Editors' Note: The manufacturer has changed the name of the product reviewed here to the "Olive N°3." The original review, conducted under the product's original "Olive Musica" nomenclature, is preserved below.
The Olive Musica is really two devices in one, combining the functionality of a wireless-audio streaming client with the capabilities of a home audio server. Featuring an internal 160GB hard drive, built-in Ethernet and 802.11g wireless networking, and a CD player/ripper/recorder, the Musica is equally proficient with CDs and streaming audio. The Musica retails for a hefty $1,100, but discriminating listeners in the market for a high-end music server may very well find the premium worth paying. Measuring 3.35 by 17.1 by 11.4 inches, the Olive Musica can readily be stacked with home-theater gear such as an A/V receiver or a DVD player. It's available in silver or black. Although the Musica lacks the sheer heft of Escient's comparable FireBall units, the round, luminescent front-panel controls (power, eject, play, stop, next track, and previous track) and the slide-in disc slot give it an overall sleeker appearance. Navigating menus with the front-panel scrollwheel is easy. Tilt the wheel's outer ring left or right to change menu levels, and spin the center ring to quickly navigate through lists. (The unit sometimes briefly hesitates while loading the next list, but that's more a hiccup than a full-blown annoyance.) The full-size 40-key remote features niceties such as buttons for Artist, Album, Songs, and Genre, which provide shortcuts to those respective music-navigation categories. Using the remote, you can dim the display to several different levels or turn off its light-blue backlighting altogether. The remote's volume control facilitates connecting the device directly to powered monitor speakers, such as the NHT Pro M-00 pair we used during testing. One minor quibble: To change the volume or dim the display, you have to repeatedly press the desired button; you can't just hold it down.
Unlike Escient's FireBall models, this unit doesn't have a TV output; instead, you'll have to rely on the 4-by-1.75-inch front-panel display. When you're browsing artist or track lists, for example, titles appear on the display six at a time and are readable from about 5 feet away. After playback starts, the unit switches into a large-font mode, which allows you to easily read essential information from around 10 feet away.
Because you can use the Musica without connecting it to a network or installing any software, you can start enjoying it right out of the box. Connecting it to a Wi-Fi wireless network isn't hard, though. You simply open the unit's Network menu, prompt it to search for your wireless network, and enter a 64- or 128-bit WEP key if your network uses one. WPA security is not currently supported. Many digital music devices are limited to one of two functions: an audio server with a built-in hard drive, such as the , or a networked audio receiver, such as the , which lacks an internal hard drive and streams from a networked PC or storage device. The Olive Musica handles both functions with aplomb, doubling as a home audio server and a digital audio receiver for maximum flexibility. The Musica can play CDs and rip them to its internal 160GB hard disk. Once you load up its drive with some choice tunes, you can burn custom-mixed CDs, share the digital audio library with other networked devices, and stream from other network audio sources, such as a PC's hard drive. The Musica can handle a wide variety of audio formats, including MP3, AIFF, PCM, WAV, OGG, FLAC, and AAC--but not WMA. Moreover, it can perform other functions, such as local CD playback, while simultaneously streaming to client devices.
The Musica has four Ethernet ports in addition to its built-in 802.11g wireless capabilities. In case you don't already have a network, the unit can set up its own, assigning IP addresses to wired or wirelessly connected clients such as PCs and UPnP digital media receivers. With just a couple of button presses on our , we were readily able to wirelessly stream tracks from the Musica's hard drive to the Roku. (Olive's own digital audio streamer, the $200 Sonata, is due to be released in February 2006.) Furthermore, the Musica can stream tracks from your PC's iTunes libraries, and you can even use iTunes to play tracks stored on the Musica through your PC. What's more, the Musica automatically appears in the My Network Places menu of any PC connected to the same local network, allowing you to transfer music files to it without using special software; it also supports the Mac's Bonjour/Rendezvous networking protocol. After copying files onto the Musica over the network, you have to prompt it to index the files to make them playable, but the extra step is painless. The Musica doesn't support playlists imported from iTunes and other applications, but you can create playlists using its controls.
Despite its vast array of capabilities, the Musica isn't quite a jack-of-all-trades. It can't play protected WMA files, such as those purchased from Internet music stores or downloaded as part of a to-go subscription plan. Actually, it can't play any WMA files, rights-managed or otherwise. Despite compatibility with iTunes playlists, the Musica--like every other non-Apple device--can't play music purchased from the iTunes Music Store. And unlike the comparably priced , it doesn't support Rhapsody's subscription-based on-demand music-streaming service, which is a favorite of ours. It does, however, include a vast, automatically updated database of free Internet MP3 radio stations, and it allows you to manually add selections.
The Olive Musica doesn't have the veritable forest of jacks you'd get with the pricier E2-series Escient FireBall models, but it's better equipped than the comparably priced Escient SE-80. In addition to one optical and one coaxial digital output, it has a stereo analog output and a matching analog input. It also has a front-panel 1/4-inch headphone jack. Two USB ports allow you to connect devices such as portable music players, through which you can play music and to which you can transfer files; however, the feature didn't work with our Cowon iAudio MP3 player, even though it's mountable as a USB drive and should have been compatible.
The Musica can encode tracks to its internal hard drive in AIFF, WAV, and FLAC lossless formats or in MP3 at up to 320Kbps. It can also burn CDs, but they must be the more pricey audio CD-Rs, not the data CD-Rs you use with your PC. Furthermore, the unit records only audio CDs, not MP3 CDs. Using its built-in Freedb database, the unit automatically tags files that are ripped into it; of course, it doesn't tag tracks recorded via the analog line-in. If a CD's info isn't in the local database, the Musica checks the Internet-based version of Freedb to fetch the data. It's worth noting that Olive will currently preload up to 100 of your CDs into the unit without extra charge.
If the $1,100 Musica is a bit too rich for your blood, consider its little brother, the $900 Olive Symphony. Aside from its smaller 80GB hard drive and its inclusion of special software to manage classical music, the Symphony is nearly identical to its more expensive sibling. To verify Olive's claims about the Musica's audiophile-grade sound quality, we tested the unit against Escient's FireBall E2-40. We hooked both of them directly up to our high-end NHT Pro M-00 studio monitors via analog connections and played the same source material. We didn't hear a stark difference, but the pricier Escient sounded a hair better. For instance, vocals in Steely Dan's Do It Again displayed a bit more texture, and the soundstage had more depth. Nonetheless, we were generally happy with the Musica's crisp, clear sound.
The Musica has a maximum rated CD-ripping speed of 12X but worked a bit slower on average; it took nearly 5 minutes to rip Sly and the Family Stone's 40-minute Fresh CD, for instance. Turning to its analog inputs, we recorded Annie Lennox's Bare CD from an outboard CD player. The recording sounded clear and dynamic, but we would have preferred a simpler and more automatic track-splitting process than the Musica's, which requires you to manually confirm where tracks should be divided within the single long file the unit initially records. What's more, the Musica can save line-in recordings to only the uncompressed AIFF format; it can't save to smaller compressed file formats such as FLAC or MP3. Still, it's nice to have the line-in option for recording non-CD sources, such as LPs.
On the flip side, the Musica has a maximum CD-burning speed of 24X. When burning an uncompressed AIFF file from the internal hard drive to a CD, the Musica pretty much attained that rate, completing a 23-minute disc in just under a minute. However, when we burned Porno for Pyros' eponymously titled 39.5-minute CD from FLAC files on the unit's hard drive, the Musica took nearly 11 minutes to complete the disc. Whenever it has to transcode tracks from compressed formats such as FLAC or MP3 into CD-Audio files, you can expect disc creation to be slow.
In the final analysis, if you're looking for a high-end digital audio server that offers a full array of stand-alone music-management and playback features but also supports streaming from and to other networked devices, the Musica is a great option. Despite lacking the TV-based interface you'd get with Escient's comparably priced SE-80, it offers twice the hard drive space and includes lossless FLAC encoding--a key ingredient for discriminating listeners. Its compatibility with inexpensive UPnP digital media receivers such as the helps make it the hands-down choice in distributed audio for all but the superwealthy and those who prefer the stream-only Sonos system ($1,199 with two players) for its Rhapsody compatibility and superior remote control with integrated display.