I Hear A Symphony

Finally, a system that respects classical music


Lovers of classical music, though relatively few in number, are deep of pocket. Yet the digital music revolution has all but ignored them. The classical selections available online are limited, and the quality of downloaded music is inadequate for serious listening on good audio systems. The lack of sensitivity to this genre, in all its forms, is clear when the classical section of Apple's (AAPL ) iTunes Music Store lists a recording of Yo-Yo Ma playing J.S. Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello as one of its "Top Songs."

Even when you rip your own CDs to hard drives, things are still unhappy in classical music land. Most computers' sound quality is poor, and networked players that connect to your audio system, such as the Roku SoundBridge, have no concept of a symphony as a single work divided into movements, or that it's annoying to have a pause inserted between tracks in an opera.

The $899 Symphony from startup Olive Media Products is the first digital player I have seen outside of the world of five-figure custom-installed systems that really handles classical music properly. The Symphony copies your CDs to a hard drive as a PC or an iPod does, but in the way classical music should be done: at top quality and with respect for the integrity of the works. You immediately notice two things when you turn it on: a liquid-crystal display readable from across a room and the almost total lack of noise, the result of using a super-quiet hard drive and no cooling fan.

YOU LOAD MUSIC ON TO THE SYMPHONY simply by inserting a CD into a slot and pressing the "Import" button. While it can save the files as MP3s, it makes more sense to use FLAC lossless compression, which cuts the storage requirement of a CD about in half. The 60-gigabyte drive -- the largest currently available in the ultra-quiet design used -- will hold about 200 CDs worth of music. Importing your CDs one at a time gets tedious, so Olive offers a deal. You send the company your CDs when you order a Symphony, and it will ship the player with your music loaded; you pay just for the round-trip shipment of the disks. The Symphony can also play CDs directly, and I could not tell the difference between the original and the ripped version on Symphony, not only in sound quality but the spacing of tracks. If the CD has no gap between, say, the third and fourth movements of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, neither will the Symphony version.

The controls of the Symphony are modeled on the iPod's. Turning a wheel on Symphony's front panel lets you scroll up and down through a list, while turning an outer ring left or right moves you up or down through menu levels. The player comes with data on about 2 million CDs -- most anything commercially available -- and this can be updated if your Symphony has a wired or wireless connection to the Internet.

The Internet connection can also be used to play music stored on a Mac or Windows PC or to play the Symphony's music on a computer. But I found that a standard wireless network has trouble with the lossless compression; the music was plagued by brief but very jarring interruptions when handled this way.

My biggest disappointment with the Symphony was the Mac-only Playlist software, which allows you to create play lists and to edit music descriptions using a greater variety of data than that allowed by iTunes and other player software. But the program is seriously buggy, and Olive is in the process of rewriting it. A version for Mac, Windows, and Linux should be out early next year. In the meantime, you can edit on the Symphony itself, but the process is painful.

The lack of good PC editing software makes it hard to clean up the numerous errors and omissions in the CD database, but this is mostly just a nuisance. The Symphony stands on its own as the first affordable player that really treats classical music with the respect it deserves.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

Corrections and Clarifications In "I hear a symphony" Technology & You, Dec. 5), the hard-drive capacity of the Symphony music player is 80 gigabytes, not 60.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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