Then Altmann told me something that made the sun burst through the clouds: “Do you have iTunes on your computer?” I did—the software, not music purchased from Apple. “You can use it to control the MUSICA.” I opened iTunes from a desktop shortcut. Voila! The Musica showed up on the left as an accessible library, just like the small collection of songs I had on the computer’s hard drive. I'm not in the Apple camp—it’s a tad cultish for my tastes—but iTunes is the best way I’ve found to manage a music database. Plus, unlike Nero, it’s available as a free download. Using it doesn't tie you to the iTunes Music Service.
I thanked Altmann and told him I’d call again if I needed help. I loaded a half-dozen more discs into the MUSICA, and some individual songs from discs that I did not want in their entirety. Like its sibling, the classical music-centric SYMPHONY, the MUSICA can categorize imported recordings by comparing their “meta data” (hidden info read only by computer) to an internal database. This makes it easy if you want to find a song by genre, artist, etc. The MUSICA can also, at your instructions, “go out” onto the Internet to acquire data about imported songs. It correctly identified the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Radiohead’s Pablo Honey as rock, The Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hot as retro-jazz, and Kool Moe Dee’s Knowledge is King as rap. But Fiona Apple’s Tidal was categorized as blues, strangely. This automated taxonomy can be overridden with the editing function, as can most data you see either on your computer’s screen or on the MUSICA’s small one.
As a card-carrying quality-conscious audiophile, I saved recordings as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files. The MUSICA also supports compressionfree RAW files (AIFF/WAV) and four levels of resolution for MP3s. The highest, 320 kilobits/second, is called “CD Quality.” The MUSICA’s 160GB hard drive holds the equivalent of 235 CDs as RAW files, 395 as FLAC, or 1045 as “CD Quality” MP3s. While that may not seem like much compared to a 40GB iPod, at an average of 12 songs per CD, 395 FLAC files translates to 4740 individual songs. That’s approximately as many CDs as I have in my collection, many of them there for one or two good cuts. The MUSICA is an attractive way to free up shelf space without having to say good-bye to favorite tunes.
The MUSICA presented an impressive amount of information about commercial CDs—titles, artists, and sometimes, composers. Mix discs, compilations, and copies were another story. Like most music fans, I have plenty of obscure recordings. Some have never been released commercially; some were made by friends; others are too far below the radar to have ever entered any public database. The mixes and compilations I imported into the MUSICA were free of meta data—no ID tags, so to speak. In such cases the MUSICA simply assigns track numbers. You can give them names if you wish, if you know them.
After loading some discs into the MUSICA, I began dragging and dropping like a maniac. Assembling playlists via a networked computer is infinitely easier than the awkward front panel method. To stream Sirius satellite radio to my main system, I use an old Sony VAIO notebook computer, connected wirelessly to the Belkin router in my office 25 feet away. (The USB port on the VAIO feeds an April Music Stello DA 100 DAC.) By entering the MUSICA’s IP address in that computer’s Web browser, I can also stream anything from the MUSICA to that system. Simultaneously, I can play other content (or the same, if I wish) through my primary computer in my office. While both of those run, I can listen to CDs via the MUSICA’s disc transport, or use the MUSICA to listen to music off the computer’s hard drive—through the MUSICA’s headphone output. Three-way music streaming requires nothing more than the MUSICA, two computers, a wireless router, and iTunes.
I don’t know what the practical limit might be for multi-room use with the MUSICA, but Olive makes a wireless receiver, the SONATA, that connects the MUSICA to any room in the house without the need for a computer. Anything seems possible within a local area network.
I asked Robert Altmann if I could connect a USB hard drive to the MUSICA and load it with music, as is possible with an iPod. I didn’t get a crisp yes or no answer, but Altmann, acknowledging copyright concerns, tactfully mentioned that “Olive music servers are Linux-based and lots of people are working on Linux apps.”
My final revelation came when I told him I hadn’t figured out how to burn a playlist to CD. There didn’t seem to be any obvious command for that in iTunes, or in the extensive access that networked computers provide. “Simple,” he replied, “Just highlight the playlist you want and press the record button.”