Hearing is believing: the mission to achieve audio perfection

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Car interiors present significant challenges for audio engineers because the environment is not normally conducive to sound quality. The confined space of a vehicle, ambient noise, varying acoustic properties and limited speaker placement options all contribute to the issue.

However, the persistent efforts of Lexus engineers to create exceptionally quiet vehicles produce the sort of conditions that do indeed make it possible to enjoy optimum sound quality.

This fact was supported 15 years ago by Mark Levinson, one of the world’s most exclusive makers of home and concert audio systems. After extensive testing of pre-production models as far back as 1998, the company was able to judge the cabin ambience of the forthcoming Lexus LS 430 flagship. It was deemed as the first car that allowed occupants to experience and appreciate the subtle detail and nuance that separate the best systems from those that are merely good.

That understood, Lexus commissioned acoustic engineers from Mark Levinson to design and ‘voice’ an optional high-end audio system that best complimented the acoustic characteristics of the LS 430 and was good enough to bear the company’s signature. This collaboration was unique in the marketplace at the time of the launch in 2000, though it has been copied on numerous occasions since.

What does it take to make a concert-quality sound system inside a car? Mark Levinson tells us: “The soundstage must be three-dimensional and elevated so the music doesn’t seem to be coming from the footwells. The tonal balance of the bass, midrange and treble is also critical. Can the driver hear the violins at the front of the orchestra and the bass players on the far right? Does the sound envelop each passenger as if at a concert? Every seat in the vehicle must be the best seat in the house.”

You get the feeling that for Mark Levinson, it wasn’t just the sound but the soul of the music that its acoustic engineers were attempting to capture – each breath of the flautist and each bowing of the string.

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Fronted by a very understated head unit (see above), the architecture of that first premium system featured a custom-designed amplifier and 11 specially developed Mark Levinson speakers (the standard sound system comprised seven speakers) spread over seven locations throughout the cabin. Each location was independently amplified, while the purity of signal reaching both the amplifier and speakers was assured through innovations that replaced the ubiquitous ‘amp-on-a-chip’ components used on traditional audio systems.

As audio technology has improved over a decade-and-a-half, so the collaborative efforts of Lexus and Mark Levinson have intensified in order to continue producing the finest possible cars equipped with the finest possible audio equipment producing the finest possible sound quality.

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The amplifier fitted to the current LS flagship, for example, now features 15 channels and delivers up to 450 watts of music power through 19 speakers arrayed in all-encompassing 7.1-channel architecture (see illustration below). The clarity of sound produced through this Mark Levinson Reference system is truly astonishing, the ‘Reference’ name referring to the fact that its sound reproduction matches that of a professional music studio monitoring desk.

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In recent years, the focus of new audio technology within Lexus has not only been to improve sound quality but also to reduce the power consumption, heat and weight of audio components. An excellent way this can be illustrated is in the construction of the speakers fitted to the CT 200h, which use bamboo as a primary material.

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But in the very latest round of new models — GS and more recently, IS — we find the next generation of realism and audio clarity in the  audio systems Mark Levinson has designed for Lexus vehicles. GreenEdge technology is explained in more detail in this post, but essentially it delivers twice the volume for the same power consumption, while simultaneously making a significant reduction to the weight of components such as the speakers (see image below). In addition, the technology covers a wider frequency than conventional systems, providing an increased dynamic range.

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Hearing is believing, so the only way to truly experience the concert quality sound system in any Lexus vehicle is to experience it for yourself. Why not visit your local Lexus Centre and ask them to turn up the volume?

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