When it comes to satellite radio, apparently, the second time is a charm. The first receiver that we reviewed for XM Satellite Radio, the Sony DRN-XM01C, showed us the potential of satellite radio for the home and the car but came with such a limited and clunky feature set that we said no thanks. The Delphi XM SkyFi, however, has beautifully laid-out controls, great functionality, and a reasonable price; plus, it works equally well in the car, at home, or as a portable boombox (depending on which adapter you choose).
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.Delphi wisely decided to make this satellite receiver a small module that can be augmented with different adapters; car and home adapters run $70 each, while the boombox adapter costs $100. New for 2004 is the $200 CD Audio System, an upgraded boombox that also includes an AM/FM radio and plays audio and MP3 CDs. This means that you can remove the SkyFi from your car to prevent it from being stolen, and that you can also add functionality with other kits. If you really love XM's programming, buying all three peripherals and swapping the pocket-size receiver module among them makes a lot of sense (and one $12.95-per-month subscription covers all three applications).
The 4.5-by-3.0-inch SkyFi receiver features a large, orange screen that displays song and channel information. A scrollwheel to the left of the screen scans through the channels, while a button in the middle of the scrollwheel locks onto a new station. Our only complaint about the controls is that the power button is placed in the lower-middle portion of the receiver instead of on top, where it would be easier to access. Also, the SkyFi heats up; after an hour of use, it feels rather warm.
Four buttons just below the screen let you switch the display mode, access the menu controls, and change from presets to direct-entry mode. Finally, 10 numbered buttons line the SkyFi's bottom, letting you enter either a channel or a preset directly, without scrolling. All functions are also accessible through a small, wireless remote. The SkyFi's features go far beyond those of the Sony model. You can not only scroll through the channels, but you may also see what artists or songs are on each station. A preset-scroll function skips straight to your favorite stations one by one--very convenient.
The standard display shows the channel name, the artist, and the song title, while an alternate display mode gives you only artist and song-title info in large, scrolling letters that can be read from across the room. The Memory button stores up to 10 artist names and track titles, so you can explore new favorite tunes with ease. We had no difficulties with the SkyFi's performance, even after many hours of testing. Although the device, like the Sony, outputs a fairly low volume, the issue was more of an annoyance than a problem, and we easily remedied it by turning up our stereo's volume.
Sound quality is comparable to that of FM radio, and superior to that of XM's competitor, Sirius. Both satellite services are noise- and static-free.
You can see a full programming list on the XM Web site, so we'll stick to the highlights here. We perused XM's 101 channels starting with the decade selections: the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s pop/rock outlets. You also get MTV, VH1, and channels for top 20 music, love songs, movie soundtracks, show tunes, and Euro/global hits. College-radio channel XMU was our favorite, because it turned us on to a lot of new music.
The blues and folk channels consistently surprised us with their excellent programming; the four fantastic jazz options cover a wide range of groovy music. XM Live has original offerings unique to XM and also runs a steady stream of rarely heard vintage concert recordings. The Unsigned channel plays only independent and emerging artists.
XM also provides news, talk, and sports with ABC Radio, BBC World Service, CNBC, CNET radio, CNN, two ESPN channels, and the Weather Channel, but not NPR or PRI. You also get three comedy choices, and for an extra monthly charge, you can enjoy Playboy Radio.
Most music channels are commercial-free, although they run occasional promos for other XM offerings, and even the ones with ads didn't rattle our nerves. Breaks are short, and we sometimes went for 30 minutes without a commercial.
XM programmers deliver long music sets with minimal DJ chatter. Some listeners may prefer that, but at times we yearned for more personality-oriented radio.