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Audio quality takes a leap in luxury cars

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

Music reproduced by audio systems in cars today has room for improvement. A lot of room, says eight-time Grammy Award-winning music producer and engineer Elliot Scheiner, a Nashville legend who works with top musicians, studios — and for the past 15 years, Honda's Acura division.

Luxury car customers, too, have been wishing for better music playback quality in cars, which, for some drivers, is their only daily sanctuary.

“I bought a Lexus just because it had a Mark Levinson system,” a Plymouth, Michigan artist told me last week. Mark Levinson is a high-end audio system maker that began supplying its expertise to Lexus in 2001.

The third generation RDX is the quickest, best-handling RDX ever, with top- class cabin and cargo space, and a host of groundbreaking new Acura technologies.

Acura followed in 2003 with an audio system in its TL sedan tuned by Scheiner. It's called the ELS system, based on Elliot Scheiner's nickname, Els.

Scheiner recalls the music reproduction in the early 2000s in many cars was not good. "I was very, very frustrated with cars. You had a perfect mix of what you thought and what the band thought, and you take to it out to a car to play the music and you say, 'This is the worst.'”

Scheiner went looking for electronics firms making car audio to see why. He met Tom Dunn, director of audio for Acura supplier Panasonic in the early 2000s, and has since tuned every model of Acura that has the ELS system.

In his 51-year career as an audio engineer and producer, Scheiner has worked with B.B. King, Paul Simon, Queen, Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne and the Eagles.

“What artists intend for you to hear is lost,” he says about the process of recording and reproducing music. The two biggest issues, he says, are when the recording industry relies too heavily on computer software to mix music, and the complexity of playing that back inside a car. 

At this year's Detroit auto show in January, Acura announced a new RDX luxury crossover that featured an all-new platform removed from the one it previously used, shared with the popular and less-expensive Honda CR-V. Among the upgrades to the RDX is a new ELS system. It features a 16-speaker, 710-watt Panasonic surround-sound audio system tuned by Scheiner. It is labeled “3-D," meaning not only is the audio balanced from front to rear, but also from roof to floor. It's a technical challenge because the RDX has a “humongous sunroof," as Acura general manager Jon Ikeda describes it, making roof speakers difficult to fit.

The ELS system gives the new SUV a third dimension of sound, says Scheiner, who tunes the cars in Acura's facilities in Japan and at the vehicle's assembly plant in East Liberty, Ohio. 

Scheiner's tuning worked so well in an early Acura TL sedan, it was used as a mobile “studio” to demonstrate new surround-sound mixes of the band Foo Fighters to founding musician Dave Grohl in 2005.

A car was delivered to the platinum-selling band's studio (which would not reproduce the sound as accurately), and "the TL provided the band with the perfect environment to listen to their new album in complete surround sound," according to Scheiner. "They literally sat in the car for hours listening to 'In Your Honor' right outside their recording studio.”

Grohl later purchased a TL.