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.

Home Theater

Dish Network or DirecTV: Which is the better choice for you?

So, you’ve chosen to go with a satellite television provider. Check out our quick rundown of what both Dish Network and DirecTV offer in terms of content, hardware, and pricing, and why you might choose them over streaming services.

Spotify vs. Pandora: Which music streaming service is better for you?

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Home Theater

Looking to cut cable? Here’s everything you need to know about Pluto TV

Pluto TV offers plenty of entertainment in a fashion similar to live internet TV services, only at no cost — you don’t even need to register. Too good to be true? Here’s everything you need to know.
Home Theater

New TV? Here's where to go to watch the best 4K content available

Searching for content for your new 4K UHD TV? Look no further. We have every major source of the best 4K content, along with the cost, hardware requirements, and features that make each service worth a look.

Looking to remove unwanted apps from your iPhone? Here's how

Have too many apps piled up on your iPhone? With all the games, apps, and bloatware out there, it is easy to run out of room on your phone. Here's how to delete apps on an iPhone, so you can free up some space for something new.

How to take pictures of the Perseid meteor shower and the stars

The night sky can be both one of the trickiest and most rewarding shoots to master. Stop putting your camera away at sunset and learn how to photograph the stars in this tutorial on the night sky.

Need to record calls on an iPhone? Check out our handy guide

Are you wondering how to record calls on your iPhone? It isn't as easy as you might think, but we'll walk you through the process of doing so with Google Voice, and identify several other apps and external voice recorders that can help.

How to transfer your contacts between iPhone and Android devices

There's nothing worse than getting a new phone and realizing you don't have any of your old contacts listed. Luckily, it's an easy problem to solve. Here's how to transfer your contact list to your new device.

How to convert and play FLAC music files on your iPhone or iPad

The high-resolution revolution is upon us, and FLAC files are a popular way to store hi-res sound. But what if you’re an iOS user? Check out our article to find out more about FLAC files, and how to use them on Apple devices.

8 easy ways for you to transfer photos from an Android phone to a PC

If you haven't already, you should back up your photos to a computer. Here's how to transfer photos from an Android phone to a PC using third-party services and a wealth of storage devices.

Windows 10 can split and resize windows with ease. Here's how to do it

Windows 10 is a great desktop operating system, and its many window management features are part of the reason why. Here's how to divvy up windows using Snap Assist and other native tools.

No home button, no problem: Here's how to take a screenshot on an iPhone X

Since the iPhone X has ditched Touch ID in exchange for Face ID, the process of taking screenshots is a little different. Here, we show you how to take a screenshot on an iPhone X.

Here’s how to safely download ‘Fortnite: Battle Royale’ on an Android device

'Fortnite: Battle Royale' is one of the biggest games in the world right now, and it's finally on Android, even if getting set up is a bit long-winded. Here's how to play 'Fortnite: Battle Royale' on an Android device.
Home Theater

TV calibration 101: Here's how to tune up the picture of your new TV

You’ve got your new TV out of the box, but now what? Our TV picture adjustment guide takes you through the simple steps to get the best picture from your brand new TV so you can set it and forget it.