I constantly get asked by my perspective customers to explain how a Mac Mini can sound superior to other computers such as PC or even other Macs. I've started this thread for discussion about the findings between the Mac Mini versus other Mac computers versus various PCs. My intent is to go beyond technical discussions and actually show true "cause and effect" based on actual blind A/B listening tests. Anyone interested in this sort of discussion?
Macs, Windows and Linux computers can all sound great when setup correctly. Macs tend to be easier to setup, but they are not "better", just different. Macs/iTunes are great for 16/44 content.
Mac Mini? It's small, quiet and easily upgradable. The new Mac Mini is far easier to upgrade the memory and hard drive. It's just a simple, yet high quality way to archive and retrieve music from iTunes.
I don't think the sonic differences are that different, and discussing (arguing for some people) is not constructive. Those conversations have been covered on these forums and others more than I care to count. The most important thing to focus on is getting the hardware and software configured correctly and choosing the applications and interface that works for you.
I'm sure the battlements are being drawn and there will be plenty of "opinions" thrown around....let the games begin. I'm going back to the new Mavis Staples album that came today.... ;)
DBAudio guy, this should be fun. I am interested in hearing peoples experiences.
I use a MAC Mini with iTunes for the convenience, low ambient noise, firewire interface (keeps the disk I/O off of the USB Bus where my DAC lives) and plan to get a bluetooth keyboard ( to sit on the couch and geek out, plus remove the keyboard and mouse from the USB bus). All of these features are built into the basic MAC Mini at a very reasonable price. Also, I ultimately plan to place the MAC Mini on my audio shelf and it's compact size is helpful.
Will be interesting to see what other folks think about this subject.
I think that hardware/software can and does make a significant sonic difference IF you have a nice Audio system.
In general Macs, PCs, and Linux systems have different hardware and software, so I think this will be fun discussion.
Over the years, I have worked on Macs (the original Mac with a single floppy and no hard drive), PCs since 1986, and Linux/Unix system (Intel Factory for one). Yep, I'm an IT guy and am not a fanboy of any platform. They all have their pluses and minus's.
My first music server was a PC Laptop. I thought that a battery powered solution would be best. Then dbaudiolabs suggested I try a MacMini. A friend had just set one up and he brought it over. It killed my Lenovo laptop that I had set up for bit-perfect output. I was shocked. It wasn't even close.
I'm not saying a MacMini will crush all PCs, but it killed my Lenovo laptop with bit perfect output, and the MacMini wasn't optimized. It was stock at the time.
Since then, I have learned a lot about the MacMini setup and even discovered a few set up tricks I haven't seen anyone else use. My current MacMini setup sounds so much better than the stock one.
The MacMini setup principles can be used on the other Hardware/OS platforms. Given that all the platforms can be setup well, I think a discussion about platforms themselves will be interesting, AS LONG AS IT IS BASED ON REAL A/B EXPERIENCES, and NOT THEORY. Theory doesn't always pan out like we expect.
Core audio drivers in a mac are better than those in a PC. There are less obstacles and processes that the music must go through before it is output to a DAC. Even with ASIO or Kernel streaming the Mac Mini still has less of an obstacle before output in most cases.
On top of that a Mac Mini power supply is engineered only for 18.5 volts whereas a PC power supply is supplying anywhere from 5-12v to multiple different devices like graphics cards, motherboard, harddrives, etc. So there are many different voltages all causing noise in the system.
In terms of arguing for which is better... I'd say go for the Mac Mini. It's more upgradeable for audio and starts off at higher performance. I have used PCs and Macs for years, started recording on a PC many years ago and now use a Mac in my audio system with an upgraded power supply. The difference between my PC (with a great sound card) and the Mac Mini was night and day in terms of smoothness and noise floor.
I am currently running a firewire device (Prism Sound Orpheus), but my old DAC was USB. Neither of these interfaces are free from jitter and distortion. When you compare firewire in audio to firewire in a harddrive they are two different subjects. Harddrives function much like ethernet. The data is sent in packets, which are buffered and checked for errors before being "OKed" by the receiving computer.
With audio we don't have that leisure because we are trying to function in real time. So you have a real time firewire signal being sent down to the components. This firewire cable has two twisted pairs of power leads, a ground lead, and two twisted pairs of signal conductors. The problem is that these power leads and ground conductors all feed noise into the signal leads, which disrupts the voltage. This makes it difficult for the receiving component to see if the signal is Voltage on or Voltage off.
That's the same reason a good power supply makes a difference on a computer. At each step of the way the audio signal is created using power from the wall. It is copied like in a copy machine at each step. Think of the power as the ink. The better the power the darker the ink of each copy. If you make a copy of a copy of a copy the ink starts to get duller unless you have better power. This is the case even with digital signals. As the ink gets duller it starts to be difficult for the DAC to tell whether the signal is on or off. It also creates timing errors in that the distance between these on or off voltages changes.
A good power supply goes for any component. It's what allows for more detail resolution and better transients. It's a shame that so many companies put lackluster supplies in their gear.
From that standpoint alone the stock power supplies in a Mac are better than a PC. On the other hand, switchmode supplies are designed for efficiency, not for low distortion for audio purposes. Designing a good power supply for my Mac Mini was one of the largest upgrades I've made in over a year.
Long story short... I'd say go for the mac. There's more software and DSP capability available for it and it starts off with a lower noise floor with more upgradeable options (solid state harddrive, better power supply, Pure Music/Amarra, etc).
If you do use a Mac Mini, having at least 4GB of RAM and a SSD will help it sound better. It's subtle, but an improvement. The SSD will definitely improve the overall performance and responsiveness of the Mac, and it's hard to go back to a standard hard drive after using one.
Some people claim improvement using the 64bit version of OSX Snow Leopard. I personally have not come to a conclusion about this yet, but have tried it with mixed results.
I also am undecided about Amarra and Pure Music. Again, some people claim improvements, but I'm undecided, and don't currently use them on my main "music listening" Mac.
There are a few "re-clockers" that can improve the FireWire interface. I have has great results with the Weiss INT202. There are a few other companies, some of which show up in these forums on a regular basis, that can also achieve good results.
I also want to say that the "mini toslink" out is much better than most people want to give it credit for. If used with a nice polished glass toslink cable, it can deliver some great performance.
Since these items can be easily added over time, I always recommend starting simple and trying new products and methods over time. Don't forget to have have along the way.
And then there is the subject of converting the CD to a computer audio file. This is where I have found most of my problems. I live for the day when I have 4000-5000 CDs all ripped 100% bit perfect and double backed up on external storage. I think the DVD ROM drives of today fail in terms of accuracy. It's true that most of the error recovery takes care of drive innaccuracy but extracting BIT PERFECT audio copies is a whole different problem. I would think a company could put out a 16X CD ROM drive designed to rip a music CD to a computer file. Beef it up and sell it at a premium. Bring back the Plextor 16X SCSI drives of yore.
Then there are the surface scatches on the CD itself that cause errors ... Yet another source of problems.
Bottom line ... what a lot of people think is bit perfect ... really isnt. Too many variables to pin down. I have it down pretty well now but it can take a long time to rip a CD that has surface issues.
OS wise ... I work in Information Technology at a college. We have about 600 macs and 3000 PC's over the last 10 years I have messed with sound and music extraction. I have heard good, mediocre and bad sound come out of computers but I have never linked it to a specific OS. I think there needs to be a more stable way of getting those "pits stamped or burned" into an exact bit stream a computer can read and store. The file is sacred. Garbage in ... garbage out.
That being said ; I am looking at a Mac mini to play with this winter after 20 years playing with Linux and Windows. I have installed, configured and played with OS X and I really like it for it's simplicity and efficiency. Will it make a sonic difference? I'm thinking no ... but I have a open mind.
I desolder the power cable from a stock SMPS OR I buy the one off of mp3car. It tends to be cheaper to buy a supply off ebay and steal the cable from it. I built my own DC cable on my last supply using the wire we use in Mojo Audio power cables. I just stole the connector off of the original cable. The DC connectors themselves aren't sold OEM unfortunately.
I agree that having 4gigs of RAM is a necessity on the Mac Mini. If you buy one with less RAM it's fairly easy to upgrade. A SSD helps the performance of the system, but I didn't hear much audible benefit by adding one. Though it wasn't non-existent. --
Surface scratches on a CD actually don't damage the content of the CD. The plastic cover is usually what is scratched and it's fairly easy for the computer to read around the scratches unless the disk had a wire brush taken to it. CDs are buffered and rebuffered while being copied. If you RIP them to a lossless format at a high bitrate they will be bit perfect on the computer. The issue more so is outputting that file to the DAC. That's why Pure Music and Amarra have been getting popular. I found they they both sound different, it'll be a personal preference as to which you prefer. I use Pure Music.
Correct. If you plan to use multiple external hard drives in order to have plenty of storage space and a backup drive, you can use firewire attached drives. This gets your disk I/O off of the USB bus. Then use a USB DAC and you have the disk I/O and the DAC I/O on separate buses. I can't say if it makes a sonic difference, but it would seem to make logical sense considering the firewire bus is there to use. BTW, the Iomega MiniMax hard drives are a cosmetic match for a MAC Mini. Very cool....
Also, if you use a bluetooth keyboard (with touchpad) you also get the keyboard I/O off of the USB bus. Also the bluetooth keyboard/touchpad is cool because you can have it in your lap on the sofa/listening chair.
You raise a very interesting and, for some of us, timely question. Had you proffered this question in June or July, I would not have dared to comment. But over the last several months we have been developing a hardware/software solution that has come from a rather mediocre digital sound to more clarity, detail, and depth of soundstage than any of us thought possible. It all started with PI Audio Group (Dave) and your Tranquility DAC. (It all has to start somewhere and we always need someone to blame, so Im happy to lay the blame on Dave's doorstep:-)). He purchased a Tranquility DAC and chose to build a PC based music server that is fan-less, has an Intel SSD, and is running a stripped down version of Windows XP. He has been touting the PC based music server for most of the last year (since the last RMAF show) but now claims to have "seen the light". After hearing the modified Mac Mini in Darrell's system, he has raised the white flag and now wants to replace it with a modified Mac Mini. I had Apple envy for years until I bought a 2009 Mac Mini. Then it sat unused in the box for a year until this summer. When I finally opened the box, I installed an Intel 80 GB SSD and 4 GB of ram, loaded up Snow Leopard and we plugged it in to your DAC and it immediately was better sounding than my HP laptop running Vista or Darrell McComb's high end Lenovo laptop running Windows 7 Ultimate. Since July we have implemented a series of tweaks to the new 2010 Mac Mini that simply deliver never before heard detail, depth, dynamics, and clarity to digital music. Some of these we have shared with you and some are still not being talked about yet. We believe that there are 3 key differences between the mini and other Macs. First, it the lack of a monitor attached to the motherboard. The power supply for the monitor produces electronic noise which is not present in the Mac Mini. Second, is the integral power supply. By locating the power supply less than an inch from the motherboard, Apple has eliminated that possibility of picking up noise on the 5 - 6 long leads that would normally run from the old-style brick power supply to the back of the computer. Keeping this noise out is crucial to achieving pristine digital playback. And third (and last) is the new design housing. The new unibody one-piece aluminum housing effectively provides a faraday shield for the circuitry contained inside. There are undoubtedly other improvements to the new Mac Mini, but Apple doesnt really tout them in their ad copy. While I am not dismissing the possibility that there could be a PC solution that sounds as good, I just have not been able to find anyone who is able to bring a hardware/operating system/software combination that comes close sounding as good as our modified Mac Minis. Also in favor of the Mac Mini are the small size, elegant styling, and visual appeal of the Mac Mini/Tranquility DAC combination. Together they don't occupy as much shelf space as the average CD/DVD player. Even Micro sized PC's are HUGE by comparison. You deserve the highest commendation for bringing out a product that can reveal more information in digital music than anyone believed possible just a few months ago. Tranquility allows us to hear changes in virtually every aspect of the system that now rivals analog and makes 16-Bit/44.1-Khz CDs sound better than SACDs. I cannot wait to meet you at the RMAF show next month.
I use a regular MacBook with a firewire Interface and I think it sounds great. I've never tried a MiniMac. I've also never tried a Windows based PC with the firewire interface. However, I previously had used a USB 2.0 interface with my MacBook and when I listened to a PC with the USB it sounded identical to the MacBoook. I am very skeptical that a MacMini would outclass any other Mac unless it turned out that there was some fundamental difference in the two computers beyond hard drive and RAM.
I wouldn't say that the extra 2gig improves the sound per se. I would say that it increases the processing power of the Mac Mini so that it can do a lower-latency job at processing the sound. That ultimately means better sound quality. Diminishing returns still apply, 4gb is plenty for audio purposes.
Quote from Ballan above: "If you do use a Mac Mini, having at least 4GB of RAM and a SSD will help it sound better. It's subtle, but an improvement. The SSD will definitely improve the overall performance and responsiveness of the Mac, and it's hard to go back to a standard hard drive after using one."
Does the Solid State drive make it quieter? I find the fan level and pitch annoying. (I moved it across the room with a 20-foot DVI monitor cable.) Did you send it to TekServe or somewhere else to get the SSD installed? I've got the 2-harddrive server Mini. Thanks in advance.
@Rgs92: A SSD will be mechanically quieter and allow the audio signal to sound better. It appears that when a standard hard drive is spinning up it puts more strain on the power supply, which effects the audio quality. It's subtle, but SSD consistently sounds better to most people who listen.
The biggest improvement that everyone does notice is the performance and responsiveness of the operating system and applications. SSD offers the biggest performance improvement that can be offered, even more so than lots of RAM. Everything is fast and stable because the disc doesn't have to spin to read the data,. Apps immediately open and the OS is lighting fast.
Since you have the "server" version you have an extra obstacle. One of the drives is for the OS and apps, and if you replace it with a SSD you will get the faster performance, but since you would still have the standard drive internally, you may not see a sound quality improvement because it's still a spinning (taxing) drive. It all depends on how you choose to use the second drive.
This is why I suggest to my clients that they use a Mac Mini with an SSD for the OS and apps, and use a NAS or other network storage for the music and media. The SSD helps the Mini operate and sound better, while a BIG NAS is on the network, away from the Mini and listening room, allows all the storage necessary for large music and media collections.
If you have a newer Mac Mini (unibody) you should be able to replace the main drive fairly easily, but if you have a older Mini, it's best to take it to a Apple Specialist shop or an Apple Store. Let me know if you need any help and I can recommend the people I use. Hope this helps.
Hey Ballan, So, which SSD do you recommend? I'd like to squeeze out as much as I can with my new Mac mini. I've replaced my dedicated CD player with the newest mini and I certainly want to look more into this. Thanks.
@Btw22: I'll send you an email about what SSDs I've had good experiences with. It has a lot to do with the "controller" used in the SSD design. Years ago only a small percentage of SSDs used good controllers, but it's getting much better, not to mention the prices are coming down.