Audiophile digital: digital music

Finally, Olive has created a digital music player that should please purists.

Digital music isn't just for iPod-toting teens and desk potatoes anymore. Olive Media Products Inc., a small San Francisco company, wants to bring the indisputable benefits of digital — including the ability to distribute music around a home over a wireless network — to finicky audiophiles. Music purists have long turned their noses up at PCs and MP3 audio, but Olive's superb-sounding and elegant-looking player-recorders should overcome their objections to digital music.

I tested the Musica, the second of Olive's CD and digital music players. It sells for about $1,500. The recently introduced top-of-the-line model, the Opus, will sell in Canada for close to $3,600. When you understand what's inside these products and what they can do, the prices make a little more sense. Still, if you already own a PC and network, there are less expensive alternatives.

The Musica looks like a stereo component, but is, in fact, a computer. It includes the guts of a 32-bit IBM PowerPC, a 160-gigabyte hard drive and a built-in CD-RW drive. The Opus boasts a 400 GB drive. What you don't get is a decent-size screen, keyboard or mouse. Instead, the Musica offers a 3.85-by-1.65-inch monochrome LCD, stereo-style controls on the front, and a remote control.

The Musica lets you rip CDs to the hard drive with just one click, including in lossless formats such as WAV (no compression) and AIFF or FLAC (lossless compression). Audiophiles rightly complain that “lossy” compression schemes, such as MP3, jettison data that leaves music flat and lifeless. On Musica, you have room to store about 450 CDs worth of music ripped using lossless compression. The end result sounds as good as a CD.

Musica is also a wireless music player that can connect to an existing Wi-Fi (802.11g) network, fetch music from other computers, and play it through a stereo system. (Network setup in my tests was completely automatic.) If the network is connected to the Internet, the Musica can play free web radio stations — over 2,000 out of the box, and you can add more. If you don't already have a network, Musica will even work as a hub, letting you plug your high-speed Internet connection and other computers into the Ethernet ports on the back, and connect computers wirelessly.

The real story about Musica, though, is the superior audio quality, which it achieves, in part, by optimizing componentry for heat dissipation so the unit doesn't need a fan — one of several sources of noise and distortion in PCs. The Musica also includes a “best of breed” DAC (digital-to-analog coder-decoder), with a custom-designed power supply to help reduce distortion in the analog signal and optimize signal-to-noise ratio.

My listening tests, using a good $700 receiver from NAD Electronics, probably didn't do the Musica justice. It sounded great, better than the NAD unit's built-in CD-DVD player. But according to Olive, and the audiophile magazines that have given it excellent reviews, it aspires to — and reaches — much higher standards. If you have a top-end analog receiver worth thousands, you need a product like Musica to play digital music that meets the receiver's exacting standards.

That said, if you already own a PC, a wireless network, and play music through a mid-range receiver, the Musica doesn't buy a lot. You could as easily add a 250 GB hard drive to your computer (about $125) and a good wireless music player, such as the Squeezebox from Slim Devices (about $350). Connect the player to your receiver using digital outputs, and it will sound as good as the Musica.