High-End Tunes to Go

Photo Credit: Tim Austin Photography

A true story: I got tagged for doing a howling 90mph on the way back to New York on the Jersey Turnpike late one night and got off with a warning.

I was pulled over by a beefy young Trooper, lights blinking furiously. Oops. [heh heh]. He saw Kathleen and I weren't nuts, checked the papers and my license, then checked out the Lexus very carefully with his flashlight. There was much oohing and ahhing.

"Got a GPS (Global Positioning System) I see," he said.

"Yeah, officer, the SC 430 is only one of two in the New York area, the other's at the Javits for the car show! Hard top goes down into the trunk, and it's got an amazing Mark Levinson audio system in it! Hey, I don't own it, I'm a journalist, I just play a rich man on TV! I get to play with it for a couple of weeks, then bye-bye."

He was smiling. "How's your license, Jonathan?" he asked. We were on a first-name basis by then. (K-10 had the good sense not to blow cigarette smoke in his face.)

"Clean as a whistle!" I chirped. "Okay, lemme see what I can do for you," he said as he headed back to his cruiser.

At the Consumer Electronics Show last January, John Atkinson and I were asked by Madrigal Audio Laboratories if Stereophile would like the use of Lexus' hot new SC 430 coupe for a month or so. We could then write up the Mark Levinson Premium Sound System contained within, of course.

We looked at each other. Nah...

[in best Chris Rock voice] JUST KIDDING!

It all seemed like a dream. But in early April, there it was—a gleaming SC 430 with pearlescent white-over-tan interior, being off-loaded in front of emapUSA's offices on Fifth Avenue. Such a spectacle.

It attracted attention like...well, like Marilyn Monroe the night she sang "Happy Birthday" to JFK? Like Julia Roberts on the phone begging you for a date? Hot, hot, HOT! (Where's Buster Poindexter when you need him?) A guy in Range Rover told me Toyota makes the best cars, bar none...and would I mind if he gave the Lexus the 20/20? I got innumerable thumbs-ups from strangers, and huge, approving grins met K-10 and me no matter where we drove.

The question thrown at me all too often by less couth Noo Yawkahs was: "Hey! How much you pay?" Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. Slowed down in traffic and trying to vary what had become an almost inevitable dialogue, I told one guy, "Too much!" Which elicited the following outraged response in prototypical Noo Yawkese: "Hey! You tellin' me I can't afford that thing?"

Thankfully, the traffic opened in front of us and the SC 430's quad-cam V8 whooshed us into the sunset before further mayhem ensued. Even the toll-taker on the Jersey Turnpike, stirred from her stupor, chirped, "That the new Lexus? Cuuuuute!"

The SC 430 lists for around $60,000, if you want to know. Its top-up profile is reminiscent of the Audi TT's, but more sculpted and less the bathtub shape of an upside-down jelly-mold Porsche 356. The front is blunt but scythes its way quite cleanly through the air—modern computer-aided design, no doubt—so little noise or wind buffeting disturbs top-down motoring, even at high speeds. And I'm a high-speed kinda guy.

Riding with the hard top up gives you an unbelievably quiet interior space in which to lollygag and enjoy the car's rich fitments. Speeding along effortlessly at high zip is a doddle, thanks to a huge-hearted, big-torqued engine with tons of grunt on demand. The SC 430 is a hero—it was a gas, as it were, to press its pedal to da metal.

The Lexus's closing speeds were so much higher, with so much more mass involved than our little low-mileage 1984 BMW 318i, that it occasionally made even the ever-fearless Kathleen jump. And let's just say that the sophisticated traction control, which allows smooth, feather-touch braking, takes a bit of getting used to when changing direction suddenly. Ahem.

The steering wheel, on its motorized adjustment shaft, is a pleasure of ergonomic style and function. The seats can be set to two memory positions. The whole thing simply reeks of luxury. Outside, the SC 430 strikes a nice, contemporary stance with big wheel rims and slim-sidewall tires, which is very popular these days.

The Levinson component
When I tried to get the lowdown on the SC 430's sound from Madrigal CEO Phil Muzio—see David Lander's interview elsewhere in this issue—I collided with someone who is very passionate about the Lexus/Mark Levinson project. I'm not being fatuous (for a change)—Muzio's got religion, and its name is Mark Levinson; everyone at the ML division of Madrigal has done his or her job so well that Lexus came to them: "Do you think Mark Levinson would consider doing an audio system for us?" Well, duh, as it were. According to Muzio, ML had only been considering it for...the last nine years!

"We did it because we always had an appetite to bring what we consider the ML signature sound and refinement to automobiles. But you need a low enough ambient noise level to allow it." Turns out their earlier LS 400 had a noise factor 3dB better than those of several other luxury brands, and Lexus was looking for a replacement for Nakamichi.

The pieces fell into place. As Muzio explained, Harman owns Madrigal, JBL works with Toyota, JBL is another Harman company, and Harman has a "terrific" OEM car stereo division, And in Japan, Lexus employs a lot of audiophiles! So when Lexus' engineering department did the market research, Mark Levinson came out in the top three. "So they came to us..." mused Muzio, amazement still in his voice.

Queried closely about skeptical audiophiles who will no doubt accuse Lexus and ML of badge engineering, Muzio said, "The motivating factor for the mission was to replicate in their car, as closely as possible, that emotional experience people who love music get in their home. People spend a lot of time in their cars—for some, even more listening time than at home. To that end..."

Photo Credit: Tim Austin Photography

The Mark Levinson Premium Sound System comes standard in the Lexus SC 430 and is an option for the LS 430, GS 430, GS 300, and LX 470. Each Lexus vehicle installed with a PSS is voiced with separate digital EQs, and the SC 430's fairly small cabin mandates a very nearfield experience, as Muzio described it. "Almost like the sound at your computer," he rued. But Mark Levinson uses a proprietary digital signal processing algorithm on the PSS CD player, and with the car's top up, "spatialization" is added by two rear side channels. All of the system's discrete EQ is automatic and separate for CD and FM, top up or top down. There's also Automatic Sound Leveling, which compensates for volume changes depending on ambient noise thresholds. The DSP is realized using Analog Devices SHARC (Super HARvard Computer architecture) chips.

The system is powered by eight discrete amplifier channels based on Mark Levinson amp topology. "Not just an LSI (Large Scale Integrated circuit) like you find on amp chips in other OEM car systems," Muzio enthused. All channels driven, the Mark Levinson Premium Sound System cranks out 240W, 20Hz–20kHz, with 0.01% distortion, according to Muzio. He points out that those "amps on a chip" from other OEM companies never get below 0.1% distortion—a full order of magnitude higher.

Muzio spoke on the phone with me of the literally hundreds of hours he spent in each Lexus model doing their setups. I asked him how he knew he'd hit the mark in each Lexus the ML system went in.

"I used to be a musician. I know when I know. It's a purely emotional thing. After we've got the right electrical parameters and gone all through the double-blind testing, picked which caps go where...It was like that with the No.32 Reference. We knew it was done when we forgot what we were doing and just played music."

We are driven!
There are nine custom-engineered speakers in each SC 430. When I settled my bustle into the luxurious seats and took it all in, I spotted a pair of circular tweeters mounted close in on the "sail" (where the air vent window used to be on older cars) next to the A pillar. These turned out to be ¾" titanium-dome numbers with ferrofluid cooling and neodymium magnets to give very low distortion, about which Muzio is pretty adamant. "In a car, in the nearfield, you sense distortion as harshness and brightness." Below each tweeter, just under each door's upper sill sits a 2½" midrange driver, placed there because it has the same directivity characteristics as the tweeter—important, as there's no center speaker. (A center-channel front driver is used in the GS 430 and GS 300 to create a better image across the dash, while the LS 430 and SC 430 use horn-loaded compression drivers to achieve a high level of directivity in the audible frequency range to aid imaging.) Each door bottom carries a rigid 6" by 9" neodymium-magnet/Kevlar-composite cone midrange driver.

Moving to the back seat...uh, forget it. It's not much more than a nicely upholstered package shelf, or a space for your Louis Vuitton duffel—wow, it's cramped. The rear double-bucket seat might be okay for midgets with no legs, but no way, man. If you managed to wedge yourself in back there, as did our long-suffering photographer, you'd notice the rear side-panel grilles, behind which are 4" mid-high ceramic-magnet (not neodymium) drivers, and feel the 8" subwoofer behind the back seat cushion. The sub's driver once again uses a neodymium magnet, with a copper-clad aluminum voice-coil and a special surround for long excursions.

And can that baby woof! The bass gets way down there, especially with the top up because of the improved acoustic environment mostly due to space being properly pressurized, as well as the trunk not having the hard top sitting in it. The sub driver even sports a patented spider of aramid fiber—a very strong, lightweight, and heat-resistant polyamide.

Muzio recounted how he worked with the vehicle designers to redo the rear "seat" profile and sculpt its (very upright) back for optimal acoustical output from the sub. They even named the system: IVE, for Integrated Vehicle Enclosure.

The trunk can be viewed as a custom enclosure with baffles molded in as part of the trunk to best tune the chamber. Of course, there are two conditions of operation, as they ML characterize it: Top up "and a-way we go!," as Jackie Gleason would say; or top down, more "Step thees way, chérie."

"The internal volume of the chamber changes when the top's down, and the compensation we designed for that is a big part of the story," Muzio explained. "Getting a good tonal balance both ways was one of the real obstacles to overcome in such a relatively small cabin." In short, it's a sophisticated systems approach, like everything Madrigal does, and Muzio feels he's succeeded with his baby.

"Sitting on top of the drivers as you do in the SC 430, you've got to start out with much less distortion. So all EQ is digital because you've got to watch out for phase shift in a car environment—the customers will pick that up in a New York minute."

On the Road
Hey man, what—you think it was, like, bad?

No way. It sounded fantastic. The only problem I had was with all the maniacal people yelling at me "How much?" There was no question that there was anyone who didn't lust after it. Even babes eyed it thoughtfully.

The bass could shiver your liver, matey. On Peter Kruder's Peace Orchestra (G-Tone G-CD 004), the low bass synth set the armrests a-vibratin'. (A few pre-production prototype nits turned up, nothing serious.) With the top up, the bass was always truly awesome.

There was a nice transition to the upper bass and midrange proper, which you'd never guess was coming from the door. You can use the controls to adjust the mids and highs just so, not to mention the bass, which has a subwoofer mode. All controls are easy to use and sensibly laid out.

I listened to the system for hours on end with a variety of discs. And with the mid and high controls no CD was too out of hand to deal with. I could make any CD I played sound enjoyable in the movable feast that is an ML PSS-equipped SC 430, top up or down (but with slightly better sound with the top up)—all while moving along cushily at a blistering pace while adjusting the heated seats just right for my tushy.

Sound fade front to back and left to right is also available, of course. Old man. And the head unit can swallow six CDs right—no need to head for the trunk. A glossy but slightly sticky door on this pre-production car hinges down to cover the radio/CD/tape controls. (But I couldn't find the Cannon or Eject buttons, apologies to Ian Fleming.) The Global Positioning System glides back into the center of the dash and a nicely finished cover slides over it on key-off, while the wheel motorizes back into the dash. Shaken, not stirred—right, old chap?

Sportsmen! Step across the line!
So who are the buyers of the Lexus SC 430 with Mark Levinson Premium Sound System?

"We wanted a system so that music can play an important part of the emotional experience of riding in the car," said Muzio. Even at 120mph with the top down, as Outlaw Phil confesses to have done.

It was a gas dropping the top to the many catcalls and motoring in the still-cocoon-like luxury of the SC 430. Getting nippy? Pull over, mash a button while staring into the eyes of the beauty sitting next to you, and pop that hard top back in place. Hold the button past its "I'm done!" ping and the windows slide up, too.

While I'm sure the larger LS 430 proves a more friendly environment for high-end car audio, the pleasure of the SC 430 lay in its choice of sensual realms: closed-top lux or open-top motoring, Corinthian leather up the pipick, and the finest-sounding car system I've ever heard. And that engine...oy, don't ask.

What can I say? You can afford it and it's your taste? Go for it!

tmsorosk's picture

Good feature artical, eleven years old or not. The wife has a newer 430, the M.L. sound system is premo. 

john abramson's picture

Ever so tasteful:: a verbose 11 year old well placed Lexus promo from Mr. Scull. Come on, you guys can do better than that:  If you are going to run a car/audio promo, mnake it a bit more current.

Jim McDermott's picture

Given the date of the article, that is one poignant photo taken under Brooklyn Bridge.

DetroitVinylRob's picture

Maybe you guys should be ticketed for not dating the article appropriately, reporting on a Levinson kit in a convertible (IMHO a complete waste) and a Lexus (nice quality, but geez) and an article dripping with schmaltz. Com'on Stereophile. You know, Kid Rock once made a comment that comes to mind about things one may do that might seem to be fun but, not wanting his friends to catch him doing it... and with a cop making about what? 57k a year... you were lucky the ticket was not issued, sorry.

Happy Listener!

and a long time friend of Stereophile. ;^)>

John Atkinson's picture

Maybe you guys should be ticketed for not dating the article appropriately...

I don't understand the criticism. The article, which has always been a favorite of mine, is clearly labeled beneath the title as having been originally published in July 2001.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

john abramson's picture

your call, ja, whether the article be 11 or 22 years old. the moral of the story: "it's good to  to be the king" (the reigning editor, with  props to mel brooks)

the piece was not schmaltz (that would be an insult to the mother tongue) it was drech; it wasa blatent jonathan scull/lexus piece of pr/promo. in addition, doing 90 was plain unsafe and jerky. the trooper should have lifted js's license and stuck him with a multi hundred dollar ticket. instead we get a verbose self congratulaory piece of puffery, from a self satisfied monied promo-ad man.

obviously, this piece raises my hackles. but reason holds the day. twas much ado about nothing (other than offensive class issues).



soulful.terrain's picture


...and a very fun read as always from J-10. Thanks!



Et Quelle's picture

I know those Lexus droptops are nice just from toying with them at auto shows. Even better when a cop compliments your ride rather giving out tix.

JDDisantis's picture

Start doing car audio reviews, I would love to know what new cars and even old cars sound like, I think it would be very cool If you guys started getting loaners from car companies like lexus and getting to listen to the stereos and write a best sound for a factory car stereo report for audiophiles looking at new cars.