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Red Wine Audio Olive Musica
The Musica is fun and easy to use for the most part, being a lot like a big iPod. The first thing I did was to load up the hard drive with a bunch of CDs. It's an easy thing to do. Just stick a CD in the front panel drive slot, which then pulls it in and reads it. It then displays the name of the album with all of the songs. Then push the 'import' button on the front panel and it loads the disk to the hard drive lickety-split. I sat there and played my guitar while shuffling disks in and out of the Musica until I had built up a nice little library of different kinds of music for the review. Most listeners will probably add CDs in real time as they listen to them, building up a library of music over time. The Musica has some pretty cool features for accessing your stored music library. You can play your library randomly or search by artist, album, song and genre or create play lists. All features can be operated from the Olive's remote or its front panel. I found the features to be handy during the review process and I suspect they will even be more appreciated by listeners over the long haul.

Srajan covered the Olive's setup idiosyncrasies, using it to burn disks and the performance of its headphone output so I'm not going to (re)cover any of that ground. Rather, I'll focus on its performance in the Music Lovers context - as a stand-alone player. After unpacking, I found that the weight of the internal battery had snapped off the internal bracket that holds the battery in place during shipping, allowing the battery to move freely inside the chassis. A close inspection revealed no other damage and the Olive booted up fine.

To start the reviewing process I used the combination of a full set of Shindo electronics (Arome CD matching transformer, Monbrison preamplifier and Cortese amplifier all tied together with Shindo silver interconnects), Auditorium 23 speaker cables and my usual Avantgarde Duos in my main 20' L x 17' W x 17' H' listening and living room that opens to kitchen, dining and entryway areas in typical modern bungalow fashion. I cued up Buddy Guy & Junior Well's Alone and Acoustic and let 'er rip. I felt that the overall character of the presentation was a little too sedate and polite for my tastes, but it did provide a very cohesive picture of the music with everything being cut from the same sonic cloth. When listening to Nicolai Dunger's Tranquil Isolation, I didn't feel that British Isle maxim of pace, rhythm and timing (PRaT) expressed in any particular exuberance. The performance seemed slow and restrained compared to what I usually expect from both Alone and Acoustic and Tranquil Isolation. The ability to imbue a rhythmic foot tapping fever in my listening sessions was absent. Compared to my own Audio Logic DAC, the Musica wasn't as quick on the attack of notes and the dynamic swing between the beat of notes was much more restrained, making the music boring.

On the other hand, the Musica provided a huge and impressive sense of space of the recording venue, with a very wrap-around feel to the soundstage that extended very far outside and forward of the speakers. Soundstage depth and width were exceptional by any measure and the clarity of imaging was good with a lot of space around the images. However, there was not a lot of body or depth to the images, making the presentation somewhat more 2-dimensional than I'm used to. Resolution of detail was very very good, with excellent articulation of vocals and instrumental subtleties. Tonal color however was a little lean and bleached. I'd have liked the Musica to be more deeply hued and vibrant to make the music more interesting and emotive - and to have captured the beat of the music better.

I decided to try the Musica in my second listening room, a small and intimate setting of 11' L x 11'W x 9' H used for watching musical performances and movies on DVD or cable, or for just kicking back and listening to a little music while reading a good book and relaxing in my recliner. I thought the change of room and associated equipment would give me a better overall feel for the Musica's performance, and to see if the dynamic and beat issues were a synergy issue or an inherent character of the Musica itself. Weird and inexplicable stuff does happen in different rooms and with different equipment from time to time.

The associated equipment in my second listening room consists of the beautiful hand-made Leben CS600 30-watt integrated amplifier from Japan, Shindo silver interconnects, Auditorium 23 speaker cables and Harbeth Super HL5s resting on Skylan stands that Noel Nolan custom makes for them. This little system is a Music Lover's sure bet and you're going to hear more about it in future articles. It took me all of about 5 seconds to realize how this simpler system was a better match for the Musica. Picking back up with Tranquil Isolation, PRaT was improved enough through the Harbeths (which excel at PRaT) to provide foot-tapping moments from time to time although not to the extent I'd like to. I listened to many albums and concluded that the reproduction of space, soundstaging, imaging and recovery of detail are all strengths of Vinnie's modded Musica but I still wished the Musica's tone color were a little more intensely colorful, that there were more body -- a more flesh and blood feel -- to the images and to the music as a whole, and that the beat of the music was tracked better.

Second opinion
Compared to what? That always is the relevant question when passing judgment on a component. As a standalone CD player with its modified 1V output set to max or 20, the Olive is a second-rate machine which is outclassed by heavyweights like the Opera Audio 2.2 Linear or Raysonic CD128 whose output stages seem to have more going for them. As Jeff noted, the Olive is a bit lean, whitish and not particularly convincing in the elan or tone departments.

Naturally, its functionality compared to those machines is a different matter altogether - though at the level of personal use described in my review, the user interface at this time is decidely not of iPod quality. The fact that a PDA as glorified remote must be used to overcome the Olive's present interface limitations when not connected to the Internet makes my point.

Where the Olive completely changes colors is when it's used as a transport in magnetic playback mode from its hard drive. Once you bypass its internal DAC and output stage and use it purely as a spinner -- actually, not as spinner since hard-drive streaming removes the optical aspect altogether -- playback quality will be in the hands of your external DAC.

Now watch out as the Olive pounces on and perhaps even trounces your elite dedicated transport. That could -- and probably will -- get quite embarrassing for the transport. In short, if you use the Olive in basic import/playback mode sans Internet hookup -- as a CD transport with inbuilt library -- you're maximizing its appeal and hone in on its greatest strengths. Then it becomes a giant killer compared to traditional optical transports. How it would compare to other computer-based hard-disk servers is a subject for the computer-audio savvy to determine. Judgment always hinges on compared to what. As a standalone CD player, the Olive is beat by conventional but superbly implemented players under $2000. As a transport, the Olive retaliates fiercely and now easily competes with $5000+ dedicated conventional CD transports. - Srajan Ebaen

On a number of albums (Johnny Cash' Cash Unearthed and Townes Van Zandt's A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt for example), I noticed that the Musica could get a little shouty and edgy. This surprised me given the overly polite balance I was hearing from it in my main system. As an experiment, I inserted the Shindo Arome CD matching transformer between the Musica and Leben integrated. The Arome improved the Musica's presentation by removing much of the edginess and shoutiness while at the same time improving tone color and body and even PRaT to a small extent. The music still got a bit lean and edgy at times though. While the Arome helped, it really didn't sort things out to my satisfaction. So while my second system improved the Musica's overall musical character, it was obvious that the Musica favors a more traditional audiophile style that emphasizes sonic whiz-bangery over the more emotive music lover's balance I was hoping for.

As a third and final system evaluation, I decided to try the Musica in my main listening room system with the ASA Monitor Baby loudspeakers in for review (imported to the US by Walter Swanbon of Fidelis). These replaced my Avantgarde Duos. The combination of Shindo gear and ASA loudspeakers did indeed help ameliorate some of the issues I had with the Musica. The snappy presentation of the little ASA speakers perked up the presentation in ways that the Musica needed, making the music more interesting and engaging. Miles Davis' muted trumpet was clean and edge-free sounding, a necessity for enjoying muted trumpet, which can otherwise quickly become overtly aggressive if a system's musical balance is off. Reproduction of space, soundstaging, imaging and recovery of detail were excellent but additional body and a warmer overall balance was still needed to make the music come across as more emotive and interesting. I still had a hard time getting into the music's beat, rhythm, melody and mood but it was better in this context than in the other two systems.

Towards the end of the review, the Musica started displaying weird behavior. It would be playing along just fine and then lock up and stop playing music altogether. In order to get it to start playing music again, I had to power it down and then back up. When I did that, the Musica picked right up where it left off and played merrily along until it locked up again. That was quite disconcerting. [This problem has been reported by other users as well and is apparently due to processing overload when the Olive -- which is a computer -- attends to cloaked processes in the background. A behavioral software rewrite might address this. - Ed.]I also found the Musica to be rather noisy in normal operation just as you would expect from a spinning hard drive. I could hear it up to 10 feet away or so although not at all when music was playing.

Summing Up
really think that Olive's music center approach is the future of digital audio and I applaud Vinnie for recognizing the appeal of its feature-rich nature and selecting it to be the recipient of Red Wine Audio performance enhancing modifications. I think music lovers will fall head over heals for the features. I love the Musica's ability to create a music library on its hard drive; to create play lists; to search the music library by artist, album, genre, or song; to burn CDs; to download to an iPod; to archive analog sources; to be accessible through a computer on a network; and to listen to Internet radio, Podcasts and the like. All of that is a music lover's dream come true.

In terms of the Musica's sonic performance; the reproduction of space, soundstaging, imaging, and recovery of detail - those are all strengths of Vinnie's modded unit. I am less enthusiastic about the Musica's musical performance. It isn't as tolerant of music recorded to varying degrees of quality as I would like. The Musica would benefit from a warmer overall balance even if it sacrificed some of its space and recover detail. I had a hard time getting into the music's beat, rhythm, melody and mood in such a way that I could get lost. The Musica comes up short in PRaT and musicality.

While I believe the Musica's features would delight my fellow music lovers, I can't recommend it due to its poor musical performance and some of the quirky behavior it exhibited in operation. So I must consider the Red Wine Audio modded Olive to be a work in progress. Olive needs to do some work on the overall package to make it more reliable and I think Vinnie needs to tweak the presentation to make it more musical. Vinnie is a super guy known for excellent products and superb customer service. I'm hoping he won't take my comments lying down but will respond by tweaking his modifications to voice the Musica with more of a music lover's balance in mind. That would make the Musica much more desirable to music lovers everywhere, I think.
Red Wine Audio responds:
Dear Jeff,
I would like to thank you and 6moons for taking the time to review the Red Wine Audio modified Olive Music Server for your new Music Lovers’ Series. I do agree with you that this unit does not try to cover up poorly recorded music, so I can understand why it doesn’t fully meet your “Music Lovers’ standards.” I do appreciate your comments its sonic attributes that impressed you, as well as your description of all the amazing features that really do make this unit a “music lovers dream.”

As Srajan notes in this review, I also modified this unit to serve as a top-notch digital transport. This gives the user the option to change the sound to suite their tastes (and system synergy) with an external DAC, while still retaining all the features that make this machine a lot of fun! While many of my customers enjoy the tonal character of modified analog outputs (especially when feeding the Signature 30/70 amplifiers), some of them do move on to trying an external dac… there are so many to choose from!

Regarding the “locking up” problem you mentioned, I have found that this can happen if you rip CDs into its internal hard drive without giving the unit enough time to encode them after the ripping is finish (there is a small blinking icon on the top of the screen that shows the status). Using the included recovery CD (followed by loading the latest software version) is a fast way to eliminate this inconvenience. Olive recently released a new software update (VER 2.3.8) that is supposed to make the unit much more stable in this regard.

Thank you again for all your time and effort, and I wish you all the best with your new Music Lovers' series for 6moons!

Best regards,
Vinnie Rossi
Red Wine Audio
Red Wine Audio website