Surveying The Best New Car Sound Systems

By Roy Nakano


It's been many moons since LA Audio File, in conjunction with its sister publication, LA Car, ran its last survey of the best factory sound systems. That article was one of the publication's most widely-read, and copies of it still turn up on Internet search engines. Can high fidelity be found in a sound system offered by new car manufacturers? Back then, the answer was a qualified "yes." Today, dare we say, it's unqualified.

Factory car audio has come a long way, and some of the most discriminating names in home high end audio are now taking the art and science of car audio quite seriously. Unless you're willing to spend a great deal of money, it's questionable whether it's worth attempting a custom system in a car that offers some of the premium systems we've evaluated. To do so will be to negate the considerable research and development already expended by some of these manufacturers for their premium sound systems.

Mobile audio has come a long way. Stereo imaging, long the domain of home audio, has become an important factor in car audio - particularly now with the advent of DVD-Audio in car systems. The best systems are capable of a solid, stable stereo image from the driver's position as well as the passenger's position.

If there's a weakness in mobile audio systems, it's in the spectral balance. Many car audio systems tend to overemphasize the bass and treble, because manufacturer think that's what impresses most consumers. In the long run, however, the 'boom-hiss' sound is tiring. The best sound systems present a neutral tonal balance (so long as you resist the temptation to crank up the bass and treble controls).

With Los Angelenos spending more time on the road than in their living rooms, a good sound system in the car has becoming a virtual necessity for maintaining sanity during the commuting hours. With this in mind, we showcase the best systems offered in domestic and imported new cars:


Mark Levinson Audio Systems


The Mark Levinson Audio System in the RX330

We start with the benchmark of factory mobile audio sound systems: Mark Levinson. Levinson gained fame by offering a breakthrough solid state preamplifier back in the 1970s (the JC-2). Since then, Mark Levinson, the company, has been associated with some of the most expensive high end home audio gear on the market. The company made its mobile audio debut in the Lexus SC430, and has since taken over the premium sound system for seven of the top Lexus vehicles: The LS430, GS, ES, SC, LX, GX and RX.

The Mark Levinson systems carry on the state-of-the-art tradition first pioneered by the Lexus-Nakamichi systems of the 1990s - i.e., they exhibit some of the cleanest sounds ever to emit from the interior of an automobile. They may lack a bit of the sonic dazzle offered by some recent surround systems, but what they offer is honest, uncolored sound. Common to all Lexus-Mark Levinson systems: You can crank the volume all the way up, and the sound will hold up without obvious distortion. The large LS sedan offers the quietest cabin, and hence the best acoustics. However all of the Lexus-Mark Levinson systems are excellent.


Acura ELS DVD Audio System


Acura TL/ELS DVD Audio system

Acura's new TL and RL offer, as standard equipment, the first automotive application of a multi-channel DVD-Audio System. The Acura/ELS Premium eight-speaker surround sound system with DVD-Audio, DTS and CD, six-disc changer, AM/FM tuner and Dolby cassette delivers a new level of audio fidelity. This DVD-Audio system, developed with Grammy-winning music producer Elliot Scheiner, utilizes six distinct channels (compared with two on the typical premium sound system) to deliver sound resolution 500 times greater than CD. The premium system plays standard CDs, DVD-A discs, and DTS-enabled CDs and incorporates XM Satellite Radio for over 100 channels of premium quality sound.


Elliot Scheiner of ELS

Playing anything other than DVD-Audio discs on this system yields good, but not extraordinary sound quality. Even using DVD-Audio software is no guaranty that you'll be blown away by this system's sound. However, with the right material, there are levels of spatial realism heretofore unheard of in a mobile sound system. In some ways, the cabin of a sonically-insulated motor vehicle offers an ideal medium for DVD-Audio. This first application of DVD-Audio in a car is a success. We have little doubt that the medium will flourish in mobile audio.


Volkswagen Phaeton 9VE Sound System


Volkswagen Phaeton with the 9Ve premium audio system

We introduced our series with seven Mark Levinson audio systems, with the eight member of this exclusive club being the new Acura-ELS DVD Audio system. The ninth system to join the ranks is No. 9VE on the Volkswagen Phaeton options list. Option 9VE (which adds a mere $1,000 to the Phaeton) gets you a mega-watt audio system that includes 13 speakers (including subwoofer), 12-channel amplification, and digital sound processing (DSP) with seven adjustable hallway modes. All of this is wrapped in the heaviest, most structurally rigid cabin available in a luxury car under $100,000. The result is, arguably, the best-sounding factory audio system on the planet.

While the Lexus-Mark Levinson and Acura-ELS systems opt for a low-coloration, honest sound, the Phaeton's No. 9VE system shamelessly goes for the jugular - i.e., it sets out to sonically blow you away. This is particularly evident in surround mode, where the sounds from top to bottom are immaculately free from distortion and presented with staggering three-dimensionality.

The sound is remarkably similar to a good DTS (Digital Theater System) set up, in that it is squeaky clean to the point of being hyper-realistic. Some audiophiles may prefer the more natural (albeit less spectacular) systems in the Lexus and Acura vehicles. However, the Phaeton shows what the state-of-the-art can render in a factory sound system.


Lincoln LS THX-Certified Audio System


The THX-certified system in the LS

Most of the glory for factory sound systems have gone to Asian and European car makers, but domestic makers are clearly in the game. Lincoln is ready to play ball with the first THX-certified audio system for a factory vehicle.

THX is the brainchild of audio pioneer Tomlinson Holman, who was looking to set out a performance standard for theater sound. THX-certification then spread to home theater. In the Lincoln, THX certification has been granted to a system that employs 10 satellite speakers, two powered subwoofers, and four 50-watt amplifiers. What's important to understand is that THX certification doesn't refer to a brand of equipment, it's a set of standards (including dispersion pattern, loudness, and distortion standards) that a system has to meet. The certification also requires that the vehicle meet certain noise, vibration, and harshness standards.

If we are to nit-pick, the spectral balance sounds a tad bass heavy at times, and the bass is not totally free of distortion. Most of this, however, can be fixed by using the tone controls. All-in-all, however, the package delivers on on the THX promise - i.e., the sound is "remarkably clean and clearly and pleasantly audible under all conditions."


Volvo S80 Dolby Pro Logic Audio System

The Volvo S80, the maker's flagship sedan, has been on the market for quite some time. We think the vehicle itself is getting a little long in the tooth. On the other hand, its optional Dolby Pro Logic audio system is one great-sounding package. Pro Logic is Dolby Laboratories' trademark for a signal-processing scheme that takes two-channel sound and matrixes it into surround sound with dramatic yet natural-sounding effect.

Ergonomically, the unit in the S80 leaves a lot to be desired (try a simple task like changing a preset radio station). However, we're not judging car audio systems on their ergonomics here. We're judging solely on sound quality, and the Volvo's Dolby Pro Logic system definitely belongs in this group.

Some newer Volvos have been introduced with an optional Dolby Pro Logic II system, which takes advantage of Dolby Laboratories' latest research and development in the area of matrixed surround sound. However, the S80's solid and very quiet cabin offers some sonic advantages over the lesser Volvo models. Hence, it's the S80 that makes the grade here.


What's Not On The List

There are a number of factory audio systems that have good sound but didn't quite make the grade to be considered among the best. These include a few sports cars with great audio gear. However, their cabins tend to be significantly noisier than the best luxury cars. This resulted in a downgrade of their total system. In addition, there are the myriad of Bose systems offered in many cars. As good as they are, we find that the Bose systems we've heard impart a sonic signature that seems to emphasize the bass and a bit of the treble - not unlike a loudness contour. Attempts to mitigate the signature with tone controls were not entirely successful for us.

On The Horizon

We're looking forward to some new systems that are on the horizon. Among them is the system in the second-generation Infiniti M45, which will be equipped with Bose's new 5.1 discrete channel decoding Studio Surround sound package. Also deserving a review is the new premium system for the Chrysler 300, featuring Boston Acoustics speakers and Visteon digital signal processing and a dynamite system in the new Jaguar XJ8 Vanden Plaas.

In the meantime, we'll be happily enjoying the natural sounds of the Acura-ELS DVD Audio system and the various Mark Levinson systems offered in the top Lexus models. However, there is nothing quite like a fresh cup of music from the cabin of a Phaeton in the morning. Choose option 9VE, dial in the surround mode, and be prepared for one helluva sonic carpet ride.


- Roy Nakano

Editors' Note: This article also appears in L.A. Audio File's sister publication, LA Car, where it is flanked by a companion article entitled, "The Best Cars to Drive in Rush-Hour Traffic." LA Car is a World Wide Web journal of Los Angeles and its car culture. To view LA Car, aim your Web browser to www.lacar.com








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Company Information


Acura-ELS DVD-Audio Systems
URL: www.acura.com/

Lexus-Mark Levinson Audio Systems
URL: www.delphi.com/

Lincoln THX-Certified Audio System
URL: www.lincoln.com/

Volkswagen Phaeton 9VE Sound System
URL: www.vw.com/

Volvo S80 Dolby Pro Logic Audio System
URL:
www.volvocars.us/

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