Is the CD player an endangered species? Not yet, perhaps, but it seems its crown is slipping: high-quality iPod docks are becoming more and more popular, Squeezebox and Sonos are happily carving up the middle-ground, and the high-end is left to Linn, Meridian, Naim and, now, Olive.
Who are ya?
Yes, Olive. You won't have heard of the company before, but rest assured this could well be one of hi-fi's most talked-about names in 2010.
It's California-based, founded and run by a German, and its 4HD hard-disk music server can deliver hi-fi sound so reassuringly, tweed-clad, pipe-smokingly British that even ardent CD aficionados will find it hard to bluster over.
With 2TB of storage, it's also capacious enough to satisfy the keenest digital music collector: even at best (uncompressed) quality, the Olive can accommodate up to 3,000 albums, which ought to be enough for most.
Use FLAC, which sounds perfectly acceptable to most ears, and that capacity grows to an improbable 6,000 discs.
Loading it with your music will take time, of course, although some dealers may offer disc-loading services (where your CD collection is ripped to the 4HD for you).
Great to live with
Ease of use is another major plus. The 4HD is about the same size as a regular CD player, looks a little like one as well, and, thanks to conventional control keys on its fascia, can even be used like a CD player, too.
But we think most will prefer to use its beautiful 4.3in, 480x272 resolution colour touchscreen, with its clear, intuitive and thoroughly attractive menus. It's fast, effective and readily visible from across a room.
And a free iPhone/iPod Touch app is available too – which is just as well, as the supplied remote control is more functional than desirable.
Internally, the Olive sports 24-bit digital-to-analogue conversion from Burr-Brown – which can be used as an offboard DAC for other digital sources too, thanks to the 4HD's inclusion of a digital input.
Alternatively, there are both coaxial and optical digital outputs, so if you'd rather connect your Olive into an offboard DAC or digital-ready amplifier, you're covered. And there's even an HDMI connector, so you can display the 4HD's album art on your TV.
Silence is golden
Careful attention to detail means the Olive goes about its business in silence: the hard-drives are housed on eight layers of noise-isolating material, while the fanless configuration means your listening won't be interrupted.
Out of the box, the 4HD comes pre-loaded with an audio sampler designed to illustrate its sonic potential. These are stunningly transparent – a genuine leap up in quality over 16-bit CDs. WAV and FLAC rips from ‘regular’ CDs are deeply impressive too.
Of course, as any music server ought to be, the Olive is Wi-Fi-enabled (and also sports an Ethernet connection if you prefer a wired link).
That means it can retrieve album art for your ripped CDs, gives it the ability to access internet radio and – most exciting of all – means it can stream music to up to 10 other Olive components.
The company makes its own ‘client’ players, called Olive 2: these offer a similar user interface to the 4HD, but omit the hard-disk and CD drive, and cost £650 each.
And now for the kicker. There are cheaper 500GB and 1TB versions of the Olive available, but even the most costly 2TB capacity model tested here will set you back less than half the cost of the £4,500 Naim HDX, and a third of the £6,285 tag for the Meridian Sooloos – yet in many ways it's a solid rival to both.
So, odd as it sounds for a unit of this price, this is a genuine bargain. Now do you see what we mean about Olive?