Upside: Slightly better sound quality than Sirius on music channels; MLB broadcasts in 2005.
Downside: Sometimes not enough DJ chatter; limited talk-radio selection.
Forecast: XM currently has a healthy lead with its subscribers, but the new pricing plan may shake things up.
Favorite station: XMU
Sound quality: We've consistently noted that Sirius's music streams' sound quality isn't a nearly as CD-like as XM's. XM's treble is still cleaner, and its stereo separation is wider than Sirius's. We'd still like to see more improvement; both satellite radio services' "all-digital" sound won't be mistaken for CD quality, that's for sure. And both channels' talk, sports, and news streams approximate AM radio.
Hardware: See all top XM satellite radio receivers
As it stands right now, XM also seems to have the edge in terms of hardware. Its Delphi XM MyFi is the world's smallest satellite-radio receiver. The MyFi stores up to five hours of XM content, so you can enjoy XM anywhere--in the home, in the car, or on the go. Delphi also has the SkyFi2, which has a TiVo-like 30-Minute Replay feature. The SkyFi2 lets you rewind up to half an hour, skipping song by song, or pause a live stream. And when you're done, you can fast-forward back to the current program. Some models also offer a stock-price ticker readout for up to 20 stocks. XM hardware is also produced by Sony, Pioneer, and Alpine, among others.
Programming: XM is currently offering 68 commercial-free music channels; 38 channels of news, sports, and talk; and 22 dedicated channels of XM local traffic and weather. We prefer Sirius in terms of programming, but more than anything else, that's a matter of personal taste--and XM definitely has a lot to offer.
Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg, and Quincy Jones have shows on XM Radio. Shock jocks Opie and Anthony have an uncensored comedy show on the High Voltage channel that costs an extra $1.99 per month, but starting April 2, it's free to all XM subscribers. If you want to enjoy Playboy Radio, it's another two bucks a month. XM Public Radio is a new channel built around Bob Edwards, the acclaimed public radio newsman and host. The channel also runs NPR shows.
XM's music-by-the-decade channels, the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, are pop/rock outlets, and we counted another 11 hit-oriented channels. There's a Top 20 channel, Love Songs, Movie Soundtracks, Show Tunes, MTV, VH1, and a Euro/Global hits channel. The Unsigned channel plays new music exclusively. The programmers seek out unsigned, independent, and emerging artists. The XMU channel was our favorite because it turned us on to a lot of new music--it's like a really cool college station. And there's live programming from the Blue Note jazz club and the B.B. King Blues Club in New York City.
The programmers on XM deliver long sets of music with minimal DJ chatter. Some listeners may prefer that, but we yearned for more human contact. We go for more personality-oriented radio.
While not quite as high-caliber as Sirius's, XM's extensive sports coverage now includes college football and basketball, NASCAR, and Major League Baseball beginning in spring 2005. XM's college football bowl lineup includes every game from the much-anticipated Bowl Championship Series, which determines the NCAA Division I football champion.
XM also offers a range of news, talk, and sports channels. The range isn't quite as broad as Sirius, but XM does offer more local weather/traffic streams. As far as talk/variety stations, you get ABC News & Talk, BBC World Service, CNBC, Court TV, C-Span, CNN, CNN Headline News, Discovery Channel, E Entertainment, two ESPN channels, Fox News, NASCAR Racing, the Weather Channel, and more. XM also has three comedy channels, including a family (no foul language) comedy channel.