A Listening Room, On Wheels

March 31, 2015
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Ask ten people what they think good music is and you’ll get ten different answers. Mozart, Miles Davis, Radiohead, the Beatles: one person’s favorite composer or band might be another’s worst sonic nightmare. But unlike beauty—we hear it’s in the eye of the beholder—everyone can agree on a superior audio experience just by listening.

“People spend more time listening to music in their cars than in their homes,” says Lexus College manager Bob Allan. With that in mind and the reinvention of its flagship luxury sedan, in 2002 Lexus set out to develop the most advanced car audio system for any sedan on the market. The logical partner to accomplish such a feat was Mark Levinson, leader in audiophile home sound systems. Mark Levinson had declined partnership proposals from various manufacturers. Then in 1998 Lexus proved to Mark Levinson acoustic engineers that the LS had not only the quietest passenger cabin on the market but also the requisite level of tranquility, even at elevated speeds, for engineering the highest quality automotive sound experience.

Four years prior to the launch of the 2007 LS 460, its executive chief engineer, Takeshi Yoshida, met with the director of acoustic systems for Mark Levinson, Phil Muzio, who immediately broke the news: a 19-speaker, 450-watt surround-sound system was the answer. The number was not only unprecedented, Yoshida pointed out, but also quite unlikely to fit within the sedan’s cabin, spacious as it might be. Muzio, however, was unwavering. Ambitious and challenging from the start, the engineers set out to replicate in a Lexus vehicle the emotional experience music and movie aficionados could previously attain only with the finest home consumer equipment. “We’re in the entertainment business and what we try to do is create the illusion of a live musical event,” says Muzio.

Armed with a stack of favourite CDs and a fully loaded iPod, I make my way to Whistler behind the wheel of a new Lexus LS460. I pop Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison CD in the player. I know there are 19 speakers surrounding me in the cabin but the individual locations seem to disappear and I feel like the Man in Black is standing on a stage in front of me, the inmates cheering around me. “Even when you’re listening in the dark,” says Muzio, “when you listen to your favorite music the thing that is very striking is that you can localize or identify the position in space—whether it’s in front of you or behind you—that each of the instruments occupy. That’s called 3-D imaging.” I’m also experiencing 360-degree spatial envelopment, which is when the cabin is realistically filled with ambient sound or specific instrumentation in front of, to the sides of, and behind each of the listeners as if in a live performance venue. If I were a musician or a truly discerning listener, the system’s harmonic richness might even allow me to identify whether Johnny was playing a Gibson or a Martin guitar. “I wanted our systems to be able to reproduce the level of harmonic sophistication such that a well-tuned listener can differentiate the actual instrumentation to a very refined level,” Muzio says. (Alas, I’m not.)

Outside it’s begun to snow and I decide to switch gears a bit. switch gears. I pop in the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon DVD in DTS to test out the system’s natural dynamics, which is the most identifiable attribute of live music and the hardest to reproduce either in a home or an automobile. And yet I can hear the contrast between the softest musical passages and the loudest orchestral crescendos, which are particularly hard to reproduce because of cinematic special effects. Not bad.

The Lexus Mark Levinson system is able to communicate the emotional essence of my favorite music and cinematic storyline while immersing me in the experience. As I pull up to my hotel, I find that I’m not quite ready to get out of what is likely the best listening room on wheels.

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