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 This article mentions old iPods but it is not out of date.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 from 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 Wolfson 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 >

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

  1. Pedro says:

    Does the “new” ipad have a wolfson chip?

  2. Wayne says:

    Check out http://buyersguide.macrumors.com/

    The iPod Classic hasn’t beed updated for almost 3 years!!!!

  3. Jose X. says:

    My 30GB U2 iPod has a sound glitch: about 2 – 3 seconds into each song there is a noticeable dropout. It happens with every song. This started recently after a long period of non-use.

  4. Pedro says:

    Can someone PLEASE!!!! tell me if the “new” iPad has great sound quality similar to the iphone 4s or the wolfson chips…..(what kind of audio chip does new ipad have…is it wolfson…or better/great)

  5. thomas says:

    hi guys.. i own an ipod touch 1g 8gb & i agree that wolfson is the best audio chips for apple.. not only bcoz of my own listening experience, but i also think that the reason that apple ipods become famous & a must have for music lovers out there is main bcoz of its superb audio quality.. all the 1st gen apple portable audio players are the reason why they bacame very famous.. it’s just like a very nice movie.. people want more that is why there comes part 2, 3 & so on.. but still the original part 1 is the best bcoz that is the reason people wanting more, simply bcoz it is the best & they are really satisfied with the film.. same goes with the apple ipods.. the first one obviously makes it famous..

  6. Edison says:

    I’m planning to replace my ipod mini gen 1. It seems that it can’t drive my denon ahd1100 headphone.When the music has lots of bass, it sounds like its drowning the music. I’m planning to buy an ipod touch 4G will there me much sound improvement?

  7. Pedro says:

    ANSWER MY QUESTION PLEASEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!! (look above for more information)

  8. Dee Iva says:

    I just bought the new iPad and the sound is much muddier than it is on my iPhone 4 and not as loud. I have to change the setting to treble booster for it to sound as clear as my iPhone. Basically I think the iPhone is better for music.

  9. Antti says:

    Do the sound problems lie in the dac chip or the amplifier? I recently bought a 4th gen iPod Touch after 2nd and 4th gen Nano and it sounds like some one is farting in the can. Both my Nanos beat it by a large margin. Would a separate portable amplifier help? At the moment I’m running 32 and 80 ohm head phones with it.

  10. David says:

    I recently tested the iPod 5G (A1136) and an iPhone 4S, with the same song from iTunes, and the iPod 5G seemed a little louder, had warmth, and a wider soundstage. However, the iPhone 4S was still good though. Of course my iPod 5G is stuck in “disk mode” after words. LOL!

    It seems the only successful and portable DACs are from Cypher Labs and Fostex, although I don’t feel like paying almost $600 for a portable DAC. :) I heard the iMod, from RedWineAudio are good, although I don’t trust the reliability of the iPod 5G anymore.

    My portable amp/USB DAC that I use is the iBasso Audio D-Zero. When used with an iPhone it only uses the the amp section of this great little device.

    David
    http://www.youtube.com/davidsdiego

  11. David says:

    This is very true! I compared the iPhone 4S with the iPod 5G (A1136) and the iPod was way louder, had a warmer sound, and a wider soundstage. The difference was astounding, although the iPhone’s sound wasn’t terrible either.

  12. FixedHD says:

    Hello!

    Today I opened up my iPod Mini 1st Gen to swap the HDD for a 16GB CF Card and for a new battery. Beside that now I have a supercool modded iPod Mini I can confirm the Wolfson 8731 inside the Mini:

    http://www.abload.de/img/unbenannt-15ydei.jpg

  13. Mesh says:

    I have the Ipod 5.5 80gb model number MA450CH. Does this one still have the wolfson chip?

  14. jay says:

    oh man. I have a first gen nano and was thinking it’s never going to break, time to upgrade. I was excited thinking the sound quality will be a lot better. Oh well lol!

  15. Michael says:

    Have managed to acquire two iPods as of lately, an iPod mini (2nd Generation) 4GB with a Wolfson WM8711LG that needed some repairs (ended up replacing the drive and battery, stripped the glued-in end caps and polished the inner frame back to chrome) and an iPod 5G 30GB with a Wolfson WM87588G that is brand new, in box, and had simply never been sold when they were still commercially available.

    In testing, playing back the exact same portion of the exact same track and file, the iPod 5G has a noticeably clearer sound to it without the harshness. Everything is well balanced and it makes for a real pleasurable listening experience. The iPod mini isn’t as clear, but it is fairly close. It definitely sounds a bit warmer, and like the 5G it doesn’t sound harsh when listening to it. However, switch to the MacBook (Late 2008) with a Cirrus Logic audio chip in it and immediately I could hear the difference, the Cirrus chip has clarity, but it has harsh highs that forced me to turn the volume down a couple of notches. It’s certainly adequate, I have no complaints about the audio it produces for a computer, but there are moments where I need to pull the headphones away and take a break, and I think this could be the reason.

    For daily use I believe the iPod 5G would be best, but as mine is in excellent condition i’m hesitant to use it in those situations where it’s likely to be exposed to harm, and for that the slightly more rugged iPod mini is a perfect stand-in.

  16. Michael says:

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

    http://img403.imageshack.us/img403/410/wolfson.jpg

  17. Sovon Halder says:

    I am terribly confused with the iPod models. In wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod] 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

  20. 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?

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. VW says:

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

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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