Open Letter to Sirius/XM: Sound Quality Matters
With a Sirius/XM merger on the horizon, audio expert John Caldwell says it's time for satellite radio to improve its sound.
Feb. 26, 2007 — by John Caldwell
We became an XM family a little over a year ago. I bought my wife a boom box unit for her office and its portable tuner module moves back and forth between our two cars on weekends. But the home docking station hasn’t found its way out of the box.
Based on my sub-par ownership experience and the emotionally unsatisfying sonic performance, I was really starting to feel that XM, while useful for things likes out of town sports broadcasting and some commercial-free narrow-format channels, wasn’t part of my listening future. However, last week’s XM/Sirius merger announcement caused me to rethink my position: Maybe there’s hope for satellite “radio” yet.
My ownership experience got off on the wrong foot when I had to return the boom box unit and tuner to Delco for a modification. My wife pointed out an irritating buzz and a secondary ticking sound at low volume. As the resident audiophile, I felt ashamed. I originally demo’d the XM tuner at high volume and only for a few moments. My wife listens to music at very low volume so she won’t disturb anyone in the next Dilbert-like cubicle at work. Sure enough, there it was. Buzz, hum and ticking. A real turn off.
So I shipped the unit back for modifications once the customer service dude said “oh yeah, we know what that is. We have a mod for that.” As my upper Midwestern Norwegian friends would say, “uff dah.”
Buzzing aside, it’s been the less than advertised sonic experience that really disappoints me. How one judges the quality of HiFi gear or a recording should largely be based on emotional satisfaction. So far, satellite radio leaves me cold. Distortion free? Hardly. Especially when you use the FM modulator interface. Shortcomings include: high tension wire distortion, bleed-over from analog radio stations, an insidious “gurgling digital noise,” and signal drop outs.
But it’s the overall lack of dynamics and compressed “thin” quality of the signal that’s been the biggest turn-off. The sound is much worse than that of the first CDs back in ‘82-‘83.
Sure satellite radio’s scrolling information displays are nice. And the “rewind” feature is nifty for catching something on the news or talk radio you’ve missed while on the phone. But with all this Buck Rogers satellite technology, surely someone in charge will finally ask the ultimate question – how does it sound?
Memo to the new guys in charge at XM/Sirius or whatever you decide to call yourselves: here’s my top three ideas on how to win over myself and others who care about sound quality.
- Stop calling yourself radio. You don’t broadcast on radio’s electromagnetic spectrum. You don’t sound like radio. Radio, at least right now, sounds better. Radio is free. You charge a good amount of money each month and have the audacity to make people listen to commercials. You don’t feel like radio. Radio is local and connected to a place and an audience. Radio makes people show up at Comiskey Park and blow up disco records or pose naked on top of billboards just to win Loverboy tickets. You don’t have that connection and you probably never will. Call yourself something cool and different like “satellite streaming.” It would be far more honest and appropriate for this century and the new audience you must attach yourself to. Play to your strengths and stop comparing yourself to a technology that is more than 100 years old.
- Don’t give us 900 channels of newly combined programming. Use the extra bandwidth for a better sounding signal. Drop a few (OK lots) of the overlapping channels and give us audio geeks some well programmed channels with bigger bandwidth and less compression. We can hear the difference and we’ll gladly pay for quality over quantity.
- Go ahead and make a deal with Apple. The iPod will need a shot in the arm for next Christmas. Just make sure that your sound is better than MP3s or other lossy compressed-sounding codecs.
Maybe if you take this list to heart, you might just win me back and keep me from saying “uff dah” to satellite “radio” forever.
John Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business
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and co-founder of StJohn Group, Inc.