Lexicon MC-12 surround-sound processor Page 3

CDs—or, better still, SACDs and DVD-As—are usually better able to demonstrate the audio capabilities of an audio-video component than movie soundtracks. The music discs generally are of higher recording quality than a compressed movie soundtrack, and are not mixed with a variety of extraneous signals. Any improvements observed with music played through the digital processor will almost certainly come into play with movie soundtracks, though they may not be as immediately obvious.

With that in mind, as a first test of the MC-12's performance I tried the 5.1 analog pass-through. My reference is a Sony DVP-S9000ES SACD/DVD player, and until the MC-12 arrived, I'd been using the Sony with the Lexicon MC-1 (also my reference). But without a dedicated analog pass-through, the analog SACD signal was converted to digital in the MC-1, then converted back to analog at the output—two unnecessary conversions that had to affect the signal adversely. Since buying the DVP-S9000ES, I had thought that SACD performance was not fully up to par.

It took only a moment to configure the MC-12 for analog pass-through, and the comparison was stunning. I first played Yo-Yo Ma's Solo (Sony Classical SS 64114) and listened to Appalachia Waltz, a sweet yet soulful piece. Sure, this SACD through the MC-1 sounded cleaner and less strident than the corresponding CD. But using the MC-12, without the double conversions imposed by the MC-1, the Waltz sounded much more open, rich, and enveloping. The soundstage was wider, the music sweeter. The MC-1 double-converted version, by comparison, was constrained, suddenly sounding as if the music were being played through a bottle. What a difference!

Of course, by using the analog pass-through, I lost any bass management of the SACD signal—a problem with SACD and DVD-A discs. Lexicon points out that users can, of course, acquire bass management by sending the SACD signal through the digital processor—but that may be a sonic trade-off that many users will be unwilling to make.

Then I tried a couple of CDs in stereo, first using the analog outputs from the Sony and feeding first the MC-1, then the MC-12. This connection, of course, employed the Sony's D/A converter, and then the A/D and D/A converters in the processors—more conversion than one ought to put up with. The MC-1 has been an excellent performer about which I've had no significant complaints—but the MC-12 was one better. The music generally had a subtly but distinctly smoother feel. Harsh-sounding strings on several CDs came off a bit less strident. Bass articulation was improved as well. On Bee-thoven's Wellington's Victory (Telarc CD-90079), the bass drums and digitally recorded cannons and muskets offered a small additional punch because of the slightly improved definition.

The obvious conclusion is that the A/D and D/A converters in the MC-12 were a step up from those in the MC-1. When I used a straight digital input into the MC-1 and then into the MC-12, thus ridding the signal chain of two conversions, both processors sounded better—a bit more full and less constrained, a bit less harsh. Here, however, I was able to detect only slightly improved bass definition with the MC-12. Fewer capabilities of both processors were in play; fewer differences were likely.

I also tried a couple of 24/96 DADs from Classic Records: Art Davis' A Time Remembered (Classic DAD 1001) and Lorna Hunt's All in One Day (Classic DAD 1015). First I used the Sony's analog output and sent the signal through the MC-12's analog pass-through. Then I used the digital output from the Sony and sent the signal through the MC-12's digital processor. This simply compared the D/A converters in the Sony and the Lexicon. I heard little difference except, again, a slight improvement in bass definition, and maybe a slightly sweeter, smoother high end in the signal passed through the Lexicon's converter. That shouldn't be surprising—the Sony, as good as it is, costs less than a quarter the price of the Lexicon; it can't be expected to have D/A converters of the same quality.

I listened to these and other CDs using the 2-channel mode. I'm also fond of Lexicon's Music Surround mode, which preserves the original dimensions of the soundstage instead of throwing whole instruments behind the listener. The L7 Music and other modes are said to be improved in the MC-12. To me, L7 Music was excellent, but I could detect no significant difference in the matrix from its rendition in the MC-1.

The MC-12 offered me my first taste of Dolby Pro Logic II. I gave it a whirl with a couple of older discs encoded with traditional Pro Logic—a 4-channel matrix that derives center, left, right, and single surround channels, with the surround signal usually mirrored in two rear-channel speakers. Pro Logic II is intended to bring the effects of this mid-1980s format closer to those of Dolby Digital by deriving stereo surround signals and offering improved high-end performance, among other benefits.

First I tried a challenging sample, Midnight Express, filmed in 1978. This DVD has a rather poor soundtrack; 75% or more of the audio information emanates from the center channel in Dolby Pro Logic. When I switched to Pro Logic II, the soundstage changed a bit. The difference wasn't dramatic—the matrix didn't remake the unfortunate mix—but I could feel a shift as more of the signal moved to the other speakers. The matrix didn't contain enough information to do much with the surround channels, but it was an improvement nonetheless.

Then I tried Sniper (1993), with Tom Berenger. This film has a more traditional multichannel Dolby Surround mix, and the improvements delivered by Pro Logic II playback came closer to what Dolby has advertised. Though most of the multichannel mix is derived, not discrete, I seemed to hear more discrete sound from the surround speakers, though the difference was subtle. A scene with Berenger riding over the jungle in a helicopter sounded more 3-dimensional with Pro Logic II. Overall, without trying to localize the signal, listening to soundtracks using Pro Logic II did seem to come a little closer to simulating the true discrete effects of Dolby Digital or DTS.