Lexicon DC1 AV Preamp Reviewed

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Young it may be, but home cinema already has its hierarchy. And it's no surprise that Lexicon has a firm grip on the surround processor championship title. 1996 marks 25 years of producing state-of-the-art digital hardware for the film and music industries and involvement with the processing of so many films that it appears in the credits almost as often as "Dolby". True, competition has increased lately with dozens of audiophile brands joining the fray, but a quick survey suggests that Lexicon rules the roost among the home theatre installers.

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Prior to the DC-1's arrival, Lexicon's processors offered few pre-amp facilities. The DC-1 changes that by being a full-function pre-amp. Every analogue signal fed into the DC-1 passes through 16-bit Delta-Sigma A/D converters for full compatibility with true digital-domain functionality, so we're getting into a cloudy area made perilous by myriad identity crises: does one approach the DC-1 as a pre-amp, a slick 20-bit Delta-Sigma D/A converter, a true A/D converter or merely as a video-switching, surround-sound processor with more bells than Poe and more whistles than Saville Row? Call it, if you can bear the surround sound word-play, a case of quadrophenia.

The review sample marked the middle of three 'levels' of trim. A basic DC-1 at �2000 offers all modes (see sidebar) except those with THX in their names. The review sample (�3000) was fitted with THX, with all the extra options that implies. What wasn't ready for the review is the Dolby Digital (n e AC-3) version for �4000. (A DTS option is under discussion.)

To state the obvious, the owner's manual runs to over 50 pages - enough wordage to fill half this issue. Luckily, Harman UK's Simon Spears provided a training course prior to the review, whizzing through the menus so quickly that I had him show me twice. Once you learn your way around the remote control's menu buttons, it becomes no more difficult than programming a VCR with on-screen displays. And you only have to do the full-scale set-up once. Installation involves tenth-of-a-decibel level setting for whatever array of speakers you're using, setting the defaults - the usual chores. After this is calculated and stored, your push-buttonry will be limited to level setting and scrolling through the surround modes.

In addition to eight line level inputs via unbalanced phono sockets, the back contains three S-Video inputs, five standard video coaxial inputs, two standard video and two S-Video outputs, one set each of analogue outputs for record and a second stereo-only zone (a mini-multi-room facility as per Mission's M-Time), outputs for front and rear left and right, centre, subwoofer and left and right side channels for 7-plus-1 setups. Digital inputs include a two TOSlink opticals and two coaxials, while remote facility inputs are included for customers with Lexicon amps, powered curtains, advanced lighting arrays and the like. The on/off switch is at the back, the unit resting in stand-by mode between sessions to maintain settings.

So clean is the front panel that you'd be forgiven for thinking that it holds no surprises. A row of press buttons runs across the bottom, the first on the left taking the DC-1 out of stand-by mode. Next are the eight buttons to choose VCR 1 and 2, V-disc (laser or DVD), TV, Aux, CD, Tuner and Tape. A space isolates the next, which chooses between record and Zone 2, another space and there's the button which scrolls through the effects. Lastly, a pair provides mute and bypass. Above this are only four items: a yellow, illuminated Lexicon logo, an LED-plus-IR receptor, a dot-matrix display, and a rotary volume control. Being digital, it rotates infinitely, fine by me as adjustments are 'by the decibel'. All this in a case measuring a tidy 440x292x92mm (WDH) and weighs 4.8kg.

Special mention goes to the display, which runs through a sequence of messages when you switch on. Up comes the model's name, the copyright date (for the software), and then a sequence of self-inflicted tests. It then settles into a display naming the effect in use, e.g. Dolby Pro or TV Matrix, according to the default you set during the installation. Press the level control and it changes to a bar graph and a decibel read-out, again referenced to the defaults you created during the set-up programme. Be advised that the display is only legible at eye level. I had the DC-1 sitting on a rack of components which placed it about 18 inches above eye level when I was in the 'viewing' seat and couldn't make out a thing. Just a caveat...

If you think of the remote controller as operating on three levels, you'll be less wary of it. The primary functions include power on and off, volume up and down, mute, and source select, plus effect scrolling. All of these are self-explanatory, the last named simply proceeding through the fourteen surround modes.

Next are the set-up keys, a quadrant array surrounding the word 'menu'. The four buttons consist of two direction keys for scrolling through the options, another marked 'select' and a fourth marked 'done'. Any simpler, and I'd be looking for a Fisher-Price logo. To the south-east of these is another four-button array marked 'balance', allowing you to steer the sound to the left or right, front or rear, without having to enter the set-up procedure. Also in this group is the button choosing between Record and Zone 2.

Lastly is the button marked 'ACCY', to access 'hidden functions'. With this you can alter bass and treble, assign effects to the source buttons, centre the balance controls and more. As I say in the sidebar, this sucker will provide hours of fun for the whole family, to confuse you with even more comprehensive finality than is possible even with the options on a mobile phone. Although I sampled the hidden features, my current fragile state meant concentrating on the unit's performance. Still, I know that it has no equal as a 'component with overwhelming hands-on interactivity', i.e. toy potential. I've seen flight simulators with fewer operations...

Let's start with a bold claim: forget everything you've ever learned/loathed about directionality beyond mono, stereo and Dolby Surround/Pro Logic/THX. The DC-1 will have you doing things you'd never admit to a fellow audio casualty. Because the extras - even the hall effects - take place in the digital domain, because Lexicon's expertise precludes the release of coarse, gimmicky sound butchery AND because you can fine-tune the effects with limitless freedom, you'll find yourself using a lot more than normal choices. And there's something common to all which makes such usage politically acceptable.

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