Antex SRX-3 TriplePlay Sirius Tuner
Back when our ancestors lived in caves, when storytelling was the main form of entertainment around the evening fire, the biggest alpha male would designate the storyteller and club to death anyone who interrupted. This social arrangement has survived well into the age of the remote control.
In networked homes, the ancient struggle continues. If one member of the household wants to listen to Howard Stern and two others opt for anything but, do you have to buy three satellite tuners? Antex steps forward with the answer—a tuner that receives Sirius Satellite Radio and delivers separate feeds to three separate zones. At once. The weak and the strong can both have their ways, without any split noggins, screaming, or negotiation required.
And humankind takes another giant step forward.
Looking Through the Blue Window
The SRX-3 is a rack-sized box with a nice slab of gray matte aluminum for a faceplate. To the left of the pale-blue-backlit liquid-crystal display are buttons for power, category up/down, select, channel up/down, and, closer to the display, zone. On the right are a preset button and numeric keys, 0 through 9. Most of these controls are duplicated on a bare-bones remote, although you might never use it, because you'll either be in the same room with the unit or you'll operate it with whatever interface your custom installer installs.
Operating the unit face to face is simple and, if you've never used satellite radio before, rather fun. The category up/down keys make big jumps among channels. The station up/down keys navigate within each category. For more efficient surfing you can program the unit—pardon me, program each zone—to skip undesired channels. Each zone can also have up to 10 presets. The alpha human may also block channels in each zone, either out of parental concern or sheer cussedness. ("No Howard for you until you get your grades up. And you'd better rake those leaves, or I'll block the Death-Metal Porno Rap channel, too." "Aw, Mom!")
The blue LCD measures 2 inches high by 2.5 inches wide. Although it's pretty enough, you can only read it close up. It also has a limited viewing angle, as I discovered when some other review samples came in and the Antex had to move to the bottom of my rack. I had to get down on all fours, like some lesser primate, to get my face low enough to read it.
They Gave Me the Bird
Getting a Sirius signal was actually a minor triumph for me and the culmination of a long period of avid curiosity. You see, I'd had no idea I could receive Sirius at home until I got the Antex and, in fact, despaired of ever enjoying satellite radio at all. My apartment lies at the back of a long, narrow three-sided courtyard. I receive no analog television stations, only one OTA DTV station, and FM stereo signals are so weak that I usually switch my tuner to mono to cut the excruciating noise. I'd assumed that the Antex would power up, rebuff me with stony silence, and go home the next day.
Still, I had to try. The Sirius satellite hovers over Southwestern Minnesota, and I do have a very limited western exposure from my place in New York City. I used a paper clip to attach the antenna to a venetian-blind hook. Then I ran the slender coaxial cable to the Antex in my rack. The antenna input is an RG58U jack, a smaller version of the RF screw terminal on TVs and cable boxes. A digital optical cable connected the satellite receiver to my surround receiver (there are optical and analog outputs for each of the three zones). A few seconds after I hit the power button, the unit was pulling in stations.
I later found out that the antenna would work even if I placed it atop the rack, several feet from the window. It was more prone to dropouts but kept working despite being nowhere near a line-of-sight location. Any sane person investing in satellite radio or television products should install the antenna in an outdoor line-of-sight location. Even so, the Sirius system's robustness was impressive.
Setup was probably atypically hassle free for me because the review sample had already been pre-activated. In the normal course of things, you would have to enter three ID numbers, one for each zone, and click an "activate now" icon (or call Sirius).
Sound is compressed digitally. To fit more than 125 stereo audio channels into a satellite bandwidth of 12.5 megahertz—roughly the amount of two digital or analog television channels—Sirius uses a PAC (perceptual audio coder) developed by Lucent. It supports data rates ranging from 1.41 mega-
bits per second down to 24 kilobits per second. To my ears, it sounds like MP3 files at somewhere between 128 and 160 kbps. (That is a subjective impression, not a specification.) Antex's 24-bit digital-to-analog converters make the best of the less-than-high-rez signal.
In general, I wouldn't expect a definitive Vienna Philharmonic string sound from any highly compressed digital source, but, for pop music and talk radio, the Sirius signal was more than adequate. The lack of analog hiss was refreshing.
'Free' Your Mind
Sirius service provides more than 125 channels at a cost of $13 per month for one receiver or $500 for the lifetime of that receiver (not of the subscriber). Buy 11 months, and get one more free; buy 21 months, and get another three months free. There are no add-on costs for premium channels or alternate tiers, although, if you want to add another receiver, the charge is $7 per unit per month. As a three-zone product, the SRX-3 costs $13, plus $7 times two, for a total of $27 per month. Sirius subscribers with broadband can also access the network online via the Sirius Player.
Four million people subscribe to Sirius—their main competitor, XM, has six million. Sirius expects to hit six million by year-end. Although they won't catch up with XM by then, Sirius is growing faster.
Howard Stern is, of course, the linchpin in plans to get millions more Sirius subscribers. The shock jock got a half-billion dollars for his five-year contract. Imagine finding that in an abandoned suitcase on the bus. Martha Stewart got a mere $30 million, and I can just imagine her fuming.
Sirius is also for serious people. (Sorry, these puns are an occupational hazard.) Yes, there's a National Public Radio feed, along with Public Radio International, BBC Radio 1, and the World Radio Network. The latter is a selection of news feeds from around the world—it's a bit like spinning a shortwave-radio dial. There are audio feeds from ABC, CNN, C-SPAN, and Fox. Financial news comes from Bloomberg and CNBC.
Those on the saner side of the United States/Canadian border have CBC Radio 1 and 3, Iceberg Radio, and, for Francophones, Premiére Plus and Bandeapart. Howard Stern was not initially part of Sirius Canada when it launched on December 1, 2005, but he was added by popular demand—helped by some imported gray-market receivers—starting on February 6, 2006.
For sports fans, Sirius is an overflowing cornucopia. The network has radio exclusives on NBA and NFL games, plus a 24-hour NFL Radio channel. There's English soccer, too. The Cosmo, Maxim, and Playboy channels—not to mention OutQ, the gay channel—accommodate every possible way of life. (I hate the word "lifestyle.")
For music fans, the selection is simply mind-boggling. Major categories—each branching out into many separate channels—include pop, rock, electronic/
dance, hip-hop/R&B, country, Christian, jazz and blues, Latin and international, and standards. The rock offerings alone include Classic Vinyl, Classic Rewind, The Vault, Jam_ON, The Spectrum, Buzzsaw, Octane, Alt Nation, First Wave, Hair Nation, SIRIUS Disorder, Underground Garage, Left of Center, Hard Attack, Faction, The Coffee House, Radio Margaritaville, Reggae Rhythms, and Rolling Stones Radio. For some reason, Sirius files Elvis Radio under pop.
Sirius has a few notable deficiencies. There are channels for Catholics and evangelicals but none for other major religions. And, while Fox is present among the news channels, liberal Air America is conspicuous in its absence. "We're always reviewing our programming," said a spokesperson in response.
Still, the Sirius lineup is a viable way to say, "No, no, no!" to the mindless playlists and numbing commercials of "free" radio. Clear Channel and Infinity have automated local terrestrial radio stations to such an extreme that they have little relation to the communities they serve, so you might as well switch to a national satellite service like Sirius. "Free" your radio, and your mind will follow.
* Audio editor Mark Fleischmann is also the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater (www.quietriverpress.com).
• Sirius satellite reception (including Howard Stern)
• Serves three zones with three different feeds
• Outdoor line-of-sight antenna is required