Pimp My MAC! (Audio computer mods)

edited November 2012 in Digital
I have a 2009 mini, it's an intel machine that has had only light use before I got. Sadly, it still gets light use... It is controlled via an iTouch & Apple remote.

Apple has been an excellent introduction to computer audio (I was utterly 'computer illiterate' 4 years ago, 'audio computer illiterate' two years ago. I even had to learn how to use iTunes). I have slowly learned by messing about and experimenting, trying to follow advice that keeps me safe (like the Computer Audiophile CD ripping strategy and methodology). I have gradually specialised my machine, and plan to make the last few - and most significant - changes in the coming couple of months.

I have one or two questions I would appreciate some guidance on, and I welcome any constructive comments in general.
What's been done:

What's to be done:

  • SSD (I have a 30gb in my desk drawer already)
  • SoTM SATA filter (for the SSD) - on order
  • Remove optical drive (not possible until I get a blue-ray/DVD player back in the lounge)
  • Remove bluetooth & wireless modules (bluetooth required for mouse/keyboard until optical drive removed - see above)
  • Paul Hynes SR-3 power supply (awaiting delivery of this, may be the new year)


  • Passive cooling: Anyone achieved this on a mini? I want to remove the fan altogether, once all the mods are done it should draw less power & generate less heat. The Item guide to building a better computer has allowed me to research passive cooling systems, but I can't find an aftermarket solution for a MAC mini. - Suggestions as to products, guides, or DIY welcome.
  • Failing the complete removal of the cooling fan, is there room for a SoTM fan filter within the standard mini case? (I will have more space to play with once the optical drive is removed.)
  • Will removing the optical drive altogether cause problems on boot-up, do I need to 'tell' the MAC not to look for it? - If so, How?

Thanks for reading this post, if you understand what's been described than you have done better than I! I would appreciate any comments you may have.


  • edited November 2012

  • I'm going to be very interested in your experiences with that Paul Hynes PSU, in particular.

    Now for some educated guesswork:

    I think you should be fine with booting the machine without the optical drive. My MacBook Air comes without an optical drive (no room for one) and was originally supplied with Snow Leopard. I'd be inclined to whip it out and see if you get any nasty messages when you boot. I'd imagine, at worst, you'd just have to tell the machine to stop looking for the optical drive.
  • That's what I'm hoping for Dave. When I asked the same question on AudioCircle, I got a similar answer to yours, so I feel quite confident trying it.
  • Col,

    Heat pipes are making an appearance in audio computers, so that's what I want to use (Peltier might be a bit beyond my means - in every way!). I am not clear on how to DIY it in my mac mini, which is really what I am asking advivce on.

    If and when I build a server from scratch, it will be passively cooled either with a larger heat-pipe assembly, or more likely with a case designed as heatsink, like this:

  • We've had our arm twisted into offering the Mac Mini heatpipe mod as a standalone DIY item: the conversion to passive cooling is a Good Idea. But The Streacom/Wesena cases are the business: we've switched to using them exclusively. You could always recase a Mac Mini in one . . .
  • You're a bad man!

    I do like that case very much, but having read around a little, I think I might leave MAC for a self build. In which case I need the MAC in it's case (to sell).

    I am pretty excited about the heat-pie mod though, please keep us posted.
  • OK, further investigation shows it is a heat-pipe mod, not pie...I shall try to hide my disappointment!

    DVD/Blueray thingy coming today, no more watching films on the MAC. Optical drive is now slated for imminent removal and storage, along with the Wireless and Bluetooth antennae.

    Just wondering about cooling now, I guess I have to leave the fan in for now?...
  • DVD/Blueray thingy coming today, no more watching films on the MAC.
    Bluray Alan, bluray.
    Enjoy the HD video experience - 'tis something.
  • edited December 2012
    It's all very nice, I must say.

    As for the HiFi, I received an email today saying I can expect the Hynes power supply sometime mid to late December, which is good news. There may be some delay though, as Paul Hynes hasn't been that well - a hernia of some kind, I hear.  I hope he makes a strong & rapid recovery.
  • Here is an interim report on my adventures in Mac:

    My Mini is partially modded now, this is what has been done:
    • Various software mods
    • Audirvana+ (with system optimisation)
    • Disconnected from monitor & all other peripherals
    • Removal of all antennae
    • Removal optical drive
    • SSD install
    • SoTM SATA filter
    • 8GB RAM

    I am enjoying the system immensely now, I am quite surprised at the differences these changes have made. My first thought was 'where has the bass gone'?  - slightly perturbing, but I didn't change anything else, just left it a few days to get used to what was happening.

    I did noticed a real improvement in definition, the way each sound starts is better defined. I don't mean sharp or etched, better defined is the best I can manage. Effortless detail, maybe. Things like multiple acoustic guitars, for instance - each strum or pluck is distinct and singular, correctly located to each musician - so easy to follow and focus on. 'Messy' music is easy to follow, less tiring.

    The soundstage is by far the best I have had here, not in the 3d 'in the room' sense but the correct placement of musicians, rock solid, without any wandering.

    The bass is much 'cleaner', almost no boom at any frequencies (all without moving the speakers). It seemed almost lean for a while, but after a while I pushed the speakers further back to compensate. Then I decided I liked it better before, so I moved them almost back to where they were before. There is a lot more texture and tone evident from upright bass and guitars, making it easy to follow the musical lines. There is a track on Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals album (Burn To Shine) called 'Alone', which has two bass lines. I have always tested system changes with this track, trying to pick out all that I know is there, and each system over the years has shown me something different. However, this is the first time I have heard everything in one play. I was pretty impressed by that, TBH.

    Altogether, there is a notable sense of quietness about the music now, I found myself playing it a lot louder without realising it. So much so I have been rattling the bass drivers against their stops on more than one occasion!

    It's not all perfect though, there is a slight loss somewhere, and I can't quite put my finger on it. On some recordings, there is a particular mid-range-ey thing that has recessed back into the mix. Or, everything else is better except that particular aspect; I know it's there but it's hiding at the moment. For instance, on Ray Lamontagne's 'You can send me flowers', the click track has a little electronic 'tone' every few bars, on beats 5 & 6. It's hard to make out now, whereas it was quite stark before. I've no idea which is more correct, hidden or stark, but it isn't the only example. Just a very few particular details, which I know well, now have to be actively listened for.

    There are still a few changes left to make, I am wondering if they will 'fill in the gaps'.

    Still to do:

    • Passive cooling (remove that fan)
    • Paul Hynes power supply
    • Longer network cable to allow ultra short USB cable
    • Stillpoints fabric inside case

    Having had such positive effects with the changes so far, I am quite optimistic about the final modification. I can't speak for any particular element of the mods, but the cumulative effect is profoundly, if subtly, beneficial. I suspect that this layering of small improvements amplifies the benefits of the next change.

  • Well done, Alan.

    It's all good information for when I get around to doing something about the 'puter in my system next year. Mine will have to be a whole new 'puter with mods, though.
  • Thanks, Dave. It's proof of concept for me, computers make a world of difference, even with modern, supposedly jitter/noise immune DACs. Nothing in computer audio is quite as plug 'n ply as I thought.

    The thought of starting again with a carefully selected motherboard, and split power supplies, maybe a top of the line USB output is quite appealing, if a little pricey from where I am just now. The question is, would the order of improvement over the Mini be worth the outlay?

    I still have a way to go with the Mini anyway, the PS may come this month (though I won't hold my breath), and the other odds and ends can be done when I tackle the cooling.

    I should give credit where it is due here, Mark from Item Audio has been 'the man' when it comes to these mods. Apart from carefully listening to his advice on the forums and translating it to a Mac modification, he has also been great at answering emails for advice. He is going to supply me with a T1 case and passive cooling units, and has advised me to recase my Mini. Having stripped it down so many times, I don't reckon this to be a particular hurdle. I should have space to tidy up the bits and pieces I have already done, which will make me feel better.
  • All verra interesting Mr B.

    I wonder if I could recase the innards of my MacBook?
  • Could do: always worth disconnecting that inverter and monitor . . .

    It's actually cheaper to buy a new case and jury rig a high quality heatpipe tower cooler than for us to custom fabricate an internal heatsink for the Mac, which is what we do for our AP Edition Mac Mini. Unfortunately, because of variations between Macs (particularly the height of the CPU and GPU that share the same heatsink) it's not a part we can offer 'off the shelf', and has to be a custom install.
  • That's interesting. Maybe it's something to pursue, then

    Thanks Mark.
  • Not wanting to be a kill joy but have you had the chance to compare the modded Mini to a standard unit?
  • No, but it was my own unmodified Mac, it was my source for two years.
  • Again without being a spoilsport you should really compare the modified to a standard unit.
  • edited December 2012
    The demonstrator is available for anyone who wants to do that. Or you can read how that exact unit compared to a standard one in the May 2012 edition of HiFi World. It's important to try it in your own system.

    Your DAC might be more 'immune' or (conversely) more revealing than the reviewer's: some DACs are more resistant than others to transport issues.

    Here are a few extracts: “We bought a new Mac Mini for comparison for this review . . . listening to the 'Daunce of the Tumblers reveals a better sense of control . . . the sound is 'cleaner'. It seems to be emerging from a black background. There is a touch more of a feeling of an orchestra stretching backwards. The bass is faster and more accurate - there is less 'smear'. In the final chords the orchestral crashes seem to have a clearly defined start and stop to them, which is not the case with the vanilla model. [There was] a greater grasp of the orchestral scenery and that illusive quality you find in good digital reproduction of air and space between instruments . . . the orchestra seemed suddenly to add 20m of depth front to back. Interestingly, when I remove the video display from my Mac Mini [THIS WAS A KEY INSTRUCTION OF OURS, IGNORED UNTIL THE END OF THE REVIEW!] there was suddenly a jump in the overal tightness of the presentation. The holographic picture of the orchestra moved much close to the Aurender presentation. The Item Audio AP edition is an audible improvement for those with Macs, I found.” – 5 Globes

    With a less susceptible DAC, maybe HiFi World wouldn't have found such clearly identifiable differences. The reviewer exclusively used a Weiss DAC 202.
  • edited December 2012
    I recognise that summary for the most part, although I haven't yet completed my mods. I do, however, run with the monitor disconnected (rather than just not switched on), and am surprised at the benefits.

    I almost did borrow Item's demonstrator, but was a little worried that I might be wasting his time. I have since come to see he is only too happy to help, so probably should have. However, I realised I could get two thirds 'there' without spending more than £75 (I already had lots of RAM, just needed SSD and SATA filter), so I decided to have a go. I'm glad I did, and I am confident that I know my system and room well enough to recognise tangiable differences.
  • It's becoming a nicely trodden path: what you have to do, and what improvements you can expect. But the factors that make the biggest difference are the hardest to implement: mainly the primary power supply. That's why I had the demonstrator made: to let people hear the difference: it's on its way back from HiFi Choice now . . . .

    Lots of Mac owners have made a half-hearted prod at trying a different software player, or maybe even installed a SSD, and given up, wrongly concluding from merely starting the journey that the destination isn't worth it.

    What's really interesting is that DACs like the Weiss and Benchmark, which are sometimes touted as 'immune' to digital cabling and transport alterations, are increasingly reported as highly susceptible to them - as the HiFi World review shows. Ciamara, for instance, have written about the Weiss DAC sounding quite different with computers, streamers and Weiss' own transport. And if such 'high-end' DACs don't render irrelevant cabling and transports, it seems likely that cheaper implementations will be even more affected.
Sign In or Register to comment.