- iPod + headphone amp
- Cowon iAudio without headphone amp
- maybe Creative if you find a player you really like
It depends on how much you want to spend.
For the absolute best sound you need to use an external headphone amp. This isn't for everyone. It can be very expensive and the amp needs its own batteries. Plus you have the inconvenience of carrying an additional device around.
To get the best out of a setup like this you need a player with a true lineout socket (unamplified by the player amp). The iPod and Creative Zen Vision:M both produce good clean signals from their lineout socket. You can use the headphone socket on the player, but this is not ideal.
If you are not using a headphone amp the iPod is not good quality. The internal headphone amp is quite poor. In this case Creative are much better.
For the best quality from a single player you can't go wrong with Cowon iAudio. They consistently produce the best sounding players, with great internal amplifiers. Many models are not so suitable for use with an external amp, as they have no dedicated linout socket.
I own an iAudio U3 2Gb and it is superb quality. The amp is very powerful (60mW), making it fantastic at driving quality headphones.
I also have an iAudio D2 4Gb on order. It takes 4Gb SD Cards, giving a total capacity of 8Gb. I have not heard it yet, but trust Cowon to get it right. The amp is even more powerful (72mW).
You will also want to consider the audio formats the player supports. The best quality mp3 is extremely close to the original cd and takes about 3Mb per minute in storage. Almost all players will support mp3 up to this quality.
Lossless formats take double the space (about 6Mb per minute) but are an EXACT copy of the original cd.
iPods supports ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). Most newer Cowon players support FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). I don't think Creative players support any lossless format.
I use a mixture of mp3 and FLAC for my favourity cds on my iAudio U3. You can really tell the difference with good headphones and I think it is worth sacrificing some space for the extra quality.
What is mp3 player(s) have the very best sound quality -- on the market now?
I've owned several iRiver products, and have been very happy with the sound. However, its time to upgrade - I want something with more storage space than my 1GB iRiver 899.
What would you recommend for a ultraportable mp3 player -- I prefer a model that has an equalizer and at least 4-10GB of storage.
Sound quality and ruggedness is my highest priority -- I don't care much about video/photo functions and all that.