Dave in the City out West (DITCOW)

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Blog: Audiophile Sound powered by Mac Mini, and other nonsense.

February 13th, 2017

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After trying other options, I have a plan to use a Mac Mini as the ULTIMATE digital audio player.  Plus other assorted nonsense from the weekend. 

I've had a whale of a time trying to figure out how to play high res with a convenient system in my bedroom.   I can play Spotify great with the Chromecast audio on my iPad.  High res, it's another matter.   There does not yet exist a High Res version of Spotify, but Tidal comes close.   It's still not enough.  So, I tried several ideas.

First, the obvious setup, which wound up being less obvious.   My old ASUS laptop can connect to my gorgeous sounding Peachtree Audio DAC, a separate unit that converts digital signals to analog sound.  I'll tell you this -- no matter what you connect to it, nothing sounds crisper or sharper musically than this DAC.  It's tremendous.   You also can tell what sounds like crap because it reveals all the detail or lack thereof of any recording.  You can instantly tell what's good quality audio and what's horrendously compressed and such.   REALLY good, uncompressed, audio sounds three dimensional -- you can hear instruments deep into the wall, and other instruments that come out right at you.   Some instruments have low volume and others have high volume, but all within the same mix.   Most modern pop music just puts everything at the same level... thats nice for little ear buds but you lose a lot of potential on high end systems.

Anyway, the laptop was the easy out, but even that was a picnic, because I had to make several attempts at just getting the damn DAC device to connect to the computer.   I tried multiple drivers, and, it turns out, I was using the wrong one, so I had to get the updated version for Windows 7 with the new DAC-it model yada yada, it was a real pain in the rear.   BUT, once it got going, the music was spectacular.

But... it needs a USB connection to work, and that big bulky laptop is a bear to lift around everywhere; far from convenient.

Next, I tried Plex, which lets you run your own media server over your private network.  If you can believe this, all of *you* have your own private network at home.  You get an internet router, an network connection, sometimes both items are integrated, and you get your computer that you can connect wirelessly or with an ethernet cable. Plex lets you stream any content, especially videos and high res FLAC files over your own network.

There were two big problems I had with Plex.  Number one, the wireless reception in my bedroom isn't strong enough to stream really high bitrates like that from the living room router.  We would have delays on occation.  Number two, and just as importantly, there's latency between tracks!!   When you listen to recordings that span the entire "side" of a disc, you have to have seamless switching between tracks, otherwise you will hear a 1-2 second gap in between sections of a recording.  It's incredibly distracting.  Plex not only had these gaps but because of the other latency involved with the home network/plex/computer/etc, the gaps would run several seconds solid.   It was unbearable, and it reminds me of a third problem that I'll add.. I have to run my big desktop computer and the equipment in my bedroom at the same time; a pretty good waste of electricity since the desktop computer was only hosting the files.

Clearly, I need a better solution.   I considered the Sonos system, or one of those fancy Sony FLAC/other-hi-res digital media players, like a CD player but with a hard drive instead of a CD drive.   I was happy to go with it, until I saw the outrageous price.  The Sony player, a HAP-Z1ES for instance, ran for well over $1000, and since I already had solid DAC hardware, that seemed like a waste of money.

I wanted easier interactivity, but I also wanted to at least see what I was playing on a display somewhere.   I also didn't want to spend over 1000 bucks.   It was at that moment I flashed back to my work setting up a new presentation room at my former job.   We used a Mac Mini to connect people online or for Skype.   It could have been used to let people load presentations, but an Apple TV in the same room does a better job with that via AirPlay.   The Mac Mini is small and has an HDMI output.  It could connect to my TV!   Afterward, I just need a Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse to control it, and I can then connect a USB cable between the DAC and the proposed Mac Mini.

I already know the USB connection will work because I used to use the DAC at my office and I would connect USB to the DAC from a MacBook Pro.  Ergo, OS X fully supports USB output with complete resolution.   Even better, the Mac Mini can also connect to my MLB.tv account to watch out of market baseball; I don't know at this point whether it's up to speed with 60fps motion, but it might be for 2017.   

All together, this is a pretty cool idea to simplify a lot of my high res setup.  I can then create a folder for the FLAC recordings I have now and acquire new ones.   I'm pumped.   I think we can implement this pretty well... in fact, I don't even need that fancy a Mac Mini to execute the audio, but I probably will still get the Core i5 model so I can be assured of decent video performance.

That's the latest.  Ah, yeah, other nonsense...  Did you know that some cafes make the "Grande" size the maximum and others, like Starbucks, make the Grande size their "medium" size?  What is the deal here?   We need to establish a coffee sizing commission to standardize the terminology.

Til next time, friends.