“The last person shed a tear when they heard it”, says the man sat in the front seat of the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class, as we sink into the back seats. Sure, he works for Mercedes, but it’s a particularly bold claim, regardless. “Wow”, I reply, doing my best to hide my scepticism. We’re about to hear Mercedes’ brand new, top-of-the-range Apple Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos sound system, and, well, I don’t expect to be brought to tears (unless it’s over the price tag). But I’m certainly all ears…
Mercedes-Benz has become the first car manufacturer to offer Apple Spatial Audio sound systems, the latest example of one-upmanship in the increasingly heated battleground that is the world of in-car audio. And, in theory, surround sound in our cars makes a lot of sense.
Firstly, we’re big fans of spatial audio with movies - whether Apple Spatial Audio, Dolby Atmos, or DTS:X - when it’s done properly. If you have the space, money, and desire to plant speakers all around your listening room at home, and have a system that can do the technology justice, then there’s no match for a cinematic experience from multiple speakers that really do surround you.
The best Dolby Atmos soundbars have impressed us too, though at the same time you have to understand that it won’t touch the real thing from a speaker system; you need to match the extra channels of sound with a similar number of speakers and have them above and around you, to really make the most of it. And it's a similar story with Apple Spatial Audio using AirPods (or any headphones) – genuinely impressive albeit no match for a speaker system.
Even with music, where we instinctively lean towards listening in stereo, especially if that’s how the recording was originally made, we have been persuaded by a surround sound mix that’s engineered properly and presented on good equipment.
So, why does Apple Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos make a lot of sense as an in-car audio system?
First, it’s a pretty good surround sound room, straight off the bat. Premium systems already feature speakers spread around the car, behind and often above you, so that’s one big tick. Furthermore, premium cars are built to keep the leaking of noise in and out to a minimum while generally preferring curved edges, both of which make for a decent place to play music.
Lastly, a car system is built with the advantage of knowing everyone’s seating position, ideal for tailoring object-based audio to your ears.
Now that in-car audio systems from respected audio companies have become a standard upgrade option for premium motors, it makes sense to up the ante and offer spatial audio.
Mercedes-Benz is not just the first car company to support Apple Spatial Audio, it's the first company at all, outside of Apple.
There are two systems available across a wide range of cars, albeit all at the premium end of the market, including the new Mercedes EQE SUV and AMG EQE SUV, plus the EQE, EQS SUV, EQS, SL, S-Class and S-Class Maybach.
The top-of-the-range Burmester 4D sound system features a whopping 31 speakers, including six 3D speakers that emit their sound from above, 4 near-ear speakers in the front seats, an 18.5-litre subwoofer, 8 sound transducers or “exciters” (two per seat), 2 amplifiers, and 1750 watts of power.
Most crucially, the speakers really are all around you, with speakers above the rearview mirror and in the middle of the roof giving you as much height as possible inside the car. This second bank of speakers in the middle of the car is missing from the 3D sound system, which features 'just' 15 speakers.
A “concert hall at your fingertips” is the promise of this speaker system, and that’s what I’m listening out for as I take in the surroundings of the Mercedes-Maybach, briefly imagining my parallel life as an oligarch able to afford such a vehicle.
One thing is for sure, the system goes incredibly loud, much to the delight of Mr. Mercedes. But to his credit, we’re treated to a good range of tracks to show that this system is anything but a blunt instrument that can only impress with specs and scale alone.
John Lennon’s Imagine has, somewhat improbably, been given the Dolby Atmos treatment and while we still have the directness and immediacy required to engage us with the vocals, there’s no denying we feel more enveloped in the track, and it feels even harder to escape its saccharine message.
Talking of saccharine, we switch to Shallow from A Star is Born, and enjoy the spectacular vocals of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Was this moment that brought one listener to tears? Possibly. Certainly, we are struck by the fidelity on show here, and our initial scepticism becomes a distant memory.
It’s no longer just about sounds whizzing around you thanks to the surround sound but instead a much more subtle enhancement of an excellent track, the system adding space, drama and emotion. No tears were shed but our car of four people certainly fell silent in appreciation. Burmester has clearly done a fine job on the system as a whole, regardless of the spec sheet.
Just to ensure nobody would start crying, our host quickly fires up Boom by Tiësto & Sevenn, the sort of EDM workout you might put on repeat at high volume when you fall out with your neighbours. Thankfully a minute or so is just right to show exactly how precise and dynamic this 4D sound system can be, packing incredible punch and clarity as the bass and FX surround us.
This is also when the ‘exciters’ come into play. Feeling like a cross between a back massage and subwoofer in your stomach, they ultimately prove a whole lot of fun with the right track. It’s hard to argue against this adding a genuine fourth dimension – but it won't be for everyone.
Fifteen minutes on the back seat of someone’s car isn’t the best way to form an opinion on anything, but it was hard not to think that Mercedes-Benz, Apple, and Dolby are really on to something here, with no small amount of help from Burmester.
We certainly don’t think surround sound works for music in every situation - if you’re listening to a pair of stereo speakers, we think you want a stereo audio track. (Sounds obvious, right?) But even surround sound tracks can sound substandard if the system isn’t up to scratch or the mix isn’t making the most of the medium.
Interestingly, we do get a brief listen to one of the tracks in stereo mode. Ostensibly to demonstrate how small and substandard it sounds by comparison, but in reality, we wonder whether we enjoy a little more clarity and control, especially with vocals. It will remain a case of horses for courses when it comes to music in Apple Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos.
But it’s early days and we remain impressed. A high-end car, chock full of speakers, is definitely a place where surround sound audio can really work. And with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Apple, Universal, and Burmester behind it, we can’t wait to see where it goes. Just don’t forget your tissues.