First Impressions of Acura MDX ELS Audio System
Written by Jinny
Fellow Acura fans, our wait for auditory excellence in a factory-equipped vehicle may be over! Enter Acura’s redesigned for 2007 MDX. Not only is it a driving enthusiast and technology lover’s dream come true, it may also have the guts to satisfy a true audiophile…
I know, it’s a bold statement, and if someone made the same statement to me, I would probably dismiss it as exaggeration typical of corporate marketing types; but, I’m not one of those types. I’m the type that would normally excuse lackluster audio performance in a vehicle as a necessary compromise between the many variables that make up the driving experience. The type that would assume that audio bliss is impossible in the confines of a vehicle. The type that would nevertheless spend large amounts of time and money to bring a car closer to the impossible goal of audio nirvana. The new ELS system in the 2007 Acura MDX may have made me a fool.
The holy grail of audio bliss is a quest many have embarked upon, but I would dare venture to guess that no one would have expected to see a car manufacturer take on the challenge—at least not successfully. Funny thing about the holy grail, no one knows what it looks like or where to find it, and no one can say it really exists. But that doesn’t stop the search. And wouldn’t you know it, Acura and Panasonic may have stumbled upon their champion for the journey, Elliot Scheiner and his ELS Surround company. To say they “stumbled” upon Elliot Scheiner would be a misrepresentation: I’m sure, they spent countless hours putting together their formula for marketing success, and sometimes a synergistic relationship results in something very special.
The old formula: find some audio company, ask them to produce a run of the mill head unit that will fit the design of a car and pair it with some paper cone speakers mounted wherever there was some semblance of free space. A modified formula runs along the lines of the aftermarket industry’s formula to put more power in. More recently, there had been a trend for luxury automakers to pair up with high-end audio companies to release “high end” branded audio systems to entice the audiophile car buyer--like Lexus’ Mark Levinson option--but nothing really measured up for the true audiophile. Many of those previous attempts were probably not as successful because they were more concerned with the bottom line than with sound quality.
Now, some of you may be wondering why I haven’t really talked much about the MDX system specifically. It seems like I’m just spewing rhetoric about systems in general. I am, and I will get to the MDX system impressions soon, but I need to get some things out of the way first.
Part of the reason why I have been talking in vague terms and generalities is because my opportunity to experience the ELS system in the 2007 MDX was not typical for me. A small group of journalists (ha, they think I’m a “journalist”) were invited to a ride-and-drive and listening event in Hollywood earlier this month. But unlike other ride-and-drive events I have attended--where we mainly try to get a feel for the riding and driving characteristics of a vehicle--we were gathered to get a feel for the vehicle AND, curiously, its audio system. Reviewing cars in general tends to be fairly subjective without measuring equipment, and all we had to scrutinize the audio system was our ears! In retrospect, this shouldn’t have seemed so strange to me: it’s how I know that I like my home audio system; it’s how I know I needed to make upgrades to my car audio system.
In my defense, reviewing car audio is fairly new to me: having been to countless car audio events and trade shows where power, technology, and artful packaging often takes precedence over sound quality, I imagined that I would be painfully unprepared to review anything without devices like decibel meters, spectrum analyzers, oscilloscopes, and a general teardown inspection of the system. But I was wrong. Which brings me to the main reason I’ve been somewhat evasive: the formula for amazing audio seems to be fairly simple--almost embarrassingly simple. Embarrassing to me, because of all the time, effort and money I’ve spent on my own audio projects, and still only a mediocre system to show for it. The formula isn’t really simple per se, it’s simple in concept, but difficult to get right: it’s “tuning”!
Performance minded car enthusiasts will know the importance of tuning: it’s what makes a good car better, a fast car faster, a nimble car nimbler. But, what am I talking about when I say “tuning”? Basically, making adjustments to variables to affect a better outcome. Performance “tuners” do it: compression, timing, spring rates, valving, etc. Musicians have always done it: adjusting pitch in instruments usually to match “natural” harmonic resonances. We “tune” almost everything--we even “tune” our food to match our tastes--but ironically, we’ve stepped away from tuning in the car audio industry. In the aftermarket realm, consumers are often wooed by the idea that bigger is better, so rather than making what they got sound better, they try to overcome obstacles by over powering them. It’s the mentality that makes someone put as many speakers and amps as possible into a vehicle even at the expense of utility. It may also be the same mentality that makes someone put LCD screens on every mountable surface of a car. I mean, come’n now, do I really need to be able to Karaoke from the trunk of my car? Or continue watching that DVD movie while refueling, on the screen mounted to the fuel filler door?
Not to say that car audio enthusiasts are not concerned at all with tuning; there are many that make attempts at it. But tuning is a skill that can be greatly enhanced by a professional--a professional, like Elliot Scheiner. The 2007 MDX is a good example of what can happen when a professional like Elliot Scheiner tunes a vehicle’s audio system. But Elliot Scheiner probably isn’t available to tune the aftermarket system on my vehicle, you say? Well, that is why a factory-equipped audio system is the best candidate for this type of tuning. Not that this idea hasn’t been tried before. Tuning of factory systems is what many companies, like Bose and Mark Levinson, claim to have done; even previous Acura models touted the benefits of Bose tuned systems. But compared to Elliot Scheiner’s ELS systems, these attempts appear to just be marketing ploys in retrospect. What makes the ELS systems so different? Theoretically, not much: what really sets the ELS systems apart from the rest is the skill, the experience, and, most importantly, the integrity of Elliot Scheiner.
Elliot Scheiner can be seen as the consummate “tuner”. The simplicity of the formula for spectacular audio in the 2007 MDX hinges on the abilities of the tuner. Who is Elliot Scheiner? During the ELS event we got a fairly thorough and intimate introduction; the press kit wording might serve me well here:
“Elliot Scheiner is widely considered to be the world’s leading authority in surround sound recording/mixing. A highly sought-after producer and engineer, his pioneering efforts in surround sound are credited with establishing the foundation for the genre. His career includes work with such music legends as The Eagles, Steely Dan, REM, Faith Hill, Queen, Sting, Van Morrison and Grover Washington Jr. In addition to working with Donald Fagen on his 2006 release of Morph The Cat, Scheiner’s recent work includes mixing for the Foo Fighters, a continuing relationship with The Eagles and Beck.
Earlier this year the legendary Berklee College of Music presented Scheiner with an Honorary Doctor of Music degree for his achievements in the world of music and his enduring contributions to American culture. It’s one of an extensive list of industry accolades that include 20 Grammy® Award nominations, five Grammy Awards -- his most recent for album of the year, Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature. Scheiner has also been awarded an Emmy® Award for his work with the Eagles on their farewell tour broadcast and holds four Emmy Award nominations. A TEC Hall of Fame inductee, Scheiner is the inaugural recipient of the Surround Pioneer Award, which was created to honor individuals who have made significant, groundbreaking contributions to the art of surround music production. He is also the only American to be honored by the Japanese Audio Society with its prestigious Master of Sound designation.”
To sum up, he’s got a heap load of credentials to back up his abilities.
How does the ELS system sound? In a word, “Superb”--and that’s not even my quote! That was Car and Driver’s assessment of an ELS equipped Acura, and I’d be inclined to agree with them.
And I’m not the only one: the previous ELS equipped Acuras have already garnered themselves a bunch of praise. And perhaps there is no greater praise than top musicians speaking their minds about the system with their pocket books. Joe Walsh (probably best known as the guitarist for the Eagles) was at the ELS listening event to sing the praises of Elliot Scheiner, with whom he has worked with on many numerous occasion. He was there for Elliot, but he unwittingly gave his stamp of approval for the ELS system by purchasing a 2007 MDX based solely on a short listening session in one. That’s some strong praise.
On a recent project with the Foo Fighters, due to a lack of surround sound equipment at the studio that the Foo Fighters were using, Elliot Scheiner sent a freshly mixed surround sound recording with an ELS equipped Acura TL to the site for the artists to review. Needless to say, they were blown away by both the versatility of surround sound recording and the quality of the ELS system, and soon the lead singer Dave Grohl was on the phone trying to order a similar ELS-equipped Acura; an Acura TL in black, in case you were wondering. Acura likes to tell this story as well:
“Alt. Rockers Foo Fighters Use Acura TL as Mobile Studio”
I had a chance to sit down to dinner with Elliot Scheiner, and he regaled me with countless stories of his many years in the music industry. What impressed me the most about the man is his aforementioned integrity, and his unwillingness to compromise on sound quality. And from our conversations, I suspect that, although he has made a career in the engineering side of the industry, there is a part of him that still wants to be a musician. This can be seen in his surround sound mixings as well. Many of the surround sound recordings that he has done places the listener in the midst of the music. Our demonstration in the recording studio was like that: for the Jazz trio that played, Elliot’s choice was to have piano at the rear and vocals and drums in front with vocals highlighted, and the immersion effect in the studio was mesmerizing. Now, how the 6 channels of a 5.1 surround recording should be mixed is debatable. Personally, having all the instruments in front would be fine for me. As I’ve always listen from the perspective of the audience, having instruments all around me can be a little disorienting.
But regardless of how it is mixed, a system, be it in a car or at home, should ideally reproduce that mix as close to the original studio recording as possible. Elliot has taken great pains to do just that in the MDX ELS system, and his hard work shows. We were given a surround sound recording of the set we heard in the recording studio and we played it in the MDX. I was pleasantly surprised at how similar the experience was to that of the studio. There were very clear separations of the channels in the MDX--same as in the studio. As I mentioned before, it was a little disorienting to hear clearly delineated instruments all around me, particularly while driving down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood; but, like in the studio setting, I was mesmerized.
From my own car audio experience, I have to tell you that getting the kind of channel separation and sound quality that the MDX has is no easy task. With all the reflective surfaces, varied material, and obstructions in a vehicle, it is nigh impossible to get even mediocre sound let alone an accurate reproduction of a studio environment. I wasn’t there, but Elliot must have spent a lot of time tuning the sound. I am told that Panasonic and Acura made that effort worthwhile by listening to Elliot’s suggestions. It is very unusual for a vehicle’s interior to be concurrently developed with the input of a talent like Elliot Scheiner, but Acura gave Elliot a lot of latitude in determining placement and specifications of the components of the audio system, and Panasonic did a great job in providing equipment to meet those specifications.
A quick obligatory overview of the ELS System in the MDX:
Six-disc in dash DVD-Audio Player, with MP3 and WMA playback, AM/FM and XM Satellite radio and auxiliary input. 410 Watts total amplification. Multi-channel DSP power amplifier with 96kHz, 24 bit performance (“96kHz, 24 bit performance” is highlighted because they are sampling rates and resolution that are higher than most other systems). Speed dependent volume control. PWM subwoofer amplifier. 10 optimally placed speakers.
Of course, Panasonic likes to highlight their work on the components. For example, they like to play up their efforts on making the speakers extremely light weight, and their ability to reproduce a wide frequency range with very low distortion. This is all well and good, but it really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work to make a great sound in a vehicle; but “work” it does, so you’ll get no complaints from me.
Ultimately, the “proof is in the pudding”--whatever that means. I take it to mean that you should go try it out yourself. For all my hand waving and running around, you can’t really experience the system by reading about it. Go to your nearest Acura dealer and check out the new 2007 MDX, and while you are there, don’t forget to give the audio system a fair sampling. I think you will be pleasantly amazed.
Want to learn more? visit the ELS surround site