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Satellite Radio Blasts Off

XM and Sirius satellite radio services reach orbital velocity with an army of listeners and tantalizing new options. What's your best choice?
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

When satellite radio was introduced in 2001, the naysayers were out in force. Who in his right mind was going to pay $10 or more every month to listen to radio? And judging from the early numbers, it was hard to argue the point. XM Radio was first to market in November 2001 and, after the holiday season, had a measly 30,000 paying customers to show for its efforts.

Sirius's service didn't launch until July 2002 and, by the end of the year, had roughly 34,000 subscribers. In October 2002, Wired News ran a story headlined Was Satellite Radio a Big Waste? What a difference a few years make. Today satellite radio is soaring. By the end of 2004, XM Radio boasted 3.2 million subscribers, nearly doubling its audience in a single year. Sirius, while still much smaller, reported an even more impressive growth rate, nearly quadrupling its subscriber base to 1.1 million during 2004.

And, of course, Sirius grabbed headlines when it dropped the H- (as in Howard) bomb in October, signing Howard Stern for a five-year stint at a cool half a billion dollars. That's "billion" with a "b" my friends—this satellite radio stuff is serious business.

So what went right? First and foremost, cars started arriving in dealer showrooms with satellite radios preinstalled. While listening in your car isn't the only way to hear satellite radio, it's certainly the driving force (sorry) behind the industry. When XM and Sirius first launched, the only way to receive satellite radio in your car was to replace your existing car stereo, a process that combined three deal killers in one—the expense of buying a new radio, the hassle of having it installed, and the prospect of paying a monthly subscription fee. With the radio preinstalled when you buy a new vehicle, all you have to do is pony up for the subscription fee ($9.99 monthly for XM, $12.95 for Sirius). It must be working—GM alone has built more than a million cars and trucks with XM radios.

Second, the satellite radios themselves improved dramatically. Built-in car units became more attractive and modular radio receivers became small enough to carry and dock in cradles in your car or your home or even in a boombox. XM now has a line of handheld portables that let you listen iPod-style to satellite programming.

Increased consumer awareness of satellite radio has also fueled the boom. Throwing advertising dollars at the problem was fine for attracting early adopters, but now we've reached the stage where most of us know someone with a satellite radio receiver and may have experienced the benefits firsthand. As with other innovative technologies in recent years (TiVo and HDTV spring to mind), the good news spreads like a benign virus through the population.

And most important, it is good news. Both Sirius and XM are delivering on their promise, providing programming that entertains, informs and stimulates—a sharp contrast to the creative meltdown in commercial broadcast radio. Yes, plenty of top-40 rock music beams down from those satellites, but lots of classical, jazz, country, blues and reggae, with song choices that aren't limited to a straitjacket playlist, can be tuned in, too. Sirius and XM each offers more than 120 channels, over half devoted to music, the rest a diverse mixture of news, talk, sports, comedy, even radio drama. And all of the music channels on both services are delivered commercial-free. Ahhhh, sweet relief!

There's wholesome kids' programming, nearly nonexistent on broadcast radio, and uncensored standup comedy (the absence of censorship also extends to music CDs labeled with parental-advisory stickers that you can usually hear only if you buy them at your local store). Even the news and talk radio provided by the satellite services leave broadcast radio in the dust, with multiple round-the clock national and international news sources, sports talk and political commentary from all over the political spectrum.

Furthermore, both of the satellite systems broadcast program information along with their audio content, so the track name and artist for the music you're enjoying is always displayed on the radio's LCD screen.

And all of this programming is available from coast to coast. You know that sinking feeling when you're tooling down the highway and your favorite cool jazz station fades away, replaced by static or, even worse, some caterwauling country duo? Gone. You're never out of range of a satellite. You can stick with the same stations throughout the lower 48. And in cities where the view of the sky is obstructed by buildings too big to allow a clear satellite signal, you'll likely find a terrestrial repeater rebroadcasting the station lineup—you'll never know the difference; the receiver simply picks up the repeater's signal when the satellite's obscured.

What's the best way to tap into this cornucopia of auditory pleasures? You'll need to consider where you're likely to listen (which will guide your equipment choices) and whether there are specific stations that make Sirius or XM a superior choice to suit your personal preferences.

Hear and There
"To enjoy satellite radio service you need a receiver, and these come in two incompatible flavors: a single box will tune in either XM or Sirius, not both (though some do include AM/FM tuners). The kind of receiver you choose is trickier than it would be with a straight AM/FM radio because we're talking about a subscription service, and the subscription is tied to that individual radio receiver. Each of the services will let you add more receivers to your account for less than the full price of a new subscription. Both XM and Sirius charge $6.99 each for up to four additional radios. That's not a bad deal if you have multiple family members who want their own satellite radios, but it starts to run into money if it's just you listening in a few different places—hence the allure of portable solutions.

In the Car
"Let's start by considering your in-car options. When you buy a new car, the satellite system you'll be offered depends on the model you choose. GM is a major investor in XM, meaning XM exclusivity for its divisions. Selected models from Acura, Audi, Honda, Infiniti, Isuzu, Lexus, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen are also available XM-equipped. Sirius has exclusive arrangements with BMW, DaimlerChrysler and Ford, while Audi, Infiniti, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, MINI, Nissan and Volkswagen offer Sirius radios in selected models.

Above and beyond the actual receiver, you'll also need to install a satellite radio antenna. This isn't like AM or FM, in which the signals are bouncing through the air here and there. Satellite radio comes from above, beamed down from space in a high-tech effort to keep your toes a-tapping, and you need an antenna pointed toward those satellites to receive the signal. The good news: these antennas have become much more compact and unobtrusive in the past few years. My first-generation XM car radio required a fist-sized antenna shaped like a shark's fin attached to the trunk. It practically screamed "steal me" and, by George, someone did, along with the radio out of the dash and everything in the glove compartment. You'll still need an antenna affixed to the outside of your car, but the current versions are unobtrusive, about the size of a short stack of quarters and easily mounted on a car roof or trunk.

OK, getting back on the road again, let's consider adding satellite radio to your existing vehicle. If your car's head unit (the AM/FM plus CD or whatever unit is installed in your dashboard) is satellite radio—ready, you can upgrade by adding a separate satellite tuner box (in the trunk or under a seat)—simple for a trained installer. If your current head unit isn't satellite-ready, consider the new Starbase adapter ($170), which, along with a SiriusConnect receiver box, can add satellite service to any vehicle radio. This solution does require a separate display, since the satellite radio info isn't piped through your existing car stereo, and it isn't cheap, so replacing the head unit with a satellite-ready model may be a better choice. Dozens of Sirius- and XM-ready models are available at a wide range of prices, and replacing an existing head unit is a simple operation for a skilled installer.

For the ne plus ultra of satellite radio experiences, you can take advantage of a new service called XM NavTraffic, which beams real-time traffic information to an in-car navigation system. Ordinarily, a GPS navigation unit recommends a route with no knowledge of what actually lies on the road ahead. Add NavTraffic to the mix, though, and the system can calculate your path based on current traffic conditions. The system launched in April 2004 with a single vehicle model (the 2005 Acura RL) and coverage in 20 metropolitan areas (the list is available at www.xmradio.com/xmnavtraffic). Today you can have a NavTraffic-compatible system installed in any vehicle, thanks to Pioneer's introduction of the AVIC-N2, a full-featured combination entertainment/navigation system with a large LCD touch-screen display, DVD/CD player and AM/FM/XM radio playback. The system sells for $2,550, and the monthly NavTraffic/XM Radio subscription combo costs $13.99.

But before you pull into your local car audio dealership waving a credit card, consider the potential of a modular receiver system. You take a portable tuner unit—some are about the size of a deck of cards; even the biggest are smaller than a paperback book—and slip it into a docking cradle connected to a power source, an antenna and some kind of audio system. In your car, the cradle can be wired into the car's electrical system or plugged into the cigarette lighter, the antenna permanently mounted outside the car or stuck on magnetically. As for feeding into the car audio system, this can be accomplished via a wired connection, an adapter that slips into a cassette player, or a simple cable into a head unit's auxiliary input jack (if you have one). Some modular receivers even have a built-in radio transmitter that lets you beam the audio wirelessly to your car stereo on an unused FM frequency. That doesn't always produce perfect sound quality (remember, your car radio antenna is outside, and you're inside with the nice upholstery and the air conditioning), but it works in a pinch.

Several modular receivers are available for each system, all of them inexpensive (around $100) and perfectly adequate. One model with an unusual twist is Delphi's XM SKYFi2, which includes a 30-minute replay capability. Were you distracted and want to "rewind" a broadcast? No problem—the last half hour's audio is always being stored. Similarly, you can pause a program, say when your phone rings, and pick up right where you left off when the call's through.

Granted, using a modular satellite receiver in your car is less elegant than a simple in-dash installation. However, you might not be sitting behind the wheel every time you want to enjoy satellite radio, and a modular tuner can easily be carried into your home or office.

At Home
"For indoor listening with a modular receiver, you'll need a desktop cradle connected to some kind of amplification (either a home stereo or the free-standing powered speakers used for computer audio). You'll probably also need an antenna, which can be a challenge indoors. Unless you're in an area covered by a terrestrial repeater, you'll need to position a satellite radio antenna near a window, and one that's pointed in the right direction, i.e., toward the satellite's orbit. This can be a problem—if all your windows point north and the satellites are in the southern sky, you could be out of luck. With this in mind, it's wise to buy your gear from a dealer who'll accept returns if you can't get a clear signal. On the other hand, I've been impressed with the sensitivity of current-generation antennas and receivers, even under poor conditions.

Modular receivers and cradles are one indoor solution, but they're not your only option. You might choose a satellite tuner that looks like a standard stereo component and fits neatly with your existing audio system. For example, Polk Audio offers the XRt12 ($330), a sleek component receiver with a built-in screen to display channel and program information, plus a video output to pipe that info to your TV. Sound quality is superb, and you can add the receiver to an existing XM subscription for another $6.99 a month.

Another indoor alternative comes from Tivoli Audio for the Sirius satellite system. Tivoli makes my favorite "table radios"—compact, high-fidelity, wood-encased desktop models with a retro style and a full-bodied sound. With the Model Satellite ($300), you get the standard AM/FM plus a Sirius satellite tuner, with a large LCD readout. Add an optional stereo speaker ($50), subwoofer ($80) and CD player ($200) if you choose to create a complete audio system that fills a small room with sweet soul-warming sound.

Finally, Sirius has long offered and XM recently introduced Internet-based streaming services that pipe their music channels into your home via the computer. It's a great way to listen while you work, and if you have a computer hooked up to your stereo or home theater system (increasingly common in the age of Media Center PCs), you have a tremendous variety of commercial-free music at your fingertips. Sirius radio service may cost more per month, but it does throw in the Internet for free. XM, on the other hand, expects you to pony up an additional $3.99 a month for the privilege (you can also subscribe online-only for $7.99). Note that neither Sirius nor XM streams all of its channels online, since many of the talk-radio stations they carry via satellite have their own Internet arrangements.

On the Go
"Where else would you like to listen to satellite radio? Sitting in the backyard, sunning on the beach, walking down the street? While satellite is a bit tougher in this role than good old AM/FM due to the skyward antenna requirement, there are possibilities.

One option is to slip a modular receiver into a boombox-style portable radio. There are several inexpensive models available that deliver only satellite audio (i.e., no AM/FM radio or CD player), but it's hard to recommend a portable solution that goes completely silent when you can't see the sky above. I'd spend a little more and go for the soon-to-be-released Blaupunkt boombox for the Sirius system, which works with its SR04 modular receiver ($149.99, sold separately). The highest-quality satellite boombox I've seen so far, though, is the Audiophase XM SKYBOX ($170), with a built-in satellite radio, AM/FM tuner and CD player that also plays MP3s stored on disc. It makes a nice table radio in the house, and while you probably won't want to haul the 10-pound "portable" very far, it does move gracefully to porch or patio, with respectable if not awe-inspiring audio quality.

The portable satellite radio that's been traveling with me lately is the MyFi from Delphi ($350), a true technological breakthrough for XM. Think of MyFi as a satellite transistor radio—just over 7 ounces, with a rechargeable battery, nice big LCD display and up to 30 channel presets. The MyFi has a built-in satellite antenna and, when that's not enough, a clip-on antenna you can attach to coat or traveling bag (useful if you're carrying the radio in your pocket). Even if you're out of satellite signal range, you're not out of luck. MyFi incorporates a memory buffer that can prerecord hours of satellite radio content—around five hours of music and even more spoken word programming. I always keep mine filled with uncensored comedy for the long train ride into NYC. While the unit's a bit pricey, it does include docking cradles for home and car use, a wireless remote control, a built-in FM modulator plus a cassette adapter. This Delphi model was the first portable in the "XM2go" line to hit the market, but other manufacturers will deliver similar devices in 2005.

Sirius or XM?
"At this stage, XM has two easily identifiable advantages in the battle for your satellite radio affections: the monthly fee is $3 lower, and XM-compatible equipment, particularly in the portable arena, is superior to the Sirius lineup. Three bucks a month doesn't amount to much, though, and while I'm absolutely besotted with the MyFi portable from XM, you may not yearn for handheld portability with quite the same fervor. For many potential subscribers, it's the programming that makes all the difference.

It's impossible to make a generalized recommendation of one service over the other when it comes to programming, since one or two stations that appeal to your own distinctive tastes are likely to make all the difference. The poster child for this way of thinking, of course, is Howard Stern, who is scheduled to make his Sirius Radio debut in early 2006. If Howard is a vital part of your day, then your decision is pretty much made, and you won't be paying any extra to enjoy the King of All Media. For my own purposes, I've found a very different programming niche that endears Sirius to me. The Sirius Disorder channel, an eclectic and adventurous musical mix, provides a home every Sunday evening to my all-time favorite radio personality, Vin Scelsa, late of WNEW-FM in New York. In fact, personality is a key to the Sirius mix, including channels devoted to the talk and musical tastes of not just Howard and Vin but skateboarder Tony Hawk, the E Street Band's Little Steven Van Zandt and hip-hop star Eminem. XM, meanwhile, is more inclined to let the music speak for itself, though it does offer shock jocks Opie & Anthony and a Playboy channel for additional monthly fees.

Sports fans have some tough decisions to make when it comes to satellite radio. Sirius has exclusive deals with the NFL, the NBA and the NHL (hey, they've got to play again someday). XM's play-by-play offerings are more limited, but if you're devoted to Major League Baseball or NASCAR, XM is the only game in town.

For news coverage, both services carry CNN, Fox News, CNBC and Bloomberg Radio, though XM offers a more complete package with the addition of CNN Headline News and BBC World Service. In talk radio, both services offer wide-ranging options, from political and sports chat to family-friendly and uncensored comedy, though Sirius does have an exclusive deal with NPR.

I can't imagine there's anyone who can't find something interesting on each of the services. For more details on programming choices, read through the in-depth report compiled by automotive Web site Edmunds.com. Another suggestion: hit the Internet and sample the programming yourself. Both the Sirius (www.sirius.com) and XM (www.xmradio.com) Web sites offer the opportunity to try before you buy, with lengthy samples of all the channel offerings and three-day-long trials of the music stations via their online streaming services.

Steve Morgenstern writes frequently on technological topics for Cigar Aficionado.

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