I started with this excursion because many music lovers still think that network audio is something incomprehensible, extremely sophisticated and, in addition, meaningless from the point of view of musical collecting. Of course, streaming does not imply the usual collection of records in the form of some kind of personal file array, and instead gives a direct connection to huge music databases, where you can find and listen to anything by subscription. This is a completely different way of getting pleasure from music, which, by the way, does not supplant in any way the collection of rare musical editions on original physical media (or in the form of files, authentic master recordings).
And streaming on the user side does not require any super-sophisticated equipment. A home network with Internet access and a regular smartphone is enough to connect to streaming broadcasters. Better yet, instead of smart, add a so-called audio renderer to the system, which in fact is not much more complicated than a regular network LAN or WLAN card. We put the application to control playback from it – and you’re done!
Perhaps the most revealing example of such connectivity is the Cocktailaudio N15D recently tested by the Korean company Novatron. The engineers took a compact USB DAC with a high-quality headphone amplifier and supplemented the component with a streaming unit, software for connecting to external streaming services, and a slot for an internal HDD / SSD drive. The result is an inexpensive, laconic, but full-fledged streamer with its own storage and control via a smartphone, which can still be used for Head-Fi – like a USB DAC.
The device that we will consider today is much more serious and serves as an example of the opposite approach – when a device with the same basic network capabilities receives almost exhaustive functionality. In short, Novatron has made a kind of streaming mega source / recorder that replaces a lot of other components in the system, which makes it especially attractive.
So here we are being offered a full size component with a sturdy metal plate chassis. The network part is exactly the same as that of the N15D – a modern gigabit LAN card (if a wireless connection is needed, it is done using a USB WiFi dongle). All processes are handled by a high-performance Dual Core ARM Cortex A9 operating at 1 GHz, and the operating system of this microcomputer is loaded from the integrated 8 GB NAND storage.
On the rear panel we find a slot for installing a 3.5-inch HDD (where, of course, you can insert any disks in a smaller format). This makes the X45 functionally similar to a media server. The amount of available disk space depends on what kind of hard drives you equip it with – in the case of 2.5-inch or SSD, you will most likely be limited to two terabytes, but when using a server-class HDD, you can get 8 TB. Few? Additional drives are connected from the front panel via USB or via a pair of high-speed 3.0 ports on the back. As in the N15D, the disk interface in the X45 recognizes drives and flash drives with FAT32 file systems.
Now let’s step aside from the “IT” component and see how the audio path is built. The signal can be captured digitally: via the AES / EBU output, coaxial, optical or USB Type-A (Audio Class 2.0). In the latter case, the restrictions on the bit depth typical for conventional protocols are removed – you can output both a single-bit DSD256 in native and PCM up to 32 bit / 384 kHz. There is also an HDMI port, to which not only the audio signal is output, but also a graphical control shell.
D / A conversion is performed by two 32-bit Saber ES9018K2M DACs. Outputs are presented as a stereo pair of RCA, and balanced XLR. At the same time, a universal volume control in the converters is also involved, so any of the outputs can be switched from Fix to Variable mode. Of course, digital inputs are also provided so that the device can be used with other sources. In this way, we still get a fairly advanced DAC with a pre-function.
That’s not all. The built-in slot-loader drive allows you to copy CDs to internal storage, as well as burn copies to CD-ROM. Also on the X45 we find a line-in, PHONO for vinyl (MM) and even an antenna jack for an FM / DAB tuner. We will be able to use only half of the capabilities of the latter (in our country there is no DAB broadcasting), but everything else, as you probably already guessed, turns the X45 almost into a professional sound recording machine capable of digitizing vinyl, a signal from an analog input or radio broadcasts from the air … The manufacturer does not name the brand of the ADC, but in the system menu, the digitization quality can be set up to 192 kHz / 24 bit. Not weak?
And, by the way, everything is done according to audiophile standards. Powered by a powerful isolated circuit system for the analog and digital sections. A thermostabilized generator is responsible for internal clocking. In terms of formats, the X45 is almost omnivorous – it supports all common lossy and lossless audio, MQA, DSD, WAV / AIFF. He can also work in the Roon environment with its convenient cataloger and special audio protocols.
Finally, we add a built-in audio editor, a standard tool for finding tags and landscape graphics from external databases, a large display on the front panel and an encoder for operational control, a traditional remote control and, of course, the MusicX Neo mobile application, with which you can not only control playback but also gain access to all repositories and penetrate deep into all system settings. As a result, we have a single network center for any musical experiments. And, in principle, it remains to supplement it only with power amplifiers.
Separately, it is worth noting the variety of opportunities for streaming subscriptions. Moreover, in the case of Qobuz (as well as some other content providers), playback, playlists and search can be controlled both from their own application (first screenshot) and through a single MusicX Neo interface. In the latter case, a tablet is better suited (second row of screenshots). Although the start page in the current version of the application looks somehow empty and not very stylish, the names of the songs and landscape graphics are displayed on it in full, which greatly simplifies the work with the music databases.
For all the fundamentality and technical excellence in the presentation, there was nothing that instantly switches the listener’s interest to the music itself. All the same, you sit and analyze the work of the system: here it has collected all the details well, and there it correctly built the background, here it beautifully showed the whole trail of harmonics of some instrument, and then was able to powerfully and realistically “shoot” percussion … »Goes off scale, and the performance content remains not too emotional.
I was already ready to switch experiments with digital outputs and playback through an external DAC, but then the idea arose to turn on the X45 analogue not directly, but through the Xindak CA preamplifier, turning off the volume control in the source. And it worked! The corporality in the middle increased, the strict structure in the bass was supplemented with a lively and warm density, the high ones played with the most subtle shades. If before that switching from one streaming service manifested itself only in the form of a certain (and rather formal) difference in the technical quality of the content, now not only differences in compression artifacts began to appear, but also subtle articulatory nuances. Some Hi-Res things from the same Qobuz generally sounded no worse than from their own flash drive. And I have already come across a similar one.
And this result also leads to the conclusion that the audio section of the Cocktailaudio X45 is made competently, as they say, “from nose to tail.” For this reason, we began to check neither all the intermediate switching options of the device, nor its additional functionality, nor the recording capabilities. It’s like trying to embrace the immensity. One thing is clear: it can sound cool and even outplay some other streamers in this price range.