Back in 1981 Sammy Hagar had a big radio hit, singing, “There’s only one way to rock.” When it comes to setting up a digital music server, however, there’s most definitely more than one way. There’s hundreds of ways, but most of us want something simple. Digital audiophiles go to great lengths to turn laptops or old towers into music servers, running them through digital-to-analog converters to boost the sound and then using any number of ways to stream the music to an audio system. The drawback of such an approach means that you have an extra computer, and that it always has to be turned on, and so on. A better solution, in my mind, is to bring all aspects of computer audio together into a single server, player and streamer. And that’s just what the Olive Opus 4 Hi-Fi Digital Stereo does. It makes its easy for anyone to corral a large music collection and access it from a single point and call it good.
The Opus 4 has a lot going for it. First, it sports an elegant design, with an angled face and a top decorated with a printed mosaic of musical styles. The chassis is cast from aluminum, which gives it some heft and also assists in reducing operating noise and vibrations. Olive touts that it can be stacked atop traditional stereo receivers – and it can and comes with padded feet – but I’m anti-stacking altogether. Keep it isolated and you’ll have no scratched surfaces, no unwanted heat dissipation or other unintended audio nasties. The Opus 4 looks great and fits in nicely with a home audio/theater system. It looks like a piece of audio equipment instead of an external hard drive. Second, it’s simple to setup and use. You don’t need to a computer or a bunch of extra wires and connections to get the Opus 4 up and running. The back of the unit is equipped with a pair of RCA analog outputs for connecting the Opus to an amplifier or receiver. Optical and coaxial digital outputs make it possible to run the Opus through an external DAC. Although Olive has fitted the unit with a good-sounding DAC of its own, I’m confident that a stand-alone DAC could take the sound to a new level.
Second, it’s easy and fun to use. Getting the Opus 4 up and running took about 30 minutes. The only parts to fiddle with are the supplied WiFi antenna, power cord and remote control. The unit walks you through setup and makes connecting to wireless router a snap – just make sure you have the router password handy. I connected the Opus 4 to an amplifier via the RCA outputs, adjusted the volume and was soon listening to music. My review unit came ready with a bunch of music spanning multiple genres, so I was able to dial in to everything from Beethoven and Michael Buble to Eric Clapton and John Mayor.
Third, memory is upgradable. It wasn’t too long ago when 100GB seemed as big as the solar system; not so now. We’re now in the Terabyte age, and for those like me with massive music collections it’s possible to fill a 1 or 2 TB drive with uncompressed music files. The Opus I received for review had 500 GB of memory, which is sufficient for most households. Such a system can hold approximately 812 CDs in WAV format, 1,433 in FLAC and 8,957 in respective MP3 and AAC formats at 128 kbit/s. Currently, the Opus 4 is offered with either a 500 GB, 1 TB or 2 TB drive. Even a music junkie would have a task to fill the 2 TB, holding some 5,778 CDs in FLAC format. But it would be fun to try!
If you’d rather watch paint dry than load a bulging CD collection into the Opus 4, Olive can help. The company offers a preload service, including the first 100 discs free of charge, whereby your server will come filled and ready to play. Purchase an Opus 4 online and choose the preload option. Bundle your CDs on a spindle, package and send to Olive using a supplied shipping label, order and tracking number. Olive will digitize your collection, converting the music to FLAC. The discs are also tagged with relevant music information (album, artist, song etc.) and album artwork. Visit http://www.olive.us/products/preload_process.html for complete pricing details.
According to Opus, the hard drive is “cushioned in 8 layers of noise canceling padding.” A passive cooling fan eliminates noise from a spinning fan. I can assert that the unit operates in glorious silence. That’s been one of the driving arguments for a hard-drive based music server versus a CD player – any CD player – that the digital bits will playback without noise associated with the working mechanisms of a CD player, no matter the build quality or price. The Opus 4 can also multi-task, which is a huge timesaver when you want to listen to music and fill the drive at the same time. It can take many hours to load the system and it’s nice to have music playing while performing the task. I suspected that the Opus 4 would bog down when asked to do two things at once, but it performed without issue every time I loaded a disc while music played. It encodes MP3 at either 128 kbit/s or 320 kbit/s, AAC at 128 kbit/s, as well as FLAC and WAV. I went with FLAC as my default encoder, as it offers uncompressed CD quality while taking up about half the space as WAV files.
The front display is actually a high-resolution (480 x 272 pixels) 4.3 inch, color LCD touchscreen that is also controllable via remote. Music can be sorted by artist, album name, album art, genre and more. Once you load the Opus 4 up with albums, it’s pretty cool to scan through the library via album artwork. Bring an album’s artwork to the forefront and press OK on the remote to access the songs.
Although the CD info came through on some rather obscure recordings such as Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs and Focus’ Hamburger Concerto, it was far from perfect. I’d estimate that 20 percent of the discs I tried to load came up empty in regards to album info. Inputting this information with the touchscreen’s keyboard is an option but not one I’d likely entertain for more than a handful of discs.
A USB port makes it easy to backup the data on the Opus’ drive to an external hard drive. I didn’t try this, but the owner’s manual suggests the process can take several hours – time well spent, though, to protect your music library. You can also transfer music stored on a computer directly to the Opus via the USB port by dragging and dropping files.
As much as I like the design of the Opus 4, its remote control is a bit disappointing. Compared to the Opus 4, it’s rather pedestrian, a plastic control that can be a finicky responder. I found the touchscreen to be more consistent and responsive to commands. The 500 GB Opus retails for $1,499, and at that price should come with a better remote. The good news is that Olive offers a free app (iMaestro) for the iPhone or iPod Touch that turns the respective piece into a remote with full functionality of the LCD display. That app looks very cool.
I was recently in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and while driving around the city I tuned into the local classic rock FM station. Beyond the Steve Miller and Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes that every rock station has played to death were a handful of songs that I had never heard before. The station placed a heavy emphasis on Canadian artists and broadcast several tunes that I wanted to know more about. Unfortunately, my timing was off and I either missed or there was no back-announcing of tracks. It was a drag hearing music that I would have likely purchased but couldn’t get artist info. That’s not a problem, though, with Internet radio and another reason for keeping the Opus 4 turned on. Unlike subscription-based satellite radio services such as Sirius or XM, the Opus 4 can connect to thousands of commercial-free digital radio stations without charge.
The choices are practically endless and adding a new station is as easy as typing in the URL. You can browse by Public & Info Stations for college, community, public, sports and talk radio. Tune into stations by region for broadcasts from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, China, France, India, Japan, Russia, Spain and beyond. Or, find music by genre including 50s-90s, bluegrass, blues, classical, folk, jazz, lounge and many more, each selection opening a new window and presenting dozens of individual streams. I’m a huge fan of Celtic music, so I dabbled with the different stations under that umbrella. Within 10 minutes I found a song that I had never heard and really liked, but unlike my Thunder Bay experience or analog tuners in general, the artist and track information was displayed before me. I recognized the artist – fiddler Ashley MacIsaac – but not the tune – “Sleepy Maggie.” I was hooked. It’s a great way to explore and discover new music, and the sound quality is excellent. If you like surfing the Web for Internet radio, you’ll love the Opus 4.
The Opus 4 comes ready for wireless (802.11g) and wired (Gigabit Ethernet) connectivity. It also , and supports WEP and WPA encryption (up to 128-bit). Olive makes a companion product called the Melody 2 Hi-Fi Multi-Room player, which when used in conjunction with the Opus 4 enables users to stream music wirelessly to 10 different Melodys. Not only that, each Melody can play a different song. So if you have a handful of the players throughout the house, the Opus 4 can serve as a master music library, letting you listen to Mozart in the office, Metallica in the living room and Marvin Gaye in the bedroom.
Tucked inside the Opus 4 is a high-resolution DAC that’s a pretty good performer. To get the best from the Opus 4, I recommend connecting it to a quality amp or receiver, and certainly to good speakers. Like a better CD player, the Opus 4 will expose a poorly recorded CD just as it will let an expertly recorded disc’s sound shine through. I really like the unit’s quiet operation, having a ton of tunes at my fingertips and a display that shows me what’s happening. It’s easy, fun and as one of my friend’s said, “That thing is cool as Sh..” Well, I don’t think Olive will use that line in its ad campaign, but, yes, it’s cool. Extremely cool.