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Product Review - Lexicon DC-2 Surround Processor - July, 1999

Evan Upchurch

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Lexicon DC-2 Front

Lexicon DC-2 Surround Processor/Preamp

THX, Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, DTS, Logic7

Precision: 24-Bit D/As, 24-Bit A/Ds

RS-232 Port, 2 Triggers

Size: 3.6"H x 17.3"W x 11.2"D

Weight: 11 1/4 Pounds 

MSRP: $2,495+ Depending on options

Lexicon, 3 Oak Park, Bedford, MA 01730-1441;
Tel: (781) 280-0300; Fax: (781) 280-0490;
Web http://www.lexicon.com

Introduction

I have recently been introduced to the finer points of home theater sound.  For the past year I had been focusing almost exclusively on the video portion of my system, a Dwin HDP-500 and TranScanner with a brief foray into convergence PCs with the Philips DVX-8000 (Don’t get me started, I still harbor a deep seated anger about that).  I thought that I had truly arrived when I saw that big beautiful image.  My descent into home theater obsession had only just begun.  I now know what an incredible difference good sound can make on the complete movie experience. 

The DC-2 is a multifaceted beast with excellent pedigree.  It is the sequel to the much-lauded DC-1.  [Click here to read a review of the DC-1]  Think of it as an eight-channel digital audio computer using eight 24-bit D/A converters (and two 24-bit A/D converters).  It also includes a line-level preamp with eight analog inputs and eight digital inputs.  You can use it to switch between five composite or S-video sources.  For those with electric projection screens, it includes a bare wire block terminal to trigger the raising and lowering of the screen. 

The work for this updated box has been dedicated to the inner workings, clearly not its outside appeal.  If this were a blind date, the DC-2 would be described as having a great personality.  The DC-1, DC-2 and MC-1 are essentially identical from the front (the MC-1’s lights are blue instead of yellow).  They have very few buttons which is an issue if your remote stops working as mine did during this evaluation.  That being said, I couldn’t care less what it looks like.  I don’t look at it every day, and its “personality” more than makes up for its plain appearance.

The base unit includes nightclub, concert hall, church and cathedral sound settings to create different listening environments in addition to music logic and music surround.  With their proprietary Logic 7 technology, you can add left and right side speakers. 

The Lexicon performs complex calculations to extract ambience and authentically recreate listening environments.  When you close your eyes, the effect can be quite powerful.

Upgrades

Lexicon makes it easy to gradually add features as the need (and finances) allow.  If you buy the base unit, you can send the unit to an authorized Lexicon dealer to be upgraded with no penalty.  That is, if I had purchased the base unit and then upgraded to AC-3 and DTS support, I would have paid the same price as someone who bought everything at the same time.  While this doesn’t allow you the flexibility of a Meridian 861, it is a good start for considerably less than $10K.

The software can also be upgraded (if any updates are released) in the same manner.  Simply send the unit to a service center, and a week or two later, you have new software.  I would have preferred to perform the update myself with a download to my PC and a connection to the RS-232 port.  Alas, that is more than the folks at Lexicon want to give us.  Lexicon says they rejected it because of piracy and interfacing issues.  I don’t like it, but it’s better than no upgradability at all.

MSRP for all models and upgrades:

Options Price
DC-2 with THX (base model)  $2,495
DC-2 with THX and AC-3 $3,495
DC-2 with THX, AC-3 and DTS  $3,995
THX>AC-3 upgrade for DC-2   $1,000
THX>DTS upgrade for DC-2  $1,500
AC-3>DTS upgrade for DC-2   $500

Setup

After I unpacked the box, I looked at the amazing documentation.  I have never received so much detailed information about the theory of a component’s design.  Lexicon includes one book explaining the hardware operation in detail and another that discusses the theory and design of Lexicon equipment and its establishment of acoustical “environments.”  It addresses room acoustics and auditory perception in a very approachable way.  While it has a fair amount of general information, it also includes suggestions about speaker placement and how to acoustically tune your room (a black art if you ask me).

I selected to use the on-screen version of the controls instead of the front panel display.  This device has more setup than your average consumer audio component, but nothing beyond the grasp of an average Joe home-theater guy such as myself.  With my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter and a tape measure, I had all the tools I needed to set up the box.  Without an SPL meter, it is impossible to tune any home theater system, because of the subjective perception of loudness.  Most people can get the approximate levels, but not extremely accurate.  If you don’t own one, buy one.

The first screen gives you four options: effect adjust, equalization, display adjust, and setup.  Character generated UIs (User Interface) were cool a few years ago, but now it just looks dated.  It just doesn’t provide the rich functionality that you can get with a computer based configuration tool.  Being a computer guy, I prefer the Meridian 861’s Windows-based user interface.  While the Meridian UI isn’t perfect, it does afford more flexibility than the Lexicon.  If you are curious about the Meridian UI, take a look at its review here.

Setup walks you through each option automatically.  You have:

You are asked if you have large, small, or no speakers in each of the positions (front left and right, center, sub, rear left and right, and side left and right).  Indicating that you have small speakers simply means that the system routes low frequency information to other speakers that can handle it properly.  Low-end information is sent to other speakers that can handle sound below 40, 80, or 120 Hz (which you specify when you select the speaker size).  This brought up a question to me.  Why not just simply state the cutoff instead of the small speaker difference?  Just have none, 40, 80, and 120 Hz options, or even more frequency choices.

In order to use the DC-2 to its fullest potential, you MUST read the documentation.  For example, in the Output level screen we see enigmatic options like:

Lexicon included some vanity features for you to change the names of your sound modes and to have the box scroll through a “Customized for X” option.  I changed the names of some of the modes to more accurately reflect what they were.  For example, I changed AUX to V-GAMES since this is the input I use for my Nintendo 64.

I’m sure that most people that purchase one of these will want to read the documentation.  They are excellently written after all.

Pros:

Cons:

Remote

The remote is excellent with only a few minor gripes. The buttons have a unique shape and depress smoothly, so that the control can be operated by touch alone.  This isn’t necessary, however, because the backlighting has been done well.  There is a button in the middle of the remote to trigger the backlight that is also photo-luminescent (it glows in the dark).  Once depressed, the remote glows clearly in the same color as the front panel of the controller.

All of the necessary controls are exposed at the top level, while less frequently accessed features require you to press a SHIFT button on the remote.  To learn what these do, you must use the Quick Reference Guide. Don’t lose it if you want to use the record or zone 2 features.  Not a big deal for the home theater guy.  Who needs sound in another room if you’re never there?  Am I right?

In another demonstration of remote dependence, we tried to test the Lexicon’s ability to encode a Dolby Digital stream onto an S-VHS tape.  During that attempt, the remote went out, and we were left with the limited control of the front panel.  The remote is your lifeline to this machine.  Take care of it.

They devoted buttons on the remote to turning the front panel and on-screen display on and off.  I personally would leave this in the setup because I don’t change them that often.  Also since there is a button to scroll through them sequentially, why have buttons to directly access the different “effects.”  Since I can change the name of any effect to whatever I wish, it makes the buttons to directly access those effects confusing.  I changed AUX to V-GAMES, but I have to remember that switch when I use the remote.  The button to cycle through the modes makes more sense to use exclusively when you have highly customized your Lexicon.

Pros:

Cons:

Sound Quality

Oh yeah . . . the sound.  In a word: perfect.  Like many people, my favorite segment to test DVD audio is the Diva scene from "The Fifth Element" (Lucia di Lammermoor) because of its wide range of sound.  When the curtain opens and the diva is standing in front of the auditorium, you can close your eyes and tell that you are in front of a large expansive opera house.  Her voice is airy and delicate with the soft, subtle orchestra sounds supporting her voice.  The soft arpeggios of the violins are generally difficult to pick out with lower quality processors.  The movie transitions from a test of subtlety to one of visceral impact.  When Leeloo is fighting the Mangalors in the Diva’s suite, the bass is tight and controlled.  However, even with all the battle noises, subtleties are not lost.  When one of them strikes the piano after getting shot, you hear the faint dissonance of the piano wire.  I had never heard that until I listened through the Lexicon.

Recently Stacey Spears brought over a Sunfire Theater Grand Preamplifier.  While that is generally a fine piece of equipment, the center channel (voices especially) sounded a bit unfocussed and muddy.  Perhaps this is due to the direct comparison that I had with the Lexicon.  Compared to the Sunfire, the Lexicon is more accurate and much more configurable/flexible.  Of course, you pay at least $500 more for the Lexicon, and these are just my own audio perceptions.

Another favorite test passage I use is Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" from her Post CD. This track, like the segment from "The Fifth Element", runs the gamut of sound from whispers to the sudden brassy attack of a horn section in a big band.  The passage opens with violins softly playing and Bjork whisper singing, "It's oh so quiet; It's oh so still; you're all alone; and so peaceful until…" The horns crash in and she growl sings "…you fall in love. Bang zoom." Bjork's vocal gymnastics test the limits of recording equipment, and the Lexicon was right there, accurately reproducing it. It maintains its sensitivity without sacrificing impact.

Sound Processing or How I learned to love Logic 7

This is an area where it is hard to describe the difference if you are sitting next to someone listening to the same material. For me to try and describe in words what you experience in sound is, well, difficult. To paraphrase the quote, "Writing about sound processing is like dancing about architecture."  This hasn't stopped reviewers before, so here we go.

I listened to the same passages that I described above in each of the sound modes available. I did not test its DTS sound since I don't have a player that outputs this format.  For "The Fifth Element", I listened to Logic 7, Dolby Digital 5.1, THX 5.1, and Dolby Pro Logic. I've ordered these modes according to my preference (in decreasing preference). One caveat though, I do not have side speakers, just rears. A proper test would have involved these as well. I look forward to adding these speakers to my system in the near future.

Logic 7 has a fuller sound than the other modes. I realize that the order that I listened to these modes can drastically affect my judgment, but my cats were not willing to help me do a randomized, blind study. Dolby Digital sounded somewhat cold and sterile to me. Sterile? How do you mean? I listened several times to see if I could put my finger on an actual example to no avail. There did not seem to be a loss in detail. There was more ambiance somehow.

The THX processing chopped off too much high end. I've probably gotten used to an especially strong high end, but this was essentially the same as Dolby Digital. It just sounded like I was further away from the screen.

The difference between the first three modes and Dolby Pro Logic was interesting. For the 5.1 channel modes, I felt completely immersed in the sound. I was getting just enough rear channel without it growing distracting. The sound came from all 360 degrees around me. With Pro Logic, it seemed that the sound came around the front 180 degrees, but nothing was behind me.

For music, I was less impressed with the Lexicon's processing. I listened to the aforementioned Bjork track in Stereo, Music Logic, and Music Surround. Again the order reflects my preference. The stereo sound was clean, and the imaging was great. When I added the center channel and other speakers with Music Logic, the sound was more immersive, but I just felt that I was sitting in the middle of the band. That just doesn't seem natural to me, but might be pleasing to others.  Music Surround sounded muffled and much less defined than the other two modes. 

The DC-2 Logic 7 processing can reassemble a 5.1 Dolby Digital or DTS soundtrack from a 2 channel Logic 7 recording of that soundtrack.  It actually works as claimed!  We used a DD demonstration disc to record some of the Dolby Digital demo tracks in addition to a test track where the six speakers are enumerated.  The track pans around the room announcing each speaker:  Left Front, Right Front, Left Surround, etc.  When we played back this test track with Logic 7 processing, it did an excellent job of recreating the original track.  Some depth was lost in the sound, but the speakers were correctly identified (that is the left surround speaker said "left surround.)  There was some minor bleed through of the sound.  We faintly heard "right surround" in the background of the left surround speaker.  This was a tiny flaw in a very cool feature.

In the unlikely event that you find that Logic 7 could use some tweaking, Lexicon allows you to adjust these features (the possible values are in parenthesis):

Other effects (like Music Logic) have unique sets of attributes that can be adjusted.

Wait…wasn’t there a DC-1?  What’s different in the DC-2?

Basically it’s some updated hardware, new connectors and new software.  You can update the DC-1 software to the same version that the DC-2 runs, the upgrade also includes the new remote control.  More specifically, here are the differences between the two:

  DC-2 DC-1
Digital Audio Input 5-Coax and 3-Optical 2-Coax and 2-Optical
Video Inputs 5 s-video 3 s-video
RS-232 port Yes No
Converters (8) 24-bit D/A and (2) 24-bit A/D 20 or 24-bit D/A converters and 16 or 20-bit A/D converters
Dynamic Range 100 dB 90 dB
Triggers Bare-wire trigger terminals in parallel with the PWR CTL DIN connector PWR CTL DIN connector
Remote Whizzy backlit remote with direct access to effects Ordinary, hard to use in the dark remote
Warranty 3-year transferable parts and labor 1-year transferable parts and labor warranty

Conclusion

Buy it.  It’s easy to use, educational, and upgradeable.  AND it sounds excellent.  It will grow with you over the next few years while all the digital audio formats take shape.

Associated Audio Equipment:

Evan Upchurch

© Copyright 1999 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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