Over the past few years, a number of vehicle makers have aligned with Dolby to outfit their new models with a full-throttle Dolby Atmos sound system. Those brands include Mercedes-Benz, Lotus, and Volvo, and they have teamed up with some of the top makers of the best Dolby Atmos speakers such as KEF, Bowers & Wilkins, and Burmester to provide the audio hardware part of the equation.
At CES 2024, I was invited by Dolby to experience a Dolby Atmos music demo in a Mercedes-Benz S580 tricked out with a 4D sound system furnished by German manufacturer Burmester. The 31-speaker Burmester 4D configuration is an option for the latest MBUX generation infotainment system in Mercedes-Benz vehicles, and it allows for Atmos-compatible tracks to be streamed in an immersive format from Apple Music and Amazon Music.
Prior to the demo, my only experience with mobile immersive audio had been adjusting the fader control on my car stereo to create an acceptable blend between the front and back speakers. But I’ve had lots of experience listening to music in Dolby Atmos on a 5.1.2 speaker in my home theater, typically with an Apple TV 4K, but also with one of the best 4K Blu-ray players used as a source.
Dolby Atmos music provides an open, spatially adventurous presentation of a mix, with no sense of sound emanating directly from individual speakers. Instead, it washes over and around you in a seamless and compelling manner. There are plenty of great Dolby Atmos re-mixes of classic rock tracks on Apple Music to explore, along with interesting, and sometimes odd examples in genres from jazz to country to pop. Some music purists dismiss Atmos music as a gimmick, but I stand firmly in the fan camp.
So, how did Dolby Atmos music sound on the Mercedes-Benz S580’s 31-speaker 4D sound system?
On the road with Atmos
The demo started out with Elton John’s Rocket Man (1972), one of the first songs to be re-mixed in Dolby Atmos, according to Dolby. This was a good example of an Atmos track that gently washes over and around you, and the level of detail and spaciousness was notable for a car audio system.
Moving on to something more contemporary, we next listened to I Feel it Coming by The Weeknd and Daft Punk. The sound here was strikingly smooth and full, something no doubt due the component quality and fine-tuning of the speaker system by Burmester, which is one of Germany’s top high-end audio companies and one that has also developed in-car audio systems for luxury car brands such as Ferrari, Porsche, and Bugatti.
Wrapping up, the last track played was Boom by Tiësto, Sevenn, and Gucci Mane. This was the most dramatic demonstration of immersive Dolby Atmos music in a car yet, with sounds swirling around the cabin in a dynamic enough manner that I could imagine getting into a fender bender while listening to it. Even more impressive was the bass, which was smooth deep and tight, and nothing like I’ve ever heard from a car audio system before.
Along with Mercedes-Benz, Lotus, and Volvo, other North American Dolby carmaker partners include Lucid Motors and Polestar. At present it has a total of 10-plus partners, including other brands available outside the U.S.
It will be fantastic news if, by next CES, Dolby Atmos sound systems spread to more automobile brands beyond the luxury auto sector. Fingers crossed. But, according to Dolby, aftermarket in-car Atmos installations will also be a future option, which means that immersive music may eventually make it to my Mazda SUV.
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Al Griffin has been writing about and reviewing A/V tech since the days LaserDiscs roamed the earth, and was previously the editor of Sound & Vision magazine.
When not reviewing the latest and greatest gear or watching movies at home, he can usually be found out and about on a bike.