The Apple MacBook Pro M3 Pro & M3 Max are Apple’s best 2023 Q4 laptops and the ultimate laptops for musicians/creators
If you’re a serious pro or amateur musician, you really want the Apple Mac Studio M2 Max & M2 Ultra or the Apple MacBook Pro M3 Pro & M3 Max. A large music and/or video recording studio without budget restraints or someone who must have PCIe slot expansion may want to consider the Apple Mac Pro M2 Ultra. These are the three best computers for creatives you can buy.
If you absolutely must spend less than $1999.00, consider the Mac mini M2 Pro. Other less expensive options are the Mac mini M2, MacBook Pro M2 Pro, MacBook Air M2, or 24″ iMac M3. Even buy used or refurbished if need be. To suggest buying less than these systems is bad advice. Also see notes below in the Unified Memory section.
See: Apple Silicon is the DAW standard.
The MacBook Pro M3 Series are the most powerful Apple laptops you can get and elegantly suited for creatives
Kudos to Apple for ditching the 13″ MacBook Pro with touch bar, and replacing it with an M3 version of the 14″ MacBook Pro. However, I’m not going to cover it on this page or recommend it. I really don’t think it’s a good deal. No musician/creator should buy a system with 8GB memory, and when you upgrade it to 18GB, you might as well have an M3 Pro. Enough said.
The MacBook Pro M3 Pro & M3 Max laptops are very similar to the MacBook Pro M2 Pro & M2 Max versions except for the new processors with different CPU/GPU core counts and unified memory limits. There is also the new color Space Black.
Models have 11-16 CPU cores, 10-40 GPU cores, 16 Neural Engine cores, 8GB-128GB RAM, media engine enhancements, memory bandwidth of 150GB/sec to 400GB/sec, 3 Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports, HDMI, internal display 3024×1964/3456×2234, external display to 8k.
It does appear that Apple has re-balanced the M3 Pro and M3 Max with a larger performance gap between them. We’ll see when benchmarks become available, but it looks to me like the M3 Pro has more emphasis on power efficiency than performance improvement, which is probably a good thing. The M2 Pro already screams and power efficiency is always a good thing in a laptop. In some ways the M3 Pro is definitely a sidegrade from the M2 Pro.
For an easy to view chart of processor differences, see: Apple M3 Processor Series.
The MacBook Pro M3 Pro and M3 Max are the best laptops Apple has produced, and will remain so until the M4 Pro and M4 Max versions are released. If you want a laptop for creative pursuits, the MacBook M3 Pro and M3 Max are the best money can buy. Apple has continued to improve these machines. The design and performance of these machines builds on exquisite.
There are many ways to configure these laptops and everyone’s needs are different. In my opinion, the 14″ is best configured as a M3 Pro system and the 16″ is best configured as a M3 Max system.
The 16″ MacBook Pro is more of a hybrid laptop/desktop
If you prioritize screen size and/or sustained GPU performance over portability, the 16″ may be for you. Generally, I would characterize the 16″ as more of a hybrid laptop/desktop. It is a bit much for lugging around with you on the go. If you don’t move it a lot though, the screen is very attractive and it is more appropriate for M3 Max high GPU loads.
Realistically, for a performing musician, any laptop DAW’s size/weight are going to be nothing next to guitars, synthesizers, amplifiers, and other gear, and the 16″ screen would be a lot easier to see on stage. But if you are on the move a lot, back and forth from work, customers, clients, coffee shops, or whatever, the 14″ may be more for you.
The 14″ MacBook Pro fits my portability needs
In January 2023 I purchased a 14″ MacBook M2 Pro, with 12 core CPU, 19 core GPU, 16GB of memory and 1TB storage. I decided that for my portability needs, it didn’t make sense to bump the memory or processor/GPU cores up. For reference sake, note that I have a Mac Studio M1 Ultra for my primary system.
As a secondary system, I find the M2 Pro with 16GB to be fully adequate for my needs. However, if this was my primary system, I would definitely have gone with the 32GB option. I regularly use 32GB+ on my main system (Mac Studio M1 Ultra). As a primary system it would have been tempting to go with the M2 Max just to get 64GB.
The 14″/16″ MacBook Pros are almost exactly the same
The 16″ M3 Max does have a high power mode that gives it a very minimal performance edge, but other than that and system/screen size, sustained GPU performance, and a minimal speaker quality difference, the 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pros are exactly the same.
The M3 Pro has 150GB/s memory bandwidth, a 25% downgrade, and the M3 Max has 400GB/s memory bandwidth, the same as before. M3 Pro/Max clock speeds are slightly higher than M1 Pro/Max. The M1 Pro/Max efficiency cores clock at 2.1 GHz and the performance cores at 3.2 GHz. It is estimated that the M3 Pro/Max efficiency cores clock at 2.4 GHz and the performance cores at 3.5 GHz.
The M3 Pro has one video encoder, one video decoder, one ProRes encoder/decoder and either 18GB or 36GB memory. The M3 Max has two video encoders, one video decoder, two ProRes encoder/decoders and can now have 36GB, 48GB, 64GB, 96GB or 128GB memory instead of only 32GB or 64GB.
In my opinion the M3 Pro/M3 Max MacBooks are equal or improved in almost all ways to the original M1 Pro/M1 Max versions. The one exception is the 512GB SSD. It is not slow, but it is a single 512GB storage chip, rather than two chips and half the performance of a 1TB+ SSD in many cases.
Upgrading from an M1/M2 Pro or M1/M2 Max to the exact same model/configuration M3 Pro or M3 Max is probably not something everyone would do. M1/M2 Series computers still work great with plenty of power. There may not be enough to make the jump for, but the power gap is widening. If you need a different screen size, memory or storage, that could change the equation. If you have a Windows or Intel based Mac don’t hesitate to grab one of these. You will not regret it.
In the most basic use, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between M3 Pro/M3 Max MacBooks and the equivalent M1/M2 versions. And this is a good thing, the M1 Processor Series and the M2 Processor Series are great machines and the M3 Processor Series are measurably better. In intensive applications and especially graphics intensive applications, you will see gains, sometimes significant, over the M1/M2 Series.
One of the beautiful things about M series processors is the memory in the processor chip. The performance and efficiency results of this design are significant and unmistakable. Because of this design, you cannot upgrade the memory later. It is important to get a sufficient amount of memory.
Going backwards for a second, I stress getting an M1/M2/M3 with 8GB memory is a mistake for DAW users. People with simple needs do it, but they are not maximizing their performance potential. An M1/M2/M3 or M1 Pro/M2 Pro/M3 Pro with 16GB+ memory is the minimum to me. For many DAW users 16GB is too low as well. An M3 Pro with 18GB-36GB or M3 Max with 36GB will prove quite sufficient for most electronic or rock musicians.
However, if your projects include a lot of sampled instruments, orchestral arrangements or soundtrack work, you really should consider the 64GB, 96GB or 128GB M3 Max. I would venture very few will need more than 128GB, but if you do, you need a desktop Mac Studio M2 Ultra to go to 192GB. If you need that much memory, you probably already know it.
Desktop vs. Laptop
My bias or transparent needs: Prior to using the Mac Studio M1 Ultra, I had been computing with laptops only (except servers) for over a decade, but at this point in my retired life, I have very little need for major horsepower portability. For me a powerful desktop is more useful than a laptop. My recording studio doesn’t move and I don’t gig either. The Mac Studio makes much more sense for me than a MacBook Pro as a primary computing device. 5% of the time when I do need portable computing, I don’t need the super performance horses, or the weight/bulk of lugging around a 16″ laptop. A 14″ MacBook Pro Mx Pro suits my backpack and travel needs best. I could easily live with nothing but a 14″ MacBook Pro Mx Pro and a 27″ external monitor if I needed to though.
My needs or any opinionated influencer’s needs are meaningless for you though. Pick what you need. If you need or prefer a laptop, then that is the best choice. If you need or prefer a desktop, then that is the best choice. There is no such thing as one all around best computer.
Information you need to properly digest web sites & especially YouTube.
Updated frequently – Apple Technology YouTube Critique
CPU & GPU Performance Benchmarks
I would generally advise to not get too tied up in the minutiae of benchmarks, but they are useful for relative comparisons of processors. It is worth noting that no M Series processors are slouches. Some more than others, but all of them are a noticeable improvement over the Intel processors in previous generation Macs.
CPU single-core performance of the M3 Pro and M3 Max processors in the MacBook Pro are very similar to all other M3 Series processors, because of course they all share the same CPU single-core.
CPU and GPU multi-core performance is where the differences become more apparent because of the different number of cores.
SSD Performance Benchmarks
I purchased a 14″ MacBook M2 Pro, with 12 core CPU, 19 core GPU, 16GB of memory and 1TB storage as I mentioned earlier. I can’t speak to all capacities, but the 1TB SSD is a blazing fast SSD as benchmarked by the Black Magic Disk Speed Test. WRITE and READ results are consistently over 5000 MB/s, often significantly so. M3 Pro/Max SSDs will be the same.
Most of my need for battery power is in the 2-6 hour range, but I was curious how far it would go with my typical use. In my tests so far, this laptop goes 16-18 hours on a charge. I concurrently browse, SSH login to Linux servers, edit images with GIMP, and edit pages on this site in WordPress on non-stop battery with active use more than half the time since 6:00am. At 10pm-midnight, 16-18 hours later, the low battery notification comes on with 10% capacity left.
DAW Performance Benchmarks
The M3 Pro/Max can handle similar tracks/load to the equivalent M1/M2 Pro/Max. The M2 Pro with 16GB handles 155 tracks, the M2 Max with 32GB handles 181 tracks. That said, there is no need to push your DAW to 1 track short of a crash. I would load an M2 Pro up to 103 tracks, and an M2 Max up to 120 tracks. No need to completely dog out the CPU, ha! The numbers would be comparable for Ableton Live or other DAWs as well.
FYI – DAWs are heavy on CPU use, with very little GPU load. The higher track counts achieved by the M2 Max compared to the M2 Pro are more a result of having 32GB of memory instead of 16GB memory. In other words adding memory instead of GPU cores will most benefit a DAW.
I would strongly recommend the M3 Pro 11 core CPU, 14 core GPU or the M3 Pro 12 core CPU, 18 core GPU as perfect processors for the majority of musicians. Not only is your DAW gonna hum like never before, but you will experience great video and graphics processing with the 18 or 20 core GPU.
If you need more CPU horsepower for a DAW, you will need to move into a desktop Mac Studio M1 Ultra. The extra GPU cores of an M1/M2/M3 Max won’t help a DAW. Video and graphics processing are different issues of course.
Check software compatibilities
It should go without saying, but I’m gonna say it anyway. M Series has been out since November 2020. I think it’s crazy that any DAW or plugin should have issues or still be running on Rosetta emulation, but not everyone listens to me. Do your homework!
Furthermore, in my opinion any major software company that markets to Apple users and hasn’t updated their software to include Apple silicon compatibility deserves to lose your business. It’s been over 2 years, and at this point it’s a real screw you. They obviously don’t care about their customers and should be replaced by a company that cares more about their customers.
macOS 13 Ventura: Compatibility Guide
macOS 14 Sonoma: Compatibility Guide
My personal experience with Ventura has been very good. Everything I use runs natively on M Series and is compatible with Ventura. But don’t listen to me, do your homework!
Ports are important for musicians & content creators
The 3 Thunderbolt/USB-C ports on the MacBook Pro are likely adequate for most, and can also be easily expanded with a hub if you need more. Also an external monitor like the Apple Studio Display has 3 more USB-C ports in addition to the Thunderbolt 3 connection port. I would theorize that in portable mode you will not need more ports than are built in the MacBook, but in the studio you may.
You may want a USB-C to Ethernet RJ-45 adapter. You will want to plug your interface directly into USB-C or if you can’t do that, get a hub or adapter also for legacy USB-A hard drives, flash drives, cables to synths, cable to printer etc.
Obviously wise future purchases will be solidly Thunderbolt or USB-C. The HDMI will be very useful for TV, and occasionally most musicians like to plug headphones directly into the system, though most of the time it’s either through an interface or Bluetooth. You can also buy the Apple USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter for an older existing monitor if you need it. This adapter also has a USB-C and a USB-A.
MacBook hardware upgrades
Remember no internal hardware upgrades can be performed. This is especially true with Apple silicon. SoC or System on Chip as you probably already know, cannot be upgraded. The advantages are more than worth it, but push yourself to adequately configure memory and storage for the future.
External storage alternatives
I recommend backing up all data to the cloud, and supplementing the internal Apple SSD with an external USB-C or Thunderbolt SSD/HD.
SSD speed needs for music production are similar to photography and video. This video will help you choose external SSD solutions (also in YouTube playlist below).
See Apple M Series External USB-C SSD Options for a more extensive discussion and specific product recommendations.
The MacBook Pro M3 Pro & M3 Max have what it takes to get through the next 5+ years of your music & video productions
This is why you buy Apple. Realistically with the cost of computers these days, a 1-3 year refresh cycle is not practical for most people. Unlike the majority if not all PC systems, Apple computers are built to last and Apple silicon is state of the art enough to start you at the head of the pack.
Keep coming back
What will be different about this site compared to many Apple sites is over time we will be sharing configuration and electronic music/video recording pertinent information. More soon.
Product support, downloads
Yehuda Rothschild Apple MacBook Pro M3 Series YouTube Playlist
Yehuda Rothschild Apple Mac M Series Music Production YouTube Playlist
Apple related pages
Updated periodically – Apple Silicon is the DAW standard
Updated periodically – Apple Mac Studio M1 Max & M1 Ultra
Updated periodically – Apple Mac Studio M2 Max & M2 Ultra
Updated periodically – Apple MacBook Pro M1 Pro & M1 Max
Updated periodically – Apple MacBook Pro M2 Pro & M2 Max
Updated periodically – Apple Mac Pro M2 Ultra
Updated periodically – Apple Mac mini M1
Updated periodically – Apple Mac mini M2 & M2 Pro
Updated periodically – Apple MacBook Air M1
Updated periodically – Apple MacBook Air M2
Updated periodically – Apple MacBook Air M3
Updated periodically – Apple 24″ iMac M1
Updated periodically – Apple 24″ iMac M3
Updated periodically – Apple Studio Display
Updated periodically – Apple M1 Processor Series
Updated periodically – Apple M2 Processor Series
Updated periodically – Apple M3 Processor Series
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