I spent a long time going back and forth in order to optimize each operating system as best I can. I used Windows 7 and Vista, Mac OS, and LinuxMint with all types of configurations and software to try to find what I thought was the best sound to synergizes with my gear/room and provides the best musical experience.
As a starting point I used instructions from BlackVipersWindowsServices web site to reduce my processes down to a bare minimum for the Windows operating system. I reduced the processes down to just the point were Windows would not crash. I went into bios and followed Cics's tweaks to optimize the CPU and RAM settings as well as used a latency tool to tweak my USB latency to optimal settings. Even going so far as to kill WindowsExplorer [Windows Explorer would be the main task bar/menu GUI for Windows] so ONLY my music software was running and even that was set to the highest priority. I also disconnected the keyboard, mouse and monitor while playing. So as you can see I went to extreme lengths to get the most out of Windows. Over the course of a year +/- I tried every music software I could get my hands on, XXHighend, cMP, Foobar, JRiver [the usual suspects] plus KMPlayer, uLilith, XMPlay etc....literally everything I could find.
For Linux, I used Linux Mint, again I did every tweak I could find to optimize the computer and software. Installed the Real-Time Kernel, upgraded ALSA, bios tweaks, full RAM, minimized processes and interrupts, got rid of any program that was not needed etc. And like with Windows I tried every music player available ALSAPlayer, Rhythmbox, Amarok, MPD, XMMS, Audacious, again the usual suspects plus some obscure command line players. During that time I purchased a Mac Mini as well and followed the same scheme as Linux and Windows....optimized to the max...and tried every player available for the Mac as well....Cog, Play, XBMC, iTunes, PureMusic, etc.
Just recently I added a Squeezebox Touch to the line-up. I applied various mods which helped to clear up the sound and provide higher resolution. The mods are outlined in my "Squeezebox Touch Tweaks" section. I used a Linear/Regulated power supply plugged into a A/C filter. WLAN is also turned off as the Touch is wired to the router. I tried the Touch with coax [Stereovox and Oyaide] and toslink via high quality glass fibre cable. The difference in sound was negligible. Which is to say, coax vs. toslink is about as different as one coax cable from another....very slight to almost none. I might chalk this up to the Dacs ability to reject jitter. Switching power supplies also gave me only small improvements in sound. The supplied wallwart vs. a Linear/Regulated power supply was only slight. The linear/regulated supply seemed to smooth out the sound ever so slightly.
Computer audio has continued to progress. And like everything electronic, computers became smaller, cheaper and faster....enter ARM Processor boards. Boards like the ever popular Raspberry Pi are being used to satisfy audio needs at an increasing rate. As the years went by, other boards like the BeagleBone Black, Odroid, CubieTruck and many others came on the scene, each upping the anti generation after generation. Processors went from single core processors to multi-core processors, RAM from 1 Gig to as many as 3 Gigs. In many ways ARM boards now-a-days rival or even better full scale computers at the beginning of the Computer audio age. As always Linux and the world of DIY'ers led the way providing Operating Systems with full desktop capabilities. This meant all off normal Audio Software people were used to on their desktops could be run on ARM boards. This also meant people could easily build a small unobtrusive computer with enough power for audio, being dedicated to one purpose....audio reproduction. For a single purpose audio computer an ARM board provides more than enough power to get the job done. All at a price that even a poor college student could afford...in most cases under $50. Combines with a FREE single purpose audio software like from RuneAudio or Volumio and anyone could be off and running in a probably less that 20 minutes from download to listening to music.
Final Software/Operating System configurations:
With a Mac
there are very little optimizations that you can do...its pretty much
turn-key plug it in and play. The only way to improve the Mac sound is
by going Firewire and/or buying Amarra or Pure Music at an additional cost. The Mac sound is leans more toward the analytical side of neutral, everything is enjoyable, clean and fresh. Macs might be a good match for those who like their music served up on the straight forward side or would like to match the analytical Mac sound with a more flavorful sound of tubes.
With Linux you can get sound that will beat both Mac and
Windows with some work. But you also have to be careful of the hardware
you choose, although most sound cards now-a-days have working ALSA
drivers. This would be the cheapest route with potentially the greatest
gains. With my souped up Linux machine running Music Player Daemon I was able to get greater detail and clarity than with my Mac. Highs seemed a bit more airy and lows seemed to be just a tad on the dry side however still pleasing.
With Windows you have the greatest number of both software
and hardware as well as room to tweak the OS etc. to your liking. This
IMO gives you the ability to create a synergy between the rest of your
gear, the OS and software. Running Windows 7 I settled on Foobar for awhile then moved over the the KMPlayer with ReClock. This KMPlayer/ReClock duo had plenty of slam, details came through but with a more musical flavor rather than the neutral analytical flavor of Linux and Mac. Windows although bulky does a good job with a little tweaking.
I loaded Volumio on a BeagleBone Black using a Linear Power Supply from Jameco at first, then switching to a iFi USB power supply. I tweaked the OS with a group of modifications I put together over the years gleaned from IBM, Oracle and RedHat for Linux servers. In addition I added a Ferrite Core on the power line just before the BeagleBone Black...did wonders. I went back and forth for probably a year and finally switching to RuneAudio which uses ArchLinux as a base before I was able to determine the BBB actually beat out my full fledged maxed out i7 Processor computer. The sound, very clean, full extension, full texture, very relaxed and very engaging. The icing on the cake was actually a $1.35 Ferrite Core from Mouser Electronics.
To sum it up; Linux and Mac sound similar, Windows 7 and Vista sound similar and are both way better than XP due to WASAPI output. But XP seems to be a smaller OS and can be made to have an even smaller footprint by disabling Services and produce better sound by using the cMP2 configuration. Each has some pluses and minuses and would mate good with the right gear, configured correctly I'd be happy with any of them.
Music is the Bridge between Heaven and Earth - 音楽は天国と地球のかけ橋