Nov 23

Why is there a difference in iPod audio Quality?

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. This is the chip that converts the digital data into the actual sound. It is called a Digital to Analog converter or DAC. The other is the combination of 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 definitely hear a difference and so I did some research. It turns out that my two favourite iPods that i owned at the time of first discovering this – the Nano and my 4th Gen iPod –  both had a Wolfson chip in them. The iPhone 3Gs did 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 first gen and also the second gen model A1204 (non-wolfson) sounds great, as does the iPhone 4S.  [I have since been informed that the 1st Gen Shuffle uses a ‘SigmaTel’ audio chip that has outstanding audio quality. I have not confirmed this.]

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 hard to spot because  it has exactly the same model number as the 5th Gen iPod. (A1136). The only way to tell the ‘Enhanced’ apart is that it has a ‘Search’ option in the software. (See here for more details).

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 after the original one disappeared.] 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 the  iPad 2, but I can’t’ find any direct comparison between the iPhone 4S and 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:

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 the Cirrus Range. So 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 which has a wolfs chip in it.

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.)

 

SOME CORRECTIONS I HAVE MADE TO THE ABOVE ARTICLE:

“The iPod Nano 2G uses the Wolfson DAC. It is the iPod Nano 3G to 6G that uses a different DAC.”  by ArtMuzz here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/580987/has-ipod-changed-their-sound-chips-cards-from-generation-to-generation

“In the case of the 1st gen iPod Shuffle, it was a SigmaTel audio chip.” also from here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/580987/has-ipod-changed-their-sound-chips-cards-from-generation-to-generation

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

  1. Jeb says:

    I just knew my nano sounded better than her phone. Now I can rub it in her face and tell her why. thanks mang

  2. Matt says:

    So I am thinking about upgrading either my iPod 4g (60gb) or my iPod 5.5g (80gb). Obviously with the 5.5g I have a newer iPod with a larger capacity and a better screen, but the Red Wine site says that to upgrade the 5 or 5.5g it will require an additional cable from ALO Audio which runs an additional $195. So for the same $250 upgrade, I can get my 4g ready to rock right away, or I have to spend another $195 to get my 5.5g up to snuff. Since, as you said, the 4g is a close second, is the 5g really worth spending an additional $195 better?

    • admin says:

      The 4G is much easier to do the mod to because it has room inside for the capacitors. I’m not sure if there’s any discernible difference, might depend on the rest of your setup – see the red wine forums.

  3. Matt says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I really am leaning towards the 4g, even though it is 20gb smaller and older, simply because it’ll be ready right out of the box, rather than having to spend another $200 before I can start enjoying it.

  4. Steve says:

    Hold on a bit, I have it on good authority that a home based imod option will be available in the new year.
    The guy undertaking the project is an electrical engineer and already produce,s portable headphone amps.
    I quote “a piece of cake ” and “he charges how much”, it will be far cheaper and he is working on the project over the Christmas period.

    Steve.

  5. Gaz says:

    here is question. im currently listening music by using my iPad and i noticed the audio quality with iPad is much better than any devices out there even better than sony.. what do you think about that? does iPad has special chipset?

    • admin says:

      Even the worst ipods have better sound than most of the competition, so yes likely the ipad sounds better but what Sony device are you comparing it with?

      • Gren says:

        I have an Ipod touch.

        Ipad

        Ipad2 and a macbook pro all with excellent sound, but none hold a candle to my 18 month old Sony Walkman sound quality better by a mile, just a pain to sync.

  6. admin says:

    ipad 2 does not have wolfson audio chips

    http://nokiainside.com/?p=1821

  7. Jason says:

    I have an iPod 6g (80 GB) and while the Cirrus Logic chip in it is very good, I think the sound output is a little lifeless compared to my iPod nano 1g (2gb). My nano 1g needs a lot of repair; new screen/battery/front-back faceplate and headphone jack, as sound output isn’t as clean as I remember. I noticed that the iPod 4th generation (including color/photo) uses the same DAC as the nano 1g.
    Rather than repair it or buy a manufacturer refurb nano 1g (4gb), I’d rather get an older iPod with a decent amount of space for $40 more. Does the 4g sound the same as the nano 1g out of the headphone jack?

  8. admin says:

    Yes 4g sounds great.

  9. John Har says:

    I can confirm that iPod touch sounds worse than every other iPod. I have an iPod shuffle 4g and an iPod touch 4g, and the shuffle is much better. It’s a shame that it only has 2gb space.

  10. Andy H says:

    Great article, is there a considerable difference between the ipod nano 4g and 6g in terms of sound quality?

  11. A.L. says:

    John Har – Your Ipod Touch is 4G? That’s using the Cirrus audio chips.

    To author: Why is Wolfson superior to Cirrus? Any technical specs?

  12. Tram Do says:

    I have a Nano 5th gen and to be honest, listening to it make me feel like the sound is floating somewhere above my head. It is very irritating because most of the songs from my playlist are lossless.
    Can you suggest me some earphone models (lower than $50) that are compatible with my Ipod model and better than the sucking free Apple ones?
    Thanks in advance:D

  13. Taimoor says:

    Hi guys! My Nokia N79 beats ipod touch 3G in terms of sound quality…

  14. tmo says:

    none of the older ipods can rival the ipad 2 and iphone 4 through headphone out thought, only with imod line out+amp then we’re talking…although the newer ipods are picking up on sound quality as well.

    …they might be using a ‘better’ dac chip, but the technology is 5-6 years old

  15. adam says:

    if im using a pocketdock to access the audio line out, does the audio still run through the wolfson chip, is there a difference in sound using line out 5th gen vs 6th gen or is it just the headphone jack??? ;)

  16. thomas says:

    i mean besides ipod

  17. Lee says:

    Thanks for this info. I’m no audiophile, but this confirms my thoughts that of all the iPods I’ve owned, the Classic had lesser SQ. If I compare my current setup (iPod Touch 2g vs Motorola Defy), I can clearly hear a difference, ie: Defy has lesser SQ, so that must be the Wolfson chip in the Touch.

  18. Lee says:

    @ thomas

    not sure what chips they use but Cowan players sound great (apparently better than iPods). Much discussion in sub-forums over at Head-fi.org.

    As a side note, in iPhone / Touch etc… you can have apps with better EQ selection. There’s not much difference when listening with no EQ, it’s probably the volume limits of each device, though I’m sure I hear a slight difference, it could be due to choice of ear / headphones having more or less impedance.

  19. Lavkesh says:

    I am sorry but I dont entirely agree with your article. I own the supposedly best iPod 5g Video 30 GB and the iPhone 3Gs and can for sure say that the output on the 3Gs is cleaner and almost as full. I pair them both with my Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi Pro’s.
    The iPod 5g Video also gives out slight static hiss which is not the case with the iPhone.

  20. Kevin says:

    Recently has compared iPad2, iPhone4 and iPod Touch4G.
    iTouch is very bad.
    iPad2 is much better than iPhone4 at lows, cleanliness, dynamics, etc. I love its sound – its the first Apple sound that I like. iPad2 uses Cirrus Logic, not Wolfson.
    Unfortunately, I have not ever listen to Ipod 5G.

    It is interesting – where would you place iPad2 in your quality list?

  21. Jason says:

    i knew it, odd thing is the article says the 6th gen classic has the other chip, but i ve always thought my classic sounds better than my wifes 1st gen touch, but i knew there was a difference!

    • admin says:

      Yes – what sound you ‘prefer’ can be personal. What some call ‘clean and clear’ others might call ‘harsh’. This depends on the frequency response, and some people prefer a not-flat frequency response. Some people prefer more or less bass, etc. So by better I guess what I mean is a reasonably flat frequency response, but also the actual sound quality. For me I like to listen with a very well known song. Some speakers/amps/devices bring out subtle parts of the song that are not there in another setup. So I like to have a good mix to test it on where absolutely everything in the recording is there, it’s clear, and each has it’s own space, they are not all over each other. So anything I focus in on, a violin, a guitar, a background vocal, a cymbal, I can hear. If you know a recording well, you can notice some things ‘missing’ on some devices! It might still sound ‘good’ but it’s not all there!

  22. asimpleson says:

    I hope apple engineers give heed to such important dissections (inputs) for their products.

    Lets all hope that these autopsies and biopsies yield in ‘best’ sounding ipods/iphones in the future. It would be nice to see future ipod classics >160gbs with a fifth gen like quality.

  23. gibson says:

    hi mate, would u mind to clarify wad is the meaning of this sentence”Unfortunately none of the wolfson powered iPods are still for sale from Apple, but you can pick them up from ebay second hand fairly easily.”

    is that mean even though ipod 5th nowadays, all without wolfson chip inside?

    would u mind which one has it?(i mean which year of production) or give me the link where i can get it, yeah i realised as well, when i comparing ipod nano 2th,5th,6th and 3g(ipone) i realised my mate 5th bought from japan in 2009 has better quality…

    • admin says:

      Hi gibson – we’re talking about the iPod classic and the current one is not 5th Generation, it’s 7th. Check out everymac.com for a description of which model is what generation.

      • gibson says:

        hahaha im reading your post regarding to which ipod has better sound, and i realised after i compared nano 2g,5g, iphone 3g and classic 6th using ue triple fi 10 with custom cable jane…5th nano has crispy sound, followed by ipone 3g…and 6th classic….ermmm now im confusing will be 5th beat 5th nano regards to sound quality….

  24. gibson says:

    just realised get confused between nano 5th and ipod 5th hahaha the one that u mentioned the big one is 5th ipod nano or?is it the one on the pic?hahaha almost bought 1 ipod nano 5th from ebay…LOL

  25. Gyan says:

    Regarding to only audio excellence, it’s Sony Walkman that iPods of any generation can’t match

  26. Chris says:

    So which has the better audio quaility. Ipad or Ipad 2 ?

  27. tushar says:

    hey….is there any difference in the sound quality of ipod touch and iphone 4s..i mean to say that is there any difference in the quality of earphones of the above 2

  28. gibson says:

    just bought a cowon x7, i would like to say, it the best, even compared with ipod 5th gen with imod inside+amp i will still suggest cowon x7 due to the price and the jet effect…

    i word just tottaly different world compared to apple product…
    (sorry no offense or etc) reply in here just give a knowledge to a music lover ^_^

    • gibson says:

      but not recomended due to not a good item, many problems…one of the example, the file doesnt not show up in the mp3 player…LOL

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