SiriusXM: Then and Now

Fourteen years is a very long time when talking about technology. So much has changed since then, yet some things remain oddly the same. Fourteen years ago, Ken Pohlmann and I wrote an article for Sound + Vision magazine comparing Sirius and XM. You would think that they have changed immensely since then, but some things haven’t. Back then, there were two companies. Was there a difference in sound quality? We definitely had a strong opinion then, but since the companies merged in 2008, could there still be a difference?

Interestingly enough, yes there is. In 2002, Ken and I were loaned two vehicles, one provided by Sirius, one by XM, and told to spend a weekend tooling around the Rocky Mountains in them. The XM car had pretty decent sound quality - not CD-quality, but nothing too objectionable. The Sirius car, however, had very distinct and significant artifacts. Through the years, I had assumed that those problems had been resolved, especially since the merge.

I’ve always had a car with XM radio, then and now. After the merge, I still had XM in my cars and it sounds acceptable and I enjoy it. So imagine my surprise when I was doing some consulting for a car manufacturer and had a chance to evaluate a new high-end vehicle with satellite radio and heard the same distinct artifacts that I had heard way, way, way back in 2002. It wasn’t a fluke either - I rented a 2016 car last week that had the satellite radio activated and the artifacts were there again - distinct and objectionable as it was way back in 2002. Apparently there was still a difference between Sirius and XM.

After digging around, I found out that although the two companies merged, they still had two completely different and incompatible satellites and transmission pipelines. Millions of cars still had the two different chipsets, and they were not compatible - the company couldn’t pull the plug on either system. So to this day, cars with the Sirius chipset are still receiving signals from the Sirius satellites, XM cars are receiving signals from the XM satellites. Those two cars I recently listened to were receiving the Sirius signal. However, there are new SiriusXM chipsets - these will have the better sound from the XM satellites, but according to FCC terms of the merger, new units have to be able to receive both signals.

What does all this mean today? If you have previously tried Sirius and dismissed the new SiriusXM because you thought it would still sound the same, you need to see which signal your car receives. You can see what’s in your car by looking it up here: SiriusXM Vehicle Availability. If you had Sirius before, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how good SiriusXM can sound. And moving forward, more cars will switch to the combined SiriusXM platform, with the better-sounding algorithms.

I’ve been lucky - all my vehicles for the past 14 years have been XM, so I’ve been a loyal subscriber for all these years. Is SiriusXM worth the price? If you’re on the XM platform, I think so - but I’ll let you in on a well-known secret. If you’re willing to spend some time on the phone with customer support, you can get the monthly subscription rate down to about $5/month, provided you’re willing to call back every six months to renew at their special subscription rate. It’s an agonizing 15-minute phone call, but it’s worth it to get commercial-free music, anywhere in the country, well beyond the range of a data signal or FM transmitter.

I’ve been a fan of XM radio since I first heard it in 2002, and I’m still a fan of SiriusXM, as long as it’s from the XM platform. Give SiriusXM another listen and judge for yourself. Should you pick a new car based on which satellite it uses? Well, maybe - it really depends on how you listen. One of my cars is a two-seater roadster, and I tend to keep the music low so I can hear the sound of the flat-6 engine. In that car, artifacts might not be as objectionable. Wait - who am I kidding? If I had only the option for Sirius, I’m not sure I would have renewed past the free trial.