LA Audio File published its most recent Surveying the Best New Car Sound
Systems report comparing the finest that car companies offer in the way of
premium audio systems, a lot of familiar names rose to the challenge. In the end,
it was a Volkswagen Phaeton with its obscure-sounding No. 9VE premium sound system
option that ascended to the top.
The Phaeton system was an audio juggernaut.
VW eschewed edge-of-the-art technology in favor of brute force. It lacked finesse,
not to mention true, discrete multi-channel surround sound. It did have a surround
mode, but it was signal processing derived from two-channel stereo. The system
made everything sound good, if not entirely accurate. Still, it was the Raging
Bull of the factory audio community, and it knocked out all of its competition
at the last go around. That was then. VW of America has since retired the sound
system as well as the car.
Several new systems have since appeared to
go after the championship belt. Lexus has introduced a third-generation Mark Levinson
system it calls the Reference Surround Audio system, Mercedes Benz teamed up with
Harman/Kardon to design an impressive system for the latest S-Class sedan. Aston
Martin teamed up with Linn Audio Systems (makers of the famed LP12 turntable)
to design the sound system in the new V12 Vanquish sports car.
One of the more interesting developments to come along is the second-generation
ELS system being introduced as ďtechnologyĒ options in the all-new Acura RDX and
in the second-generation Acura MDX. ELS is the brainchild of Elliot Scheiner,
who produced and engineered some of the finest records in the modern era. His
work in multi-channel production is legendary.
first-generation ELS system, which was introduced in the Acura TL, made our original
top-ten list of best factory sound systems. It was and is a ground-breaking system,
being the first factory sound system to offer DVD-Audio. As such, itís the first
factory system designed to play discrete multi-channel software specifically optimized
for a motor vehicle environment.
The only real disappointment of the
first-generation ELS system was its inability to play the vast catalog of excellent
DVD music videos already available on the market. While the catalog of DVD-Audio
material continues to grow, itís difficult to expect most consumers to purchase
yet another medium of recorded music.
The second-generation ELS system takes care of that problem. Not only does it
play DVD videos, it optimizes the sound for the vehicle environment. Accordingly,
the strong center channel information found on many DVDs is scaled back to be
less obtrusive to the front row driver and passenger. Moreover, the rear-seat
passengers arenít left hearing only rear-channel ambient sounds. They too get
to hear the full spectrum of sonic information on the disks.
ELS system also benefits from additional firepower. A new 20cm Panasonic Super
Low Distortion Driver (SLDD) subwoofer is utilized to deliver the bottom end for
the sound system.
how does the new ELS system compare with the reigning Raging Bull? It compares
very well. We auditioned the new ELS system in Acuraís new MDX. As mentioned,
the system is also available in the less-expensive RDX. As good as the new MDX
is, it doesnít match the bank vault-like isolation of the Phaeton (nor would one
expect it to). It also comes up a little short on the bottom end in comparison,
but youíll never notice it on the vast majority of music out there.
the other hand, the ELS systemís articulation of musical information is far superior
to our former champion, and its ability to play DVD music videos is a very welcome
addition. There is an honesty to the sound of the ELS II. On the best DVD and
DVD-Audio disks, the sound is as real and palpable as one can imagine. But then
play some mediocre fare, and the sound comes out sounding as such. The old adage,
garbage in, garbage out, applies here.
The Phaeton uses digital signal processing to convert two channels into surround
sound. Spectacular and lush as it is, the sound grows tired after a while. In
contrast, one never tires of the discrete 5.1 channels of the ELS Ė particularly
with true surround signals. In the end, the ELS system wins on points. There are
no knockouts or even knockdowns here. But like the rematch between the Raging
Bull and Sugar Ray, itís finesse, speed, and accuracy that wins out over brute
This is not to say that the second-generation ELS system canít
be improved on. One wonders what it will sound like in an even quieter environment,
perhaps with noise cancellation technology (a feature that is now incorporated
in the ELS-equipped Acura TL). A mega-subwoofer will do wonders on that rare music
containing true bass registers below 35 cycles per second (you canít hear that
low, but you can feel it). And since the ELS system has discrete 5.1 channels,
why not couple it with XM satellite radio that can play 5.1 home theatre signals
(the ELS does come with regular XM satellite radio)? Perhaps weíll have to wait
for generation three (or maybe 2.5).
In the meantime, the new ELS system
takes you to musical places heretofore unheard of a few years ago. For anyone
who enjoys music, itís a must-have option. For those fortunate enough to be in
the market for a new Acura equipped with the Technology Package, your stairway
to sonic heaven has arrived.
- Roy Nakano
Scheiner is among the leading authorities in surround sound recording and mixing.
As a veteran producer and engineer, his efforts in surround sound are credited
with establishing the foundation for the genre. His career includes work with
The Eagles, Steely Dan, REM, Faith Hill, Queen, Sting, Van Morrison, and Grover
Washington Jr. The Berklee College of Music presented Scheiner with an Honorary
Doctor of Music degree for his achievements in the world of music and his contributions
to American culture. Heís the recipient of 20 Grammy Award nominations, five Grammy
Awards, and an Emmy Award for his work with the Eagles. Heís the inaugural recipient
of the Surround Pioneer Award and the only American to be honored by the Japanese
Audio Society with its Master of Sound designation.
For more information
about ELS, see www.elssurround.com.
For more information about Acura products, see www.acura.com.
Note: A variation of this article also appears in LA Car, where it is entitled,
"Sugar Ray Takes on the Raging Bull." LA Car is the automotive counterpart
to LA Audio File. To view LA Car, aim your Web browser to
20cm ELS/Panasonic Super Low Distortion subwoofer