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|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Thursday, 13 December 2007|
Mark Levinson Sound System for the Lexus SC430
Let’s face it, we spend far more of our lives in our cars than we do parked in front of our high-end music and theater systems. I commute from West Hollywood Hills to Century City. It’s a mere four miles from my home to my office, but it can take anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes, depending on traffic variables. I do not bitch about the time I spend driving to work, because I crank tunes at deafening volumes and rev my RPMs to the limit whenever logistically possible. The tactile and visual experience of driving a sports car creates an even more heightened emotional experienced when listening to music.
Enter the brand new Lexus SC 430. Lexus has teamed up with Mark Levinson, one of high-end audio’s most respected brand names, to develop a true high-end music playback system for Lexus’ new flagship $62,000 droptop. Mark Levinson may be a new name to Lexus owners, but Levinson’s parent company Harman International is an old pro when it comes to OEM car audio, having developed systems for BMW, Chrysler and many more.
Mark Levinson knew that the Lexus offered a phenomenal opportunity to demonstrate the emotional power of their music system to a gigantic new audience, so they pulled out all the stops in designing the system for the SC 430. First off, Levinson teamed up with Lexus designers in the early stages of building the car to get better speaker placements and favorable locations in the trunk for the sub.
Back in their studios, the Mark Levinson designers addressed many of the big issues of putting a high-end music system in a car. One problem is that you can’t fit a 350-watt Mark Levinson No. 336 power amp into a Lexus SC 430, even if you merely wanted to transport the amp from the store to your home. Levinson came up with a whole new approach to bringing high-quality sound to the car with a DSP-driven amp. Most car amps are integrated chip designs that pack a whopping 0.10 percent distortion. The amp designed for the Lexus SC 430 uses a discrete output technology to get a real 55 watts per channel times eight channels with a distortion level of only 0.01 percent – nearly 10 times better than the industry standard.
The nine speakers in the Lexus SC 430 are specifically designed and manufactured by Harman, who is also the parent company of JBL, Infinity and Revel, to bring the needed impact to autos in general and especially to the convertible car environment. The driver complement includes two 2.5-inch midrange speakers and tweeters in both doors plus six-inch by nine-inch Kevlar composite speakers, also in the door. Four-inch mid-drivers are located behind the rear seats, along with an eight-inch subwoofer placed in the trunk. Finally, the Levinson designers worked directly with Lexus to sculpt the seat cushions in the rear of the car to optimize the bass performance.
The last ingredient in the SC 430 system is equalization. Each speaker is designed to work in a number of different environments, including top up and top down conditions. The use of EQ is the best way to maximize the performance of each driver as part of a total music system in the car. Additionally, the EQ system of the SC 430 allows for a different-sounding system when the top is up, as opposed to when it is down. As the top goes up, it automatically changes the EQ setting to invoke ETC (energy time curve) to optimize the sound of the system in a controlled environment
The SC 430 head unit is not just a radio but also has a six CD changer built right into the dash. This is a very nice touch, because the process of loading discs into conventional changers can be a real drag. The Lexus system encourages you keep a few of your favorite CDs stored in the changer, even though dropping a new CD acquisition from Virgin is still a breeze. The head unit also has an additional three bands of EQ that I found very useful for impromptu re-mastering of my CDs for the Lexus environment.
The Sound and the Ride
I did most of my test drives accompanied by John Oates (of the legendary 1970’s pop-soul act Hall and Oates). John and I both grew up in Philadelphia and therefore had a blast listening to some of the great Philly soul artists while cruising around Coronado Island in San Diego.
The SC 430 is very much what you’d expect from a Lexus sports coupe. It is a car designed for both comfort and safety. While the SC 430 does have a powerful V8 engine, it seemed tuned down for city and highway driving, as opposed to a more aggressive race setup. The seats of the car are far more comfortable than my Porsche 911 C4s or even my listening room sofa. The controls are all at your fingertips, including the convertible control, which I quickly activated to lose the roof.
With the Four Tops belting out “Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got,” we blasted off down the coastal highway with waves crashing on both sides of us and the sun beating down on the supple interior of the SC 430. Musically, the first thing I noticed was how dynamic the Levinson system sounded even at high speeds with the top down. I have previously commented on how fast the Mark Levinson No. 336 amp sounds in my reference music system. The Lexus system has much of the same quality that my home system has, which is unprecedented in any car audio system I have ever heard. As you drive, you are tempted to believe that there are real musicians in the car with you. The voices leap up above the dash while the bass is solid in the trunk. On the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” John and I could clearly hear how Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff engineered the track to have first all kinds of reverb and then no reverb during different passages of the main rift on the bass. The bass presence was solid, a characteristic not normally found in a premium car audio system, which lured us even more into the tune.
Upon returning to the hotel, we put the top back up on the SC 430 and played some Underworld Live for an upbeat, modern sound. The Levinson system was up to the challenge, especially with the top up, as the signal to noise ratio from the radio noise was cut down dramatically. In a way, the audio was better, but in another sense, the music felt better at full clip with waves crashing around us while the top was down.
At full speed, the Lexus SC 430’s rear seatbelts flapped in the wind, which creates a loud and distracting sound. Nearly every review commented on this during the press event and I expect Lexus to fix this malady before the production models ship to U.S. dealers.
The EQ is a worthy tool in the SC 430. However, it can be overused, as proved by the guy who used my prototype car before I did. A little EQ goes a long way, especially when you have automatic EQ settings kicking in based on the status of the car.
The SC 430 is for a luxury car owner. It is not an exotic car from a performance standpoint. I love the sound of a great exhaust, but with the Lexus SC 430, you’ve got a car that is far too polite to show its mean side, even though it has a mighty power plant. Compared to a Mercedes, the Lexus has a soft and sometimes detached ride, which is an adjustment for me, yet the audio system is head and shoulders above even Mercedes’ best Bose system, which I auditioned in my friend’s new $100,000 CL 500.
The Lexus SC 430 is a great example of luxury. The ride is enjoyable, aided by everything from the cushy seats to the stunning sound system. I have no question that the Mark Levinson system in the Lexus SC 430 is the finest premium car audio system made worldwide. It is an innovative high-end design that cuts no corners and makes the high-end statement that you’d expect from both Mark Levinson and Lexus.
Moreover, Lexus has set a standard for customer service that has sent arrogant German, British and American auto manufactures back to the drawing board. Basically, Lexus will do anything it takes to make you love your car, including giving you a far superior car as a loaner while your car in for service. For the press event, the coordinators asked me if I had any special needs while staying in San Diego. Being the smartass that I am, I responded that, much like Van Halen during the Diamond Dave years, “I only eat green M&Ms. Not red ones or yellow ones – just green ones.” My loyal readers know that I was joking. Lexus took me far too seriously and arranged for easily 100 green M&Ms to be brought to my suite at the hotel while I was at their dinner reception. It is a rare company that will go that far. Lexus is the gold standard for customer service, thus adding to the buy rationale of a $62,000 luxury car.
If you are in the market for a new ride in the $60,000 price range with the benefit of having a high-end audio system at your fingertips and a super-smooth riding luxury convertible, I urge you to put your deposit down on an SC 430 with the Mark Levinson sound system. There are only 12,000 being built for the US market and, with no advertising and press to date, Lexus has already sold 7,000 units. Having such a great audio system in your car can bring more enjoyment to your dreaded commute, which could be worth the significant investment of $62,000 for an SC 430. At a minimum, drop by a Lexus dealer on a Saturday afternoon to play a few CDs in the system. It will reset your standards for a high-end audio system in a car.