Olive and Thiel, a music server maker and high-end speaker builder, seem to have rethought the way home audio is served, and together have cooked up an ethernet-based unit that’ll get many a geek excited. But probably not audiophiles.
The basic principle of the Olive+Thiel HD Music System is that chunky, shielded speaker cables that are typically used to hook up performance audio speakers to AV gear are basically a pain to deal with. They require careful routing, you need to install them in addition to home wiring that’s already in place, and they sometimes result in the cables being clumsily hidden under carpets or furniture.
Enter the O+T HDMS, which borrows some thinking from VoIP systems. If you can compress and transmit high-quality voice audio over a broadband Net connection, why can’t you do the same over a home ethernet network using dedicated high-quality audio protocols? Well, obviously you can–the HDMS uses nothing cleverer than ethernet cables, which needn’t be shielded or special in any way, to hook up the digital speakers (in a latency-free manner) to the main audio server box, the 4+HD. This is a digital music station all of its own, with capacity to store 6,000 CDs (presumably losslessly) or 20,000 24-bit HD music tracks on a 2TB built-in drive. It’s even got a touchscreen, and a dedicated iPhone app that will let the Apple machine act as a remote. And O+T will even rip your CDs at the factory, saving you the bother.
And that points at the first issue with this novel system: Its going to cost nearly $8,000, something for well-off geeks to work with, and geeks with existing Ethernet cabling in their home too. The second issue is that there will be a class of audiophile who pooh-poohs this idea for its digital transmission skills: They’ll argue that the sound quality simply cannot be as pure as a direct analog voltage-current wire connecting a speaker to an audio amp. Still, as more and more of us hook up HD audio and video sources to our HDTVs, this is going to be the sort of system that will gain market share–though I suspect many of us will be using a wireless solution, rather than a wired Ethernet one, since despite O+T’s claims of simplicity, there’s still a cabling issue to deal with.