|November 15, 2005
In This eNewsletter:
Music Servers & the Olive Symphony, by John Atkinson
How to integrate a computer into a high-end audio system is a hot topic these days. I'm getting more and more e-mails from readers asking for advice, Wes Phillips wrote about transferring his LPs to audio files in his October and November newsletters, and a lively thread on this topic is currently running on the forum at www.stereophile.com.
With my production work for the Stereophile recordings, I early got into playing back music files on a computer, when the magazine purchased a Sonic Solutions Digital Audio Workstation at the end of 1993. I now smile when I see 160GB hard drives selling for less than $100; the 2GB drive that seemed so enormous 12 years ago cost $2000! That Sonic system was and is optimized for music production, however, and is not suitable for general use.
In the last year or so, therefore, I've been using Apple's iTunes software running on my Apple PowerBook to feed the Mark Levinson or Benchmark DACs in my he-man rig using either a professional FireWire interface (a $1500 Metric Halo MIO2882 DSP) or a $129 Apple Airport Express Wi-Fi hub.
I had been sniffy about iTunes until late 2003, because until then the only compression algorithms it had offered were lossy. Even at 320kbps, Apple's AAC codec does not sound as clean or as transparent as the original uncompressed 16-bit/44.1kHz AIF or WAV files, and as for MP3s at 128kbps, fuggetabowdit (as we say in Brooklyn). But when Apple introduced Apple Lossless Compression, which shrinks the file to 4555% of its original size with no loss in sound quality, I got into the idea big-time. But as the size of my iTunes library now exceeds what is practical for my laptop's hard drive, even with lossless compression, and the laptop's fan is noisy enough to be heard from my listening seat, I decided to set up a dedicated music server.
I chose a Mac Mini as the base unit because of its tiny size and its silent running. This cost $550 with an 80GB drive and a Wi-Fi card, plus another $100 for a Bluetooth remote keyboard and mouse. (The monitor was free, as I used an old LCD panel retrieved from the closet.) With the Mini sitting in my test lab running iTunes 5.0, it could drive my listening-room system via the Airport Express. With iTunes in Shuffle mode, this setup was fine for CD-quality background music but clunky for choosing specific tracks to play.
I moved the Mini into the listening room and used an M-Audio Transit USB external soundcard ($79) to provide an S/PDIF optical datalink to the Levinson DAC. This was much more convenient. I was just settling into using this system when I got an e-mail from a representative of San Francisco-based Olive Media Products, announcing the introduction of the Symphony, a standalone, remote-controlled, fanless music server optimized for classical recordings, with a 32-bit IBM PowerPC processor, an LCD screen, an 80GB internal drive, a CD-R drive for ripping CDs and burning playlists, analog and digital outputs, a headphone jack, a Night Mode that reduces dynamic range, and, most usefully, a four-port Ethernet switch and a Wi-Fi access point for networking to other devices. It even has analog inputs for digitizing LPs. All this functionality comes in a discrete box the size of a conventional CD player and costing just $899. Would I be interested in trying out the Symphony? Yah, you betcha (as we are yet to say in Brooklyn).
The first sample of the Symphony arrived dead in the box. (It turned out that the tender mercies of UPS had caused an internal cable to become detached.) The second sample (serial number 23973, running v2.1 of the software) booted up with no problem. I fed its digital output via a 20' TosLink cable to my D/A processor.
While Olive is new, it is actually a US subsidiary of a long-established German company that provides products and software for Mac computers. Not surprisingly, therefore, the user interface for the Symphony looked very similar to that of iTunes, with the same protocols for playlists and metadata. Communication with the Symphony is either via a set of regular CD player-like controls for playback on the left of the front panel, under the CD tray, or via a two-ring jog wheel and a column of four pushbuttons on the right for setup and menu navigation. In the center is the LCD screen, with labels for the pushbuttons that change depending on what menu is selected with left or right movements of the jog wheel's outer ring (the inner ring acts as a scroll control).
The primary means of loading up the Symphony's hard drive is by placing a CD in the transport slot, waiting for it to be recognizedthe Symphony comes preinstalled with its own 2 million-track metadata database, but can also access Web databasesand pressing Import. The CD is recorded, tagged, and archived automatically. I dug out a 1990 DG recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (429 779-2). Sure enough, despite the recording's age the Symphony recognized the CD, and with one button press the five tracks were imported with all the appropriate tags.
The quality of the ripped tracks is selected by the user. Files can be uncompressed AIF or WAV, lossy compressed MP3 (from 128kbps to 320kbps, with also a variable-bit-rate option), or lossless compressed, using the popular FLAC codec. As always, the tradeoff is between compression ratio, hence sound quality, and file size. After allowing 3GB or so for the operating system and database, the Symphony's 80GB drive will store around 115 CDs' worth of music in AIF format, 195 CDs' worth as FLAC files, and up to 1280 CDs' worth as 128kbps MP3s.
The Symphony has two USB 2.0 ports on its back; these can be used to allow the unit to update iPods that are connected to it. The USBs can also be used to connect external hard drives to hold more songs, although Olive's own drives must be used.
If you already have a library of music files on your computer, these can be copied to the Symphony's Import folder using a network (see later), then moved into the server's music database by pressing the top button, also labeled Import for this screen. My iTunes library consists mainly of files compressed with ALC for uncompromised sound quality, or with AAC at 320kbps when I am not so concernedmusic for my subway or bus commute, for example. None of these music files are protected by Digital Rights Management, as they have all been either ripped from my own CDs or loaded into iTunes from my own master files.
I did buy one protected 99-cent song from iTunes, "Hermes," from the new Santana albumno expense spared at this magazineto see what would happen if I tried to export it to the Symphony. It did import but wouldn't play, there being no way to authorize the Symphony as one of iTunes' five allowed computers.
With the exception that the Symphony apparently objected to filenames containing an apostrophe, I had no problem importing my AAC files to the Symphony's hard drive. They appeared in the library with their metadata intact, and clicking on the Info button when one was selected with the jog wheel revealed that the Symphony correctly recognized it as an "MP4" file at 320kbps. (AAC is Apple's name for an MPEG-4 file to which Apple's proprietary DRM wrapper has been added.) The Symphony is also specified as being able to import Ogg/Vorbis files. However, none of the ALC files could be imported. These had first to be transformed into AIF, WAV, or AAC format within iTunes, then imported into the Symphony.
What I couldn't find was a way of converting these files into FLAC format to save hard-drive space once they'd been imported. Reading the FAQ file in the excellent owner's manual informed me that I needed to do this with my computer. I converted a few files on my PC, using the FLAC front-end for Windows, and these were imported without problem to the Symphony. However, it does mean that if you rip some CDs at full quality, you have to rerip them at a lower bit rate if you later decide to save some hard-drive space.
Incidentally, files can only be 16 bits. When I imported some 24-bit AIF files to the Symphony's hard drive, they were preserved intact in the server's Import folderI could copy them to other PCs on the networkbut produced only white noise when imported to the music center's database and played. The Symphony will import 16-bit files with sample rates ranging from 32kHz to 96kHz, with each file's sample rate and size correctly identified in the metadata, but peculiarly, these all played back via the digital output at the correct pitch but at the same 44.1kHz sample rate.
Once tracks have been stored on the Symphony, their metadatatitle, performers, genre, etc.can be edited (slowly) using the front-panel screen and jog wheel. It was much easier, however, to edit the information over the network (see later) by entering the Symphony's unique IP address in a computer's Internet browser, whereupon a picture of the server appears, along with a menu allowing access to each song's information.
One way the Symphony has been optimized for classical music is its proprietary Playlist software. To iTunes' data fields for Work, Performer, Album, Composer, Date, and Genre, Olive adds Movement Title and Number, Key, Work and Opus Number, Conductor, Featured Artist, Arranger, Lyricist, and Recording Location and Date. The usefulness of these extra data fields is self-evident, and becomes even more powerful coupled with the Olive software's smart playlist utility. For example, you can ask the machine to compile a list of all works by Beethoven conducted by Bernstein.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to check out this aspect of the Symphony, as the v1.0 version of the Playlist software, running on my Mac Mini (the only machine I had running the necessary Mac OS10.4), couldn't read the Symphony's library data over the network. The Mac recognized the existence of the Symphony but kept flashing the message "Updating Symphony software" and transferring empty software update files to the Symphony's Import folder rather than doing anything useful. I hope to be able to investigate the Playlist program in a Follow-Up.
The Symphony can either be used as the server in its own Wi-Fi network or can log in to an existing network. I used the Symphony's network, which was immediately recognized by the PowerBook in my listening room, by the PC running Windows XP, by the Mac Mini in my test lab 20' and a couple of walls away, and by my kids' PC upstairs. The Symphony was identified as "Symphony" in the workgroup "Hifidelio." (The Olive Symphony is sold as the Hifidelio in Germany.)
When iTunes was run on any of these computers with the Symphony turned on, a Symphony icon appeared in iTunes' left-hand Source column. Clicking on this icon revealed (after a short wait) the library of music stored on the Symphony. While you can't edit the metadata by clicking on Get Info, double-clicking on any of the songs or playlists listed streams the music from the Symphony to the computer, providing a simple means of implementing independent multiroom access to the central music library. With the Symphony's hard drive doing the heavy data lifting, you can play Beethoven in the listening room, Green Day in the family room, Bill Evans in the bedroom, etc.if, of course, you have a computer in each of those locations. For those who don'tpretty much most people, I imagineOlive is introducing the wireless Sonata module ($199). Music files on the Symphony can be independently streamed to each remote Sonata, which then feeds a music system in that room.
This aspect of the Symphony works well. At one point, I had the unit playing one song in my listening room while simultaneously streaming four different songs to all four computers in the housetwo PCs running XP, two Macsall without a glitch or a network stall. (The Symphony is specified as being able to simultaneously stream up to five different audio programs.)
When connected to a network, the Symphony can also play audio files streamed to it from other computers on the network, provided the files are organized in an iTunes-like library or using UpnP-compatible software. The jog wheel is used to select Music Server, and all compatible music libraries appear in the window. The files can then be selected and played as though they resided on the Symphony's internal drive. This is what the manual says. However, while the Symphony could see the name of my PowerBook's iTunes library, when I tried to select it I kept getting an error message: "Communication with the music server could not be established." I couldn't resolve this problem before going to press, even with the help of the handbook. Perhaps there were firewall problems with my computers. But I must admit that I am incurably fumble-fingered when it comes to setting up networks.
I did find the Olive Symphony susceptible to static discharges. This was possibly because it doesn't have an AC ground and, in my system, connected with a TosLink datalink, there was no other path to ground. But if I didn't take care to discharge myself before touching its chassis it would freeze, requiring a reboot.
So, once I had the Symphony configured, how did it perform?
Being able to select from its library at a touch of the remote made musical browsing effortless. Going back to feeding CDs into the Mark Levinson transport seemed quaint by comparison. Sonically, using the server to feed digital data to my high-end system, the Symphony seemed beyond reproach. Of course, both my D/As have excellent jitter rejection, but no aspect of the sound gave a clue that I was listening to audio data being pulled in packets from a hard drive rather than being streamed continuously from an optical disc. Perhaps, in direct comparison with a CD being played on the Levinson, the uncompressed 16-bit file played on the Olive had slightly less image depth and LF definition, and was a bit more forward a presentation, but this wasn't anything I could reliably detect without being able to switch back and forth.
In the time I had available to test the Olive, I wasn't able to perform a brief audition of the music center's analog outputs, nor did I test the analog inputs. These will have to wait for a Follow-Up.
I was very impressed by the Olive Symphony. I found its user interface intuitive, and the machine packs an enormous amount of functionality into a small space at a very affordable price. Perhaps more important, its owner is freed from the problems involved in using a general-purpose PC as a music server, without any significant price penalty. Highly recommended as a fit'n'forget means of integrating not just a computer but a music collection into a high-end music system.
As an introductory offer, Olive is offering to preload a customer's CD collection onto the Symphony free of charge, which sounds like a good deal to me. Olive can be contacted at here or by calling (877)-ByOlive.
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That Difficult Second Album..., by Ken Kessler
If only the December issue of Stereophile had arrived a week earlier, I would have had a special reason to raise a glass to Hervé Delétraz and Serge Roche of darTZeel. DarTZeel numbered among the big winners in Stereophile's annual Product of the Year roundup. Their NHB-108 Model One power amplifier, which came out of nowhere, earned within three years of its arrival on the high-end scene Stereophile's coveted Joint Product of the Year Award for 2005. A tip of the hat to our own John Marks for being one of the first to recognize its brilliance.
From the outset, darTZeel struck nearly all observers as "something special" by virtue of levels of construction found in no other product on the market, with the possible exceptions of SME and Nagra. Within minutes of arriving in Geneva, I learned why. Hervé and Serge are almost militantly proud of their Swissness, and darTZeel is the only audio brand to have earned the coveted "Membership Swiss Label Certificat," attesting to both its Swiss origins and a quality commensurate with the honor. Not only that, Serge is a genuine watchmaker who has produced a series of stunning chronographs under his own name. (Visit www.rochpro.com/watchgallery/index2.html to see what he's up to.) For example, the bolt holding down the NHB-108's Plexiglas lid, as well as its cupped washer, are custom-made for darTZeel by a supplier of watch parts.
My visit had been prompted a month earlier by the launch of darTZeel's second-ever model, at the Hi-Fi & Home Entertainment Show at Heathrow Airport in late September. It was there that Serge and Hervé provided the first-ever public showing of the NHB-18NS preamplifier, a response to the clamor of NHB-108 owners who wanted a matching component. In Hervé's listening room, I spent a day auditioning the new preamp and the now-familiar power amp fed by an EMT 948 turntable, arm, and cartridge, through Rehdeko speakers.
I'll leave it to the lucky devil selected by John Atkinson for the honor of reviewing the NHB-18NS to describe its sound. But I can tell you that, in addition to build quality in excess of that of any other preamp I can name, it boasts a number of niceties that will seduce a certain type of audiophile. The unit comes with an onboard moving-magnet/moving-coil phono stage, a proprietary volume control that "avoids the use of a potentiometer, stepped attenuator, or analog switch array in the signal path," a volume range of close to 96dB, and a comprehensive selection of input configurations, including an XLR line input and output, RCA line inputs and outputs, and Serge and Hervé's preferred connections: impedance-matched BNC 50 ohm "Zeel" inputs and "darT" outputs.
Instead of feeding signals through a selector box, each input has its own dedicated stage, which can be enabled or disabled by the user; the signal is then fed to the volume control. And Serge and Hervéthey're starting to sound like a Vegas stage routinehave labeled the input selector Enjoyment Source and the rotary volume knob the Pleasure Control, with extremes of Less and More. I tell you this just in case you thought the Swiss were as dour as their neighbors to the north.
The NHB-18NS won't be cheap. I wouldn't anticipate any change from my $20,000. But damn, is it seductive. Like an FP Journe Chronometre Souverain...
Australia: Apogee Rides Again, by Ken Kessler
Graeme "Graz" Keet, the Apogee owner's friend, has been keeping ribbon-speaker users happy for some years by producing repair kits for Apogees as well as a range of his own ribbon-equipped models, sold under the Perigee name. His latest announcement, unexpected given that he has his own designs to sell, will bring a tear to the eye of those who still hanker after Apogee Scintillas and their kin.
Graz e-mailed me to say that, after many years of restoring Apogees "to new or better than new condition" and spending much time researching ribbon technology, he's amassed a database that includes all parts dimensions of the original blueprinted Apogees. An unanticipated benefit for Graz has been a new understanding of the originals: "Over time, I have noticed manufacturing anomalies that have indicated to me that, whilst the original Apogee designs represented the absolute pinnacle of ribbon speaker design from the past, modern manufacturing methods and attention to detail can improve on the original product."
Graz learned that using meridian-mapped CNC ribbons, and sticking with the original materials but having them machined to a far higher degree of accuracy than the original ribbons, would together go a long way toward improving the originals while staying true to their design tenets. As a result of his research and the experience he's gathered, Graz will be reissuing what are effectively modern-day Apogees, "a direct service of manufacturing some designs of the past for direct supply to any interested party. This is the ONLY way a person can be assured of an accurate, well-made and guaranteed product in 2005 and beyond, made with the absolute utmost of care and precision that can be obtained from a current manufacturer."
Graz emphasized that "These speakers will NOT be sold under the Apogee name, and at present there are no plans to sell them through retailers, though installer partners [Perigee has importers around the world who handle the Apogee repair kits] will certainly be involved." The new speakers will be sold under the name 'Perigee Classic,' and normal production arrangements will not apply to them; they will be offered on a 'case-by-case' basis, strictly made-to-order. Therefore, custom colors can certainly be ordered for a particular pair of speakers. All speakers will come in Perigee style aluminum-framed ply crates, designed to support the new speakers through modern shipping practices to anywhere in the world."
He added that not all of Apogee's designs will be offered. "Some of the classic 1980s planars will be, and interested parties should initially contact me via e-mail to state their interest. Not all speakers will be available at all times, and so there will be a longer waiting list for speakers not currently in production." He cautioned, "Remember that these are classic remakes. All orders are made only by special request, so expect a reasonable lead time. The first to be offered in the range will be the Classic 1.5DS, for people who like the Duetta Signatures. Cost for a pair of these will be US $12,000."
All of the reincarnated speakers will use Perigee's KLM (Kapton low mass) bass/KLM2 (backed) or original foil (unbacked) ribbons, dependent on the typeidentical to the ribbons currently supplied in the repair kits. "Subtle invisible differences such as extra frame bracing and a more reliable case face-hook mount will be featured throughout, these speakers will be precision made, and they will be built to last. The speakers will not feature the latest in rare earth magnets; such technology will be available in future Perigee releases."
For those continuing to use and enjoy original Apogees, Graz reassured me that "Technical backup and ribbon parts will certainly continue to be offered from myself, and there are no changes or planned changes to the prices, unchanged since release, and refurbishment of clients' speakers will still continue as before from myself and the installer-partners around the world."
As for Perigee's own models, there are plans to release "a more affordable, modern, high-efficiency planar speaker based on the Perigee Definitive technology but much more reasonably priced, to be sold through the normal channels. Many in the ribbon forums, including myself, have referred to this elusive new speaker as 'CLASSIC,' but its real name is 'Synergy 1.5'details to follow!"
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