Satellite radio

Published: January 2011

Satellite radio has several advantages over conventional AM and FM stations:

  • It's broadcast over clear, static-free digital signals from orbiting satellites.
  • You can receive the same radio content virtually anywhere you drive throughout the U.S. and Canada without ever losing a station by going out of range.
  • Satellite providers have a huge assortment of channels for varied tastes, and you're more likely to find music that's out of the mainstream. Sports, news, traffic, weather, and comedy programming are also available.

In addition, according to a Consumer Reports survey, satellite radio users express a high level of satisfaction with their services.

The downside is that you have to pay a monthly fee for it. If your radio isn't already set up for satellite reception, you'll also need to buy compatible hardware, which can be relatively expensive and may not provide CD-quality music. And while the services broadcast nationwide, the satellite signal can be blocked by tunnels, overpasses, large buildings, mountains, and even trees, causing dropouts in the programming.

Choosing a service

The two satellite providers Sirius and XM, have merged. But each still offers their own mixed bag or programming, some of which overlaps. Both charge $12.95 a month for a basic subscription, although a variety of packages are offered, including options that let subscribers choose programming from both.

Generally, the two services broadcast similar content, covering a broad range of interests. Sirius has more than 130 programming channels, with 69 commercial-free music channels. XM offers more than 170 stations, including over 70 commercial-free music channels.

The music channels are remarkably diverse, exploring not only genres but also multiple subgenres. For example, Sirius has more than 25 channels listed under "rock." Similarly, XM lists several country music stations, including traditional, bluegrass, and new hits. With such a wide range of programming options, most people should find satisfying content on either service. You can review all of the programming choices at each company's Web site, at www.sirius.com and www.xmradio.com.

Sports could be one reason to choose one service other the other, and while both offer a wide variety of sports programs, their selections vary. If there's a team or sport you're particularly interested in, check their websites for availability before signing up.

A low-cost alternative for smart-phone owners is a streaming music service such as Pandora or Slacker.

Buying the hardware

If you're shopping for a new car, you'll find most models with optional satellite-capable radios, often with a starter subscription—from three months to a year—included in the car's purchase price. But you may have little choice about which service you get. Most carmakers have partnered with either Sirius or XM and offer receivers designed to work only with one or the other.

If you want to add satellite radio to a car not originally equipped with it, you have several options. You can buy:

  • A receiver that connects directly to a factory-installed audio system. The tuner usually sits in the car's trunk.
  • A complete in-dash head unit.
  • A dock-and-play model that can be shuttled between car and home and installed easily in minutes.

But not all vehicles can accommodate an aftermarket head unit. Even if it can be installed in the dashboard, you may lose some functionality, such as steering wheel radio controls or station/track displays.

A variety of options for listening out of the car include home receivers, satellite radio service for smart phones, and portable radios with docking stations for listening at home, in the car, or anywhere else. Check Sirius and XM websites for details.


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