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Case In Point: THX on Wheels
Date: Oct 01, 2009
Author: Loyd Case
THX on Wheels: The Lincoln MKT Audio System

I once bought a car because of its sound system...

Okay, so I didn’t buy the car only because of the sound system, but it was a key component in my decision making. The car was a Subaru Outback H6-3.O VDC, back in 2001. The car was classic Subaru, spare and lean, all-wheel drive and not very exciting to look at.

Then there was the tricked out audio system: an 11 speaker sound system, complete with 200W McIntosh (yes, that McIntosh) amplifier. Part of the speaker system was an 8-inch, long throw subwoofer. The H6 was about 200 pounds heavier than a stock Outback due to the extra sound deadening material under the hood and in the door panels.

The audio was phenomenal: neutral, clean and loud when you wanted it.

The Lincoln MKT SUV

Alas, only nine months after I bought it, some driver on Interstate 280 careened across four lanes of traffic, clipped my rear bumper, and sent the car onto a slope, rolling a full 360 degrees before landing on its wheels. I walked away unscathed (yay, seatbelts!), but ended up with a 2002 Highlander – arguably a better vehicle, but with a decidedly inferior sound system.

So when Graham McKenna, the PR guy at THX, contacted me and asked me if I’d like to borrow a new Lincoln MKT SUV for a few days, I jumped at the chance. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t care a whit about the MKT itself. I wanted to check out how THX and Ford engineered the sound system.

When McKenna arrived with the MKT, I was a little taken aback. The MKT is built on Ford’s Flex platform. So although it seats up to seven people, it’s relatively low slung. It is, however, long. As it turns out, the MKT isn’t the car for me (even if I could afford the price tag), mostly because it seems to be engineered for fairly tall people – and at 5 foot 7 inches in socks, tall I’m not. Still, it proved to be a polished ride, and it was great fun driving a luxury vehicle that wasn’t even for sale on car lots yet.

A View Of The MKT's Cockpit

Though this isn’t about the car, but about the sound system.

The Center Channel Challenge

The Center Channel Challenge
Unlike high end sound systems in other vehicles, you may never know what components are actually behind the speaker grille or under the rear deck, where the DSP unit and 12-channel, 600W amplifier live. Instead, THX assists in the design process, supplying a set of specifications, then helps Ford test the system to make sure the specs are met. These specs include frequency response, audio output at reference levels, measured distortion at reference levels and more. The end result is an overall clean sound that’s fairly neutral, though you can tweak bass, treble and other settings.

Some Audio Configuration Controls

The audio system is available in two different configurations: stereo and full 5.1 channel surround sound with built in DVD player. If you opt for the surround sound system, you can enable DTS Neural Surround, which takes a stereo music signal and synthesizes a 5.1 channel mix.

One of the big challenges when building 5.1 system into a car is the center channel speaker. THX wanted a real center channel, not a virtualized one. Ford balked, believing that a true center channel would be too bulky for the space available in the center of the dashboard.

Thus, the slot speaker was born. PC users with refined audio tastes may know about THX designed slot speakers – the THX certified Razer Mako speakers use them in the satellites. But the slot speaker was originally designed for automotive use. That low profile design allowed THX and Ford to embed an actual center channel speaker in the dash.

THX Certified--The Badge Says So

One of the other aspects of a 5.1 system is the “.1” – a true subwoofer that can handle LFE (low frequcney extension) effects. The MKT has an 8-inch, long throw subwoofer in the back of the vehicle near the rear door. Tweeters are built into the right and left windshield columns, and the midrange drivers are built into the doors.

User Interface

Driving the Audio System
The user interface is designed around two very different interaction modes. The first one is a fairly familiar touch screen paradigm. It’s fairly straightforward to navigate, but there are multiple nested levels you have to dig into to get to some of the more obscure settings (like enabling 5.1 for stereo music.)

The DVD Interface Menu

The other interaction mode is voice recognition, designed around Microsoft’s SYNC speech recognition interface, which was specifically designed for cars. Although you theoretically don’t have to train the interface to your voice, you’ll probably want to – most of the results when I tried to use voice without training were pretty comical. The other problem with SYNC is the same as with the touch interface – you have to drill deep through a menu structure, using a fairly limited vocabulary.

As with many modern automobiles, this system can handle digital music. Embedded in the system is a 10GB hard drive; you can insert a CD and press the red “record” button and rip the CD onto the Lincoln’s embedded drive.

The CD Interface Menu

Alternatively, you can just plug in your own digital music player. Inside the center console is a smart USB port. You can connect in iPhone / iPod or Microsoft Zune and get full access to all your music.

We’re not going to dive into the other tech features, but it’s worth noting the integration between the GPS Nav system and Sirius Satellite radio, the automatic parallel parking feature and the adaptive cruise control. The latter is pretty cool – just set your cruise control speed on the freeway, and the onboard radar adjusts your speed automatically depending on the distance of the cars around you. Don’t go to sleep, though – you still have to steer.

But How Does It Sound?

Audio Quality: Near Perfection
Let’s talk about the sound quality. I took several extended driving sessions, playing a variety of music, ranging from classical CDs with very wide dynamic range to loud rock CDs with the dynamic range compressed to yield the loudest volumes. It all sounded very clean. This system tends toward a neutral sound, so if you like you’re music enhanced, you’ll need to tweak the bass, midrange or treble controls.

The only caveat is that on some bass-heavy material, the bass would boom loud enough to rattle some of the car fittings, like the adjustable shoulder height mounts for the seatbelt. That’s pretty loud.

Here’s just a partial list of the music we ran through the MKT’s THX sound system over the six days we had the vehicle:

  • Past, Present and Future – Al Stewart
  • 21st Century Breakdown – Green Day
  • Surfacing – Sarah McLachlan
  • Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
  • The Planets – Gustav Holst (Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra)
  • Excess of Pleasure – Palladian Ensemble
  • The Crane Wife – Green Day
  • Parallel Tracks – Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

    It all sounded great. I switched between stereo and DTS Neural Surround. In general, Neural Surround worked pretty well, without too many oddball surround sound artifacts, but classical and acoustic music tended to sound more realistic in pure stereo mode.

    Yes, It Has A Radio Too

    You might wonder about the safety issues of having a DVD player in the dash, but the video will only play if the MKT is in Park. That’s not to say having a DVD player isn’t useful when driving. We discovered the joys of DVD concert videos. The audio on most concert videos is true 5.1 surround sound, and you don’t really need the video to enjoy the music.

    We played several concert videos, including Loreena McKennitt’s live concert at the Alhambra Palace in Spain, Green Day from their American Idiot tour and Bruce Springsten’s Live in New York DVD. The level of immersion was greater than we’d ever heard inside an automobile.

    We probably wouldn’t buy a Lincoln MKT just for the sound system, but that would certainly be a factor. I really don’t need a large SUV, though. Here’s hoping THX comes up with an automotive equivalent to the more budget-oriented THX Select home systems. I’d love to have something more efficient, like a Toyota Prius, with a 5.1 system. Then I could feel good about driving a green car, and have incredible audio too.

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