The iPod: a decade that changed the way we listen to music

The iPod: a decade that changed the way we listen to music

The iPod is now 10 years old, and during that decade this little device has instigated a massive shift in the way that many of us listen to music. Here we pay homage to the original iPod – now the iPod classic – and look at the changes it has wrought.

On 23rd October 2001 Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple Computer Inc., introduced a product that would change the face of music forever. The product was a pocket-sized digital music player with enough space for 1,000 songs, or as Jobs put it at the time, an “entire music library”. The player was named iPod.

It wasn’t the first portable music player, of course: the Sony Walkman and Discman had been around for years. Neither was it the first MP3 player: Diamond and Creative had already introduced fairly well-received digital music “jukeboxes”.

Steve Jobs - Original iPodBut the iPod was different: the size of a deck of cards and sporting a 10-hour battery and beautifully simple user interface, it was incredibly easy to live with. The battery charged rapidly compared to rivals, and thanks to its FireWire port music could be transferred onto the iPod far more quickly: it took 10 minutes to move 1,000 songs from a computer to an iPod, while USB-utilising rivals would huff and puff over the same task for five hours.

We’re now ten years on from that launch, and a lot has changed. Jobs, of course, has passed away. Apple has become the world’s largest and most successful technology company – in fact, pretty much the world’s most successful company full stop. Digital music is now the standard, with sales of MP3s far eclipsing those of CDs and other physical formats. The iPod is largely responsible for that (with 275 million sold by September 2010) and naturally it has changed too: its most recent incarnation, the iPod classic, holds 40,000 songs.

How the iPod changed music

On early iPod classics, the relatively limited amount of storage space pushed most people into using low bitrate music: they ripped their CDs to digital MP3 and AAC formats at 128kbps or 160kbps. This meant they could fit more songs on the hard drive – at a cost to audio quality.

But as the capacities grew, it became possible to win on both fronts: with a 160GB hard drive, you could store thousands of songs AND have them encoded in a lossless format. Of course, this meant a lot of people had to go through the bother of re-ripping their entire album collection at a higher quality (but then that goes with the territory of being an audiophile…).

Lossless formats offer an indistinguishable sound from the original CD source, so where possible are always the choice for digital audiophiles. While it isn’t compatible with audiophile favourite FLAC, the iPod is able to play three different lossless formats, AIFF, WAV and Apple Lossless, and you can read more about them in our audiophile’s guide to the iPod. Even lossy MP3 is near identical to CD quality for many people when encoded at a bitrate of 256kbps or 320kbps.

The iPod and its ilk have also raised the question of whether it’s actually worth buying physical music these days. Digital music can be purchased from any number of online sources, including Apple’s own iTunes Store. A digital album is cheaper than a CD, takes up no shelf space and can be bought and downloaded in a matter of minutes from the comfort of your own home. Within ten minutes it can be on your iPod, ready to be listened to anywhere. And there’s no need to endure the withering gaze of a disapproving record shop employee when your choice doesn’t come up to scratch.

People, by and large, have voted with their feet, or at least their mouse-clicking fingers: in the UK, sales of digital albums in 2011 have risen by almost 25 percent year-on-year, while vinyl and CD album sales have fallen by over 20 percent in the same period (source: Official Charts Company). The singles chart, meanwhile, is now almost entirely based on digital sales.

But what of the hardware? While the audiophile accustomed to spending large sums on weighty hi-fi components might be tempted to dismiss a small, lightweight and inexpensive digital music player out of hand, the reality is that the iPod is a very well engineered audio product constructed of high class components. Stereophile magazine calls the iPod “a serious piece of kit worthy of serious consideration by an audiophile” and, thanks to its support for lossless formats, able to “offer the sound quality its owner demands of it”.

Those who want to go further can even upgrade the hardware. Connecting an iPod to a headphone amp will improve solo listening, and it doesn’t stop there: Red Wine Audio’s iMod (which only works with certain iPod classic models) swaps the stock dock connector and headphone jack for a dedicated one-eight-inch headphone jack which can then be plugged into an external headphone amp or hi-fi via a weighty braided silver cable; the iPod’s own headphone jack and ribbon cable are bypassed completely.

Physical music isn’t finished: it will always sell to collectors and enthusiasts, and until lossless music is readily available for download (if you want lossless you’ll more than likely have to buy the CD, then rip it) those audiophiles who demand the very highest quality will continue to shy away from non-physical recordings. But realistically, it’s only a matter of time before even they will be struggling to think of a reasons to stick with physical formats.

Music on the move

The one area where the iPod’s influence is undeniable is on-the-go listening. As Steve Jobs pointed out, having an entire music library in your pocket is a huge deal, and the iPod gave everyone the chance to achieve that at a relatively low price.

C5 HeadphonesIt has also sparked a resurgence in the importance of headphones. With everyone listening to music on the move, getting hold of a good set of cans has become a priority for many iPod owners – particularly as the famous white earbuds bundled with the device itself are so leaky and subpar. GfK reports that in the year 2010/11 24,000 pairs of headphones were sold on average every day in the UK, and estimates that 10 million pairs will be sold during 2012.

Whether it’s discreet in-ear buds or large over-the-ear cups you’re after, there’s a truly dizzying selection out there. And there’s an increasing demand for quality products over cheap, plasticky buds – as people start to listen to higher quality digital music, they want headphones capable of revealing the intricacies and detail in that music. This demand sparked Bowers & Wilkins into its first forays in the mobile audio market, with the recent launches of the P5 on-ear and C5 in-ear headphones.

Home listening

The iPod is generally seen as a device for listening to music on the move, but it’s increasingly replacing physical music in the home too. While it’s possible to run a cable from an iPod to your hi-fi, the real reason for this has been the way speaker docks have improved.

Zeppelin Classic - iPodEarly iPod docks were invariably cheap and small, pushing tinny music out of tiny speakers, but recent years has seen a shift in focus towards higher quality hardware. Docks like the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin, with tweeters derived from the M-1 speaker, as well as a dedicated bass driver, demonstrated that it was possible to get room-filling hi-fi quality sound from an iPod, and again the whole issue of convenience is key: rather than select a CD, take it off the shelf, remove the disc from the box and place it in your player, all you have to do is dock your iPod, select your desired album and tap play. There’s no need to swap discs when the album ends. And who says you even have to play a particular album? The shuffle option will surprise you by randomly selecting tunes, or you can quickly knock together a personally-crafted playlist of your very favourite tracks.

The future

The iPod classic hasn’t been drastically overhauled since the introduction of the sixth generation model four years ago, and it would seem Apple is content to let it remain where it is, gradually drifting out of the spotlight in favour of other iPod models, particularly the app-compatible iPod touch.

iPod TouchIn fact, as the touch’s storage capacity grows (it’s currently available with up to 64GB of space), its additional talents could see it become the de facto “mainstream” iPod. Music fans, for instance, will appreciate the fact that the iPod touch can stream almost any piece of music using a web connection and the Spotify app, not to mention its Wi-Fi capabilities opening it up for cable-free streaming using Apple’s own AirPlay technology and a compatible device.

But we suspect digital-embracing audiophiles will cling to the “original” iPod, the iPod classic, for as long as it is available. Blending cutting edge design with top drawer construction, huge amounts of storage, pocket-sized portability, user friendliness and surprisingly adept audio performance, even today it retains the killer selling points outlined by Steve Jobs ten years ago. Whatever its future, this is one classic that’s truly deserving of the name.

The iPod classic through the years

The original iPod is now in its sixth distinct generation, and while the familiar design – a rounded rectangle with a screen and control wheel on the front and metal plate on the back – remains, with every iteration Apple has made vast improvements to the specifications and features.

1st Gen iPodFirst generation

“1,000 songs in your pocket” was the slogan used to launch the first ever iPod. Because it used a 1.8-inch hard drive, it was smaller than competitors (which were then using 2.5-inch hard drives). It featured a mechanical scroll wheel, monochrome LCD, 5GB of storage and was compatible only with Macs. A 10GB version was released in March 2002.


2nd Gen iPod

Second generation

Debuting in July 2002, this model made two major changes. First, the scroll wheel was touch sensitive. Second, a FireWire-to-USB adapter included meant it was now compatible with Windows PCs. 10GB and 20GB versions were available.


3rd Gen iPod

Third generation

Unveiled in April 2003, this model sported a few design tweaks: it was thinner, had four touch sensitive buttons above the wheel replacing the physical controls on previous models, and ditched the FireWire port in favour of the proprietary dock connector still used today. 15GB and 30GB capacities were offered, with a range refresh swapping those for 20GB and 40GB in September 2003.


4th Gen iPodFourth generation

In July 2004 Apple introduced 20GB and 40GB models that removed the four buttons in favour of a clickwheel, as seen previously on the iPod mini. In October the same year a version of this iPod with a colour screen and the ability to display photos was announced.


5th Gen iPodFifth generation

Debuting in October 2005, this model featured a sharper screen, 30GB and 60GB options and the ability to play video. A September 2006 update saw an 80GB model supplant the 60GB version.


6th Gen iPodSixth generation

The current – and possibly final – generation of the original iPod, this was the first model to be called the “classic”. Thinner than previous models and with 36 hours of battery life, it was introduced in September 2007 in 80GB and 160GB editions. Today, only the latter is available, and the fact that it hasn’t been updated since 2009 – plus the availability of the iPod shuffle, nano and touch models – has led to speculation that Apple will soon cease selling the iPod classic. For now, it remains as the highest capacity – and therefore most audiophile-friendly – iPod available. 160GB is enough space for over 300 CDs encoded in Apple Lossless quality.


  • Patrick says:

    Very nice article, but something don’t make sense to me..

    “re-ripping their entire album collection at a higher quality”

    is this really possible ? mp3 to a lossless format ?

  • Shaun says:

    Hi Patrick

    You are correct, you can’t convert MP3 to a lossless format. But what the article is saying is that people are going back to the original source, their CD collection, and ripping them again at a higher bit rate.

    That is certainly what i have been doing – and it makes me glad I didn’t sell all my CDs after ripping them the first time!



  • Marcin says:

    hi. very nice article. but I thing there is fev much beter companies with B&W would work than apple. Like covon, hifiman,rio carma and more. I thing the last Ipod classic has terrible sound quality. I have bought B&W P5 and I think Ipod classic is not worth that headphones. regards

  • Ripo Man says:

    Does the lossless format really sound like CD ref quality? or do you still need to use a good DAC there after?

  • Greg Voth says:

    Vinyl has outlived the CD. Most albums sound better than their digital counterparts. Most records come with a digital download or CD – the new Tom Waits came with a CD, the new Paul Simon, with a 24/96 download.

    Always keep your original sources… you never know whether you’ll need to re-rip them in the future.

    The iPod Touch is the current best selling iPod. Retiring the Classic will happen when the Touch gains a comparable storage.

  • Stewart says:

    I plug my iPod classic into a NAD IPD port for iPod connected to my NAD ssteroe receiver/amp, driving a pair of B&W speakers. I can control the iPod with the remote. The iPhone will play through the systemas well – I used to get a message on the phone saying that the accessory was not optimised for the iPhone, but that stoped with the new operating system (5). But it looks like NAD have a new port (IPD2) that is fully compatible.

  • Andrew says:

    A great retrospective. One correction, if I may. The second generation of the iPod was indeed the first to be marketed as Windows-compatible, but not because of a FireWire-USB adapter. No such adapter exists, to my knowledge. The adapter included with the second generation iPod was a 6-4 pin FireWire adapter. The 4-pin version of FireWire, though not used on Macs, was more popular than its 6-pin variant on Windows PCs at the time. Sony, for example, called it i-Link. What actually made it Windows-compatible, however, was the modified version of MusicMatch Jukebox for Windows to provide syncing capability, as Apple had yet to get around to porting iTunes to Windows. At this point in time, all iPods, including the original from 2001 are supported in iTunes on a PC. If you can find one, that is, and if your PC has FireWire.

  • Robin says:

    I re-ripped all my CDs in Apple lossless and use my Classic 160 through an Onkyo digital dock into an Arcam rDac and then to Rega amp and B&W 685s – Lovely!

  • David says:

    Ripo Man,
    Yes and no. With a good set of cans, I have the B&W P-5’s myself, and the newest 160 gig. iPod Classic, it sounds fantastic. These has been arguments about weather the change from Wolfson DAC’s to I think it’s Cirrus Logic DAC’s inside all the newer iPods, Pods, and Phones, has lowered the sound quality, but I have put an older iPod with the Wolfson DAC in it vs. my new Classic with the Cirrus Logic DAC in it, and I think the new Classic sounds crisper. Others disagree, but I also question the quality of the headphones they are using. The P-5’s are very neutral sounding, and revealing as they are not open backed headphones, and I don’t know what the others are listening with. Different headphones make an obvious sound signature to what you are hearing.
    As to bypassing the iPod DAC entirely, the Zeppelin Air does this, as well as a product sold by Wadia, and I assume it HAS to make the music sound that much better, but we are talking small differences, and between listening to music on my Zeppelin Air with the iPod DAC bypassed, and the Zeppelin’s internal DAC being used, verses plugging in my P-5 headphones directly to the headphone jack, I don’t hear a startling sound quality difference.

  • David says:

    I just checked, it is Cirrus Logic DAC’s in all the new iPods, Pads, Phones. And no more Wolfson DAC’s. Cirrus Logic DAC’s are in some pretty expensive ($four figure) CD players, and Wolfson has been the defacto leader in high-end DAC’s for CD players, my CD player has Wolfson DAC’s in it. I wonder who makes the DAC in the Zeppelin Air that is used to bypass the iPod’s DAC?? Never could find that out, but I bet it’s Wolfson. Just a guess.

    Anyone know who makes the DAC in the Zep. Air??

  • Mconniff says:

    A very long time ago I “Ripped” my music from all my CDs into Mp3s. I still have all 300+ CDs somewhere in a closet. Yes it took a long time and no I don’ t have that computer anymore nor the ripping softwear. However finding a good ripping softwear is what I am in search of. I had no idea that “re-ripping” will help me get better quality out of my music collection. Not sure I understand the “DAC” or what it does though I will search google here in a moment. I guess I have some research to do.

    Interesting read and loved the comments.


  • Simba says:

    AAC is much better than Mp3 and it use less space too

  • Jay says:

    I have recently re-ripped much of my cd collection in Apple Lossless format. I plug the ipod classic into a Marantz SR6004, then use a McIntosh 300 wpc amp to drive B&W 802N’s. I recently compared the sound from that “USB In” on the Marantz to the identical source cd playing through my Blu-Ray player. So, both sources use the Marantz DAC’s. If there was any difference in the sound, it was minimal. And, the ability to scroll through all my music using the itunes software on the projector screen is awesome.

Add a comment

We welcome debate within Society of Sound, but please keep it friendly, respectful and relevant. We have a few house rules which we ask you to abide by to keep the debate intelligent. Read more.
Product enquiry or support issue? Please click here.

Related Posts

Ola Onabule previews album on Society of Sound

Acclaimed soul singer and songwriter, Ola Onabule is previewing his latest album, Seven Shades Darker, on Society of Sound next week. …

Downloading Society of Sound music just got easier

We're always keen to improve Society of Sound and really value members' feedback. We know that downloading has sometimes proved …

The Creole Choir of Cuba – undiscovered voices of the Caribbean

Yet again an extraordinary album, courtesy of Peter Gabriel and Real World Studios, that absolutely sings from your speakers. The …