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Open Letter to Sirius/XM: Sound Quality Matters
Sirius and XM
February 26, 2007 | by John Caldwell
With a Sirius/XM merger on the horizon, audio expert John Caldwell says it’s time for satellite radio to improve its sound.
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Posted by xzi  on  02/26  at  09:53 AM

The truth is sound matters… to you.  Unfortunately, that means satellite radio is not for you, either.  Satellite Radio has made no secrets it’s about content, not sound quality.  You’ll need to look for other avenues, and the truth is they’ll be fine without you because their market are the people who want to hear baseball, football, soccer, golf, racing, basketball, conversative talk, progressive talk, african-american talk, Playboy, Howard Stern, Opie and Anthony, female talk, jazz, blues, standards, french music, canadian music, spanish music, mexican music, kids music, classic radio, radio theater, etc etc etc etc

And that, doesn’t sound like radio to me.  Especially not in MY city.

Posted by Rico  on  02/26  at  06:53 PM

I definitly agree with you about the quality of sound.

90% of the time I am tuned to just one channel (Stern) which really doesn’t require much quality…. but for that other 10% of the time, I kringe whenever I tune to a music channel. The term “thin” is a perfect description. very little bass, even worse high-end.

I’ll never give up terestrial radio, for those same reasons you mentioned. Satellite will never match the “local” feel of radio.

If the industry is listening, they’ll improve the quality, but at what cost? I don’t want to sound cheap, but, even at $12.95/month, satellite is too expensive for what it delivers.

Posted by Benjamin  on  02/26  at  10:07 PM

This is probably one of the many reasons that XM is/was losing market-share. Personally I think the sound quality of Sirius, both in my car and when listen over the Internet, is really good. Plus, Sirius’ content is head and shoulders above what XM offers. If the merger isn’t approved, then I predict that Sirius will easily overtake XM. The way XM runs that company is ridiculous—especially what they spent on acquiring Oprah. That produced *no* increase in subscriptions and cost them a fortune.

Posted by Mash  on  02/27  at  03:39 PM

Consumers need to stand up and shout at them for putting commercials on subscription programming. Even the talking DJs between songs are annoying… I will NEVER pay for that.

C’MON, get serious, Sirius.

Posted by a/c  on  02/27  at  10:18 PM

This is a bit ridiculous. FM transmitters suck, no matter what they’re connected to. XM can’t do anything about the fact that the FM dial is crowded. The FCC restricts the power output of unregistered FM transmitters so the signal just gets overpowered. Not to mention that it has to downgrade the signal to FM-quality, which sucks in the best case scenario. If you care about sound quality at all, don’t use FM transmitters, ever.

It sounds like your wife’s boombox was defective, which does suck, but at least they were able to fix it. Still, even that doesn’t really prove anything about the quality of satellite radio. The sound you get out of any stereo is dependent on the quality of the stereo. Most high-end stereos these days are satellite-ready. You might want to try one of those.

For a self-professed audiophile, I don’t know how you could go the whole review without even mentioning XM’s “HD” channels. With the proper receiver and stereo, you should get 5.1 surround sound. They’re at least trying to cater to audiophiles.

Really though, it’s a balance between variety and quality. There’s only so much bandwidth to go around, so they’d have to get rid of some channels to increase the quality. And the merger won’t help anything for a while yet at least. XM and Sirius use different technology, so there’s no effective way to combine the bandwidth. They’ll probably offer up the same content to everyone, but they’ll have to broadcast it in both formats. Even when they come out with a dual-receiver, most people will still have only the one for a while. In the long term, it could help, but by then they’ll probably move on to an entirely new format.

As for the iPod comment.. that’s just a bit unlikely. Apple doesn’t need satellite radio to sell iPods. Really it would only take sales away from iTunes. They’ve already got the Pioneer Inno and similar units which have MP3 functionality. The sound quality of music recorded from XM is the same as what you hear normally, which should compare favorably to MP3s at the same bitrate.

Posted by John Caldwell  on  02/28  at  02:26 PM

Dear a/c

I’ll concede the point that FM modulators aren’t the best way to experience anything in a car. But this is in fact the way millions of people listen to their CD changers and iPods everyday. So it’s a market reality and one that deserves reporting on.

Modulators aside, XM’s overall sound quality, whether it be through my wife’s table top unit, hard wired into my home rig, over the internet or in an OEM car radio still leaves a lot to be desired.

Yes, I’ve listened to the HD channels. And it’s a bit better. But it’s no where near what a well recorded SACD or DVD-A disc sounds like. Just because it has more channels doesn’t make it audiophile quality. In fact, most audiophiles who buy SACD or DVD-A buy it not for the surround sound. Most buy it for it’s lower noise floor and greater dymanic range. Folding down the surround sound mix in surround music formats to 2-channels is a popular “audiophile” listening scheme.

I never said that the new combined XM/Sirus should combine bandwidths. I’m merely pointing out one obvious soluton when you have a bandwidth problem. Drop some channels and increase the size of the word bit rate in the codec. I’ve talked to my colleagus at iBiquity, the guys who wrote both XM’s and Sirius’s codecs and I’m told that it can be done….

Don’t be so sure about Apple not needing satellite radio as a partner down the line. Stranger things have happened and probably will keep happening. Witness video over iPod and the battery eating promise of iPhone to come…..

Posted by a/c  on  02/28  at  04:20 PM

I’m not really defending XM’s sound quality. I haven’t tried, but I’d wager it wouldn’t even hold up to a normal CD. If you do want to try though, if you really want to form an opinion on the quality of XM radio and share it with the world, then there are ways to do it. There are fair points to be made, but I don’t think you made them in the article.

XM and Sirius both have deals with car manufacturers to install the equipment in new cars, usually as an option. With the merger and the consolidation of the hardware market, I think that’s likely to expand. There are plenty of after-market car kits and many car stereos now include a front-mounted AUX jack for the iPod generation. FM transmitters are only a last resort for people with older cars who don’t want to spend any money. (BTW, the XM over the Internet is much more compressed than the actual satellite signal and sounds significantly worse.)

On another point, I’m confused about your idea #2. I thought you were implying that XM and Sirius should combine their bandwidth. Anyway, your friends are right, it would be fairly easy to drop a few channels and allocate their bandwidth to increasing the bitrate on others. They do this already with the news, talk and humor channels, which get less bandwidth because voice data is more “compressable”. It’ll always be a trade-off, though. Do you get more customers with 200 channel that sound OK, 100 channels that sound good, or 50 channels that sound really good? I’m sure both XM and Sirius have done significant market research on that trade-off to arrive at where they are.

As for Apple ... I have my own predictions. I think the iPhone will be a great success for them, but not at all the way people expect. Jobs’ prediction of 10 million units in 2008 is absolutely ridiculous. It might sell barely a million, but those million will create a buzz that easily folds over into the sales for the next generation iPod, which will probably have most of the features of the iPhone for less money. I used to the think the iPhone was going to be a Newton-level disaster, but I’ve come around to the conclusion that it’s basically just a marketing tool to sell iPods.

Posted by aRandomIdiot  on  03/01  at  12:10 AM

You have another thing coming.

XM already upgraded their codec to a newer codec - which sounds superior to the old codec.

Sirius chose not to - they did not want to invest the money - they had Howard Stern - who cared about Audio Quality?

The “new guy in charge” to run the new merged company is Mel Karmazin. Mr. Karmazin is responsible for never ending amount of commercials on the CBS Stations - and once there is only one - he will do what he wants to do - which is start selling commercials on every channel he can.

He doesn’t care about Audio Quality. He believes that if he has the like of Howard Stern - the people that have the emotional connection that you describe to sit on billboards for concert tickets or blow up records in a stadium - he doesn’t need sound quality.

So lots of luck with your quest - however, its clear Satellite Radio isn’t for you.

Posted by Matt  on  03/01  at  01:27 AM

“Just make sure that your sound is better than MP3s or other lossy compressed-sounding codecs.”  Yeah there is a general sonic ignorance among most folks out there.  That’s why satellite ‘radio’ and other warbly, squishy-sounding, badly encoded digital audio gets by in so much of our society.

MP3s can sound really great, though.  Anyone who has heard LAME-encoded music at a relatively high bitrate can vouch for that.  Thing is, MP3’s heyday as state of the art has come and gone.  Much like MPEG-2 video which will not die, it seems to be immortal.  Newer MP4 codecs, or alternative codecs (Ogg Vorbis) do a great job with even less bandwidth.

But like the other posters say, the powers-that-be will not yield 25 stations of crap just so 10 stations can sound decent.  And that’s really a shame.  The Cult of Mediocrity, Quantity over Quality, call it what you will.

Like when small-dish satellite TV really caught on, badly-compressed digital audio has taken us a step backward in AV quality for the first time ever, essentially.  I’ll never forget seeing it for the first time and watching the blocks dance like a screensaver, partciularly in low-light scenes.  I remember thinking “wow, finally after 60 years or so, TV looks worse than it did the year before.”  now that’s progress!

Maybe HD Radio will fill the void where people (and I don’t even think it’s only audiophiles necessarily) want to hear decent-sounding music.  It’s just a real drag to watch the FCC auction off and peel away the analog spectrum to be filled up with badly compressed digital programming.  For now, it’s CD and MP3 in the car and at home, for me.

Posted by Alpha  on  03/01  at  09:53 AM

Unfortunately I can’t listen to Satellite Radio, neither XM or Sirius.  The sound quality doesn’t hold a candle compared to standard FM.  I have a pretty decent audio system setup in my car and it’s a night and day difference.  Flat, compressed, lifeless would be one way to describe what both satellite radio companies sound like in my car.  I don’t anything about this new codec for XM but hopefully it is much better, but I have a feeling it still won’t be on par with FM.

Posted by Matt  on  03/01  at  11:24 AM

hear hear!  Alpha is right, FM can sound really good.  And of course, the ne’er do wells have really screwed that up, too.  What with over-compression and not to mention really cruddy programming and music.  It may top out at 16kHz but a nice receiver (and some decent music :-) can deliver sound that is full, rich and clear…and makes Sat. radio that much more unlistenable in comparison.

Posted by Jonathan  on  03/01  at  11:28 AM

Unfortunately I don’t expect better sound quality anytime soon. For one thing few of us evidently care that much about it. (See Matt’s comment on the decline of TV quality.) If you read certain message boards it seems many joyously ignorant people can’t even hear that there’s a problem. If they ever do merge the bandwidth of the systems then I expect we’ll probably see backseat video or more stock quotes before we get bandwidth dedicated to increasing sound quality. In the short term, sound quality will probably decrease even further as some Sirius content is added to XM.

I’ve been an XM subscriber for about a year and the sound quality is my main complaint. I would be satisfied if everything could sound at least as “good” as the 64kbps Windows Media audio that they’re broadcasting online. The _free_ AOL streams sound even better than that. The two XMHD channels pretty much meet this standard (or at least they did at one point. I don’t listen to them very often since the content there doesn’t excite me in the least.)

Posted by xzi  on  03/01  at  11:54 AM

Sound quality?

Look at all the spring training games I get to listen to today:
Astros at Indians on XM176 (1:00 PM )
Red Sox at Blue Jays on XM177 (1:00 PM )
Reds at Pirates on XM178 (1:00 PM )
Phillies at Tigers on XM179 (1:00 PM )
Royals at Angels on XM180 (3:00 PM )
Giants at Cubs on XM181 (3:00 PM )

NOW, tell me again about satellite radio sound quality will keep them from succeeding?

Posted by Dallas  on  03/01  at  05:12 PM

We have noticed that the XM feeds on Directv seem to sound quite a bit better than the XM feeds directly. Anyone else confirm that? It would seem to bode well for the possiblity of improvements that could be made?

Posted by xzi  on  03/01  at  05:26 PM

The DirecTV feeds are apparently 192kbps MPEG-2 audio—which is most like better than the 24-64kbps AAC+sbr from the satellites.  AOL Radio is 128kbps AAC+ (if you subscribe) and 64kbps AAC+ for the “free” ones—both probably also better than the XM birds.

So yes, that’s true.

XM’s music library is stored at 386kbps MPEG-2 audio, so the capabilty is there—the transport has very limited bandwidth, though.

Posted by joe  on  03/02  at  12:43 AM

I’ve worked with XM.  I was a production manager.  I’ve encoded audio that was sent through their pipeline from New York City to the facility near DC.  Their sound quality (pre satellite uplink) is AWFUL.  Good sound quality sucks-up bandwidth and so does a plethora of available content/channels.  XM chose the latter to deliver, with good reason.  I can’t listen to XM, because so much of the original data is stripped out of the content; more than what FM loses in a normal transmission.  If you’re a sports fan, the benefit of XM is huge:  you get many games in real time.  The only sound quality you lose is when music-intensive audio is played during the game.  For music and syndacated content, I’ll take my iPod and the many podcasts that are available.  At least that way, I can play redbook .wav files or high bitrate .mps files or even AAC if I so choose.

Posted by joe  on  03/02  at  12:53 AM

I think that XM may succeed in the long run, but there is way too much overhead to be covered by subscription revenue.  Advertising/sponorship revenue is mandatory to keep XM/Sirius afloat.  Unfortunately, advertisers get more bang for their ad dollars with terrestrial radio because millions more people, in distinct locales, is measurable demographics listen to terrestrial radio everyday.  A 1 million dollar national Ad buy will not go far in support XM, whereas many local direct businesses do quite a bit to keep terrestrial radio stations on the air.  Broadcast Advertising spending is down as a whole; XM is trying to grab a piece of a shrinking pie.  In the end, Wall Street, not sound quality or the number of Baseball games airing at one time will decide whether or not XM succeeds.

Posted by Ned Christensen  on  03/02  at  01:20 PM

I have used XM in a number of my cars for over 3 years now, and I got Sirius in a new Mercedes that a purchased 6 months ago.  My experience has been very different from John’s.  I love satellite “radio” and have found the quality to be excellent.  I will still sometimes listen to local FM, but when I change back to satellite, the sound is MUCH better - just like I put in a CD.  I travel a lot by car and have never thought satellite sound sounded “thin.”  The only complaint I have is that I lose the signal at times when the satellites are close to the horizon and I am near a hill or embankment.  XM and Sirius are very equililent for the channels I listen to.  I admit that I am not an “audiophile” but I find the quality great!

Posted by Eric  on  03/02  at  05:23 PM

I too wish XM would give me some better sound quality, but if your not listening to FM for typical playlists or listen to popular music, FM sucks too. The typlical pop or urban station is compressed so bad and pushed that I can’t listen. On top of that, the only way I can get old-school hip-hop, full time jazz, or a cool channel like Hear Music is through XM. Some of us like the interaction on the channels, like the mix shows on hip-hop stations. If you want the same playlist all day with no DJs then get that iPod cranking. Paying for the equiv of a CD a month is worth it to me. In fact, I have 3 radios from XM. If they upped the sound quality at the expense of the endless talk channels they would have a subscriber for life.

Posted by Ned H.  on  03/03  at  04:44 AM

I got Sirius for Stern mostly, but in my truck, it sound quality is tolerable for music too. I recently replaced the high end head unit I had problems with a mid range unit, and Sirius actually sounds a little better, but regular FM still sounds a lot better, and it’s not nearly as good on FM as the older unit was. The newer unit has the WOW “enhancer” which makes Sirius sound very “swirly”, the other unit had BBE, and it was actually useful when kept on the low settings.
I had no Sirius for 3 weeks, and the commercials drove me insane. Yeah, Sirius has commercials on the talk channels, but there aren’t that many. Hopefully that won’t change. I have a receiver at home, too, and through my HT system, it sounds pretty bad, streaming on my PC is a lot better. I think some of the endless sports and repetitive music channels could go away and very few users would miss them at all. A good friend of mine has XM, and everything I just said applies to it, too. I will say, I feel at 13 bucks a month, it’s a bargain, I just wish it sounded a little better.

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