Nov 23

For me the number one criteria for buying an iPod is audio quality. Some people will go for looks, size, or battery life, but for me it’s simply a matter of which iPod sounds the best – not just through the headphones but also into my stereo.

This article discusses the reasons for the difference in quality of the sound output of the various models of iPods and iPhones, which iPod sounds the best, and why.

Firstly, The Results:

First place goes to the 5.5th Gen Enhanced iPod.

(Be careful not to confuse this with the 6th generation ipod called Apple iPod ‘Classic’ which looks almost identical. The 6th Gen has the aluminium front.)

First place: the 5th Gen ipod family including ipod 5th gen and 5th gen enhanced with plastic front case. A1136


Second place goes to the good old 4th Generation iPod family including iPod photo, iPod colour and U2 edition iPod.

Second place: The 4th Gen ipod family including ipod photo, ipod color and ipod U2 edition. A1059 and A1099.

Third place for best audio quality – the first generation Nano!

Third place: the 1st generation nano! A1137


STOP PRESS: Since this article the 7G Classic has been released and some  people prefer the 7G ipod to the 5.5. There’s a great debate about the 5.5G vs 7G here and here. It seems the 7G is more accurate and precise, 5.5 is warmer. But read on!


Which iPod sounds the best?

Last holidays I was driving along listening to U2 on my iPhone 3GS. I wanted to change to a different song that was on my nano and instantly I noticed the sound quality was much better than on the iPhone. I have since done some side-by-side tests using the same song on the iPhone 3GS and the iPod nano and the iPod Nano definitely has better quality audio. It clearly has a better bass response and is not so harsh in the high-end. So not all iPods are same, this got me wondering why.

There are two main things that contribute to the sound quality of an ipod. One is the audio chip that is used, the  other are the components along the audio path from the audio chip to the headphone jack – a mixture of op-amps, capacitors, resistors and inductors.

The iPods I like the best seem to be those that use the Audio chips from the Scottish company Wolfson.  When I detected this difference I didn’t not know what a Wolfson chip was, but I could hear a difference and so I did some research. It turns out my Nano and 4G iPod (which I like) both have a Wolfson – the iPhone 3Gs does not.  All listening tests are personal – some people like huge bass, some like a warmth. I like clarity. I like to feel like I am there. I am also sensitive to any slight increase in the midrange or treble that will make the music sound  harsh – especially over long periods, and I like to hear the very low bass, I’m not a bass head who wants it loud, but I want it to be there.

Cirrus iPod vs Wolfson

Some people claim the Cirrus Audio Chips are better, but that’s not what I hear. Here is a great article by  Marc Heijligers  [Sadly this great article has been removed and I can’t find it anywhere. It was a technical article explaining the decrease in sound quality with the 6th Gen iPod. The article was also quoted here. Marc’s homepage is here.]   Here is a quote from the article:

“I noticed that the 6G sounds precise, crisp, but lacks 3D image and has an electronic haze to the sound. At first, this might sound like an improvement (crisp, detailed), but when listening more carefully and for longer times, it becomes fatiguing after a while. The 5G sounds less precise, but its timbre contains more harmonic information and sounds less electronic. For me, the 5G is closer to how I experience acoustic music in real life, and for me is the better sounding device overall.”

He then goes on to do some measurements to back up his findings.

Of all the iPods that use the wolfson chips, the 5th generation iPods appear to be the best, followed by the 4th Generation iPods. Check out these comments by Vinne from Red Wine Audio. Red Wine Audio offer mods of the 4th gen and 5th gen iPods where they will replace the output section of the iPod with high quality Black Gate NX-Hi-Q capacitors. According to the output audio quality rivals that of $1500 CD-players, with improved bass response and clear high end.  (There is an excellent forum here on how to do the mod yourself!)

The sound quality of course depends on more than just the chip that is used, so it’s not just about which chip is in the iPod. My Shuffle model A1204 (non-wolfson) sounds great, as does the iPhone 4S.  It’s rumoured  that with the iPhone 5 Apple will be returning to the Wolfson chips, but we’ll see! (Note: The iPhone 5 has been released and they didn’t!)

If you want the best possible audio quality, try and get hold of one of the fifth generation iPods – model number A1136.  This includes the iPod 5G, iPod U2 5G, iPod 5th Gen enhanced and iPod 5th Gen with video.

The 5.5th Gen ‘Enhanced’ is hart to spot as it has exactly the same model number as the 5th Gen iPod. (A1136). The way to tell the ‘Enhanced’ apart is that it has a ‘Search’ option in the software.

This is what I have – they sound great!

The only thing better than that is to get a 4G or 5G modded with the Red Wine Mod!

Generally, the best iPods are those with a Wolfson audio chip


This article was first written in 2010, Apple keeps improving with every iPod released, but I think these results still stand.   Check out this thread for some other raves about the 5.5G iPod compared to the later models.  There will always be new models coming out – keep an eye on head-fi forums and so on for reviews.  Here some people are saying they prefer 7th gen Classic  to 5.5th Gen.

I have an iPhone 4S and even though it doesn’t have a Wolfson chip it sounds incredible.

This test shows iPhone 4S has better specs the  iPod Classic 6G and better than iPad 2, but I can’t’ find any direct comparison with the 5.5G iPod.

Some Measurements:

f response
iPod 5G
+0.02 -0.1
iPhone 4
iPhone 4S
Nano 6g
+0.56 -1.51
Classic 160G
+1.22, -3.04


Which iPods have a Wolfson audio chip?

iPod 1G & 2G (WM8721), 3G (WM8731),  4G(WM8975),  5G  (WM87588G) and 5.5G (WM87588G)

iPod nano 1G (WM8975G), 2G (WM8975), 3G (WM1870)

iPod Touch 1G (WM8758BG

iPod mini (Wolfson 8731?)

iPhone (WM8758BG) and the iPhone 3G (WM6180).

In summary, all the early iPods up to 5G Classic used Wolfson chips.


Wolfson chip in an iPhone


Which iPods have a Cirrus Audio Chip?

ipod ‘Classic’ 1G , 2G & 3G  (CS42L55(These are also known as 6th 7th and 8th gen iPod)

ipod nano 4G (CS42L58), 5G (CLI1480A), 6G (CLI1544C0)

iPod Touch 2G (possibly CS42L58)

iPhone 3GS (CS41L61) and 4(338S0589), 4S (338S0987)

iPod Shuffle 4th Gen (CLI1544C0)



Other notes on DAC chips: 

Headphiles is compiling a list of the various DAC’s used in various devices here.

Cambridge Audio and Harman Kardon use Wolfson DAC chips in their CD players. Pioneer, NAD and Onkyo use wolfson in some of their CD players. Marantz use Cirrus Range. It’s not just about the chip – the other audio components will make a difference too.




If you are after good audio in an iPod the older ones are the best. (especially the 4th and 5.5th Gen classic era)

The Best iPods:

iPod 5.5G Enhanced (wolfson WM8758)

iPod 5G (wolfson WM8758)

iPod 4G (wolfson WM8975)

iPod nano 1G and 2G (wolfson 8975).

(iPod Classic 7G might fit in here, see discussion here.)



144 Responses to “Which iPod has the best quality audio?”

  1. Michael says:

    I’ve also managed to snap a photo of the Wolfson WM8711LG, taken from an iPod mini (2nd Generation) Logic Board.

  2. Sovon Halder says:

    I am terribly confused with the iPod models. In wikipedia [] they claims that there are 6 iPods in the Classic category & in this thread the author have mentioned that there are iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G & 5.5G which aren’t from ‘Classic’ series. ‘Classic’ series starts from here iPod ‘Classic’ 1g( and known as iPod 6G ). But in google I found everywhere that 5.5G Ipod is often called iPod Classic 5.5G (same model, picture wise). So are models from 1G iPod to 5.5G iPod called Classic iPod ?

    • Wayne says:

      I think classic just means that original iPod shape so yes 1g, 2g etc. The 6g has the original shape AND Apple have actually named it classic.

  3. Giuseppe says:

    I’ve always felt that my 5.5G iPod had an excellent sound quality; and since it can easily be modded to play practically every important type of audio format and with 80GB is still very roomy, I’ve never felt the need to look elsewhere.

  4. rolph says:

    hey i was planning to buy a new i pod i m confused b/w nano 8 gb 6th generation and shuffle 4th gen.
    please help!
    are their any suggestions other then these two?

  5. yof says:

    This is awesome information and what exactly I need.

    I’m still wondering about if I should use a dac from line out or audio aux out for my iPhone 4? I’m thinking of getting the ODac by nwavguy for line out. or should I stick to audio?

  6. ken1w says:

    Of all the iPods and iPhone I have owned, the one that provides amazingly good sound quality is the first white iPod shuffle (with the USB plug). By comparison, the 2nd gen “clip-on” iPod shuffle REALLY sucks.

    I also think the 3rd gen iPod (with orange glowing buttons) has great sound. It is distinctly “richer” to my ears, compared to the 4th gen iPod. Too bad its battery was of poor quality. I don’t own a 5th gen (or later) “big” iPod.

    • Antron says:

      I second that. The 1st Gen Shuffle is the best iPod, imho. I even dare to say it comes quite close to my Cowon.

  7. Damien L says:

    Hi author,
    I don’t know if you want to add this or not but the Samsung Galaxy S3 has a Wolfson WM1811 DAC in it and has gotten very good reviews on the sound quality.

  8. VW says:

    Any chance iPod touch 5G will be added to the test?

  9. PAolo says:

    Just will add,

    Fw 1.2.1 on my ipod 5G is amazing. The last of the firmware’s in that series (fw 1.3? not sure) is horrible with a terrible equalisation and poor soundstage and bass.

    So do downgrade to 1.2.1 it’s amazing…
    My Galaxy S is very very close to the Ipod5G but still lacks a little top end warmth and magic.

  10. David W. says:

    Having read the discussion on 4th – 5.5th Gen iPods I get the sense that purchasing one of these may still give me a non Wolfson Audio Chip. If this is correct, is there some other way to be sure I’m getting the optimum audio chip when purchasing a 5.5 generation classic through eBay? Thanks in advance for any feedback.

  11. David W. says:

    Thanks for the feedback. If buying through Ebay for instance, how do I make sure I’m buying a 5.5 generation and not a 6th. This obviously assumes the seller has advertised it as a 5.5 but either doesn’t know or … I assume the worst and hope for the best.

    • Guillermo S says:

      I have purchased a number of 5th Gen iPods from eBay. There are 2 key ways to make sure your buying a 5th Gen and not a 6th (and believe me when I say that a lot of people who sell them don’t know the difference) 1) The 5th Gen has a clear, plastic front to it. Its a solid color in front with a clear plastic “shell” that’s about 1mm think. It drops off suddenly at the edges. While the 6th has a brushed aluminum front that tapers at the edges when it meets with the body. This type reflect almost zero light. 2) This is probably the easiest method: The 6th Gen iPods have a split screen showing the album art and other information to the right. While the 5th Gen has a very basic screen with no split and only text in the menus… Hopes this helps anyone who reads.

  12. Alejandro says:

    I just compared the ipod classic 4th generation Photo with its previous 4th generation B&W screen and the difference is huge, the B&W is far better, the audio is crisp and natural, but PHOTO is not as good, I think you should make a diference Between this products.

  13. Pamela Brown says:

    I just purchased the newest Ipod Touch and was absolutely horrified at the sound quality. I tweaked what few things there were and put the volume up as high as I could and it was still awful. Then I compared the same song to my 1st gen Nano and got really angry. This article puts it all in perspective. Guess I need to exchange this for one with a Wolfson chip. :-0

  14. thing50 says:

    With the ipod touch 5th Gen there are apps that will ‘enhance’ the audio quality. I tried two of them the first one being ‘My tunes pro’…I found it to have a good expansive sound although the audio feels a little forced and in your face its a big sound…also it had to update the music library ( I have over 3000 songs) which took time and I just wanted a quick music fix so I tried another one which was ‘Sonicmax pro’ which uses the BBE enhancement, I found this one to be more clinical and a truer sound whilst the sound stage was not so large it was the more natural option of the two, and it had the plus of starting straight away unlike the ‘my tunes pro’ which started getting more and more frustrating…well I now just use the Sonicmax pro and its a big improvement over the basic sound of the ipod touch 5th gen.

  15. JmBa says:

    I have to disagree with the author regarding the 3gs, I’m in love with the sound compared to a previously owned 4s. If you look that up I’m not the only one who says it.

  16. Mic says:

    I got miself iPod nano 3th gen after reading this article, I’m listening to music on my HD 595 from Alack files. I must admit that they sound great! Its a perfect match in my opinion. Maybe the soundstage is not that wide but its deep. Everything else is perfect. I also have Sony xperia Z smartphone and the sound of it is just horrible! While its a great phone its a horrible music player. Ipod beats it by 10 times. I got it very cheap and its only 4 gb so my next one will be 5 gen classic.

  17. Ricky says:

    So what has the best sound out of all the iPod shuffles? Since they’re hardly mentioned in the article, even the best one – what’s it like compared to an iPhone 4? Is the bass as good or no where near compare to the iPhone 4? I was thinking to get the iPod shuffle 3rd gen what chip has this got? Has got good bass compare to the iPhone 4?

  18. weejoe says:

    Being from Scotland and also being a huge apple fan I am extremely proud that our country helped in the design of the worlds most incredible machines, hardly surprising as we in Scotland make the best stereos, you may never have heard of them as only very few can afford one – Linn stereos – see here – ( I come from the same village (Blackburn) as SuBo – see here – ( and now live in the next village where the man who found the anaesthetic qualities in Chloroform inventor James Young Simpson – see here- (

    Infact if you have time, have a look and see the things we either helped invent or invented because we’re such a great wee country, just wish we’d done the iPod/phone/pad/Mac lol, \m/

    Peace weeJoe

  19. Shawn71 says:

    what is the DAC used in Ipod Shuffle 2G (1GB model)?

    • thomas says:

      the ipod shuffle 1st gen use SigmaTel audio chip.

      it has a very good sound quality it feels like there is a cool breeze sound not hot or warm…

      and has excellent rich of bass

      that kind of sound that i never forget

  20. Lance says:

    The Touch 4G is terrible compared to the 2G.

  21. Marsh says:

    I began to wonder about the differences three years ago, when I first connected an iPod video generation 5 to my stereo. Prior, I had just accepted that mobile audio players sounded like dried sandpaper. However, I was loaned an iPod video with a white plastic face and broken screen, and I heard a sound that really grabbed my attention. I used a new set of Monster Cables ipod 3.5mm jack to gold plated machined RCA plugs. I pressed the play button and when the music began, it had great bass, defined midrange and none of the sandpaper that my iPod Touch Gen 2 had. Stereo separation was excellent. This was better in every department than the muddy and colored sounding Meridian 598 DVD player, the bland Monarchy DAC, or dry and grating-steel as the Marantz CD-65II. I wasn’t even this impressed with the Rega Saturn. I did hear sound as good or better from a Denon 4308CI, but nothing else in this price bracket. What confounds me is why Apple would take a good sounding design like the Gen 5 iPod video and do away with it all.

  22. simon says:

    I have bougth several ipod video 5.5 and modified them (for the fun of it ipod 5.5 are so easy to modify) : replaced battery and replaced the hard drive with a tarkan board, compact flash adapter –> sd 128gb.
    Tried with ssd but the cheapest and better response is the tarkan modification.
    No more hard disk failure,
    I also just bougth a brand new sealed ipod touch 1st gen.
    my choices:

    1.ipod video 5.5 & ipod touch (they sound similar through line out)
    2 .ipod touch’s (2,3,4)
    Z. cowon: j3 and z2 poor reliability, not even able to play gapless with big files awful players

    The only mod i didn’t try yet is: bypassing apple caps with audiophile caps. (called the IMOD)

    there’s a big fuss around the Imod….: “it’s good/great but….”

    All my tests are done with a marantz class b (from the 70’S) amp with axiom speakers.(i bought that kit from a friend and the friend had taste because it sounds like heaven to my hears jazz,funk,pop, even ray charles !!!)

    When you buy a refurb ipod 5 or 5.5 they don’t change the wolfson chip: they simply replace the main board if needed.


    there’s always the posibility to match your ipod touch(if you don’t like it), with a “digital extractor”, that extracts audio from the ipod in a numerical way (no ipod sound involved) … cambridge audio does it (as example), the remaining thing is hook it to a sound system that has digital input (optical or spdif), usually home cinema has one of them…

  23. Herby says:

    There is definitely a sound difference. Bought a 7G and sold it soon after. There is a 3D / natural harmonic and realistic sound with the 5.5G. Its sounds like how I heard the songs back when they were released. I found my 5.5g better than my 5g as well for interest.

  24. gian says:

    hello wayne, im terribly late in this conversation but i’d like to know what firmware you use in your ipod 5.5g. is it the latest apple firmware 1.3? or 1.2.1 as mentioned in a comment above? or is it something else? what would you recommend? thanks for your help!

  25. Summs says:

    The other main benefit of the 5 gen is that it can be flashed with the Rockbox firmware which is awesome and improves the sound further as well as being able to play lossless format and allows drag and drop etc. All the things Apple won’t let you do
    its also free!
    This would negate the whole issue of Apple firmware.
    It does not damage the ipod and can be reversed, who would though! since it kicks ass

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