How simple do you want your music system? How about putting the CD player and amplifier in the same box? How about adding recording capabilities, ripping CDs to an internal drive and sharing music across your network as well as playing from shared libraries and delivering internet radio and USB playback? That’s Cocktail Audio’s impressive X30.
The X30’s wide raft of abilities builds on the company’s earlier X10, a remarkably compact unit at just 18cm wide and 10cm high. The X30 takes everything about the X10 and upgrades it. The casing stretches to normal hi-fi separates width, and does so in some style, solidly-built with a faceplate of 8mm-thick aluminium, in which is embedded a full-colour display. This, along with the full-size remote control, goes a long way to simplifying operation of what could be an ergonomic challenge.
Inputs run to two analogue (RCAs at the back, minijack at the front), two digital (one each of optical and electrical), and three USB-A slots, two on the back and one on the front. There is an antenna input for FM radio, Gigabit Ethernet for networking (a USB Wi-Fi dongle is optional). The outputs are interesting, too: there are solid gold-plated binding posts for your speakers, driven from the internal amplifier (2 x 50W @1kHz into 8 ohms with 0.1%THD), but there are also analogue or digital outputs (three digital, in fact, on optical, electrical or balanced AES/EBU XLR sockets). So you could choose to upgrade the conversion and/or power by using an external DAC and amplification.
Also at the back is the hard-drive tray, easily user-removable. Various HDD options will be available; this was still being finalised during this review, which was necessarily early on in new distributor International Dynamics’ plans for release — the X30 is likely to become available in Australia a short while after this issue of Best Buys hits the streets. It’s plug and play for any SATA HDDs, whether a conventional 250GB or 4TB drive, or even a solid-state drive. “Dealers will be able to source and sell their own HDDs but we also plan to provide a range of HDD options to dealers in 2014,” says InterDyn.
So note that the pricing here of $1899 does not include the drive.
One thing on the small X10 but not here on the X30 is the USB-B input, so there’s no DAC operation direct from your laptop or computer. Also interestingly, Bluetooth was planned but dropped — it had been redacted from literature we picked up in Berlin when we first met the X30 at IFA last September. Cocktail “decided to remove the Bluetooth function before we started mass production, as Bluetooth has poor quality and was not up to the standard we expect”. Bonus points for honesty and quality control, then!
Speakers connected, we powered up the X30 and, following an encouraging ‘cocktail drink’ logo, we were greeted by the eight squares of the X30’s home screen (this is not a touchscreen, no matter how much you might want to touch it).
The first square is ‘Music DB’, accessing the X30’s list of ripped, recorded or copied music on its internal hard drive. Then comes ‘Playlists’ and i-Service, the latter not available for selection until the unit has been networked. We gave it Ethernet for this, and were soon browsing internet radio stations with ease. The Cocktail uses the excellent Reciva receiver module for this, which proved rapid in its navigation and scrolling through the long lists sometimes encountered, while the front-panel screen uses big bold white-on-black text to make browsing possible even from across the room using the full-sized remote control. We did encounter a bit more stream freezing than normal, but it did a good job of delivering even lower bit-rate stations with richness and clarity, in concert with the four-ohm T+A and six-ohm Quad standmount speakers we used for listening.
For many users, the ability to rip and store CDs will be a main attraction. With a hard-drive installed, you can choose the quality at which you rip your discs (also the speed at which it does so), making that always tricky choice between quality and the quantity of songs that will fit on the drive. We chose the maximum WAV quality, which would fit about 650CDs on a 500GB drive. But you could double that without quality loss by selecting Ogg or FLAC format, or less advisably drop down to MP3 quality — 3000 CDs at 320k, 7500 CDs at 128k (but don’t do that). The CD ripping menus are confusing, because you first select ‘Bit rate’ which only offers 128/256/320k options, then the format — so implying that even WAVs, FLACs and OGGs are stored at lower bitrates. But the manual confirms that WAVs are uncompressed. It would be better to lock off the bit-rate menu when WAVs or FLAC are selected.
Ripping CDs was simplicity itself — load, wait for the X30 to identify the disc from its internet database, press ‘menu’ and rip the lot. You get a useful reconfirmation of the selected audio format.
You can also record from internet radio, FM radio or any external input simply by pressing ‘Record’ on the remote control. (This remote is solid enough but poorly organised — the transport controls are all over the place, ‘mute’ is divorced from volume controls, etc.) You can rename and reformat recordings, but you can’t edit them (other than by copying them off the X30, using an editing program and putting them back again), so it pays to be accurate on the start and stopping. Recordings apparently yield CD-quality 16-bit WAV files despite a ‘recording sampling rate’ option in the audio menu topping out at 192kHz. Internet radio saves in its native format.
Once we had a good few discs loaded in, the joys of pre-loaded music became obvious, especially with such well organised access — it’s a home-based alternative to a computer collection. But the X30 is equally happy to stream from network music shares — back on the X30’s main home screen, there’s is an option for ‘Browser’, under which, assuming you’re networked, you’ll find a NET/UPnP option which opens up full access to such shares on your network. We streamed from our NAS drives right up to 24-bit/96kHz WAV files without dropouts via Ethernet and Wi-Fi; it attempted 24-bit/192kHz but couldn’t keep the buffer full from our network. We were also able to confirm fine format compatibility, the X30 streaming (or playing from USB) not only the usual suspects of MP3, WMA, WAV and AAC, but also relative rarities such as AIFF, Apple Lossless, Ogg and even DXD (this last not tested as we didn’t have any). Top stuff.
And we enjoyed rich and true hi-fi playback from the X30’s amps; it delivered stressless room-filling music of proper hi-fi quality at reasonable and even danceable volume levels, if not quite pushing to the distortion-free levels available from our usual far pricier amplification (we’d be rather surprised if it did). To get the best, choose higher-than-average sensitivity speakers, perhaps with nominal impedance of four or six ohms rather than eight, if you have the choice.
To easily rename and organise any rips you’ve made, it’s easiest to use your computer as a controller for the X30. Go Setup/Network Services/Web Server, activate this, and then head to Networking menus to find what IP address has been given the X30. (If you’re going to use the browser controller a lot, consider giving the X30 a static IP address rather than dynamic, so you can set up bookmarks on your browser.) The browser design is fairly functional rather than beautiful, but it works well across all the browsers we tried (including Safari on a Mac and iPad, IE/Chrome on PC, and a mobile version), and even offers a virtual on-screen remote control. The X30 can also share outwards, offering UPnP, FTP and Samba serving of music on its hard drive.
One last essential — backing up! Once you’ve ripped all those CDs and recorded all those old cassettes and albums into the X30, you won’t be wanting to wake up one morning to a hard drive that’s cacked it. The X30 offers a simple back-up of the whole database of recordings — just attach a larger USB drive and follow the menus.
Versatility is the name of the game here, and the Cocktail Audio X30 does so very much that it may initially seem overwhelming! Even the company itself struggles to define the unit succinctly, calling it “Revolutionary HiFi component — All-in-one smart HD Music Server/Network Streamer/CD Storage (Ripper)/power Amplifier.” Which just about sums it up. But take one function at a time, and you become amazed at both its versatility, and the largely successful delivery of everything it does.
Cocktail Audio X30 CD/streamer/receiver
PLUS: Does a shedload of stuff... and does it well; Can upgrade HDD, amps and DAC
MINUS: Takes some time to master, Poor remote control ergonomics
Price: $1899 plus hard-drive options
Hard-drive: to order (see main text)
Inputs: minijack analogue, RCA analogue, optical digital, coaxial digital, 3 x USB, FM tuner, Ethernet, Wi-Fi (dongle)
Outputs: RCA analogue out, optical digital, coaxial digital, balanced XLR digital out, HDMI out (display only), headphone minijack
Power: 2 x 50W (@1kHz, 8 ohms 0.1%THD)
Dimensions (whd): 435 x 325 x 88mm
Warranty: One year