Want a streamer but don't want get involved with networks and separates? Novafidelity's X12 is about the least expensive answer on the market.
There are a number of ways to get into music streaming, apparently the simplest is to add a DAC to a computer but what that doesn’t reveal is that you need to find the best software for that computer and to tweak the way it runs for best results. Most hi-fi manufacturers espouse using a dedicated streaming source on a network with some form of music storage on the same network. This is a separates approach if you like and one that requires an existing system and preferably a wired network to work at its best. Novafidelity takes a different approach with its least expensive streamer the X12, this is a one box solution that does require a network but only for internet radio and metadata (artwork, titling etc) when it rips discs. The X12 has its own hard drive onboard and this can be up to 4TB in size, thus capable of storing a very large music collection.
The X12 is also an amplifier with analogue and digital inputs, so all you need to add is a pair of speakers. Unlike the majority of streamers you don’t need a smartphone or tablet to drive it with either, everything can be done with a handset and the front panel display. This doesn’t make for such an easy music selection process as a good app but you can use third party varieties such as Plugplayer to control the X12.
The combination of hard drive and streamer in one means that you can do something I’ve not seen on similar devices and that’s record from internet radio. In the on-demand era this seems like a bit of an old school pursuit but I can see the appeal, not everything is available all the time. Accessing net radio is pretty straightforward and can be done by genre or location, there is also a preloaded selection of favourites that consists of all the BBC stations. Adding a favourite of your own is a matter of pressing the star key on the handset. The latter has a proper plethora of buttons and could be clearer, but it does cover a multitude of functions.
That recording feature also applies to analogue inputs, which means that the dedicated can digitise their vinyl collections without going near a computer. It says that you can add cover art and track info from the net and “cut the recording into tracks quickly and easily”. That of course is the crux of the biscuit with analogue to digital transfers, you need to mark and name the individual tracks, but anything that makes the process easier has to be good. You can also connect a USB keyboard to make editing easier, in fact I wouldn’t want to edit metadata without one.
The X12 itself has a better feel than its Cocktail predecessor, the speaker cable connectors are decent and the rubber finish has tactile appeal. The knob on the front is a little confusing as it doesn’t change volume but rather is used to navigate the screen, things like volume and power are arrayed along the top. The display itself shows the various functions in a horizontal array that you scroll through, if a source is not available then the cursor skips over it. This way you know pretty quickly whether or not it has maintained a network connection. I was having broadband drop out problems at the time of the review (not a lorra laughs!) so had a few occasions to notice this. Hopefully it will work properly on stable connections, if not you simply reboot it.
Novafidelity maker Sygnifi achieves the compact nature of the X12 by putting the power supply outboard in a lump in the lead type case. This also keeps switch mode PSU fields away from the signal, which is always a good thing. Theoretically it means you could upgrade to a linear supply as well.
You can rip CDs to a range of formats including the key FLAC and WAV variants, in fact you are asked to choose for every rip, and the X12 found metadata if not artwork. Getting covers on is a slightly laborious process of finding it online via the menu system . It will playback most formats, so if you have a collection of downloads or disc rips already they will be compatible. And it will work with bit/sample rates up to 24/192, you can also take a 24/192 digital output should you want to use a better DAC but that kind of defeats the point of a one box solution. Having said that the core streaming and storage facilities are really what the X12 is about and it could be used solely as a source, it is after all less expensive than a Bluesound Vault.
The amplifier is described merely as digital with a 30 Watt per channel output, so no powerhouse. What it lacks in today’s world is the ability to stream from a Bluetooth device, a function that seems very popular despite the fact that Bluetooth is so glitch that it drives me mad. It is however compatible with Apple Airplay, making it very friendly toward iPods and iPads and their glitch free streams. It can also hook up with the less fashionable (this week) of the lossless streaming services, Quboz, which is quite a rare feature but one that will be useful if you have decent broadband access.
I used the Novafidelity X12 with Focal Aria 905 speakers, a rather good bookshelf model with fine timing skills. This combination worked well, the amplifier is not all that powerful but neither is it gutless. Dynamics are not in the front league but image scale is decent for the money. The onboard drive is quiet too which is a boon if you are sitting near it, the absence of a fan being one key reason.
It sounds a bit more open and crisp with a really good outboard server (Naim Unitiserve), and it’s capable of revealing differences in recording quality of the recording without difficulty. Chris Jones’ Road Houses and Automobiles delivers much of its polish if not the full depth of tone available on dearer devices. Buddy Holly’s True Love Ways proves what an amazing voice he had with ease, not to mention how well they recorded voices back in the tube era. With heavier material the power limitations are apparent in the bass which lack grip, but the Drum and Bass Intro from Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live is surprisingly solid. The amplifier is not as powerful as you find on dedicated amps at this price but then the X12 is a lot more than an amp, if you need more power then an integrated would be the way to go. A Naim UnitiQute (at over twice the price without HDD) delivers more presence, transparency and subtlety, and yes rather more power.
The Novafidelity X12 is not the last word in sonic refinement but its combination of features is pretty well impossible to beat at the price, and it’s a very compact unit too which is always popular. So long as you choose sympathetic and easy to drive speakers and don’t expect it to outgun a separates system it has a lot to offer. If you want a one stop streaming solution or a system for a dining room or bedroom it’s a very inexpensive buy with similar sound quality to a Sonos if not such a nice interface. The lack of a dedicated app reduces its overall appeal but this off course means you don’t need a smartphone or tablet. In a way it’s streaming for those that want to avoid computers, and I suspect that there is quite a big market for that.