When it comes to in-car audio, you can’t adopt a one-system-fits-all approach.
Take the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. One car, available in three different body styles: coupé, saloon and convertible. Two of them offer the optional Burmester High-End 3D Surround Soundsystem, but those systems aren’t identical either.
The saloon set-up features 27 speakers, 1590W of total power and costs £6430, while the coupé version loses a couple of speakers, and power is reduced slightly to 1560W. The price is also trimmed to £5300.
That difference in spec comes down simply to space, with different styles of car requiring compromises. For example, the S-Class coupé, tested here, loses the height speakers you find in the rear roof panelling of the saloon. The rear centre speaker has also been moved to nestle between the rear seats.
While the coupé gets a ring radiator tweeter partnered with a midrange driver in each of the front doors, the saloon gets a fancy pair of rotating tweeters that spin out of the corners of the ‘A’ pillar, close to the wing mirror. The saloon also has extra woofers positioned in the rear doors, which isn’t possible in the three-door coupé.
It’s no surprise there’s no High-End 3D option available for the S-Class convertible – a fabric roof makes it impossible to accommodate height speakers in the lining.
The S-Class’s widescreen 12.3in display looks bright and glossy by modern standards, with crisply drawn graphics. It isn’t a touchscreen, which bucks the current trend in this class of car, but is no poorer for it.
Unfortunately the infotainment’s control system leaves a little to be desired. Whereas some models, such as the new A-Class, have a control system with a single, laptop-type touchpad, the S-Class uses the old touchpad and rotary dial combination in its centre console.
BMW’s iDrive system holds the crown for the most intuitive control system, but the Mercedes is rescued by its steering-wheel mounted controls, touch-sensitive squares that sit at 3 and 9 o’clock.
With a simple slide of your thumb you can navigate through and control virtually any element of the car’s infotainment system, from music playback to sat-nav. They simplify the whole process and allow you to concentrate on the road. You can even alter the sensitivity if you find them a bit too slow or too quick to react.
To help you get set up for the road, Burmester has designed its own Soundcheck app for Android and iOS. It’s a neat touch – the idea is to give you a proper taste of all the different sound modes on offer. It works across all cars offering a Burmester system, from the sporty AMG-GT to the luxury Maybach.
Plug your phone into the car’s USB input and the app guides you through each system’s sound profiles. You can compare them using snippets of songs that are preloaded in the app.
As with most modern high-end in-car systems, there are a number of different sound profiles to choose from. ‘Easy Listening’ claims to “delicately lower” over-emphasised highs and mids, while “tonal components for the compression of the musical substance are intelligently added to provide a relaxing listening enjoyment over longer periods of time.”
In reality, it sounds too compressed, as if someone’s thrown a duvet over the artist while they’re playing.
‘Live’ transports you to a “virtual live concert venue”, but while it ramps up the excitement by emphasising leading edges, it sacrifices some refinement and balance. ‘Surround’ and ‘3D-Sound’ options alter the impact of the various surround and height speakers and, consequently, your feeling of immersion.
There is also a no-frills ‘Pure’ mode, which is claimed to deliver an unfiltered sound with no added effects, but we don’t find the other settings detract too much from the overall quality of sound.
If you are driving solo, we’d suggest engaging the ‘VIP’ sound mode. This optimises the sound for the driver’s seat, bringing the soundfield more into focus, positioning it front and centre, just above the top edge of your steering wheel.
You can hear the soundstage reorganise itself as it shifts more information over to the driver side, making the track sound fuller and more detailed with it.
We play Blinded By The Lights by The Streets, and our attention is drawn to the Burmester’s bass. We go into the menus to rein it in, and once that bass is under control, the system’s strengths are allowed to shine through. Mike Skinner’s matter-of-fact delivery comes through loud and clear with plenty of detail.
We switch to some ’80s electronica in OMD’s Electricity, and the Burmester system does a fine job of setting the sonic scene. There’s space around all the various elements: percussion, guitars, vocals and those playful electronic synths are all in focus and sharply drawn. The surround and overhead speakers give the system height and depth. The track’s playful electronic synths sound explicit and crisp, but stop short of sounding harsh.
The bassline sounds fulsome and is easy enough to follow, but it doesn’t display the same sense of determination and drive as the Naim system found in the latest Continental GT – dynamically, it doesn’t pique our interest in the same way. Calling the presentation flat would be harsh, but it lacks that infectious sense of fun that some rivals offer.
Compared with the standard Burmester system you get with the S-Class Coupé, this High-End set-up sounds more capable, more powerful and more convincing. With only 13 speakers and a total of 590W, it’s no real surprise that the standard set-up sounds outgunned and overpowered. Add in the height channels, which the standard system also lacks, and you get a much fuller, more immersive soundfield. Overall dispersion is better, as is the level of sound quality. You can hear the impact of switching from aluminium dome tweeters in the standard system to the ring radiators of the advanced set-up.
There’s a greater sense of refinement, and precision to highs is better than on the standard set-up – as you might expect.
The Burmester High-End 3D Surround Soundsystem (2019 Mercedes S-Class coupé) is a hugely capable car audio system. It’s as detailed and powerful-sounding as we’ve heard at this level, but it isn’t quite the ultimate in timing, dynamic subtlety and cohesiveness – the Naim for Bentley system in the latest Continental GT pips it in each of those departments.
However, the High-End 3D system is a big improvement over the standard Burmester set-up, so if you want the best audio from your Mercedes S-Class and your budget can stretch a little further, it’s a box that should be ticked. You’ll be disappointed if you don't.