So you’re finally jumping ears first into (or upgrading within) the music server game. Like the DAC fad, it seems that there are music server companies popping up right and left. The goal of this write-up is to help you narrow down what your goals are for choosing a music server, what to look for, and what the trade-offs and benefits are between each type.
We build both Mac and PC-based music servers here at Core from entry-level to $40k refrigeration-cooled super computers, Mr. Find Fix relate. We also license our linear power supplies to pretty much every music server company on the market. So whether you purchase from us or from one of our partners, chances are you’re getting a very good product. But let’s help you narrow things down in terms of form and function so the decision is easier.
Types of Music Server
There are two types of music server that we recommend: PC-based or Mac-based. Linux or other closed architecture servers are also options, but I don’t recommend them because they lack versatility, which is the second purpose of a music server beyond sound quality, and they quickly become outdated and can’t be upgraded.
Let’s start with some Pros for a PC-based server. Good Examples: Baetis Revolution, Music Vault, The Memory Player, CAPS Zuma, etc. (we upgrade many others as well)
Pros for a PC-based Music Server
- Hardware is fully customizable by the designer.
- This can be a pro or a con. A knowledgeable computer engineer can use this to their advantage by selecting motherboard, CPU, and RAM that are built with special attention to power management and low noise operation.
- Unlimited Power
- With a PC-based server, each dollar gets more computing power on average. With unlimited budget a PC can be built to substantially higher computing performance than a Mac machine.
- Versatility in cooling
- Cooling is paramount to good computing performance. PC-servers ‘should’ take special care in how they are cooled. Two degrees difference can make a perceived difference in noise floor of your audio system.
This is probably the most important element. All PC-based use off the shelf parts. This means that as technology improves, so can your CPU and motherboard. So your music server can continue to expand and grow with your needs. The likelihood of this being necessary with modern computing power is fairly small, however.
Power Supply can be a linear ATX supply, which provides more galvanic isolation and control of your power management.
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Versatile Audio Output
Options for USB Audio, AES, SPDIF, and various sound cards.
Cons for a PC-based Music Server
- Hardware is fully customizable by the designer (see what I did there?)This is a double-edged sword. Because hardware changes so rapidly, things become discontinued, upgrades are made, it’s hard to know how consistent the performance is from unit to unit, or from generation to generation. Along these same lines, anyone can build a music server, so it’s hard to tell the quality of product solely from the marketing.
- Power Requirements
- Even the simplest PC-based servers have steep power requirements. Many use a 400watt or higher power supply. A PC is generally not the greenest solution.
- Power Supply Limitations
- Most companies either use an ATX SMPS or a DC-ATX converter. These are huge bottlenecks in terms of noise performance. Even with our Linear power supplies, if they use a PicoPSU the Pico’s noise floor limits the performance of our power supplies. This is why our ATX Linear supplies are so important.
- PCs have more issues with heat than anything else. Passive cooling may seem like a cool idea, but it often shortens life spans and increases noise floor due to the increase in shot and flicker noise.
- Size and Weight
- The more powerful the PC the larger it often is. The more features, the bigger the box. The bigger the box, the heavier.
- Power supplies often run through a PicoPSU or similar DC-ATX converter. This limits how high performance the power supply can be.
Pros for a Mac Mini Based Music Server
Huge power in small form factor.
Simple as it sounds, the processing power of a Mac Mini or especially a Mac Pro is very high for its size
All Mac Minis are the same, there’s no variation in hardware from unit to unit. So regardless of generation you are getting the same great product.
Runs any operating system, OSX, Windows or Linux.
Via bootcamp you can run Windows 8 or server 2012 or Linux
This means one of the major benefits of a PC can also be a benefit for a Mac.
Excellent sound quality for each dollar spent
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The Mac Mini, dollar for dollar, sounds better than an equivalently priced PC. If you run windows on the Mac Mini there is the added benefit that there’s no PicoPSU in the signal path to increase power supply noise.
There is no DC-ATX converter in the signal path as with a PC, which means the power provided is equivalent to the power supply used. This means substantially better performance than a PC running the same power supply through a PicoPSU.
Quiet, cool running, low power consumption
Can do everything from music playback to DSD and Blu-Ray, just like a PC.
Cons For a Mac Mini Music Server
Hardware is tightly controlled by Apple.
You can’t stray much from base hardware. This is actually, in part, a Pro because it standardizes a very optimized and well-designed computer that is consistent. But, theoretically, if there was better technology available it wouldn’t be compatible. That said, Apple is usually far ahead of the curve in terms of performance and function.
Less potential than a PC in terms of outputs. Limited to USB or Thunderbolt Audio for high performance
(This can be circumvented with a thunderbolt expansion chassis)
Less features can be integrated in the same box as with a PC.
Blu-ray drives and additional storage must be external. This, in terms of sound quality, is a good thing, but in terms of simplicity means more boxes.
OSX is arguably one of the more inferior operating systems for sound quality
This will be relative in terms of upgrades done to the hardware. Windows or Linux, of course, can be installed on the Mac to circumvent this issue. But generally if you compare mac and windows, windows will sound better on the same hardware.
How to choose a music server
What questions should you ask yourself?
What is your budget?
This is the most important criteria because without a budget in mind you have nowhere to start looking.
For example, it will be very difficult to outperform the Mac Mini sonically with an under $10k budget. Above $10k on a PC the hardware gets better and the ATX Linear Power supplies become an option, which gives them an edge. Below $10k the Mac Mini, at least our modded one, is very challenging to beat.Above $10k you get into the Mac Pro vs PC arena, but we’ve found that in order to compare with the Mac Pro’s specs STOCK you’d have to spend over $15-20k in PC hardware.
What do you NEED the system to do and what can be added on tomorrow?
This is an important question. Many people come from an analog world, or at least one combining both analog and digital. So many people spend two years researching servers because there is no one solution that incorporates everything all at once.Obviously some sound cards allow for both analog and digital input to integrate vinyl rigs more easily for digitizing and playback.A good rule: don’t try to do everything at once. If your goal is music first and foremost, set up the server for that. If it’s a Mac or PC you can always add blu-ray or A/D or vinyl ripping to the list of functions at a later date.
Do you want the system solely for music? Do you want it for movies also?
Now that the Mac can play blu-rays it puts it on an even playing field with its PC brethren. Sort of. The PC more easily integrates a graphics card, which gives it an edge visually over a Mac Mini… for that added expense.The new Haswell Mac Minis have great graphics processing, which makes them very hard to beat.Thunderbolt expansion allows for external PCIeSSDs and graphics cards.
How Automated do you want the system to be?
In general a PC is going to be more automated. Some companies allow you to insert a CD, have it automatically rip, and ready for playback. This is doable on a Mac Mini, but requires an external drive and of course a bit more setup.
One box solution?
With a PC everything from the extra drives to the blu-ray drive can be integrated in one (big) box.
A Mac Mini requires that drives all be external
Having everything external is good for sound quality because it helps to isolate power supplies. The other benefit here is that you can unplug those devices so that they aren’t degrading sound quality.
Amount of Storage?
Some servers have built in storage. This makes it easy to store all of your music files inside the computer.
With a Mac Mini the storage is external, so if you use a NAS or just standard USB drive the storage isn’t limited to what is inside and can be completely disconnected from the system.
The benefit of external storage is that it can grow with you and even transition from computer to computer or server to server. This also makes backup easier and smarter.
Weeding out Poor Music Server Designs
Any device that uses a SMPS, in general, is going to be lower performance than one using a high quality linear power supply. No matter what a company says, if they’re using an ATX SMPS it’s an off-the-shelf power supply that is going to be higher-noise than its linear brethren.
The challenge here is finding linear power powerful enough to drive some of the higher-current servers. Our Kaia and ATX designs are meant for this purpose of course.
My problem with passive cooling is that there’s a significant trade-off involved. For best sound quality CPUs need to be higher performance. Higher performance CPUs run hotter. More heat means more noise. So many companies offering passive cooling either let the unit run hot or sacrifice performance by using a lower-power CPU. This may be less of an issue with the new Haswell processors.
These are often linux boxes, but many run windows or windows embedded as well. Lumin or Aurender for example.
The issue with these types of servers is they are “fixed”… so as new technology arises they are old news very quickly. Because a PC or Mac server is software based, it’s very easy to continually improve performance by upgrading hardware, power supplies, and software to add additional functionality and versatility. I don’t care for fixed boxes because of how quickly they become outdated and how easily they can be outperformed with a good PC or Mac server
This isn’t to say they can’t sound very good. Because they can be so simple there are very strong arguments as to how they can potentially sound better. But too often they are built on weak architecture with slow performance. Build a high performance computer with simple architecture and you’re onto something when it comes to sound quality. Still limits your versatility tremendously.
What we like…
Generally speaking we are biased towards Mac-based products. We sell both, we have sold both, and we lean towards Mac mainly because it sounds better for the money, is a smaller footprint for the power provided, and provides an easier operating system to use and operate with a bit more flexibility up front. Of course PCs CAN be higher performance, they CAN sound better, and they can have more versatility, but these come at the cost of additional size, more power consumption, and significantly more expense. If you are looking to build a $3500 server, the Mac Mini is at the top echelon of performance anywhere near this price point and well beyond.
I personally am a fan of both the Mac Mini and Mac Pro systems because of how much performance can be had from such little boxes. Even spending $10k on a Mac Mini or $18k on a Mac Pro offers performance that is hard to come by in a PC. Obviously our $40k servers are better than a Mac Mini and Mac Pro, but they weigh 110lbs and require significantly more power. But the Mac Mini Music Servers in general have come such a long way since we designed the first one 4.5 years ago that they really have offered lasting performance. We still have customers running their 2007 Mac Mini on our power supplies.
A special thing to note is that all evaluations of Mac vs PC-based servers are done with the assumption that the Mac Mini or Mac Pro are both utilizing well designed external linear power supplies and the PC-based server is from a reputable company. Any companies mentioned in this article provide excellent products that we have worked on or supplied power supplies for. We highly recommend their products, especially when used with our ATX or other linear power supplies as they are great performers.