By Ken Reitz
When originally launched nearly four years ago, satellite radio was marketed mainly as a mobile option for your car. Most units sold were in-dash units in new cars with each service signing agreements with different vehicle manufacturers. The big problem was that once you parked the car your satellite radio was turned off until you got back into the car.
A more versatile option is to have a unit you can take with you when you leave the car and go into your house. A number of products are now available which allow you to do this with either service. Here is a look at two versatile look-alikes: The Sirius AudioVox and the XM SkyFI.
The Sirius AudioVox and XM SkyFi satellite radio receivers appear enough alike to be twins. But, side-by-side there's an obvious difference. The AudioVox is considerably bigger than the SkyFi, though the size of the LCD display screen on both is nearly identical. The extra bulk, however, hurts the AudioVox when used in a mobile configuration; it's more awkward to mount and takes up extra space on already crowded dashboards.
Both are built on the same general design: the actual tuner may be slipped into the home or vehicle cradle and then popped out and taken with you. On the back of the home cradle there is a place to attach the lead to a small 2” x 2” antenna (XM and Sirius antennas, despite looking alike, are not compatible), a power cord jack and a mini-stereo jack which uses a mini to two RCA plugs to plug into an auxiliary jack in your home stereo.
The vehicle cradle is a little different. Several versions are available, including ones with FM modulators, auto stereo component plugs and cassette adapter. Some versions mount on your dashboard others underneath. Some have a cassette adapter, 12 volt power and RF adapter all in one. Check the most convenient configuration for your circumstances and think ahead a few years to when you may have a different vehicle. Shop for the best price from a variety of stores (see list) and check with the manufacturers' home pages, as there may be a manufacturer's rebate available.
Both have 10 handy, front-mounted channel pre-sets which, in mobile use, are really useful. You may load more pre-sets into each, but the extra step in pushing buttons may lead to confusion and too much time with your eyes on the display and not on the road.
* The biggest difference between the two is subscription cost: Sirius: $11.99/month, XM: $9.99/month. When XM previously had commercials on most of its music channels the extra $2/month was well worth the cost to Sirius customers. But, since XM axed their commercials it's hard to justify the extra bucks for Sirius. Unless, of course, content is an issue [see side bar]. Per annum subscription cost goes down as you buy more years for either service, but I would hesitate to buy more than a one year's subscription. Sirius was offering a “lifetime” subscription for $399, but it turns out that it's good only for the lifetime of the unit. A very dubious bargain.
* A look at the channel line-ups may be all that's needed to tip the scale for you. For example: Sirius has a much wider scope of available news channels. It offers two channels of NPR and one of Public Radio International (both home to popular shows such as A Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk and Wha'dya'know With Michael Feldman). XM has none. Sirius also has a big plus for shortwave listeners: it carries World Radio Network and its complete line-up of international broadcasters.
* I heard little difference between the two units when played through a variety of amplifiers. The better the stereo amplifier, the better either sounded. However, neither will sound as good as a CD played through a top quality stereo. Further, I found that compared with wide band satellite services such as DMX Direct, both units lacked depth and clarity. Still, while audiophiles might be disappointed, the point of satellite radio is portability (I certainly can't lug my dish around on my car) and content availability (it's great to listen to BBC World Service in the house and in the car).
* I found the SkyFi remote control was more ergonomic and was able to access the tuner from a greater distance than the AudioVox. It's also lighter weight, thanks to the small lithium 3 volt battery compared with the two AAA batteries in the AudioVox.
It's difficult to say how these units will hold up in the long run. My SkyFi and AudioVox units are both performing well after nearly a year's use. The Kenwood Sirius Here2Anywhere unit did not fare so well. It cratered after nine months and had to be replaced. Whichever you buy, be sure to keep the warranty info handy.
While XM hopes to reach the 3 million subscriber number by year's end and Sirius the 1 million level, the future of satellite radio is far from certain. Both continue to operate under enormous debt strain and while Wall Street analysts continue to rate both a “buy,” investors should be concerned about their finances. Both have awarded Enron-style bonuses to their top people. Subscribers will want to see continued service enhancements or both services could go the way of the in-dash cassette.
Three big programming changes occurred earlier this year. Stung by Sirius' advantage with its commercial-free music channels XM followed suit in February of this year. Initial reaction by the stock market was negative but the joy subscribers felt was evident immediately.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) fought furiously to stop both services from adding local traffic and weather reports to their line-ups. However, the FCC turned a deaf ear and one of the main criticisms of the service disappeared. Now, for most major markets in the U.S., it's possible to get the latest traffic and weather information without touching your car radio.
This spring XM launched XM America Left, a consortium of left-of-center commentators including professional gadfly Al Franken, environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., comedienne Jeanene Garofalo and Hip-Hop artist Chuck D. Since its inception Sirius offered both sides via its Sirius Left and Sirius Right channels.
Sirius and XM satellite radio equipment is available from the following discount retailers:
Best Buy http://www.bestbuy.com
Circuit City http://www.circuitcity.com
Good Guys http://www.goodguys.com
Check out the home pages for possible manufacturer's rebates
The Grove Catalog and Buyer's Guide