During the past couple of months I've reviewed quite a few portable audio devices. Some portable DACs and amps were very small while others were not. My question is simple - is there an ideal size/weight for a portable music playback device?
Judging solely by smartphones and portable pads the best size is the largest one. Since these components all have a display and most of their functions revolve around the display, I can understand "larger is better" since bigger screens provide a more immersive experience than small ones. But at some point the size and weight of pads and phones starts to equal or surpass the size of a small notebook computer - then you have to wonder if they have exceeded their ideal size and weight.
With portable DAC/Headphone amplifiers I've seen everything from thumb-drive-sized components to units that weigh close to a 1 lb. My position on portable gear has always been, "lighter is better." As any traveler knows, every ounce you eliminate makes a trip more pleasant, but some kind of music-making device is pretty much a must-have for tolerable travel. If your principal portable music playback is you smartphone, in essence your music playback device weighs nothing extra since it's merely an added feature on your phone. But most of us audiophiles need something with better sound quality than stock smartphone.
You can easily add a DAC/headphone amplifier to a smartphone to increase its fidelity. Again, some are quite compact and quite a few are designed with a footprint that's no larger than a smartphone. With some DAC/headphone amps, such as the FIIO E-18 the complete package is still small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, but most DAC/headphone amps add enough bulk and weight that the combination no longer fits into any pocket. For many travelers this alone may be too much added size and weight.
An elegant, but expensive route is to excellent portable music reproduction is to add a combination player/DAC/headphone amplifier like one of the Astell & Kern, HiFiMan, Colorfly, or iBasso players to your travel kit. The advantage over a smartphone/DAC combo is the smaller footprint that can easily fit into your pocket and the potential to be able to carry a much larger music library than a smartphone.
Personally, if I can't fit my portable player/DAC/headphone amplifier into the breast pocket of my sport shirt, it's too big for me to consider as part of my travel rig. When I went to Axpona last month I chose a Astell & Kern AK240 (review to come in Home Theater Review very soon) over an iPod Classic/Sony PHA-2 combination because the Astell & Kern weighed much less and was substantially smaller and lighter than the iPod/Sony combo.
For my travel needs my music playback system must fit into the front pocket of one of my travel shirts to be viable. And while for some travelers weight and bulk are not an issue, for me anything that's heavier than eight ounces is a non-starter.
What's the heaviest/largest music playback device in your travel bag?