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iPhone vs. iPod: Which one sounds better playing music?

The Audiophiliac ponders the sound of the iPod Classic, iPhone 6S and other options.

Do you remember those bygone days when the iPod was Apple's pride and joy, and the little white player changed the way we listened to music on the go? I do, and trust me on this, the iPod was a really big deal. But once the iPhone debuted in 2007, the iPod's luster faded fast.

iPhone 6S and iPod Classic, which one sounds better?

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I own an iPhone 6S and a sixth-generation 160GB iPod Classic, so I wondered, is the Classic a better-sounding device than my iPhone? Funny, I never got around to comparing them before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The Classic design is nine years old, the 6S has newer and better digital converters, but since it's not a dedicated music player, there may have been design sacrifices favoring the 6S' primary job as a smart phone.

To get started, I loaded the same Apple Lossless files into the Classic and the 6S and listened with Audio Technica ATH MSR7 ($250, £199, AU$349), V Moda Forza Metallo ($130, £120; by the way, an Audiophiliac review is in the works), and Etymotic ER4 SR headphones.

Right away they sounded different -- the 6S was fine, but the Classic was brighter. With indie rockers Alt-J's "An Awesome Wave" album, their music sounded a little sluggish over the 6S, and livelier on the Classic. As I continued listening, there was no decisive winner between these two, my opinions changed with different tunes and swapping between headphones. The 6S consistently had a fuller and fleshier balance; the Classic was cooler, but clearer overall. With Antonio Sanchez' hard-hitting solo drumming score for the film "Birdman", the Classic unleashed more visceral dynamics, while the 6S flattened them. Still, some listeners might prefer the 6S' softer and sweeter presentation.

To up the ante, I hooked up my AudioQuest DragonFly Red ($199, £169, AU$320) digital converter-headphone amplifier to the iPhone 6S' (£549.00 at Apple) Lightning connector, and the sound clarified, the bass firmed up, the music's dynamics kicked a lot harder, and that transformation tilted the balance in favor of the 6S. Unfortunately, the Classic can't be used with the Red, so for any audiophiles out there clinging to their Classics, it's time to move on.

An iPhone 6S, shown with an AudioQuest DragonFly Red, and Audeze EL 8 headphones

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Apple killed the iPod Classic in 2014, but if you want one for nostalgia's sake, you can still find used, new and refurbished 'Pods on the internet. In praise of that old design, I've never found a portable music player easier to use than a Classic, but a lot of music players, including the FiiO X1 Gen 2 ($100, £99), Sony Walkman NWZ-A17 ($300), Astell & Kern Jr ($499, £399, AU$699), or the Cowon Plenue D ($299, £199, AU$429) sound a whole lot better than a Classic or a 6S.

So if you really care about the sound of your tunes and have already invested in a great set of headphones don't even bother with a smartphone or an iPod -- buy one of the high-resolution music players I just mentioned. The DragonFly, or another outboard digital converter/headphone amp is also a viable option.