by Jim Kerr

Snug up your seatbelt. Hang onto your hat. The first factory-installed DVD Audio 5.1 surround-sound system is hitting an automobile showroom near you and the sound will blow you away. Acura, Panasonic, and five-time Grammy winning producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner have combined
forces to develop a sound system for the completely redesigned 2004 Acura TL and it doesn’t take an audiophile to recognize the quality sound produced by this system.

Elliot Scheiner
Elliot Scheiner. Click image to enlarge

Standard equipment on all 2004 Acura TL models, the system is named ELS (Scheiner’s initials). The 6-disc in dash unit plays CD’s DVD-Audio and DTS discs (another audio format). It does not play DVD movies, DVD-V, DVD-R/RW, MP3 or WMA format discs however. The DVD Audio, usually abbreviated to DVD-A, in this Acura will rival a several-thousand dollar audiophile home system for sound quality and does it with only 225 watts of power.

Part of the incredible sound comes from the six-channel reproduction; five channels plus a sub-woofer. The Acura TL uses 8 speakers to provide the six channels: three on the dash, two on the front doors, two in the rear package tray and a sub-woofer to surround the occupants with sound. As I listened to a demo disc, each channel played one instrument or vocal part, demonstrating the distinct 6-channel playback, but when all channels were combined, the sound was a unified musical piece that enveloped the occupants. It didn’t seem to matter where I was positioned in the car – it sounded like I was sitting in the middle of the band!

2004 Acura TL
2004 Acura TL. Click image to enlarge

However, there is much more than 6-channel sound reproduction. Compared to a CD, there is much more information stored on a DVD-A. You might think this means there could be more songs, but typically there is only room for a little more than 74 minutes of music maximum on a DVD-A compared to about 72 minutes maximum on a CD. All that available storage is taken up reproducing the music as realistic as possible. CD music recordings use sample rates of 44.1 kHz and sample sizes of 16 bit. The DVD-A uses 96 kHz sample rates and 24 bit sample sizes. This allows theoretical frequency response of up to 96 kHz and dynamic range of up
to 144 dB.

Master recordings can be faithfully reproduced on the DVD-A without compression that “looses” some of the music. After listening to the same recording on a CD and on a DVD-A, it was very apparent what was missing: high ends, low bass notes and subtle nuances. From the guitars I could hear fingers sliding on the strings and the touch of a string to a fret, the slight thunk of a saxophone key as the pad covered the hole, and the ongoing vibrations of the snare drum after a rim shot.

Reading this, it might appear that the background sounds were distracting. Far from that. The clarity of the music is astounding and these slight background sounds enhance the “live” feeling. After listening to the DVD-A surround sound, a CD sounds more like the music is coming from a wall rather than sitting in the middle of the band.

2004 Acura TL interior
2004 Acura TL interior. Click image to enlarge

Are there drawbacks to DVD-A? They are a little more expensive than CD’s and the case is slightly larger so they might not fit in your existing storage. DVD-A cases are square with slightly rounded corners compared to the rectangular shape of a CD case. DVD-A’s might not play in some DVD Video home systems too, although many newer systems will handle both formats. Not all music is available in DVD-A format, although the list of titles available is expanding every day.

Finally, you may not agree with how the producer has mixed channels on the DVD-A recording. Some music has a true integrated live sound while other recordings take full advantage of the six separate channels to bounce the listener around. Just like CD’s, some DVD-A’s will appeal to you much more than others.

It’s been twenty years since CD audio hit the market. They are still the standard and the Acura TL ELS sound system plays them with excellent clarity, but compared to DVD-A they don’t hold a candle. I think DVD-A is as big an improvement as when car audio went from cassette to CD. Reading about it is one thing – listening to it is another. Give it a try. I am sure you will be as impressed by it as I was.

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