Some high-end automakers tout their sybaritic bona fides through loud campaigns about their master-trained engine builders, generations-taught woodworkers and tanners, and hand-selected engineers of the finest class. Beyond being trendy, placing a face with the name responsible for craftsmanship of the highest order is a way to develop a more individualized experience with a product, especially an automobile.
Meanwhile, based deep in the rural hills of Connecticut, one man is actually hard at work perfecting the quality of high-end sound for Acura—although the Japanese automaker has made scant noise about it for nearly a decade.
Meet Elliot Scheiner, the sound engineer, winner of multiple Grammy and Emmy awards, and man behind the distinctive sound in tens of thousands of new cars sold each year.
Up until the mid-2000s, Scheiner had never worked in the automotive segment. The New York-born producer's background was in production for artists ranging from Steely Dan to the Eagles, having been in the music industry since the late '60s. After experimenting with surround sound in the '90s—then an emerging innovation, with controllable, separable speaker technology—he endeavored to find a way to share the experience with listeners. The personal car seemed the natural environment, as a mobile studio.
His pitch to automakers was simple: Make in-car audio sound as if it were an in-studio recording session.
"I made the pitch that it's never been done before—where a guy who's responsible for determining what music sounds like would also be responsible for the way it's played back," Scheiner said.
Speaker manufacturer Panasonic shopped the idea around to its clients, and six months later, Scheiner was presented an offer to work with Acura.
"They were suffering over the past years with terrible sound systems," he said. "When I saw the numbers, they were at the bottom of the totem pole. Everybody hated their system."
He began to work with Acura in the fall of 2002, and developed the ELS Premium Audio and subsequent ELS Studio nameplates to compete with the likes of Bose, Mark Levinson and Harman Kardon in the luxury segment. While respectful of each audio system, Scheiner wasn't convinced that even a name-brand sound system was tuned by the tradesmen who know music best.
"All these guys that do automotive audio are scientists. They go by numbers, and not what it really sounds like," he said. "Once I know what something sounds like, the reproduction is natural. All I'm trying to do is make it sound like it really sounds."
Since then, Scheiner has been responsible for development of Acura's high-end audio options in almost every model for sale. He's worked to replicate the tones that he hears in his custom-designed home studio by treating Acura interiors like scaled-down versions of the room. The casual listener might not expect world-class sound from the oddly shaped, second-floor room—"I've had three Grammy nominations out of this room," Scheiner said—but the setup of five controllable speakers has an astounding aural effect. He likes metal grilles and abhors plastic ones, and says that there surely are better materials than others when it comes to sound reflection, but that there is no ideal number of speakers.
Scheiner's first collaboration with Acura was late in the development process of the 2004 TL sedan, in which he had little say over the placement of eight speakers but was involved in the system's tuning.
"You can't say, 'I want another speaker here,' he said. "They'll tell you [off.]"
In that first TL, Scheiner said that surround sound "worked great if you were in the driver or passenger seat, [but] if you were sitting in the back, it was problematic because you couldn't really hear the front speakers."
Recognizing that the majority of trips were taken by the driver only, he worked to refine the speaker setup in later vehicles—such as the addition of a center-mounted speaker in the MDX sport-utility vehicle. His next work will be showcased in the upcoming ILX sedan and NSX supercar, both of which will have his stamp of approval for sound quality. (Scheiner still has a soft spot for the idiosynchratic ZDX crossover.)
But, for the proliferation of the ELS brand name and technology through Acura products, where high-end audio is bundled in most cases with navigation, it wasn't apparent that automakers would buy in to the concept. Before Acura signed on, Scheiner took the idea to a DVD audio consortium in New York, where his idea was met with more than a hint of skepticism.
"I went around to every OEM and said, 'Hey, I have this idea about putting surround sound in a car.' Everybody said, 'Well, we don't think we're going to do that, but even if we did, we certainly don't need you,'" Scheiner said. He sees a future for an even higher quality of digital music in-car playback, but couldn't disclose the details yet.
Toward the end of our interview at his home studio, Scheiner turned on Eric Clapton's "Layla," cycling through the different speaker channels. Experiencing the guitar's timbre and the iconic vocals hit five discrete points is a grin-inducing pleasure, making it impossible not to feel as theoretically close to being onstage as possible.
"That's what I wanted people to hear in cars," he said. "Exactly the way this feels."