Rotel Michi X3 Integrated Amplifier Review
This has been one of the hardest reviews I have ever done because the MichiX3 integrated amplifier really surprised me. Out of the box and into my system it performed so well that I was at a loss for words. Not so much as in spectacular audiophile terms, but because it just went straight to work and played music, all kinds of music, and from all kinds of sources in such a relaxed but inviting manner, critique just kind of went out the window. But unless you have been living under an audiophile rock for the last few years, you probably have seen, even in passing, a review of the latest Rotel amplifiers. In fact, I have recently written about their neat A14MK.2. A solid performer, the sound signature of that unit being quite different from its big brother, the Michi X3. A side-by-side comparison with their faceplates covered, would almost make one feel they are from two different manufacturers. With the Michi X3 being the more powerful unit and equipped with similar features, musically though it takes a hard right turn into seduction land.
But let's start with what this amplifier comes equipped with to get me out of this wonderful musical stupor I'm in. With an array of built-in components and connection options rivaling the A14 Mk. 2, and an extremely solid build quality, the Michi X3 is one capable integrated amplifier. With six digital inputs for connection to its internal AKM 32-bit / 768kHz. DAC, complimented by hand-selected components (I can relate to this with the mods to my gear) in all critical circuits, four analog inputs, three RCA, and one balanced XLR. There are one pair of line-level outs and one pair of mono RCA outs for the connection of a sub. PC USB input, AptX Bluetooth, and a moving magnet phono stage, this unit leaves no stone unturned in the connection department. Unlike the A14Mk. 2, the Michi X3 has eight solid milled and rhodium-plated speaker outputs for bi-wiring, not for connecting two sets of speakers.
There is Ethernet and RS 232 connectivity. The amp puts out 350 watts in 4 Ohms, and 200 watts in 8 Ohms. This was more than enough power on tap to drive either of the two pairs of speakers I have in house. The dimensions of this amp are 19 x 6 x 17 ¾ inches. It is squarer looking than rectangle. Weight is 63.7 pounds. The finish is black with the most innovative shrouds around the heatsinks I have ever seen on an amplifier. The simple faceplate and knobs are simply a work of art in industrial design. The main power switch is on the rear, leaving only a very sparse yet clean handsome design of a front faceplate. Similarly, the infra-red remote is also of a spartan design, but yet able to control every feature on this amp.
The Michi X3's volume can be set to fixed as to be paired with other preamps or home theater units as a pass-through. In fact all inputs can be set to variable or fixed for unparallel flexibility. Let's not forget two 12-Volt triggers, a network port, an external remote jack, an RS232 port, and a USB power port. Clearly the designers of this amplifier have stressed sonics, but it is also clear that they left no stone unturned in its functionality.
My reference system has remained the same as in the A14MK. 2 review. Marantz PM15S1 amp, Marantz SA15S2 SACD player both modified by the Upgrade Company, Kuzma Stabi S Turntable with Stogi arm with a Hana EH MC cart slapped on the end of it. My Samsung S10+, Samsung A10 Tablet, and Spotify were used for the Bluetooth demo. Speakers were my Fritz Morels, and I dusted off my trusty Tonian Labs TL-D1 for good measure. In fact, I used the Tonian's for most of this review. These speakers can be brutal with the wrong amplifier, which is code for they work best with a tube or Class A solid-state amp. This is why I was surprised they matched well with my inexpensive Marantz PM-5004, and were a match made in heaven with the Michi X3. Both of these speakers are easy to drive, so I had to keep an eye on the gas pedal of those 350 Watts.
Since this integrated amplifier sounded smooth out of the gate, I tended to pick CDs and albums with a harder edge to see if the X3 could bring out the true tone of the top registers of a Telecaster, Fender, or the natural bite of the violin section of an orchestra. The Fritz Morels matched quite well with the Michi X3, if a bit darker sounding. For the remainder of the review I listened to the much livelier Tonians feeling this was a better match with this amp. The Tonian speakers are NOT a match with my Marantz PM15S1. But as I said, strangely mate quite well with my much cheaper Marantz PM 5004 which I also used for this review.
I started out with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' new release, Raise The Roof LP. As with their previous release, Raising Sand, this album is beautiful sounding, beautifully pressed, has great album artwork and of course features the beautiful Alison Krauss. Since I bought it I haven't played it very much. In fact with this review this is the most time I have had with this double LP set. On this, music through the Michi X3's built in phono section the music had a smoother and cooler character overall than my regular amplifier. The X3 slightly taking the gravelly edge off the top registers of the tall cool one. With Ms. Krauss' vocals sounding as angelic as ever through these earthy songs. Plant's voice sounded less peaky and thin compared to how it sounds on his solo recordings. No doubt due in part to his slightly subdued singing and the style of songs. Not to mention this album was nicely recorded. Both voices blended naturally on a spacious soundstage on the song, "Quattro, (Worlds Drift In)."
And on the track, "You Led Me to the Wrong," I heard a clean, smooth, and whole violin and a subtle acoustic guitar. Everything sounded very natural, especially the violin. Plant's vocals also sounded natural, whole, and expressive. I like their take on, "The Price of Love." Their version of this song is sung slowly and delicately. The Michi X3's built in phono section again easily capturing all the delicacy and nuance of Krauss' voice and the subtle instrumentation, but yet again with a smoothness to the overall presentation. My favorite take on this classic is by one of my favorite groups, Poco. Their version of this song is infused with a little more energy.
A big heartache for me was losing Paul Cotton and Rusty Young of this band last year. The Michi X3 blended all of this music together in a full, smooth yet detailed and natural manner. Using the internal MM phono section on these LPs from the Michi X3 recreates very good dimension and space. Inner detail was not lacking, and bass was deep and solid. It did lack a bit of natural edginess and bite though. And it could use a little more gain. I had to crank it up a bit more than with my in-built Marantz phono in my PM15S1. But that could be due to my cart being a moving coil going into a moving magnet phono stage. In comparison to the built-in phono section in my reference Modified Marantz amp, its built-in MM/MC section has better inner detail, better air and spaciousness, very clear and distinct images, but leaner, sharper, and a slightly stiff sound presentation. These last traits make it harder to mate it with other gear and speakers.
My son says I am a sucker for B movies, and I can't argue with him. I mean am I the only one who tires of Nicholson and De Niro? Sometimes one can find pretty good soundtracks from your non-blockbusters. The soundtrack from Clan of the Cave Bear is just one such album. Composed by Alan Silvestri, this synth-laden soundtrack is atmospheric as all get out. And that's why I love it. The movie follows the adventures of Ayia, a Cro-Magnon woman taken in by a Neanderthal family unit as a child. Great stuff for the Max Plank institute?Maybe not. But I find it entertaining. This soundtrack features an array of synthesizers. The Michi X3 fleshed out a very three-dimensional and spacious soundstage with this music. There was an airy and very clean separation of instruments with a cool and smooth overall sound. Did it take me back 50,000 years in the past listening to this soundtrack? Yes, it did.
For the next few CDs I had my Marantz Reference SACD player hooked up to one of the RCA inputs. I dove into Robert Plant's two CD set, Sixty-Six to Timbuktu. This set comes as close as you are going to get in a greatest hits package from Plant. On these disks I heard a smoother, cooler sound character overall compared to how this music comes out of my Reference amplifier. The music had a very clean and fast presentation to it. But the Michi X3 took the edge off of Plant's voice again slightly, and the steely sound typically found on Plant's recordings. But not enough to totally eliminate the bite in his vocals when he hits the upper registers in the song, "29 Palms." That made it sound just a little more polished sounding than from my amplifier. An honest rendering therefore of these two CDs with a good dash of smoothness from this integrated amplifier.
Next up was Porcupine Tree and the late, great Tom Petty. On Porcupine Tree's Up the Downstair, vocals were reproduced in a smooth and natural manner. High notes on synths sounded sharp and clean and well-controlled but never piercing or shrill. Believe me, there is some high energy on the some of the synth parts on this disk., and the X3 did not roll off the high end. But the high end sounded a bit more palatable than on my Reference amp through the Tonian Labs speakers. On Tom Petty's classic CD, Wildflowers, acoustic guitar sounded clean and full, especially on the songs, "Wildflowers" and "Only a Broken Heart." Electric guitar strokes on the song "You Wreck Me" were reproduced with an airiness that a much sharper sounding amplifier emphasizes too much. Like my Marantz Reference. Bass on these songs sounded taunt, full, clean, well-paced, and again with a dash of overall smoothness.
Upping the quality of disks a bit I next spun a Telarc SACD of some selections of Howard Hanson. This recording is fantastic. This music sounded very clean, dynamic, and spacious. Instruments had an exacting placement to them yet sounded whole. The airy soundstage made the music that much more inviting. With quick and clean transients and excellent rendering of tonality. The Janaki String Trio's CD debut was reproduced well through the twists and turns the trio played on this very dynamic music from, Penderecki, Beethoven, and others. Not once did I flinch from a high note from any of the string instruments or a sharp staccato. No doubt due to the X3's reproduction of this fine collection and flawless recording of this wonderful music.
One of the last CDs I played was from one of my favorite composers. Copland Conducts Copland on CBS Records masterworks. My favorites are Our Town and the Red Pony Suite. There was a nice open soundstage, clean deep dynamics, details, and placement of instruments. The Michi X3 is good at reproducing the wholeness of a recording. And it pays off with this disk. But it did not gloss over the lively, quick, and dynamic rendition of "Morning on the Ranch" from the Red Pony. Loved the movies too.
While I was at it, I ran a coax cable from my Marantz SA15S2 SACD player to one of the coax inputs on the Michi X3. I wanted to bypass the DAC in my SACD player and evaluate the mettle of its built-in Rotel DAC. The Rotel DAC sounded dimensional and spacious, and has a pretty neutral timbre and tone, especially on vocals and cymbals on the two previous disks. But this internal DAC was edged out by my modified SACD player. The Marantz sounding a tad more spacious, fuller, and richer, and cleaner overall with easily definable inner detail as well on all the CDs I played.
Don't get me wrong, the Rotel DAC is a fine unit. It is an integral part of what makes listening to this amplifier noteworthy. My modified Marantz is a tough one to beat. But the Rotel is more than the sum of its parts. Its overall performance gave my reference CD player a tough run for its money. The Rotel DAC drew me into the music more easily than my more analytical and sharp-sounding CD player. In fact the X3 also gave my reference amplifier a good run for its money better than any amp I have had in my system for years.
When I wasn't spinning some vinyl or hi-rez CD, I listened to a lot of Bluetooth through the X3. I used this input mostly for casual listening through my Samsung S10+ or my Samsung A10 tablet. But I have to admit, I was compelled to just sit on the couch more than a time or two and take in some tracks that caught my attention. I spent quite a few hours rediscovering old music I haven't heard in years with the Bluetooth input.
I have used the word smooth more than a few times describing the sound of this amplifier. This is an honest observation. And yet inner detail and clarity are all there. Bass is deep and impactful. Soundstage depth and width are excellent. Tonal balance and clarity are effortless yet relaxed. It sounds smooth, but doesn't mask bad recordings. All the audiophile performance traits are there. But did I feel at times transients could be a bit sharper. Yes, but I was having too much fun listening to the music to worry
Yet the best way I found to describe the sound of this integrated amplifier is that it sounds smooth, musical, and detailed. I have heard smooth and musical solid-state amplifiers before, but they usually come off as trying to replicate the sound of a tube amp. They are usually expensive, and end up sounding colored. I don't know what kind of alchemy the engineers at Rotel are putting into the Michi line, but whatever it is it is working quite well. This integrated amplifier drew me into the music from the get-go, and never let me go. This integrated amplifier is the best I have ever heard at just making you forget what you are doing and draws you into the music for a long listen.
I would like to thank Julia Lescarbeau of the McIntosh Group for her patience and logistical support, and Ricky Miranda of Rotel Global for his excellent technical support.
Voice: (510) 843-4500