Lexicon RT-20 Universal Disc Player 
Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players
Written by Ben Shyman   
Saturday, 01 April 2006

When Lexicon first introduced the RT-10 Universal Disc Player in 2003, it was considered by many an ambitious project. Subsequently, the Proceed Audio brand was discontinued and the Harman Specialty Group (HSG) was formed. Harman International formed HSG on the cornerstone of three key brands: Mark Levinson, Lexicon and Revel. The RT-10 would be scrutinized by home theater industry experts and consumers alike, not only because it was HSG’s first foray into source componentry – the Mark Levinson brand did not and still does not manufacture a video source component although the No. 51 will be available soon – but also because it came on the heels of Proceed’s $6,000 PMDT universal transport, which had a litany of reliability issues until it was eventually discontinued. In addition, Lexicon would enter this high-stakes reference-quality segment of the market by designing the RT-10 as a hybrid player featuring two new technologies: Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A).

I reviewed the RT-10 in September 2003 for AVRev.com and walked away impressed enough to keep it in my system, a place where it has proudly resided for two-and-a-half years. As far as sound and picture quality for a universal player were concerned, the RT-10 had no equal at the time for its price, but the glaring omission of an RS-232 port and a grossly flawed front panel display kept it out of the ranks of the elite. With a hefty price tag of $3,500, many consumers could rightly have been disappointed with the RT-10. It took several years of development, but Lexicon has introduced its replacement, the Lexicon RT-20 Universal Disc Player ($4,995). Much like the RT-10, the RT-20 was designed to play all current formats of audio and video discs, including but not limited to CD, CD-R, SACD, DVD-A, DVD-V and DVD-R. The RT-20 even handles MP3 and JPEG formats.

Andy Clark, director of marketing at HSG, explained to me that Lexicon had three main goals with the RT-20: add RS-232 compatibility, add a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) and improve the internal design by incorporating better quality parts, most notably with respect to the digital-to-analog converters (D/A). Engineers at HSG quickly recognized that in order to meet their design goals, they could not opt for a quick makeover of the RT-10, but rather would seek to completely re-engineer the RT-20 from the ground up.

Aesthetically, the RT-20 is similar to its predecessor, maintaining the brushed aluminum front panel and rugged chassis. In fact, before the player is turned on, the front panel of the RT-20 looks almost the same as the RT-10. Once I plugged the unit in, however, I was greeted by a newly designed LED display, which replaces the flawed design of that on the RT-10. Many of the biggest upgrades on the RT-20, however, are inside and on the back of the player. Evidence that Lexicon reengineered the RT-20 from the ground up is clear in the fact that the rear panel of the RT-20 looks nothing like the RT-10. Not only has Lexicon added new RS-232 and HDMI interfaces, but the standard connectors for BNC and RCA component video, S-Video and analog and digital audio outputs have all been dramatically moved from their previous positions on the back of the RT-10. Other upgrades include 14-bit/216 MHz D/A video converters (from 12-bit/108 MHz previously) and a far more user-friendly and functional array of set-up menus.

No doubt, the most notable improvement to the RT-20 is its support for HDMI. Arguably, HDMI is the future interface of high-definition connectivity. In my view, the benefits of HDMI accrue to both content providers, who can fully copy-protect their material, as well as to consumers, who experience 100% digital video that is free of the artifacts that are typically seen with digital-to-analog conversion. For consumers without an HDMI input on their displays, the Lexicon RT-20 has been equipped with state-of-the-art D/A video converters. HDMI is the preferred set-up option, however, and the one which I utilized for this evaluation. Since my Fujitsu Plasmavision has only a single DVI input and I was looking to run multiple HDMI sources to my display, I utilized a HDMI channel switcher from PureLink, model HDS-21R ($299 from http://www.dtrovision.com/). I was pleased that the PureLink switcher came with its own remote, is RS-232 compatible and has a high bandwidth that ensures it can easily handle future high-definition video. Using this switcher combined with HDMI cables from PureLink and a DVI cable and HDMI-to-DVI adaptor from Transparent, I was able to wire both the RT-20 and Scientific Atlanta 8300HD cable box to my display, using HDMI. I wired the RT-20 for audio no differently that I had the RT-10, using Transparent Cable interconnects on the analog outputs for SACD and DVD-A, as well as AES/EBU digital audio output to my Proceed AVP2.

I called upon the services of Imaging Sciences Foundation calibration guru and recently recruited AVRev.com staff writer, Kevin Miller (http://www.isftv.com/), to tweak my plasma picture to perfection. With both my cable box and the RT-20 utilizing the same DVI input on my plasma, it was necessary to first calibrate the display for HDTV and then utilize the RT-20’s complete suite of video calibration controls, which Lexicon calls its Video Adjust feature, to calibrate the picture for watching DVD. With Video Adjust, we were able to obtain exact control over chrominance, brightness, noise reduction, gamma, hue, chroma and sharpness, as well as black and white levels to obtain a properly calibrated picture for both the cable box with HDTV and the RT-20 for DVD. While the obvious drawback with this configuration is that my display remains uncalibrated for analog television, this remains unimportant to me, as I do not watch much analog television anyway.

The Music
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.

The Movies
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.

The Downside
The downside of the RT-20 lies within its position in the marketplace and the timing of its release. As a universal disc player, the RT-20 is an exceptional product, clearly among the finest of its kind. The home theater industry, however, is just about to embark on a new era of high-definition home product this spring with the release of HD-DVD and Blu-ray. While it remains uncertain which of these competing technologies will eventually emerge as dominant, both technologies threaten the viability of the traditional DVD format. This is not to suggest that traditional DVD is dead. Quite the contrary. Both HD-DVD and Blu-ray players will all be backwards-compatible with DVD technology and many will scale to 1080p, thus keeping your old DVD collection viable for the foreseeable future. However, for potential consumers of the RT-20, the backwards compatibility of these high-definition players makes it extremely difficult to argue that spending $4,995 on the RT-20 is a smart investment. This is especially true when many of these high-definition players will easily break the $1,000 price point immediately upon their release. In defense of the RT-20, however, I would speculate that neither Blu-ray nor HD-DVD players will likely match the RT-20’s video performance with traditional DVD and certainly none will match its performance playing traditional CD. In addition, it is highly probable that few if any of these players will be compatible with high-resolution SACD or DVD-Audio discs.

The RT-20 is a step forward in universal disc player performance and a clear improvement over its predecessor. With audio, the RT-20 is hard to beat. It plays all formats currently available with exceptional precision and remarkable clarity. In terms of HDMI video, the RT-20 produces a dazzling, artifact-free picture that, absent enhancement by an outboard scaler at several times its price, is about as good as DVD gets. The RT-20 does, however, also likely represent a final step forward for DVD performance, as revolutionary, high-definition video disc formats are scheduled to enter the market almost any day now. So who should purchase the RT-20? In my opinion, audio enthusiasts seeking ultra-high performance with their legacy music collections, particularly those with SACD and/or DVD-A collections, will be thrilled with the RT-20. Furthermore, consumers with a passion for home theater seeking exceptional performance from their existing DVD collections should audition the RT-20. The reality is that if you are setting up a new theater with video as your top priority and do not have a large DVD collection, the RT-20 is not your best option. Those consumers should go straight into the HD-DVD or Blu-ray market. This said, the RT-20 is a best-in-class performer for what it is designed to do and consumers who are lucky enough to afford one will certainly be rewarded with years of enjoyment.
Manufacturer Lexicon
Model RT-20 Universal Disc Player
Reviewer Ben Shyman

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