Q: My first generation iPod still works, but is the sound going to be better on a new iPod? My daughter’s new iPod nano playing the identical song on identical speakers sounds a lot better. Why? Isn’t the music all ones and zeroes, so digitally it should be exactly the same?
A: You are correct that the music itself is stored as digital data and therefore is going to be technically identical on any iPod or other digital media player. However, even though the file may contain the same data, the hardware used to translate those ones and zeros into audio that you hear can vary dramatically. In other words, the data may be stored digitally, but we’re still hearing it in analog form, and it therefore to be translated back to the analog sound wave that we can hear.
Conceptually, this is the same as with any audio hardware: Better amplifiers, better speakers and better earphones will all result in improved sound quality. In the same manner, the chips used inside the iPod to decode those ones and zeroes and turn them into the analog sound that we hear differ in the quality of the sound reproduction, and of course as technology improves in general, so do the audio decoding chips used in the iPod. For the most part, newer iPods have newer technology used to decode the ones and zeros into the sounds that you hear, and the newer technology produces a different sound quality that is generally an improvement.
Our various iPod reviews discuss many of the quality differences between the various iPod models over the years, and in many cases there have been notable improvements even from one generation to the next. The improvement in audio processing hardware from the early first and second-generation iPods to the modern iPod nano and iPod classic would definitley be quite significant and noticeable, although since quality is subjective not every user will necessarily agree that the changes are an improvement.