just starting - mac vs. windows computer source?

Hello all. I don't know much about the specifics of a computer based audio source, except what I have learned looking thorough the archives. I am still hoping you guys can help me with suggestions that are specific to my situation and considering the current and potential future advantages of using either a windows or mac based system as a music source.

I have a fairly dialed in audio system (see my virtual system under mitch2) but want to now include a computer based source (I know, I am quite late to the party). I currently use a new(ish) windows based laptop for home computing, have external hard drives, and also have a windows based laptop for work. My only mac exposure is the company i-phones we recently adopted, my wife's ipad, and looking at my daughter's macbook pro. I have hundreds of CD's and a very high quality hi-rez player, but none of my music is yet digitized.

I want to add a high quality, great sounding computer based audio source that is at a similar sound quality level as my current player (or better), and I have heard using the ipad as a control and visual display, and the mac mini as a server, is a good way to go. I like the idea of having the mac mini near my gear, so shorter cables to the dac, and I like the idea of controlling everything wirelessly from the ipad, but this means I will need to buy more stuff and will not be able to use my windows based laptop for that function. I am okay with that as long as the ipad/mac mini is really a superior solution.

I have four questions regarding my decision to adopt a mac based or windows based music solution. At this point, I want to focus only on which computing system is best for me and handle dacs, cables, etc. later.
My questions;
1. is the overall consensus that the mac based system is better for hi-rez music playback, considering my goals are very high quality playback, wide bandwidth, low noise, and ease of operation,
2. is there a windows based system that could sound as good and be operated similarly to the ipad/mac mini option, perhaps using my windows based laptop as a control,
3. if I go the mac route, is there any advantage to purchasing a macbook pro over the ipad to control things, assuming I still plan on using the mac mini as the server, and
4. what other questions should I be asking that I haven't asked?

Thanks for any solutions or suggestions you guys care to provide.
The integration of the IOS, Macbook, iPad with iTunes is a big advantage and makes the system operation more seamless. I made the switch to a computer based sound system about 5 years ago and it has revolutionized my listening habits and reignited my passion for music.

BTW - if you can use your CDP as a DAC, you can achieve the level of reference you are looking for....

Enjoy the ride, job
Thanks for the response Job. I also asked this over on Computer Asylum and have received a variety of responses that seem to conclude that either windows or mac can provide great sounding computer based audio. Most have indicated the devil is in the details and there can be significant gains by optimizing whichever system is selected. I have some reading to do before making a decision although I believe the world is heading toward more ipad type devices, and perhaps away from laptops, so it seems the mac approach may be more convenient going forward.

Answering your questions:

1) no, there is no consensus (what did you expect? ja!!). Both Apple and Windows-based systems can achieve very high levels. Maybe a Windows system can be said to allow people to go the furthest by allowing people to switch more parts, but at that point you really need to understand computers.

2) Many examples around. Have you checked computeraudiophile.com? Good source for this. Check out their CAPS 2.0, which are DIY proyects, but can also by purchased from Green Computers. More relevant to your questions, I think, is you can use JRiver for Windows and JRemote that is an application for iPad to use as remote for JRiver. So you can run JRiver in your existing laptop and JRemote in your iPad.

3) I don't see an advantage from this option, especially since you need to buy the MacBook.

4) I think you should focus more on the USB to SPDIF converter than the computer. And the DAC, if your Erato doesn't have an input to the DAC. Nice system, BTW! The USB converter will have async USB and a great clock, so this clock will command the stream, reducing jitter. An Audiophilleo is a good example (I'm considering one) of such converters. Some DACs have converters within, but even many of those benefit from an external source. After DAC and USB converter are dealt with, you will likely hear upgrades at the computer.

Also, ripping music is non trivial - as everything in this hobby! I suggest you follow computeraudiophile's guide to ripping music, that recommends how to set up dBpoweramp. I do this and I'm very happy.

Maybe you get your feet wet using the existing iPad and Windows laptop in the house and getting a USB converter and DAC, and go from there. FWIW, that's the approach I am taking too. I haven't decided between Mac mini and PC for the future, but if I were going Mac I would probably take the Audionirvana+ route (software) to achieve the best sound (bit perfect). Like you, I'm more familiar with the Windows environment, but I'm also enticed by the seamlessness of an iPad/mini interface. Will cross that bridge when I get there. For now my focus is the USB converter.

Sorry for the long message. I hope it helps.
Great advice from Lewinskih01. I absolutely agree.

A good USB to S/PDIF converter, IMO, is required to get the best sound. There are many great options available (April Music Stello U3, a few from Bel Canto, KingRex, etc) are just a number of good ones. Disclosure, I'm a dealer for these. They really do make a difference.

I use a PC with JRiver as my media software and Jremote on an iPod Touch to control it. As a side note, I've used both an iPad and an iPod touch with Jremote and I personally much prefer the smaller size of the iPod Touch. It is plenty big enough to control your music very well and fits nicely in one hand.
If you want a really good ripping solution, I would urge you to try a free program called EAC. Many consider it to be the best ripping software out there. I believe its only made for Windows. Also, as good as it is, a lot of people stay away from it because it can be very difficult to set up properly. It is. Heres a link: http://blowfish.be/eac/Setup/setup1.html. Its a complete, step by step, setup guide for EAC to get the best sounding rips possible. You'll definitely need it. It takes about an hour to go through but its worth it. As far as I know, there is nothing better than EAC.

Lewinskih01 mentions computeraudiophile.com as a resource. I know the site fairly well. It is a good resource but I would recommend some caution. For technical, computer type advice, its OK. For matters of sound quality, however, its a complete disaster. Its all computer and no audiophile. The problem with the site is fairly simple. Since its primary focus is on computer related topics, most of the people it attracts have little to no experience with high end audio. When they see people talking about thing like vinyl, cables and tubes, they flip our; espically when they see the prices that some of these products sell for. As a result, its a never ending war between the people who know audio and the people who think they know audio because they can read a spec sheet. Some of these people are so nuts, they dedicate a serious portion of their lives to try and come up with new ways to not listen to music and that if you hear differences in equipment, its nothing more than a psychological disorder. I could go on, but its just one of those things you have to see for yourself to believe.

One last thing I will mention is that opinions on how to set up a computer based source do vary greatly. I know you want to get the best possible sound quality, but if it were me, I wouldn't go for anything too expensive until you try a few things first so you can compare it to what you already have and know. Its likely that you may make an error or two because there will probably be some experimenting done on your part.
If you were to go the Windows route, I'd recommend dBpoweramp as a ripper. While EAC is excellent, dBpoweramp is very good as well and much more user friendly.
Thanks everyone, and especially Lewinskih01 for your detailed point-by-point answer including;
More relevant to your questions, I think, is you can use JRiver for Windows and JRemote that is an application for iPad to use as remote for JRiver. So you can run JRiver in your existing laptop and JRemote in your iPad.
This is an attractive solution for me since I like the idea of using the iPad as a remote and for viewing metadata information, but still being able to stick with a Windows based platform. If I were to do this, then I would be able to forego purchasing a Mac mini and I would be able to use my current Windows set up to begin ripping CDs. Your responses raise a couple of additional questions;
1. If I go the Windows route, what do I use to "serve" the music to a DAC? I understand I could initially use my current laptop but I would want a more permanent solution so, if I stay with Windows, would it be best to plan on purchasing a dedicated laptop and external hard drive storage for this purpose, or is it way better to find a Windows based server such as suggested in the C.A.P.S. articles? I like the idea of not having a fan in the system and I have purposely stayed away from any audio gear containing a fan. However, if I use any type of laptop, dedicated or not, there will always be a fan. Any suggestions, or is the fan not that big a deal?
2. Regarding DACs, unless I see something to change my mind, I plan on purchasing the new HRT Music Streamer HD, which uses
"high performance asynchronous USB transceiver, differential current mode conversion, and a fully differential signal path."
In addition to having excellent early reviews, I like the low price, balanced outputs, simplicity, and that it is designed by Kevin Halverson, who IMO has always been able to make digital sound like music. Even if it turns out not to be my "end game" DAC, its size, price, and flexibility will allow me to use it in a second system if I later upgrade to another DAC. At this point, I am much more interested in locking down my digital format since I am less familiar with that end of things, and would be less likely to change formats once I get my CDs ripped. I view the DAC piece of the equation as more of an audio thing (e.g., what sounds good) and I am much more familiar with that end of things from building a system over the years.
Whoa I was looki g at your current player and that you want to add computer audio that is of similar quality. You are thinking a 500 DAC is going to compete with an 8000 CD player? I would think no matter what you will be highly disappointed with the sound you will get compared to your reference player. I don't know your CD player but from your descriptions in your system it sounds like you did your homework and its a good one. I've tried lots of 500 DACs amd CD players and they don't compare to players costing 10x or in your case even more than 10x as much.

If I were you rather than making your head spin with all the possibilities. Just get a new Mac mini and a DAC like the Ayre QB9 or PS Audio perfect wave 2. You can just hook up a USB cord and get going and the sound will be good maybe not quite to your CD player but pretty good. You can use the iPad or phone to control the mini. Personally me yes I would rather have the full laptop to control the mini. You can use screen sharing instead of the app which to me is better I prefer iTunes on the computer to the remote app and if you don't have a monitor and keyboard hooked to the mini (headless) it can get a little tedious trying to use only the iPad to control the mini for all the cd ripping you have to do.

Lastly I don't know what to think as far as the best way to rip CDs. I got into this about 7 years ago. I bought a brand new wavelength cosecant DAC and followed Gordon from wavelengths instructions on how to rip my CDs. I ripped 6000 CDs and not they tell me I did it all wrong. I should not store my music in ALAC and needed a special program to rip CDs. Oh well it sounds pretty good and I still have all my CDs so maybe one day when the final best way to rip a cd is figured out ill re rip all my CDs lol.
Good point about the DAC quality Ejlif. I do like my current MUSE player. I owned both it and the Ayre C-5xeMP, and had them both hooked up in my system (at the same time) for over a year. I finally sold the Ayre when I found that my clear preferece was for the MUSE. The Ayre did a lot of audiophile things well, especially bass, but the MUSE IMO was simply more musical. The MUSE is very even-handed and natural sounding with a wonderful midrange.

My thought with the HRT HD was to use it as a "starter" DAC and then move it to my outdoor system if/when I feel the need to upgrade. I like the idea of simply hooking up a laptop and having most of my stored music collection availble to play outdoors without running in and out looking for CDs.
I just read Ejlif's post and have to agree. I've never heard your CD player but I'm familiar with the Ayre. If you're used to that level of equipment, I would recommend you get the Ayre DAC as well. Your system really demands it and you know what you are getting with an Ayre. Its price is such that it would be an entry level DAC for your system.

As far as ripping CD's goes Ejlif looses me a little, but if he got good results, he did it right. Everest_audio is also correct about dbpoweramp being more user friendly than EAC. EAC is only hard to setup. That's why I gave the link to the setup guide. Once you go through the initial process, thats it. Its just as easy as anything else. From a technical standpoint, its as good as any other CD ripper out there and its free.
Use a new Windows laptop (with 4-8 GB RAM), strip off all the bloatware, a big USB drive (3TB or more), and dbPowerAmp for ripping. Playback using Foobar2000 or JRiver. That's it...

Tim (Mitch2), a thread that I think would be very worthwhile reading is this one, especially the comments by AudioEngr (Steve N. of Empirical Audio), whose opinions and experience certainly warrant a great deal of respect IMO. Several of the other posters in that thread also provide good food for thought.

One brief excerpt, to whet your interest: "A low-jitter source will often make a $1000 DAC sound identical to a $8K DAC."

Best regards,
-- Al

The thread Almarg pointed to is very informative, and echoes why I was focusing on the USB converter instead of the DAC. Good reading.

Windows laptop vs. "desktop": laptop is easier with the included screen and keyboard, but a"desktop" has more room inside and is easier to open up and change stuff. You asked about a permanent solution, which of course means different things to different people. Down the road you might want to replace the card in your PC with a SotM card, with an independent power supply to it, etc, etc. In that case a desktop type would be the way to go. Yet this is secondary to getting the USB converter and DAC right, I think.

But all this trouble is, in my eyes, meaningless if you use computer audio just like you use your CD player. If all you are getting out of it is saving yourself from standing up to change a CD...not sure it's worth the trouble. So trying it out cheaply was what I was steering you to, so you could come to your on conclusions. In line with this the HRT makes sense to me, just don't expect the same sound quality as with your Muse.

my point at AA. For your situation the devil might be in the details, but your saving grace will be in your DAC/Converter.
For the music server novice, Mac seems safest. You don't have to be a software expert to get it right.
After reading Davide256's post, I can't help but agree. I recently bought a laptop with Windows 8 installed. To make a long story short, Win 8 is a nightmare. Its the most poorly designed piece of software I've ever used. I actually wiped it off my hard drive and didn't even take the time to make recovery CD's. Its not too much of a problem for me because Linux is my primary OS. If you are going the Windows route, though, its definitely something to consider. In my opinion, Win 7 would be a much better choice than 8. Mac's are great too. I think more audiophiles use Mac than Windows.
Thanks guys. I have come to the same conclusion for a variety of reasons including no clear evidence that Windows sounds better and the perception that the Mac platform is easier to operate and better supported than Windows. The server hardware seems easier too, when comparing a Mac mini to the available Windows servers, unless you want to DIY. I am going to talk with Small Green Computer tomorrow and see if they change my mind but right now I am leaning toward a Mac mini run from iPad and a DAC.
Mitch2, Thanks for starting this thread. I am in the same position as you, and have decided to delay taking the plunge for a couple more years mostly because i get the feeling that computer audio is a lot of work to get right. Same reason I don't go back to vinyl. I want a hobby, not another chore. But, if one has the time to do the work, it would seem the rewards can be substantial. I think there are many of us that would like an update on your progression once you start putting things together.

Macs rule! Hate PCs. Everything else being close to equal, I'd go Mac every time.

Please keep us updated with your decision and how it turns out for you. As I mentioned earlier, my focus in the next few months will be on the USB converter, but after that will have to make the same decision you are making now and we seem to share many points of view and constraints (eg, I don't know macs beyond my iPad). As of today my thinking is either Mac mini with A+ or CAPS with JRiver and maybe JPlay.

BTW, I think we exchanged a while back when I was getting my Lamm LL2. Was that you?

Best of luck in this next leap forward.
Hey Lewinskih01, yes that was probably me discussing the LL2 Deluxe, as I used it in the "other" best system I have owned, which included the LL2 Deluxe with M1.1 monos. That system was so musical but the upper end darkness of the M1.1s simply left the feeling that something was missing. The LL2 D is a long-time keeper.
Hello all, this decision has been like peeling back layers of an onion.

On the surface, just about anyone can benefit from the flexibility, convenience and "good" sound of computer audio by simply downloading a player, burning their CDs using their existing computer equipment (Mac or Windows) and running their existing laptop or computer through a reasonably priced DAC.

If your goals are to have a bit higher quality, using dedicated audio hardware, it seems a music server is the way to go. Apparently sound quality approaching all but the best CD players can be achieved using hardware like a reasonably priced Mac mini or a dedicated desktop (or even a dedicated laptop) with external storage.

If your system is already very good, it seems the first two levels may not be the end game. In this case, a higher quality Mac mini with SSD and at least 8GB RAM must be considered or a higher level Windows based server such as one of the CAPS models. A suitable Mac mini with USB super drive can be had for about $1,200 and the already constructed CAPS servers I have looked at seem to be about $1,500 for a similar level of performance, including 256GB SSD and Audio Class 2.0 drivers. The CAPS v.3 Carbon offers the benefit of having no fan but the mini would come with more memory 8GB vs. 4GB in the Carbon. I have not yet read any comparisons between the i7 quad processor in the Mac and the processor used in the CAPS Carbon. External storage would add anywhere from about $500 to $1K with either of these options.

I strongly suspect I will need at least this third level to achieve the sound I have from my system now. Therefore, it appears at a minimum I need to plan on $1.5K plus the costs of external storage and a DAC (probably around $3K total) just to jump in at a level where I will be satisfied.

Going forward, there seems to be another whole level to the servers that I cannot find too much information about. On the Mac side, folks like Mojo Audio and Core Audio Technology will provide anything from kit power supply upgrades to whole unit upgrades for prices ranging from about $900 to around $2K. Either Core Audio or Mojo will sell you the whole deal for the ballpark of $3K. On the Windows side, options include the top CAPS v.3 Zuma (about $2,200 with 8GB and 256GB SSD) and/or the addition of the Red Wine Audio Black Lightning power supply (about $1,200 with two battery packs), which can be added to either the Carbon or Zuma. Therefore, to achieve this higher level, I would be investing in the ballpark of $3K, or north, plus the cost of the DAC, plus the cost of external storage, regardless of whether I choose Mac or Windows.

I may be over thinking this, but it is something I prefer to plan once and execute, rather than going the "small steps trial and error" method I used to assemble my system.

Yeap, it was definitely you. My LL2 deluxe is a keeper. Not having a remote will be an issue for many, but it doesn't bother me especially in the context of computer audio and the ability to remotely change volume for those moments someone is speaking to me and need to lower volume temporarily. Did you consider the ML1.2 at the time of upgrading amps?

You've come a long way in just one week or so since your first post. Luckily the discussion here didn't turn into Mac vs. Windows as if it was attacking the very essence of the people involved. I don't find that helpful.

Some thoughts about your post above. Both the Carbon and mini with a gazillion GB RAM will be wonderful. But I tend to think you are thinking too expensive for just trying out. For a dedicated audio server you don't need much processing horsepower, as evidenced in all but the CAPS meant to run DSP, and my own experience with an older laptop with CPU activity below 4% while playing music. Having RAM is good, but 4 GB seems adequate (my laptop has only 1 GB!!!!), so not sure going to 8 GB is a need - but it is cheap, though.

Here's a path for your consideration: get a used mini off eBay and upgrade some parts. Steve Nugent claims the Oct-09 (I think that was the month) was the best sounding mini he has heard, plus they are cheap. Those minis came with an external (switching) power supply, unlike the new ones. Add a SSD, RAM and you are good to go. BTW, do you really need 256 GB SSD? Add a linear power supply later if you like what computer audio is doing for you. Mojo and Core Audio are certainly options, and make sure you read through the feedback - I have seen threads about them, but don't have enough info to have a point of view about them.

Have fun!
Lewinskih01, this research has been a learning experience and the choice is difficult because each system had its advantages and it seems they are equally good sonically, when set-up properly. I don't mind paying a bit more to get the level of server I want up front, but I only want to go through the decision once.

For reasons of compatibility, I would prefer to stay with an all Windows based system but when I compare the server options it seems that a similar level CAPS server is significantly more expensive than even a very good Mac mini and, in addition, the CAPS gear seems to be tweakier with the variety of connections, power, etc. No question, the Zuma with Red Wine PS looks very good but I would be looking at about $3,400 for that combination while I can get, directly from Mac, a brand new mini i7 2.6 GHz quad core with 256GB SSD and 8GB memory for a flat $1,300, which is $900 less than the CAPS Zuma alone, without the Red Wine PS. The Mac is well-supported, can be configured at the factory exactly as I need, and seems to have a wider following.

Regarding power upgrades to the Mac, I have learned power supply improvements yield huge dividends in most audio gear, and everything in my system has an outstanding power supply. Therefore, it does go against my grain to consider that I wouldn't upgrade the stock switch mode supply and fan in the Mac. However, you are correct, the threads about Core Audio and Mojo indicate there are issues. I also don't like the idea of voiding the Mac warranty by changing the power supply. Therefore, I think it may be best to stay away from PS upgrade options, especially since most users apparently find the stock Mac mini PS works just fine, without those upgrades.

Unless I learn something different, as much as I would like to consider a windows server, the Mac mini option seems better for me except for compatibility and power supply issues. If the power supply were such a big deal, I doubt so many with high end systems would use the mini as their digital audio server. I haven't made a final decision but I am leaning toward the Mac.
I love Macs, and use them for everything but my music server. There are different schools on what or why computers, player programs and file types sound different. Although the general consensus is that noise is the primary issue, there appears to be different views as to what noise to deal with- into the computer, out of the computer or within the computer.

You have mentioned CAPS, and that is one option- a low power motherboard that clips along at a steady speed with isolated USB. Another option, and the one I have chosen over time, is the high power pre-processing that then nearly shuts the computer down as the files play using XXHighend as the player program.

FWIW, I wish I could have stayed with Macs, but XXHighend on w7 sounds the best hands down. It takes some work, but it is worth the efforts. I have used every player on Mac and a well respected Linux based appliance server (Auraliti- similar to a CAPS).
I'd have to disagree with computer audiophile on processing power, more is better, reducing potential for jitter, cycle steal interference. The problem is that faster clocked motherboards and CPU's become electrically "noisier" and most builders don't have electrical noise reduction as a priority in a consumer product.
Lewinskih01 has a very good point about going the route of USB to SPDIF converter. It provides you the opportunity to isolate your audio system from the computer system. After reading through this posting here about true linear power supplies and the PC I decided to go the route of isolation. If you use your laptop as a starting point for your source your will have the basic idea of a Battery powered CAPS. If you like what you hear with that could build your own dedicated fanless PC or go the MAC route.

By the way I decided to use a PC as I plan to use it as a movie server also. I use a battery powered SPDIF converter that draws its power from a USB port.

P.S. Glad to see you finally posted your SMc Audio TLC Signature, very nice. As promised I didn't say anything till you posted it. Have mine scheduled for go back to Steve later this year when he has time.

If your interested in hearing more you have my e-mail and I will provide more detail reading info for you.