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Apple iPod classic (2nd gen) review: Apple iPod classic (2nd gen)

Apple's done it again -- its new 120GB iPod classic is a cut above the rest. This edition has more features, such as the Genius playlist tool, and allows you to watch very high-quality video on its 640x480-pixel resolution screen. As with all iPods, you'll have to stick with iTunes, and spring for better headphones, but still, this gadget rocks

Nate Lanxon Special to CNET News
6 min read

A year ago almost to the week, we brought you the review of Apple's iPod classic -- the 80GB and 160GB hold-all iPod. One year later, it's available in just a single, slim 120GB capacity, with most features remaining unchanged.


Apple iPod classic (2nd gen)

The Good

Huge capacity; great sound quality; support for high-quality audio and video formats; decent screen; integration with iTunes for music, movie and TV show downloads; heaps of accessories available; sturdy design.

The Bad

Only one capacity option; lacklustre EQ options; weaker battery life compared with previously available classic.

The Bottom Line

120GB of storage and the addition of the Genius feature, makes up for the slightly reduced battery life over the previous model, reaffirming the iPod classic as our favourite portable audio player on record

So is there any point upgrading? Did Apple make a mistake getting rid of the higher capacity version? We took a look to find out. It's available now in black and silver for £179.

Almost no aspect of the classic's design has been changed, except the black finish is a slightly lighter shade of black (no, we don't mean grey). The chassis is identical to that of the old 80GB model, which we do admit is our favourite design and thickness. It's a solid player, with a superb capacity considering its relatively lightweight build. The nano will always be more suitable for the gym, but for other purposes the classic's size and weight shouldn't be an issue.

It may be larger than the nano, but it stores so much more

Unchanged, too, is the 64mm (2.5-inch) 320x240-pixel screen -- the same, albeit rotated, resolution used in the third and fourth generation iPod nano. However, during side by side comparisons with the first generation classic, the new model appears to have a slightly brighter display, for which we offer up a congratulatory high five.

The most notable addition to the classic's feature set is Genius. This glorified playlist creator automatically builds playlists of 25, 50, 75 or 100 songs based on any given 'source song' you select. The playlist it creates should, theoretically, contain songs best matched to your source song.

The more music you have, the better Genius works

In our tests Genius worked really well. We first tried it with iTunes, as Genius must first be calibrated with iTunes. When given complex progressive metal track from Blotted Science, iTunes created a list of mostly complex progressive metal. But the same was true when using the classic after syncing -- a playlist comprising folky pop rock from Kate Nash, Michelle Branch and Alanis Morissette was created when using KT Tunstall as a source track. The more music you have, the more fun Genius is.

As for your music, the iPod classic's sound is generated by a Cirrus audio chip, and supports MP3, AAC -- both unprotected and protected iTunes Store downloads -- WAV, AIFF, Audible formats 2, 3 and 4 and the best choice if you wish to preserve your CDs entirely, Apple Lossless -- Apple's answer to FLAC -- between 20Hz-20kHz. You're unable to play WMA files from the likes of Napster, sadly, as Apple wants you to use the iTunes Store only.

Aside from the iPod touch and iPhone, the iPod classic is one of our favourite devices on which to watch high-quality video. It supports the MPEG-4 and the H.264 codec -- as used on HD Blu-ray discs -- in standard definition, up to 640x480-pixels in resolution, with bit rates up to 2.5Mbps. This allows for extremely high-quality videos, and the potential for watching full-length movies at close to DVD-quality.

Video quality is superb even on this small screen

You'll need to use iTunes 8 to transfer content to the iPod, and in many ways it remains unchanged from iTunes 7. It requires some getting used to, but iTunes is one of the easiest ways to manage music and movies. It offers Smart Playlists on top of Genius, allowing you to create dynamically updating playlists based on variables you assign, such as building a playlist of 20 songs, not played within the last two weeks, from pop and country genres, that you've listened to at least five times before. And everything -- play counts, playlists, song ratings and Smart Playlists -- are all transfered to the iPod classic, so you can take your desktop jukebox on the road.

As well as being an enormous music store, iTunes sells TV programmes from heaps of television and movie studios. They're only compatible with iTunes and iPods, but if you're using an iPod classic you can buy or rent major films such as Harry Potter, Spiderman and High School Musical, and either watch them on your computer or simply sync them to your iPod and watch them on the way to work, college, or on the plane.

Combine this with the classic's huge hard disk and the potential to output this content to any TV via a separate docking station and the iPod classic becomes an insanely capable music and movie device -- and we love it.

We tested the iPod classic with Apple Lossless audio files, going through a £100 Arcam rDock, into a £650 Woo Audio 2 valve-driven headphone amplifer, and into £800 Denon AH-D7000 headphones. Portable audio doesn't come more high-end than this. Yet we heard no sonic differences between the new classic and the previous model. Volume limit is the same and its musical voice remained identical to us.

Headphones still remain on top of the classic, unlike on the nano

For almost everyone, the iPod classic will be an admirable performer. Audibly it remains entirely unchanged from the previous model, which offered a frequency response deviation of -1.56dB, a total harmonic distortion (plus noise) rating of -69.26dB and an signal-to-noise ratio of -84.42dB, as rated by our colleagues over at CNET.com. This proves the iPod classic to be a stellar performer in terms of audio accuracy, regardless of the shouting from Apple-haters claiming the opposite.

Listening to Ingrid Michaelson's Girls And Boys, ripped in Apple Lossless format, we heard a terrific, clear performance with deep, seismic bass, a clean, powerful mid-range and a clear treble in the high-end. This, overall, delivers believable instrumental presence and a well-balanced sound quality.

Although Apple doesn't offer great EQ customisation, some presets are available to emphasise bass, vocals and treble, though we weren't keen on using these. In fact, using the 'treble booster' generated an overly harsh, artificial sound quality, though this is pretty subejctive and other ears may enjoy this quality.

Upgrade your earphones and the classic sounds superb

Pendulum's drum 'n' bass extravaganza, In Silico, highlighted the classic's ability with heavily electronic music, though we feel this is a type of music moderately more suited to Sony or Cowon players, which tend to offer a sound quality ever-so-slightly better tuned to bass and treble performance.

On the whole, the classic offers the best sound quality of any current generation iPod, and combined with its high capacity and support for lossless audio, it is, in the opinion of someone who values musical performance above all else, a smashing audiophile's music player. And 36 hours of battery life for music will give you over a day and a half of solid listening to boot.

Video was excellent, too. The significantly smaller screen than the iPod touch makes it less suitable for movies, but for TV programmes, video podcasts and music videos, it offers crisp, smooth playback of hgih-quality videos, with decent viewing angles, good performance in sunlight and a playback time of about six hours.

This smaller size means a smaller battery than the one used in the old 160GB model

Do note that the little white earphones you get in the box of this, and all iPods, are abysmal. They're on par with earphones bundled with other MP3 players, but they're abysmal, too. The iPod classic sounds ten times better with a pair of earphones costing just £30 or £40 and we strongly, even passionately, advise you factor in the cost of some Sennheiser CX 500s at the very least, when choosing this or any MP3 player. Our round-up of great earphones is a good place to start.

While we were initially dissatisfied with Apple's decision to discontinue the 160GB iPod classic, we feel it's only something that affects the absolute minority of the market. The upgrade to 120GB while retaining the classic's slim form factor, and the addition of the Genius feature, make up for the slightly reduced battery life, reaffirming the iPod classic as our favourite portable audio player on record.

The iPod touch will always be a more feature-packed device, and the iPod nano a more portable one. So discounting those, check out the Archos 605 WiFi or Cowon Q5W for a much better video experience over the iPod classic. Also look for the previous 160GB classic if 120GB just isn't enough storage for you.

Edited by Marian Smith