When two of my passions collide in one product, I take notice. I'm very passionate about SUVs. I also have a passion for audio. So when I was offered the opportunity to explore the THX-II Certified Car Audio System in the new Lincoln MKT, I latched on with both claws.
What is THX, anyway?
To avid moviegoers, the THX brand promises pure performance.
THX is a sound and video engineering company that designs and certifies movie theaters, audio systems, HDTVs, movies and video games.
THX evolved from George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch, debuting to the public with the release of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in 1983. Lucas is typically cryptic about the origins of the THX name. It may take its "T" and "H" from Tomlinson Holman, the audio scientist who was hired to develop the first standards, or it may be an homage to Lucas's first full-length feature film, THX 1138. Lucas has shown an attachment to the alpha numeric, using it in his productions American Graffiti and Raiders of the Lost Ark (THX 1138 is the license plate on Milner's hot rod in the former; and it is stenciled on the German plane that Indiana Jones and the giant German mechanic fight around in the Egyptian desert), among other places.
Whatever the letters "T," "H" and "X" stand for, THX the company creates standards for audio and video reproduction, and then works with equipment manufacturers and cinema owners to engineer ways to achieve those standards.
THX quickly expanded from professional certification of movie houses to certification of consumer electronics. Consumers have been willing to pay a premium for the THX logo on the front of various amplifiers, receivers and speaker systems, secure in the knowledge that THX certification means that their equipment will perform up to the exacting standards of the THX sound engineers. I own a Rotel home theater amplifier that is THX certified, and THX certification was an important factor in my purchase.
THX dipped a toe in automotive audio with BMW, which achieved THX Car Audio Certification for the Z4 Coupe and Z4 Roadster, but Lincoln is the first brand to achieve THX-II Certification for its SUVs, including the (now-defunct) Aviator, Navigator, MKX and the new MKT.
Room for sound
My initial guess was that an SUV's bigger cabin would be a boon to sound engineers, with more room to create a sense of space, not to mention more physical space in which to place equipment. But it turns out that the opposite is true -- every inch of space is at a premium in an SUV, and sound engineers have to fight for speaker mounting points, amplifier space and subwoofer room.
According to Laurie Fincham, THX's Chief Scientist and Vice-President of Research & Development, an SUV represents more of a challenge as a listening environment. The larger cabin, with more passenger and cargo volume and many reflecting surfaces, creates engineering issues which are much more complex than a coupe's compact dimensions. Also, an SUV's many seating positions must each be addressed and catered to.
I spent several days with a 2010 Lincoln MKT equipped with the Elite Package of options ($4,000), which included the THX-II Certified Car Audio System. The system features AM/FM radio, Sirius Satellite Radio capability, Jukebox hard drive with Gracenote technology, an in-dash DVD player, and 600 watts of amplification with 14 speakers. The THX Certified imprint is imprinted on several of the visible speakers, and the logo appears subtly on the head unit. A cool THX splash screen comes up on the nav screen when you power up the system, priming you for how special your audio experience will be.
I tested the system with all of the available sources. I also connected my 160 GB iPod Classic via an Apple cable to the MKT's USB jack, and via a cheap Radio Shack mini-to-mini (3.5 mm) cable from the iPod's headphone jack to the MKT's auxiliary input. I was unable to get my iPhone 3GS to connect to the system via Bluetooth Streaming Audio, though the MKT's menus indicated that it would work. Bluetooth Streaming Audio is wonky technology at best, so I wouldn't hold that against the MKT. The satellite radio unit in my test vehicle was not activated, so I couldn't evaluate its sound.
I brought several audio CDs and video DVDs along with me in the MKT as well, including the 1994 remaster of Led Zeppelin's first album (Led Zeppelin), Amos Lee's beautifully-recorded The Last Days at the Lodge, and the 2003 "Extreme DVD" edition of James Cameron's best film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Why those discs? Because I know them very well, and they display the kinds of dynamics that I like in my critical listening. Scientists and engineers can measure sound, and those measurements can tell you a lot if you know what they mean. But our ears are the most important measuring devices, and you can only evaluate a system's performance if you know what you're listening for. I always equip myself with some familiar favorites when I'm listening to a new, unfamiliar system.
I listened to the MKT's system while driving on a long highway run, while driving down country roads, and while fighting urban traffic. I also parked in quiet spots, and sat in all of the seating positions to listen to some tunes. The MKT's navigation screen also serves as a video screen for watching DVD movies in full color, but only when the vehicle is in park with the parking brake activated. I'm not sure that I'd ever take advantage of that feature, but I guess it could be handy.
The audio system integrates seamlessly with the operation of the vehicle, thanks in large part to the excellent Sync technology that's included with the MKT. If you've ever worked one of the systems of nested menus, you'll be able to work the MKT's touchscreen in minutes. Options are never hidden more than a few choices away, and controls are simple and obvious. Major functions are duplicated on the steering wheel, like volume, channel and source selection, and Sync's voice command can also access most of the audio system's functions.