If you’re even vaguely familiar with premium audio systems in cars, you’ve no doubt heard names like Bose, Harman/Kardon, and perhaps Bowers & Wilkins. But what about ELS? So far exclusive to the Acura brand, ELS doesn’t have the name recognition of other brands, but in sound quality it rivals some of the best. This is most pronounced in its newest system in Acura’s newest vehicle, the 2019 Acura RDX.

ELS is made by Panasonic, and it’s been featured in Acura luxury vehicles for over a decade, starting with the 2004 Acura TL sedan. The “ELS” brand is the nickname of the man who is the driving force behind the system: Elliot Scheiner. If you’ve never heard of this music producer and sound engineer extraordinaire, you’ve heard the artists he’s worked with. They range from the Eagles and Foo Fighters to Sting, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton and Beyoncé.

Scheiner is a legend in the music business. He’s been nominated for 26 Grammy Awards and has won eight. Two of his biggest passions are where Acura’s ELS audio system are concerned: reproducing audio the way it’s heard in a studio, and doing so in 5.1-channel surround sound.

Sonic collaboration

It was these desires that led Scheiner to tie up with Panasonic and Acura over 15 years ago. Scheiner recounted the connection recently at Capitol Records in Hollywood. “I was doing surround work in my studio and asked myself, ‘Where will people hear this?’” Scheiner said. He realized if it were in a car, unlike say a living room, the driver/listener is in a fixed position in relation to the speakers.  This was in the early 2000s, and Scheiner happened to be at a DVD industry event in New York. “I went to everyone and said, ‘We could play surround sound in cars.’ I said, ‘I make these records!’”

Six months passed before someone finally bit on the idea. That someone was Tom Dunn, now director of Panasonic’s automotive audio systems. At the time Panasonic and Acura were also looking to up their game in the automotive audio world. The goal was to bring studio sound quality to cars. Dunn said “Acura realized this could be a game changer. So, we worked with a guy who makes music daily.”

Fast-forward a couple of years and the ELS Premium Audio system debuted in the 2004 Acura TL, becoming the first automobile to feature a 5.1-channel surround-sound audio system.

“What was amazing was hearing sounds resonate like never before,” recalled Acura’s Jon Ikeda, now vice president and general manager of the division. Though he describes himself as not necessarily starting out as an audio aficionado, after hearing the system he thought, “Wow. This is what audio should be. Elliot was passionate about sharing what he heard. He wanted others to hear what he hears in the studio. A car is the perfect place to do that. It’s a controlled environment, unlike a living room.”

 

The latest and greatest from ELS

In the decade and a half since, the team has worked relentlessly to create advancements in the systems’ sonics, offering ELS premium audio across Acura’s lineup. Now comes ELS Studio 3D, debuting in the 2019 Acura RDX. The system comes standard in the two higher trims, A-Spec and Advance, starting at $44,495 and $46,395, respectively. (A lower-spec ELS system comes in the Technology trim.)

By the numbers, the ELS Studio 3D boasts 16 speakers and 710 watts of power. That’s impressive but by no means the most in a car. But numbers only tell part of the story. The ELS system is a lesson in working smarter, not harder. It’s not only a matter of the number of speakers, but where they are placed and how they have been tuned by Scheiner.

In addition to having speakers surrounding the cabin, four of them are placed in the ceiling. This provides a sound field that literally saturates passengers in sound. And wow does it sound good. It is one of the best automotive audio systems I’ve heard, ranking with Burmester, Bowers & Wilkins, and Bang & Olufsen. These are audio systems that can cost several thousand dollars alone in brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Aston Martin.

While the ELS system absolutely excels at music mixed in 5.1-channel surround – such as custom demo tracks put together by Scheiner and the Panasonic team – the truth is such music is hard to find, and because unlike past Acura models with DVD-Audio players, you can’t just pop in a disc with the stuff (as with other new cars, there isn’t even a CD player in the RDX).

Still, the system does a remarkable job with standard stereo-mixed music. This surround system is able to take that music and envelop you in clean, crisp sound. As with other systems, higher-quality in equals higher-quality out. That means songs I had ripped in the FLAC format and stored on a USB drive were literally music to my ears, but even lower-res files streamed via Bluetooth from my iPhone or transmitted via Apple CarPlay sounded excellent. Acura is known for bringing premium, quality-built vehicles at a price that’s a value compared to European competitors. With the new ELS Studio 3D system, the same can now be said for its audio system.

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