If you're frustrated with the radio programing in your area (and, seriously, how could you not be these days?), the premise of satellite radio is like a dream come true: dozens of channels playing near-CD-quality music, organized by genre, brimming with vitality, and, best of all, almost uninterrupted.
What's the catch? Well, aside from the monthly subscription fee, you'll need some equipment to pick up the satellite signals. Although both XM and Sirius initially focused on car receivers, devices designed for home and portable use are proliferating. We reeled in four of them - two for each service - to see how easy they make it to navigate and hear what satellite radio has to offer.
SATELLITE RADIO ANYWHERE In most respects, these little "transportable" radios - the XM SKYFi 2 ($130) and Roady 2 ($130) from Delphi , and the Sirius Sportster ($100) and XACT XTR1 Stream Jockey ($100) - are very similar. All four are approximately palm-size and sport LCD screens for channel and program information. Any space not taken up by the screen is occupied by controls, mostly buttons for selecting channel presets. All except the Delphi Roady2 are designed to plug into a home or car mounting device that has jacks for DC power (from a wall-wart AC adapter or a car socket), an antenna input, and a line-level audio output. The Roady2 has these jacks built into its left side. The audio outputs on all four models are standard 1/8 -inch stereo minijacks, so you'll have no problem finding replacement or extension cables. And each radio has a built-in FM modulator that allows it to wirelessly broadcast to any nearby FM tuner, like your car radio.
TUNING IN Satellite radio isn't like an ordinary AM or FM radio that you can put anywhere and expect to receive a signal, however poorly. The antenna must have a clear path to the satellite or to a terrestrial repeater. This isn't a problem outdoors, but the antennas for home installations have to be facing in approximately the direction of the satellite or repeater, at a window or even outdoors. In my northern New Jersey location, the antennas usuallly had to be outdoors to achieve adequate signal strength.
AT THE CONTROLS For all the radios, basic operation was about as easy and intuitive as you could imagine. I was channel surfing within a matter of minutes once I got the antennas set up correctly, without so much as cracking a manual or glancing at a quick-start sheet.
With so many channels available, it's good that each radio displays essential information about what's playing and has a variety of ways to find the programming you want. All of them have multiple display settings that vary screen content and emphasis, but typically what you see is the channel name and number, the artist's name, and the song title. They also have plenty of channel presets and, at minimum, a category-search function that lets you scroll through the channels under a particular genre. And you can check what's playing on other channels without tuning away from the one you're currently listening to - which all by itself is a big advance over conventional analog radio.
Each tuner, except the Roady2, also allows searches by artist or song title. And all, including the Roady2, let you memorize the artist and title for about 20 songs. You can use this information for reference ("What was that song I liked so much?") or to have the radio alert you when one of those songs is playing on a different channel.
SOUND QUALITY These convenience features are great, but it would be hard to care much if the sound was poor. Not to worry. With these radios hooked up to my home audio system, both Sirius and XM delivered consistently clear and clean sound. Because it's nearly impossible to make the sort of direct comparisons that would allow definitive conclusions, I can only say that music sounded better than typical FM broadcasts and most MP3s I've heard, but I didn't think it was quite up to CD quality.
Before moving on to the differences between the hardware, I have to say that my 11-year-old son is now begging for satellite radio about as much as he did for an iPod and, before that, a PlayStation 2 - which, for the record, is a lot of begging. But on this one, I'm probably more excited than he is.
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