Mac Mini Digital Output

discman -- Thu, 01/14/2010 - 22:05

I'm seeing a lot of recommendations of the Mac Mini for high res audio. Is the digital audio output of a Mini ("Combined optical digital audio output/headphone out (minijack)") S/PDIF? What D/A converter does Apple use? Is it good or do you have to use external D/A?

Steven Stone -- Fri, 01/15/2010 - 11:44

The Mac Mini has what is in essence a Toslink digital output.
It's analog out is on a par with the analog out of an iPod Classic.
Most folks using the Mini for music use either its USB, Ethernet, or Wifi outputs to link with the rest of their home network to move music files around. 

Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound,, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

Cemil Gandur -- Sat, 01/16/2010 - 03:15

 I've read that the Toslink out of a Mini is limited to 96k, which may or may not be important to you. I understand that for proper high quality sound out of it, many use external DACs such as Weiss, Halo etc.. (presumably running out of the firewire port) or use interfaces out of the Mini's Firewire port to go into a high quality hifi DAC. If you don't already own a good DAC, then you're probably better off getting a DAC unit, specially if you're going to play high res files.
I'm about to get my feet wet in this, so the above comes from reading around the sites, not from personal experience. 

discman -- Sat, 01/16/2010 - 09:28

My understanding from reading Steven's article in a recent TAS (on the Empirical Audio OffRamp) is that USB in general is limited to 24/96 audio. I understand that there is a software product called Amarra ($1k!) that may be able to output hi res via USB from a Mac, but then can any hardware work with it? Or does Amarra use Toslink, but then is Toslink limited? Or??

Steven Stone -- Sat, 01/16/2010 - 09:51

 Snow Leopard's latest version uses and support USB 2.0, which can support 192 via USB. So far no hardware supports that protocol - but the March-release-date HRT MusicStreamer HD will support it as will other USB DACs in the near future.
Amarra supports higher bit rates currently  through FIrewire devices. As higher bit rate USB 2.o DACs are available I'm sure Amarra will support them as well with newer builds.

Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound,, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

discman -- Sat, 01/16/2010 - 10:58


It still leaves the question of why all the focus on USB? Can't I put an S/PDIF card (or some other interface) in a PC (or a Mac Pro)?

firedog -- Sun, 01/31/2010 - 11:28

The M2Tech HiFace USB>SPDIF converter supports all files up to and including 24/192

Empirical Audio has announced that they will be adding hardware options for and support for all common file formats up to and including 24/192 to their USB products later this year.

I'm sure lots more devices that support hi-res over USB will be on the market soon after these products are all on sale. Especially since USB 3 is now on the way.

wdw (not verified) -- Sat, 01/16/2010 - 10:27

Hello Steven,
Reading your USB article left me with the impression that USB was too limited in bandwidth to be considered the right choice for streaming high rez files.  Am I mistaken?  I currently stream to an Airport Express which use the digital toslink out into a Levinson CD player.  I want to transition to a DAC that can accept higher resolution files but am stymied by the iTunes file size limitations.  The Amara group are dreaming in technicolour if they are expect us to pay $1000 for you have any news of software solutions for the iMac?  In fact, it seems that even the PC environment is limited to unfinished products for file handling...Media Monkey's whole interface looks too childish to be taken too seriously..

Steven Stone -- Sat, 01/16/2010 - 20:26

 USB 1.1 is limited to 96/24. USB 2.0 can go up to 192/24. So far the only announced 192/24 USB that is supposed to ship in March-April , is the MusicStreamer HD. I'm sure other manufacturers will have similar specs with their 2.0 compliant hardware.
As for your analysis of current software. Yes, Amarra is not a cheap program, but if your are using one of the DACs that Amarra supports you will get more than your money's worth in terms of substantial sonic benefit from using it with one of those DACs. 
I don't do music on a PC because, for me, life is too short to add that to my list of things to suffer through. On the Mac OS I can concentrate on listening to music instead of naming, moving, and sometimes manually entering metadata. And iTunes search, alphabetizing, and depth of metadata is just this side of ten kinds of awful, but it's still better than breadcrumbs and smoke signals. 

Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound,, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

Alex L (not verified) -- Wed, 02/03/2010 - 11:08

Thanks so much for all of your help with all things digital audio.  I use iTunes exclusively but want to start to do some of the digital 24/96 downloads from HDTracks as well as Referenc Recordings HRX.  I use a MAC and will make sure to get to the latest Snow Leopard upgrade.  I will be purchasing a Berkeley Alpha Dac and the Empiracle interface once they have it available to pass 24/192 plus the Amarra Software.
The question would be does iTunes play 24/176.4 and 24/196 files such as those that you download off of HDTracks or the HRX recordings?  I understand that the HDTracks uses FLACC and that HRX uses WAV.  Not sure iTunes can load and play those files.
Thanks in advance,

Steven Stone -- Wed, 02/03/2010 - 12:09

 iTunes doesn't support FLAC files, but there are other programs such as FLAC2MAC which can easily convert FLAC files to Apple Lossless.

As for the96/24 roadblock - I expect to see a whole bunch of above 96/24 USB solutions using 2.0 spec during the next six months.

Empirical will be supporting 2.0, but you may have to choose which clock rate you prefer - either 44.1-88.2-176.4 or 48-96-192 as a separate clock is needed for each rate and the Off-ramp 3 only has room for one clock. Two-clock solutions will cost more for obvious reasons...

Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound,, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

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