Lexicon MC-12 HD Music and Cinema Processor 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Thursday, 01 May 2008

If you’ve contemplated building a home theater with the utmost performance in mind, you’ve no doubt considered the Harman International brand Lexicon. When it comes to outfitting true performance-based home theaters that rival some of the best movie houses in the business, Lexicon has to rest somewhere near the summit. No other brand, save maybe Genelec and JBL, has such a storied history in professional cinema and mastering applications as Lexicon. However, in recent years, rapid evolution surrounding video formats and connection options, mainly high-definition video and HDMI, have given companies like Lexicon a moment of pause. This has allowed large, mass-producing giants from Japan to muscle their way into the playing field and even briefly take it over. However, with the arrival of the Lexicon MC-12 HD processor, the once mighty king of home theater has returned and is poised to reclaim its rightful place at the top of the high-end processor market.

The Lexicon arrived at my home shortly after the departure of my Meridian G Series processor that had served as my reference processor for nearly a year. Needless to say, the MC-12 HD had large shoes to fill, for I considered the Meridian to be in a class all its own, excelling in both video and audio quality. The MC-12 HD is just as elegant as the Meridian, with its flat off-white faceplate and small charcoal gray controls. The small blue lit display and soft glowing blue lights add a hint of sophistication to the otherwise Spartan façade. The faceplate is broken into five main areas, the first being the display resting to the left of the large volume knob. The manual controls are broken down into Main, Zone 2 and Record groupings to the right of the volume control. The whole processor appears to sit on a black plinth that at first glance appears like nothing more than a pedestal. However, when turning the MC-12 HD around, its presence is of paramount importance, as it houses the MC-12 HD’s balance audio outputs. The MC-12 HD measures in at roughly six-and-three-quarters inches tall by 17 inches wide and nearly 15 inches deep. For a full-featured processor, it is rather beefy, tipping the scales at an impressive 45 pounds. The MC-12 HD comes in two configurations, balanced and unbalanced. My review unit was configured for balanced connections and retails for a hefty $14,000.

Turning the MC-12 HD around, I was met with a host of connection options, most notably six HDMI inputs and one output capable of accepting 1080p source material at 60, 50 and 24Hz frame rates. The MC-12 HD’s HDMI inputs can also accept 24/96 5.1 PCM, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, DTS and DTS-ES audio formats. There is no support of either Dolby True-HD or DTS-HD MA audio formats at this time. However, in comparison to other high-end processor offerings, the MC-12 HD is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in its nearly full support of HDMI for both audio and video signals. After speaking with Andrew Clarke, vice-president of Product Management at Harman, the absence of Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD MA in the MC-12 HD is not entirely uninformed. In the time it takes to design and release a product such as the MC-12 HD, formats can change dramatically. At the time of the MC-12 HD’s inception, market research showed that people wanted high-resolution formats decoded in their respective players for numerous reasons, although since the unit hit store shelves, that paradigm has changed. I’ve been assured that Lexicon is working hard toward a solution to make everyone happy. I should mention, while the MC-12 HD has six HDMI inputs and one output, it will not up-convert lesser analog video signals to digital; it will only up-convert those signals to component video. Truthfully, when you have as many HDMI inputs as the MC-12 HD does, the need for conversion becomes a non-issue in many ways, so I don’t really fault the designers there. Frankly, I rarely even use component connections anymore, let alone composite or S-video.  The MC-12 HD has four component video inputs, as well as a single monitor output; however, both the fourth component input and monitor out are of the BNC variety. There are also the usual suspects of composite and S-video connections.

The MC-12 HD has more than enough analog audio inputs, as well as a nice assortment of digital audio options with six coaxial and five optical inputs. Along with its analog and digital audio inputs, the MC-12 HD can take advantage of all of the latest Dolby Digital and DTS audio settings (save the uncompressed HD ones), as well as meeting THX Ultra 2 and THX Surround EX standards. The MC-12 HD also features Lexicon’s critically acclaimed Logic 7 stereo and surround sound audio settings. As for preamp outs, the MC-12 HD in its balanced configuration has 12 audio outputs, three of which are allotted for multiple subwoofer configurations, one for the main zone and two for zone 2. In addition to the balanced outs, the MC-12 HD has the same number of unbalanced preamp outs, adding an additional pair for the second zone. The MC-12 HD has two RS-232 ports and four small microphone inputs that work in conjunction with its EQ calibration program and microphone kit ($1,000) that Lexicon was kind enough to send along with my review sample. A detachable power cord rounds out the list of features located on the MC-12 HD’s rear panel.

Under the bonnet, the MC-12 HD is as complex and configurable as they come, with independent and adjustable crossovers and use of dual (operating in dual-mono) digital to analog converters and internal two-stage jitter reduction. I could easily fill my 3,000-word quota just talking about all of the various “little” things the MC-12 HD does in its endless quest for purity, but I think it’s better to talk about what it all means in play than to simply look at it on a drawing board.

This brings me to the remote. I have to say, while I found the remote to be functional, it clearly does not look as if it has any right being mated to a $14,000 processor. It is cleanly laid out and shockingly familiar right out of the box. It dawned on me why: it’s the same remote that comes packaged with many of today’s processors from Outlaw Audio on up. It is, for lack of a better description, a generic universal remote with a brand name logo screened along the bottom. Does it work? Yes, and it works well, but for the money, I was expecting something so much more.

I placed the MC-12 HD in my reference rack between my Bel Canto Ref 1000 mono blocks and my Sony Blu-ray and Toshiba HD DVD players. Since the MC-12 HD has copious amounts of HDMI inputs, I was able to connect all of my associated sources via single runs of UltraLink HDMI cables. Until the MC-12’s arrival, I had been unable to connect all of my gear via HDMI. I often had to run my Dish Network HD DVR via component video cable; kudos to Lexicon for having the appropriate number of connection options.

I also want to point out that, during my time with the MC-12, Lexicon graciously loaned me their monstrous 300-watt per channel ZX-7 amplifier.  The ZX-7 goes down in history as being one of the largest amps ever to grace my listing room. It is so large and so powerful that it requires two dedicated 120VAC circuits or a single 230VAC. This type of amp will drive everything and anything, perhaps even your car, but should be installed by a custom installer to ensure the best possible performance. Needless to say, once powered up it was a delight but, for the purposes of this review, I utilized my Bel Canto Ref1000 monos.

Onscreen set-up was simple enough and, while not as elegant-looking as, say, Integra’s or Denon’s menus, they did the job; I had the MC-12 HD set the way I wanted in under an hour. Once you’re done with the internal set-up, the day-to-day livability of the MC-12 couldn’t be easier or more pleasurable. It was one of the few products that didn’t instantly intimidate my guests or my girlfriend.

I ended my set-up with the optional calibration microphones Lexicon supplied for me. The four small microphones plug into the rear of the MC-12 and are placed on mini-spider-like tripods in your primary listening positions. From there, it’s best if you operate the automatic procedures via remote from another room if possible. The MC-12 generates a series of tones that inform the processor of your speakers’ capabilities, as well as their placement in the room. It offers several room correction options that can be set and/or customized, then programmed to each source. Supremely cool, but I have to say the auto EQ Lexicon offers is not as dramatic in its results as, for example, my reference, Audyssey EQ. This said, and after talking with Andrew Clark, vice-president of Product Management at Harman, I now understand why.

Here is Andrew’s response to why the Lexicon MC-12 HD doesn’t feature an Audyssey EQ or one that takes more drastic measures in correcting problem room nodes and anomalies: “The MC-12 system was designed to have minimal impact on the sonic characteristics/signature of the loudspeakers being used. Our research found that many prospective customers wanted an EQ system that would fix the significant problems in the room, but not radically alter the character of the sound quality they bought. That way, Revel, B&W or whatever speakers people are using will still sound like the speakers they fell in love with in the demo room.”

After running through the auto EQ set-up, I can say that, while not as dramatic as the Audyssey EQ, the effects are still welcome and appropriate, improving the sound quality for the better across the board. However, the MC-12 is clearly a processor designed to be at the heart of a true dedicated room, with proper acoustical treatments and dimensions. When used in that environment, the MC-12’s EQ is much more effective and the results are more dramatic.
It is a testament to how approachable this high-end product truly is that I was able to navigate my way through the MC-12 HD’s set-up and integrate it into my reference system and my office system as well. However, if I were purchasing the MC-12 HD for my system, I would let my custom installer or Lexicon dealer handle the set-up, especially if I was planning on using it in conjunction with the ZX-7 power amp.

Music and Movies
I started my evaluation of the MC-12 HD with Pearl Jam’s “Thumbing My Way to Heaven” from their album Riot Act (Sony). From the get-go, the MC-12 HD proved to be a smooth operator. The track was full-bodied, warm and just a touch laid-back, which I wasn’t expecting. Granted, this particular track is hardly the grunge rock Pearl Jam of old, but I wasn’t expecting such a composed, grain-free and sublime sound. The treble didn’t sparkle quite as brilliantly as my reference two-channel rig, but it never became offensive or shouty. It sounded slightly more analog than digital, which was surprising. The midrange was thick and the bass was solid but not quite as tight as I’ve come to expect from the Bel Cantos, which can be ruthlessly nimble on their feet. The MC-12 HD’s control of my subwoofer was good but, again, lacked that last ounce of dictator-like control. The soundstage was good, with a good sense of space and detail present, but it wasn’t quite as spacious and enveloping as I was expecting from a processor that costs as much as a small car. Vocals were natural and lifelike, exhibiting the proper proportions and weight amidst the rest of the musical elements. All too often, other processors give too much credence to the vocals, which are sometimes artificially called out in stark contrast to the rest of the music.

Switching gears, I cued up Peter Cincotti’s debut album and the track “Sway” (Concord Records). Again, the MC-12 HD was smooth as silk, with just a hint of darkness to the midrange and bass. All of the musical elements were present, with a good amount of inner detail and air, but the music just didn’t fully come to life until I coaxed the volume a bit. The MC-12 HD exhibited a type of control over the music and my Bel Cantos that I hadn’t previously experienced; it seemed to hold it all back until it was ready and willing to relinquish control. More often than not, I find that amplifiers are guilty of this feat when you can start to feel and hear the edge of their capabilities. This time, I got the sense that the Bel Cantos wanted to roam free and it was the MC-12 HD that was keeping them on a short leash. When you open the taps a bit on the MC-12 HD, it does spring to life, as does the music, but this is not a processor suited for low-level listening. Normally, that would bug me, but with a processor like the MC-12 HD, you know it’s not going into someone’s bedroom system or living room home theater. The Lexicon MC-12 HD is not a Ferrari for grocery store runs, it is a purpose-built processor designed for one thing: to bring the experience of a movie theater to your dedicated home theater. While I found its two-channel performance to be adequate, it was not on par with Meridian. However, the more I listened to two-channel fare, the more I wanted to switch gears and throw down with a big action film or, even better, a Blu-ray disc.

I decided to just go for broke and popped in Casino Royale on Blu-ray (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment). I went to the opening chase scene and set the volume to stun. And stun is exactly what I got. While the MC-12 HD cannot yet take advantage of the latest uncompressed audio formats like Dolby True HD and DTS Master Audio, it still can produce quite an experience from more standard multi-channel fare. The MC-12 HD didn’t disappoint with its dynamics. Every crash, every explosion and gun blast was reproduced with reckless abandon, with a lot of that big Harman sound I was looking for in my two-channel demo. The MC-12 HD’s dynamic envelope was immense and proved that when the going got rough, it could hang with the best of ‘em. This time around, I didn’t feel as if my Bel Cantos were being held back, nor did I feel as if my sub had been caught napping. Everything was working in perfect harmony as the MC-12 HD ordered the troops into battle. The treble was still a touch subdued, but far more impactful and blistering than with straight music, which injected a bit of immediacy to the entire sonic landscape. The midrange, especially dialogue, was crystal clean and natural. The bass was rock solid and was capable of shifting its weight rather effortlessly. The surround sound performance was seamless across all five of my Meridian in-walls and the size and scale of the soundstage defied the physical constraints of the room. 

On the video side of things, the MC-12 HD simply passed the signal along faithfully, robbing the image of nothing in terms of black levels and color saturation, and leaving zero digital garbage in its wake. The motion tracked just as smoothly with the MC-12 HD in the chain as it did without. The color rendering and saturation remained 100 percent intact and, after watching most of the film, I concluded that the MC-12 HD is about as invisible a processor as you can find in terms of video quality. Again, the MC-12 HD is not a fix-all device, it is a purpose-built product that assumes you’ve done your homework and have built a system with sheer performance in mind. If you have that, the MC-12 HD will reward you in spades.

I ended my time with the Lexicon MC-12 HD with Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (Universal Studios Home Video) on HD DVD. I went ahead and chaptered to the freeway ambush and chase. The buildup to the inevitable was sonically tense and the MC-12 HD did an excellent job at not tipping its hand too soon. The score was kept in check against the dialogue and subtle engine noise, so much so that, like the characters on screen, I hardly noticed the sounds of the approaching cars in the background. They were present, but the Lexicon knew when best to bring them to my attention. When the explosion does hit and the subsequent cars full of terrorists do arrive on the scene, the effect and impact was as emotional as it was physical. The sound of shattering glass and twisting metal was visceral and at times made me cringe in my seat, which is a good thing. I can’t stand when any product or component takes a car wreck and turns into a symphony of sounds rather than present me with the honest truth that metal scraping against metal or pavement is supposed to sound terrible and frightening. The MC-12 HD not only does this but also does it in such a way that I began to justify the MC-12 HD hefty price tag. I also began to see the logic behind the Lexicon’s EQ, for I’ve never experienced this scene through my Meridians the way that I did with the MC-12 HD in my system. The firefight was equally impressive and the sound of the surrounding atmosphere enveloped my room. It was remarkable, but above all, it was enjoyable, so much so that I forgot that I was only hearing a Dolby Digital track.

The muted tones and rich blacks of the film’s look were intact and unchanged by the presence of the MC-12 HD. Once again, the MC-12 HD proved to be virtually invisible to the rest of my video components. Since I had more HDMI inputs then I knew what to do with, the question of whether I was I getting the absolute best my components had to offer never came into question.

The Downside
I consider the Lexicon MC-12 HD to be quite a well-rounded product, but I also consider a car like the Ferrari 599 to be practical. This said, there is a lot about the Lexicon MC-12 HD that isn’t going to sit well with many consumers trudging through the home theater marketplace. For instance, it doesn’t up-convert analog video signals to digital, nor does it scale video to 1080p/24. However, it gets around this in two ways by offering you more HDMI inputs than you’re likely to need right now, even if you have three different HD disc spinners and a DVR, by letting your respective players do all the video trickery if need be.

It doesn’t have support for the latest uncompressed multi-channel audio formats, although Lexicon has assured me that they’re working on it.

The remote isn’t as flashy as I felt it should be for a product costing as much and looking as good as the Lexicon MC-12 HD does, but it is functional and does work, even outside of line of sight in some cases.

Lastly, it’s not the greatest audiophile processor you’re going to find, although I can’t imagine many customers truly listening to music through the MC-12 HD, for they’re bound to have entire systems dedicated to that already. Like I said, the Lexicon MC-12 HD is purpose-built, you’re buying it for your dedicated home theater, and as a dedicated piece, it is wonderful.

The Lexicon MC-12 HD isn’t for everyone; it isn’t even for most people. It’s for the select few, the connoisseurs, the ones who never consider price to be an object, but merely the means to an end. And what an end the Lexicon MC-12 HD can deliver, so long as you understand what it is that you’ve bought. As a cost-no-object home theater processor, the Lexicon MC-12 HD is phenomenal. It will transport you in ways you can’t imagine and do so in such a sublime and natural fashion that it makes all other processors sound harsh and over-produced in comparison. When it comes to movies, the Lexicon MC-12 HD is pretty much as good as it gets if you’re serious about creating a top of the line performing home theater that also just happens to reside in your home.
Manufacturer Lexicon
Model MC-12 HD Music and Cinema Processor
Reviewer Andrew Robinson
Extras RS-232 • Multi-Zone

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