|Lexicon RT-20 Universal Disc Player|
|Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players|
|Written by Ben Shyman|
|Saturday, 01 April 2006|
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I began my listening with an old King Crimson classic, “Starless and Bible Black” (Virgin Records). As part of the King Crimson 25th Anniversary Collection of digitally remixed and remastered albums, “Starless and Bible Black” sounds materially better than the original release. Right from the opening track, “Great Deceiver,” and throughout the album, I was taken back by the coherence and breadth of the overall soundstage. I particularly enjoyed the clarity of Bill Bruford’s snare drum and high hat, as well as the smoothness of John Wetton’s lead vocal. Instrument separation was far better than average, especially on “Great Deceiver” and “The Night Watch.” Fripp’s guitars were delivered without any edginess and never muddied the soundstage. Violin and viola sections throughout the album by David Cross were fluid yet textured enough to sound live. Overall, the RT-20 imparted an ease to my listening experience on “Starless and Bible Black” that I enjoyed immensely.
When Sony first released many of Bob Dylan’s best titles on SACD, it was an experience in renewed clarity. I was shocked to hear many guitar and percussion parts that were less evident in previous low-resolution versions. While not all of Dylan’s albums available on SACD mixed in surround sound, they all sound exceptional compared to their originals, given the obvious limitations of recording techniques during the era when they were first recorded. In my evaluation of the RT-20, I opted for Dylan’s 1965 classic, “Bringing It All Back Home” (Sony Music Entertainment), in two-channel SACD. Beginning with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan’s vocals sounded natural and the separation between each instrument was impressive. This was equally true on “Maggie's Farm,” where it was possible to follow the background electric guitar behind Dylan’s vocal and harmonica almost note for note. Of course, no review would be complete without mentioning “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The beauty of this song lies in its simplicity and Dylan’s spirited performance. The RT-20 never interfered with my ability to feel like Dylan was performing live in my living room. The most subtle details, such as the sound of the pick dragging over the strings of Dylan’s acoustic guitar, helped breathe life into this familiar classic.
To conclude my audio evaluation of the RT-20, I would naturally listen to some DVD-Audio, and Neil Young’s “Harvest” (Reprise Records) easily fit that bill. Although the surround mix on “Harvest” is sometimes awkward, with instruments emanating from channels that I would not have expected – a lone high hat cymbal in the rear left channel, for example – the RT-20 did an excellent job handling instrument clarity and making the soundstage feel more palatable than I have heard with other DVD-A players. The string arrangements on “A Man Needs a Maid” were accurately reproduced, creating a dynamic tapestry of sound. Furthermore, the bass and kick drum on “Heart of Gold” were deep but not overpowering and the acoustic guitars sounded natural. The highlight here clearly was Young’s harmonica which, although it irked me a bit because it originated from the rear surround channels, still sounded as live as any harmonica I have heard on my system. Finally, on “Alabama” and “Words,” Young’s signature distorted Gibson electric guitars were in full bloom, proving that the RT-20 can definitely handle the dynamics of hard rock.
To evaluate the RT-20’s newly upgraded video capabilities with HDMI, I reached for the Widescreen Edition of “Miracle” (Walt Disney Home Entertainmen), the emotional story of the 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning ice hockey team. In Scene 7, “Again!,” where Kurt Russell (playing the role of coach Herb Brooks) puts the team through the paces after tying the Norwegian team during pre-Olympic competition, skin tones during the team handshake were highly accurate. Shadow detail was about as good as I have experienced with my Fujitsu Plasmavision during the drills, especially after the rink manager shut down the house lights. It was easy to see subtle details in the texture of the ice and uniforms. Blacks were true and deeper than usual, with far less noise than other DVD players I have tested. In Scene 13, “Olympics Begin,” when Brooks explains to his star player Jack O'Callahan that he can remain on the team despite Callahan’s injury, color saturation of yellows, blues and reds of the rink and surrounding details were stellar and surpassed the quality of those rendered by the Faroudja NRS-DVI processor and Lexicon RT-10 I previously had in my system. In Scene 14, “I Am a Hockey Player,” when the United States battles Sweden on the ice, the picture had a depth and silkiness that one generally associates with high-definition video. This effect is no doubt attributable to the high-quality scaler in the RT-20, as well as the benefits associated with fully digital HDMI technology.
I concluded my time with the RT-20 watching one of my favorite films of all time, director/writer/actor Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” (Miramax Home Entertainment, 1997, Widescreen Collector’s Edition). “Life Is Beautiful,” nothing short of a true masterpiece, is the story of a waiter (Benigni) who, by exercising his extraordinary imagination and remarkable sense of humor, saves his Italian-Jewish family from destruction during the Holocaust. The cinematography, by the legendary Tonino Delli Colli, whose career as a cinematographer spanned six decades with almost 150 film credits, has a beautiful simplicity and a rich, classic feel. This allows the viewer to be quickly captured by Benigni’s fable with a magnetism that is rare in movie-watching, especially in digital home cinema. In Scene 14, “A Wedding Announcement,” the most subtle details in the 1940s-style costumes are beautifully depicted and the Ethiopian cake, in the familiar colors of Italy, is remarkably grand in appearance, especially the warm candlelight that accents the cake’s golden trim. In Scene 18, “”Where Are We Going?,” where Benigni’s character lies to his son Joshua, telling him they are going on trip for his birthday when in fact they are being transferred to a concentration camp, the shadow detail here was excellent. Later, as the family is temporarily reunited as they await the second leg of their trip, the color saturation of the surrounding scene reminded me of a classic film with its picture perfectly restored. Throughout the film, I truly enjoyed the accuracy with which the RT-20 delivered “Life Is Beautiful,” particularly the amazingly saturated colors and artifact-free picture.
The picture quality of the RT-20 was so enjoyable with HDMI that I found myself revisiting many DVDs in my collection just to see how great they could look. When I watched “The Matrix,” “He Got Game,” “Cast Away” and “Fargo,” my conclusions were consistent. Shadow detail and black levels were much improved from the RT-10. In addition, colors were highly accurate and beautifully saturated. At times, some scenes had a delicious-looking quality to them that was reminiscent of a fine painting. It is really hard to find much fault with the video performance of the RT-20 other than perhaps suggest that I wish it was capable of 1080p output. This is arguable, however. While on one hand, 1080p surpasses the level of performance of my plasma display, it would be nice to know it was there, as newer displays will offer this capability in the future.