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12 Easy Step Guides

12 Easy Steps...

...To Choose Between Sirius And XM Radio


Background. I have had both a Sirius and an XM Radio since they each went live here in Minnesota. While I did get my radios and first year of service for free due to being a Best Buy employee (at that time), I would have bought a satellite radio due to the long road trips that I take, and the lack of decent radio in many areas of the US. Having both radios made it easy to compare the offerings of each company.

No Longer Actively Updating This Page. Both services now offer most of the same types of programming and the same types of sports. Rather then attempt to keep up to date with the programming on each, I have chosen to point out the key areas where they differ, and let you (the reader) do the research on specific items that are most important to you. A particular sport or sports team may be carried by one service and not the other, but that could also change each year.

The Merger. XM and Sirius have merged and are now one company. Each system uses vastly different hardware, so a technical merger will not happen. At the programming level, both services now carry essentially the same channels.

Post-Merger Fall-Out. Since the merger, the programming on both XM and Sirius has vastly degraded. The excellent rock music channels, Top Tracks and Big Tracks, are now gone, replaced by the chatty Sirius version. Commercials have reappeared on many of the music channels, notably Rock At Random (XM 161). Most of the music stations have adopted the much narrower playlist typical of what Sirius used in the past. Nearly all of the non-political talk shows have been dropped. The talk stations are mostly filled with ultra-radical hate-talk shows with hosts that do more yelling than talking. The only positive note is that XM now has a second public radio channel. While it is still nice to have a radio that doesn't fade out every few miles when traveling, I find it increasingly difficult to be able to tolerate much of the programming for lengthy periods of time.

Step #1

Rural Coverage. Sirius wins in rural coverage area. Sirius has 3 satellites in a medium earth orbit. As a result, you normally have two satellites visible, and at a higher angle. This higher angle prevents ground obstructions from blocking your signal. XM uses geosynchronous orbit satellites, which are low to the ground in North America, and you do get ground blockages. I find that large hills and bluffs will block XM, and even sometimes thick forests will block XM if the forests are close to the highway. People tell me that XM is spotty in the Pacific northwest such as Washington and Oregon. I have not had Sirius blocked out in a rural area. Sirius is the better choice for rural drivers.

Step #2

Urban Coverage. XM wins in urban coverage. This is due to XM having ground stations in most major urban areas. While you might be blocked from seeing a satellite, the ground station will fill in for you. I have gotten solid coverage in downtown Minneapolis, even in the highway tunnels and under long bridges. Sirius, on the other hand, blanks out any time you pass under any bridge, or drive next to a building. In driving in downtown Minneapolis, Sirius is blanked out up to 50% of the time. If you want a radio for driving around town, XM is the better choice. But make sure that your area has a ground station if you have a lot of freeway bridges and taller buildings.

Update—Sirius has now installed a number of ground stations, but XM still leads in this area by a factor of 10.

Step #3

Sound Quality. In my experience, XM has better sound than Sirius. I don’t know why. It could be that XM is more mature, that the XM radios are better, or XM has better technology for sound. XM sounds very clear and near-CD quality. The main fault of XM is that the music is highly compressed. Sirius has a lot of background noise, hiss, and the bass is highly exaggerated. In addition, it is even more compressed than XM. It almost sounds like Sirius is using telephone lines between its studios and transmitters, much like older FM radio stations used before microwave and satellite became popular. The noise and hiss are most noticeable on talk channels, while the boomy bass is prevalent on music channels. You can always turn your bass level control down to compensate, but this is a hassle if you also use your FM tuner from time to time (you would need to keep adjusting your bass back and forth).

Step #4

Commercials. Both services give the impression that they are commercial free. This is not true. Both services have large numbers of channels that carry large numbers of commercials. XM has far more commercials than Sirius. XM carries about 12 channels that have no commercial sales messages, however, they still carry XM commercials for other XM channels. The remaining channels all have XM commercials, sales messages, and public service announcements. Sirius has about 12 channels that have absolutely no commercials or messages, about 40 more that have very little messages, and the remainder have commercials and public service announcements like any other FM station or TV channel. The commercials on XM are generally well done, and usually not very obnoxious. XM used to have a tendency to run a commercial for an unrelated music channel on the channel that you were listening to. This could be very irritating if you were listening to a country channel, and got a 2-minute rap commercial. XM has stopped doing much of this based on consumer complaints. XM also used to run the same 2 or 3 public service announcements over and over and over and over, sometimes the same commercial would run 6 times in a given hour. This has thankfully stopped as XM has sold these commercial slots for real commercials. Sirius has not sold out their commercial slots, so they run a lot of public service announcements. To summarize, if you listen to music, you will find far fewer commercials on Sirius.

Update—as of Feb 1, 2004, XM has gone commercial free on a majority of its music stations. Sirius has announced a pending change, but hasn’t said what will be changing yet. At this time, XM now has the edge in being commercial free on the music side. In the case of XM, commercial free does not mean interruption free, they still run a lot of ads for XM and promo spots for other XM channels.

Step #5

Programming Philosophy (Music Variety and Depth). XM and Sirius each have slightly different approaches to music programming. Both have professional DJ’s that decide what music will go on each channel. XM attempts to give their channels the feel of a live DJ from a broadcast station, while Sirius keeps the DJ off the air, other than naming the songs on some channels. XM has very narrow programming on each channel. If they say classical music from a certain era, that is exactly what it will be. There is no cross-over between channels. It also means that you will likely either love or hate a given channel. I find that I get bored with channels that are so narrowly focused, so I end up surfing. On the other hand, XM has a lot more specialized music channels than Sirius. Sirius has much broader programming on each channel, with some overlap between channels. This means that the programming is more interesting, and you surf less, but it means that there are fewer specialized channels. I also find that XM has a deeper catalog. This is great for music geeks, but often times I find XM playing music that is so deep in the catalog that I am not interested, or I have no idea who it is. I get the impression that XM is trying to save money by seeking out more obscure music that is cheaper to play on-air. Sirius has much more mainstream programming, and you will recognize the music that is played on the channels that you are interested in. I have found very little repetition in the songs, other than both services having a top hits channel where the top 20 songs are played endlessly.

Note—I have since learned that XM has a rock playlist of about 200,000 songs, whereas Sirius has a playlist of about 50,000 songs. This means that Sirius is always going to have something familiar playing, whereas XM might be deeper into the playlist than many listeners are use to. Some say that XM ages better as you learn more songs, while others say Sirius plays a better mix. It is best to listen for yourself before making a final choice.

Step #6

Public Radio Fans. If you are a fan of public radio, Sirius is your hands down choice. Sirius features 3 channels, including NPR Now, NPR Talk, and Public Radio International (a provider of public radio shows that is not affiliated with NPR). Most of the major NPR, PRI, and APM (American Public Media) shows are included, such as Fresh Air, Motley Fools, Car Talk, Talk of the Nation, Marketplace, Wait-Wait, etc. The notable missing shows are the two flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Many of the shows are repeated at night, or twice on the weekend, which gives you a higher probability of catching your favorite program.

XM had no public radio for the longest time, but bowed to listener pressure by adding a single channel that carries some of the more obscure shows from PRI. XM’s flagship public show is a one hour news interview show hosted by Bob Edwards, the long time host of NPR’s Morning Edition.

Step #7

Talk Radio Fans. Talk radio fans will find a mixed bag. Neither service has the top rated talk radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Dr. Joy Brown, or Don Imus. Both services have ABC radio, which has Sean Hennity, plus a few other nationally known political talk shows. Sirius has several channels of lessor known local hosts, including a Left and Right focused political channel, and a channel focused on gay and lesbian issues. XM has less talk variety, but has a channel with 3 powerhouse talk radio programs including Coast to Coast AM (the former Art Bell show), Talknet (Bruce Williams), and Dr. Dean Edell, and the tech talk show On-Line Tonight with David Lawrence. The remaining XM talk stations are dedicated to regional political shows, and a channel based on urban and black issues. Both services carry the E! entertainment station, but the radio version does not include Howard Stern.

Update—as of May 2004, both services carry America Left, the new liberal talk radio network featuring Al Franken. Both services have reorganized their talk stations with right, center, and left talk channels.

News flash—the shock jocks are coming! Andy and Opie will join XM as a premium channel, while Sirius has Howard Stern coming in 2005 at no extra charge. Sirius is hoping that their huge investment in Stern will raise their profile and lead to a million new subscribers.

Update—as of March 2005, XM discovered that almost nobody was paying extra for Opie and Anthony. As a result, XM is raising their fees, and making Opie and Anthony part of the base package. This eliminates the small price advantage that XM once held over Sirius.

Step #8

Sports Fans. Both XM and Sirius have ESPN and ESPN News. This gets you the baseball playoffs, a few basketball games, and Sunday Night Football. Sirius has several channels dedicated to major sports, including 40 NBA and 40 NHL games each week. This makes Sirius the clear choice for NBA and NHL fans. XM, on the other hand, focuses more on sports talk, including Sporting News and Fox Sports networks. XM also has a dedicated NASCAR channel, which broadcasts all NASCAR races, and runs classic NASCAR when there is no live races to cover.

Update—as of July 2004, Sirius has committed to carrying all of the NFL games for the season this fall. As of October 2004, XM has committed to carrying all of the Major League Baseball games in 2005, from spring training to the playoffs.

Step #9

Professional Drivers. Both services have a channel dedicated to professional truck drivers. These channels have news, information, weather reports, and general talk that is of interest to drivers. But the content is somewhat different between XM and Sirius, so my advice is to listen to both for a while, and pick the one you like the best. Both services have the Weather Channel. Sirius also has regional weather channels, which make it quicker to get to your region, and they go more in depth on each specific region.

Update—as of April 2004, XM has added city-specific traffic and weather information. The initial roll-out covers 14 cities, with 7 more scheduled to roll-out in the next few months.

Update—as of July 2004, both XM and Sirius now have city-specific traffic and weather for 20 major cities. XM has 20 channels, while Sirius has 10 shared channels.

Step #10

Family Issues. On the plus side, both services offer at least one religious channel, a family and self-help talk station, and a Christian music station. On the down side, both services have rap and urban music that features a lot of profanity. These can, however, be locked out on many radios. Sirius has some talk shows that use extensive profanity, they use profanity in commercials on otherwise safe stations, and they have pornographic and gay talk on some of the mainstream channels. This may eliminate Sirius as a choice for family use. XM has the Playboy channel, but it is a premium subscription channel that you cannot receive unless you elect to do so and pay an extra monthly fee. On the positive side, both XM and Sirius has channels for kids. The XM version is a Clear Channel network for kids, while Sirius has Radio Disney.

Step #11

Radio Displays. Radios exist for both XM and Sirius that have multi-line displays. This can tell you the artist and name of a song, or allow you to see what is on a number of channels with a single glance. I have seen a number of different types of displays, include blue fluorescent, orange plasma, and black and white LCD. The blue displays are hard to read. I haven’t found a combination of brightness and backlighting that allows me to read it. It causes the lettering to blur. The LCD’s are easy to read, but the back-lighting is so bright that it causes glare at night, yet bright sunlight can still wash it out. The orange plasma works best for me. I can set it for low light at night, yet still read it well during the daytime. Carefully consider the radio display on any radio that you buy. It is best to try it out in both day and night conditions, if possible, perhaps by getting a demo from someone who already has a radio that you are considering. Buying off the shelf in a store might not give you this opportunity.

Step #12

Remote Controls. Make sure that the unit you are getting has a remote control. There isn’t enough space on the front of these radio units for all the features that you need. This gets especially bad where you add a module to an in-dash stereo, where each button has multiple functions. The remotes have room for all of the needed buttons, plus you can run the remote without taking your eyes off of the road. One key feature of a radio is how easy is it to go from channel to channel. An early Sony unit had only channel up and down, plus 5 presets. You had to push 49 times to get from channel 1 to channel 50. You want a remote that has direct entry of the channels by pressing a numberpad. You may not want to do this while driving, but you want that ability to get to any random channel in 3 or 4 button pushes.

XM Radio
Official XM Radio Website
Official Sirius Website
XM411 Website
Sirius Backstage Website

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Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
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