New Mac Mini as music server?

Discussion in 'All Things Digital' started by HendersonD, Nov 10, 2018 at 4:07 PM.

  1. I currently use a 2012 Mac Mini as a music server. The internal SSD holds the operating system and I have an external firewire drive that holds my music library. I have a Meridian Explorer DAC and use Audirvana for playback.

    I am thinking about purchasing a new 3.6GHz quad core Mac Mini to act as a music server and jumping to Roon. I have a few questions
    1. The Mac Mini comes with 8GB of RAM but can hold up to 64GB. Is 8GB enough or should I jump to 16GB? This will primarily a music server but may be used at times for other light tasks.
    2. The internal SSD starts at 128GB but can go 2TB. Should I put my music library on the internal hard drive or on an external drive? If external is fine then I should be able to get by with just the 128GB internal SSD
    3. If I do go with an external drive to hold the music library, spinning disk? SSD? Or does it not make a difference?
    4. If I do go with an external drive to hold the music library, bus powered or should I purchase a drive that has its own power supply? I have read that bus powered might compromise sound quality.
    5. Lastly, I have read that replacing the switching power supply with a linear power supply can provide sonic improvements. Does anyone have experience with this?
  2. airdronian

    airdronian Junior Member

    When I started with my Mac Mini, I followed tips from Gordon Rankin (Wavelength) who recommended the external drive for the library. Apple does make you pay heftily for upgrades, this way you can save by sticking to 128 GB. One thing to note with the new Mac Mini, is that the internal storage not user replaceable - it's soldered in.

    8 GB memory is probably OK. It might be beneficial to check what Roon recommends. @MikeyFresh may have some suggestions here.

    Music playback doesn't really demand fast I/O, so a standard SATA drive would be my choice for the library instead of SSD. Cheaper too.

    I use a bus powered drive for my library. Less cables, and no switching supply concerns. I'm not aware of sound quality issues (which doesn't mean much :smile:). I've not read much about replacing the Mac Mini power supply. I imagine it's still internal on this 2018 version.
  3. MikeT.

    MikeT. Senior Member

    @HendersonD , welcome to HiFI Haven!
    Bought a Mac Mini last year, 1 Terabyte Fusion Drive, 256k SSD. Gobs of HD space for music and SSD for frequently used applications. 8GB RAM and no issues using Roon.
    TubeHiFiNut likes this.
  4. MikeyFresh

    MikeyFresh Moderator Staff Member

    A friend of mine in California runs Roon... on a 2102 Mac mini with 8GB of RAM. He loves it, and it's been flawless for him, so maybe with that data point and no doubt many other similar stories, a question about ultimate intentions server-wise is in order.

    Do you think anything more processor intensive than Roon is in the immediate or near future? HQ Player comes to mind, and that entails upsampling, at which point the newer more modern CPU and additional RAM are very likely needed depending on just how bleeding edge you wish to go.

    If upsampling is not of great interest, I suggest your current machine is plenty good enough to run Roon, though I'm not a Roon user myself, but my buddy in CA and as well many others no doubt use the 2012 mini with Roon no problem.

    The 2012 mini is considered by some to be the last great mini, because it had both the replaceable/upgradeable RAM as well as removable replaceable hard drive(s) (2 internal bays). Later mini models took away the ability to upgrade the RAM (soldered it to the board) although this new 2018 model has done an about face on that issue and made the RAM once again upgradeable, while the hard drives are now no longer end-user replaceable (the SSD is soldered to the board as @airdronian mentioned).

    My own 2012 mini has a single 256GB SSD, and 8GB of RAM (user upgradeable to 16GB) but I don't run Roon, I use JRiver and that really leads in to the next question.

    Do you have any wish or inclination to get the server out of the listening room entirely? Part of the beauty of Roon, and before it JRiver (as well as the recent Audirvana 3x), is the ability to stream to a separate room location over ethernet or WiFi. This gets the electrically noisy server (library) out of the main listening area, but does necessitate the use of an additional device in the playback room variously referred to as a streamer, endpoint, or renderer.

    These streamer/endpoint/renderers are typically small form factor, low power consumption, not very electrically noisy, and most likely better sounding than most servers doing double duty as the streamer/endpoint/renderer.

    This is because the typical computer, unless purpose built from the ground up with careful attention to design and parts, is electrically noisy. The switch mode power supply being a big part of that, but also in no small part due to the preponderance of switching regulators on the mother board, and various other motherboard comprises that have nothing to do with sound quality, regular computers were not designed to be audio components. Doesn't mean they suck, it just means they aren't optimized to do that specific job. Purpose built units are a different story, but they tend to be a bit complicated and/or expensive to implement.

    So without going a ton further, and with all due respect to anyone else whose opinions can and should vary based on their specific use case and needs, I ask @HendersonD if multi-room, or even just the idea of server (library) in one room and streamer/end point/renderer in the the actual listening area is even remotely interesting or feasible?

    If yes you have a range of options to consider, and they don't have to be expensive, while very likely the server (library) can stay on the same computer you currently have, whether you decide to run Roon, or even just stick with Audirvana 3x for now.
  5. MikeyFresh

    MikeyFresh Moderator Staff Member

    Somewhat separate of my reply above, I'll try to give concise input on these questions.

    1. 8GB is sufficient unless you plan to do heavy duty upsampling or other processing intensive stuff like DSP-based room correction. If you do go for the new 2018 mini just confirm it has end-user replaceable RAM, at which point 8GB now can be upgraded later by you at lower cost than buying it upfront from Apple.

    2. I have always favored external hard drives for the library storage, I also use SSDs there but there isn't a consensus on exactly which sounds better, it seems to vary a bit both by brand of drive and also by the enclosure in use, but I wouldn't lose sleep over it sonically speaking. 128GB internal storage should be fine unless you push this unit into various multi-tasking, photos and videos come to mind, they will eat up 128GB in a heartbeat, with 256GB being better but still not ideal, unless you park photos/videos on an external as well (I do).

    3. I use SSDs there for the sheer speed involved in doing big data writes. Is that worth all of the extra expense? Probably not, I should learn to be more patient, though SSDs have a longer service life than spinning disk HDDs do generally speaking.

    4. Also no consensus on bus powered vs. externally powered. On one hand, bus powered places more burden on the motherboard itself, creating more internal EMI/RFI and electrical draw there. But externally powered drives are no panacea, as they inevitably come with horrible noisy, cheap SMPS units. Pick your poison there, I generally prefer bus powered but there are tricks to quieting an external SMPS brick/wall wart.

    5. Related to the above, yes for sure replacing SMPS wherever possible seems to offer obvious sonic benefits, however it's impossible to get rid of all of them and even if you did, there would still be noisy switching regulators right on the motherboard itself that you cannot replace. A losing battle, but that's why keeping the electrically noisy server/library physically separate from the streamer/endpoint/renderer (and thus the HiFi system itself) is very likely the ideal situation if feasible.

    Again, other's mileage may vary, and/or their specific living arrangement or various other factors may preclude the use of a separate server and streamer/endpoint/renderer. Just my 2 cents (as @TubeHiFiNut might put it).
    TubeHiFiNut likes this.
  6. The biggest reason to consider a new Mac Mini is to simplify my setup. As I mentioned, I use a 2012 Mac Mini as a music server, it is headless and the music sits on an external firewire connected drive. I also have a 2007 iMac that stores a few files and we also run Quicken on. If the Mac Mini has issues I can use Screen Sharing to access it and fix any problems. My wife has a harder time troubleshooting the Mac Mini since it does not have a monitor and she is not that familiar with screen sharing. The new Mac Mini would replace both of the older Macs and I would get it with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. If I go with an internal SSD of either 512GB or 1TB I could put my music collection on the internal drive making the area where this all sits tidier. I can then purchase an external drive to use for backup purposes.

    I am happy with Audirvana but am certainly going to give Roon a trial period. We use my wife's iPad right now along with iRule software to control the music. I am thinking that the Roon app for iPad might even work better. iRule might have advantages in terms of controlling a receiver. I use a Meridian Explorer as the DAC hooked to the Mac Mini. I pipe this into an older receiver.
    1. iRule through an IR repeater can turn this receive off and on
    2. iRule can select the input on the receiver changing between listening to the radio (NPR or our local fantastic station WRUR which is advertisement free) or switching to our music collection
    3. We can use iRule to adjust volume on the receiver
    Roon sounds great but I also need to have the ability to control the receiver (off and on, source, volume). Just trying to fit all the pieces together.
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2018 at 7:27 AM
  7. A new Mac Mini with the quad core 3.6GHz processor, 8GB RAM, and a 128GB internal SSD is $800. To jump to an internal 1TB SSD puts the price at $1,600. A Samsung 1TB external USB 3.1 drive is $200. In other words, in order to have the same storage internal on the Mac Mini will cost me an additional $600. A good bit of money to keep the area where all this is housed tidier!
  8. S0und Dragon

    S0und Dragon Junior Member

    I am disappointed with the new Mac Mini and it’s pricing. Not because I think Apple should not make a profit. But because the whole point and spirit of the Mac mini was accessibility. Easier with a 499 starting price than 800.
    JohnVF likes this.
  9. airdronian

    airdronian Junior Member

    I'm not really enthused with it either - non replaceable storage is not something I'd want. And up here they are $999.00 (yikes).

    I did encounter some issues with upsampling on my current (early 2009) Mac Mini, and since it's 10 next year it gets me thinking about how to replace it.
  10. Thermionics

    Thermionics Post Whore In Training

    Just my 0.02 - it might be easier, and definitely a lot cheaper to get yourself an Intel NUC (similar small form-factor) and a passive (e.g. heat-sink) case and run Linux or Windows.

    (speaking as someone who is typing this on a circa-2012 Mac Mini)
    MikeyFresh likes this.
  11. airdronian

    airdronian Junior Member

    I've looked at NUC's. Running one with Windows would still let me use Audirvana. But if I want to get into upsampling I'd probably be looking at a higher end processor as opposed to the Celeron that the cheaper ones ship with. A Bluesound Node 2i might be an option, and plug & play more or less.
    S0und Dragon likes this.
  12. S0und Dragon

    S0und Dragon Junior Member

    I am a big Bluesound fan. It’s where I ended up after removing my Mac from player duties. I still use a long in tooth 2008 MacBook Pro as my Roon server. My Mac Mini runs OS X server and does the wife’s ITunes media as well as IOS device updates And some file storage.
  13. I took a long look at NUCs and even though I am in IT for a living decided to go with the Mac Mini. The Mini is more expensive but I like the Mac ecosystem and will use the Mac Mini for a few other duties besides just as a music server.
    MikeT. likes this.
  14. airdronian

    airdronian Junior Member

    They do cost a bit more, but I have to say they are good products. I retired a Macbook Pro at 11 years old this summer. The early 2009 Mini I use for music is on 24/7 generally, and other than having to replace the HDD in year 7 it's been trouble free. It's not just hardware you get with a Mac - it's the ecosystem you refer to and that has value IMO.

    I used to be in the IT field as well, and found the Macs a much better fit for me at home, instead of Windows. I'm looking at other options for music these days because the role this Mini has for me is single purpose and I can save some bucks this way. My actual desktop machine is..... another Mac Mini. :smile:
    MikeyFresh likes this.
  15. MikeyFresh

    MikeyFresh Moderator Staff Member

    I'm in much the same boat, my daily driver is a 2012 Mac mini with 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM, it is simply a better fit for me than Windows is in terms of home computing. I get my fill of Windows at work each day, I don't need anymore of it at home.

    I also have a late 2006 Mac mini that I purchased in February 2007. That one I tore apart some years ago in order to literally replace the socketed CPU, upgrade it to a 256GB SSD, and max the RAM at 4GB. It runs Snow Leopard (the very first 64-bit Mac OS) and is my living room area computer, an HDTV serving as it's monitor. It's only had light use since being taken off the front line, but every time I do use it I'm reminded of just how great the Mac mini line has been for well over a decade now.

    That said, I offloaded the media server aspect from the 2012 mini in order to lighten it's load, allow it to be powered down at times (I too rarely ever turned mine off for many years), and conserve energy. Even though the mini is one of the thriftiest computers in terms of power consumption, it's no match in that category for the humble Raspberry Pi, which I now have on 24/7 running a JRiver "Id Pi" DLNA/UPnP server. Hopefully that will help lengthen the lifespan of the 2012 mini.

    In terms of that kind of longevity (the OP's 2007 iMac yet another example), Mac computers are not a rip-off despite the relatively lofty look of the price tag.

    For me the upgrade path will be a proper Linux box to someday replace the RPi3 as media server, probably a NUC. That doesn't mean I'd rule out another Mac mini however, and I trust @HendersonD will be very happy with the new 2018 version.
  16. S0und Dragon

    S0und Dragon Junior Member

    After doing some research. I may go with a 2014 model for my Roon/music server needs. I just can't justify the added cost and specs for a device that doesn't need to do more than audio. If I needed it to multitask, that would put me i the same line as the OP. Im thinking an i5 with 8GB of RAM and a SSD for OS and Native Aps is more than enough to be a dedicated Roon/iTunes server. Maybe a thunderbolt capable NAS and call it a day.
    Thermionics likes this.
  17. Thermionics

    Thermionics Post Whore In Training

    I use Raspberry Pis as media players (connected to a Windows 2012 R2 Essentials 8-core Atom server running Logitech Media Server). Given that the server is also used for strictly server-based purposes, the minor additional overhead of the Logitech package on CPU / RAM load is essentially a freebie. And as Mikey pointed out, the Raspberry Pi is pretty much unbeatable in the performance / watt category.
    MikeyFresh likes this.

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