By Pat Birk
At a New York City press event, Apple announced that it will being shipping a new 16-inch MacBook Pro this week. This new offering will feature an updated 16-inch Retina display with a pixel density of 226ppi; 9th-generation Intel processors featuring up to 8 cores and up to 64GB of DDR4 memory; vastly expanded SSDs ranging from 512GB to a whopping 8TB; upgraded discrete AMD Radeon Pro 5000M series graphics; completely redesigned speakers and internal microphones; and an overhauled keyboard dubbed, of course, the “Magic Keyboard.”
These MacBooks also feature a new cooling system, with wider vents and a 35 percent larger heatsink, along with a 100-watt hour battery (which the company stressed is the maximum capacity allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration), contributing to an additional hour of battery life while web browsing or playing back video.
I had the opportunity to do a brief hands-on demo, and for the first time since Apple introduced the Touch Bar to the MacBook Pro, I have found myself wanting a new Mac. The keyboard felt great, offering far more give and far less plastic-y clicks than the divisive Butterfly keyboard. The Mac team has reintroduced a physical escape key, along with an inverted T-style cluster of arrow keys, both features that will be helpful for coders. Apple also previewed its upcoming Mac Pro tower and Pro Display XDR.
As an audio guy, I was naturally drawn to the workstation’s sound offerings and was happy when the company dedicated a good portion of the presentation to touting its enhanced speaker and microphone arrays. The six-speaker system features dual-opposed woofer drivers, which offer enhanced bass while canceling out problematic distortion-causing frequencies. When compared side by side with high-end offerings from other manufacturers, the MacBook offered a far more complete sonic experience than the competition, and I believe Apple is right in saying that they’ve achieved an extra half octave of bass range with this revision.
It’s really impressive for a laptop, but I honestly don’t see it replacing a good pair of headphones or a half-decent Bluetooth for most users. I can see it being useful in the occasional pitch meeting, or showing an idea or video to a friend with no other option, but feel it’s more of a nice touch than a major selling point.
The three-microphone array was impressive, as well, and I can see it offering legitimate functionality for working creatives. When A/B’d with competing internal microphones, there was really no comparison. The MacBook’s mics deliver crisp, clean recordings with very little hiss and no noticeable digital artifacting, both of which were clearly present in competing PCs. I could realistically see this working for a small podcast, or on-the-go musicians recording demos. We live in a world where Steve Lacie recorded and produced a beat for Kendrick Lamar on an iPhone. When Apple claims that the signal-to-noise ratio rivals or even surpasses that of digital mics like the Blue Yeti, they may very well be right. However, in an A/B comparison, I found the Blue to have more body and room ambience, while the MacBook sounded a bit thin and sterile.
The rest of the demo featured creative professionals — coders, animators, colorists and composers — pushing the spec’d out Mac and MacBook Pros to their limits. A coder demonstrated testing a program in realtime on eight emulations of iOS and iPad OS at once.
A video editor demonstrated the new Mac Pro (not the MacBook) running a project with six 8K video sources playing at once through an animation layer, with no rendering at all. We were also treated to a brief Blackmagic Da Vinci Resolve demo on a Pro Display XDR. A VFX artist demonstrated making realtime lighting changes to an animation comprised of eight million polygons on the Mac Pro, again with no need for rendering.
Composers showed us a Logic X session running a track produced for Lizzo by Oak Felder. The song had over 200 tracks, replete with plugins and instruments — Felder was able to accomplish this on an MacBook Pro. Also on the MacBook, they had a session loaded running multiple instances of MIDI instruments using sample libraries from Cinesamples, Spitfire Audio and Orchestral Tools. The result could easily have fooled me into believing it had been recorded with a live orchestra, and the fact that all of these massive, processor intensive sample libraries could operate at the same without making the Mac Pro break a sweat had me floored.
Apple has delivered a very solid upgrade in the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, especially as a replacement for the earlier iterations of the Touch Bar MacBook Pros. They have begun taking orders, with prices starting at $2,399 for the 2.6GHz 6-core model, and $2,799 for the 2.3GHz 8-core model.
As for the new Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR, they’re coming in December, but company representatives remained tight-lipped on a release date.
Pat Birk is a musician, sound engineer and post pro at Silver Sound, a boutique sound house based in New York City.