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 This article mentions old iPods but it is not out of date.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.
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.
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!
Worthy Mention: The Shuffle
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.