There’s no arguing that playing music from a digitally stored library is more convenient than getting out of your chair, sorting through shelves of CDs, and spinning discs one by one. But there’s a catch -- first you must build that digital library. That process can take hours, days, even weeks, depending on the size of the collection.
First, you’ll need to ensure that your hard drive is capacious enough; if not, you’ve got some shopping to do. You’ll then need to rip, one by one, a bit-perfect copy of each CD -- a process that can include researching appropriate ripping software, learning how to configure it, saving the digital copies to one or more hard drives, and organizing these files to your liking. You’ll need reliable media-center software to search, render, and play your music, using either your computer’s soundcard or an external DAC. This will most likely entail researching and perhaps paying for media software, learning how to use it, configuring the software so that it communicates well with your soundcard, and possibly downloading a new driver or two to bring your DAC into the fold. If you use a desktop computer, or don’t feel like being attached at the hip to your laptop, you’ll also want to research and test drive a few control apps compatible with your media software, then configure your choice so that you can wirelessly explore your new library using a smartphone or tablet. Depending on how much you want the app to do, this, too, can take quite a bit of research. Suddenly, dropping a disc into a drawer and hitting Play doesn’t sound so bad.
Jack of all trades
Cocktail Audio, a subsidiary of the Korean IT company Novatron, recognizes these challenges. They offer several single-box components that promise to do away with the tedium just outlined, and make child’s play of building a digital music library. Since Cocktail’s founding in 2006, almost all of its products have been based on a similar platform. This approach is claimed to satisfy the demand for multiple products that cater to a broad spectrum of customer demands while minimizing the manufacturer’s hardware, software, and firmware costs.
I was able to wangle a review sample of Cocktail’s new music server and DAC, the X45Pro ($5999 USD), which is based on the X45 ($3195), which in turn was based on the X40 ($2695). Like its predecessors, the X45Pro functions as a CD ripper/player, DAC, digital/analog/phono preamplifier, DLNA-capable network streamer, network server, and FM/DAB turner. For navigating its numerous menus and features, it has an easy-to-read 7” color TFT LCD display (1024x600 pixels). The X45Pro can digitize tape and vinyl recordings, decode MQA files, and function as a Roon endpoint. As with most Cocktail Audio products, direct connection to streaming services -- including Deezer, Qobuz, Napster, and Tidal -- is supported, as are Apple AirPlay and Novatron’s Music X remote-control app for iOS and Android devices. The X45Pro can be ordered with up to 8TB of onboard storage, provided by a 3.5” or 2.5” hard disk or SSD. It has an audio board upgraded with ESS Technology’s latest Sabre DAC chip, the ES9038PRO; and Texas Instruments’ OPA627BP precision high-speed op-amp. All of this makes the X45Pro not only the most comprehensively equipped digital playback device Cocktail Audio has ever produced, but also the most feature-laden music streamer I know of.
The X45Pro is large, measuring 17.3”W x 4.65”H x 13”D and weighing an impressive 29 pounds when extricated from its sturdy shipping carton. Its case is made entirely of 1/4”-thick, CNC-machined panels of glass-sanded aluminum, and the build quality is exemplary. The front panel is symmetrically laid out. At center is the slot for the LG Super Multi DVD-writer (GA50) disc drive, and directly below it is the color display. These are flanked by two large knobs: on the left, Volume/Mute; on the right, OK/Pause/Scroll. Below the Volume/Mute knob, in a row, are the On/Standby button, an infrared sensor for the included remote control, a 6.35mm headphone jack, a 3.5mm Aux input, and a USB Type-A port for connecting a thumb drive. Below the Menu/Pause knob, in a similar row, are buttons for Input, Return, Stop, and Menu.
From left to right across the upper half of the X45Pro’s rear panel are: the main Power rocker, balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, a digital antenna input, an unbalanced phono input, an Ethernet port, an HDMI output (video only), a USB audio output, and two USB 3.0 inputs for connecting external drives. Running along the bottom half are: an IEC power inlet; AES/EBU (XLR), optical (TosLink), and coaxial (RCA) digital inputs and outputs; a 12V trigger output; and an unbalanced analog input.
Under the X45Pro’s hood, a quad-core ARM Cortex A9 1.0GHz processor manages daily operations. Two of ESS Technology’s flagship 32-bit, eight-channel ES9038PRO DAC chips handle conversion of all the 1s and 0s for DSD (64/126/256/512), DXD (24-bit/352.8kHz), and PCM (up to 32/768) in the following formats: AAC, AIFF, ALAC, CAF, FLAC, M4A, MP3, MQA, M3U, Ogg Vorbis, PLS, WAV, and WMA. In addition to its high-speed op-amp, the X45Pro has a 16-core microcontroller with advanced RISC architecture for high-performance USB DAC functionality, a 70W switch-mode power supply for its digital circuits, and an oversize toroidal transformer to power the analog circuits. Each power supply is shrouded in aluminum to minimize noise.
I connected the X45Pro to my Simaudio Moon Evolution suite of P-8 preamplifier and W-7M monoblock amplifiers with Kimber Kable Select 1116 balanced interconnects, and left my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC and a Simaudio Moon Evolution 780D DAC in the system for points of comparison. Kimber Select KS-6063 speaker cables coupled my reference Paradigm Persona 7F speakers to the W-7Ms, and the entire system was plugged into a Torus AVR-20 power conditioner with Clarus Crimson power cords.
The X45Pro’s manual is 119 pages long -- more than for most A/V receivers -- and getting it up and running took a while. Not one to open a manual unless I’m forced to, I used this opportunity to test the X45Pro’s ergonomics and see how far I could get before I began scratching my head. On power-up, there’s a 25-second delay as the X45Pro boots up and establishes an Internet connection. You know you’re in business when the display changes from an image of a martini to a stack of eight menu items. Use the right-hand knob to scroll through these, then push to select -- or use the supplied remote control or Novatron’s Music X app.
I muddled my way through each, starting with the Browser menu, which lets you access the internal and any external storage drives. Navigating the drives was intuitive -- it mirrors that of a tree folder structure. The Setup menu grants access to a dizzying array of customization options -- for CD ripping, metadata display, digital and analog preamp functions, DSD processing, and the list goes on, including network configuration and firmware updates. To the right of Setup is what Cocktail calls its Music DB (database). Music DB requires that software be installed prior to use, but once that’s done, the user can browse all ripped or transferred music stored on the assigned hard drive, using various views of text or album art. The remaining menu items provide different avenues for playing or ripping a CD, creating and storing playlists, a onetime connection setup for using any of the seven supported music-streaming services, input selection, and listening to FM/DAB radio.
Despite its mindboggling array of features and configurability, daily use of the X45Pro proved relatively simple. When I used the OK/Pause/Scroll knob to access menus, sources, and play music, the X45Pro functioned flawlessly, with no sign of latency or lack of compliance. The remote performed equally well, though its ergonomics could use some tweaking. It has 60 similarly sized and labeled buttons, yet commonly used functions such as Play and Stop are nowhere near the Previous and Next buttons. Similarly, Volume and Balance are separated, as are Setup and Menu. All of this made the remote a bit cumbersome to use -- I constantly hunted for the buttons I wanted, and still often hit the wrong ones.
Switching to the Music X control app proved even more frustrating. Its home page cleanly groups all menu functions in the upper-left quadrant -- except for CD Rip/Play and Setup, which are placed toward the far bottom left. The entire right half of the screen is a gray blank. CD Rip/Play can be replaced by a handy virtual remote option that I really liked, but it had a major glitch: When I tried to enter an album, and use the Previous and Next buttons before adding music to a Play Queue, or selecting the entire album to play, the app locked up every time, and every time I had to reboot.
Moreover, music searches using the app had to be done following the same rudimentary tree architecture as seen on the 7” screen -- unless playing music using Music DB, there’s no option for searching music by album, genre, or composer, only artist. At last I began scratching my head -- if there are ways to perform these functions, I couldn’t find them. The manual indicates that artists must be searched using a primitive form of text input to then scroll through an alphabetical list of artist names. Using the virtual or the handheld remote, there’s a shortcut: Skip ahead to an artist by typing in the first few letters of the name. However, this can be done only by pressing the number keys associated with those letters one to three times each, as on a phone, and it quickly gets tiresome. I was surprised and disappointed to find these glitches and ergonomic oversights on a machine as sophisticated and otherwise capable as the X45Pro -- after all, using the app’s tree-structured menu to navigate menus, set up the X45Pro, and access music all worked flawlessly. Thankfully, the X45Pro is a Roon endpoint -- I was able to close the somewhat awkward Music X app, and use Roon and the handheld remote for the duration of this review. I was also pleased to learn that Novotron listens to their customers, and that a much improved version of the Music X app is expected this summer.
Now that I knew how to navigate the X45Pro’s extensive menus and features, it was time to start testing them. I do not own a tape deck or turntable, so I couldn’t test those recording features -- but I do own more than a thousand CDs, so I decided to give the ripper a try and begin building a small onboard database. But before inserting the first CD, I was forced to consult the manual again: in addition to configuring Music DB, I also had to had to activate the Gracenote license in order for CD metadata to auto populate. For whatever reason, the license for my review sample refused to activate, so I was forced to manually configure the auto-rip settings, how metadata are attached and displayed, my preferred file format and bitrate, and a few other features that, in my opinion, all should have been preset with defaults to expedite this process.
But once all that was done, I ripped CDs with ease. I began with four CDs, each of which took, on average, eight minutes to complete. Performing the same task using an external CD drive and JRiver Media Center 22 took about four minutes per disc. During the ripping process, depending on settings, the X45Pro connects with the Gracenote music-recognition software, then downloads and appends metadata. Gracenote, the software recommended by Cocktail, requires a membership. Since the membership is free, I signed up and found that the X45Pro appended Gracenote metadata flawlessly 100% of the time. The other free options didn’t always retrieve correct or complete data. I stuck with Gracenote.
I kicked off my listening with the title track of Ludovico Einaudi’s I Giorni (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Ricordi). A somewhat warm-sounding recording of solo acoustic piano, I Giorni is one of those albums that pulls me in with its melodic flow from start to finish. I was immediately aware of a tonal shift through the Cocktail X45Pro: Einaudi’s piano sounded more vivid, less rich, and perhaps even a bit more dynamic than I’m used to. Transients were snappy, yet the decays of his keystrokes lingered in air with no sign of reticence. Microlevel details such as Einaudi’s pedal depressions in “Melodia Africana II” were readily apparent, while with other tracks, such as “Inizio,” I reveled in the attacks of forcefully struck notes.
After listening to I Giorni in its entirety, I switched to something a little more lively, and an old favorite: “Turn Me On” from Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me (24/192 FLAC, Blue Note). The cooler tonal shift I’d heard with I Giorni was again immediately evident. Jones’s velvety voice, meticulously imaged at center stage, popped with dimensionality and body. Textural cues, such as her breathing and the thrum of Lee Alexander’s double bass, were easily apparent, and drummer Brian Blade’s quick cymbal taps exhibited enough inner detail to avoid sounding artificial.
Kicking things up a notch, I punched up “Angie,” from the Rolling Stones’ Forty Licks (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin). Keith Richards’s acoustic guitar begins this track, and the X45Pro did an admirable job of balancing the weight, decay, pitch, and texture of each plucked string. Mick Jagger, like the voices and instruments of most other musicians I listened to through the X45Pro, popped in space with compelling body and dimension, but it was the spaces between him, Charlie Watts’s drums, Richards’s guitar, and Nicky Hopkins’s piano that most impressed here. The overall soundstage was substantial, and each instrument in it was placed distinctively with no sign of the homogenization that often plagues older recordings. This breathed apparent new life into an older recording. I also appreciated how easy everything was to hear: keystroke decays from Hopkins’s piano lingered just to right of center, without getting confused or lost among Watts’s hi-hat, Bill Wyman’s electric bass, or the strings of Richards’s and Mick Taylor’s acoustic guitars, respectively anchored at far left and right stage.
Rummaging through other tracks, I stumbled on “Breaking of the Sword,” from Loreena McKennitt’s Lost Souls (16/44.1 FLAC, Quinlan Road). It begins slow, its opening seconds showcasing Dudley Phillips’s electric bass, which dominated my room with deep, sonorous notes. Shortly thereafter, the intricacies of Caroline LaVelle’s fingers moving among the strings of her beautifully recorded cello swayed my focus, highlighting the levels of transparency and articulation the X45Pro was capable of. McKennitt’s voice then pierced the space enclosed by my room with dynamism and pinpoint focus, but it was the sound of her piano that was most notably different from how I’m used to hearing it -- it didn’t fade into the background or get lost among the myriad other percussion instruments played. Instead, everything on stage was cleanly delineated, with abundant space between instruments and ample dynamic fervor.
I began to understand the character of the X45Pro’s sound: one of precision, seemingly at all costs. The X45Pro relished conveying every last iota of detail it could squeeze from instruments and voices, and the many nuances haunting the farthest reaches of each soundstage. While I found this compelling, particularly in “Breaking of the Sword,” these levels of precision and resolution sometimes came at a price paid in balance. See next section.
The Cocktail Audio X45Pro and PS Audio’s DirectStream DAC have the same base price: $5999. The DirectStream requires the optional PerfectWave Network Bridge II ($899) to enable network streaming, while the X45Pro requires a hard drive to use Cocktail’s Music DB. Both the X45Pro and the DirectStream can function as a DAC, music server, DLNA-capable network streamer, digital preamp, and Roon endpoint, and can be controlled using an included handheld remote handset or control app (PS Audio uses MConnect). The two models begin to diverge in their physical attributes: Cocktail has equipped the X45Pro with ESS Technology’s latest Sabre DAC, the ES9038PRO, while PS Audio relies on an upsampling DSD DAC designed and built in-house. The X45Pro also edges out the DirectStream in features, offering up to 8TB of onboard storage, two USB inputs for external storage devices, a USB digital output, and a built-in CD ripper that obviates the need for a computer; the PS Audio offers none of those. The X45Pro is also more robustly built, with a chassis and case made entirely of aluminum; the DirectStream’s enclosure is made of a combination of aluminum, stamped steel, and plastics.
The PS Audio DirectStream was, hands down, easier to set up and use via its front-panel controls, remote control, or control app, despite its smaller (4.25”) touchscreen. This is partially due to the fact that the far simpler DirectStream offers nowhere near the customizability or functionality of the X45Pro, but also because both handset and app are more intuitive to use.
Both DACs sounded engrossingly convincing, for very different reasons. The X45Pro was by far the more analytical sounding, bringing forth higher levels of microlevel detail, nuance, and space; the DirectStream projected a more refined, balanced, and organic sound. Their bass performance was on a par in terms of depth, articulation, tonality, and fortitude, the X45Pro consistently providing a smidge more inner detail. Back-to-back listening through both to the Stones’ “Angie” revealed that the PS Audio was the more inviting to listen to at higher volume levels; the X45Pro’s sound was cooler, brighter, sharper. Listening to Norah Jones’s “Turn Me On” through the DirectStream, I missed the air and pinpoint precision of the X45Pro, but was willing to forgive these minor shortcomings in favor of a smoother, more refined, more relaxed sound. The experience was analogous to turning up the detail enhancement on a BD player: you see a bit more detail, but the price is a bit more grain.
It all triggered a thought: How would the Cocktail X45Pro sound paired with warmer-, smoother-sounding gear such as the Audio Research Reference 6 preamplifier ($15,000, review forthcoming) and matching Reference 160M monoblocks ($31,000/pair) I had on hand for review?
In a word, better. The ARCs’ warmth, bloom, and tonal richness helped calm things down, evoking from the X45Pro a more balanced -- neutral -- sound without sacrificing detail, particularly at spirited listening levels.
In the end
When I first plugged in Cocktail Audio’s X45Pro, it was not a breeze to use. The learning curve was steep, the setup process long and detailed. But once it was configured, I never had to venture into its Setup menu again -- in daily operation, the X45Pro proved simple to use. Ripping CDs was about as easy as it gets. My tests of other features -- e.g., streaming from Tidal, using the X45Pro as a Roon endpoint, testing the Cocktail’s many inputs, using the X45Pro as a preamp -- threw up no red flags.
The X45Pro is built like a tank, and while it leans on the cool side of neutral, and sacrifices a bit of refinement in favor of microlevel detail, I can’t fault its sound. If you’re in the market for an all-in-one music player with exemplary build quality and an industry-leading résumé of features, Cocktail Audio’s X45Pro deserves to be on your shortlist.
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers -- Paradigm Persona 7F
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
- Amplifiers -- Parasound Halo A 51 (five-channel), Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M (monoblocks)
- Preamplifiers -- Anthem AVM 60, Audio Research Reference 6, Simaudio Moon Evolution P-8
- Digital-to-analog converters -- PS Audio DirectStream, Simaudio Moon Evolution 780D
- Sources -- Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player, Intel NUC running Windows 10, Roon
- Cables -- Clarus Crimson S/PDIF, USB links, power cords; Kimber Kable KS-1116 balanced interconnects and KS-6063 speaker cables
- Power conditioner -- Torus AVR-20
Cocktail Audio X45Pro Music Server-DAC
Price: $5999 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Room 1607, 13, Heungdeok 1-ro
Phone: +82 31-898-8401