Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
I admit I wasn’t previously aware that venerable but value-oriented Japanese audio manufacturer Rotel began producing its high-end Michi products back in the 1990s. So I received the news of the Michi line’s reintroduction last year more with curiosity than anticipation. However, after reading glowing reviews of new Michi products—a preamplifier, stereo amplifier, and mono power amplifiers—from various reviewers, including our own Aron Garrecht and Edgar Kramer, I was more than a little interested in the company’s more recent announcement about the latest additions to the line: two integrated amplifier-DACs.
The Michi X5 ($6999, all prices in USD), the subject of this review, and the X3 ($4999) integrated amplifier-DACs now join the P5 preamplifier ($3999) and the S5 ($6999) and M8 ($6999) stereo and mono amplifiers to round out the current Michi product line. I won’t get into the history of Michi since you can read about it in Edgar’s SoundStage! Australia coverage of its reintroduction to Australia or Aron’s blog post exploring the Michi series, in which Rotel CTO Daren Orth explains the philosophy behind the products. What I will say is that, after receiving a review sample of the X5, I can see why others were so impressed by these new Michi products.
With its extremely robust build quality and sculpted modern look, the design of the Michi line makes a bold statement—a complete departure from the utilitarian appearance of most Rotel products. An example of this is the large color display on the new Michi units. Most Rotel components, like the exceptionally high-value RA-1572MKII I recently reviewed, have a relatively small VFD display with a coarse matrix. While this does provide a lot of information, it’s a little hard to read and reminds me of displays from the 1990s. In contrast, the X5 has a much larger, brighter color TFT that displays myriad information in different font sizes. It can even be configured as a spectrum analyzer or VU meter.
Rotel has also designed an entirely new and extremely functional remote for the Michi line. The Michi remote has a slim, gorgeous metal body that follows the same aesthetic as the amp: the finish on the casing is matte black with glossy black accents. Thankfully, the buttons are few, varied in appearance, and placed logically so you can control the amp, including navigation of the menu system, without having to visually check the remote. I could go on about similar attention to detail in nearly every aspect of the X5’s design, but suffice it to say, there wasn’t much, if anything, that I would change about it.
The Michi X5 has one thing that really counts: power output. Rotel rates the X5 as having 350Wpc into 8 ohms or a massive 600Wpc into 4 ohms, THD < 0.009%, and a damping factor of 350 (20Hz to 20kHz, 8 ohms). This amp should be sufficient to drive nearly any loudspeaker to high volume levels. According to information I received from Orth, the X5 employs two proprietary Rotel-manufactured toroidal transformers delivering 1.525kVA each and a bank of four BHC slit-foil bulk storage capacitors, with a combined capacity of 88,000uF, to ensure all that power is available when you need it. Six pairs of matched, bipolar Sanken MN/MP1526 output devices are used for each channel, which Orth says were chosen because of their consistent and stable performance across a wide range of frequencies and operating temperatures.
The DAC section features the 32-bit/768kHz AKM AK4495SEQ chip although the maximum input resolution of the X5 is 32-bit/384kHz via USB, which necessitates the use of a USB Audio Class 2.0 Windows driver for a Windows-based PC (otherwise the sampling rate is limited to 96kHz). MacOS-based computers do not require a driver. A maximum resolution of 24-bit/192kHz is supported for the coaxial and optical inputs. The DAC section also supports DSD up to 5.6MHz and MQA, but only through USB. There are individual isolated power supplies for the analog and digital sections designed to isolate the signals in the analog and digital domains. The volume control is a high-quality MUSES72320 IC with 0.25dB steps to provide precise adjustments from high to low volumes.
The digital section is described by Rotel as having a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz (±0.4dB) and a signal-to-noise ratio of 102dB. The frequency response of the line-level inputs is specified as 10Hz-100kHz (+0dB, -0.6dB) and 20Hz-20kHz (+0dB, -0.2dB) for the phono input. The line-level inputs are said to have a signal-to-noise ratio (IHF “A” weighted) of 102dB, with the MM/MC phono input having an S/N ratio of 80dB, and both with channel separation of >65dB. The input sensitivities/impedances are specified for the MM phono input as 5.7mV/47k ohms, and for the MC phono input as 570uV/100 ohms; line-level RCA is 380mV/100k ohms; and line-level XLR is 580mV/100k ohms.
In addition to the large, color TFT display, there are two knobs with the requisite weight to provide the kind of positive and reassuring feel that befits a luxurious product. The input and volume controls are located on the left and right sides of the display, respectively. A small power button with an indicator light sits just below the display to activate the unit or place it in standby mode. A 6.35mm headphone jack is located below the volume knob, and the elegant Michi logo is above the display at the top of the glass-covered faceplate. The gorgeous casework consists of thick extruded aluminum with an understated but attractive matte black finish. The quality of the construction is exceptional, and it feels as solid as if it were carved from a single chunk of aluminum rather than constructed from the multiple panels that account for its impressive size and weight. It’s a sizeable component, measuring 19″W x 7.63″H x 17.75″D and weighing 96.56 pounds, and it’s certainly a striking piece of audio gear.
The X5’s back panel sports one of the most extensive sets of inputs and outputs I have encountered on an integrated amplifier, yet the layout appears extremely organized with the connections separated into three horizontal rows. From left to right, the top row consists of a ground connector, a single set of balanced XLR inputs, a set of switchable MM/MC RCA phono inputs, four pairs of single-ended RCA inputs, two mono RCA subwoofer outputs, and a pair of stereo RCA preamplifier outputs. A Bluetooth receiver is also installed at the far right. The middle row contains primarily digital inputs, including three optical TosLinks, three coaxial RCAs, an Ethernet port for software updates or IP control, a PC USB-B audio input, and a USB-A jack for software updates or charging USB devices. RS232 and external IR remote receiver inputs and two 12V trigger outputs can also be found in the middle row. A relatively small master power rocker switch is located on the right of this row of connectors. The bottom row has dual sets of very high-quality, proprietary Rhodium-plated speaker binding posts as well as a standard IEC power inlet for the provided power cord.
Setting up the Michi X5 was quite simple. It was recognized by my Intel NUC running Windows 10, and I was immediately able to play music through it. However, to take advantage of higher resolutions of up to 32-bit/384kHz available through the USB-B input, I installed the Windows driver from Rotel’s website. Through the menu system, I then made sure it was set to USB Audio 2.0 mode, and that was all that was necessary on the digital side of things. I also selected the MM option for the phono input but didn’t bother with any of the other settings in the extensive menu system. Although I only used it to verify its functionality, I was also able to connect to the Bluetooth input with the aptX codec using my Samsung Galaxy S9 smartphone.
If you’re feeling so inclined, the X5 provides many options to customize the inputs by renaming them, disabling them so you don’t have to cycle through the ones you don’t use when selecting inputs, setting a fixed input level, or bypassing the tone controls. You can also set a global maximum power on the volume, and Signal Sense mode can be engaged for the S/PDIF digital inputs. When you enable this option, the unit will go into Signal Sense Power Mode if a signal can’t be found for ten minutes and power back up once a signal is detected. A separate Auto Power Off mode is available that places the unit in standby mode if a signal is not detected after a user-selectable interval of 20 minutes or 1, 2, 5, or 12 hours. The brightness of the display can also be adjusted, but the menu setup screens will always appear at the brightest level to ensure legibility—another example of attention to detail in the unit’s design. In addition to the standard display options, the display can be set to function as either a stereo VU meter or a spectrum analyzer of various resolutions.
The X5 took up residence in my reference system, which consists of MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 speakers and an Intel NUC computer running Roon and Qobuz. I also used foobar2000 to test the DSD functionality and other system components. I connected a Pro-Ject Audio Systems X1 turntable with an Ortofon Pick it S2 cartridge, and an Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD player that served as a DAC connected via an AudioQuest JitterBug jitter reducer and a Carbon USB link. Accessories consisted of my usual assortment of Clarus Aqua speaker cables, balanced interconnects, and power cords, with power-conditioning products from Zero Surge and Blue Circle Audio.
The presentation of the X5 was both powerful and controlled, yet still musical and easygoing. I can’t imagine anyone not being pleased with its performance. That said, at $6999, it’s performance should be nothing less than impeccable—and it was. While listening to the Cowboy Junkies’ recently remastered The Trinity Session (LP, Sony 88985398961), I was struck by how freely the music flowed from my MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 hybrid electrostatics with this amp. Not only was Margo Timmins’s voice presented with plenty of space around it, it was placed ever so slightly to the right of center on most tracks, with the instruments placed precisely to the sides and behind her and their notes trailing off into the seeming endless depths of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, Canada, where the album was recorded.
When I listened to DSD files of The Trinity Session (DSD 64, Analogue Productions), Ms. Timmins’s voice was placed even more exactingly, but still ever so slightly to the right, and when John Timmins joins her on vocals in “Misguided Angel,” he was placed dead center and slightly closer to her than when I listened on vinyl. The DSD files did lack some of the warmth of the vinyl version, but the X5 captured all the precision of the remastered digital versions, revealing the depth of the recording and making the church sound enormous—all while maintaining just enough sibilance in the vocals to lend the perfect amount of liveliness to the performance.
One issue I did encounter when playing back DSD files on the X5 with foobar2000 was a popping sound from the speakers whenever I skipped tracks or paused playback. When I consulted Orth, who conferred with Rotel’s engineers, I was told that this might be an issue with foobar2000 sending the data as DoP rather than DSD. Even though they provided detailed instructions on how to set foobar’s settings and install a specific version of the SACD plug-in, I was not able to send a DSD stream to the X5. This was not such a big deal as I hardly ever listen to DSD files, and continuous playback was gapless and without incident. If you do listen to a lot of DSD files, you probably already know how to configure your applications to output DSD streams.
Otherwise, there was an utterly relaxed and unfettered character to the sound of the X5 that I couldn’t help but get lost in whenever I was listening to this amp. This happened with Diana Krall’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You” from Live In Paris (16/44.1 FLAC, Impulse/Qobuz), which sounded absolutely stunning. From the rich, resonant notes of the piano to her smoky contralto vocals, this beautiful live recording of a performance in a large theater sounded wonderfully intimate through the X5, which presented a striking and stunningly realistic aural picture of Ms. Krall’s solo performance of this classic song.
The same could be said of the recording of the orchestra in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Op.16, by the San Diego Symphony conducted by Yoav Talmi, with violist Rivka Golani and violinist Igor Gruppman (16/44.1 FLAC, Naxos/Qobuz). The massed string sections were in perfect scale with the rest of the orchestra; the violins did not become harsh at high volume levels as they often can, and the cellos and basses were always rich and lavish. The X5 kept the presentation securely anchored at the front of my room, with excellent depth and delineation of each section of the orchestra, and kept precise pace—even during the most frenetic portions of the fourth movement, “Allegro Frenetico (Orgy of Brigands. Memories of Scenes Past).” From the quietest passages featuring solo instruments to the full onslaught of the brass and percussion, the X5 was able to convey the dynamic range of the orchestra captured in this excellent recording.
Returning to an old favorite, “White Wedding (Part 1)” from Billy Idol (24/192 FLAC, Capitol/HDtracks), I found that the X5 reproduced it with the characteristic clean, straight-ahead sound of many rock albums of its era. The bass wasn’t exceptionally deep, a characteristic of the recording, but with the Michi, the kick drum was as taut and forceful as was the dense, undulating electric bassline placed precisely and slightly to the right. All the while, the vocals were kept appropriately to the front of the soundstage, as were the well-defined rhythm and lead electric guitars, with all of them sounding as clean and clear as I could have asked for.
The most powerful integrated amplifier I have ever had in my system was the Musical Fidelity M8xi ($6499), rated by the manufacturer at an even greater 550Wpc into 8 ohms. However, the additional power of the MF amp provided little advantage over the Michi in driving the ML ESL 9 speakers as both amps could easily produce more SPLs than I could comfortably endure. A technological tour de force, the NAD Masters M33 ($4999) utilizes the wonderfully neutral-sounding Purifi Eigentakt amplifier modules and Dirac Live room correction, has streaming capabilities, and is still my favorite integrated amplifier-DAC in and around its price range. While the M33’s dead-neutral sound provided exceptional tonal balance from top to bottom, the Michi’s slightly richer sound was always extremely alluring if not quite as resolving.
In many respects, the Michi reminded me of Yamaha’s slightly pricier A-S3200 ($7499.95). While the Yamaha eschews any form of digital circuitry—and is definitely more old school in its engineering and aesthetic—it shares a similarly smooth, musical sound, and both have build qualities that are second to none. Although I didn’t have the Yamaha on hand for direct comparison, when I listened to Holly Cole’s cover of “Briar and the Rose” from Temptation (16/44.1 FLAC, Blue Note) through the X5’s USB input, the lush opening notes of the Canadian Brass and Ms. Cole’s breathy vocals immediately reminded me of the gorgeously organic sound of the Yamaha. The Michi’s exceptional internal DAC no doubt contributed to the X5’s excellent sound, and when compared to the analog outputs of the Oppo Digital UDP-205, the X5’s internal DAC held the decay of the Canadian Brass’s horns just a tad longer. This provided a more spacious presentation, and it was a distinct improvement over using the Oppo’s analog outputs. This is something I don’t usually hear as easily with many integrated amplifier-DACs.
Like the Yamaha, the Michi has a very capable headphone output, which bested that of the UDP-205 with its more expansive, controlled sound when I used it with either my PSB M4U 1s or my Sennheiser HD 580s. The Oppo had plenty of drive, but Sting and Cheb Mami’s vocals on “Desert Rose” from My Songs (Deluxe) (24/44.1 FLAC, A&M/Interscope/Qobuz) were set back a bit and buried in the mix, while the Michi was able to bring the vocals forward and differentiate them more fully from the instrumentation. With headphones, the Oppo also made the kick drum sound slightly diffuse in comparison. The Michi was more incisive, providing excellent pace through both the PSB and Sennheiser cans without robbing them of bass extension and impact.
At a cost of $6999 and weighing in at close to 100 pounds, the Rotel Michi X5 is a beast of an amp, but it is also a true beauty with performance befitting its luxurious price and build quality. The X5 may cost much more than a typical Rotel product, but considering what it has to offer, the price does not seem unreasonable. Compared to some of its competitors, it could be considered a bargain. With the X5, Rotel has produced an extremely accomplished, high-end integrated amplifier-DAC that continues their tradition of providing exceptional value.
. . . Roger Kanno
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9
- Headphones: PSB M4U 1, Sennheiser HD 580
- Integrated amplifiers: Musical Fidelity M8xi, Yamaha A-S3200, NAD Masters M33
- Digital sources: Intel NUC computer running Windows 10, Roon, Qobuz, and foobar2000; AudioQuest JitterBug jitter reducer; Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K Ultra HD
- Turntable: Pro-Ject Audio Systems X1 with Ortofon Pick it S2 cartridge
- USB link: AudioQuest Carbon
- Speaker cables: Clarus Aqua Mark II
- Interconnects: Clarus Aqua Mark II, Pro-Ject Connect it E phono cable
- Power cords: Clarus Aqua, Essential Sound Products MusicCord-Pro ES
- Power conditioners: Blue Circle Audio PLC Thingee FX-2 with X0e low-frequency filter module, Zero Surge 1MOD15WI
Rotel Michi X5 Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
6655 Wedgwood Road N., Suite 115
Maple Grove, MN 55311
Phone: (510) 843-4500