The Sony DRN-XM01C looks portable at 4.0 by 4.25 by 1.5 inches, but it's not--no portable battery is strong enough to power a satellite radio receiver at this point. Even if it were, you'd still have to carry around the satellite antenna with you. The device's controls are limited and awkward. Five preset buttons line the front, along with a backlight button for the display, which shows the song's name and artist. A Memo button makes a record of the songs that you like.
Unfortunately, there's no easy way to flip between stations; you'll need to use the multifunction jog dial on top of the box to get to any station that's not a preset. The problem lies in the fact that the jog dial controls too many functions. You use it to scroll through stations, station categories, or controller settings. Station scrolling must be done quickly--hesitate for too long, and the current station will take two or three seconds to load. You won't be able to change again until that channel has finished loading. Another gripe: The bundled remote doesn't have number keys. Even with the remote and the five presets, you'll need to scroll through each item on the list.
One warning: Without a southern-facing window for the antenna, you won't get any reception. Even with southern exposure, the signal occasionally cuts out for a second but not often enough to ruin the listening experience. XM representatives wouldn't disclose the bit rate of the channels, but subjectively, XM stations sound stronger and clearer than their FM counterparts.
So the hardware is less than ideal, but how about the stations? In our testing, we found the content to be mostly excellent. The 100 stations are grouped into 15 categories, including Country, Rock, Urban, Jazz & Blues, Latin, News, and Comedy. Each category houses several stations--for example, the Classical category has stations for traditional classical, eclectic classical, opera, or classical pops. We found that the music stations offer good variety, but the talk channels are more repetitive since XM currently carries only a handful of them. Worried about what your kids are listening to? Parents will be happy to note that they have the option of calling XM and blocking access to the 6 stations that allow adult content.
Wait--subscription fees and ads?
XM boasts that 36 of its stations are entirely commercial-free, including half of the music stations. Also, its commercial breaks are shorter than those on terrestrial radio. However, since subscribers already have to pay $10 per month for the stations (after plunking down a substantial amount for the hardware), we think that it's unreasonable to foist any advertisements at all onto them. In addition, in order to use the DRN-XM01C in your house, you need to ante up another $150 for the home add-on pack, which consists of a cradle stand, a remote, an antenna, an AC adapter, and an audio cable.
This whole package costs $450 ($300 for the unit and $150 for the home kit), plus $10 per month for service. Therefore, it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend the DRN-XM01C, even though it has appealing aspects, such as clear sound and good programming. As it stands, this product is strictly for music fans with a lot of disposable income and a healthy dose of curiosity. Everyone else should probably wait for next year's combo units, which will offer both XM and soon-to-be competitor Sirius Satellite Radio. Or, you can simply continue to fulfill your need for musical variety with Internet radio.