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 This article mentions old iPods but it is not out of date.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


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

  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Mark says:

    Sorry that one line should read:

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

  7. 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).

  8. 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.

  9. akram says:

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

  10. akram says:

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

  11. 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.

  12. Oser says:

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

  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. 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….


  16. 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?

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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!

  20. 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?

  21. Gabris[LT] says:

    Hello, I have 2 ipods – mini 2G and shuffle 2G,
    mini 2G(A1051)- you can increase its sound quality, by the schematics near output it should have 100uF capacitors in fact 50uF, changed to 100uF, much better sound :) bass deeper, frequency range got better, also changed its microdrive to 8gb CF card :) only thing that sucks – ipod mini at -20C after 1min shuts down due to battery. better change it to li-ion, because Li-Po uses chemistry with water sometimes.
    Shuffle 2G(1204)- if to compare with mini, mini is much better, but if use in ear earphones sounds better than mini. But be aware that ipod shuffle may easy malfunction(go dead) if it sees some sort of liquid, even when you are running in the morning etc.
    My overall – Ipod Shuffle is great for trips, small, smaller earphones. Ipod mini great for performance, but it’s big and I’m using Koss KTXPRO1 with it. :)
    Phones I’m using – Koss KTXPRO1 and some in ear that I bought in the shop for 5 euro. :)

  22. Anon says:

    Thanks for the review which was pretty good.
    I knew that different models had a different audio chipset but didn’t know which ones.

    I do notice a difference in sound quality between my older iPod models vs the new ones esp. the iPhone 4. I use high-end IEMs (Shure SE530) and encode music files at its highest mp3 format @320k so I can tell the difference in sound quality. Don’t like using AAC FLAC since some other mp3 players don’t support it (well)!

    FYI… unless one has “superior hearing”, many studies and various online forum discussions have noted that one really can NOT tell the difference between a (nicely encoded) 320k file vs a FLAC file.

    • admin says:

      True – it’s hard to tell the difference between 320k and a lossless one, but even if you cannot tell the difference, it WILL make a difference if you re-encode it to say a 128kbps file, because re-compressing a file is double lossy. This is the golden rule for audio or photos or video: when you compress you should always compress from an original or a lossless version. So importing as Lossless has this added benefit if you plan on exporting it later.

  23. Casey Friday says:

    I’m getting rid of my iPod Touch 4G and getting an iPod Classic 5.5G 80GB. I miss the good ole days of toting around my black 30GB iPod 5G, and I’m bringing the good times back!

    Thanks for reaffirming my suspicions that the 5G has the best audio quality of all the iPods I’ve listened to.

    • Will Booth says:

      I did exactly the same thing when I got my new P5s, and I don’t regret a thing :D I don’t miss my touch and I love having the old 5th gen back.

  24. huy says:

    I have an iPod Touch gen1 (out of warranty) and a new iPod Classic gen7. Is it able to replace the Cirrus chip in my iPod Classic by the wolfson chip from iTouch gen1? If it is impossible, could you suggest some tips to make the sound better?
    Thanx in advance.

  25. Eugene says:

    Will this affect how it sounds in a car that has ipod integration in the headunit?

  26. judex says:

    List like these -and they are all over the Internet- are frustrating. Did you do you do a BLIND comparison/rating on these? I can’t tell from your bare-bones descriptions (thin?) what you did to come up with these judgement except that you know the preferred models use Wolfsons! To my ears alone, the nano 6g sound than than the Wolfson-based iPods—cleaner mids and less coloration. However, like you(it seems), I didn’t do a blind side-by-side comparison. In this light, I would ask that if you publish your opinion, could you push yourself a bit and describe in detail the sound quality differences that you noticed between the models. .

  27. Yue says:

    I own iPhone 1, 3G, 4 and 4S. And from my listening I totally agree that iPhone 1 is the best. It has deeper, richer, more powerful bass. iPhone 4 sounds ‘clean’, because it’s lack of bass. I really hope Apple can improve sound performance in future products.
    At the mean time, NuForce Icon iDo seems a solution for me, it is a DAC and Amp for iOS devices. Anyone can review it?

    • David says:

      I also own all iterations of the iPhone and I concur that the iPhone (1st Gen) had slightly more bass. However, the iPhone 4S seemed a little more refined and brighter. I used the same AAC song on both devices and used my B&W P5s without an amp.

      Have you or anyone else tried an iPod Video 5g, due to its DAC? Is the NuForce Icon iDo any good?

  28. Eddy says:

    Wanna ask, if we are using LOD to use external portable ampli.. is still impact the output sound quality when using/not using this wolfson chip in the ipod/iphone? Thanks.

    • carlo says:

      Yes .Definitely.Some will say you need to bypass DAC to take full advantage.Like the Wadia DAC dock.But i have used a portable headphone amp as well as a DAC and my Onkyo receiver and they do improve the sound output.

  29. Josh says:

    Why was my comment deleted? I simply wanted to know if the iPod Nano 3rd generation has a wolfson chip, because two other websites are claiming it. Does it?

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