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Olive 4 review: Olive 4

Olive 4

Jeff Bakalar

Jeff Bakalar

Editor at Large

Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

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9 min read

These days, digital music solutions are often focused on streaming--either pulling music files from a networked PC hard drive or accessing online music services. But there's still a place for digital music servers, which offer built-in storage to keep the experience local--obviating the need for complicated network setups and the need to keep a PC server running. The Olive 4 splits the difference: the system can pull music from your home network, but it's also got a built-in hard drive--anywhere from 500GB to 2TB--and it even sports a slot-loading CD drive, so you can play, rip, and burn CDs without ever going near a computer.


Olive 4

The Good

Digital music server/streamer with large (500GB-2TB) internal hard drive for onboard storage; wirelessly streams music from networked PCs or Macs via integrated 802.11g or Ethernet connection; streams Internet radio stations; plays, rips, and burns CDs; encodes recorded tracks to lossless formats or MP3; impressive sound; very useful Maestro network portal; control via built-in touch screen or free iPhone app.

The Bad

No video output; no support for WMA files; no support for Rhapsody, Pandora, or other online music services; no support for WPA2 Wi-Fi security; doesn't play or burn MP3 CDs; can't play music from connected USB drives or portable players; no built-in amplifier; very expensive.

The Bottom Line

The Olive 4 is a fantastic-sounding digital audio server, but its high price and limited feature list limit its appeal to die-hard audiophiles.

Versions and accessories
The Olive 4 is the sequel to the Olive No. 3 that we reviewed back in 2006. (Terminology note: the Olive No. 3 was originally called the "Olive Musica," and the Olive 4 originally carried the "Olive Opus" moniker, before the company just decided to go with the numeric designations instead.) We were impressed with its (at the time) hefty 160GB internal drive, and its ability to rip CDs in a variety of formats and stream music from a network-connected PC.

Before we dive into the Olive 4's features and performance, we should add a bit of a disclaimer. The Olive 4, like the No. 3, is not cheap. In fact, the high-end (2TB) version goes for an eye-popping $1,800. Though DIY solutions (NAS drives, laptop servers running iTunes, and so forth) and cheaper alternatives (Squeezebox, Sonos) abound, the Olive 4 justifies its premium price tag with audiophile street cred and boutique appeal.

Available in either silver or black, the Olive 4 ships in a variety of different storage capacities: 500GB, 1TB, or 2TB ($1,500, $1,600, $1,800, respectively). This space is used for the storage of digital music that can be imported from your PC or a CD. Up to 2TB may seem like plenty of space, but since the main focus of the Olive 4 is to rip CDs with no compression (or lossless compression), that kind of capacity is necessary.

If the Olive 4 isn't elite enough for you, consider stepping up to the Olive 4HD; the $2,000 unit adds HDMI output (for an onscreen TV interface), faster 802.11n wireless, and a custom 24-bit DAC (digital to analog converter) for optimum sound quality.

If you're going for a multiroom digital music solution, Olive also offers the Olive 2 Hi-Fi Player (formerly known as the Melody). The $600 unit is a streaming-only version of the Olive 4; it lacks the CD player and hard drive, and instead pulls music from other Olive 4s, NAS drives, or PC servers on the network.

Design and connectivity
Weighing in at around 13 pounds, the Olive 4 music server has the substantial feel you'd expect from an expensive piece of hi-fi gear. Indeed, one of the reasons for its high price tag is the fact that it's assembled to order in Olive's San Francisco facility--this isn't a mass-produced hunk of plastic from the Far East. It measures 3.35 inches by 17.13 inches by 11.42 inches (HWD), but you'll probably still want to be able to show off the top of the server as it sports a very modern text overlay design. Hundreds of music genres are smashed together and etched on the top; it's actually a pretty spectacular sight, but for this price we'd expect nothing less.

The front panel of the Olive 4 is angled down, showing off various control buttons. A recordable CD drive slot rests to the right of the unit and a 4.3-inch color LCD touch screen (480x272-pixel resolution) sits to the left. The whole device is covered in a matte steel, which can scratch if you're not careful.

The 4.3-inch LCD touch screen lets you navigate through the content on the Olive.

On the back of the Olive 4 are all the connectivity options for listening to your music. Digital options include one coax and one optical port, or you can attach the unit via analog RCA audio cables. Also around back is a lone USB port, but this can only be used for backup--that's right, you can't connect a USB device and import files that way.

The Olive offers a decent amount of audio and network connectivity options.

Note that you'll need to connect the Olive 4 to a stereo amplifier (such as an AV receiver) or a set of powered speakers. Unlike some competitors (such as the Sonos ZP120), the Olive doesn't have a built-in amp.

The Olive 4 can stand alone as a music player, but you'll probably want to connect it to your home network to maximize its capabilities. It's got wired (Ethernet) and wireless (802.11g Wi-Fi) covered, but we were disappointed that it only handles WEP and WPA security encryptions--not WPA2.

The Olive 4 can import CD music into four different formats: WAV (no compression), FLAC (lossless compression), AAC (lossy compression), and MP3 (lossy). Obviously, you'll deplete storage the quickest with WAV and save the most space with MP3. That said, audiophiles--the niche for whom this product is designed--will most likely be ripping everything as WAV or FLAC files.

If you have a network-connected PC with DRM-free music, the Olive 4 can import content this way as well. We definitely recommend hard-wiring your Olive 4 to a router if you plan on using this feature, as this ensures a more reliable connection speed.

Aside from digital music playback and the CD features (play, rip, burn) and files from a local PC, there aren't many other features the Olive 4 can brag about. Though the Wi-Fi connection gives you access to any free Internet radio channel, there's no available access to popular music services such as Pandora, Last.FM, Slacker, Napster, or Rhapsody. The Olive 4 can burn CDs, but only premade playlists that you've created. Unfortunately, it cannot burn data CDs, either (for players that can read MP3 CDs).

Using the Olive 4
We found using the Olive 4 to be intuitive and logical. The touch screen gives you access to everything in the system, from music browsing to Internet radio surfing. The menus are laid out in order to give you easy access to the stored music and feature familiar icons (shuffle, repeat, etc.) that most music fans should be accustomed to.

The screen is pretty, but it's tough to see from about 5 feet away. Zoom mode allows for vital text to be seen from a distance, but still doesn't equal the experience a TV-out mode could supply (you'll need to upgrade to the Olive 4HD for that). The included Olive remote isn't too much of a help; it's a retro-looking beast. It works well enough, but unless you're close enough to the Olive unit to see the screen--thus eliminating the need for the remote in the first place--you're navigating blind.

Thankfully, Olive now offers the free iMaestro app for iPhone and iPod Touch. The app allows you to control the Olive 4 through your home network, using the touch screen for navigation. Not surprisingly, we preferred controlling the Olive 4 with our iPod Touch over the supplied remote. For one, the iMaestro app is designed in the same format seen on the touch screen; not to mention it's much more comfortable to use compared with the bulky Olive remote. Put another way: any Olive buyer will definitely want an iPhone or iPod Touch on hand to handle control duties.

For CD ripping, you simply slide a disc into the self-loading slot and then check off the quality setting you'd like the music to be saved at. Importing a CD will also bring complete track information along with album art that is displayed on the LCD screen when playing. The CD drive is super quiet as is the internal hard drive. Olive makes a big deal about the operation volume they run at, so the company gets kudos for backing that claim up.

Possibly the feature we enjoyed the most was the internally hosted portal called Maestro. Accessible via any computer attached to the same network, Maestro works as a back-end database for all of the music stored on your Olive 4. It works the same way as a router's administration page and lets you manually manage all of your music. From here you can edit song titles, change album artwork, or create playlists. If burning CDs sounds like something you'd like to do, we definitely recommend building a playlist via Maestro first as creating one on the touch screen can become time consuming. One note about Maestro: it only works with Firefox.

Sound quality
The Olive 4 is sold as a high-end music server so we listened to it with a critical ear, connected to our Denon AVR 3808Ci receiver. The speakers were our Aperion Intimus 4T tower speakers. During our evaluation, we compared the Olive's sound (on CDs and ripped CDs) with that of the Samsung BD-P1600 Blu-ray player; both were connected to the Denon via optical digital cables.

The Olive 4 offers the user four import quality levels when ripping from CD to the internal hard drive: uncompressed 1411.2Kbps WAV files; lossless 800Kbps FLAC files; lossy 320Kbps MP3 files; and lossy 128Kbps AAC files.

Starting with WAV, we expected that it would sound identical to the original CD, but careful listening proved the Olive actually sounded a little better than the CD. We acknowledge that some people might think "bits are bits" and the sound should be exactly the same, but playing music over the Olive 4's hard drive does, in fact, sound better than playing the CD.

While listening to a great-sounding recording, "The Body Acoustic," the WAV's soundstage was somewhat more spacious, quiet details were more apparent, so we could hear more of the recording venue's acoustics over the Olive 4. Switching over to the Samsung BD-P1600, the differences were subtle, but will be audible over first-class hi-fi and home theater systems. We also checked the sound over Hifiman HE-5 headphones; the Olive 4 was clearer than the Samsung BD-P1600 with WAV files.

That was not the case with FLAC files; their sound was indistinguishable from the Samsung BD-P1600 playing a CD. The 320Kbps MP3 files were also very close to the sound of the CD, with just a bit less high-frequency (treble) detail, looser bass definition, and a smaller soundstage.

Finally, the Olive 4's 128Kbps AAC files lost more detail, resolution, and presence compared with the Samsung BD-P1600 playing the CD of the same music. The losses were greater relative to what we heard from WAV, FLAC, and MP3 files, but certainly good enough for background listening.

Bottom line: audiophiles will want to stick with WAV or FLAC for the best sound quality. The only advantage of importing CDs at lower quality is that you can fit more music on the Olive 4's hard drive. The 1TB and 2TB Olive 4 can store hundreds of CDs as WAV files, compared with thousands or tens of thousands as MP3s (see the full chart at Olive's Web site).

We really like the overall styling of the Olive.

Overall, the Olive 4 is an easy-to-use, elegant high-end music server that's burdened with a short list of features. Yes, prospective Olive buyers are paying a big premium for stellar sound quality and a CD/server-based setup that's not available on competing products. But missing features that might be dismissed as annoyances in lower-priced Wi-Fi radios loom larger in the $1,500 and up price bracket. Chief among them are the dearth of support for WMA streaming, online music services (Rhapsody, Pandora, Slacker, and so forth), and WPA2 security--all of which can be found on something like the Logitech Squeezebox Radio, available for one-tenth the price. Likewise, the Olive 4's purchase price could also buy a two-room Sonos Digital Music System--with enough left over for a good pair of speakers and an iPod Touch (for using with Sonos' own capable control app).

That said, if you're a discerning audiophile who wants the added convenience of a CD player and the ability to locally store thousands of uncompressed albums on a hard drive, the Olive 4 won't disappoint. Hopefully, Olive can sweeten the deal by adding some of those missing features in a future firmware update.

Freelancer Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.


Olive 4

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Performance 8
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