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Cocktail X30 Media Player Review

02.09.2015 11:32

What is the Cocktail X30?

I have made no secret over the time I have been reviewing for AVForums - and indeed beyond - that I greatly prefer network and streaming audio products to conventional CD playback. Not having to have big stacks of discs hanging around is ideal for me and having decent amounts of network storage has benefits beyond music enjoyment. Sonically, I’ve read the various arguments that streamed audio doesn’t sound as good as CD and to be completely honest, I’m fairly unconvinced by most of them. If I connect a streamer to a DAC with a distinctive sound, it sounds like the DAC.

I freely admit though that networking has limits and downsides. I went to see some friends recently who have moved to an impressive old house in the country. The solid walls are completely unsuitable for wired networks and contain a material that kills wireless signals dead. I can imagine that if you work with networks during the day, coming home to one might be a faff. While I don’t subscribe to the idea you are ever too old to learn to do something (except possibly Minecraft), I understand the belief amongst some older members that they don’t feel up to the task of getting up and running with the various bits and bobs. 

So what can you do if you want to ditch the discs but don’t want to mess about with NAS drives, ripping software and other components? Well, Cocktail Audio might have the answer. The X30 is a network audio player that has ripping and storage built in. It additionally has an impressive clutch of inputs and outputs, a 50 watt onboard amp and full colour display. Additionally, it can then be used like a conventional network player over a network. Is this the solution to networking reluctance? 

What are the specifications of the X30?

Cocktail Audio X30 What are the specifications of the X30?
Essentially, the X30 is an all in one system that has the ability to both play and rip CDs to an internal drive. This ripped material can in turn be played as well. The Cocktail then offers digital, USB and analogue inputs and an FM tuner. If you connect it to a network you can then stream material over UPnP (or use the material on the Cocktail on other devices) and access the content via a control app. Not enough? Well, you can also send the front screen information to another screen via HDMI and access various streaming services. In other words, the X30 does almost everything you could possibly want except actually make cocktails and I’m sure if you give Cocktail Audio time, they’ll crack that too via a software update. The only input you could legitimately ask for is a computer USB connection but equally, if you need a connection of this nature, you might not be the target market for such a potentially standalone product. 

Neither are there any immediate signs of savage economising to achieve this monumental spec. The internal amplification is class D but this is hardly the bargain basement choice of old and the supplied measurements are perfectly good. The X30 is 24/192kHz capable and has decent gapless playback and none of the inputs have any delays or pops to them. True enough, not everything is quite as premium in perception. The full colour display is laid out like a touchscreen and looks like a touchscreen but isn’t and the remotes (for reasons I never fully divined, two were supplied) are big plastic efforts with more buttons than the Apollo program on either of them. Overall, though the Cocktail presents impressive value. The build is good and everything feels solid and carefully assembled.
There are other useful facilities too. The X30 makes use of a preloaded Gracenote database to tag CDs even when not connected to the internet (and it did a fairly good job on ten albums selected at random and with differing levels of obscurity) and offers a range of compression options from completely as is through to 128kbps MP3. While the Cocktail is limited to CD resolution going in via the drive, it seemed happy with the various high res sample rates I tested over USB.

Any downsides to the X30?

Cocktail Audio X30 Any downsides to the X30?
The ‘tested over USB’ is significant because while the X30 is impressively handy in networking terms, it is not fitted with internal wireless or a wireless aerial. The options for network connectivity are the Ethernet socket (which is gigabit capable) or by attaching an aftermarket wireless USB dongle. As I have put my wireless dongle ‘somewhere safe’ meaning I won’t rediscover it for another two to three years, I had to use a temporary Ethernet cable to make it strut its network stuff which could not stay in situ as it is a considerable trip hazard. The good news is that connected this way, the X30 is entirely stable but if you intend to site it any distance from your router, fairly impractical. While there is no arguing with the spec and feature count, omitting wireless seems to be a curious decision. 

There are some other minor irritations. The boot up time is fairly leisurely and the response to the remote isn’t always instantaneous but these aren’t too problematic from my perspective. There is also no compression options for the FLAC setting and if you are operating in an otherwise all Apple ecosystem, the Cocktail is capable of using all the Apple friendly formats but not encode to them.
I have to concede that I can’t assemble a collection of equipment that does the same amount of things for the same amount of money as the Cocktail even if you make the assumption that a computer is available for ripping and tagging. With this taken into account, I can tolerate the software not being as bombproof as some more expensive UPnP rivals and there being some limitations to the operability but I’d have personally traded some of the thickness of the metal casework for built in wireless. If you are well up on your homeplugs or have a router to hand, your opinion may differ on this. Alternatively, if you have little interest in the networking bells and whistles, the X30 is effective as a standalone product.
Cocktail Audio X30
The X30 does almost everything you could possibly want except actually make cocktails

How was the X30 tested?

As a standalone product, the Cocktail was mainly left running on its own with a pair of Cabasse Antigua MT32 and then Audio Note AN-K standmount speakers. The digital inputs and outputs were tested via Arcam airDAC and the output of that via Naim Supernait 2. Material used included CDs, lossless and high res FLAC and MP3 material. 

How does the X30 sound with CD and rips?

Cocktail Audio X30 How does the X30 sound with CD and rips?
The CD mechanism in the X30 is never going to worry high end CD transports and it can occasionally baulk at some CDs but with a copy of Air’s Love 2, the Cocktail puts in a performance which is spirited, punchy and generally enjoyable. There is a power and drive to the way that the X30 goes about making music that is present regardless of the speakers being used. It would be wrong to describe the sound as bright because it is free of the harshness or aggression that you might associate with the term. Instead it might be better to see the X30 as constantly trying to entertain and while this worked a treat with a ripped copy of The Music’s Welcome to the North that was lurking on the hard drive of the review sample, it lends a slightly forced air to John Allen’s Deep River

This presentation makes matching the speakers to the X30 an important thing to ensure that the performance is well balanced. The Cabasse Antigua was effective but the incredibly refined Audio Note AN-K resulted in a presentation that was enjoyable and that little bit smoother and more relaxed when it needed to be. The Audio Note isn’t exactly the normal choice for this sort of task but fabric dome tweeters and paper or PP mid bass drivers should work well. With a bit of work, the Cocktail can play to its strengths and obviate some of the weaker areas. 
Cocktail Audio X30 How does the X30 sound with CD and rips?
With speakers chosen to your satisfaction, the X30 is competitive with affordable hifi separates in the £150-200 category (of which you’d need a roughly equivalent cost worth of pieces to match the facilities of the Cocktail). There is good detail retrieval and no shortage of headroom suggesting that the 50 watt claimed output is not a fairytail. Side by side with more expensive equipment, like the Arcam irDAC, the Cocktail doesn’t have the depth or level of fine detail in the bass but the overall presentation you get across a wide variety of music is consistently enjoyable. Some tests with albums ripped on the Cocktail as FLAC and with a rip done to my preferred settings on dBPoweramp yielded no differences I’d bet my house on suggesting that the limitations such as they are come down to decoding rather than encoding in the first place. 

What does the X30 sound like with high res material?

With the proviso that the X30 is only going to play better than CD resolution files if you can get them onto the unit (with the previous networking comments to take into account about that), the good news is that the Cocktail manages to reap some of the benefits of high res audio. I’m quite content to accept that this might be as simple as better mastering rather than an actual function of the improved sample rate but with the 88.2kHz version of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, the same liveliness that was present with CD bitrates helps the Cocktail sound lively but there is a smoothness and refinement that isn’t generally there with 44.1kHz. 

This is encouraging because the Cocktail positively encourages you to seek out high res (and unless you are going down the rabbit hole of DSD, it should play everything) as well as ripping your CD collection. On occasions less expensive digital hasn’t really shown the benefits of high res but that isn’t the case here, in fact rather the opposite is the case. As I could not keep the X30 on the end of its long network tether, I did a great deal of listening via a 32gb USB stick and this was perfectly happy with all the high res files I tested. 
Cocktail Audio X30
The Cocktail puts in a performance which is spirited, punchy and generally enjoyable.

What are the other inputs and facilities like?

Perhaps entirely unsurprisingly, the basic behaviour of the Cocktail is the same via both the digital and the analogue inputs suggesting that the amplification is responsible for most of the character of the device. Everything on the Cocktail works pretty much as advertised. The ‘pretty much’ is important because I found the Spotify Connect to be a little intermittent and the FM reception using the same indoor antenna I’ve used on various tuners to good effect over the years was always a little soft and noisy across the board. This is 2014 however and other than in my car, I can’t remember the last time I listened to FM so I’d wager most users will never find out either way. 

Conclusion

 

Cocktail X30 Media Player Review

Trying to think of suitable competition for the Cocktail is quite a challenge because there are precious few devices on the market that offer the scope of functionality that the X30 does. If you want a device that does playback and storage in the same place, only Sony’s HAP-S1 sits as a true rival and it offers much less in the way of connectivity and storage than the Cocktail does. I don’t feel I need to keep my personal preferences secret in this regard. I think that offboard storage that can be used for a variety of tasks is superior to an onboard hard drive but there isn’t much arguing that the Cocktail does a good job of combining the two. 

By the same token, it doesn’t do a great job of combining all these features. I quite enjoy the slightly enthusiastic presentation but then I have a house full of speakers to try and people buying the Cocktail to combine with an existing pair of speakers might find it thin and bright. The lack of inbuilt wireless also means that some of the really clever value added features of the X30 might not get an airing. The X30 is up to the task of digitising a CD collection without investing the time and effort that rivals might need in networking and this is to be commended but it doesn’t provide all the answers. There is still much to like here though.