Unless you have a tall A/V rack, interacting with components generally requires serious squatting. Olive solves this ergonomic problem by angling the 4HD’s front panel at a rakish gait, which lets you read the display while looking down at it. This makes it a breeze to use when standing up.
The included remote control feels like something milled out of a solid billet of aluminum. It’s one of the most solid remotes I’ve used, and I’m betting it would emerge the victor in any encounter with your floor should you drop it. None of the buttons are backlit, and the Enter button is awkwardly located below the up/down/left/right controls instead of right in the middle. But many people are likely to use the 4HD with a universal remote, so that’s a minor quibble. Having said that, an RS-232 control option would have been nice, along with the ability to turn on the HDMI video output via remote control. As it stands, you need to get up and manually make this switch when the 4HD is in touchscreen mode. (The touchscreen display and HDMI output can’t be used at the same time; you need to select one or the other.)
I primarily operated the 4HD from the front panel, getting up close and personal with its 4.3-inch (480 x 272-rez) touchscreen. Listening options include Internal Library, Other Sources (components connected to the 4HD’s digital input and music stored elsewhere on your network), and Internet Radio. Browsing is sorted by Genre, Album Artwork, Album Name, Artists, Tracks, and Playlists.
I really liked that certain search options bring up a virtual QWERTY keyboard for typing in whatever you’re hunting. I did have issues with two of the browsing options, though. First, Genre does what you’d think, but you can’t play an entire genre, only an album or artist, within it. A huge benefit to categorizing music — by genre, for example — is to generate playlists, so I was disappointed that I couldn’t select an entire genre like Jazz. (Olive says it will implement this feature in a future update.) Also, while sexy looking, the Cover Art option is fairly useless in function. It shows just three covers at once and horizontally scrolls through titles one at a time, making it impossible to navigate a sizable collection. Furthermore, you can’t view an album’s track list before or after selecting it; the 4HD simply starts playing the first track.
Although I loved being able to create a playlist from the front panel, editing a playlist (deleting or reordering tracks) or any other metadata requires that you use Olive’s Maestro Web interface. (A free iPhone/iPod touch app also puts the 4HD’s touchscreen GUI in your hands, although I didn’t get to test it.)
You can play a CD without importing it, and importing a new disc takes around 8 minutes. (Olive will import your first 100 discs for free with the purchase of a system.) I appreciated being able to browse and play music while importing discs, which meant that an afternoon spent loading new music didn’t have to be passed in silence. You can also import existing music files from a computer connected to your home’s network.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the Olive’s weapons weapons is its first-rate DACs. Also, to my knowledge it's the only standalone music server capable of playing back music at resolutions higher than the CD format’s 44.1-kHz/16-bit, which is no small thing. The Opus comes preloaded with a dozen 96-kHz/24-bit jazz and classical tracks from the Chesky label to whet your high-rez whistle. Other high-rez music is available on the Web, and I downloaded Rebecca Pidgeon’s The Raven from HDtracks. Although I’m very familiar with The Raven, this was my first opportunity to experience it in high-resolution, and it was exactly as if that proverbial blanket was removed from the sound. This terrific recording has minimal engineering, and the Olive revealed loads of space, depth, and air around all of the instruments and especially Pidgeon’s voice. I could practically identify every bead rattling around in the shakers in “Spanish Harlem” and could clearly visualize each bass string pluck. In many ways it was the audio equivalent of putting on a set of 3D glasses.
Even standard-rez tracks — the other 99.9% of my collection — sounded wonderful. Sinéad O’Connor’s Am I Not Your Girl? is full of lots of nuanced textures as O’Connor covers various standards, and the Olive transported me straight into a smoky little jazz club where I got to hear her intimate, emotion-filled performance. Compared with my Marantz processor, which has a topshelf DAC from a competing company, I found the Olive’s sound to be subtly warmer, with just a tad less edge. Whatever the genre, the Olive got out of the way and revealed the recording for what it was.
I did experience some operational bugs during my time with the 4HD, including a few lock-ups that required system reboots, music stopping after three or four songs, and an unresponsive touchscreen. While the majority of these issues were resolved with firmware updates, one fix introduced a new bug that wouldn’t let the 4HD play purchased high-rez files, a problem that the company fixed a few weeks later with yet another firmware update.
In many ways, the Olive 4HD is an evolutionary step for the music server category. By eliminating the need for a TV or a large, separate touchscreen to control it (although its video output and iPhone/iPod touch app let you use the 4HD those ways as well), it gets back to just being about music. And its ability to handle high-rez tracks means that audiophiles can experience music in that format, along with getting sound from regular CDs that rivals the quality of the best standalone players. The 4HD is a compelling option for any music enthusiast, especially those with extensive collections.
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