Satellite Radio Basics

Somewhere up in the sky, beyond the birds, the planes and even Superman, there are satellites whose sole purpose is to make sure you can rock out to Blue Oyster Cult, Bette Midler and Baha Men all in the same hour, all commercial-free, and across state lines.

Typical radio signals come from local radio towers. They are free for all, but once you move away from the tower (as little as 20 miles away) the signal can become fuzzy or even get lost. Conversely, satellite signals are beamed down from the heavens, giving them a wider broadcasting range. That’s why satellite users can drive from one end of the U.S. to the other and enjoy near-CD-quality sound without losing reception.

Satellite LogosThe Services

The first satellite service, XM Radio, began broadcasting in 2001. A year later, competitor Sirius launched. The two services operated independently, with different equipment, different channel lineups and a different subscriber base – until July 2008. This is when the two companies announced plans for a merger. After about a year of deliberating before Congress, the two companies joined forces, and Sirius XM Radio was born.

Thanks to the merger, satellite radio now stands over 18 million subscribers strong. Still, despite the service’s wide range, the adoption of satellite radio isn’t as widespread as regular radio—probably because the equipment and the services both cost quite a bit of money, versus the free broadcasts we all know and enjoy. Nonetheless, a little extra scratch buys you greater freedom of choice, better signal quality, access to premium content and the ability to actually go five minutes without hearing someone hawk used cars or wedding bands. Here’s what you need to know to get started. 

The Equipment

XMPBoth XM and Sirius have partnered with various automobile manufacturers to make sure you can take your favorite programming everywhere you travel. If you’re in the market for a new car, it pays to look at both services to see which one might be included with your new purchase. At present, there are no manufacturers adding equipment that services both Sirius and XM, so if you plan to sample both services at some point, plan to purchase a new car receiver.

Of course, you don’t need to choose a car based on whether or not the manufacturer offers any service; a number of optional after-market devices exist that can be installed easily into any dash. There are also plug-and-play units that use your cigarette lighter/power port and play over your car stereo, or use the auxiliary port that many newer vehicles feature. The Sirius Sportster 5 ($169.99) can hold up to 30 preset channels, allows users to pause and rewind up to 60 minutes of live radio, and throws in added features such as SportsZone and SportsAlert, which let fans track favorite teams. XM’s XpressRC ($139.99) also includes the time-shifting feature, as well as a full-color screen and SongSaver, allowing you to capture up to 10 of your favorite tracks. Some models are also easily transportable between the car and home, so you can maximize every minute of that monthly subscription.

You also won’t always be on the road or couch either. Happily for those on the go, it’s also possible to enjoy portable options. These handheld devices operate just like an iPod or other MP3 player, except that they can also receive satellite radio signals. The Sirius Stiletto 2 ($329.99) is a popular portable, combining satellite radio features with MP3 playback via an SD card. Some, such as Pioneer’s inno ($249.99), hold digital music as well. Both can even store time-shifted satellite programming.

Home-based units come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices. Satellite radio is sometimes built into professionally installed audio components, store-bought tuners, or even tabletop radios, such as Tivoli’s Sirius Table Radio ($299.99). These vary greatly in price, starting as low as under $200 and ranging up to the thousands it can cost to call in a professional installer for a Crestron, AMX or other high-end audio setup. Professionally installed products often result in better sound quality, as well as better programming choices. For instance, the Crestron AMS-AIP Media System includes both XM and Sirius tuners, letting users listen to different stations in different areas of the home.

No matter which way you tune into satellite radio, each service also allows subscribers to listen via any web browser. This requires no additional equipment or downloads; just sign up with an active account to get a user name and password. Both services additionally offer Internet-only subscription options, which you’ll need if you don’t subscribe via a dedicated device already. 

The Programming

Both XM and Sirius have their own sports, talk and music programming. There are a variety of subjects, DJs and genres to sample with each service. You could spend all day reliving the ‘80s, tuning into Top 40 hits, or hearing the day’s news. However, it’s not just the selection that entices satellite subscribers. It’s that many of the stations are classified as “commercial-free.” Once you get to sample that kind of listening experience, it’s hard to go back to regular radio, no matter how many songs they promise to play in a row.

When Sirius and XM operated independently, the two were competitively priced with a flat fee of $12.95 per month. Now that there’s technically one company, you’d think they would jack up the price. Not so—or at least not yet. The Sirius/XM merger has actually introduced reduced pricing plans, as well as the option to receive a la carte packages and sample stations that were previously only available on either service. Don’t get too excited. You can’t choose all jazz, rock or techno just yet.

Both services offer several in terms of subscription plans. Starting at $6.99 per month, you can choose any 50 channels on your respective service, except those deemed to be “premium” services, such as Playboy Radio, NFL Radio and Howard Stern, which cost extra. For $14.99, you can pick any 100 channels. Another $2 per month will get you all of XM’s 170 channels or 130 from Sirius (depending on your current subscription), with another 10 “Best Of” channels from the opposing service’s lineup. There are also a few other mixes and matches in terms of packages between those two price points, for “Family Friendly” folks, those that like “News, Sports & Talk,” or just good old “Mostly Music.”

One of the major draws of each satellite service is its celebrity programming. Stations featuring Oprah, Martha or Howard Stern are often the deciding factor when it comes to choosing a service.Here’s a sampling of each service’s celebrity offerings:   ·         Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour (XM)·         Martha Stewart Living Radio (Sirius) ·         MLB Play-by-Play (XM)·         The Opie & Anthony Show (XM) ·         Oprah & Friends (XM)·         Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure (XM) ·         Playboy Radio (Sirius)·         Chris "Mad Dog" Russo (Sirius) ·         Howard Stern (Sirius)

Of course, you can just keep getting the same stations from your respective service, for now, for the same $12.95 monthly fee. That’s good news, because the new Sirius Starmate 5 ($129.99), which is strictly for Sirius subscribers, is currently the only radio that currently supports a la carte options. Worse, it may also yet be years before a receiver is offered that delivers dual compatibility with both services.

But for those who demand higher-quality programming, want access to exclusive personalities and stations, demand uninterrupted nationwide signals, like their content raw and uncensored or just can’t stand commercial interruptions? Making the jump to satellite radio could be the best thing to happen to broadcasting since they invented ornery talk show hosts.

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