There's no denying that digital music has revolutionized the way we buy and listen to our music. There is a cost to pay for such convenience though as the most widely available download formats suffer from loss of sound quality to varying degrees. This is where digital music players like the Olive Opus 4 come in, offering the superior sound quality of CD and the functionality of a digital music player in one unit. Enjoying lossless sound and practicality of use does seem to come hand in hand with a hefty financial outlay, so is it worth it?

According to the IFPI, which looks after the interests of the music industry, digital music sales worldwide rose by 25% in 2008 to USD$3.7 billion and this trend is expected to continue. Most of those downloads will have been in a format where some of the original input data is sacrificed to make the output file size smaller (such as MP3 and AAC). As a result, some sound quality is lost. To what degree is the subject of much, and often heated, debate. Whether it's noticeable depends as much on the listener as it does the audio equipment being used.

Digital audio files that don't suffer any loss of quality (FLAC and APE for instance) weigh in with huge file sizes, upwards of 300MB per file is common. Comparatively, a quality MP3 conversion of Pink Floyd's audiophile favorite "Money" tips the scales at a mere 14MB. Quite a difference.

But if you're a quality-at-all-cost kind of person then there are numerous digital players available that will satisfy your need for CD or vinyl quality audio output but without having to worry about finding enough room to store those troublesome discs.

The digital solution

San Francisco based digital audio specialist Olive has just recently updated its range to include the new Opus No4 which, according to the company PR: "uses the latest technology to combine hi-fi sound quality and easy digital music access in an elegant design with a compelling price point."

Unlike other high-end digital music players such as the Sonos solution or the Morpheus from Sonneteer, the Opus No4 is not just an extension for existing audio players or the home PC. The Opus No4 can play files from your PC or your media player of course - supporting playback in WAV, FLAC, MP3 (128 and 320 kbit/s), AAC (128 kbit/s) - but unless the original files are in high quality, lossless format then there seems little point.

The main purpose of the Opus No4 is to take your existing CD collection and convert all those treasured tracks into lossless FLAC digital audio files and store them in one place, allowing you to remove those space hogging discs and put them out of the way, and still benefit from quality audio. If you decide to rid yourself of your CD collection altogether once all your music has been ripped to the unit (which may help offset the cost), then there's no need to worry should you need a physical disc afterwards. Simply pop in a CD-R/RW and burn away.

The unit also comes with thousands of Internet radio stations already programmed in, the option to let Olive take care of loading in your music collection before it's sent to you is also available (Olive will rip the first 100 CDs onto the Opus for free, after that a "nominal fee per CD" will be levied) and for an additional fee, playback can be extended throughout the home using the Melody Hi-Fi Multi Room Player.

Once the unit is all set up and ready to go, the intuitive 4.3in (480 x 272 pixels) color LCD touchscreen interface or familiar CD-type control buttons can be used to direct the flow of sound. And the funky graphic pattern on the top of the aluminum casing is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Pay the piper

Different sizes to suit different budgets are available, the 500GB model will set you back USD$1499, the 1TB $1599 and the 2TB monster capable of storing 6000 CDs will cost $1799. This puts the cost of the Opus No4 somewhere in between the not-so-good-looking Sonos audio system and the beautiful but very expensive Morpheus. Whilst the latter units simply stream music from existing sources, the Opus No4 additionally offers the facility to digitally convert and store your music collection so that it's all in one place. Worth the cost?

Personally I've played the previously mentioned Pink Floyd track in lossless FLAC, in 320 kbit/s MP3, on CD and on vinyl. In my limited and totally unscientific tests, it was vinyl that came out top. It's always going to be a subjective call, but it's obviously advisable to weigh up the storage and functionality convenience and listen to the different formats for yourself before deciding whether to part with all that cash, or just opt for a decent, modern hi-fi system.

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