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XM Satellite Radio Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 August 2002
Article Index
XM Satellite Radio
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XM Satellite radio is one of the most exciting new technologies in the world of audio/video, with billions of Wall Street and privately raised dollars powering the first significant challenge to traditional terrestrial radio since FM took over from AM in the 1960s. With the unprecedented success of DirecTV satellite television as a model for success, XM radio has been rolled out this year, primarily in car audio environments, to impress music and entertainment enthusiasts.

Being addicted to new AV toys and new cars, as well as being raised in a radio industry family, the lure of XM Satellite Radio was too much for me to resist, so when I sold off my 1997 BMW M3 for a 2002 Mercedes Benz ML500 SUV, I had an XM system installed within days. Since Mercedes seems to pride themselves on not adopting new luxury-based technologies first (as Lexus does), I decided to use an Alpine an CRA-1667RF FM Modulator/AiNet Changer Controller in conjunction with my Mercrdez Benz CD changer to add the XM signal to the premium Bose system provided as an option in my Benz. The installation done by Rodeo Mobile Sound in Woodland Hills, California, was creative and flawless. They custom-fit the Alpine controller in my cigarette tray with a slick foam insert that presents the Alpine controller beautifully. The advantage of the ashtray installation is that, with one-touch control, I can alternately access my XM or hide it from the slimy hands of valets or the lustful sight of car thieves. Aftermarket installations of XM radio require an additional antenna. For this purpose, Rodeo Mobile Sound installed a small Terk XM antenna just above the windshield. The look of the antenna matched nicely with the radio and telephone antenna factory-installed on the back roof of the ML500. Overall, the Rodeo installation was excellent, which often makes all the difference with car audio.
XM has focused much of its political might to land deals with big car makers and aftermarket car audio companies to add functionality to their in-dash systems. GM, Toyota, VW and Audi are only a few of the car manufacturers that have signed on to ultimately make XM a feature that will be built into your next car and possibly your next car payment. It won't be long before you can have your car XM-ready from the factory and turn it on with a simple “yes” when you are doing a car deal, neatly adding $10 to your car payment for the XM service.

Ultimately, having control over all of the stations on XM with easily accessible presets and steering wheel control will take the XM experience to an entirely new level, differing from the present system. The installation of my current system is virtually identical to the installation of an aftermarket CD changer in a car. The XM signal is fed to my Mercedes head unit on the standard radio antenna from the back of the car. When I want to listen to XM, I click over to a FM preset (88.9 in my case) and turn on the XM power from the XM controller. If you leave the power on for the XM, your terrestrial radio sounds noticeably distorted, so you need to decide whether you want to listen to local radio or XM. You wouldn’t want to just leave XM on, in my case, even if you were listening to a station other than the XM preset.

XM currently has over 100 stations located over a range of 160 total channels. The stations are supposedly organized by genre and require far more work than traditional radio requires in order to navigate from station to station. In my case, I was never able to figure out how to successfully program presets in my Alpine XM controller. I therefore needed to scroll through many spins of the little jog wheel to get from, say, the 1980s station on Channel 8 to The Boneyard on channel 41. Needless to say, it isn’t the most sexy user interface. Having the ability to program presets on your factory head unit and control your music system via your steering wheel is not only simpler – it is safer.

Audio Quality and Reception
Missing from XM is the compressed, noisy, limited bandwidth that we have become so accustomed to with traditional FM radio. Realistically, you have never said to yourself “Wow, that song sounds great on the radio,” meaning that the recording and broadcast seemed crystal clear and dynamic to you. With XM, you might feel differently. The audio is much more dynamic, with much less signal vs. static. Traditionalists (who probably still own turntables because CDs don’t sound “authentic”) say they miss the compressed sound. I don’t. XM sounds about as good as any CD you might have loaded into the changer and way better than any 100,000-watt station, even if you were parked right under the transponder.

The reception of XM is a 9 out of 10 for me. For long trips, you have a continuous feed of music without interruption. In Malibu, where LA radio stations normally fail to make it over the hills, you can pull in XM signal like a champ. In the infamous canyons that connect West Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, my XM connection is rock-solid, unlike even the strongest of digital cell phones. Unfortunately, I do encounter trouble when I pull into the above-ground parking structure of our office building, where the XM actually drops out. FM, an analog signal, doesn’t drop out the way a cell phone or XM will; it just fades out and or gets static-y. If you are in the middle of a jam when the XM craps out, it can be a buzz kill, but for damn near all driving situations from Point A to Point B, you are going to be in business with a solid connection.


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