Wagons are not the kind of vehicles that come to mind when I think of high-performance OEM car audio systems. Wagons conjure up images of parents hauling kids around, not solo cruising on curvy back roads with the tunes cranked. But that's exactly what I wanted to do after sound-checking the ELS Surround system in our 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon.
I knew that music producer Elliot Scheiner (known to music biz big wigs simply as "Els") personally tunes his namesake systems for Acura, and the version in the 2009 TL won our high-end audio system shoot-out two years ago. But could he and his partners at Panasonic, the supplier of the gear behind the marquee name, pull off a similar feat in the TSX Sport Wagon?
The ELS Surround system that's part of the Tech Package in the 2011 Acura Sport Wagon consists of 10 speakers powered by 460 watts. The speakers include a 3-inch center-channel in the dash, a 1.5-inch tweeter in the "sail panel" in each front door, a 6.5-inch midrange at the bottom of each of the four doors, another 6.5-inch mid in each D pillar at the back of the vehicle and a 7.5-inch subwoofer in the passenger-side wall of the cargo area.
As with every system I evaluate, I listened to 10 musical tracks that I've heard in literally hundreds of vehicles to gauge clarity/lack of distortion, tonal balance, timbre, tonal accuracy, soundstaging, imaging and dynamics. The music ranges from jazz jams of Bluesiana Triangle and sparse folk of Luka Bloom to the full-on rock of Red House Painters and bass-heavy rap of Outkast. I also use several non-musical tracks to further test soundstaging, imaging, linearity and absence of noise. For more details on this testing process and the tracks used, check out the Edmunds.com article Sound Advice. And since the ELS system can play high-resolution, multichannel DVD-Audio disc, I listened to a few of those too.
The ELS system in the TSX wagon had the slight midbass thickness that's common in many car audio systems, although it's usually not so slight. But that's the system's only serious drawback sound-wise and it likely could be tweaked out with the tone controls (including ones for the level of the subwoofer and center channel). Otherwise, the system is top-notched and a sheer pleasure to listen to. It reproduced my test tunes with tangible, lifelike quality. Instruments and vocals not only sounded authentic, but the system gave the recordings a sense of space that so many others lack.
It also brought out subtle nuances most systems mask, and the level of detail on background instruments and vocals was remarkable. For example, the strings that swirl into the mix at 1:37 and then slowly build in the Joan Armatrading track "Everyday Boy" had a 3D-like quality. And the vigorously strummed acoustic guitar in the track not only sounded pristine (instead of with the typical high-end sheen), but was also perfectly placed in the soundstage. And I rarely get through even the brief 2:25 minutes of the instrumental "Blues Walk" from Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, since I can tell right off how well -- or how poorly -- a system can handle it. But in the TSX I was so impressed with the accurate dynamics of the drums, the width and depth of the soundstage and the pinpoint imaging that I let the track play all the way through.
And this was just with CD WAV files. The ELS system really shines with hi-res DVD-Audio discs. I cued up John Hiatt's Bring the Family and became completely immersed in the vivid, enveloping sound of the surround mix. Ry Cooder's sly guitar riffs were reproduced with an ideal balance of smoothness and bite, while Jim Keltner's drums had a palpable impact and precise attack and decay. And the rear surround information perfectly complimented the front stage rather than acting as a gimmicky distraction.
Our Acura TSX has a single CD/DVD player in the dash with AM, FM and XM radio. It also has an aux-in jack and USB port in the center console. The latter has a wire that extends off of it and is used for plugging in an iPod or any other USB-based player or a thumb drive.
The iPod interface is somewhat convoluted thanks to the clunky controller in the center of the dash, but the car also has a voice-activated "iPod search mode" that worked well with easy to comprehend commands like "Play artist Bob Marley." But it was tripped up by commands like "Play song Icky Thump." The iPod menu also lacks extra items like audiobook and podcasts. Plugging in a USB drive offers a similar menu structure.
The system also includes a 15GB hard-drive music server that records music from CDs (but not from a USB drive). The default setting is set for the system to record a new CD each time one is inserted, which explains how Pearl Jam ended up being burned to the hard drive in our TSX. Bluetooth audio is also onboard, and it didn't require having to pair it separately via my iPhone, as with some vehicles. In Bluetooth audio mode, track-skip forward and back work from the dashboard controls (along with play/pause) as well as with those on the steering wheel.
What We Say
I found very few sonic faults with the ELS system in the 2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon. Besides a couple of minor quibbles with iPod integration, my only real complaint is that it should be available as a separate option instead of as part of the $3,500-plus Tech Package trim option.
The system exceeded my expectations -- and not just for a wagon. but judged against OEM audio in any type of vehicle. And it accomplished what few systems can: It made me want to just hit the road and crank my music.
iPod Integration: B-