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Like its upmarket linemate the TL, the Acura TSX went through a fairly radical redesign for its second generation. The angles and obliques, cuts and creases, and the faux aluminum grille that looked like it fell off a piece of Voltron marked a sharp shift in Acura’s design language. But time might validate Acura’s designs, and the bosses who signed off on them. I have to admit that after spending a week with the 2010 TSX V6, after walking up to it in various parking lots, driveways and curbsides, I warmed to its shape.

For all of its liberties in exterior design, Acura brought the same philosophy into the cabin, which is rich in pleasing surfaces, modern tech tones, plenty of storage nooks and all interfaces within arm’s reach. The 3D instrument cluster effect is a notable highlight, particular at night.

Like several other Acura models, the TSX V6 features the ELS Surround audio system, named after its sonic designer Elliot Scheiner, the producer who has remixed 5.1 projects for classic Steely Dan, Eagles and Beach Boys records, among others.

The TSX package includes 10 speakers, including an 8-inch rear deck mounted sub, six-disc dash multi-format changer, as well as XM Radio compatibility, navigation, rear-view cam, Bluetooth hands-free, and a host of traffic, weather and satellite link services.

The ELS system needs no further praise here; it’s been rightfully lauded many times over before this. But when in Rome…

I’d like to say I put the system through its paces with multiple reference discs, analyzing pristine recordings of brass bands, orchestras and acoustic jazz. But actually, my listening tests were no more intensive than XM’s Grateful Dead channel and the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” in 5.1 DVD-Audio. (The former never get enough credit for the prowess of their live engineers -- hey, you try mixing two drummers, a wandering bass player and a crystalline guitar tone into one organic rootsy stew.)

And the latter? Good mercy, this was a revelation. Bells to the right, percussion to the left, the family harmonies swirling around, it felt like standing next to Brian Wilson at the mic in the center of Capitol Studios. The spatial depth was unreal.

Had this car been around in my younger days, I might’ve put down a tab of California Sunshine and melted into the seats, listening to “God Only Knows” on repeat for six hours. Where was this car then?

Still, I’ve yet to hear a premium factory system that can compete with well-chosen aftermarket components. Factory systems tend to rely on full-range drivers and are generally underpowered. The 415 watts in the TSX Tech package does a fine job reproducing accurate frequencies, even at respectable volume. But to my ears, it still can't deliver, especially around 40Hz, at volume, the power I want to hear.

No fault of the system, and I realize that I’m in a slim minority of the unsatisfied. Nothing a trip to the local shop for a 10” or 12” and a 200-watt monoblock couldn’t cure.

The Bluetooth Hands-Free Link, meanwhile, operated flawlessly. This I did put through its proper paces, including a one-hour call to a friend in Houston, also on his cell phone, while driving to Hollywood through rush hour traffic. No dropouts, no awkward delays, and good volume and clarity coming through the audio system.

I even appreciated the ability to stream songs on my iPhone through the Bluetooth link, which makes for a nice cable-free connection, but does come at the cost of control and the inability to select tracks via the steering wheel controls.

Active Sound Control

Most interesting in the TSX V6, however, is what Acura calls its ASC system–Active Sound Control. ASC uses two microphones (one in the front overhead console, one in the rear headliner) to constantly monitor cabin noise.

The mics are always on when the engine's running, even when the audio system is turned off. They’re listening for combinations of specific noise contributors, including ignition state, engine rotation speed, wheel rotation speed, and the open/close status of each door, among other things, according to one of Acura’s Electrical Research-Information Systems engineers.

To counteract these noise aggressors, the ASC system sends a signal to the audio system's amp. An internal mixing circuit in the amp then generates a reverse phase signal matching the offending frequencies and sends it to the door speakers. If the audio system in playing, the amp blends the two signals—audio and reverse phase—and outputs it as one.

Not only does ASC work to quiet the cabin, it also works to allow specific noise in, name the exhaust. Sounds counterintuitive, right? But Acura says that as ASC monitors engine speed and RPMs, it also works to clear frequency spectrum to allow the exhaust note to pleasantly ring throughout the cabin. And when you have a burly 3.5-liter, why not?

Heady stuff. Does it work? It must. While I didn’t place any tools, mics or spectrum analyzers on the passenger seat while driving, I can say with certainty that the road is just a distant hum in this car, a negligible noise factor. You hear more wind noise rushing over the A-pillars (and even those have been sealed and reinforced in the TSX) than road coming up through the tires.

This car is dead quiet at 85 MPH. Bullet train quiet. You could quite easily end up in triple digits if not paying attention to the speedometer. Certainly it's a combination of the ASC system and the healthy sandwiching of sound deadening material on the floor, doors and pillars that make the car so quiet. Ultimately, this is a hermetic sound environment that you might expect in a luxury tourer at three times the price.

And herein lies the rub. As refined and civilized as the TSX V6 is, I can’t help but feel we’re losing our footing on a slippery slope between driving comfortably and driving comfortably numb.

There is a notable disconnect from the road. In many cases, such as a daily commute on Orange County and San Gabriel Valley freeways, this is a welcome condition. But it also puts the TSX V6 in a different class, one I’m not sure Acura intended. This is borderline grand touring material. This is a three-hour MAG-LEV flight to Vegas.

But it’s not necessarily a backroads twist machine, not quite the tactile slip-and-grip you might expect from a 335. This is no slight on the suspension, which is plenty taut for those erratic, inspired moments behind the wheel. There’s even Vehicle Stability Assist (traction control) that is easily defeated with a push button for those with a surfeit of adrenaline.

But the cocoon effect is slightly unshakeable, a filtering of feedback from the tarmac that dulls the consequences of inattention and inability. It’s a minor gripe. The TSX is still a world-class blend of driving sensation and aural pleasure. It doesn’t come cheap; our review car fully appointed with the Tech Package rang in at $38,760 MSRP, a long leap from its predecessor.

But for those Vegas poker runs and hostile daily commutes, give me a 280-horsepower cocoon accompanied by the singing strings of Jerry Garcia any day.
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