What is the best way to set up a Mac Mini media server?
The more upgrades you make, the higher performance your media server will have:
- Replace the stock SMPS with an ultralow-noise linear power supply.
- Upgrade the RAM to a minimum of 8GB and use16GB if possible.
- Use a small internal solid state drive (SSD) for your OS and player software.
- Use a large internal SSD or external drive/NAS/RAID for your music library.
- Power external drives with a linear power supply and use powerless data cables.
- Turn off unused wireless control interfaces such as infrared, Bluetooth, and WiFi.
- Interface WiFi through the Ethernet port using an external wireless router.
- Only use a monitor/keyboard/mouse for setup - control “headless” with a mobile device.
- Use anti-resonant decoupling products under your Mac Mini, power supply, converters, and drives.
- Optimize your operating system to improve audio and video performance.
For media libraries smaller than 1TB we recommend an internal SSD for everything. For larger media libraries we recommend external drives powered with one of our ultralow-noise power supplies. Our Joule V has an optional second power output that can power up to two external HDDs in addition to a Mac Mini. If you have the budget and require more library storage, we recommend Synology NAS/RAID drives connected through the Ethernet port.
Use dedicated data paths for each type of data. The three categories of data are software commands (internal SATA SSD), media data coming in from external drives, and media data going out to your DAC. When data is going both in and out of the same data buss at the same time, the data controller has to act like a traffic cop, constantly stopping and starting data going in each direction.
By spreading your data flow over three dedicated data controllers you will improve performance more than having a faster processor, more RAM, and faster drives. Note that on a Mac Mini the USB and Thunderbolt ports use the same data controller and the Ethernet and Firewire ports use the same data controller. So if you are using USB out to your DAC, then use Firewire or Ethernet in from your media library drive.
How difficult is it to upgrade the power supply in a Mac Mini?
For 2009 and older Mac Minis the upgrade is plug-and-play requiring no tools of any kind.
For 2010-2014 Mac Minis, if you have the tools and skills to change the hard drive, you also have the tools and skills to install one of our plug-and-play power supply upgrade kits. Tools for doing drive upgrades are available from may sources including Other World Computing.
The new late 2014 Mac Minis are another story: Apple used three T6 Tamper Resistant Torx screws to hold on the internal metal bottom plate. Currently, we've not seen any place to purchase a T6 Tamper Resistant Torx wrench aside from buying a very expensive professional set. Thank you Apple : P
Our plug-and-play DIY upgrade kit uses the same 5.5mm jack and and removable DC power cable like so many of our less informed competitors. Though they are designed for ease of installation without the need for soldering or any electronics expertise, their performance is no where near that of our recommended hardwired installation.
Our highest performance upgrade is our hardwired version. Over 99% of the upgrade kits we sell are the hardwired and soldered version. In addition to all the tools required to change the HDD, installation requires some basic electronics skills, a volt/ohm meter, and soldering gun.
If you are serious enough about your system's performance to upgrade your Mac Mini and don't have soldering or electronics skills we strongly recommend that you send us your Mac Mini for our professional warrantied upgrade.
What about external Thunderbolt card cases?
If you require professional grade sound cards, video cards, or interface boards,Thunderbolt card cases are a good option. For most people, adding a Thunderbolt card case to a Mac Mini is a waste of money. Another consideration is that these cases have fans that produce significantly more mechanical noise.
If you require special cards for audio, video, or external component interfacing, we recommend using one of our custom HTPC servers as opposed to a Mac Mini.
What about fanless operation and IC chip shielding?
Unlike some companies that offer Mac Mini upgrades, we don't recommend heating internal parts of a Mac Mini with fanless operation using the chassis of the Mac Mini as a heat sink. We also don’t recommend covering hot IC chips with insulating shielding.
Though these upgrades can yield subtle improvements in performance, they significantly reduce the life of the Mac Mini. Unless you consider your Mac Mini to be a disposable audiophile product, like tubes or phono cartridges, you should not do radical upgrades such as these.
What about degradation caused by heat?
Some of our competitors recommend Internal Regulator Modules (iRM) that add significant heat to the Mac Mini that add noise and more quickly degrades all systems. Our Internal Fitler Modules (IFM) are 100% passive and add no unnecessary heat to the Mac Mini.
Some of our competitors recommend adding internal shielding to the chips inside the Mac Mini as well as plugging open holes around the connectors to reduce the RF and EMI in order to lower noise. Though these modifications do yeild a subtle improvement in performance, they also significantly increase heat on internal parts resulting in premature degradation. Unless you consider your Mac Mini a disposable component, such as tube and phono cartriges, this would not be recommended.
Most of our competitors external power supplies use internal heat sinks that heat up the other parts in the chassis and rely on convection through small vent holes to remove the heat. We heat sink hot parts directly to the exterior of the chassis. This topology conducts heat from the interior to the exterior utilizing the entire exterior surface of the chassis as one big heat sink. By minimizing heat buildup inside the chassis we both lower noise and extending parts life.
Our power supplies and Mac Mini upgrades are engineered to last for over a decade.
What is the best operating system and media player for a Mac Mini?
Some recommend Apple OS X, some recommend Windows, and some recommend Linux. We recommend all three. Any operating system can sound amazing when it’s properly optimized for audio and video playback.
The big concern should be the compatibility of the operating system with the player software, plug-ins, and devices that are being used. For example, some USB converters or DACs work with only one operating system. Some systems require specific software with DSP plug-ins for equalization, room correction, and digital cross-overs. And if you want to use a Blu-Ray drive, there is currently no Apple approved option in OS X.
There is no one right answer that will satisfy every person’s needs.
Which year and model Mac Mini has the best performance?
For music playback alone, we recommend the recently discontinued i7 quad-core Mac Minis. We highly recommend getting one while they are still available.
For HD video and gaming in addition to music, we recommend the newest late 2014 Mac Minis. They have dual-core processors with better integrated graphics than the older i7 quad-cores.
We do not recommend the entry level Mac Mini with a 1.4GHz Core i5 processor for any high-performance system.
For more information on computer-based audio refer to our Audiofiles blog.