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Turning a Mac Into a Music Server

Setting up an Apple computer for audio is simpler than a Windows pc because Apple offers fewer options. but it’s still possible to end up with a system that doesn’t perform optimally. often it’s a case of not getting the machine configured correctly. the following guide will hopefully get you to a reasonable starting point for your Mac computer audio odyssey.

For me, the three most important aspects of a computer audio system are stability, reliability, and simplicity of operation. Sound quality comes after these three primary goals are met: ultimately it doesn’t matter how good your computer audio system can sound if you can’t get it to work.

Given my priorities, the principal goal of this guide won’t be the best performance. (John Quick talks about this in the following feature.) No, the goal here is to achieve a system that is going to deliver sound 99.9% of the time without having to screw around. Even a naïve user should be able to use a computer audio system almost as easily as a CD player.

Hardware
Which Apple computer you choose for computer audio will depend on several factors, but principally budget and portability. Portable Macs, whether MacBook Pro or Air, make great audio computers, especially if you want one system that you can take with you. A Mac Mini is less expensive initially, but it does require an external monitor and keyboard for full functionality. An iMac is also a good option and the monitor is built-in. Some folks (like me) even use a MacPro desktop machine for audio duties.

Nowadays, the Macs I see most often used for audio are the Mac Mini or a Mac portable. Mac Minis are the most popular “desktop” machine due to their size and price. Also a Mac Mini can be run “headless” after initial setup, without a monitor or keyboard via the “Remote” Smartphone app (a Mac portable can be used this way also, but the screen will remain active). Any Mac that supports the current or near-current operating system can be used for audio playback duties. Considerations such as whether you want portability are more easily quantifiable than whether one Mac model sounds better than another.

Apple offers all its computers with different memory and hard-drive configurations. You can order a Mac directly from Apple exactly the way you want it or you can purchase a barebones configuration and add your own memory and storage later. OtherWorld Computing sells all the necessary parts as well as step-by-step instructional videos on its site for installing memory, solid-state drives, and auxiliary hard drives for nearly every model Mac.

If you want to do an audio-only computer system, be aware that there are different levels of audio-only exclusivity. And there’s always a trade-off of ergonomics lost versus sonic benefits gained. Access to the Internet is not necessary to play back a music file, but it does allow for greater levels of operability, including access to Internet radio (which can be very good), streaming services, and GraceNote for identifying ripped CDs. But a system with Internet access means that more operations will be ongoing and some could have an effect on overall audio quality. The tweakiest and most obsessive sound-quality-first Mac setups tend to be isolated stand-alone systems without Internet access. PreSonus, in its guide to Mac OS use, recommends turning off the airport wireless service while using a Mac for audio. Obviously this drastically reduces functionality, sort of like supergluing your mouth closed to keep from occasionally drooling. Some Mac audio set-up guides also recommend turning off “Spotlight,” which is the file-searching utility. This is great until you need to find a file.

There is no reason that a current-generation Mac needs to be gelded into a barebones operating system to perform optimally for audio. The Mac operating system and hardware were made for multitasking, and the Mac will be performing background processes while playing music even if it has been stripped-down. While I don’t recommend regularly running a bunch of high-demand processing and disc-access programs such as Photoshop while listening intently to music, the reasons for creating a stripped-down music-only Mac were far more relevant back in the days of the G5 desktop than they are today.

How much memory is optimal for audio? Most users find that the right amount of memory is the same amount as for a full-service Mac. Nowadays, that’s 8 Gigabytes. You can “get by” with 4 Gigs, but given the cost of memory, there’s no reason not to have 8GB. Adding more than 8 Gigs of memory won’t buy you any advantages, and the extra memory will generate more heat and use more power. Music playback doesn’t require very much in the way of processor and memory usage compared to apps such as Photoshop. I use a 2006 MacPro desktop with 16GB of memory. Playing a 29-minute 96kHz/24 music file with Pure Music software used only 1025.4MB of real memory, 3.31 of virtual memory, 996.5 of private memory, and 1.09 of virtual private memory. The total amount of CPU usage was only 5.37%. With a newer, faster processor the CPU usage would be even lower. If I had only half the memory there would still be plenty left over.

Many storage options are available, but the most common way to go is with a solid-state drive for the OS and user files, then a second conventional larger hard drive for music files and/or Time Machine backup files (I’ll tell you about Time Machine later). The reasons for using a solid-state drive are increased read and write speeds and lower power usage for less stress on the power supply. The second drive can be internal or external, but external is more common. Nowadays portable 1, 2, and even 3TB portable hard drives are inexpensive and plentiful. I use a redundant system where I have two of each external drive, one in service and one as back up. Once a week I copy new files from the one in use to the backup drive, then put the drive away again. Some users opt for a RAID array for their music files, but I’d rather have identical libraries on two separate drives than two libraries on the same drive in a RAID array. Even with a RAID drive, if it fails catastrophically (which is usually how they go), you lose all your data, which is not an experience I recommend.

 

Connecting it Up
The current Mac Minis and Mac portables all offer USB 2 as well as Thunderbolt interfaces. While there’s little in the way of devices currently available for Thunderbolt, by using an adapter the Thunderbolt port can be easily converted to FireWire, and plenty of devices—hard drives, DACS, A/ Ds—use FireWire connections.

Since Macs have both Thunderbolt/FireWire and USB 2 connectors, it makes sense to use both. Some computer audio systems use external hard drives on the FireWire connection and a DAC on the USB 2. Others use a DAC on the FireWire and external drives on the USB connection. Either way works. But it makes sense to use both of the information conduits (or “pipes” in computer lingo) since they offer two independent pathways for moving data.

Macs offer several other connectivity options besides USB, Thunderbolt, and FireWire. All Macs also have a TosLink output, adjustable line-level analog/headphone output, and an internal speaker. You can use the TosLink to connect to a DAC that lacks a USB input but has TosLink input (which you will find on most DACs). Usually TosLink will have a higher jitter level than USB or FireWire and so the latter are usually the preferred digital connection methods. But sometimes the TosLink can deliver equal or better sound. This is usually a result of ground-loop issues between the computer and the other components in your system. Because TosLink is optical, not electrical, it breaks and isolates the ground connection between the computer and the DAC. I routinely connect the TosLink between my computer and DAC so I can compare it with the USB and FireWire feeds. Most of the time the USB or FireWire are better (USB and FireWire will both support rates higher than 96/24, which is TosLink’s upper limit), but occasionally TosLink can prove to be a better option.

Many current-generation Macs lack a disc reader/writer, which you need to be able to “rip” or import CDs into your computer audio system’s library. The solution is to buy an external reader/writer CD/DVD drive that attaches via USB. You could buy a CD/DVD/Blu-ray reader/writer, but Apple does not officially support Blu-ray playback. Although there are third-party apps such as Blu-ray Player that make Blu-ray playback through a Mac possible, possible isn’t the same as bug-free—on my system the Blu-ray player app produces distorted peak levels.

Although it appears at first that most Macs have plenty of USB connections, it’s easy to use them up. If you need more USB connections make sure to use a powered USB box. Many USB-enabled devices require power from the USB to work. While they will sometimes work even when connected to an unpowered USB expansion box, they could be receiving less power than they need to function optimally. Using a powered USB box eliminates this issue.

Setting Up Software
The Mac operating system that comes standard with every Apple computer has all the necessary software to function as an audio computer. The principal music playback program is iTunes. And while there are plenty of reasons not to like iTunes such as its poor organization for classical music and inability to play FLAC files without some additional steps, it is still the best software to begin with for your Mac-based computer-audio system. The iTunes library structure and cataloging format is recognized by every other Mac-based music playback app you may use in the future so you won’t have to re-rip any music files if you decide to use another app. By starting out with iTunes you can also establish a base level for ergonomic and sonic performance. Any music-playback program that can’t beat iTunes’ basic performance benchmarks has no reason to exist.

As I mentioned earlier you will need a disc reader/ writer to import CDs into your music library. But before you import your first CD you will need to change the preferences in iTunes. The default rip rate is only 320KBPS MP3, so you need to change that to something better in the “import settings” dialog box. I use 44.1/16-bit AIFF, but WAV is also an option. The primary disadvantage of WAV is that you won’t be able to add or change the artwork in a WAV file, while you can add and change art on AIFF files. In the past WAV files were more universally playable than AIFF, but I’ve yet to come across a high-quality portable player that won’t recognize AIFF files.

During initial set-up iTunes will need to configure where music files will be stored. I always use a separate storage drive for all my music files. But whatever else you do, if you move your music files to a different drive than the initial default, let iTunes do the moving. If you move music files to a different drive by dragging and dropping, then iTunes will no longer be able to find your files. So don’t do that, please.

Once iTunes has been set up and is running I recommend living with it for a while before trying third-party music apps for the Mac. First off, if iTunes runs successfully it’s a good indication that your Mac is stable and properly configured. If iTunes crashes something isn’t working right, and other programs will probably behave in equally buggy fashion. It’s important to get iTunes running right first.

I use iTunes as my disc-ripping program. You can also use other programs such as dBPoweramp for disc importing. But despite some articles I’ve seen that claim that dBPoweramp is more likely to produce a “bit-perfect” copy of a CD, the error correction built into iTunes also guarantees a bit-perfect replica of a CD’s data. So far I have yet to see any compelling evidence that iTunes disc importation reduces sound quality when compared to other disc-importation apps.

 

Once you’ve lived with and used iTunes for a while you can begin to try other playback programs. I use Pure Music, Amarra, Audirvana, and Decibel regularly. Each program has particular ergonomic advantages and they do not sound the same. Since all have free or demo modes you can try them out for yourself and see which one you like best. Pure Music has the most extensive preference options and because of this is most complex to set up. Amarra, in comparison, has very few options available from its internal preferences. So far I’ve not heard one playback program I would call “the best” in all setups.


Obviously, it would be great if a particular collection of settings produced optimal sound quality in every Mac in every system, but that isn’t the case. For instance, when it comes to upsampling versus native-rate conversion I’ve found some music does sound better when upsampled while other music files sound best when played back at their native rate.

One vitally important piece of software in the Mac is called “Audio Midi Setup.” I strongly recommend putting an alias of this app on your Mac’s dock because you will be using it a lot. You can do this by dragging the app’s icon (which looks like a keyboard and can be found in the “Utilities” subfolder) onto your dock. When you open the Audio Midi Setup app a box that shows you each input and output will greet you. It also tells you the current format and bit rate. Besides this information the Midi app lets you change format and bit rates and switch audio devices. Look at the “+” sign in the left lower corner. If you click on the little gear symbol next to it you can change audio output devices “on the fly.”

Another piece of supplied software that you should definitely use is Apple’s “Time Machine” backup. It will, once set up, automatically back up any drive on a regular schedule. If you have a hard drive or system failure “Time Machine” can reinstall your entire system to the point just before your crash. It has saved my life more than once. Use it.

One last piece of free software from Apple that I’ve found invaluable is “Remote.” As you might infer from its name, Remote is an app that lets you control iTunes (or Pure Music, Amarra, or Audirvana when they are linked to iTunes) from an iPhone, iPad, or Smartphone. You can see your whole library, make selections, build and save playlists, and play music from your listening seat.

Tweaks
Because of the number of variables in a computer audio setup finding a “tweak” or modification that will universally improve the sound of every Apple computer is virtually impossible. Sure, there are “best practices,” such as making sure that your system is not up-or down-converting a file without your knowledge (that’s where the Midi Control is invaluable), but “universal” tweaks? Uh, no.

Some users have reported that one particular USB port provided better sound than the others. Usually sonic differences between USB ports are a function of what other devices besides the DAC are on those ports. If you click on the Apple symbol in the left-hand upper corner of your screen you can open “About This Mac.” Under the “USB Ports” section you’ll find a list of each USB port and what is connected to it. Notice on my computer how my keyboard and printers are on a separate USB buss from my audio devices. And since both audio devices I have hooked up are on the same buss but do not receive data at the same time (with the MIDI Control I select one or the other), they should be getting the same quality in their data streams. So far, I have detected no “alpha USB buss” during the seven years I’ve been using my MacPro desktop computer.

Users, including myself, have reported hearing sound quality differences when using different USB cables. As to the whys and wherefores of these differences, the most likely reasons are that differences in jitter, bandwidth, impedance, and the reflection of energy influence the time-coherence of the audio signal in subtle yet audible ways. My advice, whether you’re a cable “believer” or someone who doubts that cables can make an audible difference, is to start with a basic cable, such as the Belkin Gold. Then try a “better” cable as well as the thinnest cruddiest, cheapest USB cable you can find lying around and listen for differences. I have heard USB-cable differences with many of the DACs I’ve reviewed when making this comparison. But sometimes, in some systems, USB cable swaps haven’t made an audible difference. Regardless of where you stand on USB-cable audibility, don’t try using a very long or a very short USB cable—best practices indicate that USB cables’ optimal length should be between one and two meters.

Finally, as to whether a particular version of the Mac Mini or Mac portable “sounds better” than the others, all the information I’ve seen has been purely anecdotal. Some computer-audio enthusiasts have gravitated to an older generation of Mac Minis that had an external rather than internal power supply because they can easily modify the external supply, and they feel that the aftermarket and sometimes homebrew power supplies have a lower noise floor and put less spurious noise back into the system. Current-gen Mac Minis have an internal power supply, which can also be modified, but that is a more difficult and usually more expensive process.

The Starting Line
Obviously we can only begin to delve into the mysteries and delights of a Mac-based computer audio system in a magazine article—there are entire books on the subject. But this will get you started in the right direction. For some audiophiles computer audio becomes a consuming passion because the potential for tweaks and improvements are nearly infinite. But before you can begin to wring every last iota of performance out of your system you have to get it up and running reliably. I hope this article will make that a little easier.

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