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.
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.
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.
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).