Mac Mini vs. MacBook for music server

LarryK

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Jan 28, 2018
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I tried using the MacMini headless but it drove me crazy not being able to see the screen when I ran into problems, which was quite often.

So, I bought a cheap GeChic 1303i 13.3” display that runs off of two USB ports for power and uses the HDMI display port. You can easily turn off the monitor when you’re not using it.

I also bought a Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad. Now, I don’t have to fight so many cables. I can balance the keyboard and trackpad on my legs and navigate around while sitting in front of my rack. I stuck the display on a low music stand.

I tried Duet tethered to an iPad with a USB cable but that doesn’t help if the Mini hasn’t booted enough to load Duet.

I’m excited about the Luna dongle that will transmit the screen wirelessly to an iPad. I’m on the preorder list but that probably won’t ship until December or later.

I’m not sure how people can turn off internet, as some have mentioned. I need it to stream from Tidal, Naxos, YouTube, whatever.

I’d like to learn if there are huge ways to improve my sound by modding the Mini but I’m going to look into room correction software first with REW, room eq wizard, and a USB mic to create filters for Roon.
 

johndoe21ro

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I think that MacMini definitely sounds better than MacBook Pro. But with the UpTone MMK DC Conversion Kit and a good quality linear power supply (such as the UpTone JS-2) it really shines. With Daphile or Logitech Media Server/Squeezelite the sound is very analog like, very organic...
 

ferenc_k

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Apr 9, 2011
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I am using a 2017 MacBook Pro 15 inch as a Roon Server and 3 different endpoints: a 18 core iMac Pro as Roon endpoint, a Cubix-i as NAA and an SoTM SMS200 as Roon and NAA endpoint, with different DACs, Merging Hapi, Heed Audio Abakus, RME ADI.2 DAC, iFi iDac2 and soon a brand new Holo Audio Spring 2 KTE L3. Storage is on a 48 TB Thunderbolt 3 RAID array, Ethernet switcher, router is a Mikrotik with some optical and copper Ethernet connection.

MacBook Pro is running through an Elgato Dock which powers the MacBook Pro through Thunderbolt 3 and a locally built linear power supply (20V/10A). It is far the best I could use in the past 10-15 years. Sometimes I use a DAC directly on this, and it is very close to any of the endpoints, only minimal and marginal difference.

If one wants to use a Macbook (Air or Pro) always get a dock to power it and an LPS for the dock. This way all the ancillaries will benefit of the LPS.

There was a dual PC (Windows) setup which was definitely better than my system in any of the combinations I mentioned (with all sorts of tricky clocking and dozens of different power supply lines inside), but the cost was 2 x 12k Euro of it, and the stripped down Win install just drove me crazy.

So with a small compromise you can use a MacBook and a dock and a beefy linear power supply for let us say 90-95% sound quality of the extremely expensive PC setup.
 

Fidach Lad

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Jun 24, 2015
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Fidach
I've always used a MacBook Pro with A+ (or BitPerfect) and a wavelength Brick. My iTunes library/music files are on an external USB-C SSD. I don't see any need to go to a Thunder Bolt 3 SSD. Yes, I use Time Machine to back up my iTunes Music.
 

ariescerat-espana

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I think that MacMini definitely sounds better than MacBook Pro. But with the UpTone MMK DC Conversion Kit and a good quality linear power supply (such as the UpTone JS-2) it really shines. With Daphile or Logitech Media Server/Squeezelite the sound is very analog like, very organic...
Second this. In fact a different animal and v close to the best music servers (purpose built). Laptops emit a huge amount of noise, the components are crushed into a thin case, the screen has an impact (negative), shared bus, etc. Plus unless you basically disable everything on the system, it will sound average. Disabling everything then reduced a Laptop to a static device, makes no sense.

Mac Mini is cheap, LPS is cheap, MMK mod is cheap. Saying this though, I am seriously looking at the new Roon Nucleus, it is purpose built from the core system up.

Laptops are ok for a system on the move, but a static music system, there are much better ways to do it and get great sound.
 

Gemini

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Oct 14, 2015
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Astrostar,
are you still using your MacMini with the Kassandra? I woule suspect that it is not quite up to the standard of the DAC.
 

ariescerat-espana

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Funny you say that. I have pitched it against some Aurender units, and I preferred my Mac Mini on sonics. Part of this is probably Roon which has improved a lot recently. Also my Mac Mini has the 12V DC mod and is power by a DIY LPS, stripped back etc. Steve Nugent (Emperical Audio) still uses his and he knows servers.

I am waiting till I here a better server then will move, but happy right now.
 

Fidach Lad

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Jun 24, 2015
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I'm using a MacBook Pro with the latest version of Audivirana and a TB3 drive. I'm not sure the TB3 drive and cable aren't overkill. USB-C works fine. I can't hear any difference. I wonder if a TB3 USB - if it ever exists - would make a difference. I actually prefer my speaker system, but have gotten lazy.
 

cool_jeeves

Member
Apr 16, 2019
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Implement kill switches from the links below and your mac mini or macbook will climb several notches...

https://github.com/herrbischoff/awesome-macos-command-line
https://www.mojo-audio.com/blog/optimizing-os-x-for-audio-video/
http://www.sonicstudio.com/amarra/howtobuildaserver.php
http://avid.force.com/pkb/articles/troubleshooting/Optimize-10-11
https://www.gameaudio101.com/Game-Audio-Laptop.php

It is no use just turning preferences and check boxes off. The system still runs processes looking out for when you will check those boxes again. But if you entirely kill system awareness of such audio-irrelevant processes one by one (be careful not to screw up), you will see a drastic reduction in noise floor. Images will become holographic. So look for the code lines in these links (and if you are a good boy, you will compile them into a nice little app and send everyone ;)).

Further, download Onyx and Tinkertoon and uncheck all unwanted processes if any remain. Use these to clean your machine.

Finally, a macbook may have an advantage of a ready keyboard that lets you turn off wifi and back on easily. You can also set power options such that you can close the top and the macbook keeps running.
 
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Empirical Audio

Industry Expert
Oct 12, 2017
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Dear experts:

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 headless models).
Planning to have it connected via an optical cable to an external DAC feeding a Marantz PM8005 amplifier.

My question: Does a Mac Mini necessarily make more sense than a MacBook? Is there a real advantage to using a Mini, sonically or otherwise?

Is anyone using a MacBook as a server -- and doing so happily?

Thanks for your help on this.

I didn't realize that the Mini has Toslink output. Are you sure?

Another option is a low-jitter USB converter to get the S/PDIF you need for your DAC. This will definitely give you much lower jitter than the Toslink from a Mini or MacBook. The difference will be much better clarity and imaging, more punch and blackness between instruments instead of noise.

If you do find you can use the Toslink, then this is what I recommend:

This Toslink cable in 3 feet or longer length:

https://btpa.com/TOSLINK-XXX.html

And a good reclocker like the Synchro-Mesh. From the reclocker to your DAC, use a coax cable, not Toslink. This coax should be 1.5m long and terminated to BNC connectors, not RCA. Use 75 ohm RCA adapters if your DAC needs that.

So, to recap: Good Toslink cable -> Low jitter reclocker -> good BNC-BNC coax with RCA adapter at the DAC end.

Or:

Good USB cable -> Low-jitter USB converter with galvanic isolation -> BNC-BNC coax cable with RCA adapter to your DAC

If you use USB, you may need to do more with the Mac Mini, like add a LPS and find the best-sounding USB port.

If you use a Synchro-Mesh reclocker and stay with Toslink from your source, you can also put another source, like a CD transport to the inputs and select between the two. It will reduce jitter for both.

Steve N.
 
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ariescerat-espana

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Steve, how far behind do you think an optimised Mac Mini is to a purpose built music server? My Mini is 12V mod from UpTone Audio, SSD, 8 gig ram, Nice LPS powering it, and feeding it via Ethernet to the web for Qobuz. USB output to my DAC.

I used to use a Rednet 3 which had Ethernet input and S/PDIF output inc master clock and LPS, but on my current DAC the USB input beats the S/PDIF. I use Roon which I find is better than Audirvana or Amarra.

Thoughts?

A cheap tweak is I could power my router and Fibre Optical input to the house with a nice LPS, drop out the horrid SMPS plugs for those.
 

Empirical Audio

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Oct 12, 2017
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I
Steve, how far behind do you think an optimised Mac Mini is to a purpose built music server? My Mini is 12V mod from UpTone Audio, SSD, 8 gig ram, Nice LPS powering it, and feeding it via Ethernet to the web for Qobuz. USB output to my DAC.

There are some servers, like the Antipodes that will beat any Mini with any playback app when using USB. It is optimized really well for USB.

I used to use a Rednet 3 which had Ethernet input and S/PDIF output inc master clock and LPS, but on my current DAC the USB input beats the S/PDIF. I use Roon which I find is better than Audirvana or Amarra.

Thoughts?

I use a really old version of Amarra which I have found to be the best they ever developed. Every version sounds a bit different. It beats Jriver, Audirvana and all other USB software I have tried on my Mac Mini.

I also compared Linn Kinsky with minimserver to Roon on the same platform and Linn Kinsky beat Roon. I now added BubbleUPnP to Kinsky and minimserver and it's even better.

A cheap tweak is I could power my router and Fibre Optical input to the house with a nice LPS, drop out the horrid SMPS plugs for those.

LPS used for digital is iffy. Most LPS do not have fast enough response time of the regulation, so they droop on fast transients. One that works well according to my customers is the Sbooster.

Steve N.
 

Heckyman

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Oct 22, 2020
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Has anyone got any recent experiences to add?

I found my 2019 i9 iMac (stock) to significantly improve on a 2012 MBP.

Considering the iMac is a mainly a work machine, I am wondering about a refurbished Mac Pro (5.1, the pre-“trashcan” model). The desktop Macs in general seem superior to the Notebooks and Minis. In the case of an old Mac Pro, an audiophile USB card and ePCI SSDs could easily be added.

Mac Pros seem popular in music production but not among audiophiles?
 

matthias

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Mar 14, 2019
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I found my 2019 i9 iMac (stock) to significantly improve on a 2012 MBP.

Considering the iMac is a mainly a work machine, I am wondering about a refurbished Mac Pro (5.1, the pre-“trashcan” model). The desktop Macs in general seem superior to the Notebooks and Minis. In the case of an old Mac Pro, an audiophile USB card and ePCI SSDs could easily be added.

Mac Pros seem popular in music production but not among audiophiles?

Maybe waiting for the new Mac Pro this year?

Matt
 

ariescerat-espana

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IMO having tried many of the Mac models, although not the 2021 models, I would say the Mac Mini is the best bet for some key reasons:

1. Noise:
you really need to power a music server with pure 12v DC of an LPS, as ALL Mac or PC power supplies are horrendous SMPS circuits with lots of NOISE. Noise degrades the sound quality, giving it a harsh and edgy sonic signature, flat soundstage, poor separation of instruments to name a few. There was a kit conversion by Uptone Audio for DC 12V for the Mac Mini, but unsure if it was updated to cover the latest Mac Mini. It can be DIY'd to do it though.

2. Screen:
a desktop Mac such as the iMac will create issues with the screen. A Laptop nearly as bad. A Mac Mini with no screen is better.

3. Optimisation:
you really need a computer just for music use, shut off all operations not required to stream music. Audirvana and Roon to an extent does this, so using a computer for work or home use as well as for high end audio is not going to be a good mix.

4. Network:
you can use the network connection only for streaming music, more bandwidth, less delays etc. Shut off noisy WiFi etc.
Use ethernet input only.

IMO if you are wanting to spend any kind of money on a music server much above the cost of the Mac Mini, I would get a dedicated pre-built music server for the task, one that runs Roon Core and LMS, and has a very good DC supply and output board designed for high end audio. PC and Mac USB boards are not good, and can never sound like high end audio.

Summary, Mac Mini is better than the other Mac if it is optimised for streaming only. But above that, you need a proper server, the jump in sound quality is BIG.

Hope this helps
 
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matthias

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1. Noise:
you really need to power a music server with pure 12v DC of an LPS, as ALL Mac or PC power supplies are horrendous SMPS circuits with lots of NOISE. Noise degrades the sound quality, giving it a harsh and edgy sonic signature, flat soundstage, poor separation of instruments to name a few. There was a kit conversion by Uptone Audio for DC 12V for the Mac Mini, but unsure if it was updated to cover the latest Mac Mini. It can be DIY'd to do it though.

4. Network:
you can use the network connection only for streaming music, more bandwidth, less delays etc. Shut off noisy WiFi etc.
Use ethernet input only.

ad1.
The Uptone Audio Kit is for Mac Mini up to 2014 generation.

ad4.
You need "noisy" WiFi anyway to control your music player via tablet or phone.
My experience is that WiFi works extremely well with music players which load the files into RAM like Audirvana.
For best SQ I use only 2.4GHz WiFi and I turned 5GHz WiFi off. Further, for serious listening I turn WiFi completely off after the files have been loaded into RAM. Disconnecting network is much easier to do with WiFi than with wired Ethernet.

Matt
 
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Heckyman

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Thanks for the replies. Just for context, my system is not at the level warranting the likes of the Taiko server. But I am keen to do the best I can and learn from the experiences of others.

I should also mention I have an unmodded 2011 Mac Mini and concur, this and the 2012 MBP are both beaten by my Allo USBridge with a nice Sean Jacobs DC3+ LPSU. (After the source I use a Denafrips DDC into an Aqua DAC (i2s), the DDC also helps to remove “noise”.

I have also been down the network tweaking rabbit hole. I owned an EtherREGEN for about 10months (with Farad Super 3), Edgerouter X SFP, separate audio subnet and wireless access points etc.

Lately I found the stock iMac better, and WiFi streaming sounds no worse than optimised wired. As per Matt above. Local playback with no network at all is perhaps best of all, but in my system it’s not clear that any improvement is worth the inconvenience of losing the phone/tablet remote by disconnecting the network.

Based on this experience I was thinking to try an older Mac Pro to compare with the iMac as it could be a dedicated machine and I could leverage my LPSUs to drive a card like the JCat USB.

If I had the opportunity I’d compare my iMac set up with dedicated music servers, but it’s not easy in these COVID times.
 
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matthias

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Lately I found the stock iMac better, and WiFi streaming sounds no worse than optimised wired.

Would very much appreciate if you describe your WiFi set-up with iMac.
Thanks

Matt
 

Fidach Lad

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Jun 24, 2015
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I'm also a MacBook Pro + external SSD user. My digital files are all 44.1/16 (on purpose). I have a couple of Wavelength USB Dacs, one portable, the other bigger, and I play my files with A+ or BitPerfect. BitPerfect is the real deal, at least for 44.1/16 files, as far as I'm concerned. My MacBookPro has Thunderbolt ports, but I'm strictly USB C. I don't stream. I'm happy.
 
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Heckyman

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Oct 22, 2020
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Would very much appreciate if you describe your WiFi set-up with iMac.
Thanks

Matt
Hi Matt, it’s nothing special and it’s a small network.

ISP modem to Edgerouter X SFP. The router is connected to 2 separate access points each on its own subnet. Non audio is handled by a Ubiquiti UniFi UAP-AC-LITE and audio by an Aruba instant on AP12.

I have a Farad Super 3 12V PSU available for either the Aruba or Edgerouter but it’s mostly unused as it did not appear to make any difference to the sound. (I keep it for occasional use with my unmanaged switch for wired audio). I just use cheap business grade SMPS’s now, the Aruba one costs £25 for example.

This set up is a legacy of when wired networking was my main source. It is just good networking practice and overspeccing the gear rather than hanging everything off a cheap ISP all-in-one router. I didn’t do listening tests on different wireless network configurations, this level of complexity may well be overkill.

In the end I found no big differences between my best wired setup vs wireless vs local ;-) YYMV etc.

P.S., the iMac is plugged straight into my hifi mains block.
 
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