by Steve Marsh
Introduction: Cocktail Audio X45 Pro
I spend most of my time listening to vinyl rather than digital. I have a lot invested in my analog front end and the musical satisfaction I get from it is quite complete. The one big drawback, of course, is that a lot of new music is not available on vinyl. At the beginning of my efforts to switch from the dying CD player technology to a more modern digital solution, I dabbled with computer audio, purchasing Amarra software and playing files with various USB DACs I was able to audition. Many of the USB DACs just did not do it for me, including a relatively affordable one that was Stereophile magazine’s product of the year. I tried to keep pace with the computer audio developments on ComputerAudiophile.com and thought I was narrowing it down to an audio-optimized Mac Mini and DAC combo being developed by Marc Hider of dB Audio Labs. After waiting many months, Marc informed me that he was abandoning the product due to the emerging market demand for hi-res playback (which his DAC design did not do). So, it was back to the drawing board.
Eventually, I got turned off by the chain of doodads, renderers, cables, high-falutin’ aftermarket power supplies, etc. that I saw in people’s signatories on the computer audiophile web site. To wit, here is one I found:
Roon ROCK on NUC -> Netgear GS108 -> SOtM sMS-200ultra Neo -> USB -> SOtM tX-USBultra -> USB -> DAC HD Plex PSU (4 rail for ISP fiber, router, switch and NUC), 2x Paul Hynes SR4 PSU (for sMS-200ultra and tX-USBultra)
This decision has led me to keep up with the reviews of the latest and servers as the digital parade marches by at a frightening pace. During this process, I also listened to many of the high-end offerings in friends’ systems, at audio shows, and in my own system (e.g., PS Audio Direct Stream DAC, Laufer Teknik Memory Player). When not playing vinyl, I’ve been getting by playing good, old CDs on a resurrected 1990s favorite, the CAL Audio Delta transport with the matching Alpha DAC (fully restored with new caps and other upgraded parts); heaven forbid! Actually, it still sounds pretty darned good!
So, this review is admittedly part of my own long-suffering search for a more modern digital solution for my system. It is a personal journey and not just a disinterested review of some xyz component.
I have moved away from computer audio and, to be specific, have been searching for a server and DAC that fit the following rather stringent criteria:
- onboard CD ripping function
- either server and DAC together in one box, or I2S (likely via HDMI) digital connection option between server and DAC
- at least 2TB of storage capacity
- hi-res format playback capability
- relatively affordable (i.e., less than $10K)
- great sound quality, of course
As you might gather, the above criteria narrowed the field greatly…..almost to non-existence!
A huge aspect of the server-based digital file playback world that is off-putting to many is the need to rip your CD collection to a hard drive. In earlier times, many would farm out this tedious task to local high school kids using their computer’s CD drive. Then, dedicated ripping devices became available. One such device that is affordable and is being used by several fellow members of the Connecticut Audio Society is the Brennan B2 (https://www.brennan.co.uk). It will rip CDs as FLAC files (not WAV) to an internal hard drive and has optical and HDMI digital output ports. Others have elected to forego ripping their CD collection altogether and just purchase a streamer and subscribe to one of the growing number of streaming services.
The Korean company, Cocktail Audio (a subsidiary of the Korean IT company, Novatron), makes what I hoped would be the perfect solution: the X45 Pro Music Player/DAC. This is a formidable product that fits a multitude of functions and features into a single chassis! It is obviously designed by a team of engineers who know computer technology and how to marry it to high-end audio in a powerfully versatile unit.
Removing the X45 Pro from the sturdy shipping box revealed a beautifully finished (silver finish option) glass-sanded, 1/4-inch thick aluminum enclosure fabricated by precision CNC machining. On the front panel are two large knobs. The left knob is labeled Volume/Mute (mute by pushing in the knob) and below it are the following: On/Standby button, 6.35mm headphone jack, 3.5mm Aux In jack, and USB (Type A port for a thumb drive). The right knob is labeled OK/Pause/Scroll. Below it are four buttons: Input, Return, Stop, and Menu. All of these control functions are also available on the remote. At center top is the slot for the LG Super Multi DVD-writer (GA50) disc drive, and directly below it is the color display.
Included with the unit are the following: remote control, power cord, owner’s manual, FreeDB Data CD (for metadata if no internet connection is available), USB WiFi dongle, FM antenna, and a DAB antenna. The X45 Pro also includes a music streamer, an FM tuner, a DAB (digital audio broadcast) tuner, and even a moving magnet phono stage! Paired with powered speakers and a turntable, the X45 Pro would be all you needed as the heart of a system that encompasses the best of both old and new technology.
The X45 Pro’s rear panel is packed with connections. At one end is the IEC power cord receptacle with the fuse and rocker power switch above it. Turning this on puts it in standby mode and is where I left it for the entirety of the review. The power button on the remote brings it out of standby and into full operational mode. Across the top row of connectors are Analog Output (RCA or XLR), DAB/FM antenna, phono input jacks with ground lug, Ethernet LAN input, HDMI output for external screen (not I2S audio output), USB Class 2.0 audio output, two USB 3.0 host ports (for quick data transfer from external hard drives). Across the bottom row are Digital Out (AES/EBU XLR, Toslink, Coax), USB Audio In (USB DAC), Digital In (AES/EBU XLR, Toslink, Coax), Analog In (RCA jacks), and the drawer for the hard drive or SSD storage.
The owner’s manual falls into your lap with a thud at 119 pages! It could by a text for a short course in your local adult education program. I recommend tackling it bit by bit, addressing a different functionality each time you use it. The same goes for the many-buttoned remote control. One of the remote control buttons that I was relieved to find was being able to turn off the display while listening. On the other hand, when you need it, the screen (7-inch color TFT LCD display, 1024 x 600 pixels) is well-lit and easy to read. You can also use their Music Control app instead of the remote, but being a non-smartphone guy (yes, I’m a phone Luddite), that was not an option for me.
Computing functions for the Cocktail Audio X45 Pro are handled by a high-performance Quad Core ARM Cortex A9 processor running at 1.0 Ghz. Not being a computer nerd, that means little to me. However, it is contrary to the high-end audio trend to use programmable FGPA processing, which permits more flexible and higher performance/intensive processing. For digital to analog conversion and audio output, Cocktail Audio has chosen to use the latest flagship ESS Technology SABRE PRO ES9038PRO DAC chip combined with the OPA627BP precision high-speed opamp for “reference level sound quality.” Last, but not least, it can play a wide array of formats, including the latest, most desired hi-res formats: MQA, DSD (64/128/256/512), DXD (24 Bit/352.8 kHz), and PCM up to 32 Bit/768 kHz including 24 Bit/192 kHz WAV/FLAC.
The X45 Pro rips CDs to the hard drive like a dream come true. If you use the Auto Rip function, you just load the CD into the slot and walk away. It shows the ripping progress on the screen and it ejects the CD between six and ten minutes later with the Setup/Ripping options I selected: Bit Rate: 192 Kbps, Quality: Excellent (i.e., slowest), Audio Rip Format: WAV, excellent. You can also manually step through the ripping process with the remote if you need to change bitrate or rip speed, search metadata for an album, etc. The ripped CD is stored on what Cocktail Audio calls the “Music DB” (Music Data Bank). Storage capacity for the Music DB can be purchased with a hard drive or SSD up to 8TB. (My X45 Pro arrived with no storage since they do not supply storage for review pieces. I remedied that easily, installing a Western Digital 500 GB 3.5-inch SATA drive.)
Metadata is provided through a licensed provider, Gracenote, Inc. It is provided free for the first two years of ownership and then after that is 5 Euros a year. Before ripping, you need to activate Gracenote in the Setup function (which is selected with the remote from the LCD screen). Gracenote then loads the metadata via WiFi connection (WiFi dongle provided and plugs into the back) automatically when ripping. If no metadata is available for that album, you can search other web sites listed when doing stepwise “manual” ripping (i.e., not Auto Rip). Or, if you used Auto Rip and Gracenote failed to provide metadata, you can go back and edit the file and search the other web sites for metadata.
The first CD I chose to rip is my favorite Jimmy Smith album, Back at the Chicken Shack [Blue Note CDP 7 46402 2]. I’ve brought this CD with me to numerous audio shows and have heard it in many systems. I was not prepared for the wholesale sonic improvement I heard playing it back from the X45 Pro’s Music DB. In addition to a greater ease to the presentation, there was a noticeable increase in instrument focus along with a better sense of the natural spacing between the players. While I would not go so far as to call it warm sounding, there was plenty of body and velvety texture to Stanley Turrentine’s marvelous work in “Minor Chant” (from Look Out!). This was definitely the best I have ever heard this CD sound.
As a former trumpet player, I have a fondness for jazz trumpeters with Chet Baker ranking high among them. I purchased a lot of great jazz CDs from the estate of a fellow Connecticut Audio Society member, who was also a trumpet player; I’m sure he would be happy knowing that I have them now. One of the CDs was a collection of Chet’s playing in Europe and the U.S. over a period of almost ten years (1955 – 1965) called The Essential Chet Baker. It was released by Polygram (who purchased the rights to the EmArcy label) in 1989 [EmArcy 840 632-2]. There are some sublime performances by Chet on this disc, encompassing what are probably his peak years. A cut of particular note is “Halfbreed Apache”, which features Chet and Stan Getz in a contrapuntal arrangement. After ripping this CD to the hard drive, the X45 Pro again played this back better than ever. The dynamics and tight rhythm of this performance were exhilarating and the room came alive with a broad and deep expanse of musical energy. Again, the focus of instruments in the soundstage excelled, allowing all of the complex interplay between the musicians to be appreciated at a high level. The X45 Pro is extremely revealing, too. For example, on Chet’s later 1964 recording, “I Wish You Love”, I could hear the mechanical tap of Chet’s trumpet valves on certain passages.
Another CD I know extremely well is Rosanne Cash, The Wheel [Columbia CK 52729]. Every song on this CD is full of meaningful lyrics that make you want to listen carefully, but Rosanne’s voice has often had a slight edge when I’ve heard the CD played in many systems. Not so when played back from the X45 Pro’s hard drive! Her voice was clear, natural, and also markedly more intelligible. As I continued to rip more CDs, I felt like my whole CD collection, which has been admittedly languishing, was now full of potential new life!
A longtime friend of mine gave me a thumb drive of hi-res music files that he converted from analog master tapes to DSD 128 using a Korg MR-2000S ADC. Apparently, the Korg is great for recording but less good for playback. The files are an eclectic mix of genres including rock, blues, jazz and three exquisite classical pieces. The first file was Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”, but was from a different source than the Aja LP version. The intro bass line came in with a throbbing weight that was deeply satisfying. Donald Fagen’s vocals never sounded better to me and the consummate production effort that went into this recording was on full display. I found it impossible to criticize. I can see why the album won the 1978 Grammy Award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Just stunning!
The DSD 128 track, Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin, [Lost Highway 80009789-01] gave me another opportunity to compare it to my LP version. The digital file was actually better on Shelby’s voice. I’ve always felt that the LP fell a little short in this area and I’ve been a little skeptical about the pressing quality (but certainly not Doug Sax’s mastering). On the last cut, “How Can I Be Sure”, her voice repeatedly distorts. The LP slightly edged it out in air and soundstage depth, but the DSD file outperformed the LP in this case.
Since I own a sizable LP and CD collection, the idea of music streaming has not really appealed to me. In fact, I often wonder if I will even get to play all of the LPs I own. To dip my toes in the music streaming water, I signed up for a free trial of Qobuz Studio (hi-res level subscription, which is normally $24.99/month) streaming service. The ability to explore new and different artists has probably been the major benefit and that feature is quite persuasive.
Selecting “I-Service” from the X45 Pro’s home display, and then picking Qobuz from the list of streaming services takes you to the Search function. After that, it becomes intuitive. Pushing the alphabet buttons on the remote to spell out the artist is slow and cumbersome, but Cocktail Audio has better options. Their “Webinterface” music player software allows you to control streaming, as well as the Music DB, by entering the IP address (available in the Setup mode) of the X45 Pro into your device’s browser. However, Webinterface was only working to control the Music DB mode when I first tried it. Cocktail Audio promptly issued a firmware update to fix the bug, allowing me to use my MacBook Pro with Webinterface. While I found it to be satisfactory (see screenshots of it in use), readers should note that Cocktail Audio was in the process of establishing the X45 Pro as a Roon Endpoint during the review. I did not pursue that option.
I was curious how the sound quality of Qobuz’s mostly FLAC 24/96 files compared to my LPs of the same album, so I streamed a 24/96 FLAC file of Eagles “On the Border” and then played my album [Asylum 7E -1004]. The LP seemed to present about twice the sheer information and had a greater ease to the sound. The LP had excellent separation with a markedly more spatial and articulate presentation. The streamed version sounded pleasant, albeit somewhat simplified by comparison. Overall, I found the LP more involving, but the Qobuz file was very respectable. Of course, without knowing the source of the master used by Qobuz, this is admittedly not really an apples-to-apples comparison. Their source may not have been great for this particular album. By contrast, streaming Wilco’s 2011 release, The Whole Love, was of near reference quality, except for a bit too much bass. Surprisingly, Qobuz even had the two albums by the intriguing new R&B artist from Montreal, Dominique Fils-Aimé. She pays attention to her recording quality and playing her Nameless album (24/88 FLAC) made this evident (although some might find them somewhat overproduced). I could see some songs from this album becoming demo tracks for audio shows.
Cocktail Audio joins the likes of Mytek Digital by including a phono section in what is a primarily digital product. While this may seem curious, it does cater to the audiophile who listens to digital most of the time but might own a modest turntable. In order to play vinyl with the Cocktail Audio X45 Pro, you merely need to go the Input menu and select Phono In. A horizontal level meter is displayed and acts as a VU meter.
The X45 Pro’s phono stage is for moving magnet cartridges only, so I hooked up a vintage Dual 1219 turntable with a brand new Shure M91ED cartridge that I had just completed working on for a friend. At first, I tried using the X45 Pro by itself, connecting the analog output RCA jacks to my Tron 211 SET amp and setting the X45 Pro’s Analog Out Volume to Variable. Using the volume control knob on the front, or the remote’s volume control, it only took seconds to realize that this was a dead end. The sound was thin and had no bass. Switching the X45 Pro’s Analog Out Volume back to fixed and connecting the analog output to the line input of my Doshi Audio Alaap preamp restored proper sound. So, readers should note that you will need a line stage with gain to listen to your LPs through the X45 Pro.
Playing the LP, The Big 3, Milt Jackson-Joe Pass-Ray Brown [Pablo 2310-757], my impressions were as expected; nothing amiss in terms of tonal balance, but the rendition was decidedly broader brush and lacking in refinement and dynamics compared to my dramatically more expensive phono front end. Still, I found it quite respectable and would imagine that it would give pleasure to most anyone using it with a modest turntable and moving magnet cartridge.
What the Cocktail Audio X45 Pro’s phono stage offers over and above the Mytek is the ability to rip vinyl to the onboard hard drive. Monitoring the level meter in the display (as above), you check to make sure the levels do not go into overload, as you would making any recording. The “VU meter” will display the word “overload” if the input level is too high. The input level can then be reduced by selecting Analog In Volume from Setup mode and reducing the phono input level. Then, just drop the needle and just before the music starts, push the Record button on the remote control. When your desired selection is complete, just push the Record button again to stop recording. Go to the Browser mode to find the recording and play it back.
I recorded several cuts from both classical and jazz LPs and compared playing the digital files to playing the LP. It was a strain to try to hear the difference, but there was maybe a subtle loss of air and bloom, but it was quite minimal. Of course, if you are used to the sound of a high end moving coil cartridge, I would recommend using a more ambitious outboard phono stage connected to the analog inputs of the X45 Pro to archive your LPs to the X45 Pro hard drive.
Despite the general downturn in FM radio, I live in a part of the Northeast U.S. where there are still a number of quality FM stations. I used to be quite an FM enthusiast and even had a sophisticated directional antenna mounted to my chimney with an old-fashioned, motorized rotor control. After owning over twenty tuners, I certainly did not expect much from the FM tuner section in the Cocktail X45 Pro. Using just used the supplied dipole antenna and tuning in a station (WPKN, 89.5) near me that broadcasts a good quality signal, it can sound very good. It’s RF performance was less stellar and with just the dipole it was not able to pull in one of the more difficult stations (WPPB, 88.3) to receive from Long Island. I can get this station on my vintage, albeit mono, KLH 21 radio on some days, but usually with a somewhat compromised and noisy sound quality.
Cocktail Audio X45 Pro DAC Comparisons
When I first became interested in the Cocktail Audio line of products, I thought I would look into their servers and perhaps pair one with the highly regarded Denafrips Terminator or another current contender. Since I don’t own a modern, hi-res DAC, it made sense to review the X45 Pro with its integrated DAC and try to borrow a DAC or two for comparison. Fortunately, a nearby friend of mine loaned me his Denafrips Terminator DAC, which has received high praise in the audio press.
I had hoped to use the X45 Pro as a server and come out of the HDMI/I2S port into the Denafrips. However, I later learned that the X45 Pro HDMI port (unlike the Cocktail standalone server models) is not an I2S output and is only designed for connecting to an external video display. The Denafrips is supposed to sound best with the HDMI/I2S input, but since that was not possible, I used my friend’s Verastarr USB cable (custom silver version of Nemesis model). I connected the Denafrips to the X45 Pro, powered it up, and let it sit for about a day and a half to settle in. I did try it a couple of hours after powering it up, but it definitely benefitted from the longer warm up.
One of my favorite blues CDs is Albert King: The Tomato Years. As implied by the album title, it is a compilation of some of Albert’s best performances on the Tomato record label. Probably the best-recorded track on the CD is “The Very Thought of You.” Comparing this track played from the ripped file on the Cocktail and the Denafrips was informative. While I found both to sound excellent, there were significant differences. The Cocktail had a denser tonal quality with more body and presence. It was also noticeable as more natural tone color from all of the instruments in Albert’s band. This was quite refreshing since I have found this area to be lacking in many digital products I have tried. Even more surprising was that this quality did not obscure detail. In fact, there was more resolution with the Cocktail as was evident in the beautifully nuanced vibrato in Albert’s voice at the end of this song.
Switching back to the DSD 128 Elektra/Nonesuch organ piece I used before revealed that the Cocktail had more power and authority than the Denafrips. The very low organ pedal notes at the end of the piece just moved more air and energized the room impressively. The Denafrips was more reserved, but to its credit, it did seem to have more transparency into the rear of the soundstage in this low bass passage.
PS Audio Direct Stream DAC
Thanks to the kindness of a fellow Connecticut Audio Society member, I was able to borrow a PS Audio Direct Stream DAC with the latest Snowmass firmware update along with his iFi Nano USB noise reduction device for USB connection to the X45 Pro’s USB output.
Going back to my ripped Rosanne Cash, The Wheel, I switched back and forth between the Cocktail and the PS Audio, playing certain cuts several times with each. After the introductory part of the title cut, the bass comes in like a wave. The Cocktail portrays this with a weightier, but also cleaner and tighter presentation, while the PS Audio had less impact and was softer and more diffuse. This softer quality had some benefits further up the frequency range, giving Rosanne’s voice a smoother quality. Having heard Rosanne Cash twice in concert, I think the truth may lie somewhere in between.
The same quality that distinguished the Cocktail from the Denafrips was discernible when playing Howard Hanson Mosaics Symphonies [Delos DE 3130]. On track five “Piano Concerto”, the piano clearly has more body than when played through the PS Audio. Also, the Cocktail Audio X45 Pro has an incisive and punchy quality that lends more authority and intensity to the sound, while the PS Audio is more relaxed and warmer, but with a less focused, less dynamic presentation. On music that is more aggressive, the PS Audio might be preferable. However, on most good recordings, I prefer the Cocktail X45 Pro. The fact that the Cocktail is even in the same ballpark with the PS Audio is saying a lot, considering how much more functionality comes with it for the same price as the PS Audio DAC alone!
Challenge and Reward with Cocktail Audio X45 Pro
Learning to use the Cocktail Audio X45 Pro requires considerable time and effort and may be daunting to some. An audiophile friend who was visiting to listen to it said he would not want any stereo component that had such a massive owner’s manual. In fairness, good portions of the manual are for more specialized, less often needed functions that can be explored ad hoc.
From a marketing standpoint, the inclusion of an FM tuner and phono stage in the X45 Pro seems somewhat questionable to me. Most audiophiles I know that would be potential customers for an X45 Pro rarely listen to FM any more and if they play LPs, they are likely to have a high quality, full-function preamp or stand-alone phono stage. Perhaps Cocktail Audio is catering to well-heeled, younger listeners looking for a lifestyle product and who would use the X45 Pro as their main component?
In the end, the Cocktail Audio X45 Pro was everything I was looking for and more! It made even older, average early 90s CDs that I ripped sound consistently more enjoyable and without the glare that can often plague many of these early analog-to-digital transfers. Hi-res files, like the DSD 128 ones I had available, were simply superb! The streaming function was an added bonus that turned out to be an eye-opener, not only for discovering new music, but also for the top-notch sound quality that was available on some, but certainly not all, of the Qobuz hi-res library. This is a high-class product that deserves more attention in the U.S. market.
For the combination of its extreme versatility in function, ability to play all hi-res formats, and excellent sound quality, all in one box, the Cocktail Audio X45 Pro leaves the competition in the dust. This vinyl lover has finally found his digital mate!
For more information: http://www.cocktailaudio.com/home/
- Analog Source: Nottingham Analogue Mentor turntable with 10” Ace Anna tonearm, Benz LP-S moving coil cartridge
- Digital Sources: Accuphase DP-70 CD player with Tom Evans Audio Design reclocking board, CAL Audio Delta transport with Alpha DAC (upgraded with new caps and other parts)
- Preamps: Doshi Alaap Purist Mk. II full-function tube preamp, Levinson 26S line stage, Klyne 7PX4 phono stage
- Power Amp: Tron 211 SET amp with upgraded exotic-core interstage transformers (General Electric 211 power tubes, Western Electric 417A input tubes, Tung Sol black plate 5U4GB rectifiers)
- Speakers: Bastanis Sagarmatha open baffle speakers with AlNiCo drivers and Gemini Mk. II tweeters, Bastanis 18-inch open baffle powered subwoofers
- Interconnect cables: Audio Magic The Natural (pre to amp), long Radio Shack interconnects from preamp out to Dayton A500 subwoofer plate amps
- Power Cords: Bastanis Epilog II on Tron amp, industrial-sourced power cord on Doshi preamp, Dynamic Design AE15 Spirit for digital components
- Speaker Cables: Audio Magic The Natural
- Equipment Rack: Adona 6-shelf, low profile isolation rack
- Power Line Conditioning: Triangle Art RA-6 power conditioner, Bastanis Afterburner power conditioner
- Sundry accessories: High End Novum PMR Premium Resonator, set of four Stein Harmonizers with Stein Magic Stones, Entreq Silver Tellus grounding box with Atlantis grounding cable, Synergistic Research FEQ, Audio Magic Room Correction Bells, Audio Prism Ground Control, three Bybee Quantum Signal Purifiers, Audio Horizons Fuse in Tron amp, Audio Magic fuse in Doshi power supply, AudioDesk Pro record cleaning machine
- Room Size: 22’ long X 17’ wide X 10’ high, with eaves on front and back walls starting 40 inches up from floor
About the Author
Steve Marsh purchased his first stereo system for his college dorm room back in 1972. It was an all AR system: AR-XA turntable, AR receiver, and AR-2ax speakers. It was not until getting out of graduate school in 1987 that he had the money to start any serious upgrading of his system. At that time, he also joined the Connecticut Audio Society and became exposed to many different systems among the membership and also learned a lot from some of the more knowledgeable members. Through the nineties and 2000s, he went through a slew of both modern and vintage equipment and developed a sense of his sonic priorities.
In the last fifteen years, his system has stabilized, favoring very high efficiency speakers (100 dB sensitivity) and low power tube amps. He finds this combination to have the purity of sound that he cherishes, while also exhibiting dynamics that many systems lack. He primarily listens to his vinyl collection of about 3,500 records, but is not averse to good digital sound.
In addition to his main system using modern equipment, he is also interested in vintage audio and maintains a second, vintage system. To complement this pursuit, he also learned how to restore and repair vintage tube equipment through mentoring by an electronics engineer friend.
Steve’s professional background is in the sciences with an M.S. and Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. However, in the late 80s/early 90s, he had a life-altering illness that knocked him off his scientific career track. During this time, he used his stereo as a source of healing and to this day he strongly believes in the power of music over the body and soul.
After a long road to recovery, he decided to make a career change into audio and began restoring and selling vintage stereo equipment, installing systems, and then adding reviewing to his repertoire about fifteen years ago.