Olive 04HD Music Server Review 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Andre Marc   
Friday, 01 April 2011

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”.

About Olive:

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.

Olive 4hd front view

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.


Once you are ready to sit and listen to the music you loaded up onto the 04HD’s hard drive, you can use the chunky, high quality remote, the touch screen interface, or the front panel buttons to select albums and tracks. I found my self using a combination of all three.  My first impressions of the user interface were very positive. Response time was pretty quick, on only one or two occasions over a few months did the 04HD become unresponsive, and that was probably due to me overwhelming it with too many commands. Simply powering on and off fixed the problem. Other than that, I must declare that the 04HD worked flawlessly, without any issues during the review period.

When it was time to get into to some serious listening, I  was very impressed with the sound quality, which ultimately is what audiophiles will judge the 04HD on. The best user interface and impressive conveniences will wear thin if a product falls short sonically. Not so here. I found the 04HD to sound as good as any CD player I have heard in its price range.  It had excellent, punchy bass, plenty of soundstage depth, and great musical flow. I found my self very involved in the music, with long listening sessions turning into longer listening sessions, without having to leave my listening chair. On Over the Rhine’s excellent new disc, The Long Surrender, I found myself captivated by Joe Henry’s superb production, especially on the duet between OTR’s Karin Bergquist and the great Lucinda Williams on “Undamned”. There is plenty of acoustic piano on the album, and the 04HD did a great  job with piano, and all acoustic instruments, preserving the natural timbres and dynamics of acoustic guitar, percussion, and vocals.

olive 4hd rear view

The 04HD also came preloaded with some music, including an excellent classical recording by Reference Recordings, some 24 bit music that I was familiar with, but that were sonically spectacular. I also transferred some of my own high resolution recordings and some downloads from HDTracks.com via the network. HDTracks now offers some very high profile rock, jazz, and pop albums in 24 bit/96 Khz, including titles from Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Robert Plant & Allison Krauss, and John Coltrane. During the writing of this review, I also noted that HDTracks now offers the Rolling Stones Abko catalog in resolution as high as 176.4 Khz. This may be a signal that the flood gates will soon open.  Regardless of what program material I cued up, the O4HD performed beautifully, really leaving nothing to be desired, but perhaps falling short of the very best, mega buck digital. But if you are not in the exclusive club that can afford a digital set up that costs more than your car, you will be thrilled. I know I was.

So how did the Olive compare to my own reference digital, the Naim CD5 XS CD player with external power supply? They were so close to point that if I did not know which one was playing I would not be able to pick it. They were tonally almost identical. In the end the Naim sounded slightly more analog like. That is probably the best I can do in describing differences. During the review period I received an outboard DAC for evaluation. Running both coaxial and TOSlink cables into the DAC from the Olive’s digital outputs made a subtle but easily noticeable improvement. Specifically, there was a bit more air around instruments and a slightly wider soundstage.  Potential 04HD owners would be smart to factor in a high quality outboard DAC as a future, optional upgrade. Let me stress that the 04HD sounded terrific with its own internal DAC, so there would be no rush.

Now is where things get very interesting. Because the 04HD is not simply a music server with an internal hard drive.  It is also a network player, which means it can access media that is not on its internal drive. It can connect to your home network via Ethernet of WiFi. You currently have a choice of three media server software packages.  For PC you can use TVersity or XBMC. For Mac, Olive supports Twonky as well as XBMC. I used XMBC and I really liked the interface. Fast, clean, and simple. I did however, find it a bit buggy. It would crash rather often. This has nothing to do with Olive, as this is third party software. The 04HD can also access Internet radio.

There is more. The Olive allows you to burn any ripped CD on the internal hard drive to a CD-R. You can also create playlists and burn those to disc as well. There is even more. You can also use the 04HD as a DAC! You can plug in a digital source via TOSlink or Coax. This is a very neat, and convenient feature.  In essence the 04HD can act a a digital media hub, streaming music from a network, playing music from its internal drive, or decoding digital files from another device,or a CD transport. Olive servers also work with an Apple iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad as remote control. I used an iPod Touch and it worked perfectly. You can scroll through your entire library, select tracks, play, and pause.  The app is available free of charge on the iTunes App Store. Olive also allows you do connect an external monitor via HDMI. No stone left unturned!

Some final notes on functionality. The 2 TB hard drive is easy to back up with an external USB hard drive. The  back up drive must be at least the same size. As mentioned, I found the user interface very easy to navigate for all functions, and the I should note the 04HD worked flawlessly for several months in my system without freeze ups, or issues. I also did one firmware upgrade.

4hd side view

Conclusion:


I believe the folks at Olive have covered all bases on the 04HD music server. I really wanted for nothing. The only function I put on my wish list was the ability rip, and delete selected tracks. You can only rip or delete entire albums. What was most impressive is that the 04HD did everything Olive says it does. It ripped CDs quickly, and converted them to FLAC. It streamed music from external sources. it burned CDs, and it made correcting  or changing MetaData easy.

Best of all, it sounded excellent. It is also upgradeable with an external DAC.   There is also a detachable IEC power cord, which means you can use the power cord of your choice. The user interface was very intuitive. If I was designing a music server from scratch, it would look and feel very much like the Olive 04HD. At $2500 I believe it is super value. Olive makes their products in the U.S.A, and I can tell you the build quality and workmanship are superb. Ultimately, the Olive 04HD is a smart, one box solution for digital music playback. It eliminates the complications and variables of multi box solutions and takes interfacing with an actual computer out of the equation, which I myself find tedious for music playback.  I found myself so unstressed and enjoying the music instead of worrying about playback and ripping software, operating systems, drivers, file formats, or other possible issues. I believe the 04HD  is an elegant server solution, and I highly recommend it.

Specifications

  • Olive 04HD: $2499
  • Ultra-quiet 2TB AV hard drive
  • Holds almost 20,000 HD tracks or 
  • 6,000 CDs in original quality
  • Cushioned in 8 layers of noise cancelling padding
  • High fidelity TEAC CDRW mechanism
  • Import: Audio CDs
  • Burn: Audio CDs, MP3 CDs, Data CDs
  • Analog Output: 1x RCA, (24k gold-plated)
  • Digital Output: 1x digital S/P DIF optical Toslink, 1x digital S/P DIF coaxial cinch, (24k gold-plated)
  • Digital Input: 1x digital S/P DIF coaxial cinch, (24k gold-plated)
  • Supported Audio Formats: Bit rate: 16-bit, 20-bit, 24-bit / Sampling Frequency: 10kHz up to 200kHz / WAV, FLAC, MP3 (128 and 320 kbit/s), AAC (128 kbit/s)
  • Networking: Wireless, 802.11n (54 Mbit/s)
  • Encryption:WEP, WPA, WPA2, 64- and 128-bit 1x Wired Gigabit Ethernet
  • Other Ports: 1 x HDMI (480p, 60Hz) 1 x USB 1.1/2.0, Infrared Receiver Input
  • Measurements: Width 17.38" Height 2.63" Depth 12.25" Weight 13.2 lb
  • Color: Silver or Black

Reviewer Equipment

  • CD Player: Naim CD5 XS with Flatcap 2X,
  • DAC: Arcam rDac
  • Preamp: Audio Research SP16
  • Amplifier: Audio Research VS55, Belles Soloist 5
  • Speaker: Thiel CS2.4, Harbeth Compact 7ES3
  • Cables: DH Labs Revelation (IC), Kimber KCTG (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC),  Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Element Cable Element Cord, (AC)  Shunyata Venom (AC) Pangea AC-9 (AC) Audience powerChord e.(AC)
  • Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Sound Anchors stands,  Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner, Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Salamander rack.

 

Olive Interview:

Avrev: When Oliver Bergmann and yourself founded Olive in 2005, did you think 6 years later you would have 3 wondeful music servers and a multi-room player as part of the product line?

We already had a pretty clear vision of where we wanted to go when starting Olive, but of course the digital music market is changing constantly and we had to shift gears quite a few times.  With the Olive Symphony and Musica --our first line of products-- we basically tested the waters.  We wanted to find out where such a product could fit in, what features customers requested, and what price points we needed to hit. 

To get feedback from the market quickly we started selling the products directly to end-user customers in the USA.  The feedback we got from them, and from press editors and analysts, helped us to shape our 2nd and 3rd generation of products, and the new products that we are currently working on.  Our current product line is a direct result of what we have learned from our customers over the last years, and we are very grateful for that.  Today we sell our products in more than 40 countries world-wide.  Not too bad for a company that is barely 6 years old.

Avrev: 
Robert, you mentioned to me that you use customer feedback to help with product development. I think this is very interesting. Can you tell us more about this process?

When we started developing our first products we mainly relied on our own gut feeling what we thought would be a great product.  Of course we analyzed market trends and technology developments to see  if there would be a viable market, and if we could technically realize our vision.  However you really only know if all this works out when customers have your product in their hands, and hopefully like it enough to recommend it to others.  We wanted to make sure we can react quickly to the feedback from the people that really use the product on a daily basis, and that is why we exclusively sold direct at the beginning.  We do quite a lot of research with our end user-customer base, which allowed us to improve the software very quickly right from the start. 

We also got great new feature ideas, which we either were able to offer for free in software updates, or in subsequent hardware revisions in new products.  As we always try to be fair with our customers we usually offer them upgrade offers once a new product comes out.  Last time we even asked them how much they would be willing to pay for an upgrade, and we could accept 98% of their offers.  It is a good feeling to see that customers value what you do, and I think our customers appreciate that we listen to their input and continuously improve our products.

Avrev:
  In your literature you mention that Olive products are for music lovers Can you tell our readers how Olive servers allow them to enjoy their music collections in an unprecedented way?

Beside of the great effort we put into sound quality I think our products, and music servers in general, offer a great advantage over other solutions that compete for a similar market.  We usually separate the market into four categories.  The first category are streaming clients, i.e. products that use a PC/Mac/NAS as the hub for your music.  The second category is a PC or Mac with an external DAC.  Then there are the users that simply connect an MP3 Player to a docking station/speaker.  And last there is the music server category where we are in.  

The advantages of Olive and other music servers over the first three categories are that we offer a standalone solution that eliminates all the problems and inconveniences that are inherent with a PC-based solution.  A music server like ours provides a dedicated device to store and manage your music, where it is safe from viruses, system crashes and other malware.  It also eliminates the need for any software installation or integration into a network.  The music is right at your stereo system and playback will not be interrupted by microwaves or other devices that interfere with all networking technology.  So safety of your music collection, simplicity and convenience is clearly a big plus of music servers. 

Sound quality however is an advantage that is more specific to Olive.  We have always focused our developments to maximize the sonic performance, using only the finest audio components available today.  To achieve a comparable sound performance you have to look at some of the very high-end external DACs.  Within the music server category we pride ourselves that we offer the best sound quality and greatest feature set at each price point.  And I think we are the only ones that still hand-build products in the USA, right in downtown San Francisco.






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