Audio Editor of Gramophone Magazine, Andrew Everard, reviews the Cocktail Audio X30

REVIEW: COCKTAIL AUDIO X30

May 9, 2014 - by Andrew Everard

Slimline casework hides a real Swiss Army Knife hi-fi component: hard-disk player, amplifier, network music server/player, Internet radio and more

The idea of storing an entire music collection for fingertip selection is an appealing one: rather than sorting through shelves of CDs or LPs – let’s face it, the neatly filed library is an attractive idea, but they all get disorganised over time – one can just summon up whatever one wants to enjoy with a few pushes of a button or clicks of a computer mouse.

But how to do it? Storing the music on a computer and playing it out through a system using a USB DAC – or even an amplifier with built-in USB capability – is one way, while another is to store everything on a Network Attached Storage device, and then access it using one of the many network music players now on the market. In other words, it’s the ‘Mac and DAC’ approach, or the full UPnP/DLNA way of doing things.

I can see the benefits of both, but there are those who’d rather not have a computer anywhere near their music collection – or at least not the computer they have in their study or on the kitchen table for emails and web-browsing –, and think the entire networking thing is a faff too far. And that’s not just among consumers, but some retailers, too!

Yes, they fancy the idea of storing all their music in one place, many because they’re decluttering or downsizing their accommodation, and fancy the idea of recovering all that space taken up by what’s now often referred to as ‘physical media’, but they’d like a simple way of doing it without going through computers and strange bits of software.

Me, I’d rip my CDs using a drive on my laptop, and record LPs using one of the USB phono stages now available – or a line-out from a suitable amplifier – and one of the free music ripping/recording packages available. Well, actually I do, but I can see how that would be a lot of fuss for many.

Keep it simple

What they want is the modern equivalent of the cassette deck, with the benefit of a mass of internal storage to keep the music safe but also ultra-simple plug’n’play installation into any hi-fi system and equally simple operation.

So what’s the answer? Well, the de facto choice – because it was just about the only choice – used to be the Brennan JB7, the little paperback-blockbuster-sized all-in-one CD ripper/player/amplifier system.

Brennan JB7Launched back in 2008, it was developed in response to company founder Martin Brennan’s desire to find ‘a better way to enjoy my modest collection of 350 CDs’: with a choice of 320GB or 500GB hard drives, the Brennan can store several thousand CDs using maximum MP3 compression, or up to 630CDs in uncompressed form.

It has a built-in CD drive for disc-ripping, and needs only the addition of a pair of speakers to form a complete system. With Brennan’s own bookshelf speakers, the whole system starts from around £500 delivered.

Trouble is, the JB7 suffers from being one of the first on the market, and not having been developed much in the intervening six years. I can see why: the rest of the industry hasn’t exactly rushed in to ape its design: true, there have been some micro-systems with similar facilities from some of the big names, and for a while Yamaha had some rather good hard disk recorder/CD players on its books, but look around now, and there’s not too much out there.

Yes, Sony has its new HAP-S1 player/system (£799), complete with built-in amplification and a 500GB hard drive, but this requires a computer and network to load it with music, as does the company’s flagship HAP-Z1ES, with a 1TB hard drive, a £1999 price-tag and the need for a very good amplifier and speakers.

What’s more, there are some music storage/playback solutions out there, but they tend to be aimed pretty high: the Olive range, for example, has offered the same all-in-one appeal as the Brennan, but with larger hard drives and prices staring well into four figures, while various companies have more friendly variations on the ‘NAS with built-in ripper’ theme.

However, with its Cocktail Audio X30 model, it looks like Korean company Novatron has all the bases covered. The more expensive of two Cocktail Audio models – there’s also the simpler X10, starting from £379 with a 500GB hard drive – the X30 starts from £969 with 500GB of storage (or you can buy it for £90 less and fit your own drive if you wish).  Models go up to £1094 with 4TB of onboard storage, or there’s a choice of 256GB or 500GB using solid-state SSD hard drives starting from £1129.

The model supplied for review had a 2TB drive fitted, giving a capacity of around 2600 CDs stored in uncompressed WAV format and sells for £1009.

What doesn’t it do?

OK, so that’s quite a hike from the £500 of the Brennan, but then so is the X30’s specification: the company describes it as a ‘hi-fi device and all-in-one smart HD music server/ network streamer/CD storage (ripper)/powerful amplifier’ – well, actually the website says ‘network steamer’, but you get the drift!

However, even that impressive list doesn’t quite tell the whole story, for it also has internet radio and an FM radio tuner built-in and, along with digital audio inputs on both optical and coaxial/electrical connections, has a single set of analogue inputs on the rear panel, allowing it to record from line sources such as external amplifiers and phono stages.

Timer recording is also possible from the internal radio tuners – and that means both FM and internet radio –, as is a range of alarm and sleep functions, and the units currently offers the Simfy streaming music service (where available), with a promise to add other services such as Rhapsody and Spotify in the future, though no timeframe is given.

The X30 can also act as a UPnP network server for music (should you have an internet radio or some other device able to access such content), and as a client to play music stored on an external computer or server running UPnP software.

Networking, should you want to use it – for updates to the onboard FreeDB database used for look-up of ripped CDs and the system’s firmware, control or internet radio –, is via either standard Ethernet or an optional Wi-Fi ‘dongle’ plugged into one of the rear USB Host ports (which can also be used to add back-up storage or extra HDD capacity).

There’s an additional front-panel port to which USB memory devices or portable players can be connected, along with a 3.5mm stereo analogue input.

Digital outputs are provided on optical, coaxial and AES/EBU sockets, and the onboard amplifier, complete with a range of equaliser and other settings accessible through the menu system, delivers 50W per channel through good-quality combination speaker terminals.

24-bit/352.8kHz

Enough yet? No? Well, alongside MP3 and uncompressed WAV formats, the X30 will play music in formats all the way up to 24-bit/352.8kHz DXD, including the increasingly popular 24-bit/96kHz and 24-bit/192kHz ‘hi-resolution audio’ formats – in fact, DSD compatibility is the only real omission here.

As well as being ripped from CDs, music can be added to the hard disk using USB storage devices or from shared networked stores.

Cocktail Audio X30 TV display

Video output is provided on an HDMI socket, allowing menus, cover art and the like to be displayed on a TV screen, an external USB keyboard can be used for titling or tidying of metadata tags, and – as well as Cocktail Audio supplying a (very) comprehensive handset – remote control is offered using either a web-based interface including a virtual on-screen remote handset, or via third-party smartphone/tablet apps such as Eyecon for Android devices and Kinsky for iOS.

The menus allow a wide range of adjustments including a choice of ripping codec and bitrate, whether or not gapless playback is required – that’s a yes, then – and which inputs and outputs are in use. So for example you could turn off the internal power amplification and use the X30 as a conventional hi-fi source into an external amp, or switch them on and add a pair of speakers for a simple all-in-one system solution.

In other words, this is a real Swiss Army Knife of a hi-fi component, able to do just about anything anyone could want when it comes to recording, storage or playback of music in digital form – yes, it’ll even function as a CD player.

Complex, not complicated

Yet it carries its amazing flexibility extremely lightly, being simple to use via a logical interface on its own display or a TV screen, or indeed a computer screen. Using that interface, you can access the most-used functions quickly and easily after only a short period of familiarisation, or dig deeper into the menus to make fine adjustments.

The more I use the X30, the more I’m appreciating the combination of comprehensive specification and performance on offer here – and yes, this unit is built to perform. It’s built on a solid chassis with a high-quality aluminium front panel almost 1cm thick – all useful for keeping vibrations at bay – and under the lid uses the tried and tested Burr Brown PCM1792A DAC, with close attention paid to the clocking and digital circuitry, and separate supplies for the audio section and the ‘computer’ bits.

cocktail audio x30 hdd slotHard drives can be changed easily if required – undo two knurled bolts and the carrier slides out –, and there’s a choice of Linux or NTFS formatting for the internal storage, the former apparently giving faster operation.

An external USB drive can be connected to provide a backup for the onboard device, with automatic backups. I’d firmly suggest any buyer of the X30 takes full advantage of this last facility – if you’re going to put your entire music collection on a device such as this, then a backup is not just a sensible precaution, but a must-have.

No reflection on Cocktail Audio, but hard drives can (and do) fail, so spending an extra £100 or so on a second drive to run as a backup is infinitely preferable to having to start again and re-rip a huge music collection.

Having lived with the X30 for a while now, using it both via its internal amplification and as a line-level source into my usual reference system, I can safely say this is one of the more enjoyable products I’ve encountered in recent times. Using the internal amplification it’s more than capable of driving a wide range of speakers, from ‘bookshelf’ designs to the likes of the B&W 684 S2, to very good effect, and while it will be outgunned by good dedicated amplifiers in the £500ish arena in pure hi-fi terms, the sound on offer is extremely impressive for a unit of this kind, and way beyond what one might expect from a less expensive all-in-one system.

Playing it safe?

In absolute terms it’s slightly light in the bass and a little soft in the treble, but this is no hardship in the context of the total package, and gives the X30 an easygoing style well suited to the relatively modest speakers with which such a system is likely to be used.

Certainly with the B&Ws it sounds very enjoyable indeed, whether playing the various ‘world’ styles of the latest Kronos Quartet album A Thousand Thoughts or some vintage Muddy Waters, while with the atmospheric ‘recorded as live’ tracks on The Dodge Brothers’ The Sun Set album the studio ambience and presence are rendered very well.

And the onboard amplification has plenty of punch, too, delivering dynamics in a satisfying fashion, and giving everything from flat-out rockers to big orchestral works fine weight and slam.

Yes, a bit more bass extension and conviction wouldn’t go amiss, along with a shade more sparkle in the treble, but the low end is always fast and tight, and there’s no nasty treble shriek to upset even slightly forward speakers.

A better source

All of which makes the X30 a convincing proposition as an upmarket system solution for anyone wanting to store and play a large music collection, but there’s rather more to it than that: connect its line outputs to an accomplished integrated amplifier and it will show exactly what it can do as a stereo component. It becomes clear that, while the onboard amp is good enough, the X30 has more to give when played through a better amp, gaining low-down weight and crunch and with the top end opening up a bit more and revealing better detail and presence.

Cymbals and tuned percussion have better sting and tonality respectively to match that bigger, more substantial bass, while the midband also fills out appreciably, giving better character and timbre to voices and instruments alike.

True, the Cocktail Audio player isn’t quite in the same league as the very special Sony hi-res audio player, but then the Japanese battleship is around twice the price, and of course lacks most of the X30’s facilities. And while it may lag a little behind the very best streaming set-ups using NAS/network player or ‘Mac and DAC’ configurations, the Korean player has a huge amount going for it when it comes to allowing a direct connection to the music and presenting it in an involving, enjoyable manner.

cocktail audio x30

Having heard a few of these all-in-one systems in the past, and having had that ‘it’s not how well it does it; it’s that it does it at all’ sense of slight disappointment. I have to say I came to the Cocktail Audio X30 with what I thought were sensibly modest expectations, but this smart, well-sorted system went way beyond them thanks to its combination of flexibility, solidity of build, ease of use and above all performance.

Having for a while had to shuffle my feet and think very hard when asked for a recommendation of a do-it-all digital storage/playback system beyond the entry-level budget models, I now have one I can suggest with confidence, whether the user is looking for a ‘just add speakers’ solution or a component to use with an existing system.

Beside some of the more ‘designer’ offerings from the Japanese and Korean rivals the Cocktail Audio may look a bit plain (though I’d call it ‘purposeful’), but when it comes to quality and value for money, it’s got what it takes – and in spades.

Cocktail Audio X30

Hard-disc/network ripper/server/player | £1009 (as tested)
Disc formats read CD, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R
File formats played APE/CUE, HD FLAC/HD WAV (at up to 24-bit/352.8kHz), MP3, FLAC, WAV, WMA, M4A, AAC, ALAC, AIFF, AIF, Ogg Vorbis, PCM, PLS, M3U
Tuners Internet radio, FM RDS (RDS in Europe only)
Digital inputs Optical, electrical (up to 24-bit/192kHz)
Analogue inputs One set RCA phonos (rear), 3.5mm stereo (front)
Digital outputs optical, electrical, AES/EBU
Analogue outputs Line on RCA phonos, speakers, headphones
USB One front, two rear
Other connections HDMI for display output Network connections Ethernet, Wi-Fi using optional USB adapter
Power output 50W per channel
Display 5in (12.7cm) TFT LCD, 800×480 pixel
Remote control Handset supplied, web interface or third-party Android/iOS apps
Prices £879 (w/o hard drive), £969 (500GB), £989 (1TB), £1009 (2TB, as tested), £1094 (4TB), £1129 (256GB SSD), £1359 (500GB SSD). Also available with 2.5in HDD in place of 3.5in drives, at £969 (500GB) or £989 (1TB)
Optional accessories Wi-Fi dongle £34, stereo speakers £99/pr
(All prices from Cocktail Audio’s UK online shop )
Finishes Black, silver
Dimensions (WxHxD) 43.5×8.8×32.5cm
www.cocktail-audio.co.uk
www.cocktailaudio.com

Written by Andrew Everard