Head for the Hills
With Leslie leading the way in the Sirius Beemer, we drove toward Boulder. Unlike analog radio, the digital services generated no static or signal fading as we left town. Both services just played on - except when there was a drop-out.
|Leslie Shapiro and Ken Pohlmann drove an Audi S4 and a BMW X5 from downtown Denver to high in the Rockies to hear how the Sirius and XM satellite radio would hold up.|
The Sirius system briefly muted twice during that first half hour, when the BMW passed under Interstate overpasses. XM didn't drop out at the same points.
We headed up into the Rockies on Canyon Boulevard, a narrow two-lane road with granite walls rising on either side. Since the XM satellites are positioned over the equator, the signal hits North America at a lower angle than the one from the Sirius birds, so various stretches of the southern canyon wall blocked the XM signal just long enough for the receiver's memory buffer to run dry. In all, XM muted very briefly four times during the half hour or so it took us to drive through there. The Sirius system deftly handled the twisting curves, dropping out only once when both systems lost their signals for about 3 seconds as we drove through a 50-yard tunnel blasted through solid rock. Throughout our trip, the drop-outs in open-air spaces were hardly noticeable, often lasting for only a second or less.
We stopped for lunch at Annie's Café in Nederland, popular with the granola crowd. Juicy burgers on home-baked whole wheat gave us time to compare notes. We appreciated that all 60 Sirius music channels are commercial-free (33 of the 40 talk channels have commercials). Still, the commercials on XM weren't nearly as intrusive as they could have been. (With XM, 34 of the 71 music channels and two of the 29 talk channels are commercial-free. Currently, XM limits commercials to less than 6 minutes per hour, compared with the 21-minute-per-hour average on FM radio.) The quality of production on both services is high, and the voice-overs were refreshingly subdued.
Programming choices on both systems are comparable, and amazingly diverse - Latin Hip-Hop on Sirius, for instance, and Mandarin Chinese on XM. Compare this with terrestrial radio stations, almost half of which use one of three programming formats: adult contemporary, country, and news/talk/sports.
We talked about all the great new music we could access and reserved our sound-quality discussions for the next day so we could each have a chance to critically listen to a wide variety of content on each system.
As we headed north along the Peak to Peak Highway, we were receiving the signals straight from the satellites. The advantage of satellite radio was evident. Not only were we out of range of the repeaters, but we were also out of range of the Denver FM radio stations. Mountain areas like this have very limited local radio coverage (22 million radio listeners receive fewer than five FM stations), but there we were, listening to everything from big band to Broadway, from be-bop to hip-hop. We could even check the Rockies' baseball score on the ESPN feeds available with both services.
Our caravan pulled into the village of Estes Park and the historic Stanley Hotel. Opened in 1909 by F. O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, the hotel has a rich, perhaps haunted history. (Stephen King wrote half of The Shining while staying there.) We only hoped that the ghosts would stay in the hotel and out of our vehicles.
The next morning, we swapped cars and headed into Rocky Mountain National Park for a scenic drive along Trail Ridge Road. We were surprised when the XM radio's buffer couldn't handle some heavy foliage, which caused the signal to briefly drop out three times. The Sirius system, on the other hand, never dropped out as we drove through the high country. To give the systems a final torture test, we returned to Denver via Vrain Canyon Road, another twister with looming granite walls. XM briefly muted twice, and Sirius muted once. In all, during the 12 or so hours of our two-day drive, XM muted 11 times and Sirius muted 5 times.
Your results may differ depending on how many terrestrial repeaters your city has, what kind of terrain you drive through, where you're located in the country, how your antenna is mounted, and the quality of your receiver. So we can't generalize and say that Sirius is more robust, but it was certainly more robust in this particular test. Since they were all brief, the dropouts shouldn't be a deal breaker. And they're nothing compared to the nearly continuous interference we routinely put up with from analog radio. If you're considering buying into satellite radio, you'd be well advised to test drive XM- and Sirius-equipped vehicles over your most frequently traveled routes and see how the two services fare in your area.
Some other points: Both systems were slow in changing channels (XM was slightly slower). Since the process takes several seconds, rapid channel surfing isn't a possiblity. Neither system uses heavy dynamic-range compression on its music, which is a good thing. But we sometimes wished that the head units had user-adjustable compression so we could reduce dynamic range and boost soft passages over road noise. For instance, when Ken listened to Wagner's Rienzi Overture on Sirius and "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from Götterdämmerung on XM, he had to crank up the volume to hear the quiet opening passages and turn it way down when things got loud.
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