Which iPod has the best quality audio?

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 This article mentions old iPods but it is not out of date.

Apple’s most recent ipod was the 7th Gen ipod touch released in 2019.

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.



227 responses to “Which iPod has the best quality audio?”

  1. David

    If you want to stay iPod, then the ultimate is a 5.5G classic iPod with the Red Wine Audio modification – often known as the iMod. To increase battery life and cut down on noise you can also fit a solid-state disk to these as well.
    I use this device with a Graham Slee Voyager headphone amp to play lossless files through Grado and Denon headphones – the results are stunning – in my opinion… 😉

  2. Christoph

    Is the audio quality of the iPod relevant when connected via 30pin / lightning or only when using headphone output?

    1. It depends, the iPod can send line out audio out the 30 pin dock or it can send digital audio. Out the lightning it can only send digital audio. So irrelevant when using lightning connector.

  3. andrej

    I just bought me an ipod touch 4G with 32Gb for listening music. How is this model(what chip does it have)?

    1. It will be fine, chances are you won’t notice any difference between it and a better one unless you listen in a really good stereo, even then you may not notice any difference.

  4. Azure

    Funny thing is I had several iPods (Nano 4th and 5th gen., Touch 3rd gen.) and 4 iPhones and with all honesty I must say that iPhone 6/6Plus are the best sounding devices apple ever made. How to find out? Forget headphones (doesn’t matter if they are stock white buddies or a pair of Klipsch)…Connect your iPhone’s line out to a decent set of speakers straight to it…A 2.0/2.1 Logitech or Creative system is enough, so that the internal DAC is engaged (if you connect through Lightning you need converters somewhere before speakers)….Voilà….

    Test made….iPhone 6 is FAR (and I mean it) superior to any previous Apple Device I owned… No noise, no crosstalk, exceptional stereo image, clean and crisp sound without being Harsh and a precise clock. I can’t say the same thing for iPod Nanos,iPod Touch, iPhone 4s and 5 which were more than decent through earbuds/earpods but an absolute disaster connected to any powered system. And one day i connected one Nano and the Touch to a half-milion dollar system, including a Neve console, Dynaudios air and apogee Sound card…


    1. Al

      I will agree with this- I bought a second-hand 128GB iphone 6s last year and it sounds noticeably better than my ipod 6th gen. I listen a lot in the car (which is a terrible listening environment) and even then it is not a subtle difference to my ears.

  5. According to the new audio metrics – statistical difference testing – the nine Apple devices (tested so far) are arranged in the following order (first are best):

    – iPod classic (2009)
    – iPod shuffle 4G
    – iPhone 4-6
    – iPhone 3G
    – iPod shuffle 2G


    1. Yes, all popular devices will be added step-by-step. Will inform you; also SE twitter.

    2. Mark

      What do you mean the 2009 Classic ‘corresponds’ to the 4th and 5th Gen iPod that you liked? It doesn’t at all. The 2009 Classic was the 2nd revision of the 6th generation, commonly called the 7th Generation.

    3. Mark you are right, I’m not sure what I was thinking or even referring to in that post above. As I state in the article, I’m pretty sure the 5.5th (5th gen enhanced) was the last Wolfson iPod.

  6. […] you trust the opinion of Macintosh How To then the iPod Nano with the Wolfson chip is the best audio quality. Checking the breakdown of Nano […]

  7. […] quality differences in those 4 years? You may want to read up on that and make your own decision. Which iPod has the best quality audio? – Macintosh How To Have you backed up your iTunes Library this week? If not, you are risking losing your music […]

  8. peter

    if anyone can help me on this id be grateful
    I recently purchased fiio x5 2nd gen and even though it can handle more than the famous classic ipod (which I have but not sure if its a 5th gen?…around 7 years old plastic front so possibly 5th?)I just find x5 isn’t so gutsy as my old ipod and also when I did comparison on an old fashioned stereo track with drums in left channel etc…..,I noticed that ipod revealed more of the drum sound particularly clearer as well whereas x5 was faint sounding and wooley….im using senheiser hd25 headphones that I mostly use for travelling but use at home when noise leakage is an issue with wife around……these headphones are used by djs and bbc camera men etc…..so they would let you hear almost anything…..
    what I wanted to ask was what makes have wolfsen chips in dacs that I could possibly plug my x5 into just to bring it up to better soundstage than what it is right now….
    its a shame apple killed off ipod and didn’t persue it further with dsd etc……..

  9. Someone has asked about the 1st gen iPod Shuffle. I personally love the sound. But I didn’t include it in the article because I could not find what chip it had. According to this thread it was a SigmaTel audio chip!


  10. Shyam

    Nice article…I am in search of a good iPod classic. After hearing the audio quality on an old iPod classic I am totally in love with it. Off late I found a seller giving away his old iPod… Its model number is MA446ZP.
    When I search on internet it says…its 5th generation enhanced. This is black color, 30gb capacity.
    Now I would like to know if this different from 5.5gen and 5th gen?
    Does it have Wolfson chip on it? Only if its worth having the best audio quality, I would buy it. Please advise…I am in urgent mode.

    1. 5th Gen enhanced is Gen 5.5, same thing!

      1. Shyam

        thank you Wayne!!

  11. Sebastien

    Hi Wayne,

    I’ve been trying various external DAC amplifiers.
    I was wondering if you could evaluate the specs of the DAC I’ll be getting on Friday. Here is the link.

    I’m also gifting my old 4s which I’ve loaded with 4000+ tracks to an old friend as an “ultimate walkman”.Are there any aftermarket chip mods that you recommend for a 4s?
    Lastly, which has better audio, the 4s or 6s?
    Thanks, Seb

  12. Shyam

    Atlast I brought a iPod 5 enhanced… This was a used one… But in a good condition. Thank you for the reviews and classification. Love the quality of the audio.

  13. Tuula

    Nano 1st gen? You kidding right? I had two of those pieces of sh…t and blew the headphone jacks on both with different headphones, and they didn’t even sound well to begin with.

  14. Mike

    I’ve had a few iPods 5G+ over the years and pretty much any laptop with good headphones (I think Grado SR-60 is the bare minimum) produces cleaner audio output than the iPods I had. Except the iPod Mini 2G!

    Right now, I have an iPod 5.5G and Mini 2G. Both have been upgraded using big SD cards. (No need for lossy compression; everything is encoded Apple Lossless, from real CDs, not iTunes rubbish.) I bought a cheap mini just for podcasts in the car and was blown away by how much better the Mini sounds than the 5.5G, even crap mp3s sound better!

    I’m using the same set of Grado SR80 headphones on each and there is no contest: listening to Peter Gabriel’s So on 5.5G, his voice sounds harsh and the loud bits almost sound clipped; on the Mini, it is like a different, better album with clear, detailed sound revealing effects I didn’t even notice on my old 5.5G.

    Now since both of these are second hand, it is possible my 5.5G is not what it appears. Are the parts interchangeable with 5th gen. iPods? Could you post pictures of these good audio chips?

  15. WillM

    I have been working with old iPods for a few months now. I compared Classics to Videos to Minis, plus I have some Nanos & Touches. The iPod I like best for sound is the 5th gen video and yes, I prefer the 5.5 because of the upgraded LCD as the audio caps are the same as the 5.0. I find the Videos are relativley easy to work on too. The Minis sound good too but their older interface makes it more like a USB and the display is limited when showing song, artist & album. For me, the Classic sound was not even in the same ballpark.

  16. WillM

    BTW, comparisons in a controlled environment, with someone else swapping the iPods on a 30 pin dock. Headphones show similar results IMHO.

  17. bre

    Great Article. Thanks a bunch!

  18. Roland

    Having owned an iPod Nano 1G, 4G and 6G, I have to disagree with this article.
    The sound quality definitely got better over the years. I got the Nano 1G and 4G as a present, used them a bit, but thought they were way inferior to my Minidisc player.

    It was only when I got to hear a Nano 6G that I finally thought iPods have caught up (perhaps even surpassed?) Minidisc in terms of sound quality. The soundstage on a Nano 6G is much wider than on a 1G, there is less hissing in silent passages of the music, and instruments are more defined. I like the Nano 6G, and especially considering the size and weight, I think Apple’s engineers have really done a marvelous job with it.

    1. Bill Centers

      I agree with that. My 6g sounds great with studio headphones or even the ear buds that came with it( which I dispisise). The quality has gone up!


    Thanks for this reference piece. I’m an old-school iPod enthusiast, and have been looking into purchasing a refurbished device. I’ve seen many different options as far as storage capacity and battery life; can anyone give some advice?

    First question: I read somewhere that the iPod’s storage is not only limited by GB, but also by the number of characters in song titles (can’t find the article for reference). Is there a limit to the number of song files that the device can store, based on some metric other than GB?

    Second question: The refurbished devices I’ve seen have batteries that seem to range from ~900 mah to ~1800 mah. What is the approximate time, in minutes, of a battery? In other words, about how long could I expect to use a device with a 900 mah battery, versus a device with an 1800 mah battery?

    Third question: I’ve been looking on ebay for the iPod, and have seen quite a variance in price. Can anyone recommend a reliable seller who does quality refurbishing at a reasonable price? I’m open to purchasing off ebay.

    1. 1. Not sure!
      2. Hard to tell because RAM vs Hard Drive will make a difference as will how you use it. My iPod runs for weeks not days between recharges. It’s not like an iPhone that needs recharging.
      3. Not sure! Just go for a PayPal reputable one then you can get a refund if it’s no good. The most likely things to fail are the hard drive, the battery, or the headphone jack.

      1. MADAMIC


  20. Mike

    Lotsa luck with eBay…just too many crap artists! Best option is to buy an unopened old (not too broken) iPod and replace the parts yourself. Get the Sd/msata adapter from iflash.xyz. they have good info there and i have bought from them before without problem. Finding good batteries is difficult: avoid anything that claims crazy high mah, or looks even a little bit “no name” brand. Even then you may still end up with a fake name brand battery that wears out very quickly. (eBay is flooded with fake batteries and knock-off power supplies for common devices and appears to be doing nothing to remedy the situation.)

  21. Phil

    I’ve found that the CanOpener app greatly improves music on, I believe any of the iOS devices. It adds many real world sound features such as cross fade and a high quality equalizer to let you tune the sound to your liking.

  22. Tony

    Do DAC’s wear out over time?

    1. No they don’t. Some audio components for example capacitors can get better with age, but generally digital components like a chip don’t wear out, they just stop working all together when they blow up.

  23. vasu

    (Didn’t me my post so I’ll try again here. Sorry if it becomes my reposting.)

    First, let me say I know nothing (like Jon Snow).
    I had a few generations of Ipod before I found this review. And finally I could get Ipod 5G. Yes, its sound quality is the best among all of my previous Ipods. (I have no chance to try classic yet, so let me skip it here). What I’m curious is how 5.5G has better sound quality than 5G when they use the same audio Chip (WM87588G)? I don’t mind about better function (search option, brightness etc.) but only sound quality. Is it about the different firmware/software? I’ve asked this as I’m going to get 5.5G, if and only if my budget allows. Thanks for any answer in advance.

    1. If there is any difference I suspect it would be in the output circuit – the amplifier and capacitors that come between the A/D and the headphone port. I can’t hear the difference between 5th gen and 5.5th gen but others with better gear/ears claim they can.

      Eg check out this page on how to mod the output after the DAC for improved audio in both 5th gen and 5.5th gen.


  24. vasu

    Hi Wayne,
    This is just to say thanks (so much) for your reply. (my computer was just broke down yesterday and just have it repaired today). I’m going to read the link you recommended. Thank again.
    P.S. I do agree with you about gears (dac etc.). I myself found that even D2M (already tried some) still didn’t work well as many claimed. Instead, some old time extention headphone cables or some new time DIY cables (copper or silver or hybrid etc.) works great with Ipod if connecting to Ipod dock. Sure, I meant about connecting it to amp headphone before headphone itself.

  25. Thanks to Wolfson audio chip with relatively high level of degradation of initial waveform iPod 5th (Video) has its own distinctive sound signature (slightly harsh mids, transparent highs). Some music types/genres can benefit from this artifact signature, some other will not. As a result there always be lovers and haters of this player. Starting from iPhone 4 and iPod 6th Gen. Apple uses much more transparent/neutral audio chips from Cirrus Logic – http://soundexpert.org/articles/-/blogs/audio-quality-of-ipod-5th-generation-video-

  26. Vash mahoney

    iPod shuffle 1st gen from 2007. Still have mine in 2019 and baby, that little thing goes louder than anything they got now and sounds better than anything. Flat out point blank PERIOD

  27. Kevin

    1st and 2nd place make no sense as it’s the same iPod.

    The iPod 5th and 5.5 gen are exactly the same except for the 5.5 (also called enhanced) has the search feature and a brighter screen. The larger 60gb option was also increased to 80gb. That’s it. The sound exactly the same because nothing audio wise changed.

    1. See my previous comment…

      “If there is any difference I suspect it would be in the output circuit – the amplifier and capacitors that come between the A/D and the headphone port. I can’t hear the difference between 5th gen and 5.5th gen but others with better gear/ears claim they can.

      Eg check out this page on how to mod the output after the DAC for improved audio in both 5th gen and 5.5th gen.


  28. John S

    I have been working on Nano 1st gen ipods lately and was surprised to see the Wolfson audio ic in all of them. The 1st gen Nano can be identified by it’s White or Black plastic front.

  29. Jay

    I prefer the iPod Photo(4th Gen color) sound. I use rockbox.

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