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Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
MacMini Music Server
as reviewed by Peter Davey
I'm back… talking about what I love, computers and audio. I may not be the best audiophile in the world (as a matter of fact, I dislike the term and would rather be considered an audio enthusiast) but I do have a love / appreciation for music and technology.
Previously I've spoken about DAC's, Storage Solutions (RAID, NAS, iSCSI), playback software, but never a complete turnkey solution. To be honest I never thought I'd ever use something like this because I'm a geek and I love piecing together my own computers but when I heard about the Mach2 music system, I had to see what the talk was all about.
This device is geared to several different groups of people… those that like to tweak with things, and those that like to "set it and forget it." To some, I've realized that using a computer, as a front end can be a daunting task. This took a paradigm shift on my part, what was so easy for me isn't so easy for others lacking the basic fundamentals. There is a lot going on here! Fortunately, Apple computers have made that a little easier; that seems to be their forte, they give and take almost the right amount to make ALMOST everyone happy… Long ago I never thought I'd see myself using any Apple computers but now I prefer them as a 'front-end' for just about everything I do. I do still use Microsoft products as my servers… they've got that one licked.
Anyway, as usual I digress… what I'm trying to say is that Mach2 has done something special here. Not only have they tweaked out a Mac Mini, they've replaced some important internal components that do get in the way of perfect audio playback; like the mechanical hard drive being replaced with a solid-state version. This has been a controversial topic in the PC audio world, and one that is fun to participate in. There are many pros and cons of SSD technology, at the moment though it's catching up and I think it's a very positive upgrade to any computer system regardless of it's use. Data is accessed much faster, it runs cooler, and consumes less energy. I daresay it might even outlast a standard hard drive considering their track record lately. The largest killer of hard drives is heat; some people do not realize this. They want to buy the fastest RPM drive out there and stuff it into a tiny box. Also, no spinning platter/motor means less electrical noise.
The modifications list does not stop there, there are also some tweaks done under the hood at the software layer (lest us forget the crucial part of computer audio.) If you want to take it a step further, they will pre-load Amarra or Pure Music (or both) so you don't have to (this is an additional cost, so check the Mach2 site for pricing). Now, I won't get into how cool these music playback apps are, they both have their strengths and weaknesses and I already discussed that in my other articles. The main point I'm trying to make here is that they can be pre-loaded and set up with optimal settings.
On top of software being pre-loaded, they write proprietary scripts that tweak the software a step further. There are some smart people working for Mach2, so you don't have to be! I also want to be up front and share an experience I had with my particular unit. One day I was casually listening to music and I had made a setting change where I lost remote control of the computer. At this point it was playing back music but I had no control over it, so I did what most people would do and unplug it. Now, I can safely say that I've been designing/repairing computers for over 15 years so I felt pretty safe here. Well, unfortunately after doing that, the unit would not boot back up… oh no!
I plugged it into my flat panel TV (it has HDMI out) and it was stuck in a continuous boot loop. I tried various disk/repair utilities but the drive partition was beyond repair. I thought about re-loading the operating system myself but felt that and e-mail to Mach2 about my experience might be the best route to take. They were extremely helpful here! Ends up the unit is shipped with a backup disc for the operating system. With some simple 1, 2, 3 instructions, I was back up and running in the matter of minutes. At that point all I had to do was re-attach to my iTunes library which is stored on my network drive. If you don't have a network drive, there is an optional external drive that you can connect for music storage. I have also moved my iTunes database to my 'shared' drive in case of these sorts of catastrophes; that way, I don't have to drag all my music back over and lose any of my settings (more can be found on how to do this with a Google search.)
I can say that this is a huge anomaly as these sorts of things don't usually happen, but I wanted to share my story about how easy it was to get back up and running in case it does. The Mach2 team put me at ease—they even set up a remote session around my time schedule (around 11PM eastern time) to remote into the machine and make sure everything was operating correctly. The tech support there is very professional and knowledgeable.
Now, earlier I mentioned that I took remote control of the computer. This is my preference and isn't necessary 100% of the time. If you do not have an external monitor/keyboard-mouse it will be necessary once in a while to 'remote in' to add music to your library or change some settings. The rest can be done with a remote control or using the iTunes remote app on an iPad or iPhone. I use my Macbook to take remote control and it's very simple.
Ok… enough of the tech crap! How about how it sounds? OK—this is where they've got me stumped. This unit sounds marvelous… Not only is it easy to use, but it tops any transport I've ever used as a front-end. Obviously there are several pieces involved creating some synergy—personally I'm using an M-Audio Firewire 610 external sound card/DAC via balanced into my BAT-VK31se. For the back-end, I have a Drobo RAID providing my data storage needs.
I'm sitting here currently listening to some Vivaldi while switching back and forth between iTunes, Amarra, and Pure Music… and having a blast! This computer is fast and makes the transition effortless. No details are lost, no noise is made, no heat is given off; it's just a very comfortable listening experience without the distraction of a big computer sitting off to the side. It integrates nicely into my system and feels right at home. As a matter of fact, I'm considering replacing my previous iMac 24" with this, as it lets me focus more on the music than staring at a huge computer screen.
Switch to Radiohead album and man does it sound nice. There's tons of horsepower in this Mach2 system but it's not a show-off like a big muscle car, rather it's quiet, effortless, and reliable. I just seems to be able to get more into the music and not so much into the technology—exactly what the doctor ordered.
OK—the above text was written about a week ago. Fast forward to today, I've now decided to dive into the other options that come with the unit. My unit was shipped with the full-monty: a Firewire external drive, a Most Beautiful Sound Firewire cable custom power cable, and a Pi Audio MacSandwich EMI/RFI blocking device." I sometimes have trouble with these sorts of peripherals, so I had an idea… why not get my music-loving wife involved? See, she is a purist at heart. She just loves the music, but I like to involve her to give an unbiased opinion. I thought, why not set up some double-blind testing?
I told her to get comfortable and give me some music she'd like to hear. We started our journey off with "Muddy Waters—I'm ready". I had it all set up where there was a copy of the songs on both the Firewire drive (directly attached) and the Drobo. I would mix it up a bit, too starting with a song on the Firewire drive and then the Drobo. 99% of the time, she picked the directly attached Firewire drive! I was amazed… I would try to trick her and go back and forth and it never failed.
We then moved to Feist's "Let it die." I wasn't a huge fan until this moment; my wife chose a few songs to go back and forth on… She didn't have a preference between Pure Music and Amarra but she did prefer the directly attached Firewire drive. The same with Ray Lamontagne, Brian Eno, the list goes on. There was a big emphasis on tracks that had vocals utilizing a close-miked system—they were just less fatiguing on the Firewire drive.
This baffles me, but it is what it is. Those guys at Mach2 were constantly telling me to give it a try, and emphasized that the drive be formatted "OSX Extended Journaled." Now, I haven't played around between file systems, but I guess I can say that the proof is in the pudding. My wife can hear details and differences a bit better than I can—she made comments such as "The tones are more inviting, more real." When playing them from the Drobo—"I get tired of hearing these ones." She would make me fast forward to particular spots in the songs where there was a sudden volume change or someone hitting a higher note…. I wish I could explain this one folks…
Me? The differences weren't as drastic. That could also be related to the fact that I was the one conducting the test.
I then took it a step further and swapped out the custom power cord with the stock Apple cord. She also preferred the sound this way—claiming that it had deeper bass, higher highs and more clear vocals. I found myself to be able to get more involved in the music as well with the included custom power cord.
The last bit here is the aforementioned MacSandwich (Pi Audio Group). This device acts as an 'enclosure' for the MacMini to address the effects of EMI/RFI on the device itself. I tend to have a hard time as well with these sorts of tweaks/mods but again, we both preferred it with the sandwich device. Another one I cannot prove a right or wrong but the music was much more involving, detailed; rhythm and timing seemed to be more 'spot on'. This is one you will have to decide for yourself. If you're one that can hear a difference between different isolation platforms/EMI/RFI 'devices' then this one is for you.
For those out there that are looking to get with the times, but not fuss around with all sorts of hardware, look no further. The Mach2 system will bring many years of joy to your audio listening experience. Take some comfort in knowing that Mach2 is a phone call away if you need any support.
We're really going to miss it! Peter Davey
Mach2 Music Server
MacSandwich (BLACK) Stable Platform, EMI, RFI
Most Beautiful Sound USB Cable
MPC/Mini Power Cable with Wattgate Edison Connector
Most Beautiful Sound USB Cable