How simple do you want your music system? The time-honoured approach of hi-fi separates has been to have a separate box for each function — a couple of sources, tape deck, amplifier and so on. That takes up a lot of space, and uses a whole lotta cables.
So how about putting everything in one box? How about adding an internal hard drive which can not only store music files but can also make recordings from anything plugged in? How about networking the box so it can deliver internet radio and network streaming, as well as USB playback?
That’s Cocktail Audio’s impressive little X14.
Cocktail Audio has a range of full-size hi-fi components, but the X14 is clearly designed as their pint-sized power pack. Despite being just 18cm wide and 10cm high, it includes both amplification and an internal hard drive — internal storage is a key part of the attractions of these Cocktail Audio units. The X14 takes various 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch SATA or SSD hard drives, but it is being sold here with a 2TB drive fully pre-installed. In our unit this reported 1.819TB of space as available for storage.
Given the X14’s size, it’s not as festooned with inputs as are larger Cocktail units. Round the back (see overleaf) there’s a single analogue input and no digital inputs at all, at least not of the optical or coaxial plugged up type, nor USB-B for a direct computer connection. There’s no turntable phono input either. But there are three USB-A slots to which external storage can be attached. And we were surprised to find Bluetooth, which Cocktail has previously omitted, partly as a stand against its transmission quality. Here, however, it has relented to market demands and includes Bluetooth with both AAC for Apple users and aptX for those Android phones which support it.
We reviewed a previous mini all-in-one Cocktail some five years ago, the X10, which had a CD drive. The new X14 doesn’t have CD — a sign of the times. You can, however, plug an external CD drive into one of the USB sockets, not so much for playing CDs, but for ripping them into that hard drive. Another bonus for Australian purchasers is that Tivoli Hi-Fi is supplying a compatible CD drive with every X14, so you’re fully set up for CD ripping from purchase.
With this 21st-century hi-fi, you soon discover why you don’t need too many traditional inputs. Once networked using either Wi-Fi or preferably the Gigabit-capable Ethernet, the Cocktail X14 can access music subscription services including Spotify Connect, Deezer and Tidal (and can unfold MQA files from Tidal if you have the higher-level subscription). There’s internet radio built in. And it can stream over the network via UPnP/DLNA or Samba, and is exceedingly file format friendly, supporting HD FLACs and WAVs up to 24-bit/192kHz, DSD up to DSD128 (and DXD to 24-bit/352.8kHz), and a host of other types from Apple Lossless to APE and Ogg. And of course the common MP3s, AAC and WMA files.
You get a full-size and well-stocked remote control, but Novatron’s Music X app is an essential for zipping around the X14’s many abilities. It works especially well at phone size (whereas on a tablet half the screen is left blank much of the time), while of course there’s no ignoring the X14’s full colour 5-inch TFT display which dominates the front panel, and which shows full colour artwork where available, along with the great many menu options you can access to tweak EQ, recording quality, and literally hundreds of other things. Cocktail likes to provide options wherever it can!
Despite the relatively few inputs on the X14, we soon had plenty plugged into it. Speakers into the good-quality binding posts, an Ethernet cable to our network, a big USB drive of high-res audio into one of the USB slots, and our pre-amp’s record outs into the single analogue input so we could play via our usual USB DAC and, indeed, our turntable. One reason we wanted our turntable to be available was the X14’s ability to record onto its hard drive, and even better, to automatically analyse a 20-minute side of vinyl and spot the track breaks. We’ve got the hang of this from previous Cocktail reviews (and again you get an excellent full printed manual with the X14 which walks you through everything), and this is one of the easiest and most effective ways to archive vinyl we’ve ever used. (After the review we held onto the X14 for a week to get through a nice pile of LPs. The waveform analysis for splitting tracks is shown on the smaller screen image on the previous page.)
Ripping CDs benefits from connection to the Gracenote service, which identifies and names discs very usefully. You only get this licence for two years, but thereafter you can use FreeDB, which is, as you might guess from the name, free. Otherwise you can easily rename any recordings (vinyl for example) using your computer as a controller for the X14. To do this you have to delve into the menus, going Setup/Network Services/Web Server, activating this, and then heading to Networking menus to find what IP address has been given the X14. Open that on your computer browser and it’s easy to change track information, reorganise your hard drive library, and do other things such as setting internet radio preferences and favourites.
Similarly you can use FTP to transfer files to and from the X14’s hard drive directly, either loading high-res files in for later playback, or copying over recorded albums for storage elsewhere. You can also copy files into its hard drive from a connected USB drive or network share. It’s more than just a music machine, the X14, it’s a music organiser!
We played via Roon (the X14 is officially Roon-ready), Spotify Connect, from our high-res files on a USB drive, from our preamp (recording some vinyl), from the internet radio, and from our phone using AirPlay, which seems semi-officially included as ‘SharePlay’. And once we’d copied files into its hard drive, we played the best way of all, from its hard-drive storage, removing the vagaries of network, streaming — straight from the drive to the DAC circuits, which use a Cirrus Logic CS4350 DAC chip (unless you choose to use the digital outputs and send the signal elsewhere).
Although the ampification is rated as just 30W of Class-D power, we were surprised how healthy this sounded even driving a large pair of monitors — the Jeff Buckley ‘Live at Sin-E’ LPs we were archiving sounded magnificently real, these intimate café recordings laden with room atmosphere, his vocal heavy with desk reverb. Running through some of our favourite high-res music there was a clear tendency to brightness rather than smoothness when playing through such revealing speakers; a pair of mid-level standmounts smoothed this out, but if you
have a high level of system, you’d be better looking at Cocktail’s source-only products, such as the Sound+Image award-winning X45.
One last essential — backing up! Once you’ve ripped and recorded into the X14’s drive, you won’t be wanting to wake up one morning to a hard drive that’s cacked it. The X14 offers a simple back-up of the whole database of recordings; just attach a larger USB drive and follow the menus.
It looks so simple, but it does so much. Spend time getting to know the X14 and it rewards with a whole hub full of goodies, led by its wonderful hard-drive playback, but supplemented by all the streaming and networking you could desire.
Cocktail Audio X14
Price: $1599 with 2TB hard drive installed
+ Hard-drive and network playback of all main formats; Roon ready
+ Access to streaming services
+ Recording and auto track-splitting
+ Amplification too
- Limited physical inputs
- Moderate output power
Inputs: 1 x RCA analogue, 3 x USB-A, Ethernet/Wi-fi, Bluetooth (AAC & aptX), AirPlay/SharePlay, Roon ready
Outputs: Speakers out, analogue pre-out, optical digital out, coaxial digital out, headphone out (minijack front)
Power out: 2 x 30W Class D
Dimensions: 180 x 100 x 150mm
Contact: Tivoli Hi-Fi
Telephone: 1800 848 654