Sirius Satellite Radio 
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Written by Bryan Dailey   
Sunday, 01 February 2004

I drive a lot. Every work day (and some weekends), I hop in my fuel-efficient Honda Civic and commute to the Century City offices of from Long Beach on the 405 freeway which, during rush hour, often looks more like a parking lot than a freeway. With a daily round-trip commute of 60 miles a day, there is certainly no better candidate for satellite radio than yours truly.

When publisher Jerry Del Colliano had XM Satellite Radio installed in his SUV, I was very excited to have the chance to audition it on a daily basis with him as we drove to lunch at one of the greasy spoons in West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. We determined that the technology was pretty slick and, although not quite as “CD quality” as the commercials would have you believe, it sounded pretty good. We also quickly learned that trying to find songs we liked was harder than finding something good to listen to on terrestrial radio. XM brags about having more variety than FM radio. It certainly has that, but when it comes down to it, ratings have proven that people want music that is familiar to them. Every time an oldies station narrows its playlist to the top 350 songs, their ratings go up. The running joke Jerry and I had with XM was that it was hard to find a channel that had two good songs consecutively and virtually impossible to ever get three keepers in a row. Needless to say, I wasn’t blown away by the programming on XM, so I decided I wouldn’t be adding it to my car.

Enter Sirius

When it comes to music, my tastes are all over the place, with favorites ranging from Mr. Bungle to Rush to the Carpenters to Primus to the Doors and far beyond. I do appreciate “variety,” but somehow XM’s programming rarely seemed to have any songs I care about. A few months, ago a friend of mine, a former XM Satellite subscriber himself, decided to ditch his XM and install Sirius in his car. One scroll through the Sirius dial, hearing hit song after hit song, made me take notice. The first channel that really spoke to me was Channel 4, “Moving EZ,” which is full of late ‘70s and early ‘80s cheesy soft rock. If you are a regular reader, you will recall Del Colliano’s story about the recent phenomenon of “soft rock parties,” where Gen X’ers who grew up overhearing their parents Air Supply and Chicago records get together over a bottle of wine and admit that they have always secretly loved songs like “Brandy” by Looking Glass or “True” by Spandau Ballet. I immediately thought, “This station rules.” I was compelled to investigate the Sirius technology and service further.

Moving up through the dial on my friend’s Sirius receiver, I didn’t like every single song I heard. However, the percentage of listenable vs. unlistenable music was much better on Sirius than XM, so I decided to install Sirius in my own car, plunk down $12.95 a month for the programming (it is about $10 for XM’s service, plus add-ons) and explore whether Sirius would make my hellish commute a little more bearable.

My car has the stock Honda AM/FM radio/CD player and I added the Honda cassette tape player when I purchased the car six months (and 16,000 miles) ago, so I didn’t want to tear out the radio. I also wasn’t completely sure I wanted to make a full-time commitment to Sirius yet, so I opted for an external Kenwood unit, rather than an in-dash head unit that would replace my Honda factory radio and would require a professional installation.

Looking more like a radar detector than a satellite tuner, the Kenwood KTC-H2A1 isn’t the sexiest piece of AV gear in the world and sports a dorky “Here2Anywhere” blue logo on the top of it. This, of course, isn’t noticeable when it’s sitting in the wall-mount display case at The Good Guys, so I was a little disappointed with the logo on the top of the unit when I cracked open the box, but I quickly got over it. It was time to install the unit and get to listening.

Carefully pulling up the edges of the carpeting along my passenger-side front and rear floorboards, I ran the Sirius antenna wire from the panel pack behind my rear windows and down the side of the rear passenger side seat. I ran the wire along the floorboard, then under my floor mat, then under the plastic panel just to the left of my glove box. Measuring the amount of wire I’d need to make it to the KTC-H2A1 that would be mounted on the center of my dashboard, I buried the excess antennae wire inside the dashboard and pulled just enough wire through the gap in one of the plastic panels directly under my radio. This still leaves a small piece of wire that crosses over my cassette deck, radio and air conditioning controls. Eventually, I will likely perform a better installation that runs the antennae wire along the top of the dashboard and then goes alongside it. To keep the antenna from sliding, it sticks to the surface of my rear dash, thanks to two pieces of Velcro and using the hook side to attach it. Ultimately, I will mount it on the outside of my car on the rear hood, but for the time being, the antenna picks up the service very well, only dropping out when I go under wide freeway underpasses or into parking garages that have low ceilings.

To use this unit in your car, the KPA-H2C car docking kit is required. It includes the base stand, cradle, the cassette adapter, cigarette lighter power adapter and magnetic antenna-mounting hardware, as well as a convenient carry bag. Audio/video cables are also provided, should you want to get the optional FM Modulator to hardwire the signal into your radio so it comes through a pre-defined radio channel. I have heard of people doing this with mixed success, so for my evaluation period, I opted to go the easy route and use the cassette adapter. I finished up by mounting the base unit and cradle on my dashboard with double-sided tape, being careful to not get it too close to the passenger side airbag. The last thing you want is a Sirius satellite receiver smacking you or your passenger in the face if you accidentally have a head-on collision.

The Sound
Let me cut right to the chase and say up front that in my experience with two XM systems and two Sirius systems, XM sounds better. It sounds less compressed and the sound of the DJs and talk radio stations on XM is superior. According to Siruis they have made recent advances in their technology to improve sound and I have noticed that is a bit better as of late but I'd still have to give the nod to XM for sound quality on the systems I have heard. Of course, there are an almost an infinite number of variables that affect the sound of both systems, so the only real way to compare the difference between the two is to test them out in the exact same car with equipment of comparable quality.

Surely you’ve heard the commercials for both services that tout the music as being crystal-clear, near CD quality from coast to coast, when the reality is that it’s more like really well-encoded MP3-sounding quality from coast to coast. This is not an audiophile product and anyone who expects audiophile quality from it is going to be disappointed. To me, the slight tradeoff in sound quality is worth it if the programming is more entertaining.

The Programming
Sirius has 60 music channels and 40 talk/sports/news channels. XM comes in at 100 basic channels, 70 music and 30 talk-oriented. XM has about 30 premium channels, which require additional subscription fees. Each has its own ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s channel; XM also has a ‘90s channel and a ‘40s channel. I can certainly appreciate big band music, but when I’m fighting traffic on my way to work, I can’t imagine wishing I could hear the “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or something by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The Spin Doctors and Toad the Wet Sprocket were big in the ‘90s, so I don’t need a channel full of that, either. You can get plenty of ‘90s music in other places on the Sirius dial anyway, including Channel 2, titled “The Pulse,” which is actually a combination of ‘90s and current pop music hits.

Rock comes in many forms, and on Sirius there are enough rock stations to cover virtually every genre. Classic rock on Channel 14 called "Classic Vinyl" is similar to your basic, run-of-the-mill local classic rock statios minus the commercials. Channel 15 called "Classic Rewind" plays classic rock from the '80s and beyond. If jam bands such as Phish, the Grateful Dead or the String Cheese Incident are your thing, then Channel 17, “JamOn,” will be right up your alley. I didn’t think I liked this station until last night, when I heard Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade doing a cover of Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath.” I quickly added it to my list of presets.

Heavy metal is the genre where Sirius really starts to shine. On Channel 20, titled “Octane,” you get heavy bands mostly from the ‘90s and today, like Deftones, Faith No More, Incubus, Queens of the Stone Age, Tool, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and more. Channel 23, titled “Hair Nation,” transports you back to the mid-to-late ‘80s, when bands like Poison, Motley Crue, Whitesnake and Scorpions ruled the rock world. When you want really hard metal, Channel 27, dubbed “Hard Attack,” is full of death metal and hardcore metal from bands like Sepultura, Pantera, Slayer and more. XM has a station called XML that is similar, yet it features death metal that is so absolutely hardcore that even metal fans like myself and Del Colliano have stopped trying to listen to it in his XM-retrofitted Benz.

The feeling I’m left with after listening to both systems for an extended period of time is that Sirius seems to just have a better handle on what people want to hear. It seems as if there is almost always a Sirius equivalent for most of the XM channels and, almost without exception, there seems to be a bigger hit song on the Sirius version at any given time. When you think of the band Duran Duran, most people want to hear “Hungry Like the Wolf” or “Girls on Film.” If you hear Duran Duran on XM, you might hear something more obscure like “The Chauffeur” or “Tiger Tiger." Sure I’m intrigued by the hunt for that cool obscure song by some artist who I have forgotten about, but while I’m driving, I would prefer to just set the tuner on one station for more than one or two songs before having to find something new.

Audio purists will poo-poo the fact that often times you will hear the shortened versions of some longer songs. However, if the Sirius programmers decide to play the radio edit of Billy Idol’s way-too-long song “Dancing With Myself,” I’m quite okay with it. The only problem I would have with Sirius is if they began to edit the content itself for language. I enjoy the fact that I can listen to programming that is not restrained by the same FCC guidelines that bind terrestrial FM and AM radio. This is particularly beneficial on the Sirius rap and comedy channels. Yes, kiddies, there is cursing on Satellite radio.

A few months ago, when I told people that I had installed Sirius in my car, I often got blank stares. Today, when I tell people that I have Sirius in my car, the reaction that I get more often than not is ”Oh wow, now you can listen to NFL games in your car!” Yes, this is the biggest news for Sirius and, being a big Miami Dolphins fan, I will have a new reason to go for long drives on Sunday mornings and afternoons when the Dolphin game isn’t being broadcast on TV at home. I ultimately don’t know much I’ll really listen to football games in my car, but having the option is one of the coolest things Sirius has going for it.

Besides the football package that is coming to Sirius next year, sports fans will be thrilled to know that Sirius has already done deals with the NBA and broadcasts practically every pro basketball game. Their NHL deal ensures that you can catch your favorite hockey team every time they drop the puck, as long as you are in your car or have your home kit hooked up at your office or home. It’s these kinds of content deals that make Sirius’ programming so much more compelling than XM.

Paying the Price for No Commercials
Aside from the programming, the fundamental difference between Sirius and XM is the fact that Sirius is commercial-free and XM has commercials some of its non-music channels. The convenience of having commercial-free service comes at a price of $2.96 more per month on Sirius. Knowing this, Sirius has created aggressive pricing packages that lower the effective cost per month. If you are certain that you want to have the service for one year, you can pre-pay a year for $142.45, lowering the monthly cost to $11.87. If you have more than one car and want to add a second account, for only $6.99, it brings the price for each car to $9.97 per month. Two years of pre-paid service for $271.95 lowers the monthly fee to $11.33 and the granddaddy of all offers is a current special that gets you unlimited service for the life of that receiver for $499.99. Beginning February 15, 2004, subscribers who pay for a year's worth of service will receive an additional three months free. XM’s pricing advantage isn’t such a big advantage when you consider that some of the XM programming requires an additional subscription fee and you constantly have to deal with an ever-growing amount of commercials on many of the stations.

The Downside
As much as I thoroughly enjoy my Sirius receiver and the programming that it pulls in, I am fully aware that the sound quality is not stellar. The amount of compression on the talk radio stations and on the DJs’ voices that introduce the songs is pretty bad. I could count my list of favorite radio talk shows on one hand, so that is not too much of a concern for me. If I’m driving around town and want to catch David Allan Grier guest hosting Loveline with Adam Corolla and Doctor Drew, I’ll turn off the Sirius and tune to that FM radio station.

Two of my favorite channels on Sirius are the comedy channels, but I have a fundamental problem with the way comdedy is presented on Sirius (and XM’s two comedy channels, for that matter). Great stand-up comedians do not just tell jokes. They are storytellers. On Sirius’ comedy channels, we are treated to clips from some very talented (and sometimes not so talented) stand-up comedians, but the clips are often so short that you are never drawn into the performances. In a perfect world, I’d turn on Sirius on my way home from work and listen to a full-length Eddie Murphy or George Carlin stand-up special. These two-to-four-minute chunks of stand-up comedy are just not enough time to really get into the vibe of a comedian’s act.

Although Sirius does not have commercials, they certainly have their fair share of their own promotional spots, telling you about the shows on other Sirius channels. The comedy channel puts goofy filler spots between almost every stand-up routine, which aren’t technically commercials but waste as much of your time as short commercial spots do.

The last and biggest downside I could find with Sirius became apparent to me on a 16-hour trip to from Long Beach to Sacramento and back. Because I have about five or six channels favorite channels that I tend to gravitate to, I found the depth of the programming to be a little thin. I’m normally in my car in one-hour chunks of time, but when spending a half a day in the car, I began to hear patterns in the stations. I could tune in to Channel 1 and there was a pretty good chance I’d hear the newest No Doubt song once an hour. On Channel 20, I could almost predict with 50 percent accuracy when the next Hoobastank song would be on. As long as you mix up what stations you focus on, this is not a problem, but I was amazed that I could hear song playlist patterns emerging on the stations, even though I tend to skip around between about 10 to 15 stations.

Satellite radio is not for everyone. If your commute to work is 10 minutes and you don’t care about listening to your favorite hockey or football team on the radio, then you can probably get by with just your AM/FM radio and a CD player. If you are like a growing number of people in the country, especially Californians, whose commute times to work are getting longer and longer, you’ll seriously want to consider getting it. The technology is incredible but the sound will probably not “wow” anyone. What it all boils down to is content when choosing between the two providers. For me, the choice is obvious. I love listening to sports, music and comedy and don’t feel the need to dig too deeply into the back catalogue of most musical artists. If you want to hear the hit songs that you know and love without commercials, than Sirius is the way to go. If you want to pay a little less and can deal with annoying DJs and commercials, then by all means, add XM to your car. Just don’t be bummed when you see all those Sirius subscribers listening to the big football game next year while driving home from Vegas on a Sunday afternoon.

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