Ask 10 people what they think good music is and you’ll get ten different answers. Mozart, Miles Davis, Radiohead, the Beatles; one person’s favourite 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 Bob Allan, manager of the Lexus College dealership information centre. It’s no surprise, then, that when it came time to reinvent one of Lexus’s flagship luxury sedans, the LS 460, the auto manufacturer 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, a leader in audiophile home sound systems. For years Mark Levinson declined partnership proposals from various auto manufacturers. But in 1998, Lexus, renowned for having some of the quietest passenger cabins on the market, proved themselves to Mark Levinson’s acoustic engineers; they had the requisite level of tranquility even at elevated speeds for engineering the highest quality automotive sound experience. A partnership that started with the 2001 SC 430 was ready to enter a new phase.
Four years prior to the launch of the 2007 LS 460, chief engineer Moritaka Yoshida met with the director of acoustic systems for Mark Levinson, Phil Muzio. Muzio immediately broke the news: Reference Surround Sound Audio, a 19-speaker, 450-watt system, was the key to creating the ultimate listener experience. The number of speakers 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. So the LS design team took this into account from the very beginning. Ambitious and eager for a challenge, the engineers set out to replicate in a Lexus vehicle the emotional experience music aficionados could previously attain only with the finest home consumer equipment. Or, as Muzio puts it, to create “the illusion of a live musical event.”
Armed with a stack of favourite CDs and a fully loaded iPod, I make my way to Whistler behind the wheel of a hybrid LS 600h L, Lexus’s new flagship sedan, also with Reference Surround Sound Audio. I pop Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison into the CD player. I know there are 19 speakers surrounding me in the cabin, but their individual locations seem to disappear; I feel like the Man in Black is standing on a stage in front of me, the inmates cheering around me. “Even if you’re sitting in the dark,” says Muzio, “when you listen to your favourite 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.” At the end of a song, one of the inmates coughs and I actually look to the back of the car, thinking someone is sitting right there. What I’m experiencing is 360-degree spatial envelopment, which is when the cabin is 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.
Outside it’s started to snow and I decide to switch gears a bit. I pop in the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon DVD 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 favourite music, immersing me in the experience. So much so that when 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.