ROTEL MICHI X3 integrated amplifier
+ Elegant, minimalistic-design lifestyle component; ample multimodal source component inputs; brings life to bright sounding speakers; good hedge against digital obsolescence.
– Lacklustre phono stage; requires careful matching with speakers; may not be suitable for high-output moving magnet cartridges; lacks musicality and sparkle.
ROTEL is a brand that, for me, brings back memories of browsing through hi-fi magazines back in the 1980s. I never had the opportunity to get acquainted with Rotel products, but certainly recall their simple and functional design philosophy. Founded in 1961, the Japanese company has adapted well to remain a family-owned manufacturer of high-end equipment through strategic alliances as well as lean thinking for a quality manufacturing process.
The “Michi” brand is Rotel’s flagship line, differentiated from the standard range. This approach was once a practice for many manufacturers to capture the premium market, just like Toyota did with Lexus. Technics by Panasonic comes to mind as a parallel in the hi-fi universe. However, Rotel’s stride forward in the 1990s ran out of breath and the Michi name went into hibernation over the next two decades or so. It was resurrected in late 2020 with a line-up comprising five new amplifiers. The local distributor dropped off the Michi X3 integrated amplifier for review.
The X3 is manufactured in Rotel’s factory in China using state-of-the-art surface mounting technology. Transformers are designed by Rotel’s engineering team to meet the power demands of its circuits and are all wound in-house. If you open the top plate, you will spot a large high-current toroidal transformer taking up about a quarter of the cavity, flanked by a neat layout of the amplification boards on both sides, and the preamplifier and digital circuits aft of the transformer.
The size of the packaging caught me by surprise – the X3 came very well padded in a huge white carton that was a handful to carry on my own due to its dimensions. I had to rest it on the side before I could haul it into my house.
The X3 is no lightweight, tipping the scales at 28.6kg, and is crafted in an elegant matt black solid metal chassis that measures 485 x 150 x 452mm (w/h/d). It has a much bigger footprint compared with the Vitus RI-101 amplifier that I had. Metal surrounds the sides, which sport heatsinks as well. The front panel is clutter-free with only two dominant round knobs flanking the 12cm LCD display and power button.
The rear panel is another story altogether, with its massive count of inputs. Analogue (one phono, three RCAs and one XLR) and digital inputs (three Toslink optical, three coaxial, one USB and one Bluetooth antenna) are separated into the top and middle rows respectively with two pairs of speaker outputs taking up the bottom row. You will also find outputs for a subwoofer and power amplifier on the rear panel. Given the two pairs of speakers outputs, I decided to rotate speakers to maximise the use of the outputs by directly connecting them into the bi-wired Sonus Faber Guarneri Homage and ATC SCM-11, and the Tannoy Ardens in the regular manner.
The word “MICHI” will greet you in bold upon powering up. If you have equipment hooked up or Bluetooth connected, you can pretty much start playing immediately without having to set up the unit from the menu structure that is only accessible through the sleek remote control.
The menu is well organised through functional groupings shown on the LCD display. The X3 allows a number of useful settings, such killing off unused inputs to make source selection quicker. It takes into account that your source component may have a variable output or volume control hence the fixed volume feature can be selected accordingly.
There is a variable volume feature where you can start off each source component at a prescribed level, which I found less useful compared to the independent source volume compensation featured in high-end equipment to equalise the differing volume levels when you switch across sources. What this has, however, is the ability to set tonal settings for bass and treble independently through a +10 to -10 range for individual source components to equalise tonal qualities… if that rocks your boat. The standard display setting showing the source and volume level is more elegant looking compared to VU meter or spectrum analyser options.
On the technical front, the X3 pushes 350 watts in Class AB into four-ohm loads which should be ample to drive a good range of speakers. Digital duties are sorted out by the AKM premium 32-bit/768KHz DAC chipset to decode up to 24-bit/384 kHz PCM and DSD5.6 (with DoP support), depending on the digital input selected. Android audiophiles will like the AC/aptX Bluetooth availability. There is no support for Apple Airplay or Spotify connect.
Given that Roon is my newfound love, I found a few novel ways to turn the X3 into a Roon endpoint by connecting a Bluesound Node 2 via RCA/coaxial and Google Chromecast via Toslink to the X3. A brainwave struck later as I managed to connect my Mac (that was running Roon) via Bluetooth, hence making a direct wireless to the X3 without having to hook up another source component.
This was my first acquaintance with a Rotel. It reminded me very much of the Accuphase A-48 I reviewed sometime back – slightly laidback and relaxed , with nothing aggressive. The sound embraces you warmly, albeit not as sweet sounding as the Accuphase. I decided to go easy to build up the expectation curve by starting with the low-bandwidth digital connections, given that the novelty of running Roon was running high.
If I were to map the sound character, I would say that Rotel took the safe middle path when designing the X3. The amplifier doesn’t give you the impression that there is an ample amount of reserves behind the volume knob and neither does it conjure the level of excitement in the music but instead, it gives you the dependability of making the music louder as you churn up the volume knob. Which goes to say that matching the amplifier with the appropriate speakers is going to be crucial – quite likely that Rotel used speakers from its global distributor partner, Bower & Wilkins, to voice the X3. I have often found these speakers to be on the bright side compared with the ones I used for this review – the Guarneri Homage and Tannoy Ardens. The ATC SCM-11 seemed a tad harder to drive for the X3.
There was very little perceivable difference between the Bluetooth (Mac) and Toslink (Chromecast Audio) connections when I was playing a variety of Redbook quality music through Roon. Hooking up the Bluesound Node 2 brought about a pleasant improvement to the tonal qualities. It’s less apparent with Diana Krall’s vocals but there were substantial improvements in how the double bass and piano notes were rendered – the extension to the bass notes had more elasticity while the timbre from the piano keys was much airier.
Connecting my computer with JRiver running via USB seemed to add a tad more detail, possibly due to the direct connection without wireless overheads. I can imagine the X3 being used to fill the house with ambient music through the day when it’s not being employed for critical listening. That was exactly what I did throughout the entire day, leaving Roon radio running through Chromecast Audio as an endpoint. The amplifier doesn’t run hot and is comfortable enough to rest your palm on… a good thing if you have young children or cats in the house.
Moving up the quality ladder, a CEC CD transport and McIntosh MCD7007 CD player were connected via the coaxial inputs. I played Tsuyoshi Yamamoto’s Misty, an album that I’m thoroughly familiar with. The CEC was to get a feel of the DAC chipset, the McIntosh, to hear if the X3 DAC chipset made a difference. The grip on the music was more authoritative compared to the Roon stream of the same track. There was more conviction in how the music was rendered, with a good sense of immediacy from the tonal roundness of the piano keys, and the airiness reaching the pinnacle and sustained decay. The brushing of the hi-hat surfaced in detail compared with the Roon stream, and the slight tinge of muddiness in the soundstage and layering of instruments when playing Ricky Lee Jones’ Under the Boardwalk were wiped clean, resulting deeper and easily distinguishable layering.
I suspect the performance of the DAC may have been overshadowed by the X3’s voicing as there was little difference when I connected the MCD7007 directly via RCA cables. Connecting a Cary Audio SACD Professional player did result in a slightly more contemporary feel to the same music with more detail extraction, but it nonetheless remained slightly veiled. Swapping my the stock power cord with one from Ansuz Acoustics which I had resulted in a lift, but that would be tweaking.
The weakest link in the X3 could be the MM-only onboard phono stage where I find the gain to be on the low side; although not published, I suspect it could be lower than 36dB. My first shot at the phono stage was with a Ortofon SPU GM MkII mounted on a SME3012 Thorens TD-124 combination with a 20x step-up transformer in between to hit at least 62dB of gain (should the MM be at 36dB). However, the eventual gain was found to be much lower than my expectations hence the suspicion, given that I had to increase the volume substantially to reasonable listening levels.
Subsequently, I swapped the turntable with one mounted with the renown Audio Technica VM540ML moving magnet cartridge which fared better. Its phono input sensitivity of 5.2mV may result in loss of headroom for high output MM cartridges such as the Rega Exact (about 7mV output).
Contrary to my usual conclusion, I preferred the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto CD over an early pressing of the same on vinyl when it was played back over the X3. It lacked musicality, and the pastel hues from Yamamoto’s piano notes from the right extreme of the keyboard were clearly missing when compared with the Goldnote PH-10 phono stage paired with either a Vitus RI-101 or Audio Note Jinro – the same turntable-cartridge combinations were used.
I may not be comparing apples with apples but the same goes with the rendering of Ray Brown’s extreme low registers from his bass that starts bellowing after the two-minute mark in Mondscheinsonate / Round About Midnight, which happens to be one of my favourite test tracks. Here, it sounded limp in the absence of the impact and the weight of the rumble that I have grown accustomed to over the years. It didn’t have the usual sparkle that arouses analogue listening pleasures.
THE LAST WORD
Speaker matching is the key to get the best out of the X3. You need to consider the tonal character of the speakers as the X3’s performance leans positively towards brighter sounding speakers to balance out its inherent traits. This apart, the X3’s multimodal connectivity is insurance against obsolescence while giving plenty of headroom for expansion to include multiple input sources, given its ability to connect up to 13 devices.
I began to understand the product placement strategy for the X3 as I compared it with other similarly-priced gear. The X3 is designed as a premium lifestyle amplifier to accommodate the flexible needs of a modern household with multiple sources, catering to both hi-fi and perhaps a 2.1 home theatre system in the living room, where I see it falling into place with a TV, subwoofer, Playstation, satellite decoder, Android TV box, streamer and perhaps a hipster turntable to complete the equation. This is not the amplifier for me but I assure you that it will fit many lifestyle-driven households amongst us.
Sources: Cary Audio SACD303t, Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD player, McIntosh MCD7007, CEC TL-1500 CD transport, Denafrips Are DAC , Astell & Kern SE100, Chromecast Audio, Technics Sl-1200 turntable (Audio Technica VM54ML), Thorens TD-124 SME 3012 (Ortofon SPU Royal MkII); Goldnote PH-10 phonostage / Speakers: Guarneri Homage, Tannoy Arden, ATC SCM-11 / Wires; generic, Belden, Transparent Audio, Ansuz Acoustics and OEM audio cables.