Bluetooth.

Hardware and Playback

The KANN Alpha uses similar hardware to the SR25 to run the OS, and uses dual ESS ES9068AS for the DAC stage. It has 64GB internal storage, which can be expanded by microSD up to 512GB. It supports all the standard formats along with MQA decoding, PCM decoding up to 32-Bit/384kHz, and DSD256.

The KANN Alpha has tons of power, and it sounds great too. With it's huge output and low noise, it can drive a massive range of headphones from harder to drive planar magnetics to sensitive IEMs.



Astell&Kern SA700 - $1299

The A&K SA700 isn’t cheap, but it’s an incredible value, with a listening experience that rivals much more expensive equipment. It’s simple, elegant design and excellent sound quality make it hard to beat.

Astell&Kern SA700

Design and Interface

Externally, the SA700 features a smooth matte finish. It’s simple and elegant, with all the requisite hardware controls, and ports, but with nothing else to distract from its function. The software and interface is identical to the SR25, with the same player, and same ability to add various streaming apps via USB connection.

Connectivity Options

The SA700 features the same connectivity options as the SR25 with 3.5mm unbalanced and 2.5mm balanced headphone connections, as well as the ability to connect wireless headphones via Bluetooth.

Hardware and Playback

The SA700 uses similar hardware to the SR25 to run the OS, and uses dual AKM AK4492ECB for the DAC stage. It has 128GB internal storage, which can be expanded by microSD up to 512GB. It supports all the standard formats along with MQA decoding, PCM decoding up to 32-Bit/384kHz, and DSD256.

The SA7000 has an output which is both musical and detailed. It is very smooth and responsive as well, and helps bring out the best in your headphones. The SA700 has a robust output with both a low noise floor for IEMs and the ability to drive a broad range of headphones.



Astell&Kern SE200 - $1799

The A&K SE200 provides incredible sound quality and a unique feature never before seen on a portable digital audio players: multiple discrete DAC/Amps built into a single player. You can read our full review for more details.

Astell&Kern SE200

Design and Interface

The SE200 has smooth, curvy lines with the requisite hardware controls and tactile volume wheel that you've come to expect from Astell &Kern. Again, the software and interface is identical to the SR25, KANN Alpha, and SA700 with the same player, and same ability to add various streaming apps via USB connection.

Connectivity Options

The SE200 provides two 3.5mm unbalanced jacks, and two 2.5mm balanced jacks. Each set of 2.5mm/3.5mm connects to its own separate DAC channel. It also features the ability to connect wireless headphones via Bluetooth which will bypass both DACs and use the headphone's DSP.

Hardware and Playback

The SE200 uses an upgraded octa-core processor to run the OS, and uses a single AKM AK4499EQ (the same DAC used in the SP2000) for one channel, dual ESS ES9068AS for the other. It has 256B internal storage, which can be expanded by microSD up to 512GB. It supports all the standard formats along with MQA decoding, PCM decoding up to 32-Bit/384kHz, and DSD256.

The SE200 is an incredibly versatile DAP, with different DACs which can create a different response from different headphones and IEMs. It's resolution and detail retrieval rivals that of much more expensive DAPs.


Astell & Kern SP2000 - $3499

The SP2000 is the absolute top of the line portable DAP. No expense or feat of engineering was spared in the creation of the SP2000.

Astell&Kern SP2000

Design and Interface

The SP2000 is impeccably designed and crafted. The materials and feel make this the Rolls Royce of DAPs, and the hardware controls are all satisfyingly tactile. It uses Astell&Kern’s standard software, with the same playback and app features as the SA700 and SR25.

Hardware and Playback

The SP2000 uses AKM’s top of the line AK4499EQ DACs in dual configuration, and an amp stage completely redesigned to work with those DACs. It uses an octo-core CPU, and has 512GB of internal storage, expandable via microSD.

One of the key features of the SP2000 is its ability to work with virtually any headphone on the market. Whether it’s a high sensitivity IEM like the Campfire Andromeda or a power hungry over-ear planar magnetic like the Audeze LCD-4, the SP2000 can drive it to perfection.



So which DAP is right for me?

The best DAP is going to depend on how you listen to music. Other than the price points, some of the key differentiators are the types of connectivity that you need, and whether or not you want your player to anything besides playing music. The iBasso DX160 and DX220 are incredibly versatile players that can do a whole lot more than just play music, but many users find the SR25 and SA700 to be better strictly as players if you don't need the extra features. Of course, as players go, the SP2000 is king, but if you need more versatile connectivity options, it's not going to be the best device for you. Ultimately the best player comes down to being the player that best fits what you need.