Expert audio quality test: 5th gen iPod vs. iPod classic

To find out once and for all which offers the better sound quality -- the old 5th gen iPod or new iPod classic -- we took our £2,000 rig of headphone reference hardware, and put both models through a gruelling test

Nate Lanxon Special to CNET News
3 min read

The debate has been raging among audiophilles for months now -- which has the better sound, the 5th gen video iPod or the newer iPod classic?

The iPod classic (both first and second gens) is a great MP3 player on paper. Over 100GB of storage, support for Apple Lossless, a total harmonic distortion (plus noise) of -69.26dB, and an signal-to-noise ratio of -84.42dB (CNET ATS-2 Audio Analyzer results). Providing you use some decent earphones, perhaps along with a portable headphone amp, it sounds good.

Yes, we know that some love to hate iPods, and we know Sony and Cowon players -- particularly our favourite little Cowon D2 -- typically sound better to most ears. But if you want to carry your entire music collection around in a decent lossless format, they're not capacious enough.

Regardless, keen ears often claim the iPod classics don't sound as good as the original 5th gen video iPods. But is the difference really there?

We decided to find out once and for all.

The reference equipment
We've taken the new iPod classic and a 5th gen video iPod (both with the latest firmware), given them Apple Lossless-encoded reference tracks, docked them side-by-side in Arcam rDocks, pumped them through an entirely valve-driven Woo Audio 2 headphone amplifier, and finally outputted them through Denon AH-D7000 headphones, which has had about 150 hours of use.

This is about £2,000 of reference equipment that we use typically to test headphones, so if there's a difference, we'll hear it.

The results
Side-by-side during an A/B listening session, it's clear the sceptics are right: the old 5th gen iPods offer the greater sound quality. But we should make it very, very clear: the preference is subjective, and the differences are only slight -- the vast majority of listeners will either not hear the difference, or find the differences too subtle to give a proverbial rat's ass.

The older iPods offer a slightly warmer, richer mid-range, with noticeable positive effects on vocals, stringed instruments, pianos and acoustic drum kits. The high-end is perhaps a little cooler on the new iPod classics, giving cymbals a slight reduction in brilliance.

Interestingly, perceived tone and character differed when we tried different high-end headphones. Through AKG K 701 'phones, we could still heard the difference, as we did through Klipsch Custom-3s. This was less true though with the Audio Technica W1000s, and less still through Shure SE530 earphones, which still retail for over £200.

The explanation
So why the difference? The older models used different audio processing chips, from Wolfsson (which, incidentally, provides chips to numerous high-end hi-fi audio manufacturers, including Arcam). Whereas the new models use chips from Cirrus Logic -- a change we'd prefer to see reversed.

Our advice
This difference should have no practical impact on your decision to buy a new or old iPod. If you've read the sound quality difference is dramatic, don't worry -- it isn't. The differences are only very subtle through bleeding-edge gear, so should only influence you if choosing an iPod for bleeding-edge listening conditions or if used with more costly hi-fi equipment.

Ultimately, the best advice is to trust your ears. If you can't tell the difference, and enjoy the sound, that's really all that matters. But please do yourself, your iPod and your music one favour: don't use the earbuds that come with the iPod. Just using a half-decent pair will make more of a positive difference than anything we've explored today. -Nate Lanxon