Revel's First Car Audio System

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13- and 19-Speaker Systems for Lincoln MKX

Brent Butterworth

Revel is one of the most respected high-end speaker brands; I personally use a pair of Revel Performa3 F206 tower speakers as my reference. Revel's part of Harman International, the parent company of JBL, Infinity, Mark Levinson, Lexicon and a host of pro audio brands. All of the brands I listed above are also used in factory-installed car stereo systems. So it didn't come as a big surprise when I got an invitation to travel to Detroit for a joint Lincoln/Revel press event. But I was happy to hear it all the same.

During the course of the 10-year partnership, "Revel systems will be in each and every all-new Lincoln going forward," Lincoln CEO Matt VanDyke said. The first Revel-equipped car will be the new Lincoln MKX.

I got a nice long listen to both versions of the Revel system at the event, which I'll tell you about shortly. First, let's look at how the system's laid out.

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Revel/Lincoln System: How It Works

Brent Butterworth

The Revel system in the MKX is available in two versions: a 13-speaker version and a 19-speaker (although 20-channel) version.

Both reminded me a lot of the Revel F206s I own. The core of the system is an array with an 80mm midrange and a 25mm tweeter, which you can see pictured above. (You can just barely see the midrange driver through the grille.) It's designed in much the same way as the Performa3 speakers, with a waveguide on the tweeter to smooth the transition between the two drivers, and the two drivers positioned very close together so they function more like a single sound source. Even the crossover points and slopes are similar to the ones used in the home speakers. (In the car, the crossovers are done in digital signal processing, not with passive components such as capacitors and inductors.) Each of the four passenger doors has a 170mm midrange woofer, and there's also a tweeter in each passenger door. A rear-mounted subwoofer provides the bass.

The 19-speaker system, which carries the Ultima designation used on Revel's top speakers, adds the full midrange/tweeter array in each passenger door, and two more midrange/tweeter arrays in the back. It also has a dual-coil subwoofer that can take advantage of an extra amplifier channel. So the 19-speaker system has 20 amplifier channels.

The amplifier is a hybrid design, with traditional Class AB amps for the tweeters and high-efficiency Class D amps for all the other drivers. This is intended to deliver the best mix of efficiency, compactness and sound quality. It mounts in the left rear corner of the car, opposite the subwoofer.

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Revel/Lincoln System: The Sound

Brent Butterworth

As the only audio journalist in attendance at the event, I got to spend lots of quality time listening to both the 13- and 19-speaker systems. Although I listened only to the provided music clips, most were familiar to me.

I was very happy to hear how much of the sound quality of my home system seemed to carry through into the car systems. The first thing I noticed was that as in my home speakers, I couldn't hear the transitions between the drivers; that's mostly why I bought the home system in the first place. As with the home speakers, the colorations are very, very minor, and the whole system just sounds remarkably neutral and engaging -- unlike the vast majority of car audio systems, which to my ears usually sound somewhat dull.

Just as important, though, was the system's soundstaging, which to me didn't sound at all like what I've previously heard in car systems. I got a broad expanse of sound stretching across the dashboard; to me, it actually sounded almost as if there were virtual speakers atop the dashboard, placed about 1 foot in from either side, kind of like an actual home system. My ears didn't localize the side-panel midrange/tweeter arrays at all.

To show me what the system could do, Harman principal acoustic engineer Ken Deetz put on an EDM tune with massive, ultra-dynamic bass and cranked it full blast. It didn't distort, nor did the sound get thin, nor did the woofer get obnoxious. It sounded pretty much the same, just a whole lot louder -- thanks, Deetz told me, to advanced limiter circuits. "We're running 35-volt [power supply] rails into 4-ohm loads, so it's got plenty of output," he said.

"Typically, the audio people get about a week to tune a car," Alan Norton, Manager of Global Entertainment Systems for Ford Motor Company (Lincoln's corporate parent) told me. "With this one, Harman had the car for several months."

Earlier in the day, I got a tour of the Novi, Michigan facility in which Harman does most of the development of these systems. This is where the tuning of the Revel system in the MKX was done. The company actually set up a Revel speaker system in an adjacent room, so that during the tuning process, engineers and trained listeners could go hear the Revel system, then walk right next door and hear the Revel system in the car. So I guess it should be no surprise that the car system sounds so much like the home speakers.

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Revel/Lincoln System: The Technologies

Brent Butterworth

And that's in stereo mode. The Revel/Lincoln systems are also the first to feature Harman's QuantumLogic Surround, or QLS, surround-sound technology. QLS analyzes the incoming signal, digitally separates out the different instruments, then steers them into the different speakers in the surround array. Conventional matrix surround decoders such as Dolby Pro Logic II and Lexicon Logic7 (which QLS will replace) just analyze the differences in level and phase between the left and right channels and steer sounds into the surround channels without much regard to their frequency content. Having worked at Dolby during the Pro Logic II launch, I'm hyper-sensitive to the steering and phase artifacts that most matrix decoders produce, and I was amazed to hear not even a hint of these in QLS. It just sounded like actual 5.1 or 7.1 audio.

"What I like about QLS is that it's not adding anything," Ford's Norton said. "You can add all the signals back together and you get the exact same stereo signal you started with."

Two QLS modes are included: Audience, which provides a fairly subtle, ambient surround effect; and Onstage, which steers sounds more aggressively into the rear channels. There's a straight stereo mode, too. The factory setting will default to Audience mode, but I was surprised to hear how much I enjoyed the dramatic, wraparound effect of the Onstage mode. One cool thing about the system is that there's no muting or clicking when you switch modes, it just fades imperceptibly from one mode to the next.

Both Revel systems have Harman's Clari-Fi system running full-time. Clari-Fi is designed to restore high-frequency content to audio files compressed using MP3 and other codecs. The more compressed the music is, the greater effect Clari-Fi has. So on low-bitrate satellite radio signals, Clari-Fi does a lot. When you play CDs, it does nothing. I got a brief Clari-Fi demo at Harman's Novi facility and it seems to work pretty much as advertised.

Sure, as a Revel owner I'm biased, but to me, it really sounds like a whole different kind of car audio system. Give it a listen and see if you agree.

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