12 Easy Steps...
...To Choose Between Sirius And XM Radio
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
|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
|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
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.
|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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.