For the past 2.5 years I’ve been happily living with a Bluesound Node 2 streamer as my main source for music enjoyment. The jump to Bluesound’s platform came about for a couple of reasons:
- simple curiosity about purpose-built hardware streamers
- the endlessly frustrating macOS updates hampering or outright breaking critical music player software
So jump I did. Never thought I’d look back.
Since purchasing the Node 2 in April 2016 my audio system has slowly transformed into an entirely different beast. With a new amp, DAC, loudspeakers, subwoofer, and cables in place I decided it was time to revisit my former music server, the veritable Mac mini, to find out if it can out-perform the Node 2. Here’s what I put together:
- Mac mini (2012, 2.6GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, High Sierra)
- Bel Canto mLink USB-S/PDIF converter
- MHDT Lab Pagoda DAC
- Decware SE84UFO amp
- Omega Super 3i Monitors
- Omega DeepHemp 8 Subwoofer
The music library (uncompressed flac) is located on an Oyen Digital MiniPro Thunderbolt SSD attached directly to the Mac mini. Music player software includes Amarra Luxe, Audirvana Plus, and HQPlayer. The Amarra sound quality is simply intoxicating and remains my favorite player despite it’s quirks.
The Pagoda is equipped with an asynchronous USB connection which sounds quite good but with several USB-S/PDIF converters (Schiit Eitr, Bel Canto mLink, SOtM dX-USB HD) at my disposal I felt compelled to try them out.
I purchased Bel Canto’s mLink about 5 years ago and, while it’s getting a bit long in the tooth, it works wonders with a USB signal and was my choice going forward. To my ears the mLink sounds better in the mix compared to a direct Mac/Pagoda USB connection. Bel Canto claims jitter levels of 222 femtoseconds (0.222 picoseconds) and provides galvanic isolation from the computer.
The mLink feeds it’s cleaned-up signal to the Pagoda via BNC. The Pagoda is of the NOS variety (PCM1704) with a tube output stage. Both are capable of bit depth and sample rates up to and including 24/192.
Half expecting the time I put into re-configuring my gear to be an utter waste, I could hardly believe my ears. From the moment I hit play .. full, rich, engaging sound the likes of which I’ve not heard in my home. Ever.
I never thought I’d be saying this but the Mac mini has once again found a place on my audio rack. I don’t look forward those frustrating Apple updates which are sure to come but I’ve learned from previous experience and will apply updates judiciously. The Bluesound Node 2 will also remain on my rack. It’s a terrific device with good sound (especially when used with an outboard DAC) and the convenience is phenomenal. I expect to use it for more casual listening.