A good audio system can be turn an automotive interior into a superb listening room. When engineers and designers collaborate on system design, amazing things can happen in a confined space. When you buy a home audio system, the designers and engineers have no control over what kind of environment you’ll be using it in, or where you’ll place the speakers. The size and shape of your room affects sound reproduction. The materials in the room – wood, metal, glass, fabric, carpet, plaster, etc. – absorb and reflect sound waves in different ways. Home sound systems need a ton of tweaking, adjustment, and expert help to deliver an audiophile-level experience. Even though there are still many variables, an automotive sound system can be designed with many fixed conditions. Engineers will know exactly where the speakers are placed, what kind of amplification will be used, where the listeners will be seated, and what kinds of materials will be in the cabin, and can calibrate performance accordingly. Some of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had listening to recorded music have taken place in cars. 

I recently got a chance to listen to the new ELS Studio 3D audio system debuting in the 2021 Acura TLX.

ELS is named for award-winning music producer Eliot Scheiner, who has worked with Panasonic to create this system. Along with Panasonic Principal Engineer of Audio and Acoustics Mark Ziemba, Scheiner has helped develop ELS Studio systems for Acura vehicles since 2003. 

The latest ELS Studio 3D system will be part of the Advance, A-Spec and Type S Packages on the new TLX. It features 710 watts of amplification through 16 channels feeding 17 speakers. The speakers are placed throughout the cabin, including Highline Ultra Slim overhead speakers and Twin Telford subwoofers. The overhead speakers help enhance the immersive surround sound effects, while taking up a tiny amount of space. The subwoofers are corner-mounted in the rear deck at opposing angles. They are firmly mounted to the vehicle’s structure, rather than simply wedged into the cargo space. As a result of this placement and opposing mounting, the subwoofers can reproduce deep bass without inducing rattles or buzzing.

The proof is in the pudding. While figures and statistics are fun to ponder in the audio world, just like the automotive world, what really matters is how things work. Is the system easy and intuitive to use? Does it produce clean, undistorted sound at a volume that can be heard in your car? Does it create a sense of a soundstage with clear imaging and placement? And, most of all, does it convey the emotion of the recorded music when you listen to it in your car?

As audio technology has advanced, ironically, many of us are listening to really terrible source material. Not that the music is bad – it’s the resolution of the sound files that’s bad. If you’re using standard iTunes or Spotify or Amazon Music on your smart phone, or listening to satellite radio, you’re hearing lossy compressed music files. Most of the time, for background music or casual listening, it sounds fine. But to get a richer, fuller listening experience, and to get closer to the source material, you need higher resolution sources – CD quality or above. You can get this by ripping your CDs at full resolution (AIFF or WAV files), or by subscribing to a high-resolution service, like Amazon Music HD or Tidal. Before listening to the new ELS Studio 3D system, I downloaded high-resolution tracks of some of my favorite test-tunes from Amazon Music HD to my iPhone 11 Pro. I hooked up my phone to the TLX with a quality USB cable to make sure that the connection was secure, not in lossy Bluetooth. Then, I sat in the car with the engine and HVAC system running, windows up, and began to listen.

Here’s the playlist I used:

1.     “Silly Putty” from “Journey to Love” by Stanley Clarke

2.     “Pepper” from “Electriclarryland” by Butthole Surfers

3.     “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” from “Ella and Louis” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

4.     “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from “90125” by Yes

5.     “Shipbuilding” from “Punch the Clock” by Elvis Costello

6.     “Rhapsody in Blue” from “Manhattan: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”

7.     “Nessun Dorma” from “Nessun Dorma – Puccini’s Greatest Arias” by Luciano Pavarotti

8.     “You’ve Got a Friend” from “The Essential Carole King

9.     “Blue Moon” from “The Very Best of Tommy Emmanuel”

10.  “4 A.M.” from “The Essential Jaco Pastorius” by Herbie Hancock

11.  “Breathe (In the Air)” from “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd

12.  “If I Had a Boat” from “Greatest Hits” by Lyle Lovett

13.  “Tanto Tempo” from “Tanto Tempo” by Bebel Gilberto

14.  “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” from “Glass Houses” by Billy Joel

My playlist included recordings I was very familiar with. I selected a variety of instruments, styles of music, male and female voices. I listened at a moderately loud volume, a little over 60{d93457022679712214ff8a8035fa266341f9634f2c93d5e609b1bbb089e8c446} of the system’s capability most of the time, though I did crank it louder for brief stretches to see if it induced distortion. The system was great at creating a realistic soundstage, with very precise imaging. I could close my eyes, listen, and visualize exactly where the singer was standing, where the guitar was playing, where the drums were pounding. It was like being in the room where it happened – and that’s a great, rare feeling when listening to a recording. 

The 2021 Acura TLX is scheduled to arrive at dealerships early this fall, with prices starting in the mid-$30,000 range. No word yet on pricing for the trim levels that include the ELS Studio 3D system (Advance, A-Spec and Type S). I was able to start the engine on the new model, and sit in the cabin and listen to the sound system, but not drive it. If the car wrapped around it is as good as the audio system, TLX will be one to watch out for. The ELS Studio 3D audio system is one of the best factory-installed car sound systems I’ve experienced to date.