iMac audiophile setup? Need advice please!

Discussion in 'Digital Audio' started by Fallinangel, Dec 27, 2008.

  1. Fallinangel macrumors regular


    Dec 21, 2005

    I need some advice on how to build/buy a good, durable, "audiophile" computer audio setup for my iMac (24", 3.06 GHz, 4 GB RAM).
    Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for the best of the best, cutting-edge, expensive gizmos, just for some gadgets that produce a decent sound!

    I mainly listen to lossless audio formats (Apple Lossless, AIFF, FLAC) and some 320 kbps encoded MP3s.

    As for the audio configuration, the iMac has:
    - built-in stereo speakers​
    - internal 24-watt digital amplifier​
    - 1x headphone/optical digital audio output (minijack)​
    I've been using the internal speakers for a few month now, but they just don't satisfy my ears!
    I'm willing to spend about $1000 (speakers included in the budget)!!!

    1) What do I REALLY need to get a great, "audiophile" sound out of my mac? A DAC, a Pre-AMP, an AMP,... ? And of course speakers!

    2) What does a DAC do, and is there a big difference between USB, optical, or line-in DACs? Which one should I get for my purpose??? It should have a headphone output!

    3) Which speakers should I get? I'm considering bookshelf speakers, more precisely the AudioEngine A5!? The reviews are great, but other recommendations are welcome!!!

    4) Is the on board sound-card of the iMac even able to produce a decent sound output?

    A big thank you in advance for any help!
    In fact, I know a lot about digital audio formats, but unfortunately only very little about equipment.

    Thanks again!
  2. Teej guy macrumors 6502a

    Aug 6, 2007
  3. Fallinangel thread starter macrumors regular


    Dec 21, 2005
  4. Killyp macrumors 68040


    Jun 14, 2006
    That's a good budget to work with. I would personally start with the speakers, which despite what some people say, are the most important part of the system. There's no use in spending buckets of money on a good amp and a good DAC if your speakers aren't particularly good.

    I would put half of your budget into speakers. The B&W 686 comes in at the right price, and is frankly, the best thing I've heard sub $900 with the exception of the 685 (it's bigger brother). The 686 costs $480 or therabouts (I'm not US based so this is just going off google searches).


    Next, I would look for a good amp. Nad are a good starting point, but their amps don't pair so well with B&W's speakers, although you'll still get a very good sound. Their C315BEE is a great amp, and costs around $350. If you can though, try and go for something from Rotel - maybe second hand. It will match the 686s much better.

    As for a DAC, I can't really help there. You've got $170 left over, but I would personally run your system from the built in output on your iMac until you can afford some really decent conversion, like an Apogee Duet (which does sound absolutely stunning, and your speakers/amp will pick up on it if you go for the above recommendations).
  5. OllyW Moderator


    Staff Member

    Oct 11, 2005
    The Black Country, England
    It's also pointless spending a fortune on speakers if the audio being sent to them isn't up to scratch.

    I'm not saying your recommendations are bad, just that the best speakers in the world will still sound sub-par if the input and amplification are not up to job.

    You also need to know the environment the equipment is to be placed in. It's no use recommending a speaker that needs to be placed on stands out of corners and away from the back wall if they have to be mounted on a bookshelf and likewise a speaker that works well in a large spacious lounge may not sound good in a small cluttered bedroom.
  6. benzslrpee macrumors 6502


    Jan 1, 2007
    i would suggest a setup along this line:

    iMac -> opt-out -> DAC w/opt-in* -> amp -> monitors/headphones

    i personally prefer an opt-in DAC over a usb one because, well, i paid for the opt-out on my iMac so i might as well use it for something. theoretically there shouldn't be a difference between usb or opt DACs but sometimes people get "jitters" when using usb ones. both of these offer line level (pure digital) output.

    i_think_what you referred to as a "line-in" DAC is one that connects through the headphone jack instead of via opt/usb. this means that the sound has already gone through analog conversion which makes for a potential loss of quality depending on how good your system/hearing is. i could be entirely wrong on this one though so feel free to correct me :D

    here's what i use:
    - Spitfire DAC $267 -> Cute Beyone headphone amp $187 -> beyer DT 880 $329 (i got it for $200 off Amazon one lucky day...)


    - Spitfire DAC -> Audio Engine A5 $325 or M-Audio BX5 $229...since both of these speakers are self powered i don't have to mess with any amps :cool:

    with your $1k you'll have about $400-$500 left over now to play with if you go the speaker route or $200 if you go for the headcans. for me, the above isn't going to impress any supreme audio geek BUT it meets my needs more then adequately...which is basically just movies and music.

    now if you're more ambitious you can always find better, more expensive and more technical :eek: just be prepared to fork over the cash.
  7. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    I'll second the above. The "standard advice" is to spend about half your budget on speakers. So that means you should look at spending $250 each or $500 for a pair of speakers.

    The first thing to do whaen buying speakers (after setting a budget) is to look at the listening room. Speakers work within a room, within the acustics of a room. Small, low cost changes to the room can make huge improvements to the sound. For example hanging some kind of cloth tapistry or curtain to deaded reflections from a corner or removing same to brighten up the sound. These kinds of things can matter more then the brand of speaker.

    Are you looking to fill the entire room with sound or just the space in front of the computer? If it's a small space you have a good budget to work with

    Next what to feed the speakers. The iMac puts out decent sound. the iMac's "line out" and could drive an amp which then would drive the speakers. But a step up would be to use the Mac's S/PDIF optical output to drive an external DAC and preamp but adding that plus an amp for the speakers would kill your budget.

    Powered speakers are an option too. These are just speakers with amps built-in but I'm not sure of the quality you can get going this route.

    The other option is headphones, big studio "cans", the type you see sound engineers use are not all that expensive. the standard studio reference headset for many years was an AKG model that sold discounted for about $100.
  8. Pjr17, Dec 31, 2008
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2011
  9. Killyp macrumors 68040


    Jun 14, 2006
    Good advice but I wouldn't really class Klipsch, in the same league as B&W. M-Audio and Audio-Technica both make monitor speakers and aren't particularly good at it IMO.

    The iMac's built in output will do for the time being, I find it more than adequate to enjoy music correctly, and I've even been forced to do mixdowns on it before when nothing else was available and found it more than capable.

    To really make sure you're getting the best from your system though, you would definitely want to use a good DAC.

Share This Page