The Saab is outfitted with a first-generation Pioneer system ($300 retail) that includes a minuscule receiving antenna, perhaps 2 inches square and 1.5 inches high, that's mounted on the trunk. I surf channels via a handheld control module smaller than a Milky Way bar. It has a nifty, 10-character text display, and a flywheel changes stations individually or in groups of 10. This latter feature comes in handy because there are 100 channels to choose from. Of those, 71 are dedicated to music. Less than half are commercial-free, but XM vows to carry only
6 minutes of advertising per hour, as opposed to the 16 to 20 minutes per hour you get on commercial FM radio. XM's stations are subdivided into "neighborhoods" -- groupings such as the 10 rock music channels, the seven channels of "urban" music, and the six channels of jazz and blues.
To test sound quality, I compare digital broadcasts against a well-recorded CD I use for reference (Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth). Sadly, we have to lower the roof and close the windows for critical listening, shutting out a typically sun-drenched San Diego day. Did XM broadcasts sound as good as the disc? That's a tough one, though I tend to wear my golden ears on my sleeve. I can't say that the broadcasts squeezed the same level of detail out of the recordings, but the overall sound quality was superb, with good dynamics, crisp frequency response, and virtually inaudible distortion. Most people in most cars could easily mistake satellite radio for CD.
Of course, the most telling comparison -- and the one that XM is hanging its hat on -- came when we switched over to FM. It was as if someone had tossed a blanket over the Saab's speakers: compressed highs, murky lows, multipath interference, crackly static -- typical terrestrial radio performance. By contrast, the satellite cuts had soaring dynamics. Cymbals sounded like cymbals, not hamburgers sizzling on a grill. Comparing FM with digital radio is a bit like comparing an LP with a CD, or a videotape with DVD. They might as well exist in different universes.
As for reception, the system performed flawlessly. Our Saab cruised under a 30-foot-long overpass off Highway 5 heading north to San Clemente with nary a note obscured. But will XM's system perform as well under more harrowing conditions? Will it lose the signal, say, in a snowstorm on a twisty road through Utah's Wasatch Mountains? Possibly. Can it handle New York City's Holland Tunnel at rush hour? Pretty unlikely, unless there's a repeater shooting directly into the tube. Still, through hours of listening, I counted precisely two signal dropouts, each of which lasted for less than a second -- solid performance for a fledgling technology.
I didn't spend much time with the talk stations, but surfing the music offerings was serious fun. Sure, once in a while you have to sit through a chestnut like "Lyin' Eyes" by the Eagles on Top Tracks, the classic rock station, but that was easily augmented by some really eclectic stuff across the dial. I heard rare cuts from Elvis Costello, a Dave Brubeck tune that wasn't "Take Five," and some fine and funky reggae programmed by Junior Marvin, former lead guitarist for Bob Marley and the Wailers. Probably the coolest station on the dial is Unsigned, on channel 52, which is being programmed by Pat Dinizio, former main man for the seminal '80s band the Smithereens. As its name implies, the station is devoted solely to unsigned artists.
Understandably, the DJs were lacking a little in energy. Until the system's official consumer launch, it was kind of like a preseason football game for the jocks: full pads, lots of contact, but minus that adrenaline rush that comes when you know you're playing for keeps. But all in all, it was a musically satisfying little road trip.
All but the most rabid early adopters may want to wait until next summer before taking the sat-radio plunge. By then, the hardware options should be plentiful and any technical glitches smoothed over.
Overall, the long-term prospects look good. More than 200 million cars and light trucks are registered in the United States, and 75 percent of drivers say they listen to radio more than CDs or tapes. Sure, the younger set is turning to MP3 downloads, and there's that pesky monthly fee to consider. Nevertheless, it's easy to see why XM and Sirius are wagering billions of dollars on the first real advance in radio since FM stereo hit the airwaves in the 1960s. Then as now: groovy.