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.

The Best iPods

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 Generation 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 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. Now keep in mind that the 1st Generation Nano also has flash memory instead of a hard drive, which makes it a great contender for the best overall second hand iPod. In fact the price of these iPods has been rising over the years and you will do well if you can find one for under $150 second hand!

Third place: the 1st generation nano! A1137

 

Why I wrote this article.

Back in 2010 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 on the iPod nano than on the more expensive 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. I have done some investigation, and some side by side tests, and there is a lot of difference between the various iPods.

Keep in mind that  listening tests are personal – some people like huge bass, some like a warmth. So some people will prefer to listen to something that technically is less quality audio, but has huge bass.

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.  So I am talking about purity of sound in this article.

Why is there a difference?

1. The Audio Chip that is used –  Cirrus iPod vs Wolfson

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 that my two favourite iPods – my Nano and my 4th Gen iPod  both have a Wolfson chip in them. The iPhone 3Gs does not.

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.

2. Other components.

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

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 onheadphones.com 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!)

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. I have one – it sounds 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

iPod Classic vs iPod 5th Gen

Here is a great article by  Marc Heijligers examining the iPod Classic against the iPod 5th Generation.  [Thanks to Clive who has found this archived copy of this article.] The article was also quoted here. Marc’s homepage is here. I have made a pdf copy of it here in case it goes missing again.  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.

This was his conclusion:

“From these measurements it is obvious that the new audio circuit of the iPod Classic is badly engineered compared to the iPod Video: 
– Treble has a slight uplift. 
– The group delay is not linear over the frequency range. 
– There is significant intermodulation distortion with a 22.1kHz component. 

The measurements show a correlation with the things I hear, but from a pure scientific perspective the cause-consequence is not determined by these measurements. The measurements show some flawed behavior of the audio circuitry, which so-far is the only thing that can be concluded without any doubt. 

Overall, the 6G overall sound performance is disappointing to me, especially considering the well-sounding 5G. Does it mean you shouldn’t buy an iPod 6G? The way the change of sound quality is perceived will vary per individual. Therefore I recommend you to judge the 6G individually, and don’t let ourself be guided by my opinion, or some measurement graphs.”

iPhones

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:

model
f response
noise
THD
source
iPod 5G
+0.02 -0.1
-94.3
0.0034
http://yuriv.home.gate.net/RMAATests/iPod%20vs%20dock.htm
iPhone 4
+0.26,-0.80
-89.1
0.0069
http://www.markuskraus.com/RMAA/iPhone4/data.htm
iPhone 4S
+0.47,-1.31
-89.0
0.0099
http://www.markuskraus.com/RMAA/iphone4s/data.htm
Nano 6g
+0.56 -1.51
-89.8
0.014
http://www.markuskraus.com/RMAA/Nano6G/data.htm
Classic 160G
+1.22, -3.04
-82.6
0.033
http://www.markuskraus.com/RMAA/classic/data.htm

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.

http://www.lampizator.eu/lampizator/REFERENCES/Cambridge%20Azur/Cambridge%20Audio%20Azur%20640C%20ALmpizator.html

http://www.polkaudio.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-100139.html

http://www.vasiltech.nm.ru/files/cd-players/CD-Player-DAC-Transport.htm

Updates

This article was first written in 2010, and Apple keeps improving the audio quality 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.

2011:Recently the 7th Generation Classic has been released and some  people prefer the 7 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, however the 5.5 feels warmer.

2011: It’s rumoured  that with the iPhone 5 Apple will be returning to the Wolfson chips, but we’ll see! (Note: The iPhone 5 was been released and they didn’t, same for iPhone 6).

2012: Apple have released a lightning to 30 pin dock adapter and it has a wolfson chip in it. (The Wolfson WM8533 DAC). So there’s a way to get a wolfson in your iPhone 5.

2015: Apple have released iPhone 6, no wolfson but you can still use the lightning to 30 pin dock adapter.

Conclusion

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.)

 

 

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

  1. Steve says:

    I’ve taken the advice I read here and bought myself a pre owned iPod 5th gen classic. After suffering both my old iPhone4 and now my iPhone5s I cannot believe how three dimensional the music sounds and far better stereo imaging. I can now listen for hours on end unlike previously when 5 or 10 mins were all my ears could cope with. The operation is a little clunky, the hard drive doing it’s stuff and the screen resolution is a shocker after using the iPhone but I’m happy. Lets hope the device isn’t too worn and dies on me as I’ll be lost without it!

  2. moe says:

    Ive been honestly searching for a solution for my car’s needs. I installed a high quality JBL system powered by two alpine amps and an alpine head unit.

    Ive been on the HUNT to finding a better quality portable audio device that would crush the sound output of my Ipod Touch 7th gen!

    Thanks to this website i was lucky enough to find a 5th gen Ipod classic and boy, the sound difference in my car!!

    Thanks for all the info!! :D

  3. Theo says:

    Great article, and thanks for it. Can you, or someone else, explain why the 5.5 would have better audio than the 5, given that they both have the same DAC chip?

  4. Tim Davenport says:

    Is all this testing based on output from the Headphone Jack?
    This means that internal D/A and headphone amp are evaluated. What I want is a separate external D/A convertor with audiophile quality circuits and a line out RCA jacks that feed into a stereo amplifier. Does such a thing exist for Gen 5?

    • Wayne says:

      Correct – this is all based on a stock standard iPod output, although the tests are using the line-out from an iPod dock which is far better quality than the headphone output. There are many external D/A circuits to do what you describe, just google ‘D/A converter lightning’ or ‘D/A converter iPod dock’ or something like that. Once you use an external D/A the model of iPod makes no difference at all – it’s only being used as a storage device.

      Or check out http://www.head-fi.org they have some god reviews.

  5. Farabby says:

    I already try & i prefer iPod touch 1st gen, bcs have wifi for video/email/etc. All iPod/Nano with wolfson is good I think. But I heard iPod touch series have competitor 1st gen vs 3rd gen both most have good audio quality, is that true?

  6. Timotius Dana says:

    how about the SQ between ipod 5.5th gen vs ipod touch 1st gen? both of them use same wolfson chip

  7. Charles henry says:

    Thanks, your article helped me comparing my ipod classics.

  8. Eddie says:

    I read your column and acquired s 5.5 iPod and compared my music between my new iPhone 6 plus and Yes the iPod 5.5 just simply sounds like it has more music when it plays . The iPhone 6 sounds clear nice but doesn’t have the “meat ” of the iPod thanks

  9. Valentin says:

    wait a sec… I don’t understand what is ipod 1G 2G 3G…

    Is it different from “classic” 1G 2G 3G?
    Does anyone know the truth?

  10. Nathan Isaac says:

    Thanks for this. I brought out my old school iPod shuffle first get and went to use it, but I noticed it sounded terrible compared to my iPhone 5. I wasn’t able to listen to it. This would explain as to why

    • Jacob Salazar says:

      Those 1st gen iPod shuffles (despite what this website says) are actually supposed to be some of the best sounding iPods Apple ever made!

  11. Zach says:

    how an ipod nano 7th compares to the previous nanos & ipod touch?

  12. Geryon says:

    All iPods have really bad sound quality and no bass. What little it does have is distorted and clips. Even a low grade sony minidisc player has better sound despite having low quality ATRAC coding.

    That said the software interface for organising the music is good. iTunes is horse shit though.

  13. Al.M says:

    I was loaned an Ipod Classic 5th gen 2 years ago with CD material recorded at the highest rates on itune settings and was surprised how good it was and have been convinced ever since. My audio system is quite hi-end and the differences can be heard among sources. Compared to my Meridian 506 20 bit CD player using the same material it is about 80-90% as good. The CD player has more depth and imediacy but given that 80% of my song collection is now on the ipod vs 20% in CDs the convenience factor far outways using the CD player and you can take this anywhere with you. Using the LOD connector on the ipod makes about 30% improvement. The difference vs CD quality can be improved by selecting amps and speakers that suit the ipod sound such as using electrostatic speakers and valve amps etc, although that requires more expense and effort of course.

  14. hidehide says:

    Apple has recently released a lightning universal dock, is there any information on what DAC it uses? I found listening through the dock is much better than from the iPhone/macbook..

    • Wayne says:

      I’ve been searching and can’t find any specs. I emailed Apple and no reply. I’m not sure if it’s a line-out or a headphone out.

  15. Baz says:

    The Ipod Classic Gen 5, 5.5 & Ipod touch 1st Gen all use the same Wofson Chip (The WM8758BG).

    Please Correct the page details…

    So, why isn’t the Ipod Touch 1st Gen regarded in terms of the same sound quality as the Gen 5 & 5.5?

    • Wayne says:

      I thought there was a WM8758BG and a WM87588G? I may be wrong.

      iPod tough is still very nice audio. But there are other components in the audio path apart form just the DAC chip, that’s why for example 5.5th gen is slightly nicer than 5th gen even though they have the same chip.

      • Baz says:

        The links to the pictures of the gen 5, the gen 5.5 & the ipod touch 1st gen show the same Wolfson Chip. (WM8758BG).

        I have the ipod Touch 1st gen. It has a great,wide sound stage.
        I wish it was a little bit warmer sounding. Even with a LOD cable attached, & using a Fiio E12 amp. I still find it bright. I wonder if there is the same issue with the Gen 5, & Gen 5.5?

  16. Bazzy says:

    Cowon D2. That’s all I have to say.

  17. Vai sebastian says:

    thanks brother, this article so helpfuly.

  18. Paul says:

    I have a 5.5 Gen iPod in White that I’m looking into selling. Anyone interested?

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