Mac Mini vs. another Mac for music server

I've been getting into computer-based audio, and had been planning on picking up a Mac Mini for use as a music server. (Perhaps one of the new models, if they ever come out; maybe an older one that I could snag for a song once they've been superceded.) I'm currently ripping my CDs to a Dell laptop that is on its last legs, using a MacBook as the remote controller. I'm streaming to an Airport Express connected via an optical cable to a Cambridge Audio DacMagic feeding a Creek Audio Destiny integrated amplifier. (Speakers vary.)

My question: Does a Mac Mini necessarily make more sense than, say, a refurbished MacBook for a few dollars more? Is there a real advantage to using a Mini, sonicly or otherwise? (I'll most definitely be going with a Mac, as I'm now sold on Apple for a number of reasons.)

Is anyone using a MacBook (or an iMac or another Mac) as a server -- and doing so happily?

Thanks for your help on this.

In my own research; comparing the Mac Mini to both my other Macbook and Macbook Pro models, there has been a marked sonic improvement in both spatial and dynamic qualities via the Mac Mini. I speculate that the sonic improvement must be noise and/or packaging related as the Macbook has to contain it's recharging system, it's graphic card and the related screen in a very tight package comparably. Regardless of the actual technical reasons though, it has been a BIG surprise that the Mac Mini was the best sonically since it is the cheapest of all Mac computer solutions!

Interesting observation.

In what context are you making this comparison ie USB or Optical output.

What DAC are you using?

Per your inquiry, I am using the USB output. With a Mac (or any computer based server) you would want to AVOID SPDIF type of outputs whenever possible! SPDIF (both optical and electrical) are an "ugly tangled mess" of the clock and the digital music data. The sonic benefits of using a properly designed DAC to a Mac (via USB for instance) is many fold and can offer a HUGE jump sonically compared to anything SPDIF connected. Fro instance, Jitter alone can be reduced or eliminated in up to half a dozen areas with the USB implementation as compared to SPDIF implementations.

The D/A converters I use in my various audio systems are all from UltraFi Audio Designs.
I too am just getting into computer audio and I have to say it has revolutionize how I listen to music and rejuvenated my love for the same...

I recently purchase a refurbished MacBook White, copied my whole collection (over a months time) in Applelossless through iTunes to a Licie Ext HD.

I use the USB to a Bel Canto 24/96 USB converter, to a Cary 306 Pro DAC, through a Pass Labs X1 to my Verity Audio Parisifal Ovations.

The sound is remarkably good. I went with the MacBook over a Mini because wanted a full time screen and keyboard. I use an iTouch iPod to control all the play-lists and music selection from my listening chair.

From everything I have learned, bits is bits until it meets your USB converter or DAC. I have total silence so I don't believe the screen effects the sound I hear. The ext HD is fanless but does make a little noise that you can hear if you are close to it, otherwise, I take no issues.

Bottom Line: I recommend a Macbook and an iTouch, your life will never be the same!

Good luck, John

IMHO, I don't think a Macbook will be any better than a Mini. I don't have any personal experience with a Macbook, but I'm currently running a Mini via Toslink to my DAC. Both the Mini and a Macbook are limited to their internal audio cards, and output via USB or Toslink. I've seen posts about a Macbook on battery sounding "quieter", presumably because of reduced electrical noise but I believe the evidence is anecdotal at best.

The best setup, again, IMHO, is a Mac Pro, with a Lynx AES16e card. I'll be purchasing this setup in a week or so and can't wait to hear the improvement.

HTH. . .

So the one thing we have absolutely learned over the past few years is that step one is to get the conversion from digital to analog out of the computer.

The exception is probably a Lynx or other pro-grade card but at the price point its hardly a gimme... Plus it needs a tower with open slots which may raise other issues for some like where the heck do you put it in your WAF inspected living room...

A Macbook gives you nice access to the iTunes interface. Whether this is socially acceptable or not is an individual question. For a lot of people who have WiFied their home or office, the Macbook also brings all sorts of additional functionality. Biggest problem IMHO is that with a good sized library you will be somewhat "tethered" to an external drive - with 12-15 feet. And you will need some power outlets. But still you can put the darn thing in your lap, sit in your spot and do whatever it is you want to do.

The Mini is elegant. External drives will stack under it. Unless you add a monitor, you will have to use an external unit to access the library.

iPhone with the Remote app is pretty cool and is untethered. On the other hand it is a bit limited once you start tracking ebay bids, surfing website and managing your library.

OK, call me a philistine but IMHO, USB is USB. I like the Opticis fiber optic USB cable which provides true galvanic isolation between computer and DAC.

This can also be achieved with Toslink. But in recent critical listening I have concluded that I just don't like it.

So long answer to the admirably short question that started this - the choice between Mini and Powerbook is a lifestyle choice - its all about how you want to use the system - and what else you want to be able to do with a computer in what will be your digital media center.
Although I know it is fairly hard to believe for many, I can positively say without question that the Mac Mini will be the better sounding as compared to the Macbook or Macbook Pro laptops. Not only myself, but easily over a dozen other audiophiles in the same situation have now made the same assessment too. Different systems, different ears and different years of experience for all, yet we all seem to agree without question that the Mac Mini prevails. Welcome to the new "can of worms" regarding "bits are bits". Yet, it's obviously so much more than just this simplistic label alone that must be creating these sonic variations.

BTW: I think we will see a similar "discussion" just as profound with USB cabling differences. There can be even larger sonic differences than with any of the computer variants that all of us have tried! !#$%

Please note here -I don't take ANY of these things lightly myself as I am an Electrical Engineer who wants to quantify every sonic difference with a valid scientific explanation (if at all possible). Thankfully I can say that my own personal methods of identifying sonic differences are via VERY controlled true blind scenarios with repeated results over and over (just to make sure). At least this part meets my own scientific need for unwanted bias and/or placebo effects. Now if we could only explain the root causes effects of these sonic differences between various computers and USB cables. Any takers?
So let's agree for a minute that Ehider our EE is correct and that a Mini sounds better then a laptop.

But what is "better sounding" - experience suggests that it will be difficult to hear those differences unless you have a system of a certain caliber, play music of a certain kind and are an experienced listener.

So let's throw all that out as well, and ask the fundamental question - if you are not directly A/Bing the two, will you care.

For me knowing that something is marginally better is trumped by how I want to use my gear and what I want it to do for me. Of course if it sounds dreadful that is not a viable solution.
Hey Ckorody, you make some very good points!

The sonic differences between the Mac Mini and a Macbook would require the sound system to be of the caliber where imaging differences could be easily identified in the Z axis depth, where of Mini is perhaps 10 to 15% deeper and the midrange is a tad more "see through" offering a bit more harmonics, especially around voices.

Other things that are improved upon with the Mini are more realistic lower registers where drums and/or bass registers sound more harmonically correct. Again, maybe a 10 to 15% improvement on a system that easily shows these particular sonic differences.

Hence; not all sound systems are as revealing as others, so these differences may be marginalized on lesser systems.

Please Note: My answers to this thread have been mostly centered around the sonic differences between the Mini versus the Macbook due to the author's original inquiry here: ..."Is there a real advantage to using a Mini, sonicly or otherwise?"
Thnx Ehider - I very much admire people such as yourself who are such disciplined and careful listeners. Perhaps someday I'll achieve it.

No quarrel with your advice - you did a spot on job of answering the question.

Of course now you have me wondering if a Mini would outperform my G5 tower LOL

Apple just released the new mini yesterday. It's a great deal (bank for 600 bucks). Check it out and have fun!
I just received a new Mac Mini. Fired it up and had a listen. Marked improvement in comparison to Macbook. I can't be as articulate as Ehider other than to just sounds better.
Whats the best use sonic? USB cable or optical cable??