First Listen: 2014 Acura RLX with Krell Audio

I sure didn’t expect to be at the L.A. Auto Show today. And I even surer didn’t expect that I’d be going there to listen to the first car with a Krell audio system: the 2014 RLX, the new flagship model from Acura.

Chuck Shifsky, Acura’s manager of PR, responded to my simple question “Why Krell?” by saying, “This is our new flagship, and we were looking for a very high-end name to do the sound. Krell is one of the best names, if not the best name, in home audio systems.” Shifsky said the launch date and price of the RLX are still to be determined, but predicted availability in Spring 2013.

The new system, included in the top-of-the-line version of the RLX, incorporates six main speakers, each comprising a 6.5-inch Zylon midwoofer and a 1-inch magnesium dome tweeter. There are two in the front positions, two in the rear doors, and two on the back deck. A 3-inch Kevlar midrange works as the center speaker, and an 8-inch carbon-fiber subwoofer on the back deck provides the bass. Each has a metal grille, which allowed Krell to use larger perforations and reduce the internal reflections than can make plastic-grilled speakers sound so nasty.

Nah, there are no 900-watt monoblock amps lurking inside the trunk. Each of the six main speakers has its own Krell-designed 50-watt amp, and the subwoofer has its own 100-watt Class D amp.

Why none of the megapowered amps for which Krell is revered? According to company president Bill McKiegan, they’re not needed. “Our home amps have to be powerful because we have no idea what kind of speakers they’ll be used with, no idea what kind of room they’ll be used in, and no idea what levels they’ll be played at. Here, we knew everything about the system, so we knew exactly how much power we’d need.”

That’s not to say the amps lack the Krell touch, though. For maximum output, sound quality, and driver control, Krell eschewed the monolithic “amp on a chip” amplifiers used in most cars. Instead, each of the six main amps uses discrete output transistors — “The same ones we use in our $50,000 amplifiers,” McKiegan said.

According to McKiegan, the tuning process for the RLX sound system was unusually meticulous. “Todd Eichenbaum, our director of engineering, and I traveled to Japan several times for tuning sessions, and did the final tuning at Acura U.S. headquarters in L.A.,” McKiegan said. “There were at least seven tuning sessions. It was like, ‘boost one frequency by 0.1 dB, measure, listen, and repeat. We also had all the competing cars on hand so we could do quick comparisons between those and the RLX we were tuning.

“It was easy to get the tonal balance right,” he continued, “but to get the leading-edge transients on snare drum and trumpets right took a long time.”

The system includes a CD/DVD-Audio player, satellite radio compatibility, an iPod/iPhone/iPad interface, a hard drive, Bluetooth, and Pandora. A tiny volume wheel on the steering wheel provides quick control. You can skip tracks by pressing the wheel to the left or right, and pushing down on the wheel pauses or restarts the music.

Incidentally, McKiegan told me that the original inquiries about Krell doing the RLX sound system came from Acura’s engineers in Japan—which shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering that high-end brands like Krell often have a larger following in Asia than they do in the U.S.

I wasn’t the first journalist to hear the Krell system, but I might have been the first to listen to it. I wasn’t able to raise the windows for a really good demo, but fortunately the booth traffic had moved on to the next event so I was able to crank the system full-blast for brief periods. And fortunately, McKiegan had made sure there was some good demo material loaded on the hard drive.

When I started Donald Fagen’s “Morph the Cat,” I turned the volume down to make sure I wouldn’t blast everyone out of the booth. (After all, it is a Krell.) McKiegan had mentioned to me that along with detail and soundstaging, dynamics was a main goal of the RLX system. What surprised me was that “Morph the Cat” sounded unusually dynamic even with the sound turned down. The rear-mounted subwoofer gave my seat a nice kick, but had none of that nasty, high-Q booming sound people associate with car audio.

“Count Bubba” by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band confirmed what McKiegan had claimed about the soundstage: that it’s designed to sound like it’s at eye level rather than down in the dashboard, and that the system was built to mimic the sound of conventional speakers in a room. The horns in Goodwin’s band stretched across the RLX’s windshield, and thanks to that center speaker, I never got that “hard left/hard right” sound that one usually hears in cars. There was loads of detail, too, especially in the treble.

McKiegan said he’s certainly happy that the Acura relationship will introduce Krell to a much larger audience, but he’s just as concerned about the audience he has now. “There are Krell customers who’ll go check out this system to see how it sounds,” he explained, “and the worst thing that could happen is if they don’t think it sounds like Krell.”