Olive Media, in a few short years, has become a driving force in the movement towards hard drive playback of digital music files, and away from real time reading of optical discs. They have chosen the path that they feel will ultimately be what audiophiles and music lovers will choose. That choice is a one box, fully equipped digital music center that can rip, encode, catalog, and play music extracted from CDs. It does not end there, since the one box solutions hitting the market also can playback downloads, music stored on a network, and 24 bit high resolution files, even up to 192 Khz. Olive believes a major factor, assuming all of the above is in place, is the user interface experience. I agree. A clunky interface is a non starter. Most people want to select their music and press “play”.
Olive was founded in 2005 by Dr. Oliver Bergmann and Robert Altmann with the goal to design and produce a high quality music server that was user friendly, had cutting edge technology, and did not compromise on sound quality. They also wanted to make products that were affordable, future proof, and stylish. The company is based in San Francisco. They sell direct to consumers and through a dealer network.
Olive servers are equipped with a touch screen interface. But you can select and play your music via the front panel buttons, or from your iPod Touch, iPhone, or IPad as well. There are currently 3 Olive servers, the 03HD, the 04HD, and the flagship 06HD. The 03HD, which Olive refers to as their “entry level” server is $999, and comes equipped with a 4.3 “ touch screen, and 500 TB hard drive, which can hold up to 1500 CDs in FLAC, or 5000 high resolution files. The 03HD has analog outputs only and can connect to a network via ethernet. The 04HD, at $2499, has the same size touch screen, 2 TB hard drive, which holds 6000 CDs in FLAC, digital out puts, and inputs, and is WiFi capable. The 06HD is the flagship server, with a 10 inch touch screen, a 2 TB hard drive, balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, digital outputs, dual differential DACs, and is designed for the uncompromising audiophile. It is priced at $4999.
I received for review a sample of the 04HD. I won’t lie, I was very much looking forwards to this review, as it takes me off the usual path of speakers, CD players, and amplifiers. I believe music servers are the source component of the future, And the future is now. There is a audiophile movement that has latched on to computer based audio, but with a lot more moving parts. You can read my overview of it here . The basic premise of products like the Olive and other computer based playback systems is that it is claimed that a properly ripped track from a CD and played back from a hard drive is higher fidelity, and error free. Some huge pluses, which are not up for debate, is the ability to peruse one’s entire music collection, access to high resolution music (24 bit/96 Khz and higher), and to purchase and playback downloads. In the case of networked hard drive based playback systems, one can also call up content from multiple sources.
What I found very interesting in speaking to Robert Altmann, was Olive’s method of product development. They have continuously improved and upgraded their products through the use of customer feedback. Instead of telling customers what they want, they do the reverse and let their user base drive future product development. And I should note they have a very loyal user base. I believe this is a very intelligent approach, and I wish more companies would follow this model.
Set Up and Listening:
The Olive 04HD is attractive, and comes in a silver or black. My sample arrived in black. It is very well made, and the quality of the buttons and connectors is first rate. Set up was very straight forward. I plugged in an Element Cable Element Cord AC cable into the IEC connector in the back, attached an Ethernet cable, my Kimber KCTG interconnects, powered on, then proceeded to rip around 25 CDs to get started. All three main Olive models come with a slot loading Teac CD-RW drive. You can store your CDs in uncompressed WAV format, but Olive recommends FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) for maximizing storage space. From my experience, FLAC is indistinguishable from WAV on playback. Ripping takes approx 5 to 7 minutes, about the time it takes to rip a CD in iTunes. When complete, you get a message indicating a good rip, and the disc is automatically ejected from the well. The album then appears, with its artwork on the menu. You can search for music via album title, artists, or album artwork. You can also playback a CD in real time, without ripping it if you choose.
I eventually ripped around 100 discs into the 04HD. All but 3 discs were recognized. When a disc was not identified, it came up as “Unknown Album” by “Unknown Artist.” There was an easy fix to this, via the network. I logged into the Maestro interface, and manually corrected or changed any CD titles, artist information, and track data I needed to. It was a snap. There is another way to get music onto the 04HD, and that is to transfer files via the network from your computer. Olive recommends Ethernet for this, which I used. It was as easy as connecting to the network on my Mac Mini, typing in the 04HD’s IP address, and dragging the folders and files I wanted to transfer into the dialogue box. File transfer was surprisingly fast, but that will depend on your router and any network traffic.