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Which iPod has the best quality audio?

This article discusses the reasons for the difference in quality of the sound output of the various models of Apple iPod.

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 This article mentions old iPods but it is not out of date.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

219 replies on “Which iPod has the best quality audio?”

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

No it’s the classic iPod 4G that sounds good, not the iPod touch.
I don’t know why Wolfson is superior to Cirrus. On paper the Cirrus appears to have some better specs:

http://www.cirrus.com/en/pubs/proDatasheet/CS4398_F1.pdf

http://www.wolfsonmicro.com/documents/uploads/data_sheets/en/WM8768_3.pdf

But Wolfson clearly sounds better in the ipods.

Cambridge Audio, Harman Kardon, CD players use Wolfson DAC chips, so do Pioneer NAD and Onkyo in some of their players.
Marantz use Cirrus Range.
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

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

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

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??? ;)

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.

@ 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.

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.

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?

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!

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!

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.

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…

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.

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….

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

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

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 ^_^

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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