The Long And Winding Road To A Hard Drive: You Know It Don’t Come Easy.
There are numerous reasons for using a hard drive-based audio system. To explain mine I must make a confession: I am sloppy. Despite my best intentions CDs are scattered throughout my listening room, some in stacks on the floor, others on nearly every available surface. Try as I might, I can’t seem to bring order to the chaos. I briefly considered behavior modification but then had a flashback to the brain-washing scenes in A Clockwork Orange and promptly chickened out. Surely there had to be a less painful answer.
I was thus intrigued when I first heard about using a computer in lieu of a CD player. Storing all of one’s CDs on a hard drive seemed an ideal solution for tidying up the place. Unfortunately, there were some downsides to this approach. First, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of having to keep a computer and monitor in my listening room. Second, despite all the supposed benefits of hard drives vs. CD drives, the audio snob in me was reluctant to believe that a sound card (operating in the electrically noisy environment of a computer) could provide the type of musical playback I was used to from the excellent CD players and external DACs I had been fortunate enough to own. So I kept looking.
A few years ago I heard the VRS Revelation which convinced me that a properly designed and executed computer-based system could in fact provide high-level audio reproduction. I briefly considered getting a VRS system but was dissuaded by the hefty price tag and by my reluctance at having to use a keyboard and monitor to choose a CD. So the search continued.
More recently my friend Mike Knapp, owner of the on-line forum HomeTheaterForum raved about his experience with a ROKU wireless music server. When using the ROKU, which is similar to Slim Devices’ Squeezebox, music is stored on one’s PC (which can be kept in any room of the house) and sent wirelessly (or via wire, if preferred) to the Roku (or Squeezebox). These devices provide the interface by which tunes are selected and organized (for example, by genre), and one can either use the devices’ internal DACs or alternatively, send the digital information via an S/PDIF output to an external DAC of one’s choosing. This sounded like it would serve my purposes nicely, though I had some reservations.
First, I knew that it often took quite a bit of fiddling to get the devices to communicate properly with their wireless network. As I am not the most computer-savvy guy in town, I worried that I might be unable to get it to work or at best, that it would take a lot of time and effort. In addition, I was told that wireless systems are often plagued with audio dropouts. Last but not least, being a bit of a worrier I was concerned with having my entire system on a wireless network, and thus prone to snooping by curious outsiders. These facts aside, I was all set to push the button on a Squeezebox; but just as I was about to do so I went to the Vacuum Tube Valley Expo in New Jersey.
I dropped in to say hello to Louis Chochos of Omega speakers, who was sharing a room with his buddy Vinnie Rossi of Red Wine Audio. Their digital playback consisted of a handsome black box which I soon learned was an Olive Musica music server, which Vinnie had modified; prominent amongst Vinnie’s modifications are the inclusion of a battery power supply. As the Musica is a self-contained music server, I felt that it might be precisely what I was looking for. A few days later I gave Vinnie a call and we arranged a review. I explained to Vinnie that for me to comment on the efficacy of his modifications, it would be necessary for me to compare his unit with a stock unit; he agreed and graciously provided both.
The Olive Musica
Olive (http://www.olive.us/p_bin/) currently sells three models of music servers. The Musica is intermediate in price (160 GB, $1,099; 250 GB, $1499) between the entry level Symphony (MSRP $899), and the top-of-the-line Opus (400 GB, $2,999; 500 GB, $3,499, 750 GB, $3,999). All three are entirely self-contained music servers. The Musica allows one to rip a CD to the hard drive, to burn music to a CD, and to stream music anywhere within one’s home via a built-in wireless network , and wirelessly tap into one’s network (this requires the separate purchase of the Olive Sonata), thereby allowing reception of internet radio. Should extra storage space be required, an external hard drive can be connected to the Musica via a USB port. The Musica also has an A-to-D converter, thus allowing one to transfer music on vinyl to the hard drive. (As will come as no surprise to Dagogo readers, I did not use this feature.)
The unit itself is unassuming but tastefully designed, measuring approximately 17” wide, 11” deep and just under 4” tall. On the left of the front panel is the power button and a slot for CDs, below which are the expected hard buttons – – Play, Stop, Forward, Backward, Record – – which are also on the remote. On the right is a digital display and two rotary knobs – – one inner, one outer – – and four small buttons in a vertical array. The inner knob allows one to scroll up and down within a menu, while the outer knob functions similarly to the “ENTER” button on a computer keyboard, and also moves one up to the next higher level menu. The function of the four small buttons is menu-dependent; their actions are indicated by the digital display. On the back are the usual connections for power (accommodating a special plug with two small prongs), and both digital- and analog-outputs.
In the Wine Audio modded unit, the connection for the power cord is replaced with a jack for a wall-wart-type charger, and a toggle switch which allows the internal battery to power the unit, or be recharged. Vinnie estimates that the unit will run continuously for approximately six hours when the battery is fully charged. Additionally, Vinnie adds a BNC connector as he (and many others in the field) feels that the true 75 Ohm connection provides the best sound. Vinnie also sells digital interconnects; should one’s DAC not have a BNC connector, he can provide an RCA adaptor.
In converting to DC power, Vinnie’s approach was to use the battery power supply for all internal circuitry – – both analogue and digital. In addition to the battery power supply, other modifications include the following (see the Red Wine Audio website for complete info) :
* The AC input sections are removed from the power supply board, and storage capacitance for all the
power rails are significantly increased using high quality, low ESR capacitors.
* The stock output opamps, coupling caps, circuit board traces, and output relay are removed, and
replaced with a direct connection from the Analog Devices DAC chip to the RCA output jacks via a
Blackgate coupling cap. A 5V regulator is added for the analog power input of the DAC, and the
regulator is directly hard-wired to the 12V SLA battery.
* A direct connection from the RCA input jacks to the analog-to-digital converter is made via Black Gate
NX-Hi-Q coupling caps.
* Both the stock Line Out and Line In RCA jacks are upgraded with high-quality, gold-plated jacks with
Teflon inner insulator.
* Vibration damping material is applied at critical regions.
The cost of the modifications is $649, which includes a one year warranty on both parts (excluding the battery) and labor.
Interior of an Olive Symphony with a smaller hard-drive
Using the modded Musica is delightfully simple. One flicks the rear switch to the up position (down is for re-charging), then presses the front power switch. The unit takes a minute or so to boot up. Going to the set-up menu allows one to choose between various modes for downloading to the hard-drive; I consistently used FLAC. One can also change the appearance of the display, for example its brightness. Ripping a CD to the hard drive could not be easier: One inserts the CD into the slot and waits for the disc to be read; the display then provides the title and artist, and other basic information. I encountered a few discs from non-mainstream labels, the identity of which the Musica could not identify. This however did not interfere with the ability of the Musica to read the disc and download the music to the hard drive. To initiate ripping one simply presses the record button. A typical disc takes about 3-4 minutes to rip and the progress is indicated on the display, and also by gentle blinking of the record button. Once the disc has been read it can be accessed by either title or artist; note that these are arranged alphabetically by first, rather than last name. The Musica allows one to create play lists, and it can also be used as a CD player (i.e., without storing data on the hard drive); this is accomplished by inserting the disc and hitting “Play” as in a traditional CD player. This might prove useful for children or significant others who can’t be bothered learning how to access the hard drive (despite how easy this is).
Interior of an Olive Symphony with a smaller hard-drive I listened to both the stock and modded units using their internal DACs, and also as hard drive-based digital transports in conjunction with my Reimyo DAP 77 DAC. I was fortunate enough to have a variety of associated amplification and speakers at my disposal. Preamps were my reference Kondo M77, a Shindo Monbrison and an Audio Note M8. Amplifiers were the Tube Distinctions Soul monoblocks, Shindo Cortese, and Audio Note Kegon. Speakers were Audio Note An-E/SE Signature (in for review) and the incredible Shindo Latours (on loan). My thanks to Robert Lighton for providing his own M8 and Kegon for use in this review.
When used as a hard drive-based player (that is, using the internal DACs) the stock unit was, quite frankly, unimpressive. Music was dull and flat-sounding, limited at the frequency extremes and lacking in dynamic energy. In a word, boring. When I switched to the modded unit, I subconsciously went into analytical listening mode, assuming that the changes would be subtle and would require some concentration to discern. Was I ever mistaken! The modded unit was a significant improvement over the stock unit; quite frankly, I was taken aback by how much better it was. The Red Wine modifications gave the music much of which had been missing, namely presence, texture, energy and a pleasant tonal balance. While sonically not in the league of my Reimyo DAC, listening through the Red Wine Audio-modified Musica was consistently enjoyable, and non-fatiguing. While not providing the last word in detail, it provided a very pleasant listening experience with a wide variety of music from different genres.
I next used the units as hard-drive based transports in conjunction with my Reimyo DAP 777 DAC. The standard Olive Musica rivaled the two CD-based transports I have used in my system, namely a CEC-TL1x and my modded Sony. Music was devoid of the harshness that is so common with digital recordings, and had impressive coherence and tonality. I now understand the benefits of a hard drive-based system.
As impressed as I was with the stock Musica, the Red Wine Audio modifications took the unit to an entirely new level. This was largely due to an uncanny – – and almost spooky – – low noise floor, which I attribute to the battery power supply. Through the modded unit, music arose from a blacker background than I imagined possible. What I find so fascinating is how much this adds to the enjoyment of the music, though describing why this is so is not so easy. What is doesn’t do per se is make the highs clearer, or the bass tighter, or the soundstage wider/deeper/whatever. Rather, it gives the notes – – and thereby the music – – shape, form, and substance. Subtleties of the music became more apparent, and with them their emotional content. Ironically, though each note now stood out from the others, the continuity was improved. At the risk of jeopardizing my card-carrying-audiophile status, I could sum it up by saying that the music just seemed ever so much more realistic. And that’s saying a mouthful.
The Long And The Short Of It
As noted in the introduction, there are many approaches to using a hard drive-based music system. The Olive Musica is my first such unit, and my experience with it, and in particular with the Red Wine Audio-modded unit, has been enlightening. The price of the modded unit is either $1,750 or $2,250, depending on the size of the hard drive. In my opinion the modded unit is sonically competitive with CD players in that price range, and adds the incredible convenience of being able to store the music on the hard drive, the ability to stream music throughout the house, etc. Were I in the market for a CD player in that price range, I would most certainly opt for the modded Musica instead. As a digital hard drive-based transport, it bettered anything I have heard in my system, including CD drives with retail prices in excess of $6,000.
I am aware that a PC-based system with a sound card, perhaps in conjunction with a Squeezebox or ROKU, provides a less expensive alternative. As I have not used such a system, I unfortunately do not know how it would compare sonically with the Olive. However, comparisons of the stock and modded Olive units make clear the enormous sonic benefits of Vinnie Rossi’s implementation of battery power, short signal paths and carefully selected parts. One must also not overlook the ease of use of the self-contained Musica. While this may not appeal to everyone, it is a significant asset to many of us.
Vinnie’s battery-powered Clari-T amplifier, and more recently the Signature 30, have earned accolades throughout the audiophile community, both for their “bang for the buck” value and for their absolute sonic performance. In my opinion, Vinnie has scored another home run with the modified Olive Musica music server. I recommend it enthusiastically. And yes, my room is a bit neater.
Red Wine Audio Signature 300 (top)
Red Wine Audio-modified Olive Symphony (bottom)
I want to thank you for taking the time to review the Red Wine Audio modified Olive Musica. I am very pleased to read that your first experience with a hard-drive based music system was a pleasant one. I also want to thank you for comparing the RWA modified Olive to the stock unit, and I am very proud that you found it to better some pricey competition as a transport!
As you mentioned early on in the review, the Olive is such a versatile solution. I recognized its impressive capabilities last year and immediately had dreams of powering all of its functionality with clean SLA battery power. The benefits of doing so for both the analog and digital outputs really need to be heard to be believed.
Thank you for capturing this so well in your review.
Red Wine Audio
- (Page 1 of 1)