Lexicon MC-1 AV Preamp Reviewed

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This month, the same faith-restoring event occurred twice. I learned that we need not suffer planned obsolescence. Both the Lexicon MC-1 Home Theatre Controller and the GRAAF pre-amp reviewed elsewhere in this issue are 'sequels' to items which have remained at the cutting edge not for a season, but for . In the case of the GRAAF, it's five years. The Lexicon? A still-amazing three, but in the fastest-moving sector of our hobby. If anything has been undergoing rapid evolution, it's home-theatre/multi-channel processing, so it's to the earlier DC-1's credit that I was able to use it as a reference for so long without fear of obsolescence.

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But the DC-1 isn't gone entirely. The THX Ultra-certified MC-1 is the new flagship, while the DC-1 itself has evolved into the DC-2*. The MC-1, though more cleanly styled, resembles the DC-1/2 so closely that those familiar with the former will have no trouble whatsoever adapting to the new model: the controls are in the same positions, with only slight changes. There is now, for example, a button marked DVD, not an issue in '96. But just so you don't confuse the two, the MC-1 offers over the DC-2 an all new main board, new architecture, 96/24 capability, new 'mystery' DACS for -110db S/N, new operating software, greater flexibility, broadcast standard video switching, eight S-video inputs over the five for the DC-2, an extra board with dig outputs, an extra RS232, digital audio upgrade sockets and more.

As before, a row of minimum-travel press-buttons runs across the bottom, the first on the left being the power-on taking the MC-1 out of stand-by. Next are eight buttons to choose VCR, DVD, V-disc (which I used for laser), TV, Aux, CD, Tuner and Tape. Another pair chooses between record and Zone 2, and two buttons allow you to scroll up or down through the effects; on the DC-1, there was only one button scrolling in one direction, so this is a minor pain rectified. Lastly, a pair below the digital rotary volume control provide 2-channel (true bypass) and mute.

Each button has its own green LED to indicate 'on' status, and every action - whether by button or via remote - is accompanied by a minor light show, the red mute indicator flashing momentarily to indicate that the unit is silenced between functions. The DC-1's never-readable display has been replaced by a gorgeous blue vacuum fluorescent panel viewable across the room; Minor Pain no 2, rectified. The unit remains at precisely 440x292x92mm (WDH) and weighs only a shade more at 4.9kg, allowing Lexicon DC-1 owners with custom-made installations to upgrade without needing to hire a carpenter.

It should be noted that, alas, the MC-1 looks and feels almost as cheap and nasty as its predecessor. This device is not by any definition inexpensive, and yet it has the presence of a £99 Japanese FM tuner circa 1983. This is an insult, even to that weird band of British audiophiles who equate 'ugly' with 'purist'. I was told on good authority that the disgustingly cheesy demeanour of Lexicon products was an executive decision made by a former employee who worshipped at the altar of the god who said, "A dollar spent on looks is one not spent on circuitry", but he also deserves most of the credit for Lexicon's position at the top of the industry. At £5,495, I would expect a processor to bear the styling and finish of the calibre of ALL of its rivals, bar a certain British make equally enamoured of non-metallic finishes. I have also been informed that said employee is now gone, so, three years from now, maybe we'll see a flagship Lexicon with a metal front panel.

At the back, all is tidier, despite the greater density. In the first grouping are the eight inputs, each with a pair of stereo analogue phono sockets, an S-video input and a coaxial video input, plus the primary coaxial and S-video outputs. Just as those with stand-alone DACs once used to wonder if they'd ever use more than two inputs, note that a video hound might have two VCRs, a stand-alone laser disc player, satellite, a Region 1 and a Region 2 DVD player, a digital video camera, home surveillance or more. So, no, the 16 video inputs are not overkill. And another thing: the video circuitry is so slick that I could not detect ANY difference between the video signal feeding the monitor directly, or via the MC-1. Clarity, colour, detail: all were preserved.

Next is a cluster with three pairs of stereo audio outputs and two sets of video outputs for recording and/or feeding a second zone/system, while a third grouping deals with main outputs via eight phono sockets to feed front, side and rear speakers, centre channel and subwoofer. To their right are connections for incorporating industry-standard remote power triggering. Above the main output cluster is the 'digital' section, comprising five coaxial and three TOSlink optical inputs and a coaxial S/PDIF digital output. Next are a couple of RS232 ports for future options and for automation, the primary on/off switch, and an IEC socket for the AC cable.

Of particular interest is a trio of coaxial digital 'expansion ports' for direct injection of PCM signals up to 24-but/96kHz, which worked perfectly for two-channel 96kHz/24-bit DVDs, but it also provides six-channel digital input should future audio formats provide a six channel digital bitstream; an outboard processor can feed these signals directly to the MC-1's DACs. MC-1 uses an undisclosed 24-bit delta-sigma converter employed on all eight output channels, with separate digitally-controlled analogue volume attenuators to 'complement' the DACs' internal 24-bit, 8x digital interpolation filters and multi-bit modulators.

Also new is an easier-to-use, blue-illuminated remote-control handset, while the on-screen menus remain as easily navigable as before, but with a few extra menu settings. The owner's manual still runs to over 50 pages, but I didn't need it once, nor will any with experience of the earlier model. This device is almost intuitive, despite the daunting prospect and damage-potential of user-adjustability to a tenth of a decibel, the multiple inputs, the choice of three digital crossover points (40Hz, 80Hz, 120Hz) for matching different sized speakers to their subs. Oh, and another Minor Pain has been addressed because the new remote features individual buttons for each effects mode: you can now A/B the modes beyond those which are adjacent to each other!

Positioned directly in place of the DC-1 in a system comprising the Pioneer DV-414 DVD player, five channels of Acurus amplification and Apogee LCR/Ribbon Monitors and the REL Q200E subwoofer, it took, oh, about three seconds to realise that Lexicon had made advances so great that comparisons were absurd. Don't get me wrong: the DC-1 (let alone the DC-2) remains the outstanding processor it was the moment before I tried the MC-1. It is, at this early stage in the genre's history, one of A/V's first classics. But the MC-1 is superior in so many ways, that the near-£2000 price difference seems barely worth comment.

That initial buzz was created by one artefact alone: the cohesion of its surround capability. Fed a selection of 'sonic spectacular' DVDs which include , , and the DTS version of , the MC-1 proceeded to create a 360 degree cloak with absolutely no gaps. OK, so we're still missing the overhead effect of Ambisonic, but you get my drift. Because this is in our A/V section, I don't mind - no, I'm absolutely to discuss a product in wholly cinematic terms. In which case, I can say without fear of eliciting hatred from 2-channel dinos-, er, purists that this sucker reproduces utterly convincing spatial effects with an ease and a totality I have never heard before outside of binaural experiments at JVC's laboratories in Japan.

But the really impressive bit is that no traces of artifice, as are usually associated with such over-the-top processing as is mandatory with surround sound, diminish the sonic worth. On pure music material, using the DV-414 or the Tjoeb-modified Marantz CD player, the sound remained silky and sweet, analogue-ish despite more digital processing power than any vinyl junkie could stomach. There's a smooth, almost warm sheen to the proceedings which down-plays the deception involved in both digital and surround processing, a naturalness I just wasn't expecting.

Where this pays handsome dividends is in the replay of centre-channel dialogue, probably THE most crucial aspect of successful film soundtrack reproduction. Diction was clear, sibilance-free and precise even in older material which seemed beyond salvation: the 60-year-old , the original version of , and Hitchcock's . And when it came to DTS-encoded music-only CDs, the result was the best argument I've ever heard for encouraging surround sound in a non-video format: seamless, airy, open spaces, particularly rewarding with live recordings and the odd session which didn't resort to drug-induced spatial trickery.

Quite clearly, the MC-1 is my reference for the foreseeable future, whatever the rumoured MC-10 promises. What makes me so pleased to report this is that its only genuine rivals cost wa-a-ay more. If only the MC-1 didn't rival BIC pens for plastic content...

CSE, Unit 9 Centre Park Holdings, Tockwith, Yorks YO5 8QF. Tel 01423 359054

*There's an upgrade path and/or a trade-in deal for DC-1 owners who want DC-2 spec, while a DC-2 can be upgraded over time to full MC-1 spec. See? To hell with obsolescence.

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