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|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Thursday, 13 December 2007|
Lexus GX470 with Mark Levinson Sound System
When you think about it, where better to listen to music or even movies than in your car? Lexus has teamed up with Harman, the parent company of the Mark Levinson brand, to provide ultra-premium sound systems in many of their better cars and SUVs. Lexus’ goal is to bring the luxuries found in the most elegant living rooms directly to the driver’s seat. This includes a high-performance audio system, touch-screen system control, DVD-Video movies for front and/or rear viewing, wireless headphones, and much more. These features are optional in all models but the SC coup in which they are included.
The GX470 SUV features an eight-cylinder, 235-horsepower engine, carries a base price of $44,925 and can be had with a Mark Levinson sound system starting at $51,689. I had two review samples of the GX470 that were finished in some of the most striking paint colors I have ever seen, Sand Dollar Pearl and the suave Silver Pine Metallic. The interior of the car is equipped with the most supple leather seats I have had the pleasure to park my butt in. The sofa I ordered from Italy (and waited for 16 weeks while it was being made) pales in comparison to the driver’s seat in the Lexus GX470. While some driving enthusiasts demand a firmer seat, the Lexus GX470’s interior furniture was such that you could really unwind after a hard day at work while listening to the radio or a CD. On a long trip, the soft feel of the leather never got old or fatiguing.
The Mark Levinson system found in Lexus cars and SUVs is not exactly the same as what you might find at home with Mark Levinson electronics and Revel loudspeakers, but the amount of design that goes into the audio and video for these cars is astonishing. Speakers are fitted and voiced for optimum performance in each car as it is designed. The cabin of a Lexus, especially the GX470, is extremely quiet, creating an even better environment for listening to music critically. Living in Los Angeles, it is seemingly a daily occurrence to see people brandishing firearms in fits of road rage, but when sitting inside the Lexus, you feel quietly safe from the madness on the freeway (although, as I learned after my review session, my GX470 was not outfitted with bulletproof glass).
In terms of audio, the Mark Levinson sound system inside of this Lexus literally sets the standard in my experience for stock car audio. Linn’s system in the nearly $200,000 Aston Martin Vanquish would be the nearest comparison I could make. The sound of the Levinson is dominated by uncharacteristically controlled bass for a car audio system, featuring extraordinarily detailed midrange clarity. Together, these elements create a dynamic and sweet sound in a car audio system in ways you likely have never heard before.
Listening and Viewing Tests
The magazine for the CD-DVD transport is in the center console, which is where I loaded the CD version of Faith from George Michaels (Sony) for a spin of the classic “I Want Your Sex.” Since I literally drive past the infamous Will Rogers Park in Beverly Hills every day on the way to and from work, Mr. Michaels’ work seemed to be a perfect choice for a musical demo. The intensity of the bass was immediately striking, considering that there wasn’t a huge subwoofer taking up space in the trunk. Also of note was the fact that, even at very high levels, the bass never rattled anything inside the cabin of the GX470. The clarity in the midrange was most noticeable when listening to the backup singers on this hit single. Normally, they sound blurry in my 2002 Mercedes ML500 with the Bose Premium sound system. With the Lexus Mark Levinson System, the singers sound much more open, musical and detailed.
In the spirit of pushing the limits of technology, I loaded up the brand new Frank Zappa live disc Halloween (DTS Entertainment) DVD-Audio disc. The player read the disc’s two-channel DTS track without any massaging on the menu screens. In order to see the menu on the touch-screen video display in the front of the cabin, you need to engage the parking brake. You can set the playback modes before you start a trip, release the brake and then control the tracks and volume from the steering wheel.
Zappa is known for really working over versions of his more popular songs for live performances. On “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow,” the smoothness of the Lexus system was most notable. Part of this might be the DTS 24-96 stereo track and another part of this are the ultra-high quality drivers, especially the mids and tweeters paired up with quick amplifiers that create the smooth and accurate sound.
In auditioning the wireless headphones on the GX470, I heard a level of hiss that is pretty high compared to the actual content level of the music on “Dancing Fool” from the same Zappa DVD-Audio disc. It is hard to complain about the wireless headphones when you consider their convenience and the fact that they are included in the price of the premium sound system. There also is a provision that enables you to plug in traditional 1/8-inch jack headphones. It should be noted that the Lexus wireless headphones are powered by AA batteries and need to be switched on and off. Other goodies in the back seat include AV inputs for video games or camcorders, along with a remote that allows you to control the AV and volumes in the back seats independently of the front seats.
I did find the end of the bass performance while spinning a CD of one of the hippest new trance DJ tandems on the scene, Thievery Corporation. These masters of vinyl from Washington, D.C. are best known for their stylish remixes of reggae and pop tracks into more loungy, electronic trips. This comes, of course, with deep bass. One track, originally performed by David Byrne of Talking Heads fame, brought the Lexus Mark Levinson system to its performance limits in terms of bass. I am not sure if the problem was the amp or the woofers in the doors, but the low end sounded congested and muddy at high levels. If you want to really rock in the car with extremely low-frequency material, you will need to augment the stock system with a purpose-built subwoofer and amplifier system. The bass on all other cuts and radio was far above what I was used to from what I had previously considered to be the best in after-market and premium stock car audio.
Radio performance was better than average, with FM reception being specifically good on the GX470 system. On a road trip to Palm Springs, I was able to pull in the Santa Monica-based public radio station, KCRW, as far as 85 miles from the city limits of Los Angeles. Terrestrial analog radio has its unique sonic limitations, mainly in terms of compression and noise. The Lexus system can’t really fix those issues, but its advantages of strong bass, open mids and not-too-harsh tweeters makes for more enjoyable radio. Howard Stern’s voice in the morning during interviews has impact thanks to the bass performance in the Lexus Mark Levinson system.
For DVD–Video testing, I spun up a pre-release version of the Reese Witherspoon chick flick “Sweet Home Alabama” (Touchstone). The Lexus folds down the surround sound neatly, resulting in some odd moments for the soundtrack critic in me, since some of the surround effects aren’t quite located in the same places I remember from the painful process of watching this guy-does-everything-wrong movie with my girlfriend a few nights ago on my Mark Levinson system at home.
I stopped to watch part of the movie on the main touch-screen in the center console on the dashboard, which required me to pull the parking break for obvious safety reasons. The screen reminds me of what you might find on a first class seat on a jumbo jet. It isn’t large by living room standards, but it is fine given its proximity to the driver’s seat. The rear screen has a similar resolution, which yields some visible pixilation, but that is nitpicking a little, considering this is DVD playback inside a car. I did find that the daytime video performance on the backseat screen is helped greatly by closing the shade over the driver and passenger seat. Obviously, nighttime viewing is best.
In reaction to the pain caused to my male ego from watching “Sweet Home Alabama,” I fired up the DTS 5.1 mix of Iron Maiden Rock in Rio on DVD-Video (Columbia Home Video). The DTS mix once again was neatly and automatically mixed down to a stereo mix for use in the GX470. The crowd is mixed very loudly on the DVD, which made for one raucous performance in the car. For this one, I felt the need to roll the windows down and blast some time-tested heavy metal. Details on the video were remarkably good. You could literally see the zits on the pimply-faced Brazilian kids that were surfing the crowd during “2 Minutes To Midnight.”
My personal taste in cars leans more towards a firmer and more responsive ride than I got from the Lexus GX470. It is amazingly comfortable, but it is big and feels heavy when compared to my similarly-priced Mercedes. There is no comparison between the collection of AV and other goodies, though - the Lexus is the clear winner.
When you first start the engine of the car, the GPS Navigation system prompts you to “agree” to use the system. The problem is that it isn’t always clear how to change the channel or lower the volume from past listening sessions without hammering some of the hard buttons below the touch-screen. Overall, the use of the AV system is not very intuitive. Switching inputs is done on the steering wheel by a button called “mode.” I was never able to find that functionality onscreen.
The navigation system overrides the AV control when driving, which makes surfing radio stations much more of pain that it should be. The arrow keys on the steering wheel work nicely to toggle through preset stations, but if you want to use the onscreen controls, you have to keep pushing the “audio” hard button near the touch-screen. I stopped by a dealer in Beverly Hills and they couldn’t find a way around it. I also had to work with the dealer to figure out how to actually program stations on the FM and AM presets. Being a Hertz Gold club member, I get a chance to program radio stations in all sorts of cars all the time. The GX470 threw me for a loop and I had to get help from the dealer who took a while to figure it out himself. The trick turns out to be that you have to select the channel you want to program, scroll to it and then press the actual button for that station. That is too confusing for the average user in my opinion and could be improved upon.
The Lexus GX470 turns heads. I literally got a dozen comments from people at my condo building’s valet parking area, as well as at my office building’s lot. People love the GX470 and are excited to actually see one up close in the way that they respond to more exotic vehicles, like the Hummer H2 or the Ferrari 360 Modena. Elegantly appointed inside and out, the Lexus GX470 has many tricks up its sleeve, including an adjustable suspension that sounds kind of like Dr. Dre’s 1964 Impala with hydraulics (known in the ghetto as “juice”) when you park and the air releases. The SUV is amazingly comfortable and wonderfully suited for your daily commute or a long haul. My trip to Palm Springs was as smooth as could be, despite incredible traffic on the 10 freeway on the way back. The GX470 has the power and comfort to make a road trip into a first class adventure for both the driver and the passengers.
The audio/video system is far more sophisticated than that of the first Mark Levinson system in the Lexus SC430 coupe. The cabin is a better environment for audio and the addition of video and/or video games is enough to keep the kids (and adults who act like kids) happy for hours. If you are considering buying a mid-to-large SUV, you must consider the Lexus GX470 for its amazing collection of luxury and toys. If you end up loving the GX470 like most people do, there is no way you will opt out of getting the Mark Levinson system. It is worth every penny Lexus charges for it.