Radio Coast to Coast

Satellite radio promises no static, few commercials, and 100 channels . . . at a cost.

by Illustration by: Simon Osborne

This satellite radio tuner gives you access to CD-quality music that's beamed down from space.Illustration by: Simon Osborne

Maybe you first tune in the station driving past some lobster-roll shack just outside Bangor, Maine. You know the music isn't coming from the local FM radio tower a few miles away. Instead, it's being digitally compressed and uplinked from a massive command center in Washington, D.C., bouncing off a pair of Boeing satellites in geostationary orbit high above the equator, and finding its way to a sleek little shark-fin antenna mounted on the trunk. The technology is at best a compelling afterthought, because after the fourth or fifth song, you realize the music speaks to you. It's the kind of expressive jazz or reggae or alternative country you thought nobody played on the radio, except for some underpowered college station whose signal turns into a death rattle before Coltrane takes his first solo. But this signal does not fade. It stays with you driving through lower New England and the muscular outer arteries of New York City, down past the Delaware Water Gap and across the Mason-Dixon line. One station, playing deep cuts from your favorite artists, introducing you to new, like-minded performers, and treating you not like a marketing demographic but like a music lover.

Is your mood changing with the landscape? You've got 70 more music channels to choose from, and
29 others featuring news, talk, sports, and children's programming. Even better, there are no commercials on a sizable chunk of the music stations. Want to know the artist or song titlÕe? Just punch a button and the information pops up on an easy-to-read text display. Man, this doesn't even sound like FM. It's got full frequency response and scads of music detail. Only the glow of the LCD display and the occasional interruptions from the DJ remind you that you're listening to the radio. All you want to do is keep driving-and turn it up.

That is the promise of satellite radio, and it is finally about to be fulfilled. Four years ago, XM Radio became one of two companies to win the rights to evenly split a 25MHz chunk of previously unused broadcast spectrum licensed for satellite radio. Both XM and the second provider, Sirius Radio, plan to debut nationwide this month. Satellite radio services are aimed at drivers, although Sony will offer a model that can be used at home as well. While the systems are similar in many ways, there are some interesting differences. But the real comparison is against existing radio: Satellite radio offers clear, digital, CD-quality sound for a nominal monthly subscription fee -- $9.95 for XM; $12.95 for Sirius.

Is satellite radio worth the money? Just prior to XM's local launch, I head out to San Diego for a preview of the system. I ride shotgun in a new Saab 9-3 convertible festooned with so many XM Radio logos it could easily pass for a pace car at Daytona. Although I assure XM's vice president of marketing, Robert Acker, that the DMV reinstated my license weeks ago, he insists on doing the driving.

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.

AN OPINIONATED TOP 10 LIST OF XM CHANNELS

(XM's marketing descriptions appear in quotes.)

Best station for teenage boys to annoy their parents

Channel 41, XMLM Liquid Metal: All "criminally hard" heavy metal, all the time.

Best station for parents to annoy their teenage boys

Channel 28, On Broadway: "It's not the same old song and dance," but it's show tunes and nothing but show tunes.

Best station for a Sunday morning church carpool

Channel 31, Spirit: "The glory
of gospel."

Best station for a Sunday morning hangover

Channel 110, EXM Classics:
"Traditional classical," meaning Mozart, Beethoven, and the gang.

Station where you're most likely to hear an interview with a member of a pit crew

Channel 144, NASCAR Radio: "Radio at full throttle."

Station where you can expect to hear the bubbly phrase "Britney rules"

Channel 167, Babble On: "Young and sassy talk."

Station where you will never hear the bubbly phrase "Britney rules"

Channel 112, Vox: An opera station that "celebrates the magic of the human voice."

Best nonmusic station for Mensa members

Channel 131, BBC World Service: "World affairs" and fact-based "international news" analysis from the Brits.

Worst nonmusic station for Mensa members

Channel 166, Buzz XM: "America's hottest, most controversial talk stars" and all their most learned opinions.

Radio Activity

XM, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., will compete with New York-based Sirius Radio for subscribers. The two services employ similar technology to beam their music and talk channels to drivers. Though Sirius depends on three satellites to XM's two, there should be little or no difference in performance.

Motorists can buy satellite-ready car radios -- from Alpine, Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony, and other manufacturers -- for installation in existing vehicles. Expect prices to start at around $350, with another $300 in installation costs. Moreover, carmakers such as GM are already building satellite radios into their newest models (Cadillacs will be among the first to have them).

For now, satellite radios will be capable of receiving only one of the two services (in addition to AM and FM). But XM and Sirius are working toward technical compatibility, so in the future, hardware that can receive both services should become available.

XM Sirius
Price $9.95 per month $12.95 per month
Stations 71 music; 29 talk 50 music; 50 talk
Commercial free Less than half the music stations All music stations
Programming Heavyweights BBC World Service, Bloomberg, CNN, ESPN, Fox News, MTV, the Weather Channel BBC World Service, Bloomberg, CNBC, CSPAN, NPR News, World Radio Network

Exclusive: How to Tune In

The satellite promises to do for radio what cable did for TV. But as you sort through the many brands and various gadgetry, it can all start to sound like static. If you're thinking of getting sat radio but need information on the hardware, the two available services, and the installation protocol, here's the lowdown.

If you happen to be in the market for a new car, you can get satellite radio built-in. XM-compatible radios will be a feature of Cadillac Sevilles and Devilles by the time you read this, and will make it into 20 other GM models next year. Sirius-compatible radios will debut next July in the BMW 3, 5, and X models, and in several as-yet-unannounced Ford brands.

But radio heads needn't shell out $50,000 to enjoy booming satellite sound. There are other ways to get your ears on one of the two coast-to-coast providers.

The simplest (and cheapest) route is to morph the radio you already have into a satellite-capable one--with an all-in-one converter unit. Sony's Plug-and-Play, for example, picks up the signal and plays the tunes through an unused FM radio frequency, and can also be used with a home stereo. Other units work the same way, but they convert the signal through your cassette player. Depending on the device, you may need to buy a special satellite antenna. Converter units feature dash-mount displays that name the artist and song title. Unfortunately, listeners will have to forego the promise of supersharp sound quality because converters change the satellite's digital signal into a normal analog one.

Hard-core audiophiles out there, therefore, may want to forgo the converter and buy a genuine satellite radio head unit. Only the real thing will provide that crisp, clean digital sound. Bare-bones radios with only AM, FM and satellite channels are priced at less than $250, while deluxe models with MP3 players and 12-CD changers cost nearly $1,200. The two satellite radio providers have each signed up with specific manufacturers: XM, for example, is having its radios made by Alpine, Pioneer, and Sony; Sirius has contracted with Clarion, Kenwood, and Panasonic.

But the expense doesn't stop there. To use a dedicated satellite radio, you'll need to buy a separate satellite tuner and antenna; both XM and Sirius are putting together packages to make sorting through the numerous models and compatibility issues easier. Pioneer's XM-ready radio and receiver combination costs $450, plus the cost of an antenna.

Antennas range in price from $80 to $120 and come in different styles. All antennas perform equally; the cost difference is all about aesthetics.

Once you've bought all the hardware and either installed it yourself or had the dealer install it, signing up for service is a cinch. Both XM and Sirius provide online or phone activation; you can charge it to a credit card.

XM and Sirius: A Side-by-Side Comparison

XM Sirius
Frequency 2332.5-2345 MHz 2320-2332.5 MHz
Website xmradio.com siriusradio.com
Cost per month $9.99 $12.95
Number of stations 100 100
Talk stations 29 50
Music Stations 71 50
Commercial-free music stations 30 50
Celebrity DJ Pat Dinizio of the Smithereens Ray Manzarik of the Doors
Activation by phone 1-800-852-9696 1-888-539-7474
Activation by web XM Radio Activation Sirius Radio Activation
CONVERTING AN EXISTING RADIO
Converter units (This is the easiest and cheapest way to get satellite radio programming)
Pioneer Universal XM Radio Receiver, $300 Sony Plug and Play, $299 to $399 Kenwood models, $280 to $600 Clarion, Panasonic, Jensen, prices not yet announced
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Head Units (Radios are priced by how detailed the display is: whether or not it lists song titles, artists, and stations. Higher-end models have CD changers and even MP3 capability.)
Alpine, $350 to $1,100 Pioneer, $225 to $800 Kenwood Excelon, $356 to $600
Tuners (The tuner is about the size of an external Zip drive and converts the satellite's signal into a digital one that the radio can play)
Alpine, $240 Pioneer, $280 Clarion, Jensen, Kenwood, Panasonic, available early 2002
Antennas (One antenna works just as well as the next, so the choice comes down to style, and whether a glass or hood mount is best.)
Terk, Pioneer, Antenna Specialists, Alpine. $80 to $120 Kenwood, Clarion, Pansonic and Jensen. $80 to $120

Heather Sparks