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2019+ Acura RDX: ELS 3D Studio 5.1 Surround Audio System

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JonUrban

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ACURA/ELS 3D Studio Audio System
REVISED 4-20-2020

  • WILL PLAY STEREO: [16/44, 24/44, 24/48, 24/96 .flac and .wav files]
    WILL NOT PLAY STEREO: [24/192 .flac or .wav]


  • WILL PLAY PROPERLY IN 5.1: [5.1 24/48 .wav files], [5.1 24/48 .flac files with ZERO compression]
    WILL NOT PLAY PROPERLY IN 5.1: [5.1 24/96 .wav files], [5.1 .flac files with > ZERO compression)], [DTS encoded .wav files]

As most of you all know, since Acura first introduced the ELS Surround sound 5.1 system in 2004 with the Acura TL sedan, that I have been a big supporter of, and owner of, the Acura surround sound capability in select models of their cars. There have been 3 versions of Acura ELS systems available since that first TL system in 2004. Below is the official breakdown of the three variations. All support 5.1 surround sound:

  • ELS Surround was the first generation system that supported DVD-A and DTS CDs. [2004-2014*]
  • ELS Studio was next generation which did not support DVD-A but did support DTS encoded CDs [2014*-2018+]
  • ELS Studio 3D is the current generation which will evolve to support more high definition digital file formats. This system does not include a disc player. [2019- ]
* - This date varies depending on model generation changes

Upon the system's debut, only Acura's with the "Technology Package" had the DVD-A capable ELS systems that played true HiRez surround from DVD-A's. Between then and 2013, the ELS Surround systems were included with many different Acura models, including the MDX, TL/TLX, RDX, and TSX. In 2014, many models were updated technically and mechanically, but downgraded audio-wise as the DVD-Audio player was replaced with a CD player. Fortunately for surround fans this system retained the ability to play 5.1 DTS-CD's and the ELS engineering standards set forth with the original systems. With the proper sourced DTS CD this second generation ELS system sounded pretty damn good, but it would have been even better had it also played native SACD discs, including the 5.1 layers, but since these are basically Panasonic Systems, that was not going to happen. The saving grace for surround fans was that at LEAST the car retained a discrete way to properly play back 5.1 audio via the DTS CD.

The DTS-CD systems met with mixed reviews. Owners who had invested in DVD-A discs for their cars were upset. Sure, there was some 5.1 material that when put to DTS-CD made the system sound pretty good, but it never sounded as good, to me, as the older DVD-A systems. Worse, the Sirius XM and stereo iPod/Radio sounded hollow when compared to a good 5.1 source.

So when the new ELS Studio 3D system was announced a while back, I was very interested to see if it would support 5.1 HiRez playback. Rumors abounded, and back and forth it went from yes to no to yes to maybe to yes and but.... When the car finally arrived at my local Acura dealer I arrived with a USB stick with 5.1 24/96 .flac and .wav files, and the car instantly rejected the .flac files, but did play the .wav files - but something did not sound right. I was not sure I was hearing discrete playback, as I was certain that I was hearing rear channel information in the fronts.

To be sure, I went back (what a pain I was to the salesman) armed with test files that had tones and individual channel identification, both with 24/48 and 24/96 files in both .flac and .wav. What I found was that the .flac's would not play, and the 24/96 files were indeed compromised in that the rear channel info was indeed coming from the front speakers! However, the 24/48 5.1 wav files played perfectly and sounded great. That was enough for me to bite the bullet, annoy my wife (not really), and trade in my 2 year old DTS-CD modelRDX (that I never warmed up to) for a new 2019 RDX. Talk about buying an expensive media player!

Once I took delivery of the car, I tried EVERYTHING I could try to get .flac's to play. If you look at the ELS Facebook Page you will see me going back and forth with their people who kept telling me that .flac files would play. Others over there verified that they would not play. They tried to be helpful but they just did not give us the exact specifications needed to create the proper .flac file.

Thanks to our great QQ membership base, I was given enough info to be dangerous, and finally with their help and my stumbling and experimenting I found that yes, a 24/48 5.1 .flac file would indeed play, and sound great, if it was created with ZERO COMPRESSION!!!

So, now I am happy, and hopefully others will be too. I know that many of you cannot afford a car like this, so I don't want to come off as some asshole bragging about what I have, so please don't take it that way. There were many years in my life when I could not afford a used car, let alone a new one. The last thing I want to do is "brag".

So the bottom line is this: The car audio sounds INCREDIBLE with proper 5.1 files on a USB stick or drive. There are many controls in the system for the driver to tailor the sound the way they want it, so this particular ELS system is a freaking winner all the way!

The one caveat is this: It is not "gapless" playback, which means that if you take an album like the Beatles "Love" or Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon", convert your DVD-A or BluRay to files and set them up on your stick, the system will pause a moment between tracks thus breaking the flow of continuous playback of multiple tracks. With normal song files, you will not notice this. With an album like DSOTM, it's a bit jarring.

Whether ELS software updates can remedy this situation remains to be seen. So far there has been no word spoken about gapless playback, but the car does accept "over the air" updates, so maybe this is something that can be resolved.

Also as of now, the system will not read a .cue file created for a large .flac file to simulate gapless playback. When I inquired about this feature to the ELS people on their FB page (who have been very helpful by the way), I was informed that this was a function of the head unit software which they do not create or modify. So for now this is not a possibility.

Anyway, here's a look at the system from inside my car (I have the all black interior):

The speaker layout from Acura promotional material (NOTE: Image belongs to Acura/Panasonic ELS Premium Audio):

Speaker Positions from ELS Website 800.jpg


Here's what they look like in the car. These are the back speakers in the ceiling and in the back deck:

Back Speakers 2.JPG


The back door speaker:

Back Door Speaker.JPG


The front passenger speakers (I had to lighten the lower area because my camera sucks):

Front Speakers 800.jpg


Here is the speaker above the front passenger seat:

Front Top Speaker.JPG



The LFE Subwoofer is on the passenger side of the back storage area. It's hard to judge the size from this picture, but it does the job.

Sub QQ.jpg


The center speaker is in the center of the dash, behind the display screen. It does a great job of spreading the audio across the windshield and back at the listener.
Volume for the center speaker can be controlled from within the system settings.

Center Speaker QQ.jpg



These are all really nice speakers. They sound great and reproduce the audio exceptionally well. I do not know the spec's of each speaker, but they do not sound like cheap paper cone deals. They move a lot of sound and support the 700+ watts dispersed by the ELS Amplifiers.
 
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JonUrban

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The system is accessed through the touch pad control feature of the car. It does not work like a PC or laptop touch pad. While it takes a little while to get the hang of, once you do it's a breeze to use, and you never have to look at the pad to operate the controls.

Console 2.jpg


For USB Device, you select that from the Main Menu of the car, and the last file played on that particular stick will begin to play. The display will show the data attached to the file, as shown below. In this case, "Babylon Sisters":

Play View.jpg


You can easily swap the views, moving the NAVI to the main screen area and the USB Audio info to the smaller screen area:

America 2.jpg


You can also put the audio info in both places if you like! :)

Display on 2 QQ.jpg


To move around your USB Stick (or drive), you use the MUSIC LIBRARY selection next to the mini-map under the SOUND icon.
This brings up the MUSIC LIBRARY menu:

Music Library View.jpg


From here you can SEARCH (which I would not advise if you are driving the car!) :eek:, or RECENTS, ALBUMS, ARTISTS, SONGS, PLAYLISTS, or FOLDERS.


Here is a look at a few of the screens after making different selections from the Music Library Menu:

FOLDER VIEW (Note that I numbered the folder titles so they would appear in the order that I wanted them to appear as opposed to alphabetical order):
Folder View.jpg


RECENTLY PLAYED ALBUM/SONG VIEW:
Recents View.jpg


SONG VIEW (ALL SONGS ON THE USB DEVICE):
Song View.jpg


ALBUM VIEW:
albums view.jpg
 
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JonUrban

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There are actually quite a few controls for adjusting the sound in the car. Along with the normal bass/treble, etc, there is a fairly nice surround sound adjustment panel:

Fader.JPG


You can "move" the sweet spot anywhere you like using the little arrows. This is a true adjustment, as if you push the sweet spot all the way to center rear, you only hear the discrete rear channels.

You can also select "Driver Only", "Front Only" and "Rear Only". Setting Rear Only or Front Only is pretty bizarre, as it will actually take all 5 channels and downmix them to that areas selected speakers. I am not sure what the purpose is, but it is clearly NOT a way to isolate the rear channels or the front channels like on a quad receiver.

The "Driver Only" is odd, as it kills all of the speakers except those next to the driver. Not sure what the deal is with that one. Maybe if you're listening to a sports broadcast the the rest of the family is on headphones?

There is also a separate adjustment screen for the center and roof speakers. I like to boost the center a bit, so this is a welcome control.
I have not tried playing with the roof speakers yet, and still haven't spent the time to discover exactly what channel information is coming out of these 4 little speakers.

IMG_1264.JPG



For those who like their stereo turned into surround, there is a DTS Neural Surround function that frankly I have not messed with. I found in my older Acura's that in the case of fake surround, the older Dolby system seemed to be more effective that this DTS Neural system. In the older Acura's with the Dolby surround, I could always tell by listening to my iPod if a stereo song would sound good through SPEC or a Surround Master as if it sounded good in the car with the Dolby, then it would work great with either of those two systems. With the DTS Neural, not so much.


DTS Fake Surround.JPG
 
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JonUrban

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One thing that is pretty cool is the 'APPS' Button on the steering wheel. While you can easily (once you get used to it) use the touch pad and display screen to scroll through songs and albums, you can also do it from the steering wheel without even having to look at the display screen.

When you press the 'APPS' button on the steering wheel, the center area between the speedometer and the tachometer displays the 'Apps' menu. This is customizable and you can put them in any order you like. If you have the RDX Advance, this menu also appears in the Head Up Display that will be on your windshield! (I don't have that)

Apps.JPG


From this menu, you can pull up your phone speed dials, your radio presets, and your USB Audio tracklist. Using a little wheel on the steering wheel, you scroll through and in this case I would press 'USB Audio'.....

and your track list will appear as shown below:

Track List.JPG


Here you can scroll through the tunes in your folder, in this case I have "Morph the Cat" playing in the car, and I can jump back to "The Night Belongs To Mona" if I want to hear that one again. The speaker icon indicates the track playing.

This is a very cool feature.
 
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JonUrban

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FOLDER CONSTRUCTION AND PLAYLISTS

The system will recognize folders for artists and normal file structure. Here is a look at my current USB stick using Windows File Explorer (This is the top portion, you get the idea):

Stick Data.jpg


Once you layout your tunes, the system will read in the data and will automatically index the artists and the albums. You can search and select by touch pad, steering wheel or voice. The voice recognition is pretty impressive and it has always gotten stuff right. If I am listening to the radio and say

"Play USB Great Pagoda of Fun"

The radio will stop and within seconds I will be listening to Donald Fagen. Pretty cool.

As for playlists, they are pretty straight forward. The way I've been doing it is to have Foobar load my USB file structure, then create the playlist. Once it's done and saved to the root of my USB stick, I edit it to add the ".\" to the front of each line.

Playlist View QQ.jpg



Here's an example of a few lines from my current playlist:

.\Dire Straits\Brothers in Arms\04-Your Latest trick.flac
.\Steely Dan\Countdown to Ecstasy QUAD\05-Show Biz Kids.flac
.\Donald Fagen\Morph the Cat\05 - The Great Pagoda of Fun.flac
.\Chicago\Chicago VII\07-Happy Man.flac
.\Elton John\Goodbye Yellow Brick Road DVD-A\01-Funeral-Love Lies Bleeding.flac
.\Porcupine Tree\Lightbulb Sun\04-Shesmovedon.flac


You get the idea. The system does have its quirks. I have had times where it plays the playlist the way I created it. I have also had times where it reads it in alphabetical order. Also, on occasion, if I scroll through my playlist and play a song, the following song will be the next song on that album - not the next song on the playlist!!! :eek:

It appears to be happiest when you start the playlist at the top and let it go. There must be some logic to this, but I have yet to figure it out. o_O



FINAL THOUGHTS FOR NOW

Well, first off, with HiRez (24/48) 5.1 audio that's mastered well, the system sounds incredible. If you put good stuff in, you hear good stuff. However, when you listen to SiriusXM, or regular radio, the system does not sound AS GOOD. It doesn't sound crappy, it's just that the HiRez 5.1 spoils you to the point where you don't want to listen to anything else.

There are "issues" inherent to a brand new system. Sometimes during playback the system will lose sync and the music will turn into a tone of some sort and move on to the next song. If you reverse to the same song again, it will play fine. It's not your file, it's the system. This can be jarring at times. (Fixed with a software update)

Also, if you are going to play 4.0 (Quadraphonic) material in the car, you have to add a silent Center and LFE channel or the system will not decode it properly. This adds time to your file creation. Another thing I've noticed and it does not happen very often, but with a Quad source file with empty C and LFE channels, on rare occasions the system will hiccup and lose either the fronts or the rear channel audio until the next song! This is really weird, but being the quad wacko I am, I kinda like it as I get to hear the remaining channels on their own which is always an interesting experience. When the next tune plays, it's back to all channels. (Fixed with a software update)

I am telling you it's not easy being a surround fan. Not only do we have to have access to the source material, now we have to have a digital workstation to convert that material to the very specific specifications in order to experience that material properly in the car. The average Joe and even the above average Joe is not going to leap through the hoops they would have to leap through to be able to hear what this car is capable of. Heck, they can't really buy much of the source material these days anyway!

So, how many Acura drivers will ever hear their ELS 3D systems the way they were meant to be heard? Well, I have to say even LESS than those out there today with DVD-Audio and DTS CD systems because at least with those systems there were discs that you could just pop in and play (even though hardly anyone did).

Since the ELS system debuted in 2004, there are probably MILLIONS and MILLIONS of 5.1 systems out there on the highways, driving around listening to podcasts, iPods, AM sports, SiriusXM, and every other kind of audio other than HiRez 5.1 sound. They just don't know what they have. Today's RDX drivers won't know either.

Only the .00000009% will go that extra mile to get the sound that's amazing. It's kind of sad, really. But, and there's a big but (but, not butt, stop it snood :) ) at least the ELS folks went the extra mile and maintained the 5.1 compatibility so wacko's like me can still enjoy real surround audio in the car, because face it - that's where I listen to the most music. I was spoiled back in 2004 with DVD-A in the car and I can't go back.

So, that's it for now. Post your findings and test drive results. Thanks for listening.
 
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Clint Eastwood

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Haikubass posted this on another thread....but I think it belongs here too....

 

mlrocker

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Jon - can you/will you make your USB stick test kit available to me(us) and recommend suitable disks that would comprise a good test kit in disk form, please?
 

JonUrban

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Jon - can you/will you make your USB stick test kit available to me(us) and recommend suitable disks that would comprise a good test kit in disk form, please?
These are basic channel identification files in different formats. Unzip these to a USB stick and give them a try.
Right click and 'Save Link As' to get the file

https://www.quadraphonicquad.com/miscstuff/AudioTest51.zip

As for testing music in the car, take something that is very discrete and something you know well. You might take your own stuff!! :)
You basically want to make sure what's supposed to be in the back is in the back and not in the fronts.
 

JonUrban

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Jon, did you try a FLAC file that is 24/96 after resolving the compression issue to confirm that the system doesn’t playback beyond 24/48? Just curious.
Sorry I missed this when you posted - YES. I did, and it still merged the fronts with the backs. Not good.
I will be updating the review here in a few days with more info as I've learned a few more things.

I'll also post a set of more advanced test files for members who want to go on a test drive.
 

JonUrban

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I am not sure if this has been covered, but can the system handle FLAC files that have more than 6 channels (e.g. 7.1)?
I have not even thought of trying that. I will. I'll make up a 7.1 test file in Sound Forge, save it as .flac then see what happens. Probably won't get to that until the weekend though. By then I should be able to update the review above with new info and findings.

One thing I will say, the average Joe is NOT going to go through all of the stuff you have to go through to get 5.1 surround in their cars. No way. It's a lot of work and 99% of the owners of these cars will never hear what they really sound like.
 

JonUrban

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Jon, if you haven't already, you can try this option as a potential solution for gapless playback: a single FLAC file with an embedded cue sheet.
Yeah. Thanks for the input, but I queried them about that a while ago on their FB page. Apparently it's not controlled by ELS. Here's the back and forth:

cue file inquiry.jpg
 
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