radio is here. Five years after the FCC issued the two licenses, this
service, anticipated by some and feared by others, is a reality.
Over the past year, consumer media, from Rolling Stone to
USA Today, have been covering the coming services. The stories
converted rocket science into a Cliff's Notes version of the
technology, but all of them reported that radio was about to
XM, which was first on the scene with service, reported from the
Consumer Electronics Show in January that it had 30,000 subscribers
after only five weeks of operation — an impressive figure.
Projections on future satellite radio sales vary from survey to survey,
but all of them show steady increases. (See Sign Off, page 76,
for one look at the expected trend.)
A few months ago, knowing that the service launch dates were around
the corner, I visited some electronics retailers to see what
information was available to consumers, what the retailers were telling
consumers, and to see how much the retailers really knew. I was
impressed with how much accurate information was available.
Just before I wrote this, I returned to the local stores of the
national electronics chains and listened to XM Satellite Radio. I
wanted to listen to it myself so I could make my own evaluation.
There are several hardware options available for XM receivers. The
easier, less expensive options are to use a receiver interface with an
FM modulator output or cassette deck interface. While many consumers
will choose these systems without regard to the aural effects of the
conversion, I chose to listen to an in-dash, XM-ready Pioneer system. I
wanted to hear the best audio quality I could find without worrying
about artifacts introduced by an afterthought interface.
started at channel 1 and tuned up the dial, stopping at least long
enough to hear the verse of a song or a phrase of a movement. I'm not a
fan of every format, so I listened longer to the styles that I do like.
The talk channels are at the top of the channel line up. I listened to
about one minute of each one before moving on.
My initial reaction: I was impressed. The music channels sounded
clean and clear. The audio is encoded with PAC, but I could not hear
any objectionable artifacts. There may have been some anomalies, but
nothing so objectionable as to make me want to change channels.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about the talk channels.
Most of the talk channels are services from outside sources, such as
USA Today and Bloomberg. Because they are created and delivered from
another source, I expect that XM has little or no control over the
technical parameters. Most of the services appeared to have their mics
processed with less-than-natural sounding settings. Some had no bass,
others had too much presence. In addition, these talk channels are
probably delivered to XM via some encoded digital link. I could hear
obvious audio artifacts on nearly all of these channels. If I were a
subscriber I would stick to the music channels.
The audio processing on the music channels does not sound as
aggressive as what you hear on terrestrial radio. Because of the less
aggressive audio processing, there was sometimes an obvious difference
in level between channels. While I'm sure all the channels are
processed with a peak limit in mind, the overall densities are lower,
hence the perceived difference.
The true consumer test is not the audio quality but the audio
content. To borrow from the tuna company slogan, listeners aren't so
concerned with good sound, listeners want radio to sound good. In this
case, sounding good means variety and less clutter. Some of the
channels with formats to which I would regularly listen were playing
songs that are not typical finds on terrestrial radio. There may not be
a local reference, but what is being played sounds great.
Last year people asked if satellite radio will ever happen. We know
that answer to be yes. Now the question being asked is will satellite
radio succeed? From what I have seen and heard, that answer is also