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Lexus and Mark Levinson: An Alliance in Audio Excellence

Early in the development of the all-new Lexus LS 460, the luxury sedan’s executive chief engineer, Takeshi Yoshida, met with Mark Levinson’s Phil Muzio in Japan. In preparation for this key meeting, Muzio and his team had prepared volumes of research for Yoshida-san and his staff of engineers.

Muzio knew that the launch of the next-generation LS, the brand’s flagship luxury sedan, would be Lexus’ most important launch since its birth in 1989. The reinvented LS was a vehicle that would require the most advanced car audio system for any sedan on the market. The 450-watt surround-sound system Mark Levinson was proposing included 19 speakers, a figure that caused Yoshida-san to hesitate, knowing the additional challenges it would present when shaping the sedan’s interior – down to the last detail. Nineteen speakers was unprecedented, and an unlikely number to accommodate. Even this, the largest of Lexus sedans, simply did not have the necessary space. Muzio, however, was intent on introducing a new level of automotive audio to go hand in hand with the LS 460.

This significant meeting, which took place in 2002 – four years prior to the LS 460’s launch – typifies the strategic partnership Lexus and Mark Levinson have forged since the beginning of their relationship. It was, and continues to be, a partnership that moved both companies to push boundaries in search of the definitive automotive-acoustic experience.

“There are specific Mark Levinson product launches that represent a level of technical and artistic achievement of which I am most proud. The debut of Mark Levinson® Reference Surround, designed for the exciting, all-new Lexus LS 460, ranks high among that elite group,” said Phil Muzio, director of acoustic systems for Mark Levinson. “Few words are required to communicate the excellence of these products, as the emotions that they convey when listening to our favorite music and movies say it all.”

As the Lexus brand approached its decade anniversary in the late 1990s, the luxury automotive division decided to pursue a superior sound experience for its customers that was on par with the luxurious refinement for which it is was known. With the brand being based on the Lexus Covenant that it treat each customer as a guest in its home, it seemed to be a logical choice to partner with Mark Levinson, the leader in audiophile home sound systems.
The Mark Levinson brand achieved a reputation as one of the most prestigious and renowned choices on the market. However, given the seemingly insurmountable challenges of delivering a high-quality audio experience in a vehicle that would equal its home sound experience, the brand was reluctant at first to partner with an automotive manufacturer. Over the years, Mark Levinson had declined other such proposals from various manufacturers with a belief that the necessary and appropriate level of quiet with a resonance-free structure did not exist in an automobile.

After testing the Lexus LS 400 and its luxury competitors, Mark Levinson reevaluated this belief. The acoustic engineers at Mark Levinson decided that the LS not only had the quietest passenger cabin on the market but that it had the requisite level of tranquility, even at elevated speeds, for engineering an automotive sound experience of the highest quality. In 1998, a strategic partnership was forged between Lexus and Mark Levinson to collaborate on and produce the best automotive audio experience on the market.

The original goal of Lexus’ exclusive collaboration with Mark Levinson, to exceed consumers’ expectations, is maintained to this day and plays a part in the launch of every new Lexus vehicle. As each next generation of Mark Levinson sound systems debuts in new Lexus models, the objective remains faithful to the Mark Levinson philosophy and original mission statement: Recreate in the home the emotional response evoked by the original musical or cinematic event, and closely replicate in the Lexus vehicle the emotional experience music and movie aficionados could previously attain only with the finest home consumer equipment.

The first Mark Levinson® Premium Sound system was launched in the 2001 LS 430. The same engineers who fine-tuned and perfected the world-class Mark Levinson home systems spent thousands of hours in prototype vehicles matching the sound system to the LS’ unique interior architecture and acoustic character. The painstaking collaboration resulted in an audio presence with acoustic imaging that had never before been created in an automobile.

The Lexus-Mark Levinson audio evolution took a new, purposeful step with the introduction of the Mark Levinson® Surround Sound system on the 2006 GS 300 and GS 430 luxury sport sedans. The 14-speaker, 330-watt Surround Sound system was the next-generation audio entertainment experience. Its Discrete 5.1 Surround system improved the 360-degree sound space for all seats. The partnership’s progression continued with the 2006 IS 250 and IS 350 luxury sport sedans that also featured 7.1-channel architecture while combining 14 speakers and 300 watts of power.

The debut of the 2007 LS 460 and the 19-speaker Mark Levinson® Reference Surround system it came to house reveals the maturing relationship between Lexus and Mark Levinson. This now eight-year alliance comes to fruition with a sound system that uniquely mirrors the benchmark luxury sedan’s personality. Mark Levinson designers and engineers identified the differentiating performance objectives necessary to legitimately earn the “Reference Surround” moniker: timbral accuracy, timbral matching and dynamics.

The Lexus and Mark Levinson have developed a process in which engineers meet early in the development cycle and continue to work closely throughout the vehicle’s progression. As many as three to seven years in advance of a vehicle launch, Mark Levinson engineers begin analyzing multiple conditions to determine system content, including both automotive and audio market conditions, vehicle cabin size, the vehicle’s price point, and buyer demographics. Mark Levinson engineers walk through a step-by-step product-planning process with Lexus planners and engineers to determine the optimal audio content for each future vehicle.

The objectives of Mark Levinson Surround Sound systems were ambitious and challenging from the start. They had to provide an exciting and satisfying entertainment experience for both music, music videos and movies commensurate with the quality and performance of Lexus vehicles. They also had to offer compatibility with the new consumer digital formats and with the new consumer media formats. An enhanced automotive-entertainment experience had to be created by refining the sonic performance in each listening seat with all current formats and media. At the same time, this next-generation system was architected to provide a higher level of sonic performance for each of these important sonic attributes: three-dimensional stable imaging, high resolution, harmonic richness, natural dynamics, musicality, and 360-degree spatial envelopment.

In order to achieve these objectives, the Mark Levinson hardware- and software-design team had to create and implement an entirely new digital processing topology, increase the number of power amplifier channels, architect a system topology that utilizes the latest generation of Mark Levinson transducers while allowing for the proper reproduction of multichannel sound, and architect and code new proprietary software applications.

The painstaking design and development process continues to advance with the Mark Levinson offering for each new Lexus vehicle, continuing to deliver a superior experience to Lexus customers. Today, the Mark Levinson Reference Surround Sound system is a featured option in the LS 460 and LS 460 L as well as the LS 600h L flagship hybrid sedan and the LX570 luxury utility vehicle.

The 2002 meeting between Yoshida-san, Muzio and their engineering staffs was significant for the new Mark Levinson Reference Surround Sound system. Muzio understood Yoshida’s hesitation and the intrinsic difficulty in creating a 19-speaker surround system. He also knew that the LS’ executive chief engineer’s final decision would be determined based on his experience listening to an early incarnation of the Reference Surround. After exiting the demonstration prototype vehicle, having experienced the new Mark Levinson creation for 15 minutes or so, Yoshida offered up only an extended pause. This pause was followed by one simple, and significant, statement: “I must have this in my car.”

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