Not many audio companies make streamers with built in storage and amplification, scratch that, nobody seems to make a streaming audio system in one box apart from Cocktail. There are a few streamers with onboard storage made by the likes of Naim, Sony and Olive and there are quite a few computer based options. But the hi-fi brands tend to charge two grand and upward for an HD streamer with hard disk drives with which to store your music, they are also exclusively network devices that require an app on a smart phone or preferably tablet to control them. Cocktail Audio’s X30 is both relatively inexpensive and (just about) possible to run without a network, Cocktail itself does not have an app for its streamers but third party options can be used.
The X30 is a complete solution that only requires a pair of speakers and a CD collection to get up and running. That slot in the front will suck in your disc, rip it to the HDD and spit it out again. It even has an onboard library to refer to for artist, album and track information so that those discs can be easily found and selected. That said the advantages of having the X30 on the network far outweigh the inconvenience of setting it up, not least the ability to access internet radio and an ever expanding library of metadata for your discs. It can be wired or wirelessly connected (with an optional dongle) to the network provided by your domestic wi-fi router, and while we would recommend running an Ethernet cable rather than relying on wi-fi it’s unlikely to effect the sound of low bitrate stations. The X30 can’t access popular services like Spotify and nor does it receive Bluetooth signals, it does however receive Airplay, not that the manual mentions it. Alternatively it will play material on a NAS drive on the same network, but given that the internal drive can be as big as 4TB a NAS would be better used for back up purposes.
As an amplifier it has analogue and digital in and outputs, including balanced digital out, alongside an FM tuner and CD player – that slot is not only for ripping. There is also HDMI out and three USB ports plus the necessary RJ45 socket for network cabling. A SATA drive drawer means you can put more memory in as it’s needed. There is a full size headphone socket on the front panel and a minijack input for mobile devices, the amplifier is a digital type with a specified 50 watts a side. The Cocktail supports all the usual formats plus one unusual one in 24-bit/352.8kHz DXD, an ultra high resolution format used by only one record label to my knowledge. Streaming is limited to 24/192 as per usual and does not include DSD.
The X30 was designed to be used with the button festooned handset that comes with it and while this seems a bit odd to the hard bitten computer audio enthusiast it might make the transition to streaming easier for newcomers. Basically you use the handset to navigate the on-screen display, and after a while you get to know where all the important buttons are, but it still took me a little while to get my head around the operating logic. This is largely because there are some things you have to tell it to do that most standalone streamers achieve on their own. Primarily connecting to the network requires that you select the right part of the set up system and press OK a few times. Moving music files onto it via the desk top of a Mac does not come very naturally either and I ended up using the X30’s interface to import songs from the NAS instead. I used the PlugPlayer app to select material from the onboard drive but note that Cocktail recommends Linn’s Kinsky, which looks nicer but lacks volume control.
It took a while to find a pair of speakers that worked with the Cocktail, its amp is not the most powerful of devices so requires something fairly sympathetic to give of its best. Having tried Cambridge Aeromax 6 floorstanders and PMC fact.8s I discovered that the little Q-Acoustics 1010i stand mounts made the best partners. They let the X30 deliver decent three dimensionality with Bugge Wesseltoft’s marvellous new album Trialogue. It revealed much of the space in his take on Round Midnight, I pressed play with the level higher than expected but both amp and speaker coped and the latter ‘disappeared’ to let the sound take over remarkably well. Dynamics are pretty good too, not best in class but consistently entertaining, I played Steely Dan’s Peg (Aja, ABC) and was pleasantly surprised at how good the guitar break sounded alongside a nice taut bass line. It also seemed like an idea to try something at higher resolution, this time Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer, a remarkable early 24/192 remastering by Classic Records. This didn’t have the transparency that it can but you got a good helping of the attitude and range in his voice.
With internet radio I was impressed that the X30 can access on-demand radio shows, material that is available online but which not all streamers seem able to deliver. I also like the ease with which you can ‘favourite’ a station so that it can be found again. I ended up listening to one favourite station, Fluid, for sometime in the background and enjoyed the fact that there was so little drop out – another problem with some streamers.
The Cocktail X30 can probably be bettered in sonic terms by a separate streamer, amp and NAS drive if they’re carefully chosen, and Denon among others have streaming amps at pretty competitive prices that include a lot of extra features. But I would be surprised if there is anything out there that offers everything that the X30 does in one box at a better price. It may not have the latest wireless features but if you don’t store your music on your phone that’s not really an issue. And should you feel the inclination to listen to YouTube on your iPad, it turns out that it’s Airplay compatible as well.