Mac Laptop & Sound Cards

O.K., I know I'm years behind but I just got a MacBook Pro laptop and a pair of desktop speakers. Have loaded hundreds of my own tunes and bought a couple hundred iTunes. I am retiring real soon and have always used company laptops but never was able to load any software, thus the new Mac.

I've read through a number of threads and am confused. What is a simple (and relatively inexpensive) way to upgrade the sound quality I get out of my Audioengine speakers? (Believe it or not, I have no idea how a souncard works or even where it plugs in.)

Thanks, people.
Soundcards are a PC thing. Your Mac is self-contained.

Are you unhappy with the sound you are getting? Which format are you using for the songs you have loaded from your own CDs? Remember that the songs you download from iTunes are lower resolution (I think...don't do much of it myself) than what you rip yourself if you are using Apple Lossless or .wav to rip CDs. If you are not using one of those formats, then start there to get better sound quality.

Congratulations on your imminent retirement and your new MacBook Pro.
Just to expand on Drubin's point. Mac's don't use soundcards - effectively the soundcard function is built in. There are five ways to get sound out of your Mac.

#1 - use the audio out, which is a 3.5mm mini plug to stereo cable that you plug into your preamp or speakers if they are self powered.

#2 - Toslink out - this is a glass fiber that carries SPDIF from the Mac to a DAC. The DAC makes the bits back into notes and you plug the DAC into your pre, or direct into your amp or your speakers - you can use the Mac volume control bar

#3 - USB out to a USB DAC and then the same as above

#4 - You can use Airport Express which allows you to send analog music wirelessly to a receiver. You then plug the reciever into your preamp etc

#5 - You can use either the Ethernet out or wireless (802.11) to send music from your Mac to a Logitech Squeezebox or I believe a Sonos.

Each approach has its advantages. There are different offerings at different price points in most categories. The hot set-up is probably the USB DAC, followed by the Squeezebox.

No matter which of these you select (and you can also mix and match) do what Drubin suggests which is to rip all of your CDs in Apple Lossless with Error Correction on, and all other checkboxes off. You will find all this under Preferences, the import is selected under Advanced/Import.

Lots to read about all this stuff here and on audioasylum's PC Forum.

Have fun
another option is to go from your mac using the toslink output to an external dac. for my whole house audio (except for my dedicated audio room), i use a mac front end and airport express wireless units that use the toslink out to front end gear. i then use a macbook to control itunes from other locations in the house. you can also use the ipod touch or iphone to remotely control a mac itunes server.
Good info in the above posts. Note that Ckorody’s mention of a Preference setting for ripping pertains to your iTunes preference settings, not the System Preferences panel.

I use an external converter with my PowerBook. That’s #3 in Ckorody’s post.

I’ve used an M-Audio Audiophile and an Apogee Mini-DAC. They connect to the computer via a USB cable, then to powered speakers via RCA-to-RCA cables in the case of the M-Audio or XLR-to-RCA for the Apogee.

Output configuration is done with the Sound control panel in System Preferences.

Both models sound much better than the laptop’s minijack speaker/headphone output. The Apogee is outstanding.
The other preference check boxes to turn off are sound enhancer and sound check under playback - they do weird things to the music
Wow! Thanks, guys. I actually had the info about the soundcard vs. Mac's internal. I learned that when I had my first One to One at the Apple Store.

I think i will try the outboard DAC and a number of other suggestions. I'm getting addicted to the convenience (and sheer fun) of this system and want to integrate in into my Joule Electra/EAR/Audio Physic system. I've already got 1,300+ songs loaded, including a bunch I bought from iTunes. I do DJ work on the side and intend to work the laptop into that in a big way. Already use it to tell me what I have available.

I use AAC Endcoder at 256 kbps. I am going to burn a CD with a couple of tunes done at both AAC and Apple Lossless and which sounds best. I have checked AAC vs. lower resolution Apple encoder and the AAc sounds more like music. I listened to a tune which sounded like it was distoring my speakers. Under AAC it then sounded like an intentional distortion in the music to make it sound more "analog" like. Instruments were clearer and music was more natural and enjoyable.

Thanks again, everyone.
Tom -

Do Apple Lossless. First of all, as you do more listening, you will end up there anyhow. That is 100% a universally held opinion and a basic tenet to getting the most out of your system.

More to the point, since you are using this professionally, an Apple Lossless file can be converted to an AIFF, WAV or other format that you may want or have to use in the future. An AAC cannot since the data has been lost.
Is your statement that Macs don't use sound cards universal or particular to laptops? I have a 2 GHz Intel duo core iMac with 1 GB memory.

Do you use a computer as a source in your dedicated audio room, and if so what and how? Not sure how this stuff could connect to my vintage Proceed PAV/PDSD preamp/processor.

The idea is intriguing, though.

Any idea how much more space a Lossless file takes up compared to an AAC? I have a 320gb external hard drive and will be loading about 5,000 songs and 2,000 photos.
Dbphd - it's universal. The sound card functionality is built-in to each and every Mac regardless of form factor except the servers.

Lossless takes up considerably more space then AAC, but nowhere near as much as WAV or AIFF.

I have about 15,000 songs Apple Lossless songs which is about 1,500 CDs (including extended classical and jazz pieces) on a 400Gb hard drive. It takes up about 335Gb, and I maintain a complete back up on a separate drive. Keep in mind that you never get the full amount of the drive.

Hard to say on pictures since I don't know what size images you shoot, whether you have RAW files, or they are all 800dpi JPGs or what. (It's that whole compression thing again.)

Sounds as though a 350Gb drive will do for a good long while. If you haven't bought one yet, get a 400. Storage is unbelievably inexpensive. A good source is newegg.
Ckorody - Thanks for the helpful info. I'm looking at my notes from an Apple training session about a month ago. I wrote (and remember being told) that the highest resolution is Lossless. I'd thought that was WAV file. However, I asked which setting would potentially give me the best sound (resolution) quality. I was told the following:

MP3 - lowest
AIFF - next lowest
WAV - middle
AAC - 2nd highest
Lossless - highest

If I want the best audiophile quality downloads and burning, what would be my choice? The 'expert' at the Apple Store said AAC is the best compromise between high quality resolution and storage space.

I think I'll check out newegg and look for a 500 gb for backup.
If you are using a Mac (which you are) the best quality and the most flexible format is Apple Lossless. Apple Lossless offers an additional advantage, it deals with metadata very well - the various bits of information about each song.

I think your notes must be a bit scrambled because WAV and AIFF are uncompressed audio - they are as good as Lossless but take more space and do not handle metadata as well. AIFF is the file type you pull off a CD...

Here is the way that most people here do the math. Depending exactly on what you get, a very large drive is under $150. A backup is another $150. Here is an example

Now let's calculate the value of a 1,000 CDs and add to that the time it is going to take you to rip them. Suddenly the cost of the hard drive is not a significant part of the equation - which makes the difference between Apple Lossless and AAC moot.
Dbphd, in my dedicated audio room, i use all Classe gear with totem mani 2 speakers. i have my den setup using totem speakers, dk design amp, sony dvp9000es cd/sacd player, and the airport express hooked up thru my wireless network. a mac mini is my music server using itunes. i also have another system in my living room that has a multi source multi output receiver with an airport express that allows me to get my itunes music to my living room and to the outside speakers. my macbook can control the itunes on my mac mini from any location in the house.
future plans are purchasing an external dac for my den that the sony cd player and the airport express will plug into.
IMO, if you are looking at purchasing external hard drives for your pc, you need to get a couple or buy a RAID setup so you will have no single point of failure. i have a friend that lost his disk drive and his purchased itunes (worth $3600) was wiped out. if you need 500gb now, buy a terabyte drive, you will use it faster than you think. right now, i have multiple 500gb drives and each 500gb drive is backed up to another 500gb drive daily. leopard comes with time machine that automatically backs up your data. i'm in the process of purchasing a multi-terabyte RAID disk subsystem that will allow me to get rid of a few 500gb drives and have 1 disk subsystem that is fault tolerant using RAID 5 technology.
Rbstehno -

Impressive and thorough approach.

Could you please tell us how many unique CD titles you have, and in how many formats. Would be helpful to give people some perspective on how you ended up with this much data.

Also could you explain where the Mini and RAID 5 rig is located in your home, how much space it takes and if its Firewire or SATA.

It's important that newbies (especially the many who are trying computer playback for the first time) are not scared off by the kind of complexity you are wrestling with, so any context you could provide would be invaluable.
Ckorody - Thanks for expressing my condition! I'm actually starting to get a handle on a lot of this but am grateful for Audiogon members as the guys and girls at the Apple Store don't seem to understand what I'm getting at - i.e., highest quality musical downloads.

Thanks again, everyone. All info is helpful to me, and I'm sure, others.

By the way, yesterday I ordered a 500gb hard drive. Will probably get another 500 for back up but at this time will have 820gb by next week.
Ckorody - i have approx 1500 cd's, 20 sacd's, and hundreds of albums. i use the mini for my browsing the net, for work, and it is also used as a music and file server for the other macs in the house. all the macs backup there disks to the multiple 500gb drives attached to the mini.
i work out of my home so i have a decent audio setup in my den: dk design, sony dvp9000es, nikko fm tuner, an adcom gda-700 dac (just purchased tonight), totem speakers, definitive technology sub, and an airport express which is hooked up to the adcom dac. the sony is also hooked up to the dac.
i have a dedicated audio room that has all classe gear with totem mani 2 speakers.

the 500gb drives are hooked up by firewire. i have been looking to purchase a NAS multi-terabyte storage system that will allow me to use raid 10 or raid 5. there was a unit on ebay that just went for $600 for a 2 terabyte unit. if i buy this NAS unit, i can hook this up in a closet with a network connection and i can get rid of all the 500gb drives i have on my desk.
btw: the adcom dac really cleaned up the sound that was coming out of the airport express. smooth, and had to turn the subwoofer down a bit, the bass was more there.
Hi RB -

I figured you must have more going on then just the CDs - I have 1,500+ in Apple Lossless on one 400Gb and one back-up.

Do you have your LPs ripped as well? How big is a file? I am not a vinyl guy (have to practice self control somewhere) so I have not had the chance to play with that.

FWIW I have been much, much happier since I left Firewire for SATA. Beyond it being faster - which is nice when cloning or backing up (obviously not a playback issue) it is so much more robust. Doesn't care how its shut down or started up etc. The new 32Mb cache drives rock. I cloned my whole music drive (375Gbs) in less then 2 hours.

Still I am with you, a NAS would be great - especially to get the noise out of the room.
Excellent thread!

I'm using my Apple PowerBook G4 as transport feeding wirelessly an Apple Airport Express connected by minijack to RCA on my Denon AVR 3805 surround amp. I'm looking at using the Toslink connection for sound quality improvement

I have a question regarding preferences on iTunes: under Playback, is it better to have the option 'sound equalizer' ON (not sure about the exact English wording, I'm using French version of the soft, anyway it's the third one from the top)?

Thanks for your help
best to have everything off except for "error correction on" on the Advanced/Importing page
Let me add an additional consideration. I have four Macs, with this 1.67 GHz PowerPC G4 with only 1 GB of memory being the most current. A friend uses a HT with two 750 GB drives, one as backup and uses MS music player software to get a AES/EBU into his dac. Can I use a Mac instead of this PC stuff? Could I store the music on the external hard-drives and control with my Mac? Would it not be the case that Apple Lossless would be the equal of AIFF he uses?
you don't need a pc, mac's have a much better operating system. with 4 macs, you can do a lot of cool stuff for a distributed whole house music system. you can share your itunes from 1 central mac, you can have each mac in a different room playing different itunes selections, you can use airport express devices wired or wireless to help in distributing the music, you can hook up an external dac between you mac or the airport express for better quality sound, and on and on. this is what i'm using for all my rooms except for my dedicated audio room. someday, i might put an itunes feed into it.
Yep -

All those are, are external drives. If you are using a tower, I strongly recommend you add a PCI SATA card, especially if you are going with that kind of storage. Simply much faster and more robust then Firewire or USB.

Good question about the AES/EBU output - I personally haven't come across that. I am sure it is doable using an add in card from Lynx, Apogee or the like. Remember that Mac is the computer of choice in recording studios...

Apple Lossless is equivalent to AIFF and WAV just more compact. Also - and this comes in handy - Apple Lossless does a much better job handling metadata (additional kinds of information about each song) then either WAV or AIFF

The key thing I try and get across to people is the overall superiority of iTunes. It provides an integrated approach to all the functions you need for computer based music - ripping, metadata, list management, archiving in a world class package. There are some very good apps for PCs but they are not integrated and the support is nowhere near at the same level - how can freeware be... It's great if you are very savvy and like to fiddle but if you want to just play music this is much more straightforward.
Ckorody and Rbstehno, I would be using the Mac as a controller with all the storage in the HT box with a AES/EBU lead going to the dac. It is John Tucker of Exemplar, a close friend, who has this running. My question really is whether it is easier and better with a Mac. I don't really want itunes running everywhere. When I am not listening to music, I like silence. But I suspect that using a music server as the source of my digital would great outperform my use of cd transports. At least that is what John says he has achieved.
What's an HT box?
Home Theater, it is just a chassis. Although I don't have one, I thought it was pretty common usage.
Gonna be better with a Mac - no doubt about it. You will be up and running in minutes - search this site and Audio Asylum's PC Forum.

Regardless of which platform you choose, you will have better sound quality (less jitter and distortion) then all but the very best CD transports - agaikn check the forums. The beauty of this approach is you can do so much more with so much less money - what's not to like?
Ckorody - Thanks for so much useful information!
Ckorody, I thank you also. I can fully understand how I might use my Mac with music on its hard-drive and feed thru the USB port, but can you explain how a substantial external hard-drive located at the dac might be used with the Mac located elsewhere might be used to control it. I know that John Tucker at Exemplar is using a AES/EBU connection between his PC based system and his DAC one of which I own. It does not have a USB port. He is talking about a wireless connection to his laptop and using a program called Fubar.
Hi - glad to be of help.

Not sure what John is doing, didn't see anything obvious on the Exemplar website.

Just to be clear, AES/EBU is a pro (balanced using XLRs) signal format like SPDIF. It is a long established high end way to go - but requires an appropriate sound card, DAC and dollars.

USB is an alternative way of getting data out of a computer after it is retrieved from the drive.

Basically wherever the drive is, the data has to come back to the computer so that it can go out via a comm(unication) port - ie USB, Ethernet, Firewire, AES, serial, parallel etc Depending on the computer some of this may be built in, some of it may require a specialized card (ie AES/EBU)

But there is a much bigger issue that has to be dealt with.

I do not know of any drives (not that I have ever made a study) that can output a specific file via USB directly to a DAC. The USB ports on external drives by LaCie, Maxtor etc are all controlled by the computer and as far as I know are solely used to transfer data between drives. (They have simply chosen USB instead of SCSI (old school), Firewire or these days SATA.

The only way I know to use a remote drive is to use what is called a NAS - network area storage device. Basically a NAS is a stack of drives with an intelligent controller hanging on an ethernet network. This works well with a device like a Squeezebox which is also Ethernet based and has the ability to access the drive and retrieve specific files. Since it is an ethernet network the pieces do not need to be co-located. Depending on your situation this could be pretty cost effective since a terrabyte NAS rig is now under a grand.(Buffalo seems to be the low end leader)

Short of a NAS, the solution is to leave the drive by your computer and co-locate either a network/wifi device like the Squeezebox with the DAC - and go from the SB into the DAC; or Airport Express (also wifi) - and go Toslink into the DAC.

There are a couple of very good threads running concurrently with this one that are worth reviewing.

Sorry if this is a bit confusing - its really plug and play, more a case of identifying the square pegs and round holes.
Ckorody, thanks. I need to talk more with John about all of this, but I suspect he must have a processor within his chassis with the big hard drives. If so, I would not be an Apple processor. Then my dilemma would be to just use it as he makes it or to pursue other means using Apple.
TBG - wish I could find what you are looking at - send me a link if you like. This is obviously an add in card that he makes or mods.

Keep in mind that Mac is and has been the computer of choice in recording studios for many, many years. There is a ton of pro and semi-pro stuff out there, including a wide range of I/O (input output) cards some of which no doubt utilize AES/EBU. Others are used for mixing, for effects processing, for managing time code (used to sync double system audio and video) Whether or not there is one to meet your needs (besides Johns) I couldn't say.

If you want to poke around a bit, Apogee and Lynx are two mfgrs you might look at.

Before you go too far down this particular rat hole, keep in mind that the only tricky thing you are talking about is going from the drive to the DAC without coming back to the computer.

At the end of the day it might be easier to put the computer at that end too, then control it with Front Row, a Sailing Clicker etc. Take a look at the current thread "Music Server vs. PC vs. Transport vs. ?" - in particular the comments of Rbstehno for some good ideas.
nas is the way to go for storage. imo, get a 4 drive nas system and use raid-5 to setup the nas. this will allow you to use 3 out of the 4 drives for data. even if you go with nas, you will still need a backup. any computer piece can and will fail. if you don't back it up, be sure you won't lose anything valuable.
here is what my den setup consists of:
totem speakers, definitive technology supercube sub, nikko fm tuner, sony dvp9000es dvd/cd/sacd player, dk design vs-1, adcom gda-700 dac, audio alchemy dti, mac mini running itunes, and airport express in multiple rooms. i go from the sony player and the airport express into the dti unit (cleans up the jitter), then out of the dti to the dac. sounds very good. there was a big improvement using the external dac and an improvement again using the dti.
as for distributing music to other rooms, i have airport express unit hooked up wired and wireless to other systems and i currently control them with my macbook. the macbook allows me to control the mac mini from other rooms to run selections from itunes. i am in the middle of buying an ipod touch which i will use to control the mac mini running itunes from other parts of the house instead of using the macbook.