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Mercedes-Benz’s new sound system could finally push music beyond stereo

The Dolby Atmos sound system in the newly revealed Mercedes-Benz EQE SUV is one of the EV's highlights.
Enlarge / The Dolby Atmos sound system in the newly revealed Mercedes-Benz EQE SUV is one of the EV’s highlights.

Mercedes-Benz

PARIS — For the debut of a car that’s virtually silent, Mercedes-Benz sure spent a long time talking about sound at the international debut of the EQE SUV this week in Paris. Yes, the fully electric machine does have some (optional) fake engine noises on the inside, but it was actually the Burmester surround-sound system that stole the show.

After the car’s debut, Mercedes-Benz announced a partnership with Apple Music, Universal Music Group, and Dolby to become the first cars natively offering Dolby Atmos from Apple Music. Increasingly common in top-tier movie theaters, Atmos allows audio producers to position sounds anywhere they like in 3D space. Now, the technology is hitting music-streaming services.

“It started in the theater 10 years ago, and it’s now the state of the art in making film soundtracks, but it’s now in music,” Patrick Rossi, VP of commercial partnerships at Dolby said at the EQE SUV unveil. “It allows the musician and their audio team to really place audio elements in space. They’re no longer constrained by putting them in the left speaker or the right speaker, but they can put them anywhere they want.”

“This is the greatest leap forward in music sonically since the transition from mono to stereo,” Derek “MixedByAli” Ali told me, a mixing engineer who has worked with Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, and plenty more.

I confess my gut reaction was to think that 3D positional audio in music is overkill, but after 60 years of stereo, Ali said this is overdue: “I mean, yeah, just like you had people back in the day that only wanted to work in mono before stereo, right? ” he told me at a mixing studio in Paris. “We’re gonna have that pushback, but it’s the creatives [who] are the ones that need to understand it, because they’re gonna be the one screaming from the rooftops, ‘I fucking need it.’ “

Ali let me play with the Atmos mix of the song “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” by Glass Animals. Using a mouse, I drew a path in a virtual 3D space. Then, with a few clicks, Ali assigned the vocal track to that path and played the song. The lyrics seemed to float around and above me, following that simple path I’d charted.

The recording studio in Paris where we got a chance to try 3D sound design.
Enlarge / The recording studio in Paris where we got a chance to try 3D sound design.

Tim Stevens

My mix was crude, to say the least, but even the Beatles got stereo wrong at first. “If you listen to Abbey Road, right, they’re panning things left and right. That’s trial and error. They’re testing this format, right? This is where we’re at now. “

So where does Mercedes-Benz come in? The company is enabling this surround technology in the Burmester “High-End 4D” package, which includes a whopping 31 speakers and a further eight “transducers” to specifically channel the sound through the seat — and, by extension, through you. The development of this system and the integration with Dolby Atmos and Apple Music was a two-and-a-half-year effort, according to Markus Schäfer, Mercedes-Benz CTO: “This was a long journey that required software experts and hardware experts to get this result done. ”

How was this result? Breathtaking, I must say. The Burmester sound system was already sublime. Adding the positional aspect makes experiencing complex tracks a true experience. More than one listener got a little emotional after getting out of the car.

For now, sadly, the hallmark Atmos effect only works when streaming through Apple Music. Why exclusivity with a streaming platform that makes up just 15 percent of the market? Mercedes-Benz Chairman Ola Källenius said the company wanted to launch with a partner similarly obsessed with sound and technology. “You cannot just take Lego pieces and just put them in, you actually have to do real engineering to turn that car into a concert hall,” he told me. But, he confessed that other providers will come. “Somebody needs to show how it’s done, but we will give our customers choice.”

How much for this choice? Currently, the 4D upgrade on the Burmester sound system is a $ 6,730 option on the S-Class. Mercedes-Benz says the feature will also be available on both EQE and EQS sedans and SUVs. Expensive? Yes, but perhaps a fair price to turn an EV into a rolling concert hall.

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