What is the best way to set up a Mac Mini music server?

The more upgrades you make, the higher performance your music server will have:

  • Replace the stock SMPS with an ultralow-noise linear power supply.
  • Upgrade RAM with a minimum of 8GB of high-performance low-latency (CAS 9 or better).
  • Use an mSATA SSD card or small internal solid state drive (SSD) for your operating system and player software.
  • Use a large internal SSD or external NAS/RAID array with SSDs for your music library.
  • Independently power any external drives, switches, routers, or converters with an ultralow-noise linear power supply..
  • 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, and 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.
  • A USB device (reclocker, regenerator, or converter) can significantly improve performance with most DACs.
  • A dedicated ultralow-noise power supply will significantly improve performance of any USB device.
To power USB devices our Illuminati v2 power supply has an optional second output that is selectable for 5V, 7V, or 9V.

For media libraries smaller than 4TB we recommend an internal SSD for everything.

For larger music libraries we recommend a NAS/RAID array with all SSD drives powered with our Illuminati v2.

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 upgrades on 2010-2014 Mac Mini are available from 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 a 5.5mm DC power jack and and removable DC power cable like so many of our 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.

The hardwired version is our highest performance upgrade and comprises over 99% of the upgrades we sell. In addition to the tools required to disassemble a Mac Mini, some basic electronics skills, a volt/ohm meter, and a soldering gun are required.

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 fanless operation and IC chip shielding?

We don't recommend unnecessarily 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 do subtly improve performance, they significantly reduce the life of the Mac Mini. Unless you consider your Mac Mini to be a disposable product, like tubes or phono cartridges, you should not do radical upgrades such as these.

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 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. And some systems require specific software with DSP plug-ins for equalization, room correction, and digital cross-overs.

There is no one right answer that will satisfy every person’s needs.

Which Mac Mini has the best performance?

For music playback alone, even an entry level Mac Mini will yield excellent performance.

If you are oversampling, doing digital signal processing (DSP), digital EQ, digital room correction, or converting to dual-rate or quad-rate DSD, we recommend getting the fastest most powerful Mac Mini available.

Though discontinued in late 2014, the i7 quad-core is still the fastest Mac Mini ever made. Highly recommended.

Use dedicated data paths for each type of data.

The three categories of data are:

  • Operating system and software commands.
  • Music data coming in from internet streaming and/or library drives.
  • Music 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. This makes music sound awkward and less fluid.

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. So if your DAC's data input is USB, then use Firewire or Ethernet coming in from your music library drive and/or internet streaming service.

How does an ultralow-noise power supply improve computer performance?

All computer communication works on a system of checks and error correction (check sum). If a packet of data doesn’t pass the check, a new packet of data is sent to replace the original. The lower the power supply noise, the fewer bit read errors, the fewer errors to correct, and the greater the system resources.

When you free up system resources with a cleaner power supply a computer will perform as if it has a faster processor, faster storage drive, and more RAM. When a low-noise power supply is used with a computer-based music server or streamer the result is more liquid and articulate sound, combined with greater depth, detail, and dynamics.

Aren’t RAM-buffered music players bit perfect?

Yes, the data buffered in the RAM is bit perfect, but RAM is not the final link in the chain. Bit read errors still occur between the RAM and the output buffer, and between the output buffer and the digital to analog converter (DAC). Unlike most computer communication, the music data that leaves a computer through USB, Firewire, and optical ports is most often not buffered or error corrected at the DAC.

In addition, the system resources required to error correct the data that is being buffered in the RAM significantly slows computer performance resulting in a more awkward and less liquid presentation.

Also, RAM buffering doesn't deal with all the noise switch-mode power supplies radiate corrupting the signal in any component in physical proximity and polluting the AC ground for any component plugged into the same circuit.

What is the difference between a linear and a switching power supply?

Switch-mode power supplies (SMPS) are in wall warts, external brick style power supplies, and all computers. The advantages of SMPS are that they are significantly smaller, significantly more efficient, operate with much less heat, and are significantly lower cost to manufacture. Smaller, cheaper, and more efficient...what's not to like?

The disadvantages of SMPS is they have significantly more noise than linear power supplies. The best SMPS have peak-to-peak ripple (noise) roughly equal to the most basic of linear power supplies. But ripple is not the only noise SMPS produce. They also radiate inductive noise that can be picked up by cables and components in close proximity. And they dump noise onto the common AC ground that pollutes the power of any component plugged into the same AC circuit.

Also, when compared to high-performance linear power supplies, SMPS have very slow dynamic response. When reproducing music, slower power supplies sound awkward and less liquid, restrict dynamic passages, mask micro-details and micro-dynamics, and distort the time and tune.

What about "Super Cap" power supplies?

Super Caps were engineered to have a high micro-farads storage capacity in a small package. That is what makes them "super." They were engineered to keep CMOS memory in computers during power brown outs. There were never intended for use as a permanent battery bank in audio equipment.

As Super Caps discharge their output voltage changes significantly. This means when the charging controller switches between banks the fully charged bank of Super Caps will have a significantly higher voltage than the drained bank. This results is a "saw-tooth" pattern with sharp peaks and valleys combined with lots of unwanted harmonics in the audio range. In contrast, a linear power supply has constant voltage with very subtle ripples (noise). It requires far less additional filtering to remove the subtle ripple in a linear power supply than to remove the deep saw-tooth pattern coming from a dual-bank Super Cap power supply.

Super Caps have poor durability. There expected life is roughly 3-years. Now you know why the best of Super Cap power supplies are never warrantied for more than 3-years. In contrast, a properly engineered linear power supply will last for decades.

And in the end, what you are really listening to is the final regulator that fixes the output voltage and polishes any remaining ripples from the DC power. Most Super Cap power supplies use inexpensive low-noise IC regulators that only have modest levels of performance. Mojo Audio uses Belleson ultralow-noise ultrahigh-dynamic regulator modules - the finest regulators in the audiophile industry. Not only is their noise remarkably low, their dynamic response is <10uS from zero to full current output assuring incredibly clean and stable DC power regardless of ever changing current requirements.

But what makes our Illuminati series of power supplies better than most is our input choke filtering. By adding a choke between the rectifier and first capacitor of a power supply the crest factor, heat, and parts wear are reduced by literally 50%. The choke also acts as a reservoir for power and pre-regulates the DC doubling the efficiency and effectiveness of each consecutive stage of filtering. Choke input power supplies have been the gold standard for roughly 90 years. Their only disadvantages are higher cost, larger size, and additional weight. No Super Cap power supply uses choke input.

Super Cap audiophile power supplies are just a gimmick. If Super Caps were actually a good way to provide low-noise DC power than why are they not used this way by the military, aerospace, and telecommunications industries?

Don’t batteries have the purest DC power?

Though better than the inexpensive switch-mode power supplies that come with many audio, video, and computer products, battery performance can’t compare to the performance of an ultralow-noise linear power supply.

Batteries use a chemical reaction to generate DC power, and each chemical reaction from each type of battery has its own audible noise signature. This is why a specific type of battery, such as LiO4, sounds better than another type, such as SLA. The noise level of a battery also changes significantly during different phases of the discharge and recharge cycle, making batteries an inconsistent-sounding power source as well. And then there's the additional expense of replacing batteries every few years.

Batteries also have much slower dynamic response than linear power supplies. Their slower dynamic response results in batteries making music sound slower, less dynamic, less articulate, and relatively lifeless.

If battery power has the lowest noise, then why do the military, aerospace, and telecommunications industries only use them for portable devices and uninterrupted AC power supplies (UPS)?