Need help moving from CDP to Mac Mini music server

I've decided to move try a music server solution because my listening habits have changed (maybe the ipod lifestyle has ruined me). So the time has come to sell my beloved Sony SCD-1 and I need some help figuring out how to implement a sonically comparable (or better) music server solution. My system is an Aesthetix Janus with a BAT VK-250 feeding a pair of Totem Forests. I'm currently thinking of getting a Mac Mini with a 500 GB HD and streaming ALAC to my airport express, then using the toslink out to feed a D/A (likley a Benchmark DAC-1) which would run balanced to my Aesthetix. I'd then use my powerbook to control the mac mini through bonjour (although I can also use my plasma as a display).

My first question is, can anyone familiar with using the mac mini server solution comment on the sound quality, especially in comparison to a quality CDP such as the Sony. I want the convenience of having my whole library be accessible, but I want to definitely don't want to sacrifice the sound quality to do it.

Secondly, I've read that the digital out on the mac mini has higher jitter and that using the usb to output digitial is better. Is it also preferable to utilize the usb method instead of using the Airport Express's optical out?

Thirdly, does anyone recommend a specific external hard drive to use with the mac mini? There seem to be a bunch out there.

Lastly, how do people feel about the Benchmark DAC-1 in this setup? I want to keep the whole budget under 3000 w/computer, external drive, DAC and wires, so any suggestions on DAC would be welcome (heard Stello makes one with a digital input).

Thank you so much in advance for your help,

First off, anything fed to the Benchmark DAC will sound as good as anything you can buy, so don't worry about sound quality. Or jitter, for that matter. The Benchmark can fix the worst bitstream you can throw at it.

I would advise against the Airport Express if you can help it, however. WiFi is subject to interference, and won't necessarily play well with your microwave, cordless phone, etc. Better USB out to some converter that can hook up to the Benchmark. I don't think you can go USB or Ethernet straight into the Benchmark, but M-Audio must make something that will allow the connection.

Finally, you do not want a 500GB HD. You want TWO 500GB HDs. One's a backup. Ripping 500GB of music is time-consuming. You don't want to have to do it a second time.

Even with the 2nd HD, you can't really spend more than $3000 on this without wasting money.
I have a first generation mac mini connected to an lcd tv and a usb apogee mini dac with lacie hard drives that look like lego's (one is a back up) I really like this set up. People really like the Benchmark and compared to the apogee it probably comes down to personal preference but the apogee does sound better via usb than its spdif inputs and can be improved another notch by using a 12 volt battery.
I'm using a setup with some of the elements that you're considering so I'll pass along some of my experience and observations.

I have an iMac G5 and my music is in Apple Lossless format on an external Firewire drive. The music is streamed wirelessly to an Airport Express near my main system and the Express is connected by a glass optical cable to a Benchmark DAC-1. The Benchmark analog output goes to a Simaudio I-5 integrated amp and on to Merlin TSM-MM speakers. (Or my backup speakers while the Merlins are off for a repair.)

None of my gear is of the quality of yours and I can't compare the Benchmark output to anything like your SCD-1 but in my system the quality of the output from the hard drive is indistinguishable from the output of various transports I've tried with the Benchmark.

In theory, the Benchmark will take care of any jitter problems, regardless of the source. I don't have any way to verify that but that's one of the advantages Benchmark claims for their DAC.

The Benchmark is beautifully made and I really like the convenience and versatility of it. I have a DVD player that I use as a transport for discs and the front panel switch on the Benchmark lets me switch easily between the input from the transport and the hard drive system.

I'm sure there are other good options but LaCie is generally regarded as a good source of external hard drives. I've had good luck with Seagate branded drives, as well.

I'm sold on the combination of convenience and sound quality from this setup. I'm sure there are ways to improve it but what I like is that I'm finding myself listening to music I hadn't listened to in a long time simply because the iTunes interface makes it so easy to pick something new. I'm finding that it's much faster to walk to the computer and click on a new selection than to switch CD's, and being able to create playlists is an added bonus.
You may also want to take a look at the Wavelength Brick USB tube DAC $1750.00
I have not had good luck with consumer drives (Maxstor, LaCie) in a environment where they are on 24/7. I'd suggest looking at something like the 1TB Buffalo Terastation or a similar thing called the Big Yellow Box or something like that. You get NAS and RAID in the same small footprint and its quiet...
Whups, not Big Yellow Box, the other terastation-like thing I found was the "Yellow Machine."

Here's links to both:

Both seem to run about $1K for 1TB, which gives you about .7 TB of actual storage if configured for RAID5.
In this vein, just saw a dealhack note--the 1TB terastations are available from for $670, shipping included.
Mimberman, the storage recommendation by Edesliva is a good one. If you can get 1TB or .7 TB (700GB) usable of RAID 5 storage for $670 you should jump at that. The RAID 5 setup basically means you can have one hard drive fail and not lose any of your data until you can get around to the replacing the disk. As others stated, don't skimp on non-redundant storage. I've just setup my AE based wi-fi music server, but haven't listened to it much so I can't comment on the sound quality between it and my cd player. One thing that I did find, that I feel every AE owner might want to jump on in is a high quality optical cable. I picked up a Van Den Hul Optiplexor II for ~ $80. You can order it with the digital-mini on one end. It looks to be much better quality than the old monster cable that Apple touts and many others use. As an FYI, if you have an optical cable you like, you can order the optical-> digital mini converter from Parts Express for ~ $6. Of course they hit you up for another $7 in shipping charges.
Good luck and let us know how it works out.
First off, thanks everyone for the great replies..keep 'em coming.

Pabelson: I'm pretty confident that the Benchmark is a great DAC (I've always felt the sony's only problem was it's redbook DAC, which was still pretty great). The only other DAC I'm looking at is the Stello DA220 MKII which has a USB in. Has anyone used the Stello (either MK I or MK II) and can comment on its quality? I read it's pretty great so I should probably go take a listen. As for HD redundancy, I agree, it's totally necessary.


Thanks, I wasn't aware of the apogee. I can't find much more about it's sound quality: what other DACs did you audtion?


Do you experience any of the interference using the AE that Pabelson said might occur? I don't use a cordless phone in my listening room, and the microwave isn't used frequently, but I can locate the mini near my rig if I want to, but then I'll have to have the drive there as well, which could be noisy.


The Wavelength brick looks interesting but at that price tag i'm wondering if it might not make more sense to go with something like the Stello, which would allow me to route other devies through my DAC. The reviews of the wavelength that I found are good, but the one on 6 moons (and I take all of these with a grain of salt) made me a little nervous.


Thanks for putting me onto those drives. I think that's def. the way I'll go. The Yellow machine is very cool looking and love the features but their website says you need a PC for setup. Any idea on the noise factor from the fans? There's a company (Next Generation, or something like that) which makes fanless drives with heatsinks that are the same size as the mac mini up to 750 gigs, and those seemed interesting. The thing that makes me nervous about the 1 TB solutions, besides the noise, is that they connect with ethernet. Now, I'm pretty computer savy so forgive me if this question appears ignorant (I haven't taken the time to research if this will be a problem) but will the data quality, and hence the sound quality, be as dependable going from the 1TB RAID drive to the mac mini and then to my DAC as it would using a firewire drive?

Snipes: I'm definitely curious to hear your impressions of the sound quality using AE to stream from your Server (which server is it, btw?) to your DAC. I know that I can get .7 TB using Raid as edsilva noted, but that doesn't ensure back up of the entire colleciton, right? I mean, as far as I understand, the only way to backup my entire collection would be to have another drive the same size. I mean, at the point when my collection goes past 50% of the real capacity of the 1TB drive, then I'm out of luck, right? So if I can get two 500 gig drives for the same price as 1TB drive, is that a good solution? I don't plan on leaving anything running 24/7 (power concious) anyway so it doesn't need to be industrial.


So I read up on the Buffalo and Yellow Machine 1TB NASs and I'm not sure this is actually the way to go, as both have problems (either interface, noise, or dependability problems). As I'm not going to use this setup for anything besides music, it doesn't need to be on all the time, so I'm thinking an external Firewire drive would be acceptible (if anyone thinks I'm wrong, chime in).

I'm looking at the following two solutions, so any tech savy folks feel free to chime in. I'd be getting two of each and using one to back up the other:

500GB Mercury Elite Pro 7200RPM
500GB NewerTech miniStack v2 7200RPM

They're both around$420, and as far as I can tell are made by the same company (see ). The form factor of the NewerTech matches the mini and is stackable, and has heatsinks, but I wonder which is quiter. The Mercury elite has Firewire 800, but that's not a make or break for me since the mini only supports 400. What to do?

Also, haven't heard from anyone about using the toslink out on the new intel mac mini direct into a DAC vs. using USB or AE to toslink. Anyone? Bueler?



I can't vouch for the Yellow Machine, but I do own a terastation. It is very quiet. Besides, one benefit of a NAS is that it can be put anywhere you can run ethernet (i.e., a closet somewhere). It also means it can be accessed by any computer on the ethernet network. Mine is shared by a computer in my study, a computer attached to my main rig, a slim device in my bedroom, a slim device in my pool room, and an audiotron in my garage.

Ethernet v. firewire isn't an issue. Even slow ethernet is 10 mbps, which is a lot faster than your AE or your firewire.

And, as far as backups, RAID 5 isn't a perfect solution, but it is a pretty good compromise in my mind. The theory of RAID 5--this is kinda simplified--is that it is made up of four drives, say A, B, C and D. If you are writing data, it writes Block 1 on A, Block 2 on B, Block 3 on C, and Block 1 + Block 2 + Block 3 on D. If Drive A goes bad, all that data can be recovered by subtracting Block 2 and Block 3 from Drive D. In other words, for any single drive failure, it is completely redundant. You are screwed with a two drive failure. But, if you are just backing up drive A to drive B, you are screwed with a two drive failure anyway.

I did use my terastation with both Win XP computers and a Mac Mini, so there shouldn't be any interface issues.

As far as the cute drives made to look like the Mac Mini, I wonder about heatpipe efficiency and longevity. Like I said, I've had major problems with drives blowing up and losing data. I haven't researched heat pipe systems extensively, but wonder about whether the implementation is as efficient in cooling as fan based systems. The more heat, the shorter the drive life.

My terastation has been on 24/7 for 9 months and never hiccupped. The Lacie drives and Maxstor drives I tried never lasted more than about 3 months...
I haven't experienced any interference from either my cordless phone or microwave. I don't talk on the phone a lot and when I do I usually turn down the sound if music is playing.

This morning I played some Satie through the system so that it would be easy to hear if anything was going on, called my office voice mail on the cordless phone and walked all around the system for a minute or so while I talked on the phone. It didn't create any interference that I could hear.

Same thing with the microwave. I turned it on for a couple of minutes while the music was playing and couldn't detect anything. It's only about 20 feet from my system, in the next room with an open doorway between.

Not saying there couldn't be inteference but I've never detected any in my setup.

I bought a glass optical cable, as well, from Captnstarstripe here on audiogon. It's a very nice cable for about the same price as a plastic one.
I'll respond to either this thread or one of the ones I started a few months back once I've adequate time to evaluate the AE and the quality running it wireless. As for my audio-server, right now we're in beta mode if you will. I've ripped all my Pearl Jam CD's to my PC upstairs and share it via itunes. I access it through my wireless laptop downstairs where my stereo is and point the laptop to the AE . I haven't had one audio hiccup due to interference. If you think about the path the music has to travel to go from my laptop to the stereo that's pretty impressive on a 54mb/sec wireless setup. Edesilva explained the RAID 5 setup well enough, but let me just add one or two things in case you are still a bit confused. Using the Terra station as an example. If you have .7 TB usable, in his exmple using 4 disks, it's probably made up of 4x300GB drives. Again this is just a guess as there are many different RAID5 schemes used by the vendors, but the point is you don't make use of all of the space on all of the drives, that's by design. A simplistic way to think about it is take the total number of drives you have and subtract one. The remaining total is roughly what you will have usable under R5. Also, you mentioned using two drives and only filling up half of it. The way it works is you have a mirrored pair. It's called RAID 1 (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks). You have the full capacity of one drive, and the second drive is not directly accessable, the OS "mirrors" the data on the first to the second so if it dies, with a bit of work you can access everything by activating the second drive.
I understand the advantages of RAID technology for redundancy but I'm not sure it's necessarily the best solution in this use, at least for most people. The advantage is that you're constantly backing up your data so that there's no chance you'll lose any of the work you've done in the interim between backups, which is a good thing, but there are disadvantages to having the redundant data housed in the same box as your primary data.

I think the way most people will set up a hard drive-based system is to spend a lot of time initially ripping a big pile of CD's, then ripping new stuff occasionally as it's bought. What you're interested in protecting is that big initial investment of time and it might make more sense to have two separate external drives, one as the primary and one that is brought out once a week or once a month to take the new stuff.

If you're really interested in protecting that investment, you're better off having the second drive in a different physical location and offline so that some kind of accident, a power surge or knocking the enclosure off a desktop doesn't take out everything. If you've ripped 10 CD's since the last time you took your backup drive out of the closet and done a backup, it's not a big deal since it takes less than five minutes to rip most discs.

RAID is cool but it's a little more complicated and expensive. Like many of you, I'm entertained by complicated solutions but I think in this case simpler might be better.
Sfar, There is no requirement for drives configured in any type of RAID configuration to be housed in the same enclosure. There might be limitations based on what device is handling the RAID setup (i.e. the controller in the external storage).

Multiple enclosures, multiple paths to the data, etc. are all just additional layers of protection. In the end the goal is to eliminate as many single points of failure as possible/makes sense. Having two seperate disks or enclosures and synching them up manually via a copy or something similar may make sense for some, but setting up a simple RAID 1 or RAID 5 device isn't rocket science, it just takes a little research that anyone on this site can handle with a bit of investigation. Again the end goal is not to lose all of your hard work, whichever method one uses, that method should be good enough. Personally, I'll probably buy 2 internal drives and mirror them with the OS, that will be good enough for me. I'm confidant enough if one drive fails I can get at the data on the second easily enough.
Personally I think the biggest gain in audio quality in this entire setup is going to be the way the data gets from the source componant to the DAC. I don't think the traditional optical and digital coax type of connections will be the way to go once PC based audio really takes off in the high end. Where / how it's stored as well as how it gets there won't be as important as that "last leg" to the DAC. Just my opinion of course.
I forgot to add one thing. One benefit of manually copying the data as Sfar suggests over using an automatically mirrored pair of disks, is if you accidentally delete what is on the active disk, guess what, your mirror is going to remove it as well. That might be reason enough for some to stick with the old manual method.
Thanks snipes, Sfar, and Edesilva for all the HD advice. The only thing that confuses me about the Terastation RAID 5 solution is that if it only has 4 x 250GB drives, how can one of those drives store the data of the other three? I mean, logically it would seem like the most real storage you could have on the Terastation would be <500 GB, since you need to have that much space to mirror it, even if it's done in blocks, right? I understand that having more drives means that you're better covered in the event that one goes down. I think I'm going to go with one of the drives from Other World Computer or Newer Technology (same company: such as the 1TB AL Pro 800 RAID STRIPE FireWire 800/400 for $760. It gets some good reviews in the mac mags and online community, and Allows me have total redundacy (and the housing is nicer than the Terastation). I know the terastation is cheaper and has more features, but it's overkill for me. I have a 1BR apartment, so don't need to feed an entire house. I expect Mac at some point to come out with a real home media computer, so I know all of this is a basic (and hence wasted) investment so I'm just looking to get off the ground.

Still looks like the Benchmark is the way to go, although I'm going to audition the Stello DA220 MK2 against it if the dealer will let me bring it home). So it looks like I'm just around 3 grand depending on the DAC.

Any Mac Mini specs (ram, etc) people recommend? I mean, I usually just load it up, but since this is only for music do I need the extra RAM and Faster core duo processor? Thoughts?

I'm also going to use the AE w/toslink to the DAC for the time being, unless I go with the stello. This way I can locate the computer and drives in a better location.

Thanks for all the suggestions. Keep 'em coming.

Matt, please post the exact link to the unit you are talking about, I couldn't find it on the site. The word STRIPE in your description has me worried. Striping offers no data protection, it's strictly for increased performance, which is not necessary for streaming audio. As for the confusion concerning the Terrastation R5, the confusion is coming from the two different protection mechanisms. RAID 5 gives you usable space on roughly all the disks minus 1 (parity disk). The implementation is rather confusing, see Edesilva's explanation above. Mirroring you get exactly 1/2 of the total amount of available space for use, one disk has an exact duplicate of the other. Both offer data protection against loss of a single disk, just through different implementations. The main difference to keep in mind is with R5 you need 3 or realistcally 4 disks minimum. R1 (mirroring) only requires two.

Again, please post the link to the exact device. My concern is if it's listed as 800/400. My guess is they are giving you two 400 gb disks and you can either mirror them via R1 and have 400 gb usable or stripe them via RAID 0 and have 800 GB usable. Striping you write across both disks, but different data. If you lose either disk you lose everything.
Matt, be careful, RAID striping gets you transfer speed, not redundancy. Let me try RAID 5 again. Say you want to store 3 numbers -- 012, 147, and 532. With the four disks, RAID 5 puts 012 on Disk A in Block/Sector X. In that same Block/Sector on Disk B, it puts 147. In that same Block/Sector on Disk C, it puts 532. In that same Block/Sector on Disk D, it puts 691, which is the sum of what is on A, B and C in that location. So...

If Disk A goes bad, it can recover the data for Block/Sector X on that disk by taking 691 and subtracting what is on that Block/Sector on Disks B and C: 691-(147+532)= 012.

If Disk B goes bad, it can recover the data for Block/Sector X on that disk by taking 691 and subtracting what is on that Block/Sector on Disks A and C: 691-(012+532)= 147.

If Disk C goes bad, it can recover the data for Block/Sector X on that disk by taking 691 and subtracting what is on that Block/Sector on Disks A and B: 691-(012+147)= 532.

Disk D, obviously, can be recreated from A, B and C. This is a simplistic version, but RAID 5 is higher efficiency than mirroring because the effective storage you get is (N-1)*S, where N=number of identical disks and S=size of disks. For mirroring, obviously, the efficiency is N*S/2.

Maybe the tera isn't pretty, but mine's in my closet, do I don't worry about it. ;)

Good luck--as far as Mac Mini specs go, I bought a 1.4GHz one with the bigger memory package and it was overkill for doing audio.
Interesting article from 6 moons... in the end it's not a review rather more along the lines of a technical explanation of usb...
You would be much better off using a USB DAC rather than a DAC that is fed through a Toslink connection. Using the toslink and the Benchmark there is always the issue of unwanted variations in the frequency of the incoming word-clock signal, which the converter is always trying to track. But with a USB controller generating its own word-clock signal, the frequency remains steady.
"But with a USB controller generating its own word-clock signal, the frequency remains steady." Well, only as steady as the clock in the USB interface. It is not a panacea, because some USB chips are pretty bad jitter-wise.
I didn't choose the Benchmark because of any knowledge that it was better, or worse, than a USB DAC. I picked it because it looked like a pretty attractive combination of several things I wanted.

Because of the option for multiple inputs, I assumed it would work well in experimenting with a hard-drive based system while retaining the ability to use a conventional transport and I couldn't be happier with how that works. Even though I have all my music on the hard drive, I still find myself playing CDs pretty often.

I wanted to do that experiment without adding a lot of complexity to the system and the Benchmark's small size lets me perch it on the same shelf as the transport and just flip a switch on the front of the Benchmark to toggle between the inputs from the hard drive and the transport.

I was pretty sure the Benchmark was a good DAC because the reviews of it have been uniformly very positive but I didn't really care if it was absolutely the best solution from an electromechanical perspective. I'm sure there may be better options from any one of several perspectives and I wouldn't even claim I made the best possible choice but, for now, I'm really happy with it.
I have a headroom total bithead right now, which goes out of the USB of any computer and to some ultimate ears or powered monitors. it's more than okay and a huge improvement over the minijack out for the cans. however, I am looking into the apogee mini-dac, and the wavelength brick, for a more permanent setup with a computer that I might leave in my main system. another thing I tried is the new outlaw rr2150 receiver, which is a strong integrated amp that has a USB input. sounds pretty great for the money, but I wonder whether the apogee or wavelength way isn't going to be much better...
Don't know about Stello D220 but the younger brother of that which is DA100 is also supposed to be great. I think it retails for around $500 new. The only drawback is that apparently the USB input sounds noticeably worse than Toslink or RCA. Don't know why since USB in theory is supposed to be better.