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#386 - 08/06/09 04:29 PM Getting good sound out of your Mac
Dave Offline


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Phoenix, Arizona
If you want to get good audio quality out of your Mac, you might want to forget about using it to drive a pair of small add-on "computer speakers" and instead, run the output of the Mac into a good audio system.

This can be done by buying an adapter that has a male mini stereo headphone connector at one end and a pair of female RCA connectors at the other end. Plug a pair of good one-meter audio interconnect cables into the adapter and then plug the other end of it into the Mac's headphone jack. Plug the other end of the interconnects into the input of your stereo preamp (or integrated amp or receiver).

When a system is configured like this, it's best to only use the volume control on the audio system, and keep the volume on the computer wide open. Since the Mac has an electronic volume control, when it is set wide open, it is essentially out of the signal path.

My main speakers and subwoofers are on either side of my computer desk. Here's the system configuration:

Mac Mini => Cary Audio Design CAD 5500 CD Processor (a vacuum-tube preamp with two pairs of outputs)

Cary CAD 5500 preamp => Parasound 75 Watt-per-channel power amp => two PSB Century 800i speakers

Cary CAD 5500 preamp => NHT X1 active crossover set at 80 Hz => Mackie M800 175 Watt-per-channel power amp => two JBL 2231A 15-inch woofers

When setting up any music playback system, as a general rule it's best to keep the signal path as simple as possible. The audio for my TV is fed directly from the cable box's audio outputs to another pair of inputs on the preamp.

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#406 - 08/06/09 07:37 PM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Dave]
donikatz Offline


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Gotham
Thanks for the nice post, Dave. I think your main point is one that can't be repeated enough: there is no reason to buy special (and often mediocre) "computer" speakers if you have a nice audio system available you can plug into. Folks always used to think of their computers as stand-alone appliances with their own standalone needs, but in today's hi-tech home theaters, why not think of them as just another component?
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#412 - 08/06/09 08:54 PM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Dave]
bob82xrp Offline


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Tucson
Sorry to ask a lot of questions, but I'm not familiar with some terminology and I'd like to make sure I'm understanding.

Just to clarify, in your third paragraph, when you say "keep the volume on the computer wide open" do you mean full volume? And when you say "it is essentially out of the signal path", does that mean that at full volume, the circuitry in the computer is not processing the signal, while at lower volumes the signal is processed in such a way that somehow degrades it?

Also, though I'm passing familiar with the distinction between digital and analog, I don't really know what "electronic volume control" means and what other type of volume control(s) it is distinct from, since I think of all my stereo components as electronic equipment. What is an electronic volume control and how does it affect the signal?

Finally, I'm curious if there's any advantage (in keeping the signal clean) to buying a single cable with the mini stereo plug on one end and the RCA connectors on the other, rather than using an adapter with a set of RCA cables and having one more connection point that the signal has to jump across.

Thanks so much for any clarification you can offer.
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#428 - 08/06/09 11:29 PM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: bob82xrp]
Dave Offline


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Phoenix, Arizona
Originally Posted By: bob82xrp
...when you say "keep the volume on the computer wide open" do you mean full volume?

Yes.

Originally Posted By: bob82xrp
...when you say "it is essentially out of the signal path", does that mean that at full volume, the circuitry in the computer is not processing the signal, while at lower volumes the signal is processed in such a way that somehow degrades it?

Yes. Regardless of whether a volume control is inserted into an analog or digital signal path, when it is wide open and not attenuating the signal, its sonic degradation is minimized.

Originally Posted By: bob82xrp
...I don't really know what "electronic volume control" means and what other type of volume control(s) it is distinct from, since I think of all my stereo components as electronic equipment. What is an electronic volume control and how does it affect the signal?

An electronic volume control is usually an IC (integrated circuit). An analog volume control is usually a rotary control that varies in electrical resistance as it is rotated. A more sophisticated version of an analog volume control is a precision stepped attenuator, which is a rotary switch with more than twenty positions, which in every position except for wide open, feeds the signal through a particular value of resistor.

Originally Posted By: bob82xrp
Finally, I'm curious if there's any advantage (in keeping the signal clean) to buying a single cable with the mini stereo plug on one end and the RCA connectors on the other, rather than using an adapter with a set of RCA cables and having one more connection point that the signal has to jump across.

Doing it that way limits you to using the interconnect cables that are wired to the adapter, rather than being able to use audiophile-grade interconnects.

Any time an audio signal is manipulated in any way, some distortion of the original signal is inevitable. The audio signal coming out of your Mac's headphone jack is equivalent to the pure water in the stream at the top of the mountain. We want to keep the signal path as simple as possible to minimize the distortion that's added to it.

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#501 - 08/07/09 09:49 AM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Dave]
alternaut Offline
Moderator

Registered: 08/04/09
Originally Posted By: Dave
We want to keep the signal path as simple as possible to minimize the distortion that's added to it.

Unfortunately, sometimes you have little choice in the matter. For example, when connecting (audio) equipment components powered by different grounded circuits (e.g., your Mac and your stereo) there is the distinct possibility of introducing hum because of a ground loop. That's a particularly annoying problem when you’re recording, but it can be eliminated by inserting a ground loop isolator into the signal line. Such ‘inline’ isolators are available at places like (Radio)Shack.
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#581 - 08/08/09 12:32 AM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Dave]
kbeartx Offline


Registered: 08/07/09
Loc: Austin, TX, USA
Good basic overview.

I'll add some things from my long experience with component audio and connecting same to Macs.

If you are interested in maximizing the fidelity, clarity, imaging, spectral balance, etc., of the audio coming into and going out of your Mac, then I highly recommend using 'better' quality interconnecting signal cables [such as those sold by Monster and AR; there might be others available, but I have not used them mice-elf] as well as NOT using the Mac's built-in audio in/out connectors, instead using an external** device such as the Griffin USB iMic [I am aware of several other similar potential solutions, but not having used/auditioned them personally, I will not recommend them here] to provide audio I/O.

These recommendations are based not on reading theories or 'white papers', but personal empirical testing. Since we all have different hearing capabilities and varying degrees of listening experience, YMMV.

- KBear


** Another way to accomplish this increase in fidelity might be to use an internal dedicated audio card, and once again, I don't recommend this from my personal experience, since I have not done it.

PS: My advice is to buy the best-quality interconnect cable you can afford and stay away from any adaptors; a single Male Mini-phone [also called a 3-conductor or stereo '1/8"plug'] for the Mac, to dual male RCA plugs for the audio component. The shortest length that will adequately reach between the two will minimize any signal loss/degradation.

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#611 - 08/08/09 11:05 AM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: kbeartx]
ryck Online


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Okanagan Valley
We differ on a couple of items, kbear.

Re: "....using 'better' quality interconnecting signal cables [such as those sold by Monster and AR..."

I wouldn't advise spending the piles of money that Monster and other cables cost. I think they're more about profits than quality.

They are good marketing, though. The media marketing sets up the consumer. Then the store salesperson (who has a lot to gain from selling expensive rather than inexpensive cables) completes the sales circle with the power of suggestion. It goes like this:

The salesperson plays audio using the less expensive device and "suggests" that the customer listen to specific things.

The audio is stopped but the new audio is not immediately played. The salesperson has a few words about what was just played and then "suggests" the differences that the customer will hear with the expensive cables. THEN, the audio is replayed.

The customer will hear a difference - even when it doesn't exist - because it's been "suggested". It's a technique that's been used for decades in selling speakers and it still works.

There would be a very different outcome if the source audio was switched back and forth without any chatter from the salesperson, and with the consumer saying when to switch. And even better, the consumer should bring their own choice of audio.

And, how does a consumer know exactly what the signal paths are? Unless they actually see the salesperson connect and reconnect all cables in question, the paths can be any quality the store wants them to be. Better to stick with independent lab reports.


Re: "The shortest length that will adequately reach between the two will minimize any signal loss/degradation."

I think I know what you're driving at - which is the ability of a two wire cable to act as a capacitor and reduce high end response on a high impedance signal. However, the likelihood of that event is probably limited to much longer cables.

There is an important thing to remember with all audio cables and that is to ensure that they are the same length.

Different lengths between left and right can cause an out-of-phase condition. You're not likely to hear a difference in the top end but you can lose definition in the bottom.

ryck
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ryck

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#622 - 08/08/09 01:04 PM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Dave]
Dave Offline


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Phoenix, Arizona
In order to appreciate the importance of good cables, it helps to have a good ear (and a good understanding of what live music really sounds like), as well as a revealing audio system that's properly set up in a good listening room.

I got interested in high-end audio back in 1976, and it was then that we started experimenting with interconnect cables and speaker cables. Some of us made our own interconnects, first using Belden cable, then 300-ohm twin-lead, and then with a variety of cables that included oxygen-free copper as well as pure silver. It was during all of that experimenting that we learned about the skin effect, where high frequencies traveling through a cable tend to migrate to the outer edge of the conductor. This was followed by the introduction of commercially-produced, audiophile-grade interconnects and speaker cables in 1978. You can find links to thirty current manufacturers of audiophile cables on this page of my site.

We could debate the virtues of multi-strand cables versus single-strand cables, solid-state amplifiers versus vacuum-tube amplifiers, discrete circuitry versus integrated circuits, optimum listening room acoustics, and the benefits of using the simplest circuitry possible, the least amount of negative feedback that is practical, matched, metal-film resistors, Teflon capacitors, and solder with a high silver content, but this would go beyond both the focus of this site and my willingness to type.

A final thought for any skeptics: Not everything that we can hear or sense can be measured.

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#647 - 08/08/09 03:15 PM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Dave]
ryck Online


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Okanagan Valley
Re: "In order to appreciate the importance of good cables, it helps to have a good ear (and a good understanding of what live music really sounds like), as well as a revealing audio system that's properly set up in a good listening room."

I haven't sat behind a console for quite a while but during the 60's and early 70's I was a Recording Engineer in Radio, Television and Recording Studios. Today I have an excellent sound system and can still hear 15KHz, so I probably fit your criteria.

Re: "....during all of that experimenting that we learned about the skin effect..."

I read that link and it seemed to conclude, but in many more words, what I said about the ability of a two wire cable to act as a capacitor and reduce high end response.

At the bottom of your skin effect page is another link (your link, not mine) to an article by Gene DellaSala (B.S.E.E., HAA & ISF Certified, Co-Founder of the Home Theater Alliance). The article is entitled "Skin Effect Relevance in Speaker Cables" and Mr. DellaSala's first sentence is:

"Some so called "exotic" Cable Companies enjoy spreading the fallacy that Skin Effect can cause deleterious effects on your audio performance. While Skin Effect is a real world problem in high frequency applications such as RF Power and Transmission, it is negligible at audio frequencies as I will demonstrate in this article based on fundamental engineering and scientific principles."

Re: "You can find links to thirty current manufacturers of audiophile cables on this page of my site."

I took time to look and found a lot of "take our word for it, this is what you need" from the manufacturers, instead of objective science. In another article by Mr. DellaSala, Cable Face Off, he says, in part:

"Many cable vendors and forum cult hobbyists insist on the abandonment of measurements and engineering truths in favor of subjective listening tests in hopes that the listener will think they hear a difference, even if none exists, to justify their unproven claims and sometimes extravagant prices. Let's refer to these people as "cable soothsayers" since they seem pre-dispositioned against applicable engineering truths and proven sciences despite reliance at times on the names of these truths (IE. Skin effect, diode rectification, etc) as a mechanism for the alleged problem(s) and their corresponding solution(s).

The belief set forth by these "cable soothsayers" that "you can't measure it" leaves open the avenue of convincing prospective buyers of the differences in product by pseudo-science, clever marketing ploys, and sometimes just blind faith."

Edit by moderator: Speaker Cable Face Off 1 — Reviews and News from Audioholics.

ryck


Edited by dianne (08/09/09 05:34 AM)
Edit Reason: added link to the source of the quote to provide full attribution.
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ryck

iMac (Retina 5K, 27", 2017), 3.4 GHz Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 2400 MHz DDR4
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#726 - 08/09/09 08:25 AM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Dave]
Virtual1 Online


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Iowa
I've been working with electronics for going on 30 years, and I consider 95% of the pricey cables to be complete snake oil. Hearing things like "uses oxygen free copper" almost makes me cough up my tongue.

For audio purposes, as long as the cable is at least the minimum necessary gauge for the amount of power (watts) you are pushing, nothing else matters.

Video CAN have differing qualities. Very low quality S-Video cables for example can cause ghosting or pick up interferance from nearby power lines. But in those cases, only the very cheapest of cables are going to make any difference.

As a general rule, ALL premium cables are a ripoff. Don't buy the cheapest you can find, but any general purpose cable should be fine.

Another joke I see is the new rage in audio cables, where they use the clear unshielded twin lead speaker cables. Notice how large the copper looks inside? Now look at the end of the cable. (if you are buying by the foot, with no connectors on it) Notice how SMALL the actual copper is. They do this on purpose. The round shape of the clear jacket magnifies the appearance of the copper so it looks like almost 100% of the cable is copper. It's common to see cables with 1mm of copper, in 4-6mm jackets. (so by cross section, between 3-10% of the cable is actually COPPER) So anytime you are looking at a clear cable, keep that in mind. Bend the cable. How easily it bends is a good judge of how much copper is in it. That, and how much the cable weighs, for cables with premade ends

Gold plated contacts are also something of a joke. It probably costs them a quarter to gold plate 500 of those connectors, and the words "gold plated" on the package will add $10-15 to the price tag. The conductivity difference between gold and copper is small, and when you're dealing with less than 1/1000" length of conductor, (we're talking 5 atoms or so) it REALLY doesn't matter. Resistance to corrosion is the ONLY time where gold plating matters for audio.

If you are shopping for speakers, go somewhere you can listen to them. Bring music you're familiar with. If they have speakers out on demo, bring your ipod and play it on them. Ignore price tags and looks. Just close your eyes and listen. Find the ones you like. Then open your eyes and pick up the best price. That's how I shop for speakers. Different people have different preferences in sound so the set you pick out may be different than your friend's, so take any recommendation with a grain of salt. Some people want more bass. Some people want better top end dynamic. Some just want loud. (high volume)

I personally use Logitec Z4 speakers here at home. I was very impressed with them in the store and they don't disappoint, and they're not too pricey. They also take up very little space on my desktop.
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#732 - 08/09/09 09:11 AM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Virtual1]
freelance Offline


Registered: 08/05/09
Loc: London, UK
Originally Posted By: Virtual1
Hearing things like "uses oxygen free copper" almost makes me cough up my tongue.

Once upon a time, I had a lot more money than sense. I spent £200 on a pretty short set of silver cables to bi-wire my KEF 105's. They DID sound better. Sort of, um, silvery. I had to change the location of my amplifier and the silver cables got confined to the garage.

Now, I don't have so much money and the delivery of music has changed. I am quite happy to listen to mp3 files played at random from my laptop to my hi-fi.

I listen to streamed music over the internet. Spotify is an excellent source, broadcasting for free at 160 kbps. Record the stream with Audio Hijack Pro, chop it into tracks with Amadeus Pro, load them into iTunes. Brilliant.

Having said that, the new Manic Street Preachers album was so good that I bought the CD. My CD player still sounds much better than the mp3 files, but only when I have the time to sit and really pay attention.

Back on track, my Nakamichi tape deck was a godsend when it came to converting all my tape cassettes to mp3 files via a Griffin iMic plugged into my laptop. (You have to have a good source.) My DAT tapes were converted by simply hooking my DAT deck up to the back of my G5 via the fiber optic link.

I usually rip my CDs at 192 kbps, but I see iTunes delivers songs at 256 kbps. I can't tell the difference in sound quality. Can you?

I fancied myself an audiophile when I could afford to be one. Now, I find it amazing how good an mp3 file played though my Mac via some decent headphones can sound.
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#1764 - 08/22/09 01:53 AM Re: Getting good sound out of your Mac [Re: Dave]
sandbox Offline


Registered: 08/04/09
Loc: Water World
Quality audio is about having a good recording and moving it to ones ear unimpeded. Much is to be said about what a good recording is and who's qualified to say it. http://apple.slashdot.org/apple/07/05/31/2243206.shtml

There are both myth and reality about the highway to your hearing and of course we prefer reality most of the time. So here's a real explanation about cables and as Kbearx pointed out, a quality cable will more than likely bring you quality sound. http://store.a2zcable.com/aucahe.html Having worked in a foundry 40 years ago I know a bit about the purity factor in the manufacture of metals, including copper.

The difference between the use of the headphone Jack V a Griffin is hard for me to discern. I have both for different purposes and they both transfer quality sound to my peripherals or my ears. I have different sound systems in a variety of rooms and building that when I had the time, I tried to optimize for my listening pleasure. Though my tastes have changed somewhat through the years.

A good quality audio system, wired properly with speakers strategically located for optimum efficiency is often an art more than a science, though I've heard both arguments. In the end the happy customer is always right.


Presently I'm sitting in a leather recliner wearing a Shure headset connected to both iBook and Voip phone with an inline selection switch and volume control. I can switch back and forth from phone to music with the flip of a switch on the line. I like these headsets for this purpose but not for travel, where I use a set of Sennheiser buds rather than the buds provided but the flight attendant. Quality made and tested headset are well worth the investment, though some would argue otherwise, the proof is in the material, connections, capacitance, shielding and comfort of the hardware one uses to bring music to your ear. wink

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