Back in the early '90s, Rotel was best known as a producer of excellent value, affordable hi-fi. Its budget amplifiers, CD players and yes, even turntables, were usually considered front runners, and rightly so. So the introduction of the high-end Michi sub-brand at that time was somewhat of a surprise, and an extremely pleasant one at that, considering the exquisite build quality and remarkable sonic talents of that original range.
The reviews were raves and a hi-fi legend was born, but remarkably, those fine original products didn’t go on to develop into a Rotel mainstay range as would be expected. It wasn’t long before many of the engineering ideas from those Michi products found their way into Rotel’s more mainstream offerings to a point where the company didn’t feel the need to keep this flagship series.
But now Michi is back! It returns in a very different form, but the ethos of delivering sonic purity, exceptional build and excellent value remains undimmed. The words ‘excellent value’ and ‘high-end hi-fi’ aren’t necessarily easy to reconcile, but judge this integrated amplifier by class standards and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the X3 offers an awful lot for the money.
This is the baby integrated amplifier of a small range that includes a more premium one-box, a preamp and the choice of a stereo power amplifier or a more powerful monobloc model. That’s it. At the moment there isn’t even a source component, which is surprising, or a matching pair of speakers, which is less so.
But when we call the X3 the baby of the range that isn’t to undermine it in any way. By most standards, this chunky amplifier is something of a beast. It has a claimed power output of 200 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load and increases that strongly to 350 watts per side as impedance halves.
In use, that means this Michi integrated can drive pretty much any price-compatible speaker to very high levels without issue. A plentiful supply of grunt isn’t even half the story. This amplifier is also very well equipped.
We’re firm believers that high-end integrated amps should pack in as much convenience as possible. After all, what's the point of getting a one-box amp if you need to add extra boxes for digital-to-analogue conversion duties, phono amplification or to use headphones? We’re glad that Rotel seems to think along the same lines.
The headline features are a digital module powered by AKM’s AK4495SEQ DAC chip. There’s a good choice of inputs with a USB (type B) and a trio of optical and coax available. The USB will accept PCM signals up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD128. The other digital inputs are all specified up to 24-bit/192kHz, which should be more than enough for most people.
Don’t get too excited about the ethernet socket as there isn’t a streaming module built into the X3. The ethernet is purely there to allow this product to be integrated into a custom install context. There are numerous trigger inputs and an RS232 port for the same reason. Rotel has been careful to make this product as accommodating as possible.
Moving to analogue we have three stereo RCA inputs alongside a balanced XLR option. There’s also a phono stage, though perhaps it’s a little surprising that Rotel’s engineers thought that a moving magnet-only design would be fine at this price level. You’ll have to move to the pricier Michi integrated amplifier, the X5, if you want a built-in moving coil circuit.
There’s the option of adding greater muscle through the use of an external power amplifier, should the X3’s already healthy output seem lacking, as well as a USB (type A) for charging purposes and software upgrades. At the front of the unit is a traditional 6.3mm socket for headphones, too. Lack of moving coil phono stage apart, it seems that Rotel has managed to cover most bases here.
Take a look inside and it’s hard not to be impressed. The level of build is second to none we’ve seen at this price, and it’s all arranged with obsessive attention to detail. It’s obvious the company has taken a great deal of pride in the look of the insides and the quality of components used. That care extends to the casework, which feels immensely solid and is fitted to the millimetre. Every panel lines up immaculately on our review sample. At this level, only the terrific Cambridge Edge A integrated comes close to matching the Michi X3’s level of build quality, and even then it costs hundreds more.
The X3’s main display is simple but large and clear enough to read from the other side of our test room. Either side of it is a large rotary control. The left-hand side one toggles through the inputs or menu options depending on the mode the amplifier is operating in. It would be nice if this control could also be pressed in to confirm our choices rather than having to wait a few seconds before the choice is accepted. Of course, the remote can be used for this function instead.
Power output 200 watts per channel (8 ohms)
Line level inputs RCA x3, balanced XLR x1
Digital inputs USB (Type B) x 1, coax x3, optical x3
Phono stage Moving magnet
Bluetooth Yes, aptX
Headphone output 6.3mm
Dimensions (hwd) 15 x 49 x 45cm
The dial on the right is for setting the volume, and like its partner on the left feels precise and sturdy. We’re almost as positive about the remote handset. As befits this product, it’s a simple metal wand with a sensible button layout. The handset feels lovely to hold, though if we’re being picky we’d like the buttons to have a more precise and solid movement. At the moment they emit a thin-sounding click that seems at odds with the quality of the rest of the package. Having said that, it all works well enough.
An amplifier at this level deserves a capable partnering system. We press our usual Naim ND555/555 PS DR music streamer into service alongside the Technics SL-1000R turntable, which is fitted with the excellent Vertere Sabre moving magnet cartridge to test the X3’s phono stage. The Naim streamer is also used as a digital source in partnership with Chord’s 2go/2yu pairing and an Apple MacBook Pro laptop loaded with Audirvana music playing software. The speakers are our long-serving ATC SCM50, but we also have the new Bowers & Wilkins 805D4 to hand. Rotel is distributed by Bowers & Wilkins so we suspect that the pairing of the X3 and 805 D4 is a pretty common one. Lastly, headphones: we have the Focal Stellia and Grado’s RS 1 to see how the Rotel copes in this regard.
Accuse a person of lacking character and it’s a harsh assessment. For a piece of hi-fi though, it’s hugely positive. This Michi is a firmly ‘hands-off’ performer. It doesn’t imprint a strong sonic signature on anything it plays, leaving the character of the sound to come from the recording or some other part of the system. Tonally, it sounds even-handed to us, delivering all parts of the frequency range with equal importance.
Detail levels are high, but it’s the clean and precise way this amplifier renders that information that impresses. We listen to Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring and there’s no denying the power and punch on offer. The X3 is a sledgehammer of a performer with music such as this. Rarely do amplifiers at this level deliver such muscularity and manage to combine it with subtlety if the demands of the music change. It’s a hugely pleasing presentation that blends composure and control brilliantly, almost regardless of volume level. Push the Michi hard and it doesn’t crack, able to retain its refinement to well beyond our normal listening levels.
Stereo imaging is good too. While the soundstage isn’t as spacious as some we’ve heard, this amplifier is still capable of layering the orchestra in a convincing manner and locking the instruments into position regardless of the complexity of the music. It’s a stable and solid presentation, one that inspires confidence.
One of the highlights is undoubtedly the Michi’s bass delivery. We switch to Massive Attack's Heligoland and are stunned by the X3’s grip at low frequencies and its ability to define low-frequency instrumental textures. Add to that plenty of punch and it makes most of the competition at this price point sound a little soft and blurred in this region. The rhythmic drive of songs such as Atlas Air is communicated decently, though if this aspect is a priority there are better choices than this Rotel at this level.
Overall, though, the X3 remains a musically cohesive performer that can track individual musical strands but also allows the listener to sit back and enjoy the whole performance too.
The phono stage continues the good news, retaining the energy and sparkle that makes the Vertere cartridge so likeable. The phono module’s tonal character is consistent with what we hear through the line stages and detail levels are pretty good too. It’s a relatively quiet circuit and capable of serving well with most price-compatible turntable packages. We still wish it offered moving-coil compatibility, though.
The DAC module doesn’t quite scale the same heights. While it’s a perfectly decent performer, we find it sounds thinner and notably less expressive than the line stages. We think the overall performance is akin to a reasonably capable DAC solution in the £400/$500/AU$700 price point. Given the quality of the phono stage and the rather tasty headphone amplifier (which has no trouble driving our Focals and Grados to high levels), we hoped for a little more.
Despite our high level of positivity for the Michi X3 as a complete package, we feel the need to remind you that this remains an understated amplifier. It’s not a showy performer in any way and that can make it sound a little lacking in enthusiasm compared to some rivals.
There’s no shortage of quality rivals at this level, of course. They are as varied as Naim’s cheaper SuperNait 3, Copland’s classy hybrid CSA100 and Cambridge’s pricier Edge A. There’s an element of swings and roundabouts with each comparison: the Naim is certainly more fun to listen to but lacks the Michi’s impressive control and precision, while the Copland offers greater finesse but loses out on sheer muscle. The Cambridge Edge A is perhaps the closest in terms of build and ability, but while it has a more fluid and engaging presentation, the X3 still has the advantage when it comes to clarity, sonic precision and price.
So there you have it. This Rotel is a formidable performer that’s ready to mix it with the best at the price. Add the exceptional build and comprehensive specifications to the hugely capable sonic performance and it’s a must-have on your shortlist.
- Sound 5
- Build 5
- Features 5
Read our review of the Cambridge Edge A
Also consider the Copland CSA100
Read our Naim SuperNait 3 review
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Anthem has no headphone out but does have MM and MC phono.
Anthem is $800 less.