Over the years I've been fortunate to follow Dolby Atmos' path in detail: from its inception where the three-dimensional object-based surround sound was introduced for Dolby Cinema, to more leftfield installations such as at the Ministry of Sound club in London, kicking off its wider use in music projects.
Now Dolby Atmos is here for the car, with Apple Music and Mercedes-Benz the first to introduce the format through that streaming service. And I got to listen to a bunch of tracks in Dolby Atmos format via Apple Music in the all-new EQE SUV at a launch event in Paris, France, with the car's 15-speaker Burmester soundsystem able to deliver a convincing surround experience.
Dolby Atmos is an interesting concept: music producers can mix beyond a typical stereo recording's left and right channels into a near-infinite space instead, including the ability to change a sound's height and position throughout a surrounding hemispherical 'dome'. That can be a single piece of the track; be that a stem, an effect, riser, vocal or whatever – each moving independently. Think of it like a movie soundtrack but for music, which can be used to delicate or transformative effect.
But to get the best from Dolby Atmos music you really need a soundsystem that's got lots of speakers arranged into channels to encompass overhead, rear and sides. Sure, it's also possible to use upfiring drivers and psychoacoustics to deliver the impression of more immersion, which audio companies have been doing for years, but in the Mercedes-Benz EQE SUV you get the real deal through its 15 speakers.
I've listened to a full range in the car too. From the swirling effects of Tiesto and Sevenn's Boom, to the delicate I'm-in-the-middle-of-the-studio piano in John Lennon's Imagine, to the thunderous impact and overhead motion effects in Imagine Dragons and J.I.D's Enemy. Most people won't ever have a soundsystem at home this impressive, frankly, but seeing as many people probably listen for longer in their car, it's a savvy move to offer such support.
The Dolby Atmos upgrade will be available for Mercedes' S-Class (2021 onwards), EQE, EQE SUV, EQS and EQS SUV, joining the Maybach where it's already part of the top-end soundsystem (with 39 speakers total, including four 'seat exciters', and way more overheads for an out-of-this-world result – but also an out-of-this-world price). Mercedes isn't the only one in on the act, however, with the Lucid Air being the car to take that 'first' checkbox earlier in the year.
It's also worth pointing out that you'll need to be an Apple Music subscriber and streaming tracks through the music service directly in your car. If you plug in Apple CarPlay then there's no way the car's on-board system can provide the necessary processing to deliver the surround sound experience. So that's something of a caveat: you'll need to trust all the car's systems, navigation and all, to get this full audio experience. A phone delivering audio via Bluetooth also won't be able to deliver Dolby Atmos at this stage either, despite services such as Tidal already offering Atmos, so I do wonder if that will be made possible in the future.
Still, as it stands, I've heard nothing better in a car to date. The additional sense of immersion, the impactful bass, the sheer clout of the full range on offer, Burmester and Mercedes and Apple Music and Dolby have come together in a wonderful unison that's a total treat for the ears.