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In recent years, digital music has become fragmented, and fragmented again. We began the new millennium with a CD collection. Then we started sharing music files, and then buying files, and then streaming files. High-res audio became a thing. And just to complicate things, vinyl has made a comeback.

That leaves modern hi-fi with the problem of bringing it all together. And nobody achieves this more comprehensively than Cocktail Audio.

Equipment
So the Cocktail X45 aims to be the do-it-all source. But importantly, it also aims to do so at an audiophile level of reproduction. Its outputs are available not only on the usual unbalanced RCA sockets but also from balanced XLR sockets. It uses a high-quality toroidal power transformer, with separate supplies for digital and analogue circuits. Its conversion, which works on the files coming from any direction, uses dual ESS Sabre 9018K2M chips, widely regarded as the world’s best, and capable of handling high-res PCM files in pretty much any format up to 32-bit/384kHz, as well as DSD native to DSD256, with MQA-compatibility as well, so that you can take advantage of high-res streaming from Tidal.

Other streaming services are, of course, also available, and the X45 enables access to Spotify, Deezer, TuneIn’s airable internet radio service, and a number of others like Qobuz and Napster which are not, yet, officially, available to Australia. We were delighted to find it Roon Ready, should you choose to invest in that music serving software. For this networking the X45 has a Gigabit-capable Ethernet connection.

You can plug a computer into its USB-B input to play directly into its DAC. You can plug a turntable into its moving magnet phono stage and play your black vinyl. There is an additional analogue input, and digital inputs on coaxial, optical and AES/EBU sockets.

But in addition to receiving music, it also gives. That CD slot on the front panel is for ripping as well as playing, and round the back is space for a hard drive potentially up to 8TB capacity, with room for more to be attached via two high-speed USB-A 3.0 slots. The hard-drive bay takes 3.5-inch and 2.5-inch SATA and SSD drives; you can buy the X45 in various configurations or as a ‘bare’ unit without any drive. It’s worth checking with a Cocktail dealer, as at the time of writing Tivoli HiFi, for example, is including an installed 2TB drive in the ‘bare’ price.

And we’re still not done — there are DAB+ and FM radio tuners inside, and AirPlay is available too. Given all this you might think it remarkable that there’s no Bluetooth here. But we like to think this is a quality decision — why make such a capable machine then subject it to the mediocre bit-reduction of this poorest of transmission standards?

Performance
One of Cocktail’s most immediately notable characteristics is a huge front-panel LCD display, a full-colour seven-inch diagonal screen on which you can surf its menus and enjoy album art, which the X45 gathers automatically along with metadata from Gracenote, for which a two-year license is included (the fee thereafter is only around five euro a year, though metadata and album cover art is available from freedb and other sources for free).

If an on-device screen is a bit old-school for you, the X45 can show its interface on a TV via its HDMI output socket. Of course there’s an app to control everything, called Novatron MusicX, and also a web interface allowing control of the X45 from a computer.

It’s a well-built full-size unit, with an all-metal chassis and a front panel of 13mm aluminium. There’s a volume knob to the left, so you can use the X45 straight into a power amp, or you can do as we did and set it to provide a fixed full-level output into a preamp or integrated amplifier, with the volume control left out of circuit.

Also on the front are useful sockets for headphones (full-size, not minijack) and ad hoc USB and minijack analogue inputs. On the right is a push-to-select knob with ‘menu’ and ‘back’ buttons below.

Between the knobs is that enormous colour screen and the CD slot.

CD playback is straight-forward; CDs are recognised on insertion via Gracenote so that you have the track listing and artwork marvellously large on that full colour display (or your app, or browser, or however you’re controlling the X45).

Then you can choose between playing or ripping the disc. CD ripping requires a few choices, as you can have it rip in FLAC, ALAC, OGG, WAV or MP3 format; in fact everything is ripped first as WAV, then converted in the background to your chosen format. You also choose the rip speed (presumably versus accuracy). If ripping to MP3 (not that we’d advise it), you have a choice of bit-rates.
Once set, the ripping of CDs was simplicity itself — load a CD, wait for identification, press ‘menu’ and rip the lot. You can put it in autorip mode if you’re doing a lot of discs — load ’em in, autorip, spit it out. Easy. You can’t access the front panel while they’re ripping, but you can use the app to play from other sources at the same time, although this seemed to sometimes stop or restart the ripping process.

Browsing via the Cocktail app

We filled the hard drive in ways other than CD ripping as well. You can simply import files from USB or network shares — we drag’n’dropped some high-res files into the shared folder which popped up on our Mac, and then selected them for playback via the app. Couldn’t be easier.

And this is fun — any input can be ‘recorded’ at up to 24-bit/192kHz, tagged, and added to the main music database — and, indeed, easily dragged out onto another networked computer.

We salute Cocktail’s maker Novatron in including such a large, detailed and well-illustrated manual in proper printed paper book form, which makes learning such operations relatively easy. And there is remarkable versatility down in the menus, including the ability to back up the hard drive. We don’t recall ever being offered the option to change the font for the display — yet it worked, when we loaded in TrueType fonts (not OpenType, it seems) and watched the display change to a novel Rajdhani Bold font. (We were polite enough to change it back before returning our review unit.) Such were the myriad options here that we spent quite a while on our knees before the X45’s front-panel menu buttons.

Once you have a good selection of music in there, the joys of preloaded music become obvious, especially with such well organised access. As high-res files get ever larger, they become more prone to the limitations of your home network, but hard-drive storage makes them immune to that, and guarantees seamless playback (and gapless works great here too). Versatility is the name of the game here, whether you choose to store a vast collection of CD or lower-than-CD files, or fewer of the larger high-res variety.

And the X45 will not only play from its hard-drive but share it also, via either or both of Samba and DLNA. We also designated its drive as a source for Roon and served its content to other Roon-happy gear around the home, as well as back to itself from our Mac Mini via USB-B. One note on USB-B computer playback — the X45 only appears to your computer as a sound output once you select USB input. This is good in that those electronics aren’t buzzing away while you’re playing vinyl.

But it does mean your computer will disconnect whenever a different input is chosen. Mark it as your computer’s default, otherwise you may have to manually connect each time.

A Roddy Frame CD ripped to the X45 and now playing from the X45's server.

The last Cocktail we reviewed was a little lower down the range, the X35, which also had amplification included. We prefer the ability here to choose your own amplification, as then you can select a quality that can reveal the Cocktail’s excellent conversion. Of course you could also bypass the DAC using the X45’s digital outputs (which include a balanced socket) should you have a superior DAC. But that would have to be a high-level DAC indeed. We loved the X45’s delivery across its inputs, and especially from the convenience of hard drive. One folder we’d copied from our own storage was of MQA-encoded files, and the X45 successfully unfolded these to high resolution and noted their MQA status on the app, with a green dot on the ‘Now Playing’ screen to confirm MQA playback, and a blue light for the few files we have which are ‘approved’ in studio by the artist/rights holder. While we’re not yet convinced MQA offers more than efficient packaging of high-res, fine these tracks sounded through the X45, the right-channel drums of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly beautifully rendered with weight and timing while the opening vocal doodles swirled around. The delicacies of Muddy Waters’ My Home is in the Delta were similarly delightful, the wide reverb pushing around the surging vocal, the upright (and slightly flat) bass pleasingly solid in the left, the two guitars tonally and positionally separated in space.

We did AirPlay music also, and perfectly enjoyable it sounded, but why do that when you have more direct paths to playback? Still, it’s a handy standby to play from, say, a visitor’s iPhone.

ABOVE: Autocutting - the top file shows three tracks making up a full side of vinyl, recorded to the X45's hard drive via the phono input. The X45 finds the gaps according to track length and the depth of silence.
Set at 2.0 seconds, no gaps were identified (top image).
Image 2 reduces the gap to 1.7 seconds, finding one gap,
while a setting of 1.5 seconds (bottom image) correctly separates the three songs.

Finally vinyl, through the phono input — and we recorded it as well, selecting a mere 48kHz sample rate rather than the extravagant 96kHz or 192kHz options. This yielded a long WAV file of the seven songs on Side One of the 'Dead Man Walking' 3LP boxset. We’d normally just play the vinyl, of course, but for archiving digitally the X45 has an ‘Auto Cutting’ function which makes it wonderfully easy to cut a full side of vinyl into separate tracks. The manual does note “to understand this function, you need to understand each key’s function well by reading this manual very carefully”. This we did, learning to vary how it identifies the gaps between songs by specifying how quiet it has to be, and how long the gap. It displays the waveform and where it’s going to cut, working perfectly on' Dead Man Walking', though for Led Zep II we had to shorten the time to find all the gaps. (Curiously our first recording ran 8% fast, perhaps made using a 44.1kHz clock but labelled as 48kHz. This only happened only the once.) So successful was this method of vinyl archiving that we did quite a lot of it, generally using the front panel controls in preference to the large but overbusy supplied remote control.

Conclusion
A reviewer’s challenge, the X45, with such a wealth of options to explore surrounding its core of hard-drive storage and CD ripping! All the more impressive that everything here worked, worked intuitively in the main, and was delivered in beautiful quality from the X45’s generous selection of output options. We’d call it the ultimate digital source, except that it does analogue FM and vinyl replay too, so it’s not entirely digital, and besides it’s more than a source, being a preamplifier with external inputs and volume control. The specifications list is simply too huge to include here.

So we don’t really know what to call it. Let’s just call it ‘exceptional’, in a great many ways.

Cocktail Audio X45

Price: $4999 with no HDD
($4999 from Tivoli Hi-Fi with 2TB HDD included at time of publication)

+All-in-one solution
+Huge capabilities and facilities
+CD ripping and input recording

- No Bluetooth (but we don’t care)

Specifications: simply too numerous to list! Visit here.

Contact: Tivoli Hi-Fi
Telephone: 1800 848 654
Website: www.tivolihifi.com