That was fast.
This summer was the first time portable music players finally went really high end, thanks to Astell&Kern, a South Korean audio outfit.
The AK 100 and it's big brother AK 120, which came out in time for a hi-def Fourth of July, make iPods and Android devices sound, in comparison, downright primitive -- like an AM car radio in a '55 Chevy. The only problem has been price. Hold your breath: The two A&K models are, respectively, $699 and $1,299.
Now for Labor Day, and from China (where Labor Day may not mean too much), there is the Fiio X3. It, too, will play HD downloads and it has the same digital-to-analog converter (which has a major influence on the quality of any files, even lowly mp3s) as the A&K players. It may not have A&K's same sweet and open sound, but the price is $200.
The means there really is a better alternative to the iPod, which will not play HD downloads. Yes, the X3 is thicker and clunkier than an iPod Touch and significantly more so than a Nano.
It does only one thing, which is play music. It requires decent headphones or ear buds, but it has a built-in amplifier, which means you can use pretty much any headphones, not just those designed for portable players. Memory is not a problem, as it is on iPods, since the X3 will accept a 64 GB micro SD card (the same as used for digital cameras and on Android phones). It can also be connected to a stereo.
The main thing, though, is that such sound has simply never been available at anything close to this price on any kind of player, let alone a portable one. Make of it what you will that this kind of audio innovation is coming from Asian upstarts like A&K and Fiio, and not from Silicon Valley.