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2003 LS is First Lincoln To Offer THX-Certified Stereo

By Joe Wiesenfelder

Lincoln announced that its 2003 LS sport sedan, which goes on sale in autumn with new styling and other changes, is the first of four Lincoln models to offer a THX Certified Ultra Premium Car Audio System. Replacing the current premium stereo, the option is the first mobile stereo blessed by the George Lucas-founded company that heretofore has certified movie theaters, home theater components and multimedia systems.
Ion Warner, Lincoln’s advanced product strategy manager, said the automaker found a demand for ever-higher audio performance. “Based on our research, over 60 percent of our affluent consumers consider the availability of a high-performance audio system,” he said. “Many of those luxury consumers have home-theater systems, and they have significant interest in high-end audio for the luxury vehicles. By and large, they said that their appetite is not met in the current marketplace for automotive audio systems. They all wanted more, better audio and were willing to pay more.”

Pricing has not been announced, but Warner said the option price will be “very competitive” with other premium branded systems in the industry. The current option goes for $575 suggested retail in the 2002 LS V8. (The optional Convenience Package, an additional $1,185, is a prerequisite on the 2002 LS V6.)

A Sonic Leapfrog
“Our quest was to leapfrog the competition and provide our consumers with uncompromised audio performance,” Warner said. “And as we searched the landscape of various audio suppliers, there didn’t seem to be a match. Some of the potential suppliers were engaged with other competitors. Bose, for example, is aligned with so many other brands, and not all of them are premium brands.

“THX only certifies high-end or best-in class componentry,” Warner said. “They have a very rigorous standard.” Believing that THX could provide the performance they wanted, Lincoln product planners tested the strength of the brand name. “We did some research to validate whether there is awareness in the marketplace for THX,” he said. “There was overwhelming consumer recognition of the THX brand and what it stands for. [Consumers] immediately point to superior acoustics in the movie theater.”

Recognition primarily comes from the THX Theater Alignment Program, which began in 1983 to certify movie theaters, mainly for audio quality. Unlike the other names that may flash across the silver screen between the trailers and a feature film — DTS, Dolby Digital and SDDS, which are digital soundtrack formats the way compact disc and DVD are consumer audio and video formats — THX simply represents a minimum standard for playback quality. It is also the only acronym that isn’t really an acronym: “THX” comes from George Lucas’ first studio feature film, “THX 1138,” released in 1971. Though subtle THX and 1138 references appear in nearly all of Lucas’ movies, by most accounts they don’t stand for anything, or at least anything universally meaningful. (Though still a investor, Lucasfilm Ltd. recently sold THX to a privately held company.)

In both THX’s home theater program begun in 1990 and the multimedia certification that started in 2001, the actual components — such as speakers, amplifiers, sound cards and computer monitors — are THX certified and bear the logo. THX doesn’t build any hardware. It is mainly a licensing operation that puts its seal of approval on other manufacturers’ qualified goods, for a fee. THX also exerts quality control over the digital mastering of VHS tape and DVD versions of movies, which is why you may see the THX logo in your home on occasion.

What THX didn’t do, or have any plans to do, early in 2000 when Lincoln approached the company, was certify car stereo systems. In short order, that changed.

Theater on Wheels
The new Certified Ultra Premium Car Audio System program resembles the original Theater Alignment Program, in that the resulting system must meet minimum standards. For example, certified theaters must accurately cover the entire audible spectrum from low bass to high treble, ensure good sound quality for each and every seat in the theater, and achieve a minimum sound output, or volume, without distortion. The car audio program has similar requirements, but THX had a more active role with the Lincoln LS stereo than it ever did with an individual theater. Its audio engineers designed the system and worked with Lincoln and its suppliers to customize the components and tune the sound.

Laurie Fincham, THX Vice President of engineering, explained that home audio components can be designed with reasonable expectation that they will perform well in virtually any room in which they’re installed. But because of a vehicle’s ambient noise, fixed seating positions, tiny cabin and hard, acoustically reflective surfaces such as windows located close to the speakers, stereos must be designed and tuned specifically for the car at hand. Consequently, THX-certified aftermarket components are unlikely.

Though THX the company hadn’t previously dabbled in mobile audio, Fincham is a respected loudspeaker designer who developed car- and home-audio equipment for KEF in his native Britain and for Infinity here in America, and whose engineering staff includes “car nut” alumni of mobile audio companies Blaupunkt and Soundstream.

Fincham’s team first got its hands on an LS in March 2000 and set about evaluating it as a foundation for its first car stereo — a challenge because the car was new and a major redesign was years away, so physical changes would be costly if possible at all. The vehicle’s drawing-board stage, he said, is the best time for audio engineers to get involved. THX has been working on the Lincoln Aviator, Navigator and Town Car, all of which were recently redesigned or introduced. Warner said, “We’re allocating resources to accelerate the integration of THX certified systems in our vehicles as quickly as possible, quicker than you think.”

The first THX Certified Ultra Premium Car Audio Systems are two-channel, audio-only rigs, but Warner said Lincoln hopes to tap its partner’s experience with multichannel audio and video. “THX is at the forefront of new, evolving audio capabilities,” he said. “In home theater, the industry is switching to surround sound — 5.1-channel, 6.1-channel, 7.1-channel — and they [THX] are able to bring in technologies that we could incorporate into the vehicle to further enhance the automotive audio experience.”

Warner added that video is another possibility. THX designed a 7.1-channel sound and video system into a Lincoln Blackwood show car for the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show to illustrate what might lie ahead. The partnership may extend beyond the entertainment systems. “We’re also interested in the promotional legs that we could have with THX in co-marketing with the entertainment industry,” Warner said.

Making a Good Stereo Better
For the benefit of the technically minded, Fincham gave some details on how THX turned the current LS premium stereo, arguably the best in any Ford vehicle, into a system the partners say can compete with any top-tier car stereo. A testament to the original LS stereo, Fincham said the speakers were already located in the optimal positions. “The two-way speakers they had were actually amazingly good,” he said of the door speakers, which are called two-way because they incorporate a woofer and tweeter into one unit. THX had the speakers modified, not to change their sound but their output and efficiency. THX had requested a healthy increase in the current system’s 180 watts of amplifier power, but, ever mindful of weight issues, Lincoln engineers had declined. As a workaround, THX specified stronger, strontium magnets for the door speakers, and efficient class-H amplifiers.

The new system has 50 watts apiece for the four door speakers and 32 watts apiece for two subwoofers, which are now 6x9-inch models in the rear deck in place of the original 5x7-inch woofers. THX did away with the additional two speakers on either side of the center console because they were too easily blocked by occupants’ legs, and eliminated the subwoofer enclosure, a move that also increased space and decreased weight. The trunk now serves as an enclosure that, along with equalization, extends the bass response to below 30 hertz (Hz).

The door speakers are now 2 decibels (dB) higher in sensitivity, and the subwoofers are 3 dB higher, meaning the speakers play almost twice as loud as the previous versions for a given input. So the new system’s output is actually between two and three times higher than the original system’s even though the total amplifier power increased only 45 percent, to 262 watts. The sound output now meets or exceeds the measurable THX output requirement, with 107 dB of continuous sound pressure level and the capacity for transient peaks as high as 120 dB, all with less than 2 percent distortion and no dynamic-range compression. The latter is a type of processing used in many cars that lowers the loudest sounds in the audio stream to compensate for insufficient amplifier power.

THX tuned the system and verified the final certification by means of structured listening tests. Much of its work involved equalizing the sound for each listening position using digital signal processing. Like some other Ford stereos, the THX system has three listening modes that vary the level, equalization and signal delay for each speaker channel to optimize sound for the driver, for both front occupants or for all seats. One controls the system by means of a touch-screen LCD in the dashboard that tilts down at the press of a button to reveal a six-CD changer.

Fincham said THX certifies all aspects of the user experience, including the interface, which he said passed with no modifications necessary. The LS itself required one change. “It was a very tight car for the most part,” he said, “but there was a resonance, a buzz coming from the back.” THX attempted to isolate the source, but it was Ford’s scanning vibrometer that determined it was coming from the steel in the rear deck. The device uses a laser to “see” vibrations triggered by sound waves inside the cabin and depict them on a computer screen — sort of a CAT scan for a car. To Fincham’s delight, Lincoln agreed to modify the rear-deck’s design to eliminate the resonance.

Lincoln gave journalists a brief taste of the LS/THX system at a 2003 model preview at Ford’s Michigan Proving Grounds. Time was short and a nearby Mustang with a booming Mach 1000 stereo muddied the acoustical waters, but on first listen the new stereo sounded exceptionally clean and detailed. will subject the refreshed LS and its new stereo to a detailed evaluation and publish the results in the coming months.

Lincoln enjoys an exclusive partnership with THX, which has made no alliances outside Ford, but this isn’t likely to last. “We have other irons in the fire,” Fincham said.

The 2003 LS sport sedan, which goes on sale this Fall with new styling and other changes from the 2002 LS (pictured), will be the first of four Lincoln models to offer a THX Certified Ultra Premium Car Audio System.


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