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Sirius Satellite Radio

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Satellite radio certainly seemed like a cool idea, and we dithered for ages over subscribing to it. Being able to fire up a radio and have it play actual music, rather than a few tunes hammered into the dead air between commercials and babbling announcers, would arguably be worth paying for.

When the competing Sirius and XM satellite networks merged in 2007, satellite radio seemed even cooler.

We bought a new truck earlier this year, and it came with a six-month subscription to Sirius satellite radio. It was an opportunity to listen to the sky without having to actually go there.

Sadly, satellite radio got a lot less cool shortly thereafter.

Sirius radio offers an impressive volume of content. You can have – among innumerable others – all-day-every-day Grateful Dead, two distinct channels of Howard Stern insulting people, something called Just for Truckers, Mad Dog Radio, Liberal Talk, Willie Nelson’s Traditional Country, B.B. King’s Blues, 70s Pop, 80s Pop, 90s Pop, Smooth Jazz, Traditional Jazz and enough sports to send even the most objectionable jock into testosterone overload. The entire channel lineup is available at the Sirius web page.

The first thing anyone considering subscribing to Sirius should do is download the channel guide, print the beast out and attack it with a Sharpie pen, obliterating all those channels they wouldn’t listen to even if the only other alternative was 24/7 Paul McCartney. Actually, belay that – there’s a 24/7 Paul McCartney channel on Sirius as of this writing.

If you weed the Sirius channel guide down to the stuff you’re actually interesting in, it probably won’t be quite as impressive. This isn’t to say that it won’t still be rich with content, of course.

Stacked up against conventional broadcast radio, the dozen or so channels you’re likely to have left on the guide post weeding will still play pretty well. The sound quality is superb, and none of the ones we listened to had any commercials. Unfortunately, they did have announcers.

We didn’t compare Sirius with broadcast radio, which we virtually never listen to. We compared it to a collection of iPods synced to several days worth of music from our extensive collection of CDs. Sirius was minutely easier to use – it didn’t involve plugging an iPod into the truck’s sound system – but more often than not, Sirius radio was talking rather than playing, or playing something that made one of us want to punch the channel selector.

The people behind the play lists at Sirius radio probably wouldn’t like the contents of our iPods. Sirius is eclectic, diversified and unpredictable – perhaps more so than many of its listeners will appreciate. For example, the Grateful Dead channel, as you might expect, plays the Grateful Dead. However, while the volume of recordings of tunes by the Dead is mountainous, it’s finite. As such, the Sirius Grateful Dead channel appears to have diluted them with a few covers of Dead songs by other artists, songs the Grateful Dead didn’t play but bands fronted by former band members did, and so on. On several occasions of our tuning in to listen to the Dead, we encountered extensive and not wholly coherent discussions of the Dead which threatened to extend for longer than the journey we’d undertaken.

Punch that channel selector one more time.

Sometimes the jazz channel played Coltrane. Sometimes it played someone trying to play Coltrane on an electric organ. The two aren’t interchangeable.

The longer we listened to Sirius, the less cool it became, and the more often it was superceded by music from one of the aforementioned iPods.

If you really like sports or talk radio, Sirius is probably a more attractive prospect, especially if you’re a serious fan of Howard or Martha or Oprah or something else that’s exclusive to radio from a high orbit.

Beyond the content issues of Sirius radio, it does embody some technical concerns, and it will have a notable and ongoing effect on your credit card balance.

One of the first things that seemed attractive about Sirius satellite radio – before we took delivery of the new truck – was one of the radios Sirius offers, an iPod-like device called a Stiletto 2. While these things are expensive, they’re small, portable and really impressive. Slap one on your arm and it will play tunes for you while jogging, at the gym, on the road, at work, while shopping… or not.

Satellite radio in a vehicle typically offers solid, largely flawless reception because vehicles so equipped have roof-mounted antennas. Parking our truck in its garage shut down the satellite radio. If you want to listen to satellite radio indoors, you’ll almost certainly need to connect your receiver to a permanent satellite antenna. These range from something that looks like a small speaker – they need to be aimed fairly carefully to work well – up to an outdoor antenna that requires serious cabling to attach it to a receiver.

The similarity between a Sirius radio and an iPod largely evaporated. There are satellite radios that can be docked at home and in a vehicle, and portable radios like the Stiletto 2 that can be used outdoors, but the prospect of satellite content that will follow you anywhere is somewhat illusory.

The final catch to Sirius satellite radio is its cost. As of this writing, you can have its entire spectrum of channels for twenty dollars a month, an à la carte selection of the fifty Sirius channels you’d most like to listen to for seven dollars a month and several intermediate offerings. That’s between 84 and 240 dollars a year – amounts unlikely to melt your credit card, but they were large enough to make us consider how much time we actually spent listening to the sky.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Sirius à la carte options come with several catches. The list of available channels doesn’t include the entire Sirius spectrum – in the event that you actually want to listen to Howard Stern, for example, you’ll need to pay more for him. You can only use an à la carte package with an à la carte-compatible satellite receiver, of which Sirius only sold one as of this writing, a moderately expensive dockable radio for one hundred dollars. The radio that came installed in our truck, as nearly as we could determine, was not disposed to serving up the sky à la carte. Unlike more robust – and expensive – Sirius packages, à la carte offerings don’t include the option to listen to Sirius over the Internet.

In addition to the actual subscription costs for a Sirius package, Sirius wants some fees – the list looks disturbingly like the mandatory disclosure section of a bank’s service charges. As of this writing, they’ll charge you:

  • $15.00 to activate your account.
  • $2.00 a month if you want to pay by check.
  • $5.00 for a late payment.
  • $20.00 for a dishonored payment.
  • $5.00 to change packages.
  • $5.00 to change your choice of stations in an à la carte package.
  • $15.00 to move your subscription to another radio.
  • $75.00 to cancel a subscription within the first year.

Add applicable sales taxes to all of the foregoing.

While unquestionably a better listening experience than terrestrial broadcast radio – a washing machine with bad bearings is usually a better listening experience than terrestrial broadcast radio – Sirius satellite radio is at best an acquired taste. Unless some of the exclusive channels it offers are essential to life as you know it, there are more convenient, portable, entertaining and cost-effective things to listen to.

While it can be used outside a vehicle, doing so will probably prove to be more work than its worth for most potential listeners.

Ultimately, we decided that Sirius costs a bit more than it’s worth – twenty dollars a month plus sundry fees that could be better spent elsewhere. When the free subscription that accompanied our new truck lapses, the Sirius button on its radio will become a dashboard ornament. The blue dog graphic on the window is engaging.

It might well come to pass that the current economic ripple will persuade Sirius to adjust its prices – the blue dog may bark again. For the moment, it’s little enough work to keep all the iPods charged.

Comments (1)

DonnaFebruary 13th, 2010 at 7:22 pm

So true! So true!
Your comments are appreciated. I decided that Sirius needs to make some serious changes in their prices to have me continue paying for their services. I’ve had great music from a $20 Mp3 player.