An Introduction to Satellite Radio

By Charles Hopkins Published 05/27/2007 | Religion

1. What is Satellite Radio?

Two satellite radio companies, XM Radio and Sirius Radio, operate over North America. Each provides well over a hundred channels of 24-hour-a-day content, mostly music, news, sports and talk shows.

Both systems cover Alaska, Canada, the continental U.S.A. and northern Mexico, but not Hawaii.

Satellite radio is beamed down from communications satellites to receiving antennas, as in satellite television; similarly, the receiving antenna must be pointed toward the satellite. At only about two inches across, a radio antenna is much smaller than a TV dish.

To listen to satellite radio, you buy a receiver, and then pay a subscription fee to get an activation code, which enables your receiver to decode the digitalized content.

Subscription fees are around 13 per month -- less with longer commitments. XM Radio charges a 10, one-time activation fee.

Choosing a satellite radio service is not simple, so the more you learn about the two services, the more satisfied you will be with your decision. It comes down to personal choice because, to the user, XM and Sirius are quite similar in equipment, pricing and -- most importantly -- content.

2. Satellite Radio Receivers

Satellite radio receivers are marketed for mobile and/or home use. People often carry them between home and auto, as most receivers are the size of a hand-held calculator. A receiver must be nestled into a docking device in order to work. Called a car kit or a home kit, the dock supplies power to the unit and provides connections for antenna and output devices. These tiny satellite receivers have no built-in speakers.

Most models are designed to slip into car kits, home kits, or boom boxes. A huge market is emerging for pocket radios with earphones, and which double as MP3 players.

Both brands contract with sound system manufacturers to build home tuners with satellite receiving circuitry. You have only to hook up the satellite antenna and pay your subscription fee.

Automobile manufacturers can now supply pre-installed, in-car satellite radios. XM Radio partners mainly with General Motors, Honda and Suzuki. Sirius Radio has Ford, Chrysler, and VW as partners.

3. Choosing a Satellite Radio Receiver

First of all, XM and Sirius equipment are not compatible. Each employs its own, proprietary electronics and software, so neither receiver can work with the competing system.

Brand-for-brand, similar products are priced competitively. Prices tend to drop as newer models arrive. Dealers regularly hold sales, and generally keep prices between the two brands competitive. Deeper discounts are often found at the manufacturers' websites.

XM have existed longer, and have published studies showing that their sound reproduction is superior.

Sirius hosts the most helpful website with more product information including online user and installation manuals.

New buyers, though, are seldom able to make decisions from such sales information alone.

Talk, rather, with sales people and listen to systems in different stores. Ask their installers for advice, too.

Although both companies offer free trial periods, watch out! You'll need to buy a receiver and docking kit (a 100 outlay) before you can "try it for free". Are you willing to do that ... twice?

4. Satellite Radio Programming

XM Radio boasts over 170 channels. Sirius Radio carries over 130 channels. Simply comparing numbers serves little purpose, however.

Do you absolutely need the 15 sports channels on XM, or could you live with the 12 from Sirius? Choose carefully here: competing sports channels differ greatly in what they cover!

XM sends about 70 commercial-free music channels, while Sirius sends about 30. Sirius claims 23 rock stations, yet includes reggae and hip-hop in that category; XM lists 14 rock stations and 6 separately listed hip-hop channels.

While most receivers have 30 channel presets, can you recall where you have stored your 30 favorite channels? Would you even have 30 favorites? How many of those are you likely to tune into on your drive home?

5. The Installation Challenge

The easiest installation by far is with the home kit: the instructions show how to locate your antenna for strong, clear reception using the built-in signal strength meter.

The receiver can be situated at a distance, thanks to the long antenna wire (and optional extensions). For best sound, plug the receiver directly into your stereo with an audio cable.

More versatile is the XM Radio's Wireless FM Modulator (or Sirius Radio's FM Frequency) function, which re-broadcasts the satellite channel out to any FM radio in your home. The instruction manual explains this clearly, and it is not especially difficult to set up.

Car installations are more challenging! The easiest part is positioning the magnetic antenna onto your car roof.

Then, if all goes well, the FM re-broadcasting antenna can push enough signal from your receiver (inside the car) to your regular car antenna (somewhere on the outside, wherever the auto designers thought appropriate).

For best listening quality use an audio cable directly between the satellite receiver and your car radio AUDIO IN. If that socket is hidden behind the dashboard, you may want skilled help.

Sirius Radio offers many more optional devices for improving receiver-to-car-antenna transmission within the tricky environment of an automobile.

Prudent purchasers may prefer to let the dealer do the installation.

6. Conclusion

Satellite radio reception is not without its challenges. Yet, with nearly 14 million receivers in operation, satellite radio is here to stay. As with satellite television, not everybody wants one. But those who do have them love them.

News Update: Xm Radio & Sirius Radio to Merge?

The recent announcement about the two North American satellite radio companies' merger plans has certainly thrown plenty of excitement into the picture. But don't expect to see any changes for at least a year or two.

By the time the House Judiciary Committee is finished their oversight, and then all the other regulatory committees in the alphabet (S.E.C., F.C.C., J.O.C., et. al.) have their say, nothing will change.

Neither do the two companies have a clue yet about how they will integrate their two technologies. They say that they plan to maintain current services way out into the future. One thing for sure, they do not want to scare away any customers, new or old!

If you have been planning on joining the move to satellite radio, go ahead; you might as well enjoy it. Because, truthfully, nobody really knows exactly how or when this will all shake out. It's highly unlikely that you will see any downgrading of programming, whichever company you choose. Big incentives may even be forthcoming, just to keep potential customers confident ... and buying!

For the next year or two, nothing will change at all - and beyond that, you can be certain that the new, combined XM/Sirius entity will do everything in its power to hang on to every single subscriber.

The whole message with this merging is that they want to survive, and that their real competition is not between each other, but between them and the dozens of other systems for selling sounds to ears.