Olive Symphony
Olive
Looks like a normal CD player, right?  But, the iPod-like display is a clue that the Olive Symphony is a lot more than that.
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 4/26/2006 8:00:03 PM ET 2006-04-27T00:00:03

It looks and acts just like a CD player. It plays CDs and hooks into your stereo system.

Take a closer look at Olive’s Symphony, however, and you can tell there's more going on underneath. A lot more.

The Symphony is actually a multi-faceted personal computer with the sole purpose of managing and distributing your music files. And it's terrific.

Want to just plunk in a CD and play it? The Symphony can do that. It can also rip that CD to its hard drive, and use a built-in database to recognize and tag the individual tracks.

Want to listen to one of the several thousand songs you've already got digitized and stored on your home computer? It can do that, too -- because the Symphony is a computer, once you hook it up to your home network it can access any file on that network. And if that network's connected to the Internet, the Symphony can access and play Internet radio stations.

And it can play all of this music through your expensive stereo system, instead of through the tinny speakers of your computer or the headphones of your iPod. Because while it's a PC, it's also an audio component.

The Symphony has normal stereo RCA jacks for inputs and outputs as well as a coaxial and an optical digital port. There’s also a headphone jack in case you like keeping your music listening to yourself.

The Symphony measures 7.1 by 11.4 by 3.3 inches and weighs a little more than 13 pounds.  Inside the box is a Power PC processor and a 2.5 inch, 80GB hard drive (up to 20,000 compressed music files). There is a 4-port 10/1000 Ethernet switch and 2 USB (2.0) ports on the back and built-in 802.11g WLAN wireless networking.

CDs are handled by a Panasonic CD-R/RW drive. When the Symphony rips tracks, it can record into AIFF, WAV, FLAC, MP3 and MP3 VBR files.  It can play what it records as well as PCM, ACC, OGG and WMA files.  I used WAV for the best sounding results.

Set-up is pretty straightforward — as long as you realize that you’re setting up an audio component and a computer at the same time. The audio part was easy: connect the Symphony to your amplifier, plug into the AC, add a CD and enjoy.

Setting up the computer side was a little trickier for me. I had one heck of a time getting Symphony to be seen on my wireless network. After a bunch of phone calls with Olive’s help experts we were able to figure out what information I had to enter (and where) to get everything to work properly.

On the other hand, while it may be more difficult to set up than your average CD player, it's a heck of a lot lot less difficult than trying to figure out how to deal with a computer for the first time. On the whole, think in terms of dealing with OS X rather than Windows XP.

Terrific sound quality
Once it's set up, operating the computer parts of Symphony is similar to operating an iPod or other digital audio device. The 7-line, backlit display looks a whole lot like what you’ll find on an iPod. There are also the usual CD player buttons for straight CD playback as well as a two-level jog-shuttle controller for listening to tunes you’ve placed on the hard drive.

CD playback is pretty straight forward and CD ripping is easy. It was very easy controlling all the other functions too. The wireless remote control allows you to handle everything except for ejecting a disk.

More important is the sound. The Symphony sounds great. CDs played through the regular, analog outputs sounded great to me. When I compared it to my super-duper Sony SACD deck, the Sony sounded better — a little more dynamic. Then again, it should. It costs more than three times as much.

Through the digital outs, the Symphony sounded even better. But then again, I was listening through two expensive DACs (Digital Audio Controllers) which cost more than the Symphony itself. Overall, the sound of the Symphony is very satisfying, however you listen. Olive says it’s perfect for classical music. I think everything I played (classical, jazz, folk and rock) sounded terrific.

I loved having the option of listening to Internet radio through the Symphony. Although CDs sound a lot better, I did find some interesting music streams were available to me.

I did find one thing I’d improve. Although Symphony was able to recognize and label most of the CDs I ripped, there were a few foreign disks that it just could not figure out. The information wasn’t in the built-in database — and couldn’t be found on the Internet via the wireless connection. Both my PC and new Mac were able to find that information on the Web.

That said, the Symphony is a wonderful device. It retails for $899 on the Olive Web site, and is actually one of several models available. The Musica’s ($1,099) 160 GB hard drive can store as many as 40,000 compressed files, twice the capacity of the Symphony. Soon to be released is the $3,000 Opus with advanced circuitry and a 400GB drive. I can’t wait.

Highly recommended.

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