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Satellite radio: Wave of the future

Radio -- it's come a long way, baby.

Imagine the pure joy of driving coast-to-coast listening to your favorite station. All the way. Uninterrupted. And the sound is CD quality.

Impossible? No longer. It's called satellite radio. And you can have it in your car today.

This pay service works like satellite dish TV. For a monthly fee you'll receive more than 100 stations carrying news, music, talk, comedy and sports.

And the sound?

"I love it -- it's sweet," says Derek Lee, managing director of Mobile Dynamics, an auto sound-system installation school in Toronto.

Like satellite-dish TV, satellite radio requires special equipment to receive the digital signals, translate them into sound and pump it through your car sound system.

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Lee says the quality is near perfect. "It has the potential to arrive at the speakers without distortion, just like CDs," he says.

Ron Rodriguez of Sirius -- one of the two companies that supply programming -- points out that the sound from satellite channels is near the quality you get when you play a CD on your in-car system, but the quality depends on how good your sound system is.

"We can't make your sound system better, but satellite radio sounds dramatically better than the AM or FM radio you're getting."

Also raving about satellite radio is Lorrin Palagi, a radio-programming consultant with Zapoleon Media Strategies in Stafford, Texas.

"Too many commercials are a turnoff to many people. With satellite, you're never out of the type of music you enjoy."

But before you buy the equipment and service, Palagi suggests you go to a car dealer with vehicles that have satellite radio and listen to it in the show room or, even better, during a test drive.


XM Radio Satellite

Two service providers
Currently, there are two satellite radio providers in the U.S. licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. The two, Sirius and XM, have invested a total $3.5 billion in satellites and ground equipment to enable motorists to get near-CD sound quality no matter where they drive.

Sirius offers 50 channels of news, talk and sports and 60 channels of commerical-free music -- pop, rock, classical, etc. It costs $12.95 a month and less if you buy a year's subscription.

XM offers 116 total channels including 68 commercial-free music channels; 32 of news, talk, sports, netertainment, kids and comedy; and 16 channels of local traffic and weather. All for $9.99 a month. One additional channel is available on XM -- the Playboy station -- for an extra $2.99 a month. If you see a bumper sticker emblazoned "Club 205," you'll know what the vehicle's occupants are listening to.

Three options
You can enjoy satellite radio in your car in three ways:

Factory installed: Many car companies offer satellite radio in models as standard equipment or as options. In 2004 models, XM can come installed in the Chevrolet Impala, Cadillac Escalade, Audi A4, Honda Accord, Nissan Maxima and Toyota Camry Solara. Sirius is available in the Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Mustang, Jaguar S-Type, Mazda Tribute, Infiniti G35 and BMW. Audi, Nissan and Infiniti offer either service in many of their vehicles.

The dealer's optional charge for equipment that receives XM or Sirius ranges from $300 to $800, depending on the models.

Aftermarket adaptation: You can have satellite equipment (tuner and antenna) installed that plays satellite channels through your current car's AM/FM sound system for as little as $150, says Rodriguez.

Aftermarket installation: Instead of adapting your existing receiver, you can replace your current AM/FM radio unit with a satellite-ready radio, which includes a head unit, tuner and antenna, starting at about $150.

A plug-in module is also available that enables you to take the satellite programming to your home, office or the beach. You can simply plug the module in to your car or home stereo system or even a boom box at work or at play. The plug-and-play setup goes for about $200.

XM now also offers a complete XM aftermarket product, the XM Roady, available at $120, says Allen Goldberg of XM.

Once you have the equipment, you must then subscribe to the service.

While each of the services claims its reception and sound is superior, Lee believes either is fine.

A minor disadvantage to satellite is what he calls "urban canyons."

"Going through a tunnel or getting sandwiched between two 40-story buildings could interrupt the signal momentarily," Lee says.

Just like satellite TV, forests, mountains and tall stands of trees or shrubs can also cause brief signal interruptions which normally last only a second or two, thanks to ground-level repeaters that relay the signals at lower levels. As far as whether to take the car dealer's option or go outside for adaptor kits, Lee believes you get better equipment for a lower price outside the dealer in the aftermarket.

But is satellite radio worth the extra money?

You bet, say those who have heard it. As Lee says, "Satellite radio smokes AM and FM!"

-- Updated: May 21, 2004

2004 Car Guide
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