Standalone MP3 players dominated pop culture for a long time, but in 2023 almost no one needs one. Any iPhone or Android phone is an audio player that works with subscription music apps like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music or YouTube Music. You pay your $5 to $10 a month, and you get access to nearly every popular song ever recorded. And the tracks are downloadable, too, so you can listen to your music even when you leave a Wi-Fi or cellular coverage area. It's quick, easy and convenient. What's not to like?
"A lot," I can hear some people saying. Maybe you've got one too many subscriptions already, so why pay for one more when you already have a music library of thousands of MP3 files sitting on your hard drive? Or maybe you've meticulously crafted iTunes playlists, like mix tapes of old, that you don't want to recreate or transfer to another service. Maybe you have rare, one-off live tracks that don't exist on mainstream services. (Phish fans, I'm looking at you.)
Now, truth be told, if any of that applies to you, you still don't need an MP3 player -- your iPhone can still sync music files from iTunes (on Windows) or the Apple Music app (on Mac), and it probably has more storage space than your old iPod ever did. Android phones, too, can play whatever music files you can load them up with. But if you want a dedicated device for your music -- or, maybe, a parentally curated set of songs to give to a kid who's not ready for a phone -- there are still MP3 device options out there. They're not all great, and they generally come with some caveats. But if you've gotten this far, here's what I can recommend, more than two decades after the iPod was first released.
The iPod Touch was the last dedicated music player in Apple's lineup, but it was officially discontinued in May 2022. You can still find used models out there, but don't expect them to be supported for much longer.
What to do instead? Get a used iPhone, or a new iPhone SE -- and just use it on Wi-Fi. The latter will cost you about $429 all-in (for 64GB of storage), but you'll get a device that can run the latest version of iOS, and it can pull music from iTunes (on Windows) or Apple Music (on the Mac). It works seamlessly with Bluetooth headphones and speakers, but you'll need a pesky Lightning adapter to use old-school headphones. And, because it's got the App Store, you can also opt for alternate services like Spotify, Amazon Music, YouTube and the like (so long as you can access a Wi-Fi hotspot), in addition to or instead of the Apple Music app.
Yes, this is way too much to pay for a "music player," in my book. But it's the most capable and flexible option here, especially for those who are already in the Apple services universe -- or refuse to leave their iTunes-based MP3 library. It's also a nice fallback portable MP3 player option for kids if you don't want to spend up for an iPad, which starts at around $300 and isn't pocketable.
Once upon a time, people strapped iPod Nanos to their wrists and called it an Apple Watch of sorts.
Nowadays the real Apple Watch can act as a sorta-kinda iPod, at least for Apple Music subscribers. Just sync some playlists to the Watch, and you can enjoy digital music (not to mention podcasts) on a set of wireless headphones, even if the iPhone is nowhere nearby. Get an Apple Watch SE for less than $250 for basic music playback, or go for an Apple Watch Series 8 or Apple Watch Ultra if you want more non-music features.
These days, you can still get very basic music players on Amazon, but they're nearly all from no-name China brands. (We tried one like this, and it was fine, but nothing special.) In the (distant) past, the tiny SanDisk Clip family of players were a serviceable option for basic music playback (so long as you're well versed in the old school drag-and-drop method of file transfer). But some Amazon reviewers have criticized the later iteration of that model -- the Clip Sport Plus -- saying that its Bluetooth connection wasn't up to snuff. If you want to go this route, you might want to stick with wired headphones, which will also enable FM radio playback.
The Mighty Vibe is the closest modern equivalent to the iPod Shuffle, the screenless iPod that was beloved by runners for weighing next to nothing and just spooling off songs from their favorite playlist. (It's also a great gadget loophole for sleepaway camps with "no screen" rules.) The catch is that this model only works with Spotify Premium and (thanks to a recent firmware update) Amazon Music, both of which can be synced wirelessly.
The Vibe can store upwards of 1,000 songs in its music library, and -- unlike the old Shuffle -- it supports wireless and wired headphones. But it charges through the headphone jack via a proprietary cable, rather than more ubiquitous micro-USB or USB-C connectors. The 5-hour battery life is so-so, as is the price tag over $100, which feels higher than what you want to pay for this MP3 device product in an era of $30 wireless headphones and $200 smart phones.
Other MP3 players
Yes, the products above are really the only ones I can recommend in this category with any degree of enthusiasm. But they aren't the only options. If you're looking for a bargain basement option (under $50), a serious high-end alternative (starting at $350 and going to four figures) or some interesting workarounds, read on.
Swim-friendly option: Aftershockz OpenSwim
This 4GB "player in a headphone" model uses Aftershockz's patented bone-conduction technology. It's also fully waterproof, and retails for about $125. (Note that CNET hasn't tested these hands-on.)
The budget hack: Any old smartphone
If you've got an old phone -- or you buy a new one without service -- you'll have access to the full realm of app-based music services, and any music files you care to upload. Something like the $160-ish Samsung Galaxy A03S (shown above) fits the bill nicely, since you can drop in a MicroSD card that you've preloaded with tunes.
High-end options: Sony Walkman, Astell & Kern
Audiophiles have long looked down on digital music because the sound quality was notably inferior for golden-eared listeners with distinguishing tastes. But the development of lossless file formats (such as FLAC) and cheap ample multigigabyte storage have made portable high-fidelity music a reality.
At this point, there are really only two major players in the high-end portable music space: Astell & Kern and Sony (where the Walkman brand still lives on). We've used earlier versions of each brand, but not the current models.
- Sony Walkman music players line starts with the new-for-2023 (really!) NW-A306, arriving soon for $348.
- Astell & Kern players start at $1,299, and are strictly for true enthusiasts.
If you're the sort of person who has hard drives full of uncompressed music audio files -- and can hear the difference between that and comparatively low-resolution MP3 and AAC files -- then, by all means, pair up one of those players with your wired headphone of choice.
That said, nearly all of the streaming music services now offer lossless or high bitrate options -- that's nearly all the big players, from Tidal and Qobuz to Amazon and Apple. (Spotify HiFi, weirdly, remains a no-show.)
If you like what you hear, consider upgrading to a decent headphone DAC (that's "digital to analog converter") like the Audiofly Dragonfly and a serious wired headphone. Then you'll have a solid audiophile option that's good for the road, without the need for a standalone music player.
Music lockers: YouTube Music and iTunes Match
If you've got a digital music collection that includes one-offs and live tracks that aren't available on the mainstream services, you can upload them to online services, where they can live alongside subscription tracks and be shared among multiple devices (including smart speakers).
YouTube Music, formerly known as Google Play Music, offers this service at no additional cost for up to 100,000 tracks.
Apple users can opt for iTunes Match, which lets you upload your own digital music to live in tandem with Apple Music tracks. It costs $24 a year, above and beyond the price of Apple Music.
If you opt for either of these options, make sure you keep a local backup of your files, just in case these services go away.
Note that Amazon shuttered its "MP3 locker" service in 2018.