Note: Our best free PC media players round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in September 2009.
Media playback today may be largely about streaming from the cloud, listening and watching on a mobile device, but don't give up on the PC media player just yet – it still has its advantages.
Using a local player is a faster, more convenient way to manage local media, for example. You'll get wider file format support, a host of audio and video tweaks for the best quality playback, and – in many cases – hugely configurable interfaces to ensure everything looks and works exactly as you'd like.
Best of all, there's plenty of choice. Whether you're looking for a tiny audio player you can run from a USB stick, or a full-strength media player which can handle anything, keep reading – we have a freebie that's right for you.
VLC Media Player 2.2.1
VLC Media Player is a great open source product which succeeds on just about every level.
Don't care about the technicalities? No problem, the program plays just about everything you might throw at it, and the straightforward interface means everything you'll want to do is just a click or two away.
More demanding users will appreciate the tools to enhance their audio, optimise video, add or enable/disable subtitles, synchronise audio, and crop, zoom or change the aspect ratio of videos.
Useful bonus extras include the ability to set custom bookmarks to defined positions in your media files, so it's easy to return to those points later. We particularly like the tool for quickly converting a batch of audio or video files from one format to another – and there's plenty more to enthuse about, but we're out of space. Just go download this program immediately.
VLC Media Player is available on Windows XP or better, OS X, Android, iOS, Linux and Windows Phone.
SMPlayer is an open source package which uses MPlayer as its playing engine, but extends it with a stack of extras you won't often find elsewhere.
The program doesn't just play audio and video files, CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, internet radio and media streams, for instance. Add a free plugin and you can browse, search and play YouTube videos, too.
In a neat usability touch, SMPlayer remembers the key settings for everything you play (position, volume, audio track and more). Close the program, come back later, and everything is just as you left it.
The option to find and download subtitles is another plus, and of course there's a host of ways to fine-tune every aspect of your audio and video playback, but all this functionality is never overwhelming. The well-designed interface ensures it's always easy to use.
SMPlayer 15.9 is available on Windows XP or better and Linux.
While it's free to use, KMPlayer has more of a commercial flavour than some of the competition. The setup routine will by default install various extra programs, for instance (though we found they can be avoided if you're careful), and the player area displays ads when it's first loaded.
Still, if you can live with that, KMPlayer is a solid tool which can handle a vast range of media types (probably thanks to its use of the FFMPEG engine), and provides enormous control over every aspect of your playback.
Add its excellent subtitles support, capture tools and 3D playback and there's a lot to like here. Just watch closely for the adware during installation.
KMPlayer 22.214.171.124 is available on Windows XP or better, Android and iOS.
Foobar2000's default interface is plain and a little dull, but functional enough. Drag and drop in your audio files (there's support for just about every format), maybe browse your library, import some playlists, then sit back and listen.
The program gets much more interesting when you start to explore. The interface is completely customisable, there are lots of advanced tagging tools, flexible conversion options (once you've installed a few free extras), some interesting plugins, and an expert-level scripting system which gives you low-level control over almost everything.
As you've probably guessed, foobar2000 isn't for novices, but if you want an audio player that works just as you'd like, it's hard to beat.
Foobar2000 1.3.9 is available on Windows XP or better.
GOM Media Player 2.2.74
The good news: GOM Media Player's engine handles most media types, offers plenty of playback control, can open YouTube URLs, and can be controlled by gestures on touchscreen systems. Picture and sound quality are great, too.
The not-so-good news – the ads. The large one disappears when you open something, but there's also a text link on the playback bar, and if you ever click it, a browser window opens to push the latest GOM project.
This isn't as bad as some of the competition – there's no adware in the installer, for instance – and there's enough power here to make GOM Media Player interesting. But we'd recommend you try an ad-free competitor like VLC Media Player, first off.
GOM Media Player 2.2.74 is available on Windows XP-8.1, Android and iOS.
Media Player Classic - Home Cinema 1.7.10
The core of Media Player Classic – Home Cinema has been around for more than 10 years, but regular updates mean it still opens audio and video files in all the main formats (and a codec pack or two will set you up for everything else).
The program still doesn't have anything like the extras you'll often find elsewhere. There's no YouTube browser here, no lengthy list of special effects to apply – it's mostly about delivering simple, hassle-free playback whenever you need it.
Media Player Classic – Home Cinema does stand out in some areas, though, particularly for its customisations. Would you like the program to remember its last window position, snap to your desktop edges, maybe use some different hotkeys for primary tasks? Open the Options dialog and tweak away.
It may not be for the most demanding of users, but Media Player Classic – Home Cinema is also lightweight, easy to use and entirely ad-free, and that's more than good enough for us.
Media Player Classic – Home Cinema 1.7.10 is available on Windows XP or better.
XMPlay may be a tiny sub-400KB download, but 18 years of development have given it plenty of audio playing power: automatic gain control, reverb, 9-band equaliser, web streaming, simple library management with directory monitoring, Explorer integration and a lot of customisations and tweaks.
Native format support is weaker than the best of the rest, but free plugins fill many of the gaps (FLAC, AAC, AC3, Opus, and more).
There are also lots of varied skins, and a kit to make your own, as well as the ability to use Winamp visual plugins with XMPlay (if you install another free plugin).
Other audio players still have more power, but XMPlay is a likeable, lightweight package which just might do everything you'll ever need.
XMPlay 3.8.2 is available on Windows.
It's not easy to produce a media player that appeals to everyone – but PotPlayer does better than most.
Installation is quick and easy, with no annoying adware. Getting started is as simple as dragging and dropping your media. PotPlayer will handle pretty much anything, almost whatever the format, with the minimum of impact on your system resources.
A control panel with audio, video, subtitles and playback settings gives you more scope for fine-tuning. It's nicely designed, with plenty of power, but easier to use than the VLC version.
Bonus features include Dailymotion and Viki integration, and geeks will appreciate the low-level control over every aspect of playback and PotPlayer's operations.
Put it all together and this is one impressive package. Give it a try.
PotPlayer 1.6.57875 is available on Windows XP or better.
5KPlayer is probably the simplest media player here, with support for discs and the main audio and video file types only.
This does mean that it's very easy to use. There's no ploughing through nested menus of 50+ filters to find the effects you need, for example, because 5KPlayer's "Video Tuner" has only four: contrast, brightness, gamma and saturation.
The value here is really in the surprise extras, including a video downloader, which can grab and convert clips from 300+ video sharing sites. And the built-in AirPlay sender/ receiver to stream and mirror audio and video from iPhones, iPads, and others, to Apple TV, AirPlay speakers and more. (Big catch with the latter – it doesn't work with iOS 9 yet).
The core player is a little too weak for us, but if you can use the downloader and AirPlay support then 5KPlayer may be worth a look.
5KPlayer 3.3 is available on Windows XP or better and OS X.
AIMP is a comprehensive audio player which crams in just about every function and feature you'll need: wide file format support, an 18-band equaliser, lots of audio effects, a capable library manager, tag editing, audio conversion, and even a scheduler to use the program as an alarm clock.
If that's not enough, you can extend the program with new icons, wallpapers and skins, while plugins add all kinds of extras including new visualisations, more import options, remote control tools, even YouTube and SoundCloud support.
AIMP's interface isn't always clear and it takes a while to discover how everything works, but if you're willing to invest some time and effort then you'll find plenty here to enjoy.
AIMP 4.0 is available on Windows XP or better.
- Also check out: 7 of the best free video converters