By Steve Guttenberg and Matthew Moskovciak
(updated March 1, 2005)
The two satellite radio companies, Sirius Radio and XM Satellite Radio, are on a roll. They're attracting top-drawer on-air talent while offering gobs of new music, news channels, and new services. If you're tired of AM and FM radio's unrelenting blitz of commercials and pitifully lame music programming, check out satellite radio.
The satellite moniker isn't just a high-tech affectation. XM maintains two satellites nicknamed Rock and Roll, and Sirius has three satellites of its own hovering over the United States. Sirius's original programming originates from its studios in New York, while XM Radio's studios are based in Washington, D.C.
What's so special about satellite radio?
No commercials on music stations. Since satellite radio's business model is based on subscriptions, the bulk of the income comes from listeners, not advertisers. Each satellite service offers close to 70 commercial-free music channels, so there's plenty of opportunity to sample mainstream and far-flung musical tastes. There are dedicated channels for rock, pop, rap, hip-hop, show tunes, opera, classical, country and western, jazz, electronica/dance, folk music, blues, latin, world music--it's all there.
No static. Poor AM/FM reception just plain sounds bad, but satellite reception is a strictly go/no-go deal. Although the sound quality isn't affected by the strength of the signal, weak signal strength increases the likelihood of sound dropouts. Once you have the signal, it's always quiet and static-free.
Artist/title readout. Satellite radio receivers continuously display the artist's name and the song title. It's a great convenience never to have to wait to hear a DJ announce a tune--and while that may not sound like a big deal, we found ourselves constantly checking the display to see what we were listening to.
Uncensored. In this post-Janet Jackson boob-paranoia age, broadcast radio will be more uptight than it has been in years. At least for now, Sirius and XM are offering completely uncensored stand-up comedy and hip-hop programming! Get it while you can.
Local traffic and weather. Sure, it's not as local as your "Traffic on the Fives" commuter station, but nationwide broadcasters Sirius and XM do manage to offer weather and traffic reports in selected major markets. If you live in a major U.S. city, chances are you can tune in to one of these channels and hear updates every five minutes or so on local traffic and weather conditions.
Internet (satellite) radio. You can investigate satellite programming at the companies' Web sites: www.sirius.com and www.xmradio.com. While you're at the sites, check out their weekly listings and updates; we found XM's site way more informative about what's new. What's more, you can listen to each service online via any computer. Subscribers to Sirius can enjoy streams of every channel online for no extra charge, while XM offers an online service for $7.99 to nonsubscibers. XM subscibers can currently get XM online for $3.99, although starting in April, there is no extra charge. XM is also offering a free three-day online trial if you want to try before you buy.
Video coming soon. Sirius also plans to offer video service in Windows Media Video 9 sometime in the second half of 2006 and expects to devote two or three channels of premium video content designed primarily for children (think in-minivan TV/receivers). XM is also readying a video service.
What's it worth to ya?
Delphi's XM Roady2 is a typical compact plug-and-play receiver.
Oh, and you have to subscribe to receive satellite signals: Sirius charges $12.95 per month, while XM will set you back $9.95 per month. Starting April 2, XM is raising its monthly charge to $12.95, but current subscribers can lock in the $9.95 rate if they purchase a full year. Both companies charge activation fees and offer discounted plans for second and additional subscriptions. And we'd steer clear of Sirius's $500 "Lifetime" subscription--it applies only to the lifetime of your Sirius receiver, and who knows how long that will be?
Both companies are constantly trumpeting their subscriber numbers, which change all the time. As of press time, Sirius has 1,100,000 subscribers, and XM has maintained its lead with 3,200,000 subscribers.
CNET's Steve Guttenberg, who doesn't like being confused with the washed-up Police Academy actor, writes about the glories of home-theater sound. Got a question for him or anyone at CNET Electronics? Shoot us an e-mail.