December 15, 2005

Lexicon RT-20 Universal Audio/Video Player

What is a universal audio/video player? The answer is a target that changes almost monthly. Whatever it is today, it will probably be on a headlong rush toward obsolescence tomorrow. It takes some courage to release an expensive universal player when the market is in a state of flux. On the other hand, we need something to play all those shiny discs we’ve collected over the years.

Music lovers have been hit especially hard in the last three decades. We’ve been sold LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, two types of quadraphonic LPs, quadraphonic tapes, CDs, HDCDs, DTS Music DVDs, SACDs, and DVD-Audio discs. Each time, we were told that we should replace our entire collection. Movie lovers got hit too. We were expected to finance the fights of VHS vs. Beta, laserdisc vs. CED, and, last but not least, DVD vs. the Divx fiasco.

Now the movie industry seems to have taken a lesson from the music business and figured out that they can sell us our movies all over again, this time on Blu-ray -- or HD-DVD. It looks like a whole new debacle is just over the horizon. It’s enough to make a soul look forward to streaming media.

In the meantime, what’s the music and film lover to do with all those discs? In my opinion, the only answer is to play them with the best equipment you can afford.

Several manufacturers have released so-called "universal" players in the last few years. While these began at stratospheric prices, they’ve worked their way down to where you can buy a decent player for less than $200. So what’s Lexicon got in mind releasing a player -- the RT-20 -- that sells for $4995 USD? They’re shooting at letting you play every silver disc you own at the state of the art.


"Every" silver disc? Well, the obvious candidates are handled -- audio CD and DVD-Video. The RT-20 also handles DVD-A, DVD-R/RW, audio CD-R/RW, Video CD, SVCD, SACD, and MP3s and JPEGs on CD-R/RWs. The only thing missing is the ability to play MP3s burned onto DVD-R/RW -- a problem, perhaps, for those who’d like to listen to the complete operas of Wagner straight through, but otherwise no biggie.

The RT-20 is attractive without being particularly rich looking: businesslike, well constructed, uncluttered, and solid. Around back are outputs galore -- on the audio side, balanced, single-ended, and optical digital; single-ended two-channel; and 5.1 analog. The video outputs are component, composite, S-video, and, most important of all, an HDMI out with potential settings of 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i. The remote control falls easily to hand and is rich with controls, though its layout is a nightmare of identically sized, dimly labeled buttons.

Setup is straightforward, helped immensely by the beautifully written, easy-to-use owner’s manual. If they handed out Oscars for best manual design and editing, the RT-20’s would get my vote. It’s spiral-bound -- you won’t break the binding -- the index and the table of contents are clear and easy to use, and the writer’s first language is English. Bravo!

Of special interest to SACD fans, the RT-20’s Pure mode kills all the video circuitry and decodes the disc in its native Direct Stream Digital format. Most cheaper universal players convert the SACD signal to PCM, negating the main reason for the format.

The RT-20 is unusually adjustable. Virtually every facet of the video output signal can be customized to your system’s idiosyncrasies, and most of these adjustments can be saved in one of three user memories. On the audio side, the RT-20 also has everything you need to nix your surround-sound processor and go straight for the purity of a multichannel preamp -- something along the lines of an Audio Research MP1 multichannel preamplifier or a Linar Audio Model 10 multichannel integrated amplifier. The transparency of the RT-20’s sound warrants something that good.


I began by listening to music through the Lexicon RT-20. I had three different versions of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue to compare: CD, SACD, and DVD-A. The RT-20 allowed me to hear the differences clearly, the SACD being the standout [Sony SCD 64935]. I clearly heard all of the reverberant surfaces of Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio as the sound of each instrument bounced around the soundstage back in 1959. The DVD-A and CD also sounded topnotch, but not quite the equal of SACD. That’s as it should be. SACD is the superior format.

Patricia Barber’s Café Blue is another favorite. The Mobile Fidelity SACD [MFSL 2002] improves on the already excellent Premonition CD in nearly every way, and again, the RT-20 demonstrated why it’s worth spending the extra money on a carefully remastered SACD. Cymbals had the delicate decay of the real thing, and Eric Montzka’s drumming at the end of "Too Rich for My Blood" had authentic impact.

Orchestral music also shines. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos, performed by Stephen Hough with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony on a hybrid multichannel SACD [Hyperion SACD A667501/2], was carefully recorded in DSD precisely for a player such as the RT-20. This disc gives me the sense of being present at the recording sessions. If you don’t get that feeling hearing these recordings through the RT-20, you might want to start shopping for new speakers or wires or something else; the player gets it right.

The RT-20 did just as good a job with films. I started off trying the component and HDMI outputs, both at 720p, into an Optoma H79 DLP projector. My favorite torture scene, 5:16 into Finding Nemo -- a blue CGI sea framed by floating brown CGI flora -- looked marginally better via HDMI. Through its component outputs, the RT-20 made a beautiful picture of the flora with a sumptuous but slightly vague look. Switching to the HDMI output changed the look of the flora to a swirling background of minutely detailed plants. The only DVD player I’ve ever seen do as good a job on this test is the Ayre DX-7.

I did the rest of my testing in HDMI at 720p. Comparing the Battlestar Galactica DVDs to the high-definition feed from Universal HD was startling. Yes, the hi-def feed was clearer, but the clarity came in the shadows and the resolution of fine detail. The overall look of the DVDs through the RT-20 had the same life and vibrancy of color as the HD feed. Quite a feat. When I compared a compressed HD signal, such as HBO’s version of Man on Fire, to the DVD, the results were closer still.

What I learned from all this viewing is that, while HD is better than the RT-20, the difference is one you can live with, especially if you already own a large collection of DVDs.

Finally, I compared the Lexicon RT-20 head to head with the Ayre DX-7. Both are expensive machines that aim at the pinnacle of DVD performance. The Ayre costs $1000 more, and feels and looks more substantial -- but it’s only a DVD transport, with none of the RT-20’s audio features, nor does it have upconversion. Conversely, the RT-20 gives you everything and costs $1000 less. The video signals from the two were so similar I couldn’t reliably tell them apart. Which would you prefer, a Mercedes or a Lexus?

End game

Will the Lexicon RT-20 be obsolete tomorrow? Maybe, but probably not as a music player. Given the market penetration of such comparatively lo-fi competitors as the Apple iPod and its ilk, I’m not sure there will be a headlong rush away from CD to Blu-ray or HD-DVD for music recordings. Then again, that’s what the cassette makers thought when the Compact Disc was launched.

On the movie side, however, I’m afraid the RT-20 will be out of date rather sooner than later, unless Blu-ray and HD-DVD kill each other first. But no one who’s spent a lot of money on DVDs will want to just throw their discs away and buy them all over again in some new format -- especially not if the RT-20 can bring the look of those DVDs as close to hi-def as possible.

If you can afford $4995, the RT-20 should offer you many years of pleasure. Until the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD shakeout happens, you’ll have the great pleasure of enjoying your collection of music and films on the RT-20, knowing that you’ve got one of the best players on the market.

…Wes Marshall

Lexicon RT-20 Universal Audio/Video Player
Price: $4995 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

3 Oak Park Drive
Bedford, MA 01730
Phone: (781) 280-0300
Fax: (781) 280-0490



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