The Dark Horse
Article by Venoth Nair
As stated by Rotel on their website, “Michi is a flagship series of products built on the history and heritage of Rotel”. This description is rather appropriate in my opinion as a quick sweep of the products under the Michi range showcases amplifiers with ridiculously impressive specifications and looks which are a complete departure from the usual Rotel catalogue which feature a more utilitarian look and feel.
The baby of the range (it’s funny calling it that considering how big it is) is the X3 which is the entry point into the Michi class and thus would be the most looked at as an option given the sweet spot of being the most affordable with the specifications of a flagship. Its popularity with this in mind is illustrated by the plethora of reviews available on it, which are quite polarising from my observations. Knowing this, I reached out to The Experts Group (TEG) which handle Rotel products here in Malaysia and asked for an X3 to have a listen myself with very interesting results. Let’s get into it.
Getting this beast out of the box is indeed a two-man job thanks to the units hefty 28 kg weight. Once outside, the Michi exudes elegance with spectacular build quality no matter which part of the unit is touched. The choice of premium materials along with superlative build is felt the moment the unit is picked up. The unit comes covered in a fitted black velvet cover which reveals the all-black, hyper clean X3. The front fascia has two large knobs, with the left for input selection and the right for volume control.
A beautiful display sits between the knobs which fades away when not in use thanks to its design which places it behind the tempered glass fascia. The display works together with the remote to allow access to most of the other features available on the Michi X3 such as tone controls, balance and brightness settings. The display also can be configured to display either the settings or something a little more fun like Vu meters (a few options are available for this).
Speaking of remotes, the unit included with the Michi X3 is by far one of my most favourite remotes from any integrated amplifier at this price point so far. Though the installation of the batteries is quite the chore which requires the use of a specialised tool which is included, the build, functionality and ergonomics of the remote is wonderful. This beautiful wand is one I love to leave on my table and not hide away like all the other remotes.
Around the back, the Michi X3 has a look more akin to a home theatre receiver then a stereo integrated. Firstly, there are 2 pairs of speaker outputs plus a complete digital suite which includes 3 optical, 3 coaxial, a LAN connection and a single USB type B input. The USB input supports PCM 24bit / 192Khz and DSD 128. There is also aptX enabled Bluetooth for those looking to have some convenience for daily listening.
On the analogue end, there is a phono input with support only for Moving Magnet types (MC user will need to add an external preamp) three-line level inputs, and a pair of balanced input to fulfil all your input needs. If you’re looking to expand the Michi X3, you can do so with the included pre outs and a pair (yes two) of mono subwoofer outputs.
To test the Michi X3, I tried it with a host of speakers which were available in my arsenal. First up the JBL 4309 which played very well together. Though the JBL is a challenging load with its 4-ohm rating and 87db sensitivity, the Michi made short work of it thanks to its rather robust power handling which it delivered with absolute grip and authority. The rather analytical nature of the 4309 is reinforced by the Michi’s attitude which was squeaky clean. This gave off a very analytical sound with superb resolution and detail. Bass was controlled and clean, but was not as weighty as other amplifier pairings which I have used with this speaker.
Switching to my trusty old KEF LS50 and suddenly the sound takes on a slightly more exciting turn with a little more oomph in the lower bass. Listening to the same playlist of music on these speakers left me with a totally different experience though resolution was not nearly as good as with the JBL’s. I then moved on to my beloved Falcon LS3/5a and this was the pairing that really got me excited. The control and detail exhibited by the pair was superb. Bass was taut while nuanced with plenty of texture and details. This quality in bass was there even with the JBL, but the Falcon trumps it when it comes to the overall image and timbre which was delivered expertly by the pairing.
After my listening experience with all these speakers, the Michi X3 to my ears comes across as a neutral amplifier. It’s an amp that exhibits total control on the low frequency which may to some sound lean but does not alter the speaker’s character in any way or form allowing all the frequencies to shine the way the speaker intends it too. The Michi X3 is also a very quiet amplifier with an impeccably low noise floor that really allows you to focus on the music during listening sessions. Whether it’s at low volumes or turned up, the X3 retains fantastic dynamics at all levels.
This left me wondering what the performance would be like if the Michi X3 was paired with floor standing varieties as well as with Bowers & Wilkins speakers as Rotel is commonly paired with B&W. So, I decided to reach out to the TEG team to arrange a session with a few options from the B&W stable paired to the Michi X3 for a little sampling. I was curious to understand the amplifiers abilities when paired to larger speakers to see if the bass characteristics were different when compared to bookshelf types.
Among the combinations put up were the 705 stand mount and 702 floor-standers from the 700 Series Signature range and the 804 Diamonds to really test the mettle of the Michi X3. The entire listening session reinforced my belief in the importance of speaker pairing when it comes to this amp. It works with all speakers but to achieve the most satisfying listening experience particularly when trying to match your personal preference, careful matching is key.
Between the 3 options from B&W, the best overall pairing (also considering price appropriateness) was the 702 which had good synergy and played well with most genres of music. In the listening session I was treated to a broad range of genres both foreign and local with a healthy mix of both good and less than ideal recordings. The same songs were also played through the variety of speakers which ended with interesting results. Listening to Zainal Abidin’s classic Malaysian favourite ‘Hijau’ literally gave me goosebumps. There were details in there which I genuinely never heard before that made me fall in love with the song all over again. A testament to the Michi X3’s prowess when paired to the right speakers.
A topic I do want to address is the bass, which may be a point of contention with many especially if you shift over from a warmer sounding system to the Michi. The Michi X3’s highly controlled approach to bass may be a factor that drives an opinion that the amplifier maybe light on bass especially in certain speaker pairings or lean in audiophile speak. I do want to highlight to readers that if desired, there are a pair of sub outputs which can be used to provide that added bass if you’re of the opinion that the existing bass is not enough. Do take this with a grain of salt as integrating a subwoofer is a highly complex process and not as simple as plug and play. To me personally, the bass was always spot on, never leading me to crave for subwoofer support, and thus never used one.
Accounting the fact that the Michi X3 is rather revealing in nature will make playback of poor recordings rather unpalatable, so do ensure to feed it quality recordings. A properly curated playlist from good quality sources will be rewarded with outstanding sound quality. The same is also to be said with speakers as this amp is not one to add colour to any speakers. So, if the idea is to correct any inherit shortfall or compensate the sound of the speakers in any way, this amp isn’t for you.
If you are however looking to step up to a premium amplifier, with maximum functionality and stunning unassuming looks. Want something to power your speakers without changing their tonal character, while injecting detail, clarity and grip, then the Rotel Michi X3 will be right up your alley! This is a beautifully packaged amplifier that deserves an audition. If you want to know more or get up close and personal with the X3, head on over to the B&W Bowers & Wilkins showroom by TEG at The Gardens Mall, Mid Valley City, Kuala Lumpur. The Rotel Michi X3 retails for RM 23,440.