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 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. This article mentions old iPods but it is not out of date. I personally think that the 10 year old  iPods mentioned in this article are better than the current 2016 lineup in terms of sound quality.

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 not on my iPhone so I plugged in my first generation nano and instantly I noticed the sound quality was much better on the iPod nano than on the more expensive iPhone. This led me to do some listening tests using the same song.  The iPod nano definitely had better quality audio. It had a better bass response and was not so harsh in the high-end. So not all iPods are same. This got me wondering why. IT turns out that there are different audio chips used in different iPods. There are also different other parts, but I think the main difference comes form the Audio chips that are used.

Please keep in mind that  listening tests are personal – some people like huge bass, some like warm sound, some prefer a sound that is as authentic as possible. The main two audio chips used in Apple devices are Wolfson and Cirrus. It turns out that all the devices I prefer seem to have the Wolfs chip in them. But some people say they prefer the Cirrus devices! The main point of this article is for you to see the reason for the differences, so that you can find the iPod you prefer.

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. Oh, 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, and I want it all to be there.  So I am talking about purity of sound in this article.

 

The Best iPods:

1st place: 5.5th Gen Classic

First place goes to the 5.5th Gen Enhanced iPod – the last iPod released in the 5th Generation iPod family.  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. The 5th Gen family has a plastic front case.

First place: the  5th gen enhanced A1136

2nd place: 5th Gen Classic

A very close second place to the rest of the 5th Gen classic family. Looks identical to the 5.5th Gen. Read this article for how to tell the 5 and the 5.5 apart.

3rd place: 4th Gen Classic

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

Third place: The 4th Gen ipod family including ipod photo, ipod color and ipod U2 edition. A1059 and A1099. They have a Wolfson Audio chip.

 

4th place: 1st Gen 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 Nano iPods has been rising over the years and you will do well if you can find one for under $150 second hand!

4th place: 1st generation nano! A1137 (has a Wolfson chip)

 

 Worthy Mention: The Shuffle

The first generation shuffle had a 'Sigmatel' audio chip.

The first generation shuffle. Has a SigmaTel audio chip.

My first gen and 2nd Gen Shuffle also sound great, as does the iPhone 4S.  [I have been informed that the 1st Gen Shuffle uses a ‘SigmaTel’ audio chip that has outstanding audio quality. I have not confirmed this.]

Why is there a difference?

Read on for a discussion on the differences.

CONTINUE READING >

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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 – (http://www.linn.co.uk/systems/see-the-range/klimax). I come from the same village (Blackburn) as SuBo – see here – (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Boyle) and now live in the next village where the man who found the anaesthetic qualities in Chloroform inventor James Young Simpson – see here- (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Young_Simpson)

    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/
    http://www.magicdragon.com/Wallace/thingscot.html

    Peace weeJoe

  4. 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

  5. Lance says:

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

  6. 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.

  7. simon says:

    well…
    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.

    Ah…..oui…

    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…

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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

  11. 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!

  12. 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

  13. 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?

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. Timotius Dana says:

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

  17. Charles henry says:

    Thanks, your article helped me comparing my ipod classics.

  18. 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

  19. 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?

  20. 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!

  21. Zach says:

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

  22. 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.

    • Cody says:

      Have you owned each version of the iPod and compared them in a controlled manner, ie double blind listening tests? If not, your opinion is formed on either confirmation bias or expectation bias.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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?

  26. Bazzy says:

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

  27. Vai sebastian says:

    thanks brother, this article so helpfuly.

  28. Paul says:

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

  29. Cody says:

    Having read through this page a the following comments, what stands out is the absence of controlled listening tests. People are very susceptible to expectation bias – the preconceived expectation that a change should exist. Also, confirmation bias – the support of a hypothesis based on reading text that shares the same belief system.

    When the listener’s knowledge of which device/DAC is playing has been removed, as in double blind tests, the listener must soley rely on hearing to differentiate between the devices and identify which is which. This is where alot of “hi-end” cables, power cords, monster amps and tweaks are found to be placebo, ie imagined.

    • Wayne says:

      Yes that may be true to a certain extent. Not just placebo effect but also personal listening bias as to what sound a person prefers.

      When I did the imod on my 4th gen iPod I thought it sounded better. But when I did blind trials I couldn’t hear a difference. That’s why I haven’t made any claims about it here. I tried on various members of my family though, and my wife could hear a difference – she is a musician.

      Initially when I first noticed any difference, and when I first published this article, I was expecting my newer devices to sound better, but they didn’t. Then after investigation I found some data that backed up my observations. So that went against my bias.

      I do agree that now I have formed an educated opinion I may be biased in my listening tests.

      There have also been numerous times that these results have been confirmed. For example I whack my iPhone on a PA when I am setting it up so that I can get some sound out. Then 20 min later I am trying to EQ the PA and having problems making it sound good. Then I realise that I haven’t plugged in my good old 4th Gen iPod. Unplug the iPhone, plug in the iPod. Sounds great.

      But yes some blind A/B test would be good.

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