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 This article mentions old iPods but it is not out of date.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


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

  1. Geoffroy

    I love your article! As an audiophile, I’ve got a few old iPods getting modded. My iPod addiction started as I needed a new battery for my 5 gen. I learned that I can increase the capacity as well. Yeah, I need some intervention!
    Currently I have a 5gen 1 tb, 5.5 gen 1 tb, 7gen 1 tb, mini 2gen 512 gb, and building a mini 128gb for my mother-in-law.
    I can’t get enough, this addiction is getting out of control. Sanded down the 7gen and my mini to a chrome finish (pretty slick!) I was looking for comparing info on the sound chips iPod mini vs. video and 7 gen. I stumbled on your page and while I have my mom-in-law’s iPod opened up, I decided to look for the chip for you. It’s from a mini 2gen 4gb WM8711LG Kudos to all the great suggestions here. Looks like I’ve got some more projects to consider. Happy iPodding! ;P

    1. Michael

      Hey is your 2nd gen mini running the stock firmware? I have a classic (7g) at 512 and my mini (2g) with a 128 gb CF card. I’d prefer use the mini, but the Classic lets me carry everything lossless while the mini has to be downsampled (I keep it in my car because of that). I’d like to go 512 on the mini, but had always heard 256 gigs is the upper limit on them without going to Rockbox and I’m just not a big fan.

  2. Robert Hastings

    Just happened to notice an iPod 5th Gen for sale on offerup. They wanted 75 for it but the screen was showing some streaks so I managed to talk em down to 40. Got it home and it turns out to be a 5.5. New screen’s on order everything else works fine. Tossed the crappy headphone they included. LOL Yeah I’m a trash picking sound ho.

  3. steve

    I have a iPod Classic 7th gen. The battery needs to be replaced but I’m curious as to how the sound quality compares to the new iPod Touch, which is the only model still sold

  4. ipod

    good article. weirdly, i have found that compared to my ipod classic 5th gen, my ipod nano 3 has much better audio quality. for some reason, the 3d sound is better in the nano, and the classic 5 has much more monotonous and flat sound. apparently that over time, the audio quality can decrease and the expanding of a swollen battery can impact the audio quality, so that might be the reason why.

    1. ADI

      Check your EQ settings – these make a difference – also the Soundcheck make a difference.
      The EQ is not used by most of hte people on the Ipod 5.5 as it distorts the low end

    2. helloworld

      Do you still think the Ipod nano 3 is better now? it has been more than a year

      1. ha ha – good question.
        There have been no new ipods released since this article was written. Apple don’t make them any more.
        So yes, this ranking I believe is still current.

  5. Andreas

    There is a Wolfson chip in my iPod Classic 5 generation without “search” function – is it worse now?

  6. Don Wilson

    I am replacing a 3 gen. iPod touch (weak battery) containing 2018 songs recorded with Apple Lossless using the DAC in my Linn Majik. I can’t find what chip is used in the 3gen but sounds good in the car. Can the battery be replaced without erasing the songs? Is there a way to transfer content from touch to a classic?

    1. If you replace the battery (and if nothing goes wrong) it keeps all the songs.
      I’ve done this.
      I don’t know a way to transfer content apart from copying it to your computer and back again.

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