Cocktail Audio is based in South Korea, and distributed in the US by Audio Plus Services and in Canada by Plurison. Their main US product line is dedicated to music servers at various prices, and the flagship model of that line is the X40 ($2695 USD). It has native DSD playback and other features befitting a top-of-the-line component, such as balanced analog outputs, a toroidal transformer, and an ESS Technology Sabre32 Reference DAC. (Sathyan Sundaram favorably reviewed the X40 for SoundStage! Hi-Fi in May 2015.) Near the bottom of the X-line is the subject of this review: the Cocktail Audio X12 ($699). Although the X12 lacks the X40’s build quality, it shares many of its features and ease of use, and adds several more functions. With its built-in amp, the X12 also serves a purpose different from its siblings: it’s an all-in-one music server, but its built-in stereo amplifier means it can be the centerpiece of a sophisticated lifestyle audio system. So it’s not simply a lower-priced X40: It’s a self-contained little electronics package that would be perfect for, say, desktops or small office spaces.
Although casual listeners have embraced streaming audio, many audiophiles want nothing to do with music servers. I could be counted among the latter group -- until I reviewed, and bought, Cambridge Audio’s Stream Magic 6. With the Magic 6, I was able to enjoy the convenience of streaming music that the iTunes crowd had long enjoyed -- no longer was there any need to get up and change CDs. I also had the sound quality that my inner audiophile appreciates -- I could rip my own CDs to lossless FLAC files. My music is conveniently stored on a network-attached storage (NAS) drive and streamed through my network to the Stream Magic 6; I use an Android tablet to select tracks and create playlists. Audiophile nirvana.
Almost. My problem was the large CD collection I’d amassed over the years. I grew tired of ripping CDs through a Windows computer.
Enter the Cocktail Audio X12, a little device in a half-width case measuring 7”W x 3.9”H x 5.9”D. Inside are two devices that make ripping easy: a CD drive and a hard drive. My biggest criticism of the X12 is about its CD drive, which is similar to the external CD drive I use with my laptop. You must press down on a CD until it’s grabbed by the clamping mechanism. You then push the tray into the housing against a spring, which clicks when it’s fully closed. This is no big deal for occasional use, but I can envision that someone doing a lot of ripping might quickly wear out or damage the tray. However, it worked fine with the 50 or so CDs I ripped.
Differentiating the X12 from the usual music server and the rest of Cocktail’s X line, this component also comes with a built-in amplifier. In the information I received from Cocktail, the amp is described as “digital,” which can sometimes indicate a class-D design. Its power output is specified as 30Wpc, measured at 1kHz at 8 ohms with 1% THD. Because the power-output spec isn’t over the entire audioband of 20Hz-20kHz, and has a relatively high THD, it’s safe to assume that the X12’s amp is not overly powerful. However, with its built-in clock and alarm, the X12 is certainly powerful enough to use as a clock radio or for background music.
The review sample sent to me came with a hard drive already installed, but to experience the entire process of ripping CDs, I pulled it out and installed in the drive bay a fresh 500GB desktop hard drive. The installation process was easy, and I noticed that the bay can also accommodate laptop and solid-state drives. The largest 3.5” drive that can be accommodated is 4TB, which can hold some 10,000 CDs losslessly ripped as FLAC files.
On the front of the X12, below the CD tray at the top, is a large color LCD screen that displays album covers, menus, which album and track are playing, etc. To the right of the screen is a large knob for scrolling through menus; to select an item, you push the knob. Below the knob is a USB port for a memory stick or external hard drive, and a 1/8” headphone jack. Along the front edge of the top panel is a row of buttons: Volume Up and Down, Stop, Eject, Return, Menu, and Power. The leftmost button is labeled FN for function, but I’m not sure what this does.
On the rear panel are an Ethernet connection (a Wi-Fi dongle is an option) for hooking the X12 up to your network, analog inputs to rip from a cassette deck or turntable, optical and coaxial digital outputs for connection to an external DAC, two USB ports for additional external hard drives, and left and right speaker binding posts.
The X12 comes with a plastic remote control with myriad small buttons scattered all over the place. I wasn’t a huge fan of this remote’s look and feel, but found it essential in operating the X12. It has shortcut keys for frequently used functions -- by far the easiest way to rip a CD is to put a disc in the tray and press Rip. Using the X12’s front panel to rip is more time consuming: you have to scroll through numerous displays before you get to the ripping menu.
Once the hard drive is installed and the Cocktail X12 turned on, the Setup Wizard is launched. This takes you through formatting the hard drive, selecting the onscreen-display (OSD) language, and the ripping format. That done, normal startup takes less than a minute, and ends with the home screen displaying a list of menu options: Music DB (go to your ripped files on the internal hard drive), CD Play/Rip, Playlist (create and use playlists), i-Service (access Internet Radio), Browser (see the contents of your hard drive), and Setup (change settings). Again, it’s much quicker to use the remote than to navigate these menus.
During my ripping phase, a couple of things about the X12 quickly became tedious. First, I had to keep selecting FLAC as my desired rip format, even though I’d selected it as my default in the initial setup. If I didn’t select FLAC, it defaulted to WAV. I prefer FLAC because it results in files that are about half the size of WAV files, with no loss in quality. Second, selecting the album-art databases was convoluted. After you’ve selected your rip format, the X12 brings up the disc’s first track. You then select the CD icon and press Enter. Then you have the option of four different databases to search for album art. If that fails, you can scan storage, such as the hard drive or a USB stick, to find a scan you’ve made yourself or downloaded from the Internet. Inevitably, the first database scanned won’t have the album, so you have to scan the others. Of the 50 or so CDs I scanned using the X12, there was only one that I couldn’t find anywhere.
I mostly used the Cocktail X12 as a standalone server-preamp-power amp, driving Wharfedale’s excellent Diamond 220 bookshelf speakers. I also set it up in my main system, using only its music rendering function. Here the X12 was connected, via its digital output, to a NuPrime IDA-16 integrated amplifier, which drove my floorstanding Definitive Technology BP8060ST speakers.
As a music renderer, the Cocktail X12 was pretty versatile. Once connected to a network, it’s not restricted to the 16-bit/44.1kHz tracks ripped to its hard drive -- it can pull music tracks from other sources, such as a NAS drive. If you have multiple X12s connected to your network, one of them can access the internal hard drive of each of the others and stream music from them. The X12 is also compatible with files of resolutions up to 24/192. The only files it can’t play are DSD files -- for that, Cocktail Audio offers pricier models of network player.
As a music renderer, the Cocktail X12 was quite good. Using a program such as Bubble UPnP on my Android tablet, it was easy to find the X12 listed as a playback device, and to find music on its internal hard drive. Not only that, it sounded great through my reference system. Through its digital output, the X12 sounded as neutral as any music server I’ve had in my system.
A good example was “It’s Alright with Me,” from Holly Cole (24/88.2 FLAC, Alert/HDtracks), which starts off small and intimately, but ramps up in volume. Through the X12, my reference system convincingly portrayed the track’s dynamic range, and the X12 sounded impressively transparent throughout. With “Kiss from a Rose,” from Seal’s Seal, from 1994 (16/44.1 FLAC, Sire), the X12 neither added to nor detracted from the track’s emotional impact, playing back through my NuPrime system flawlessly.
The Cocktail X12 is most likely to be used as an all-in-one electronics package -- just add cables and speakers. For this purpose, I used it to drive a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 220s, which I consider to be killer budget bookshelf speakers. However, the X12 doesn’t have a particularly powerful amplifier, and with a claimed sensitivity of 86dB/W/m, the Diamond 220s aren’t easy to drive. The X12 was challenged to produce room-filling sound -- I found it more suited to a bedroom or dorm room. With a track such as “Hey Nineteen,” from Steely Dan’s Gaucho (16/44.1 FLAC, MCA), the Diamond 220 couldn’t reproduce Walter Becker’s bass guitar with the depth I know it has. The song sounded flat through the X12.
The Cocktail was more in its element with intimate recordings of jazz vocals, such as “Bird Alone,” from Abbey Lincoln’s Abbey Sings Abbey (16/44.1 FLAC, Verve). Her voice sounded rich, and was solidly positioned between the Wharfedales. In this track, Lincoln is accompanied by instruments not usually heard in jazz, such as accordion and pedal steel guitar. I could easily distinguish them through the Cocktail X12.
The Cocktail X12’s amplifier came up a bit short in comparisons with the Fatman Red-i integrated amplifier ($599) I use in my exercise room. The Fatman comes with matched speakers, and its tubed output stage is specified as outputting 25Wpc. I connected the X12’s analog outputs to the Fatman and the Fatman to the Wharfedale Diamond 220s, and compared that rig with the X12 driving the Wharfedales by itself, listening to “Code Cool,” from Patricia Barber’s Smash (24/192 FLAC, Concord Jazz/HDtracks). Through the Fatman, the bass had a tautness, warmth, and punch, and the cymbals a greater clarity, that were lacking when the Cocktail X12 directly drove the Diamond 220s.
I then compared the music-rendering abilities of the Cocktail X12 and my Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 ($1275). The Stream Magic can do some things the X12 can’t: Its balanced XLR outputs allow it to be used as a high-end preamp, and with its multiple digital inputs, it can be used as a DAC. Although the Cocktail costs little more than half the price of the Cambridge, the X12 has a leg up on the Stream Magic 6 in being compatible with 24/192 FLAC files -- the Cambridge can play FLACs of resolutions only up to 24/96, and stutters when fed higher-rez signals. When I played 16/44.1 FLAC files, I heard little to differentiate the X12 from the Stream Magic 6. The aural images in “Chuck E.’s in Love,” from Rickie Lee Jones’s Naked Songs: Live and Acoustic (16/44.1 FLAC, Reprise), were equally precise through the Cocktail and the Cambridge. In both cases, Jones’s acoustic guitar sounded rich throughout its range, and particularly smooth in the higher frequencies.
As an all-in-one system for $699, the Cocktail Audio X12 is a great value. Not only does it rip CDs, it can store music, stream tunes from your network, and play radio stations from the Internet. It even has clock and alarm functions -- you can use it as a clock radio. All you need to do is provide speakers and cables, and you have a complete system. The X12 excelled as a music renderer, easily playing music from my network server, and making the music stored on its hard drive available to other music servers on my network. All these features make the X12 unique among the many servers on the market today. The small amp in its diminutive case makes the X12 best suited for use in smaller spaces, such as bedrooms or dorm rooms. In that context, and with the right speakers, the addition of a Cocktail Audio X12 should result in a satisfying music system.
. . . Vince Hanada
- Source -- Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6
- Integrated amplifiers -- Fatman Red-i, NuPrime IDA-16
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology BP8060ST, Wharfedale Diamond 220
- Cables -- Analysis Plus Blue Oval in-wall speaker cables, Analysis Plus Super Sub interconnects
Cocktail Audio X12 Music Server-Integrated Amplifier
Price: $699 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Novatron Co., Ltd.
Room 1607, 13 Heungdeok 1-ro, Giheung-gu, Yongin-si
Phone: +82 31-898-8401
Fax: +82 31-898-8413
North American distributors:
Audio Plus Services (US)
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
Phone: (800) 663-9352
313 Marion Street
Le Gardeur, Quebec J5Z 4W8
Phone: (866) 271-5689