● Using a Mac Computer as a music server
For use in a high end audio system, obviously along with ease of use and reliability, the goal of a music server is to obtain the best sound quality possible. For a music server there are a number of choices including: a dedicated music server, a Windows-based music server, a Mac-based music server, or a Linux-based music server.
With regard to a Mac-based music server you can use an older Mac G5 with a Lynx AES-16 PCI digital audio output card or a current Intel-based Mac running OSX using a PCI-e card. Of course most people today would prefer to use a current Mac w/OSX.
One configuration which has been popular is that you can use an OSX Mac with music server software such as Amarra or Pure Music along with a Lynx AES16 PCI-e card and play AIFF or WAV or other file types that either come from your CD collection or are downloaded. More recently JRiver has released a Mac OSX version of their Media Center software. We have been using Media Center on Windows for a number of years now with good results. Media Center will also play DSD files. (Presumably other music server software will add that capability if they don't already.)
However, if properly implemented, the best way to use a Mac as a music server is to use the USB output. You can use a Mac laptop, an iMac, a Mac Mini, or a Mac Pro tower. In our demo system we have been using a Mac mini running Pure Music here in the store for demo along with the new Berkeley Alpha USB. One possible advantage to the Mac Mini is no video screen attached which may cut down on internal EMI, etc.
In any case, regardless of which Mac is chosen, you can use the USB output into an outboard USB-to-AES/EBU converter/reclocker which will then feed the AES/EBU (or SP-DIF) digital input of an high quality outboard DAC. The best way to do this is to use the Berkeley Alpha USB. The Berkeley Alpha USB is an outboard USB to AES-EBU converter with high quality reclocking and, unlike an internal audio card, as an outboard component it also further isolates the computer from your music system.
Note that most high resolution files that are downloaded are FLAC files. So either you need music playing software that can handle FLAC files or you need to convert them to AIFF or WAV or Apple Lossless.
There are a number of different music server software choices for Mac OSX that according to their websites will play FLAC and other music file types natively including:
If you listen to popular music such as rock, pop, jazz, etc. then the iTunes-style user interface used for some music playing software should be sufficient—as most people are really only interested in the basic four metadata fields:
However for classical music not only do you want the basic fields listed above but you also would like the music playing software to provide additional metadata fields such as:
The other thing that is quite important is to use high quality audio files. For a Mac we recommend uncompressed files in the AIFF format. Here is a link for more info.
For a tagging program you can use Tag.
For metadata there are a number of online metadata databases such as:
Of course we believe that software and music server hardware will continue to evolve. However regardless of what music server you use, it is of the utmost importance that you employ an outboard DAC in order to get high end audio sound quality.
The digital-to-analog converter that has become our bestselling DAC is the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC. You're welcome to stop by and hear both some CD resolution and some high resolution files played through it. Then you'll understand how good CD files can sound on a music server as well as why high resolution files played through a quality outboard DAC are so great!
Note: If you would like to have a Mac Mini setup as a turn-key music server here is some info on how to obtain one.
Note: If you are using iTunes and are downloading high quality FLAC files on a OSX Mac, you can use MAX software or Fluke software to convert the files from FLAC to AIFF or WAV or to Apple lossless. (This is also useful if you have an iPod and want to play the same files on it.)
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