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 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.


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 iPods has been rising over the years and you will do well if you can find one for under $150 second hand!

4th place: the 1st generation nano! A1137


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 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.”


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.

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.


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.


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

  1. 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

  2. Gyan says:

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

  3. Chris says:

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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. Randy Winters says:

    I would like to know about the products that plug into the Ipod on the bottom for improved sound? Between the Ipod and the phones. Do they work? If so which one is best.
    My Ipod has a model # MB 565LL. Which generation is that one please.

    Thanks, Randy

  7. Yavor Balabanov says:

    The initial post was quite intriguing.
    I’ve owned 1G shuffle and sound was amazing – like hearing the same thing for the first time. It was possible to focus on the background music in any track.
    Then I lost it and went with Ipod Nano 2G/4GB – nothing bad – but nothing similar.
    Then came iPhone 3GS – still the same.
    Last I’ve tried Sony – but still unimpressed.
    And then …

    The last shuffle leaves iPhone 3GS, ipod nano 2G in the dust.

    There 2 directions I find it better – definitely larger spectre and definitely higher volume … with this tiny guy you can use any headphones and it sounds just better.
    And also a note on the apple headphones that came with shuffle – they are more like the original shuffle headphones – superb quality, though I guess it will benefit from some nice foams.
    I’ve also noticed those are made in Vietnam instead of China.

  8. Gary says:

    I have been an iPod junky since I got a 20gb 3rd gen when they came out. Since then I’ve owned a pile of various models.
    That said, I wholeheartedly agree that the 5th gen has the best quality audio output on the headphone jack. My 30gb iPod Video goes with me everywhere.

    I would like to know how much output power is coming out of each models headphone jack but have not been able to find that spec listed. Anyone know?

  9. casey says:

    Well this is discouraging, because my dear old 5G seems to be dying. I got a 32gb ipod Touch 4G as an early Christmas present, and I sounds horrible compared to the 5G. All the wifi and apps are nice, but decent-sounding music is higher priority for me.

    I was thinking about returning the Touch and getting a Classic, but apparently that’s not any improvement. Bummer.

    • carlo says:

      Oh yes it is! I have an 80GB classic and did side by side comparisons before i returned the touch.And it is definitely better overall sound quality.I assume that apple used some different parts in the audio path.Even though they both have Cirrus chips.The salesperson at futureshop has comfirmed this also.Many people,workers ,customers have said the ipod classic sounds better then the touch.Both with Cirrus audio chips.Maybe the auther can confirm this.Or find out if they have different model audio chips.

  10. Mark says:

    Do NOT buy an iPod touch if you care at all about sound quality. I own 4 ipods and a few Sansa Clips and recently got a Touch and it sounds terrible. It’s harsh and fatiguing to listen to. My old iPod Photo sounds like heaven compared to it. The 4g is just really in your face and sounds completely overboosted like everything is shoved up 6db. The eq presets do NOTHING. Unlike on older ipod where the eq would enhance the sound depending on of course the music and your headphones, with my same headphones using ANY eq preset just drops the sound so much at each frequency I thought my Touch might be defective. Sure it alters it, but in a way like any other iPod I own. Beware if you are at critical about sound quality DO NOT BUY A 4G TOUCH! Wait until next fall when the real Touch 5g will be out with new DACs. Btw I’m not some sort of audiophile either, I just can’t believe how harsh the sound is compared to my older iPods.

  11. Mark says:

    Sorry that one line should read:

    “Sure it alters it but in a way UN-like any other iPod I own”

  12. dudetski says:

    Actually the Mini 2g also has a wolfson as it has been opened and verified many time on the web. I did extensive tests on an all the unmodified ipods and iphones. The 5/5.5g truly is better. One surpise however was the HTC HD2 with beat the 5.5g (Unmodded) even with a line out from the ipod versus headphone jack of the HTC device. File used was FLAC (Rockbox on the ipods).

  13. Audrey says:

    After reading all the info and comments on here I am totally confused. I am considering buying an Ipod for the first time. I want it just for listening to music, so I wasn’t looking at the Ipod Touch with all the extra features. I am not an audiophile, but I do appreciate good sound quality. If I want to buy something “new” that is available right now, what is the best option? Or should I be waiting for an improvement over what is currently out?


    • admin says:

      The new iPods are fine – shuffle, nano, classic all sound good. There’s nothing wrong with them.

      It’s just that they are not the best iPod’s that Apple have ever made.

      • T says:

        Thank you admin,
        Based on this dialogue, I purchased a used 5th generation iPod and love it! I was wondering, what is the best volume setting on the iPod to play music into an auditorium PA system, and what are the optimum settings for a home stereo system? Should I turn the volume on the iPod all the way up, or somewhere lower? Again, thanks for your expertise.

      • admin says:

        I normally have the iPod about 2/3 to get a good signal out and plug it in the line-in or through 2 DI boxes.

  14. akram says:

    does the i pod shuffle have a wolfson audio chip??

  15. akram says:

    which is the ipod with a wolfson audio and also lightest on pocket?

  16. Gary says:

    Anyone in the United States that’s looking for a 5 or 5.5g should check your local pawn shop. I’ve seen piles of them for $75 or less in good condition. Craig’s list is also a good place to look.

  17. Oser says:

    do the later fifth generation ipods with 80gb have wolfson?

  18. T says:

    You mentioned that you plug the iPod into line-in or 2 DI boxes when connecting it to a mixing board.
    Would the line-in be 1/8 inch to RCA into AUX inputs on the board, or 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch into a channel for EQ possibilities?
    And, would you explain the use and benefit of the 2 DI boxes? How are you rigging them and why are you using two, and are you splitting 1/8 inch into the boxes? Again, thank you.

    • admin says:

      Yes, Some Mixers have RCA inputs so you can plug iPod straight into the RCA in.
      Mixer channel inputs are usually balanced XLR mono and I use 2 Di boxes because Di boxes are generally mono.
      Yes – iPod stereo lead goes to two mono RCA which I convert with an adapter into 1/4 inch (6.5mm) into DI boxes and then two XLR into two mixer channels.
      Yes – I plug into a channel for EQ, or because you have a long distance to run.

  19. worldover says:

    just bought an iphone 4s 64gb white

    its sound quality is just terrible,the volume is low and there is no bass.

    i have tried 3gs before and the volume was more,it also had very good bass

    went to nearest shop to check,i check sony walkman and it sounded great(both volume and bass).i also checked ipod classic i suppose(it has aluminum back and sounded great too(volume and bass).

    i also tried out ipod touch and ipod and iphone 4s,they all sucked.

    I went to apple store and they said it was a headphone problem,the headphone they checked out with has a slight increase.(though i would have to check again.)

    is this a phone problem or headphones as the apple store said?

    remember walkman and ipod classic worked great with my headphone which came with the iphone 4s but sucked on other apple devices

  20. Azure says:

    That’s odd because my new 4S 64Gb White is the best…iPod I ever listened to..
    The sound quality through the jack is simply Stunning…. It’s dead silent when pauses in a track occur, the balance among lows, mids and highs is simply Excellent and the soundstage is very wide…Of course it has (like every Apple product) its “sound signature”…You can love it or hate it, like in every kind of audio equipment you listen to…Even among “hi-Fi giants”…
    But the numbers of the iPhone 4S speak for themselves…And they are great numbers..I had several iPods, plus the ones I listened to occasionally…
    And the 4S is by far among the very best…My previous favorites were the Nano 5G and the Shuffle 2G, but the 4S is simply superior….
    The Nano and the shuffle were “euphonies” but tended to color the sound and they lacked the STUNNING detail of the 4S….It’s so detailed and so “deadly quiet” that (unfortunately) shows all the limits of the digital recording and of the compression…I can’t imagine to listen to 128Kbps average Mp3s or aacs with the 4S!! It’s going to be a nightmare…..
    But if you feed it with 320Vbr Aacs or Mp3s (Lame) It blows you away…

    Even the (horrible) stock earbuds sound “decent” with the 4S….
    With my AKG In-Ear you simply take off to another planet….And I’m talking about 30/40 bucks earphones…I can’t wait to listen to it with earphones like Shure, Klipsch and others….


  21. T says:

    The Apple Store in the US has a program where for $59 US they will take a 5th generation iPod as a trade, and replace it with a totally reconstituted one. (right off of the serial number)
    They represent that it is the “identical unit” with new battery, components, case, screen etc. The question the retail types couldn’t answer is if the audio chip in the reconstituted iPod is a Wolfson.
    Would you recommend making the trade or should I keep the original and look to replace the battery elsewhere?

  22. george housy says:

    hello i have a question

    there much difference in quality between ipod touch 1G to iPod classic 5G?

    have a graph for ipods, as the graph of the iphone?

    I have an ipod touch 1G, iPhone 3G and a iphone 4G, which is better?


    • admin says:

      If you can’t hear any difference then none is better for you! But if you can hear the difference, then this article explains why and helps you find one you like. If you use headphones you may not notice any difference. If you play through a good stereo you may hear the touch 1G and iPhone 3G sound better than iPhone 4G for example.

  23. jeff says:

    After reading endless reviews, I bought a 1g Nano(4G), 5.5g iPod(30G), and 6g Classic(80g). I found that the Nano was #1, 5.5g was #2, and the Classic was
    pretty sad in comparison. As for the 3g and 3gs phones their as bad as the
    Classic iPod’s sound quality.

  24. Napster says:

    So this explains it! I am trying to revive our 1st gen Nano and I am comparing the SQ with newer smart phones and the difference is huge!

  25. anonomis says:

    i have an ipod classic 7th gen brandnew that i got for christmas in 2010 and the legal bar or information says wolfsan
    does that mean it has a wolfsan chip in it?

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