September 21, 2003
Car Radio That Never Fades
By BARNABY J. FEDER
PLENTY has changed in the world of satellite radio since I took my first test spin with XM's 100-channel radio network 15 months ago. Prices have tumbled below $100 for basic systems. A rapidly growing variety of new cars come with such radios as factory-installed options, including a majority of General Motors vehicles. Some of the new after-market radios move easily back and forth from home to car, plugging into docking stations attached to either type of stereo system.
But the biggest change is the nationwide rollout of Sirius, which has been providing XM with 100 channels of competition since the summer of 2002. Earlier this year, Sirius completed a financial overhaul that has given it access to new cash to invest in product development and marketing.
Sirius still trails in the kinds of equipment that can receive its signal. As of June 30, it had just 105,000 subscribers, compared with 692,000 for XM. Both systems are growing, though, and now the field is finally level enough for a fair comparison.
First, the big picture. The major decision is whether to get satellite radio, not which service to choose. Satellite radio is not particularly expensive - XM's basic monthly subscription is $9.99 and Sirius's is $12.95 - but it is a luxury, especially for drivers in urban areas with a broad selection of free radio or anyone with a good collection of tapes and CD's.
That said, free radio may seem unbearably monotonous once you have tried XM or Sirius. Unlike free radio, there is always something entertaining available somewhere in the diverse world of satellite broadcasting. And once you have locked in on something you like, you can drive forever without ever losing the digital signal.
This summer, my family listened to Sirius via Kenwood's Here2Anywhere radio, which we used both in our 2001 Toyota Sienna and in our home. We listened to XM on the hot-selling SkyFi boombox (we had an XM receiver from Pioneer in the car last year).
The boombox receiver/tuner can be moved to a car once a cradle and antenna similar to (but not compatible with) the Here2Anywhere's is installed.
The verdict from our family of five, including children ranging from 9 to 13, came down in favor of XM. Here are some of the reasons:
Interruptions. XM relies more heavily on repeater stations to bolster its signal. In our area of northern New Jersey, the result seems to be fewer blips from overpasses or other obstructions. On a trip to the Poconos in Pennsylvania, Sirius had occasional lapses of a second or two for no discernible reason. On the other hand, the technicians who installed our Kenwood radio said that other customers had reported that Sirius was more reliable in some areas.
Organization. There is a great deal of overlap in how the two services group channels, and most confusion fades with familiarity, but we found XM's approach slightly more intuitive. The two children's channels are next to each other, for example, while Sirius put Kids Stuff at No. 96 and Radio Disney at No. 130. (Both services leave open channels between various categories instead numbering them 1 to 100). Sirius is smarter about some things, though. For instance, it breaks classical instrumental music into symphonic and chamber music while XM opts for the vaguer categories of "traditional classical" and "popular classical."
Content. A listener who simply cannot stand advertising might well prefer Sirius, which broadcasts no commercials on its 60 music channels. XM averages just under two minutes an hour of advertising on its music channels. But we found the frequent Sirius promotional notices nearly as annoying as paid advertising, particularly when they promoted another channel without being specific about what would be playing on it in the near future. Sirius could easily use this time to be more informative, because nearly all its programming is prerecorded. A number of XM's music shows feature live disc jockeys and call-in opportunities for listeners.
Both services frequently record artists for exclusive presentations, and both broadcast live music events. Sirius seemed to be holding its own in producing an eclectic mix of such broadcasts.
Perhaps being based in New York, which is more of a musical crossroads than Washington, where XM has its headquarters, is helping Sirius to offset XM's ability to offer musicians a much larger audience.
As the latecomer, Sirius appears to be hungrier to find underserved audience niches. While many broadcasters have conservatively oriented talk shows, Sirius balances its Sirius Right channel with Sirius Left, featuring hosts like Mike Malloy and Thom Hartmann.
Another channel, OutQ focuses on gay and lesbian concerns. Unfortunately, OutQ had blatantly sexual and harsh language every time we tuned in. My wife and I had hoped that OutQ would be an avenue for helping our children see deeper into the lives of gay relatives and family friends, but we eventually gave up.
Similarly, while XM has a separate family comedy channel featuring entertainers like Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby, Sirius's single comedy channel seemed rarely to run more than a few minutes without broadcasting routines unsuitable for children.
Much of the programming reflects a basic tension in satellite radio. It is trying to serve two audiences - those looking for new listening experiences and those seeking deeper exposure to genres they already know well.
It is hard to criticize channel managers on either network for favoring fans, but I would have welcomed more explanatory commentary about programming that was less familiar to me, like the bluegrass and reggae offered by both services.
None of the differences between the two services may be as important as what kind of car you want to drive, so that may be the determining factor in the satellite service you select.
For now, the only new cars that come with a choice between XM and Sirius are Nissan, Infiniti and Audi. Volkswagen is scheduled to be added to the list soon.
If you are installing satellite radio in your current car, you can choose either service, since each is affiliated with four makers of aftermarket equipment.
In the end, almost everyone can find reasons to prefer one of the two satellite radio services, but it will be a rare subscriber who is not happy with either one.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company