Lincoln MKT THX II Sound System

It's not often that someone tosses me the keys to a new car, tells me to take it out for a few hours, and encourages me to crank up the stereo as loud as I want. But that's just what happened last week at the press junket that marked the debut of the new Lincoln MKT crossover vehicle. Unlike all the other journalists in attendance, I wasn't there in San Francisco to check out the MKT's dual-turbo EcoBoost engine. I was there solely to listen to its new THX II sound system.

So while the other journos traded off driving new sedans down some pre-mapped route, I was given four hours on my own with an MKT, a full tank of gas, my iPod, and a CD of my favorite test tracks.

Test #1: Rammstein

Rather than tear right into a technical evaluation, I decided on a simpler first test: to see if I could have any fun with this system. I immediately threw down the gauntlet by hitting the Media button on the steering wheel and commanding, "Play track Laichzeit"-referring to a tune from Rammstein's Herzeleid album.

Despite my use of the correct German pronunciation (roughly, "like-zyte"), the system found the track on my iPod, which was connected through a USB jack in the center console. (The system will also play tunes from a USB thumb drive, or from a non-iPod music player connected through a 3.5mm minijack.) I cranked the system up all the way just to see what it could do, and was rewarded with some of the cleanest, most kick-ass sound I've ever heard in a car.

It wasn't the "boom-boom" sound one might associate with a hopped-up Honda Civic; this was more like listening to a good home system. Lead singer Till Lindemann's voice growled just as it should, the bass sounded fairly powerful, and the side-view mirrors vibrated along with the beat. (The rear-view mirror remained too still for my taste, though.) Only blocks away from the former Ford automotive factory in Richmond, California, where the event took place, I was held up for several minutes by a passing train, but forgot all about the delay because I was enjoying the sound so much.

Crankability was a main goal for THX chief scientist Laurie Fincham and his team when they were designing this system-although he didn't put it quite that way. "We were going for wide bandwidth and unrestrained dynamics," Fincham said. "The goal was that the customer should not hear any artifacts." To that end, digital signal processing in the amplifiers monitors the power being delivered to each channel and limits the output when necessary to protect the speaker drivers. Fincham says the system can reach average levels of 110 dB and peak levels of 125 dB.

Subjectively, it was loud enough to rock but not loud enough that it ever hurt my ears. You might say it's crazy-loud, but you wouldn't call it stupid-loud.

Test #2: Steely Dan

OK, so the system played loud. But the buyer of a $45,000 luxury crossover vehicle isn't likely to play the music of German industrial-metal bands at crazy-loud volumes. This buyer is affluent, sophisticated, and mature. They like performers like Coldplay (nope, not on my iPod). Or Elton John (also not on my iPod). Or Steely Dan (yep, that one I've got).

I often play Steely Dan's "Aja" to get a quick idea of a system's overall performance. This track has it all: a studio-slick, grooving bass line; delicate percussion; Donald Fagen's trademark reedy vocals; and a great tenor sax solo by jazz legend Wayne Shorter. The MKT's THX system pretty much nailed it. In fact, listening to "Aja" and driving this car through beautiful Marin County made me feel fleetingly like the successful yuppie business executive my mother always hoped I would be.

Noticing how natural Fagen's voice and Shorter's tenor sounded, I marveled that the system's 14 separate speaker drivers could coalesce so seamlessly. Part of that, I'm sure, results from the precision digital crossovers used to split the signal among the various drivers. The mids and highs didn't sound quite as smooth as they do on my home system, but they came as close as a car system probably can. In fact, the THX II car system reminded me of the THX Ultra II home speaker systems from Snell and Atlantic Technology, in that all of these systems sound really good no matter what kind of music you play on them.

The one place where the sound didn't remind me of a home THX system was in the bass, which was satisfying but not particularly deep, and a little undefined at times. But there's only so much you can do with one 8-inch woofer mounted in a car made from sheet metal.

According to THX PR manager Graham McKenna, the MKT is the first car to feature DTS Neural Surround, a matrix surround-sound decoding technology somewhat like Dolby Pro Logic II and Lexicon Logic7. (Neural Surround can also be used as a surround-encoding technology for digital and FM radio broadcasts and other stereo material.) The Neural Surround effect sounded fantastic on Steely Dan and most other pop and rock music; only on a few jazz and classical recordings did it sound hyped-up and unnatural.