Olive Symphony CD player/Wi-Fi Music Server Page 2

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 house—two PCs running XP, two Macs—all 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.

Sound Quality
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 either the Mark Levinson No.30.6 Reference D/A processor or my workhouse affordable DAC, the $875 Benchmark DAC-1 headphone amplifier, which also has balanced and unbalanced line-level outputs (footnote 1).

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.

Auditioned from its analog outputs, the Symphony certainly sounded respectable. However, in direct comparison with the Benchmark DAC-1, fed a TosLink datastream from the server via 1m of AudioQuest Optilink-5, it was outclassed. I listened to Sonata 10 from our February 2003 "Recording of the Month," the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas, with violinist Augustin Dumay and pianist Maria João Pires (Deutsche Grammophon 471 495-2), played back from the Olive's hard drive via the analog outputs. The Olive's soundstage was less expansive than the Benchmark's, its tonal quality a little threadbare compared with the standalone processor. (Levels were matched to within 0.1dB at 1kHz for the comparisons, using the Levinson No.326S preamplifier's Input Offset function.)

Low frequencies lacked the authority of the Benchmark processor. The Olive's analog outputs had less midbass weight than the Benchmark's, which itself lacks a little in this area compared with the megabucks Levinson processor. The Fender Bass channel-identification tracks on my Editor's Choice CD (Stereophile STPH016-2) had less weight but also a little less bloom.

Not that the Symphony's analog outputs weren't audiophile-quality; they were. Following some comparisons, I slipped the superb BBC Music magazine CD of Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Leonard Slatkin (BBC Music Vol.12 No.12), into the Olive's disc slot. The Symphony recognized the disc and identified its tracks, and, despite my best intentions, I ended up listening to the entire work thinking I was listening to the Benchmark. When I got up from my listening chair after the grumbling of the final chord had died away, I realized that I'd been hearing A Sea Symphony through the Symphony's analog outputs, not the Benchmark's! Even though I had made up my mind about the server's relative lack of soundstage depth, the offstage women's chorus in the Explorers movement had still been way offstage.

I tried to remember to do all my serious auditioning using uncompressed AIF files, but occasionally I did listen to 320kbps AAC files that I had imported from my laptop to the Symphony over my WiFi network. While in formal A/B comparisons I can hear the degradation due to the lossy compression, I must say that much of the time, using the Symphony to provide the musical accompaniment to my life, I was not bothered by this. I was playing Fantasies & Delusions, Billy Joel's 2001 debut disc of classical piano compositions (original CD, Sony Classical CK 85397), from the Symphony's hard drive via its analog outputs and was impressed by how well the sweepingly passionate rondo themes of Joel's Op.1, Soliloquy (On a Separation) , contrasted with the piece's contemplative passages. "Wait a minute..." I thought as I jotted down some listening notes. I checked the ripped file's metadata: 320kbps AAC. Who knew?

I did most of my comparisons using the $975 Benchmark DAC-1, but the similarly priced Musical Fidelity X-DACV3 ($999), which Sam Tellig reviewed in December 2004, also proved a good companion to the Symphony. The noticeable aspect of the X-DACV3's sound when driven by the Olive via TosLink was a reduction in mid-treble hardness compared with both the Symphony's analog outputs and the Benchmark's. Nice.

Summing 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.

Despite its affordable price, the Olive Symphony does not sacrifice much in the way of sound quality. Yes, you can get ultimate sound quality from it by connecting its digital output to an external D/A processor. But considering what it does—a lot—the Symphony sounds very respectable.

Olive was showing a prototype of a true high-end music server at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Opus, which should be available around the time you read these words, will cost $2999, but for that you get a 400GB hard drive, as well as a power supply and DAC circuitry of true high-end design and build quality. I look forward to hearing it.

Footnote 1: John Marks had enthused about the DAC-1 in his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, and I had subsequently given the Benchmark my "Editor's Choice Award" for 2004, following my experience of it when I wrote a Follow-Up for our May 2004 issue.
Olive Media Products
555 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94105