The Mac mini has an image problem, it's very small, which means a lot of people are going to write it off as a serious machine when it comes to audio production. What hasn't helped is that in the early days the Mac mini was sold as an entry-level machine, which helped many people with limited funds to get on the Apple Mac train. However, using the terms entry-level and pro-audio in the same sentence can feel like an oxymoron.
We've been asked by many people to take a look at the Mac mini 2018 to see if the claims of it being 'awesome' or that the 'USB2 audio is broken' are true. There's some merit in other reviews and also in anecdotal evidence from forums and social media, but to be frank, the only way to get to the facts is to test it ourselves.
Not only have we tested this Mac mini 2018 on its own but benchmarked it against a Mac Pro Late 2013 and also a 12 Core Mac Pro 5,1 to give you a sense of the power under the hood of the Mac mini 2018.
For the review we purchased (Yes we paid for it) a Mac mini with the following configuration:
3.2GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz)
32GB 2666MHz DDR4
512GB SSD storage
Intel UHD Graphics 630
Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet using RJ-45 connector)
Total Price £1969 plus we paid the extra £99 for AppleCare+
Four Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) ports with support for:
Thunderbolt (up to 40 Gbps)
USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10 Gbps)
Thunderbolt 2, HDMI, DVI and VGA supported using adapters (sold separately)
Two USB 3 ports (up to 5 Gbps)
HDMI 2.0 port
Gigabit Ethernet port (configurable to 10Gb Ethernet)
3.5mm headphone jack
We also spent £45 on the USB-C to Thunderbolt 2 adaptor as for the tests we have a Thunderbolt 2 chassis and drives.
Real World Tests
For our stress test, we decided to use the Pro Tools Mac Power Test we use on all our machines. You may use a different DAW, but to be blunt, Pro Tool is a fussy bugger, and if Pro Tools runs on a machine then you can be pretty sure anything else will run like a dream.
Our Pro Tools Expert Mac Power Test Session has 128 audio tracks with audio that is edited every second, each with an instance of the Avid Channel Strip and D-Verb. So we could compare it with Mike's HDX1 Mac Pro 5,1 12 core machine his system has a voice limitation (HDX) and could not go above 15 additional instrument tracks before it ran out of voices, so we stuck with that session.
Then we inserted instances of the Eleven II plug-in into the audio tracks until Pro Tools stops playing and screams 'CPU Error.'
So in summary 128 tracks of heavily edited audio, 15 tracks of VIs, then an instance of channel strip, Dverb on every audio track and then as many instances of Eleven II until the session falls over.
The test helps us to benchmark machines against one another, in this case, we put the Mac mini 2018 against a 12 Core Mac Pro 5,1 cheesegrater with updated CPUs and a 6 Core Mac Pro 6,1 Late 2013.
We felt this was the best test to run as many looking at the Mac mini are on a Mac Pro 5,1 and wondering what Mac to buy next.
Pro Tools Stress Test
Mac Pro 5,1 2 x 3.33GHz 6-Core Xeon (12 Core), 32GB RAM.
Ran the test with 25 instances of Eleven II
Mac mini 3.2GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7 (6 Core), 32GB RAM
Ran the test with 20 instances of Eleven II
Mac Pro 6,1 3.5 GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon E5 (6 Core), 64Gb RAM
Ran the test with 15 instances of Eleven II
As you can see from this test, the Mac mini held it's own against the 12 Core Mac Pro 5,1 and beat the 6 Core Mac Pro 6,1.
When it comes to Geekbench scores, the Mac mini is equally impressive. Higher is better.
|Computer||Single-Core Score||Multi-Core Score|
|Mac mini 2018 - 6 Core||5796||26780|
|Mac Pro Late 2013 - 6 Core||3847||20168|
|Mac Pro 5,1 - 12 Core||2809||22885|
Heat And Noise
We ran heat tests between the Mac mini 2018 and the Mac Pro Late 2013, which if you recall is allegedly shaped like a Trash Can for better cooling. It's a bit unfair comparing a Mac Pro Late 2013 with lots of air flowing around the components with a Mac mini which is packed tighter than FIAT 500 with a band on its way to Glastonbury, but it's worth seeing how different the scores are.
We used the same Pro Tools stress test, and the measurements were as follows;
Mac Pro 6,1 - 69 deg c with the fan/s running at 790 RPM
Mac mini 2018 - 84 deg c with the fan/s running at 3935 RPM
Of course in a studio, the real question is how much noise does the fan make? We measured the room which had an ambient noise level of around 50 dBA over a 1-minute sample. We tried to measure the Mac mini fan noise at 1 metre and could not get any meaningful change in level. So we decided to measure it with the microphone 1 mm away from the Mac mini front panel, over a 1-minute sample the noise level rose to 54 dBA when the fan was running at speed. So in summary if the fans are going to kick in on a Mac mini then the noise level is negligible at 1 metre, certainly not enough to worry about and it’s so small you could put it in a cupboard with plenty of airflow if you use microphones in the same room. So for those asking about the fan noise, you have your answer, it’s not a problem.
Of course, anyone looking for a computer to use in the studio is going to want to hook a lot of gear off the back. The mini offers 4 x USB-C and 2 x USB3 connectors.
If you want to use more than one monitor then you can use HDMI for one, a USB-C to Thunderbolt 2 Adaptor and connect via DisplayPort for the second and other adaptors can cover different options such as DVI and VGA.
What may be a better option is to use a Thunderbolt-connected dock, we have an Elgato one in the office which offers more connection options. With all that said If you are used to everything being shoved inside a tower, then the Mac mini may not be for you.
USB-2 Audio Issues
We have been alerted to possible USB-2 audio issues by community members, forum posts, and other news websites, so we were keen to get to the bottom of this. One site claims "all T2-based Macs, that is all Mac models from the 2018 generation, are evidently unusable with USB 2.0 audio interfaces, irrespective of vendor."
We had to put these claims to the test.
We tested the Mac mini 2018 with a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB2.0 interface, a Kii Control USB2.0 interface and also an Avid Eleven Rack USB1.0 audio interface. We looked at all the scenarios where users said they are experiencing audio glitches; we even watched YouTube videos of users showing issues happening. These included turning Location Services on and off and also the suggestion that "Set Date and Time Automatically" had a bearing on the issue. However, in our test using the interfaces at all sample rates (for example the Kii Control was used at a sample rate of 384 KHz) and using the examples shown by those experiencing difficulties we could not reproduce any of the issues.
Whilst we appreciate that some users are experiencing issues with certain USB audio interfaces and sincerely hope they get to the bottom of the problems and resolve them, we are not able to say with any factual basis that there is a consistently reproducible problem caused by the Apple T2 chip, that will affect every USB interface on the market, as has been claimed. This conclusion may not help those struggling with issues, but a wrong diagnosis of the problem is worse than no solution and sends people desperate for an answer off down all sorts of rabbit holes.
As we have already said, we are taking these claims seriously, so we are talking to both experienced Apple third-party software and hardware developers to try and get to the bottom of the problems some users are experiencing.
We started this article saying the Mac mini has an image problem and that's its size and the mini name, especially when professionals are considering buying a new Mac. In our test, the new Mac mini 2018 may be mini in name and size but that's where it ends.
The Mac mini 2018 is a mighty little atom which as you can see from our tests holds its own against two Mac Pro machines, one of which is a 12 core machine. Geekbench scores put it ahead of the two other 'pro' machines in our test. It performed well in real-world sessions and in most cases didn't even break a sweat, when it did, the cooling has been designed to be quiet and not sound like a jet taking off, something users of older MacBooks have experienced.
The Mac mini is a machine far more powerful than one would expect; it can certainly offer pro-performance that belies its size.
WHY YOU SHOULD PASS: Those looking for a Mac that is as self-contained as the older Mac Pro 5,1 then the Mac mini won't be for you. Equally, if you want lots of connectivity without resorting to adaptors and hubs, then you may want to pass on the Mac mini.
You also need to consider that most Macs these days have limited, if not zero ‘official’ upgrade options so if you are considering a Mac mini then our advice is to get the best one you can afford, this is particularly important when it comes to RAM and storage, saving at checkout may mean repenting at leisure.
If you don't mind the small size and the need for more cables and possibly an external chassis, then the Mac mini 2018 may well be the next Mac you buy. If you are hanging on for the new Mac Pro 2019 ‘modular machine’ and expecting it to be less than $5000, then we think you are going to be disappointed. If the £2K mark is what you want to spend on your next Mac then the mini is a machine you should strongly consider.
In a word…impressive.