Published On: February 20, 2017

Turning a Mac Into an Audiophile Source Component

Published On: February 20, 2017

Turning a Mac Into an Audiophile Source Component

Want to set up your Mac computer to be a hi-res audio source? Scott Schumer describes the process--from downloading and storing music files to the playback software to the system connection options.

MacBookPro-225x118.jpgIf you own a Mac, you already have a high-resolution media file server at your disposal, with very little tweaking required to pass high-quality audio to your audio gear. I recently decided to set up my Mac in this way, to deliver hi-res throughout the signal chain–from my music library, to the player, to the DAC, to my preamp, amp, and loudspeakers (or preamp to headphones). Here is how I did it.

Building Your Hi-Res Music Library
The process starts with ripping or downloading music files directly to either your Mac’s internal hard drive or an external drive, or designating a cloud site for your file storage (more on this in a minute). I store my music library on a 3TB Seagate external drive. Many people prefer to use an external drive because loading up your main hard drive with music files can potentially slow your computer’s overall performance, especially when you get to the end of your drive’s storage limits.

Opinions will vary on what constitutes hi-res audio, but I set my sights on resolutions equal to or better than 24-bit/96-kHz. We all know that your system is only as good as its weakest link, so I started with either 24/192 or 24/96 FLAC files. Hi-res files may be offered in the FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) or AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) format, as well as DSD (Direct Stream Digital) and MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). DSD is the Philips/Sony system used to create the SACD (Super Audio Compact Disk) format, while MQA is a very clever codec that compresses the relatively little energy in the higher frequency bands to make the files smaller while retaining a hi-res result (it’s also a good format for streaming services). To get the highest quality, you will want to avoid lossy formats like MP3 (Moving Picture Experts Group Layer-3), AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), and OGG (Ogg Vorbis, the name Ogg derives from the jargon word ogging) that sacrifice audio quality for file size. This was important when storage was expensive, but now storage is plentiful and cheap.

Hi-res music files are available for download from a number of websites, including: HDTracks.com,
primephonic, HiRes Download, iTrax.com, B&W’s Society of Sound, Acoustic Sounds, Chandos, and Blue Coast Records. If you’re looking for suggestions on high-quality audio recordings, check out the reviews on our sister site, AudiophileReview.com. Here are a few great-sounding albums (all available as hi-res downloads) that I’d put on my list of desert island discs:

Santana: Abraxas
Mozart: Great Mass in C minor
Thelonious Monk Orchestra: At Town Hall
The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers
Bob Marley: Legend (you are on a desert island, after all)
Steely Dan: Aja
Jethro Tull: Aqualung

Cloud Backup
About a year ago, I grew concerned that my entire life’s savings of music–some of which is irreplaceable original music from the various bands I’ve been in–was all in one place, so I looked to the cloud for a backup/disaster recovery solution. My current total storage need is approximately 2.4 TB. Apple’s iCloud offers five gigabytes of free storage, which isn’t nearly enough for my music files, so I opted for the 2TB plan that costs $20 per month. I had to leave some of my more esoteric albums off the iCloud drive to fit under the 2TB size limit.

Another cloud option is Google Drive, which offers 15 GB for free or one terabyte for $9.99/month; then it jumps to 10 TB for $99.99 monthly. Microsoft looks at storage a bit differently, tying its One Drive storage to the MS Office suite. When you purchase MS Office 365, you get 1 TB of storage. All your Excel spreadsheets, Word docs, and PowerPoint presentations are automatically stored there and are available for collaboration between users. There isn’t anything preventing you from storing your music library there, but access is via Microsoft’s Groove Music Pass, which is $9.99 per month in addition to the $99 annual cost of MS Office 365.

Amazon’s Drive allows you to upload up to 250 songs for free. Subscribe to Amazon Prime ($99 annually) and get 5 GB of storage; for another $59.99 per year, you get unlimited storage. I currently use Apple’s iCloud because I’ve been deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem from the first-generation iPod, but Amazon’s value proposition is compelling. I am strongly considering making the switch. (If anyone out there has made the switch, I’d love to hear about your experience in the Comments section.)

Playback Software
Once you have begun to build your hi-res audio library, how do you play the files in a way that maintains their high bit and sample rate? I chose to download the VLC media player to my Mac (it’s free) because it’s capable of 24/96 and 24/192 native hi-res output. The VLC player can be downloaded here.

As an alternative to VLC, you might consider the VOX Music player, which is also free and can be downloaded here.

Why not just use iTunes? The iTunes Store only sells music in the compressed AAC format, and the iTunes player doesn’t support the most widely sold lossless format: FLAC. Some hi-res file formats like AIFF may be played by iTunes but will not be at their native hi-res rates. Beware: If you convert a 24/96 FLAC file to ALAC, for example, you will not get the original file’s full resolution.

Connections
There are three ways to get hi-res audio out of your Mac: 1) through an optical Toslink cable connected to the headphone output; 2) through a USB cable; and 3) through a standard stereo eighth-inch mini-jack connected to the headphone out–which will use the Mac’s excellent internal DAC that supports up to 24-bit/192-kHz.

I suppose you could also count Bluetooth as the fourth way, but I’m not convinced that, even with A2DP negotiating between the transmitter and receiver the best CODEC available, you aren’t losing audible quality in the wireless transmission.

Any of the above three connections ensures output of your audio files at the full resolution. Options one and two are still in the digital domain, so you will need to convert the signal to analog before sending it along its path that ultimately leads to your analog ears. The HTR archive is full of reviews that will steer you to a great digital-to-analog converter (DAC) at any price point. Just remember to make certain that the DAC supports the highest quality files in your catalog.

The next component in line is either your preamp or integrated amp. My setup includes a tube preamp that has both a headphone output and individual right and left line-level RCA outputs, which then feed either my tube or solid-state amplifier (I have one of each). Either amp then leads to my loudspeakers. If I’m listening through headphones, they are fed directly from my preamp.

My Results
I am enjoying incredible results using my Mac as a hi-res server. When comparing hi-res FLAC files via VLC to music coming from my iTunes library at 16/44.1, the difference is truly amazing in terms of imaging, dynamic range, extended high and low frequencies, clear and detailed mids, and the all-important warmth, air, and intimacy. When listening to the same song, switching only the file resolution, the iTunes files sounded flat and one-dimensional. Don’t believe me? I recently read an excellent open-access paper on our ability to hear differences with high-resolution audio that can be found here.

You Can Take It With You
Want to enjoy your higher-quality audio on the go? That’s become a lot easier, too–thank to players like Astell & Kern’s AK240, Sony’s NW-ZX2, Onkyo’s DP-X1, Questyle’s QP1R, and HiFiMAN’s HM802s and HM901s. Do these players offer an improvement over a basic standard-res player? Yes, but remember that your environment and choice of headphones will impact your ability to hear all the differences.

Final Thoughts
Of course, there are a lot of excellent hi-res digital audio players on the market that would make a great addition to your gear rack, if you prefer a dedicated component. But if you’re looking for high quality on a budget and you already own a Mac, then why not work with what you already have right in front of you? My results were outstanding.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of how the music came to exist in the first place. The composition, the quality of the musicianship, the groove (or the tempo in classical pieces), the production, the mix, and the mastering process … all of these have great impact and ultimately contribute to what resonates with you. I’ve heard amazing music that was recorded in the 50s and really poor-sounding music that was recorded mere months ago … so technology is one thing, passion another.

Additional Resources
Chasing the Holy Grail of Audio at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Examining My Love/Hate Relationship with Video Discs at HomeTheaterReview.com.
What’s the Ideal Speaker Driver Configuration? at HometheaterReview.com.

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stuartr

I wanted full 192 kHz from Amazon HD to my Denon AVR. So, I set up a Mac Mini, connected it to my Denon via HDMI, and I’m getting full 192 kHz throughput (after tweaking Audio MIDI settings on the Mac).

Working absolutely perfectly, and HDMI gives me the added advantage of having the Amazon HD app up my connected LG OLED TV, if I choose to have HDMI pass-through activated on the Denon. Add in a wireless keyboard/mouse and mission accomplished. I’m going to get a Luna Display dongle shortly and hope to operate the Mac Mini from the iPad and bypass the need for the keyboard/mouse.

I did try to connect from a desktop Mac via USB-C to HDMI (via adapter) and got tons of distortion and modified screen resolution on the desktop Mac. A little costly, but the Mac mini turned out to be a great solution, and will also double as a 4K movie server for my system.

I could not get full 192 kHz via the 3.5mm output no matter what I did, and the signal into my AVR was very, very low and weak.

I was thinking of optical from Mac to AVR, as the article suggests, but my understanding is that a Toslink cable would max out at 96 kHz. Wrong?

tsfilms az

WOW great information. Just what i was looking for.

Marc

👏👏👏 great article! Thanks!

Olivier Platbrood

Thanks I m using hdtrack files downloaded on my Mac book Pro.Using VLC and my midi audio tuned to 96 kHz 24 bits stereo.Mini toslolink wired to my DAC `Cyrus of the Marantz SA15 s2 cd/sacd player.Sound is very good and the Marantz copes well. Superb

AnalogRelic

Just a few things: Unless your player software controls your system MIDI settings (most do not), any audio put through, regardless of format, will get transcoded to 48/16. Vox, Swinsian, Fidelia, Amarra and some others avoid this by setting the output to match the file.

Second thing: Most players with volume controls are capable of adding gain to the signal which can and will cause clipping. Clipping sounds REALLY bad. VLC has a little mark on their volume slider which indicates unity gain/ ‘bit perfect’ playback. Do not advance the volume further if you want good sound. Adjust volume at the amp. Other players you need to adjust so the loudest peaks don’t clip. This is a trial-and-error process. Rogue Amoeba ‘SoundSource’ is a good tool for this. It has little meters which are not useful for determining absolute levels, but they turn red when the signal clips. I just played the loudest recordings I could find and adjusted the volume down until I didn’t see the meter turning red anymore. SoundSource will show you the results app by app. It’s inexpensive

Lastly, just because something is in a high resolution format doesn’t make it High resolution audio it just puts it in a bigger ‘bit bucket’, analogous to putting a steak on a bigger plate. It doesn’t make it a bigger steak. Anything sourced from an analog master can be easily and transparently digitized at CD spec. 99.44% of what the ‘hi res’ sites sell are analog recordings. Putting them in a bigger bit bucket does not make them higher resolution. I suggest anyone interested in learning more about what actually is and isn’t ‘high-res’ visit Mark Waldrep’s ‘Real HD Audio’ site and/or buy his book. Mr. Waldrep is a sound engineer and educator with a decades-long Resume including many names you would recognize.

Travis Buchanan

I have come across this site after skimming the internet for information. ( rabbit hole )

I currently have a rotel a12 amp with a dedicated digital inputs at 16bit/96khz

I’m wanting to start playing hi res files from storage device

What’s my best options .. I do have a spare MacBook laptop I could use.

All help appreciated

speekless

In my experience, the internal mac DAC isn’t nearly as good as even the lower-priced audio interfaces. I use an Apogee Duet myself, but you could use a high-end DAC as well. That, with good balanced cables (Mogami comes to mind, they’re not that expensive, I hand-soldered mine with Neutrik connectors), and good monitors (best I’ve heard are PMC), and you’ve got a kick-ass audio setup.

biseinen

Thank you so much for this post. I now have turned my mac into a source component following your advice and, everything you said is true, nothing comes close, the aural difference is outstanding. Thank you for sharing your research with us. You brought me back to loving music listening…and on a budget! ha ha.

lcgillies

Thanks for a very helpful article. I’m looking to use an older macbook pro as a player (with Audrivana—an amazing piece of software), ultimately into an older but high quality stereo system. If I put a DAC like the Audiolab M-DAC+ between the laptop and the amp, would I also benefit from the signal conditioning of something like the iFi Micro iUSB 3, between the computer and the Audiolab DAC?

mike.

I’m surprised there’s no networking options mentioned on a home theater thread. With most modern avr’s, here seems to be a good DAC, and DLNA compatibility. Serving from Mac to home theater should be easy this way, and GAK advantage of the investment already made in Home Theater equipment. More and more AVR’s support a “pure audio” mode that shuts off unused circuitry for cleaner audio output, and it removes the electric interference and output issues addressed n many of the comments. So, why not drop all the files into a folder or use a playback solution accessible to one’s AVR over the network? What am I missing?

Martin Angelo Esguerra

Hi. First of all, thank you for this very informative article on using a Mac as a HiFi player. I’d like to ask a question regarding the point you made that the Mac has an excellent internal DAC that supports up to 24-bit/192kHz. I followed the link you provided and it would seem that my MacBook Air doesn’t have that feature. I have an Astell & Kern AK70 which, according to a review, can be connected to a Mac as a DAC. Do you think this is a plausible alternative and do you have any advise on how to go about it? Thanks!!

disqus_KGfNBloumy

Have u tried playing music without plugging in AC, meaning using battery only. This gets rid of AC dirt and may improve sound. But may not have enough power at times esp if u have external USB devices that the Mac needs to power. I use iFi idefender with ipower which Powers the iDefender + igalvanic and works really great when the Macbook is running on battery without the AC plug! This pay save one on investing a Linear PS which is most often need on a regular music streamer. Macbook perhaps eliminate need of this though I have not compared it with music server that uses LPS

Wave Strike

Your “desert island” recordings have no Hi-Res content so I hope you don’t hear a “difference” in those tracks. The study you cited shows that a coin flip is as statistically significant in determining Hi-Res vs. lesser formats – unless they had “trained” or biased the person first. I suggest you take a class on Signals and Systems. There is one free on Youtube through MIT. You will give up Hi-Res soon after. That said, a good DAC and speakers vs. crappy ones can make a difference.

Frans Keylard

You can also output hi-res and multi-channel audio from your computer via HDMI.

mrsatyre

MQA folks I’ve spoken with have recommended Foobar 2000 as using less system resources than VLC, which I had been using. I’m a PC guy, however, so don’t know if Foobar 2000 is compatible with Mac.

David C. Snyder

This is a pretty good introduction; however, there are a couple of inexpensive additions that I would recommend to folks who want to take their Mac based computer audio system to the next level.

CDs are still a great source of quality music (especially XRCD, MoFi, etc.), but for consistent results, the software that you use to rip them matters. You want to use software that provides some way for you to know for certain that the tracks were ripped accurately (or if there are errors, at least you’ll know which tracks are affected). Here’s a list: http://www.accuraterip.com/software.htm

The software that you use for playback matters. I don’t fully understand why, but every media player that I’ve tried sounds slightly different. On the Mac, the best sounding player that I have tried so far is Audirvana Plus with roon and JRiver not far behind. While not free, these applications do a better job of managing your media library than VLC and have sophisticated playback engines that typically outperform their free or open source counterparts. Integration with the TIDAL lossless streaming service is a nice plus that should also be considered.

While I’m sure that the built-in DAC on the Mac is decent, an external USB DAC will almost always be a significant upgrade. It’s important to pay attention to the USB connection; however. The Mac was never designed to function as a high performance audio component (in spite of what Apple fans may tell you), so it’s important to prevent noise on the USB bus from entering the DAC. There are many popular solutions for doing this ranging in price from $49 to $399 or so. The ideal device will completely replace the 5v power component of the USB signal and regenerate the data signal to remove jitter, etc. Consider products like the iFi nano iUSB3.0 or UpTone Audio USB REGEN.

Finally, it’s best to eliminate sources of mechanical noise and non-musical vibrations from the listening room. Instead of physically attaching an external drive to your Mac, consider using a NAS device (eg. Synology, QNAP, Drobo) that can be moved to another room and connected to your home network via Ethernet. If your Mac is an older model with a spinning HDD, consider upgrading or replacing it with an SSD as well.

Roger Wieand

USB decrapifiers like the iUSB3.0 and REGEN will not improve your audio quality or eliminate USB “noise” (which doesn’t exist), period, by dint of the way that digital signals work. Even Schiit, which *sells* a USB decrapifier (Wyrd) openly admits this. Please don’t trust people who try to sell you one, it is surprising how mainstream these devices are becoming considering they are just as much a swindle as that guy who tapes crystals to his speaker cables and claims improvement.

Rocky Rocketeer

I have an iFi and a jitterbug, just a slight improvement..

Kirk Boone

You’re completely wrong on this subject. USB is well known to have timing or “jitter” issues. I’ve added a Singxer F-1 to my system and the improvement was very apparent. Not sure where you’ve seen Schiit saying their product does not work.

David C. Snyder

Unless you’re a troll, why should you care how other people choose to spend their money? If “USB decrapifiers” make no difference in your system, don’t buy them. However, implying that those who have found that reducing USB noise improves sound quality have been swindled doesn’t help anyone and only serves to expose your lack of experience in this area.

There is no such thing as a “digital signal”. All electrical signals are continuously variable…i.e. analog. While digital processing can reduce the impact of noise on signal transmission, the “A” in “DAC” stands for “Analog.” Allowing noise to enter a DAC via the USB port often negatively impacts the performance of the DAC’s analog circuits. Why wouldn’t you want to address this in a high performance playback system if there are inexpensive ways to do so?

If you’d like to speak from experience, consider actually buying one of these devices from a vendor with a liberal return policy (eg., Music Direct). Use it in your system for a month or so–then take it out. If you don’t notice a loss in musical involvement after removing the device, request an RMA and send it back. You may have to pay a few bucks for return shipping, but at least then you’ll know what you’re talking about and have some real-world experience to back it up.

Roger Wieand

USB decrapifiers like the iUSB3.0 and REGEN will not improve your audio quality or eliminate USB “noise” (which doesn’t exist), period, by dint of the way that digital signals work. Even Schiit, which *sells* a USB decrapifier (Wyrd) openly admits this. Please don’t trust people who try to sell you one, it is surprising how mainstream these devices are becoming considering they are just as much a swindle as that guy who tapes crystals to his speaker cables and claims improvement.

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