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Considering XM/Sirius - Concerned About Sound Quality


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#1 of 28 dpippel

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Posted December 28 2004 - 01:48 AM

I'm thinking about trying out satellite radio and have been poking around the various user forums on the web. The number of people I've found who are complaining about the lousy sound quality of satellite radio in general, and XM in particular, is surprising. There are many descriptions comparing it to "56K streaming audio", "below 64K MP3 quality", "worse than FM", "on par with bad AM", etc. These complaints are coming from customers using both FM modulators and direct RCA connections to a car/home head unit. Apparently XM and Sirius are in a competition to cram more and more content into their limited available bandwidth. They then have to compress the hell out of it all to make it fit. As a result quality has suffered immensely.

Now, there are three major things that are important to me as a potential satellite radio customer: 1) A variety of music that I can't find on OTA FM stations (crap mostly), 2) Sound quality (at least comparable to good 128K MP3 or equal to regular old OTA FM), and 3) Very few or no commercials. My research so far has found that #2 on my list appears to be a deal breaker for me. How many of you out there (using either service) are happy with the quality of the audio you're getting? How many of you are NOT happy with it? FYI, I'd be listening at home with a tuner connected via RCA to my mid-fi HT setup, and in my car via FM modulator (for now). I'm drawn to the music lineup on XM (I like alternative a lot) but the fact that I can get NPR on Sirius may swing me in their direction. This is *IF* I can overcome my concerns about audio quality. So, I'd love to get information from you subscribers out there. Thanks in advance for any insights you can provide.
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#2 of 28 Doug^Ch

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Posted December 28 2004 - 02:02 AM

While I am far from an audiophile, I do appreciate good sound and the XM signal coming from my SkyFi2 seems amazing at least in the house. See my other post in another thread for my XM experience.

#3 of 28 Mark Bendiksen

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Posted December 28 2004 - 02:49 AM


Well, I think you'll find that there's no shortage of opinions on these particular issues here at HTF. Posted Image

I have had XM Radio for a year now. I made that decision mostly on personal research as opposed to personal experience and most of that research was here at HTF reading threads and participating in email discussions. At that time I got the feeling that there were significantly more individuals who were disappointed with the music programming at Sirius than there were people not pleased with the music programming at XM Radio. Since music was my main reason for getting into satellite radio (as opposed to news, sports, comedy, etc. which are nice extras but I consider to be "gravy") that was a major factor for me.

As far as sound quality, I've heard some people say that Sirius is slightly superior, and that may indeed be the case. Ron Epstein is a good person to talk to about that because as I recall he's had both services installed in his vehicle at one time or another. However, that having been said, I'm extremely pleased with XM Radio's sound quality, and for the record I have a dedicated head unit in my car, not an FM modulator. Is it CD quality? No, and if anyone tells you that it is then either they're not very discerning or they're selling you a bill of goods. Don't let that deter you, however. IMHO, the sound quality is still far above FM radio, and if it is not quite CD-quality then for me that factor is completely negated by the enjoyment I get from the service itself.

BTW, as I mentioned, some people "oversell" the sound quality of XM Radio by saying it is "CD Quality". However, anyone who refers to it as "56K streaming audio" or "below 64K MP3 quality" either (a) doesn't know what he/she is talking about or (b) has a lousy setup and couldn't tell the difference between 56K and 256K MP3 anyway.

Just my $.02; your mileage may vary.

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#4 of 28 Chris

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Posted December 28 2004 - 04:35 AM

Yeah, both services are better then 56k Mp3s. Imagine it more ala Itunes quality for the most part. Slightly less then CD, but in a good setup, it's pretty good.

I think the direction you go will depend a lot on what you listen to. For example, Ron and many are swayed by XM's attention to deep playlists. On the other hand, people like myself seldom listen to the music channels (I tried to keep a diary as we index here and realize I listen to NPR/NFL/CNN/SIRIUS RIGHT/LEFT far more then I do any music) so when we switch over to music, I generally like picking up music I know Posted Image (however, anymore when I flick over to music, it's for Shade45, while not a giant rap fan, I enjoy the banter from the DJs and interviews far more then the music).

Both services have significant pluses that differentiate themselves from the other. These are the kind of thing that help make decisions for people. Neither service provides everything, but both provide a good mix of niche product that attracts their audience.

I'll admit, the best news I had from SIRI recently came when they expanded airings of CarTalk, which doesn't air here on any of our local NPR affiliates at a normal time that I can find Posted Image
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#5 of 28 Dean_S

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Posted December 28 2004 - 05:00 AM

I complain frequently about the sound quality of Sirius but it's still better then FM. What annoys me about the sound is the highs are thin/tinny sounding and bass is way overboasted around 40hz. Even though I wish it was truly CD quality (it's very far from it) I still wouldn't give up the service b/c I love the programming and it is better then FM.

#6 of 28 Ronald Epstein

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Posted December 28 2004 - 07:06 AM

Trust me -- go with XM.

The sound quality between both services is
very similar though I find Sirius to be noticeably
harsher in its highs.

Neither service will give you CD quality. Don't
expect it. What you should expect is audio that
is at MP3 quality, far superior to FM.

My problem with Sirius? The reception in the car.
If you live in an area that does not have enough
repeaters expect dropouts whenever you go beneath
an underpass. Expect complete signal dropout whenever
you go under a gas station or drive-thru bank overhang.
All these reception problems are due to the fact that
Sirius satellites are higher in the sky and cannot
get under anything with an overhang.

Finally.....

I always get slammed for saying this, but it is
absolute fact....

If you want satellite radio for MUSIC, then XM
is the better choice. Sirius plays mostly the same
songs/artists over and over again. Their programming
philosophy is hits based. XM, on the other hand,
plays a far wider variety of music with lots more
songs that you probably haven't heard in a while.

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#7 of 28 Chris

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Posted December 28 2004 - 10:36 AM

Quote:

My problem with Sirius? The reception in the car.
If you live in an area that does not have enough
repeaters expect dropouts whenever you go beneath
an underpass. Expect complete signal dropout whenever
you go under a gas station or drive-thru bank overhang.
All these reception problems are due to the fact that
Sirius satellites are higher in the sky and cannot
get under anything with an overhang.

??

I'm not sure how this may spread throughout the country. I have also tried both, and through my stretch of the world, I have had a far more difficult time with XM (in Western Kansas, in particular) then with SIRIUS.

YMMV.
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#8 of 28 Michael St. Clair

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Posted December 28 2004 - 11:22 AM

I find each to sound about like 96kbps MP3.

Quote:
The sound quality between both services is very similar though I find Sirius to be noticeably harsher in its highs.


The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about is this: What will happen to XM sound quality this spring when they add up to 16 channels for baseball?

#9 of 28 Chris

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Posted December 28 2004 - 12:17 PM

Quote:
The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about is this: What will happen to XM sound quality this spring when they add up to 16 channels for baseball?

Yeah, I've posed that elsewhere without a good answer. The thing is, SIRIUS gets beat up for pre-empting channels, but for baseball, as I noted.. that's hard.. because you'd be interrupting at all hours, every day different channels rather then Sunday, set times, during show repeats for a big slice of the day.

SIRIUS gets bagged at times for interrupting "Air America" or "Patriot Network" on Sundays, but those are "best of" shows, whereas with baseball, you're talking middle of the week first runs.

So, XM is instead adding channels.. and they are, in fact (after calling and speaking to a rep) doing both home/away calls of many games. So, you'll have moments where 16+ new channels are created. What kind of impact will that have on the bandwidth *shrug* nobody knows.
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#10 of 28 Jeff Adkins

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Posted December 28 2004 - 02:05 PM

Quote:
The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about is this: What will happen to XM sound quality this spring when they add up to 16 channels for baseball?
No more than it has been with college football. On a Saturday around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, there are far more college games on XM than there will be at any time with MLB. Those college channels will be empty during the summer, using zero bandwidth. Thus, that bandwidth can be transferred to MLB quite easily. Plus, you never have 16 games on at once with MLB.

#11 of 28 Michael St. Clair

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Posted December 28 2004 - 03:14 PM

There are only 9 channels for college sports. As far as MLB, I can see days where there will easily be 14 games at the same time if a couple (say 2 out of 5) of the 7pm games run past 10pm. Plus one channel for MLB talk (that is what I'm hearing).

For years, people asked which had better picture quality: DirecTV or DISH. The truth is it kept changing depending on programming changes and satellite launches. Realistically, one cannot expect XM and Sirius to stay the same either, especially now that each side is getting very serious about securing the exclusive content that will grow their service much more than generic music channels alone would.

#12 of 28 DonaldB

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Posted December 28 2004 - 09:18 PM

I bought into all the hype about satellite radio recently and feel I've been sold a bill of goods. Satellite radio is frequently touted as having "near CD" sound quality, but this is a gross exaggeration. I find it sounds comparable to low bit MP3, and both FM and AM radio sound more full and alive, as does audio cassette, even. Now that's bad.

The sound is clearly compressed and thin, and the high-end is non-existant. Having such a large variety of commercial-free channels is wonderful and revolutionary, but these benefits are more than offset when the music is broadcast in such a shoddy fashion. Now, I realize most people find MP3 sound quality acceptable, and thus find satellite radio to be fine, even if they're willing to acknowledge it's less than perfect. I'm envious of those with such indiscriminate hearing, and wish I could overlook the format's shortcomings.

The quality is nowhere near what it could or should be, and neither XM nor Sirius seem intent on doing anything about it. If it wasn't for programming like BBC World Serice, C-Span, and the Discovery Channel, I would've already cancelled by now, as quality on the music channels is flat-out unacceptable.

I strongly urge those considering investing in the format to do more research than I did before making a commitment. You'll perhaps find it alright, but don't get your hopes up too high.

#13 of 28 Ronald Epstein

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Posted December 28 2004 - 11:42 PM

Donald,

It would be hard to argue your point.

Audio quality is very subjective. Everyone is
going to have different opinions on quality and
the limits to which satellite radio can compromise
that quality until it is unlistenable.

There is also a huge difference in audio quality
pending on how one connects their satellite radio.
FM Modulation will render only slight improvement
over good FM compared to a direct RCA or optical
connection which will bring you closer to MP3 or
CD quality.

I have been immersed in this technology for the
past three years. I read all the satellite forums
daily, and feel that I am pretty much on top of
the opinions of most listeners.

Most everyone that buys into satellite radio is
extremely happy with sound quality. In fact, based
upon what I read and my own personal experience,
many people opt for satellite radio over CD playback
in their automobile.

There is a lot of talk here in the last few posts
regarding SIRIUS and XM compromising sound quality
further by adding more programming on limited bandwidth.
While this is the possibility we face, I would hope
that XM reduces the bandwidth on talk radio channels
(such as SIRIUS does now) instead of taking away from
the music channels.

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#14 of 28 Parker Clack

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Posted December 29 2004 - 06:49 AM

I never went into satellite radio with the idea that the sound quality would be any better than what I am used to with my car radio in the first place. I wanted something more as a background fill in and not CD quality sound. Also, with the majority of my listening relegated to talk radio sound quality isn't that much of a priority.

Like Chris I haven't had any trouble with reception from our Sirius radio out here in Western Missouri.

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#15 of 28 DaveF

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Posted December 29 2004 - 05:00 PM

I've nothing to add regarding satellite radio at home. No experience there.

I'm not an audiophile. In a car, CDs and FM radio sound equally good to me. In my Honda Accord, with integrated XM, the music quality was a match to any FM reception. However, talk stations, such as news, are highly compressed and sound worse than good AM reception.

My dad now has a SkyFi2 in his truck, connected via FM modulation. Again, the music is about equal to FM reception and talk stations are highly compressed.

Moreover, I don't know how you can have an "audiophile" discussion about listening in a car. XM radio quality certainly exceeds the environmental limitations of most cars.

#16 of 28 Bill-DC

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Posted December 30 2004 - 12:19 AM

I have a Sky Fi 2 and I did a basic set up in my car with the antenna inside near the third brake light (2001 Honda Civic EX) and I'm happy with the sound. I may move the antenna outside at some point. I took a drive to Virginia Beach with my wife for Christmas and experienced a couple fade outs as I passed by the Marine Corps Base in Quantico on the 23rd. It was also pouring rain that day. Coming home on the 26th, there were no fade outs and it snowed part of the way from Va Beach to Hampton Roads.

I'm not very picky. Most of the time I get three bars on the unit in the car. No more listening to the long, ten minute commercial breaks which annoyed me more than the rush hour traffic in the DC area. Everytime a station I listened to went on break, I'd flip to another station and they had commercials too. Drove me nuts.

I'm completely happy with the XM service and I don't really care about the back ups on the beltway or Dulles Toll Road--Keep the tunes flowing and I'll get home eventually Posted Image

I love the home kit and after positioning my antenna using the 207 tip, the sound is fantastic. My wife loves the Jazz stations. The first night I had XM, I listened to the Maryland-Florida State basketball game and one of the cool features is they had the score displayed on the Sky Fi 2 and it is updated immediately after a basket. This may not seem like much, but sometimes announcers get caught up in the game and some time goes by before the score is mentioned.

Speaking of sports, I am pumped up that MLB will be on XM. Sirius may have the NFL but that's a once a week event like NASCAR (on XM). I've heard XM re-broadcast some races from the past. Anyone know if Sirus replays any of the prior week's NFL games during the week? Sirius has hockey, but the NHL is locked out so there is nothing to say about that until the league resumes play. Do they have NBA as well?

In closing, I keep the boombox in the basement and listen when I pay bills or do work on the computer. I'm thinking about subscribing to the online service so I have it at work as well.

#17 of 28 Ronald Epstein

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Posted December 30 2004 - 12:42 AM

Bill,

So glad to hear you are happy with XM.

What generally enlightens new listeners
is the fact that they can hear music catered
to their specific tastes totally commercial-free.

Anybody using SkyFi 2 with a direct
hookup to their radio (through AUX IN)
....

Don't forget the "tweak" that greatly boosts
your SkyFi2 power...

1. On your SKyFi2 unit go to MENU
2. Turn on FM Modulation (even though you
will not use it)
3. Turn dial to first setting (88.1)
4. go back to MENU
5. Go to AUDIO OUTPUT
6. Crank it all the way up.

Audio output is nearly doubled. Makes
a HUGE difference in sound.

I love the SkyFi2. A superior upgrade over
the original unit.

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#18 of 28 Elinor

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Posted December 30 2004 - 04:51 AM

I have Sirius through Dish. Whether Dish is mucking up the signal or not, I don't know. I can tell you it just isn't worth listening to through my system. It is worse than my FM tuner. Flat and harsh. It is listenable through the tv speakers, which are bad enough to mask how bad the signal is.

#19 of 28 dpippel

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Posted December 31 2004 - 02:05 AM

First of all I'd like to thank everyone who responded to my questions. The information and personal experience related in this thread has been a big help to me. In fact the positive opinions of satellite radio got me to purchase a Delphi SkiFi2 and home kit to take XM for a spin, which is where I find myself now.

After spending nearly 3 hours listening to the SkiFi2 and skipping around XM's offerings I've come to some conclusions:

1) I really like the depth of music programming on XM.
2) I like the commercial free aspect of XM.
3) The sound quality is, unfortunately, complete crap.

I've got a mid-level audiophile system:

Aragon Soundstage preamp/processor
Sherbourn 5/1500A 200 watt x 5 channel amplifier
Onix Rocket RS750 main speakers
SVS 25-31 PCi subwoofer
Magnum Dynalab FT-101A analog FM tuner

I have the SkiFi2 directly connected to the Soundstage via the RCA output. After activating the radio and getting it connected, the first thing I noticed was the very low output voltage. I had to literally crank the Soundstage almost all the way up to get an acceptable listening level. Unfortunately doing this also brought the very high noise floor of the SkiFi2 into the picture, introducing a lot of hiss. After performing Ron's tweak with the output level setting (I didn't have to turn on FM modulation by the way Ron - output level is increased merely by turning it all the way up. Turning FM modulation to 88.1 on my unit had no effect at all on output level) this problem was resolved.

So, on to listening. It took me no time at all to get the high-gain antenna pointed and peg the signal strength meter to max, so I'm getting great reception. I've been listening to a wide range of material on XM, everything from Rock, Pop, and Alternative to Blues, Classical, and Talk. To be blunt the sound quality SUCKS. What I'm experiencing has been mentioned by others in this thread - flat, compressed audio that has poor stereo separation, very little dynamic range, muddy low frequencies, clipped highs and sibilance in the upper ranges. I'm used to listening to FM broadcasts through my Magnum Dynalab tuner, and in comparison XM sounds like AM radio. It's pretty darned bad.

Going into this I wasn't expecting "CD quality" sound AT ALL. I was however expecting to get something close to analog FM or good MP3, especially on my system, and it's just not there. I'm very, very disappointed. The depth of programming is fantastic but there is absolutely NO WAY I can live with the abysmal audio on XM, much less pay $10 a month for it. If this is the future of radio then all I can do is sigh with resignation. I'm happy for those of you who enjoy the service, but the only way I'd subscribe is if the quality of what I was hearing literally doubled.
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#20 of 28 Ronald Epstein

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Posted December 31 2004 - 04:17 AM

Doug,

Very sorry to hear this.

I don't quite know what to say. I have
my XM Polk Receiver plugged into my computer's
Audigy soundcard and pumped through a $300
5.1 computer speaker system via optical.

Even though I upgraded to the Polk component
XM receiver, I haven't plugged it into my
higher end Home Theater system. The reason
I haven't is because I don't listen to radio
in my Home Theater room.

....so, what I am saying is that you have
done something I have not -- listened to
satellite radio an on expensive Home Theater
receiver/speakers.

Perhaps your findings on a more expensive
setup would be my findings as well.

I can only say this....

In the car, I have a premium custom sound
system with XM/SIRIUS radio hardwired. Both
sound pretty damn incredible -- a nice step
up from the fidelity I get out of FM but just
short of CD quality.

On my home setup, using a top-of-the-line
external soundcard via optical input and
$300 logitech speakers with subwoofer, I
get audio that is highly satisfactory -- fairly
close to what I hear when I listen to CDs on
the same setup.

...but you are correct -- the sound is flatter
than what you hear with CD. You don't get
those crisp highs. SIRIUS tweaked their codec
hoping to improve that problem, but it made
their "highs" sound brash and overmodulated.

I think part of the problem is that you fall
into a very small percentage of people who
actually hook up their XM radio to expensive
home systems. Most all the people I read up
on across the satellite forums all have their
radios hooked up to the car or an inexpensive
sound source (boombox, computer) in their room
or office.

The only other thing I would recommend would
be an optical connection via the Polk XRT12 or
a modified SkyFI. From experience, an optical
connection does provide noticeably better audio....

....however, from what I gather from you already,
I don't think you want to invest any further into
this technology.

Can I say one more thing?

You know what scares me Doug?

The average "Joe" doesn't care about audio
or video quality. I believe that the audio
quality of satellite radio could be deteriorating
over the next few years as these services
continue to infultrate homes and squeeze more
entertainment into their limited bandwidth.

Just like cable and satellite TV -- it was
all about improved reception in the beginning.
Nowadays, the bandwidth gets squeezed and
quality diminishes all for the sake of adding
more programming.

Just my thoughts.



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