Olive 06HD Music Server (TAS 214)

Equipment report
Categories:
Music servers and computer audio
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Products:
Olive 06HD
Olive 06HD Music Server (TAS 214)

Let me begin with the punch line. The Olive O6HD offers very high sound quality, a simple way of storing large amounts of music, and ergonomics which may take a day or so of getting used to, but are straightforward and functional, and can be expected to improve over time. If you want a very-high-quality unit that does not involve fighting your way through a computer and is backed by first-rate service in loading your collection, this is an excellent choice.

Before You Buy: The Uncertain Value of a Stand-Alone Music Storage System

Now, let me start to get complicated. I live with computers. I design and run complex databases covering major areas of national security, use computers to write books, and use them to communicate on a global basis. At the same time, I do not allow any purchase of developmental or error-prone software, or any system I have to fight to use. Anyone who pulls a “geek factor” around me is going to be fired, and the computer music storage and audio systems I have seen to date all fall into the far-too-difficult-to-justify-my-time category, and are so optimized around popular music that their handling of metadata are nightmares for those storing and using a large classical-music collection.

This brings me to the context in which the Olive O6HD, Sooloos, and similar systems must be judged. CD and SACD players without a digital input are already dinosaurs. In fact, I would not pay more than 1/15th of list price for any such unit—new or used. I would also question the competence of any manufacturer or dealer that keeps selling them. They do not compete in the present and they have no future. Unlike analog, no one is going to want to preserve CD-player sound quality.

There is broad professional and audiophile consensus that CDs sound better stored and streamed. High-resolution HD downloads clearly sound better than CDs and equal or surpass SACD and DVD-A. With servers, you can store the equivalent of thousands of CDs in a small box, and get better sound quality and easier and far more flexible access to your collection. Moreover, you can start shifting away from an obsolete 44.1kHz/16-bit standard to the much-better-sounding higher sampling rates that are now available from sources like HD Tracks.

The question, however, is whether you need a dedicated device like the Olive O6HD or Sooloos. I put this challenge to Olive, and it made the following case:

“When we originally designed our product it was based on the idea that there is a certain target group that does not want to have a PC involved when listening to music (as opposed to someone who prefers to use a streaming client with a PC as the server). We have done extensive research with our customers trying to identify why they have bought our product over other solutions. 

“The number-one quoted reason why our customers chose Olive was that they were not satisfied with the sound quality offered by PC/Mac-based solutions. Some of them have spent a considerable amount on physical media in the past and want a solution that allows them to listen to CDs in the original quality, and to access the growing HD music offerings in the market. They have dabbled with the iPod/iTunes solution, but deemed it only good enough for portable use, and not for their home stereo system.

“The second product category our customers analyzed before buying an Olive were streaming clients such as Sonos, SlimDevices (now Logitech), and others. Mostly they decided against this category due to the sub-optimal sound quality of these solutions, which is a result of low-end audio technology (DAC, power supply, no support for 24-bit/192kHz playback, etc.), but also caused by network limitations (drop-outs, bandwidth).

“Some of our customers also looked at a third category, namely using a PC/Mac and interfacing directly to their stereo system with a high-end USB DAC. They decided against this solution as the price/performance ratio (with some USB DACs) was not superior and that they did not want an ugly PC and cable-clutter in the living room.

“Both of the last groups also mentioned that they decided against a streaming client or PC+USB DAC solution due to its complexity. They had reservations about having to set up a network and/or install software on a PC (i.e., they wanted simplicity).”

I have to agree with many of Olive’s points. From what I have heard to date, the answer for non-geek audiophiles is definitely to go to a dedicated music-storage system for sound quality, and generally for ergonomics and management and playback of a large music collection.

But this superiority is a matter of personal style and convenience, and the advantages in sound quality may be fleeting. I’m not a fan of USB options, but my sons already use cards with straight digital outputs. The storage and music-management software may now be awkward, but it will improve. Few audiophiles have the kind of home network and WiFi system I need professionally, but the number of home network users is growing geometrically, and IR remote-control systems are going the way of the Dodo as iPad-like devices and smartphones take over. It is just a matter of time before adequate music-storage and management systems are available, and manufacturers of high-end DACs tie their product to computerized music systems and remote controls. Some top firms like Boulder and PS Audio are already focusing on DAC/computer combinations.

This puts intense competitive pressure on stand-alone storage and streaming systems. This pressure is compounded by the fact that many users already are converting to audio and video streaming, and to systems with surround sound as well as stereo music storage. Moreover, there already are enough illegal Blu-ray Disc-streaming efforts to suggest that the future lies in both high-resolution music and video streaming and storage.

I would still go with a system like Sooloos or Olive, but (a) I can afford to; (b) I want the best in sound quality now, and I’m simply not prepared to wait a year or more to find out when computers catch up; (c) I have enough problems with hacking/cracking in running other databases to want stand-alone music storage; and (d) I’m perfectly happy to have a totally separate (and legal) audio-video surround-music setup.

At the same time, I feel that the trends in high-end audio mean that any stand-alone player like the Olive O6HD must meet the following tests: 1) It must have outstanding sound quality and be better than today’s computer options as a DAC; 2) its ergonomics must be better in virtually every respect than competitive computer formats; 3) music storage must be practical for large collections; 4) there must be as simple an option as possible to deal with the nightmare of bad, partial, and missing metadata in CD recording (especially older classical, foreign CDs, and multiple CD boxes like long symphonies and operas; 5) reliability must equal or surpass a standard PC or Mac; 6) there must be a functional and affordable backup option; 7) there must be a non-proprietary upgrade path and an easy, error-free way to convert out of the storage system that preserves all of the quality of the music stored, including high-resolution recordings.

Fortunately, the Olive O6HD meets the first six of these tests, and seems to be addressing the seventh.

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Sidebar- Technical Notes

The O6HD features several of the latest TI chipsets, including the DIT4192 digital-audio transmitter that is used in conjunction with a separate temperature-compensated crystal oscillator to reduce jitter. TI’s SRC4194 Asynchronous Sample Rate Converter converts all sampling rates/word lengths to 192kHz/24-bit. This signal is later upsampled to 384kHz before conversion to analog by differential PCM1792 DACs.

The analog output stage is based on very fast op-amps to reduce slewing-induced distortion, followed by a second-order Bessel filter. The analog stage benefits from a completely independent power supply. In the analog-stage supply, a filter with a reported 80dB of noise attenuation cleans up the incoming AC. A generous toroidal transformer is followed by large filter caps. The digital supply features a dedicated linear regulator just for the clock to reduce jitter. The supplies include extensive shielding, along with galvanic isolation, to minimize noise and isolate the two supplies from each other.

Finally, the O6HD includes a separate headphone output built on a dedicated PCM-1792 DAC and TI’s top-of-the-line TPA6120 op-amp.

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Sound Quality

There is no question about the sound quality of the Olive O6HD. No DACs or players sound alike, and each tends to be voiced to emphasize certain qualities. In broad terms, however, the sound quality of the O6HD is only surpassed by units that cost far more, and the sound of its analog outputs blows away that of the analog outputs of the Sooloos in every sonic respect.

The overall timbre of the Olive O6HD is very natural. The O6HD does an excellent job in reproducing the deep (and even the really deep) bass and upper bass; the midrange is well-defined without any touch of hardness in the upper mids; and soundstaging and imaging are about as realistic as a recording permits. The upper frequencies do not have all of the natural life and air of the very best DACs and CD/SACD units that cost more, but they are very good.

There is no exaggerated hardness in reproducing ordinary CDs; in fact, storing a CD consistently improves the realism of its sound without sacrificing detail. Moreover, the Olive O6HD clearly shows the superior quality of higher bit-and-sampling rates. The nuances and quality of high-resolution recordings from top labels like Reference Recordings and Chesky come through with only a touch less impact and information than the sound of the best stand-alone DACs.

The O6HD has a fully balanced differential DAC design, which seems to be an industry-first for music servers. While the O4HD used one TI Burr-Brown PCM1792 24-bit/192 kHz DAC for both channels, the O6HD uses a matched pair of PCM1792 DAC modules for the inverted and non-inverted signals on each of the right and left channels. This considerably improves the signal-to-noise ratio (the Olive O6HD claims a signal-to-noise ratio of 124dB), and allows the music to come from the kind of noise-and-artifact-free, or “black,” background I normally only expect to hear in much more expensive DACs.

I still feel the Meitner sets the standard in upper-octave, lower-midrange, and soundstage realism relative to any other unit I’ve auditioned so far, and that the Boulder 1021 and Meridian 808.3 Signature are close competitors that provide musically natural upper-midrange and treble detail that is superior to that of the Olive O6HD. I’d also choose the PS Audio Perfectwave DAC if I wanted more upper-octave detail.

But any such margins of superiority are very definitely in the diminishing-returns category. The Olive O6HD provides truly outstanding sound for substantially less money than the top DACs, and the O6HD stores and manages your music collection, to boot. It also really does merit comparison with the best. It handles dynamics with a realism and life that are often missing in the more “polite” DACs and players, and does so without adding the touch of hardness or softness that colors almost all DACs and players in its price range. Put simply, damned good, musically natural sound!

Ergonomics

The ergonomics of the Olive O6HD do take a little getting used to. Its instruction manual follows in the great high-end tradition of either being non-existent, damned near useless, or an exercise in post-modern, Dadaesque-deconstructionist, abstract minimalism. (I should note my Sooloos does not even have an instruction manual.) A day or two of experimentation, however, allows you to draw on all of its features in ways that quickly become second-nature. Moreover, even during the worst moments of my learning curve (and they were moments and hot hours), I never had the desire to kill that has characterized my experience with most complex electronics.

Music Storage

The storage and handling features are good but not great. The O6HD’s menu and control features are certainly adequate for most libraries, but the O6HD does not have the speed and detail that Sooloos and some computer management-systems provide. The ergonomics and display features of the Olive O6HD and its software are probably better suited to a “large” collection (up to 2000 CDs or albums), rather than an “ultra-large” (4000+) one.

The dedicated 10.1" touchscreen may be wide (and very attractive), but it is narrow and can’t be seen at a distance. The album-cover display feature on the touchscreen is also more decorative than useful in rapidly seeking out recordings. Both the touchscreen and the front button controls are a bit slow to respond, and display relatively limited data compared to the Sooloos and some music-management software that runs on a PC.

It is hard to set up one-of-a-kind playback efforts to compare musical pages and different recordings, and the unit relies largely on playlists rather than a combination of playlists and one-time, easy-to-program queues. There is an option to get a readout of the exact sampling and bit-rate of recordings, but you have to create a playlist to select high-resolution recordings.

The Olive O6HD’s ergonomics are less important if you use a device like an iPad (for which the Olive has an app) or the dedicated remote control and a TV screen to select and control your music. As a result, I’d plan to use the iPad for most music listening. It is quicker, and can be used anywhere in the house if you have WiFi. It allows you to see the cover art and status of a recording very clearly once you select it, and the app can almost be counted on to steadily improve with time. Olive seems to have open-ended growth potential in improving the iPad and TV options in the future.

As for storage, the Olive O6HD has a built in 2TB drive, which it claims can store 6000 CDs or 20,000 HD Tracks. This should be sufficient for most collections, although I have pushed over the 2TB limit with about 4100 CDs and some high-resolution tracks. Fortunately, Olive designs its products so they can be upgraded to larger internal drives as higher-capacity hard drives become available—and 4TB and 6TB standards seem likely in the next two years.

Olive does make a major effort to help you put your CD collection on the O6HD. It provides a service for storing your collection of CDs, and believe me, you do not want to hand-load more than a hundred or so if you can possibly avoid it. If you already have a computerized collection, it will load it automatically. If you are still in the plastic-box era, Olive offers buyers a service that allows them to send in their CDs and have Olive load them onto its HD music server. It will rip the first 100 CDs for free, and each additional CD is ripped for as little as $0.50 (depending on the size of the library). Olive uses special pre-load robots to rip each CD with multiple error-correction. Olive reports that some 67% of its U.S. customers use this service.

As for Internet radio, the O6HD’s features are good. Olive uses its own database (not Shoutcast or VTuner etc.). This allows it to groom the metadata and make sure the information is displayed correctly on the O6HD display (and it can show extended metadata about the station). Olive also “pings” all HD radio stations frequently to make sure that stations that are off-line are not shown in the list (a complaint that Olive says it has heard from customers about other Internet radio solutions).

Metadata

Olive does more than simply directly store the metadata on the CD. It pulls the metadata used to store, describe, and manage music from several databases to ensure the highest accuracy. Olive also provides what it calls “manual grooming.” This can be critical because no one really wants to edit his entire collection CD by CD, and about half of my classical and 20% of my older jazz CDs needed some editing, and roughly 90% of my classical CDs needed additional editing so that I could sort by composer using uniform spellings of last names.

Instead of simply dumping the faulty or missing data on the CD, Olive tries to correct the CDs of its customers during the CD-loading process and make sure that all metadata is written correctly and uniformly (especially composers). This means that classical CDs will then show up correctly in the composer category and album view. Olive also is preparing to sell digital HD music (e.g. from Reference Recordings) and plans to extended metadata, which is not available through standard CD databases. Moreover, buyers will be able to preload certain HD collections when they buy a HD music server, or have them delivered afterwards by USB stick.

Do not, however, expect miracles in fixing the metadata, particularly with CDs of older performances on small and amateur labels. If you are a truly serious music collector, and demanding about spelling, you will still need a computer and have to edit the metadata. Olive provides a link to Maestro to provide a program do this, and it works. I could not, however, find the kind of global-search-and-replace routines I would have liked. (They may be there, but they are all Geek to me!)

Reliability

I simply have no way of telling how reliable the Olive or any similar unit will be over time. I did, however, have only one minor glitch during start up, after which the unit then worked perfectly during the review period. This is good performance for any truly complex electronic device, and I wish my Sooloos had proved as reliable.

As for service, Olive does offer a 30-day return-and-refund option. It also offers a two-year parts-and-service warranty for the O6HD. Given the uncertainties involved, particularly in a proprietary device, I believe two years is the minimum warranty such products should have, but I’m not aware that any other manufacturer offers more than Olive. And many offer less.

Back-up

The back-up system works well, and can be used with any high-capacity hard drive. My only reservation is that Olive understates the need for such a back-up, and does not recommend specific hard drives it finds suitable and reliable. Buying a back-up hard drive is an absolute must, given the cost and difficultly of loading and editing your music collection, and the tendency of a number of high-capacity drives to die just beyond their warranty date.

Every manufacturer of such products must offer a non-proprietary upgrade path and an easy way to convert from the storage system used in a device like the Olive O6HD to another storage device, while preserving all of the quality of the music stored, including that of high-resolution recordings.

Olive has shown it has an upgrade path for its own products. Olive has regularly offered its customers the option of upgrading their stored music from products like the O2HD and O4HD to new Olive products like the O6HD at a nominal fee. In the past, the cost has been included in the price difference to the new product, but it charged a fee for such conversions in its last promotion.

Olive was less clear about what would happen if a customer wanted to transfer a collection to a different storage media or manufacturer system, and noted the problems copyright law present for simply providing a direct copy. After some back and forth, however, Olive made it clear that it will offer a service to download a returned Olive unit to a standard digital format like FLAC, WAVE, MPEG, AAC, Apple Lossless, etc.

I hope that Olive will clarify this offer in writing in its comments on this review, and I would be extremely cautious about buying any music server or storage system that did not offer such options. Technology is moving too quickly not to be able to transfer your collection from one system to another in a standard format.

Speaking personally, I would not buy a unit that did not have a clear option for transferring its collection, and I prefer systems that can easily download a music collection directly into a replacement system. Given that proviso, I’d strongly endorse the Olive O6HD within its price range. It is not perfect, but the sound quality is exceptional and its operating and storage features, while far from perfect, are never less than good. I give a strong recommendation to anyone who does not speak Geek as a native tongue.

SPECS & PRICING

Drive capacity: 2GB or 4GB
Interface: 10.1" touchscreen
Outputs: Unbalanced on RCA jacks, balanced on XLR jacks; headphone on stereo 6.4mm jack; digital output (AES/EBU) on XLR jack; HDMI (480p); USB 1.1/2.0
Features: Internet Radio, dedicated remote control, iPad/iPhone app available
Dimensions: 17.125" x 4.5" x 14"
Price: $4999

Olive Media Inc.
555 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(888) 654-8369
(415) 908-3870 (international callers)
www.olive.us