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Now that our smartphones are able to stream or play just about any form of media, one might think that the days of the dedicated MP3 player are over. After all, the most popular one of all time, the iPod Classic, trotted quietly off into the sunset last year. But a few companies are doubling down, taking aim at the obsessively sound-conscious audiophiles out there with devices that cost twice — or ten times — as much as an iPod.
It's not just luxury looks, either: These devices feature high-end audio processors and support for ultra-high-quality music files. Think of them as 4K TVs for your ears.
Pono Player - $400
The brainchild of Neil Young and some enterprising audio engineers, the Pono Player was first seen in 2012. The quality of digital music, Young claimed, was shockingly bad — poorly mastered, and lacking in the nuances audible on CDs and records. The Pono Player would not only support high-definition audio tracks, but would launch in conjunction with a special store dedicated to that format.
The uniquely-shaped player finally appeared late in 2014, and while its playback quality has been praised, some question the high price of the audio downloads — which cost roughly twice what songs do elsewhere.
Sony TWZ2 - $1120
Last year, Sony decided that its flagship Walkman would no longer be a ubiquitous mass-market item, like its tape-playing 1979 namesake, but would instead be a juiced-up luxury device. The NW-ZX2, unveiled at CES in Las Vegas, is the next evolution of the ZX1: more handsome, more impressive — and more expensive.
The player's solid aluminum body resembles that of a high-end phone, and the ZX2 does run Android, but the similarities end there. Sony has modified the ZX2's software and hardware to provide superior sound for wired and wireless speakers, as well as headphones.
Astell&Kern AK240 - $2500
This new sub-brand from Korean device-maker iRiver has only existed for a couple years, but its products have already made an impression on audiophiles — and their wallets. Yet it's difficult not to be tempted by the AK240's gorgeous design, tactile controls, and laundry list of features like dual digital-to-audio converters, balanced-output headphone amplification, and the ability to use it as an external audio processor for your PC or other players.
The AK240 isn't even Astell&Kern's most expensive option — that would be the safe-like AK500N. Is great sound really worth $12,000? Be careful: if you give it a listen, you might start to think so.
--- Devin Coldewey