Tom Martin on ML/Lexus
I’ve listened to a wide variety of car audio systems while writing for our sister publication Winding Road, and I have to say that many “high-end” OEM-branded systems are mediocre at best. Boomy bass and coarse treble are just the start of a long list of problems I’ve heard.
But given the constraints that car audio designers face, maybe I should cut the car manufacturers some slack. They constantly deal with small room dimensions, asymmetrically placed listeners, limitations on speaker placement due to ergonomic and safety issues, and, no kidding, a “budget” for total current drawn from the car’s electrical system. I’m sure there are severe restrictions on total equipment cost, too.
With this as background, I was pleasantly surprised by the Mark Levinson surround system in the recently introduced Lexus GS 430. Befitting the Lexus heritage, Levinson has gone to great lengths to build an audiophile-grade system for the vehicle. While I find some of the typical car audio specs a bit scary—stuff like 14 speakers and 7.1 channels—Levinson worked to address most of the obvious flaws that haunt other manufacturers. It sounds mundane, but Levinson actually uses what is basically a 4-way design. The key is that the company uses midrange drivers, not just woofers and tweeters. This might not seem like a breakthrough until you consider the placement of most car audio speakers. With a 7" woofer/midrange somewhere around your left ankle, what are the prospects for midrange suckout? Pretty high, given that most 7" drivers have narrow dispersion above about 1kHz. Equally significant, Levinson literally spent thousands of hours voicing the system. The latter task included getting design changes from perfectionist Lexus engineers—the stuff your local car audio shop can’t do.
As you’d expect, Levinson brings an audiophile sensibility to the party. This shows up most dramatically in the system’s imaging. Levinson has gone to great lengths to create a sense that musicians are playing in front of you, like they would if they were on stage. This contrasts with the weird experience of many systems, where half the band is in the left door and the other half somewhere over on the right side of the car. The treble has a rare sense of purity and leaves the midrange (key for vocals) clear and detailed—most OEM car systems do one or the other but not both.
Levinson has also put in gutsy amps and tailored the equalization so that the GS system can do deep bass and provide a decent sense of bass articulation (not just repeated thuds). I would have liked better bass articulation, but compared with most systems, the Levinson setup is excellent. Other than that, the upper midrange isn’t as smooth as it could be, perhaps because the midrange and treble are reflected off the windshield as a practical way to obtain the outstanding soundstage. Again, you might notice this if you use home audio as a reference, but it’s an amazing leap for car audio.
As icing on the cake, Levinson engineers took great pains to make sure the sound in the back seat was truly listenable. This is fairly tough, once you think about the typical challenge of using the rear deck for low frequencies and the presence of headrests and seats. The DSP used to pull off the feat sounds quite good, though if you’re driving alone, I think you’ll prefer straight stereo.