The vast majority of the 4HD is the same as the 4 we reviewed last month.
But that’s not to say all. The 4HD lives up to its moniker by offering storage and playback of high-resolution audio files, up to 24-bit/192Khz on its 2 terabyte hard drive. More bits are always good. As are a few cool new features.
As Lauren found in her review of the 4, the 4HD is wrapped is a gorgeous aluminum enclosure with genres of music etched on its surface. Under the skin is the afore mentioned 2 TB hard drive, along with a BurrBrown PCM1792A DAC.
On the back you’ll find an HDMI output, which isn’t on the 4. This places the Olive’s interface up on your big screen for you to navigate, check out track details, and so on.
The small touch screen works well, though it could use to be a little faster, and lets you navigate by layers through genres, artists, playlists and so on.
Functionally, there is little different with the 4HD over the 4, so let’s skip to the part that’s different and very cool.
Why High Res?
CDs are 16-bits sampled at 44,100 times each second. This is fine, and was pretty cutting edge in the late 70s when CDs were being developed. But these days we can do a lot better. DVD-Audio had more bits and a higher sampling rate and sounded amazing as a result. Technically SACD had fewer bits (a grand total of 1) but a sampling frequency of 2.8 mHz. The result was effectively the same; much higher quality than CD. Play either format back to back with CD, and I guarantee 100% of people would be able to hear the difference. Sadly, most people didn’t think they would be able to, hence the deaf of these awesome formats.
Thankfully, these days we don’t need discs for good audio. As much as iTunes is the bastion of lots of choice for no sound quality, there are certain sites where you sacrifice selection, but get much better sound quality instead.
Such sites as MusicGiants.com and iTrax.com offer high-resolution downloads for not much more than you’d pay for songs on iTunes. Dennis did an article on this a while back that’s still really useful.
When it comes to the 4HD, you get 12 tracks already installed to get your high-res library jump started. These are all from Chesky records, and are a mix of jazz and classical.
As I said above, I’m positive you’ll be able to hear the difference with the high-resolution tracks, though it’s not like watching basic cable and then turning on the HD channel of the same thing. The difference is often more subtle. There is more air around the voices and instruments. Another way to tell is in the timbre of the instruments. Every instrument just sounds a little more realistic, a little more lifelike. The result is audio that is easier to listen to. At higher volumes, high frequencies are less fatiguing. You’re less inclined to “turn it down” because it’s too loud. It’s not too loud, it’s just crappy audio.
Rebecca Pidgeon’s “Spanish Harlem” from her The Raven album, one of the supplied tracks, is an excellent track to demonstrate all that is good about high-resolution audio. You can hear the strings make the notes, not just “bass notes.” Pidgeon’s voice has a airy feel, like she recorded the song on stage.
To be sure it wasn’t just the high resolution audio that was causing the 4HD to sound so good, I put in several of my standard tests CDs to test the DAC on its own. There’s a smoothness to the sound through a good DAC, and that was apparent here. I recommend comparing the analog outputs of the 4HD to the DAC in your receiver/pre-pro (as in, hook it up via optical or coax). Depending on your equipment, the analog out of the 4HD may be the better option, as the DAC sounds really good. There’s even a digital input on the back so you can use the 4HD as a DAC for another digital source.
The improvements over the standard 4 are enough that I’d definitely recommend getting the 4HD over the 4. That’s not to say the 4 isn’t a great product, but for the extra $200-500, the high-res capability, HDMI out, and digital input are enough to lean me towards this one.