The Olive 4HD sounds positively sublime. We auditioned it with a diverse collection of tunes, ranging from Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ “Johnny Appleseed,” to John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” to Gustav Holst’s “Mars,” and the music player never failed to please our ears.
You can use the Olive 4HD as a standalone CD player, but Olive knows that most people don’t want to deal with CDs. When you do slip a disc into its slot, it will ask if you’d like to rip the CD. Tracks can be ripped as uncompressed WAV files, encoded as FLAC files (a lossless codec), or encoded as AAC or MP3 files (both of which are lossy codecs, but require less storage capacity). It will automatically reach access the Internet and grab the appropriate album art and metadata, too. Insert a blank CD, select a playlist, and the 4HD will automatically transcode those tracks and burn them to the disc. Unfortunately, burned discs don’t contain any metadata and tracks are labeled simply as Track One, Track Two, and so on.
Olive has also developed an awesome software tool for creating playlists and managing your music library. Maestro, written in the PHP scripting language, runs in the Firefox web browser and enables you to use your PC to create playlists and edit album art and other metadata attached to the tracks stored on the 4HD’s hard drive. Olive enables you to tag tracks with absolutely fanatical attention to detail: The ripper will automatically tag tracks with the typical metadata (artist and album name, genre, track number and title, file type, codec, bit depth, and bit rate).
Maestro goes far, far beyond that. The software has fields for featured instruments and voices, arranger, producer, lyricist, orchestra, choir, conductor, recording method, and much more. And if you can think of anything Olive didn’t, there’s a field for personal comments. These tags can be applied to individual tracks or to an entire album. Unfortunately, Maestro can’t access tracks that are stored on a different server or on a NAS box—they must reside on the 4HD itself. Then again, a 2TB hard drive provides enough capacity to store nearly 6,000 CDs, so you might never need any other storage.
The 4HD works great in standalone mode, but you can also build a multi-room system by deploying up to 15 Olive 2 clients throughout your home using wired or wireless connections. The Olive 2 ($599) has similar specs, inputs and outputs, and other features but no optical drive or onboard storage. The server and each client have their own remote control and touchscreen, and Olive provides a free iPhone app that enables you to control the system using your phone.
The Olive 4HD is a brilliant self-contained music ecosystem, but Maestro lets you use a PC’s large screen, mouse, and keyboard to create playlists and to perform detailed editing. The setup is expensive, there’s no getting around that, and we do have a few gripes as well. (We’ve already mentioned a couple, but we’re perplexed as to why you can’t back up its storage to another drive on your network, we also found the touchscreen to be a trifle tempermental, and the brick-like remote control isn’t very comfortable to hold and operate). But the bottom line is that we haven’t encountered a digital music system that’s elegant, well thought out, and better-sounding than this. Bravo!
- Killer sound
- Absolutely quiet
- Brilliant software for editing metadata
- Can be expanded to a multi-room system
- Limited placement options
- Can’t edit metadata on tracks stored on other networked storage
- Funky remote