Review: Burmester High-End Surround Sound-System for the Porsche Panamera

It’s hardly a new trend, hiring a high-end audio company to design — maybe build — an audio system upgrade for a car. Bose does it all the time, as do THX, B&W, Lexicon, and B&O

It’s win-win, better audio, a bit of extra profit, and brand exposure for the audio company. But when it’s a pairing of two storied companies like Porsche and Burmester, color me interested.

Conveniently, that color is “Yachting Blue.”

(To spare those who don’t care about cars I’ll be doing a full review of the car later in the week. For now, we’ll focus just on the Burmester audio system.)

A few facts and figures. The sixteen speakers throughout the lavish Panamera interior have a total of 372 square inches of radiating surface. Over 1,000 watts drives the drivers while you drive the drivers and you. Perhaps most impressive, the entire system only adds 26.5 pounds. Maybe that’s a small percentage for a vehicle that weighs over two tons, but notable given the performance potential. (For more on the drivers, check out the gallery to the right)

No less impressive is the amount of content available. There’s satellite radio of course, along with Bluetooth connection to your phone. In the armrest you’ll find an analog 1/8th-inch jack, along with a USB connection for iPods or a thumb drive. There’s even a thin, 5-inch-wide slot underneath the touchscreen. What this was for confused both fellow Tech2er Brent and myself until I realized it was clearly for making toast.

The interface isn’t very intuitive. Pressing areas of the touchscreen that seem like they should access certain menus (like pressing the song title to get a track listing), didn’t. To get a track listing, you have to press the “Disc” button below the screen. What?

However, the driver interface, using an ingenious clickable scroll-wheel, is about as intuitive as any car system I’ve used. Scroll up or down to change volume, scroll up or down to select a track, all the while a small LCD screen to the right of the tachometer tracks your progress. This screen doubles the satnav, car info, and other data from the main screen, so you don’t have to look as far away from the road.

During my initial listen to the Burmester system I found it to have a bit too much treble. This has been the case in most of the car audio systems in I’ve reviewed. I think it’s a combination of wanting acceptable treble when competing with road noise, and the knowledge on the part of manufacturers that the average person who’d buy a $100,000+ car probably can’t hear much about 12k anyway. Know your audience, it seems. I found reducing the treble by -2 in the Sound menu produced a flatter-sounding response.

There are multiple modes available: Smooth, Surround, Live, and Sound Conditioner. Smooth “is used to precisely reduce overemphasized frequencies in the midrange and treble, which may be present in highly compressed music.” This functions pretty much as advertised. I’d say it “takes the edge off.” Maybe a little too much when combined with my -2 treble setting, but given the option, I kept the -2 treble and didn’t use Smooth. Not a big deal either way, and easy to play around with.

Surround pulls the soundstage back to about where your head is when driving, and widens it towards the doors. I wouldn’t say it was as much of a faux-surround as I’ve heard in some other car systems, but it is more expansive. It’s natural enough that you could leave it enabled and not think the system was doing anything wonky.

Live “generates surround sound that sounds just like a live concert.” It’s just like the receiver surround modes you never use, and I certainly didn’t use it here.

Sound Conditioner adjusts the volume and frequency response depending on the noise level inside the car. I found it to be pretty subtle, and the car is quiet enough at speed that it’s not like you’re really missing out on a lot of detail because of road noise. I didn’t find any drawbacks to using it, either.

Out on the road, I started with one of my favorite driving songs: “Rods and Cones” by Blue Man Group. The Burmester system handled the prodigious bass of this track with no difficulty. It wasn’t boomy, though it wasn’t quite a tight as I’ve heard in other car systems. There was excellent mid-range punch. Without the Surround mode enabled, but the Symmetrical seating position active (as opposed to Front or Rear modes that cut the rear or front speakers respectively), the soundstage spread out at about dash level.

Changing it up a bit, I selected Julia Nunes’s “Stay Awake” from her Settle Down album. The added spaciousness of the Surround mode worked well for this track, though Nunes’s uke was a bit forward sounding. The high-end plucks and assorted instruments were very detailed, with great treble extension.

I found the same thing to be the case with Jónsi’s “Go Do” from his Go album. The whistles at the beginning were a bit too much, but the kick drums sounded powerful.

You don’t really need to turn up the system too loud, because as I mentioned, the car is pretty quiet. If you really want to blow the windows out, you can get some incredible volume out of the system. Mind-crushing SPL levels. In this way, it’s just like the rest of the car: capable of performance far beyond what mere mortals could ever take advantage of.

Bottom (Dotted Yellow) Line

The Burmester Audio system is a worthy upgrade to an all-around fantastic car. The bass is strong without being overbearing and the mids have punch even at high volumes. I eventually found a setting with the treble that worked, and though the quantity required adjustment, the quality did not. There was plenty of fine detail even on the highway.

At $3,999 the Burmester system is less than some other high-end offerings in other luxury cars. It’s far cheaper than a Burmester home system (and many other excellent home systems), and at only 2.3% of the $173,200 (!) base price of this Turbo S, it’s about as obvious an upgrade as I can think.