Mark Levinson has for so long been a manufacturer of super high-end audio gear that when it first appeared in Lexus vehicles many years ago, many potential customers weren’t sure whether it could recreate their famously high level of audio reproduction in a passenger car cabin.
No matter what the answer was at the time, it sure started a trend in the luxury car segment. Most high-end auto manufacturers now team up with high-end audio companies to develop and equip their vehicles with high-quality audio and infotainment systems. The new Lexus ES is available with the latest Mark Levinson infotainment system featuring the PurePlay decompressing and enhancing function. So apart from driving the ES, I also sat down in the car and talked to Kyle Roche, Mark Levinson’s product planning sales manager for Toyota/Lexus (check out the video).
In the ES, a total of 17 speakers are powered by a multi-channel 1,800-watt (peak) power amplifier. They consist of two front-mounted 8x9-in elliptical woofers, a rear 265mm subwoofer, and seven 90mm proprietary speakers (each comprising a tweeter and a midrange speaker).
There’s a new grille design that’s unique, and for the first time in a Lexus the speakers are placed at shoulder-height all around the cabin. They are now closer to ear level, resulting in less reflection points before sound reaches the ears. Mark Levinson claims that this helps reproduce nuances and details other systems can’t.
Connecting my Samsung A5 smartphone via Bluetooth to the infotainment system took several easy steps, then I played familiar MP3 tunes and listened hard.
Unlike other high-end car systems I’ve listened to (such as the colourful Burmester, B&W, Dynaudio and Meridien), from the moment the music started playing my attention was not distracted by powdery highs or rich, deep bass. Instead, the music was reproduced with a good tonal balance, strong presence and a very wide soundstage.
Even with MP3 files I could easily spot the improvement over standard systems offered in other cars. Vocals sounded “alive” and incorporated a lot of musical detail (the quiet interior to start off is a good help here) and there were layers and layers of soundstage, each featuring the exact locations of instruments being played.
When Roche switched on the PurePlay function (that is programmed to enhance the sound quality), the soundstage widened to such a level that I had to say, “Wow!”. What Mark Levinson engineers tried to do was to “envelop” listeners with the sound and that’s pretty much what you can expect to experience when listening to this system.
But for audiophiles, the processed sound, despite its fun factor, would appear thin and leaving it off would deliver a more natural performance. In fact, the normal soundstage is already sufficiently wide, while high, mid and low frequencies are given equal opportunity to present themselves. The result is a highly-engaging musical experience.
Roche said that the Mark Levinson option costs around $1,500 (Bt48,000) in the US market, which is super cheap compared to rivals. But the bad news is that the ES 300h model destined for Thailand will come with only a standard Pioneer system due to cost issues. And that is a shame, because the Lexus and Mark Levinson names have now established a synergistic relationship and having one without the other just makes you feel deprived.