Why I Didn’t Buy the Benz

I like German cars, and I cannot lie. Porsche, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz. What wonderful machines they are. Give me more than adequate horsepower, a six- or seven-speed manual transmission, a soulful exhaust note, and I am in heaven. On my most recent car shopping expedition, I fell in love with a car, then I pressed a button and immediately fell out of love.

I needed a practical German car to supplement my less-than-practical other German car. The Mercedes-Benz GLC is Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year. I walked around a Mercedes dealer’s lot, then test-drove a GLC. Nice, really nice. Then I turned on the SiriusXM satellite radio. Oh, my.

The problem is this: Originally, Sirius and XM were separate companies. From day one in 2002, the sound quality of Sirius was poor, while XM’s sound quality was decently good. Readers with particularly good memories might recall an article, “Satellite Radio A to Z,” that my colleague Leslie Shapiro and I wrote right after the launch (literally) of both companies. The difference in sound quality was clearly audible. The companies merged in 2008 to become SiriusXM. Here’s the rub: Both satellite systems are still in use, and depending on which decoder your car radio uses, you might get the good-sounding XM bitstream, or the still abysmally sounding Sirius bitstream.

It’s tricky because most people assume that SiriusXM radios are all the same, but in fact the legacy difference is still there. Even worse, when you buy a new car, you don’t know, unless you listen, which bitstream you’re getting. To compound matters, it’s inconsistent within car companies; one model might use the Sirius decoder, while another model might use the XM decoder. To my dismay, the GLC apparently uses the Sirius decoder, or in any case provides satellite sound quality that is seriously poor.

Yes—poor sound quality of satellite radio is an odd excuse for criticizing a vehicle.

Yes—poor sound quality of satellite radio is an odd excuse for criticizing a vehicle. After all, no one holds up satellite radio as a paradigm of sound quality. But here’s the thing: I’ve spent my entire career in audio, and I know a thing or two about it. I don’t know much about designing engines, building transmissions, making durable suspension systems, coaxing exciting sounds from exhaust pipes, or any of the hundreds of areas of expertise required to build an excellent vehicle. But I do know about sound quality, and if Mercedes can get satellite radio so dreadfully wrong in this vehicle, who knows what oversights or questionable decisions might be baked into the thousands of other elements of the car. In other words, if the car is so deficient in the one area that I know about, how can I trust any other part of the car? There, on the dealer’s lot, my faith in Mercedes was shaken.

I must admit, it is upsetting. Mercedes makes absolutely wonderful cars. The GLC is probably a terrific vehicle. But why on earth would they have dropped the ball like this? SiriusXM isn’t available in Europe, but certainly they have someone in the States who can listen to it, right? Mercedes seems to care about sound quality. The base sound system in the GLC is pretty good, and the optional Burmester system sounds terrific. So why does the vehicle use the lesser-quality bitstream?

I don’t know. But in the end, the poor sound quality of satellite radio in this Mercedes damaged my enthusiasm for the vehicle beyond repair. Even though I would never have paid for a subscription for that decoder and would never have listened to it, I knew that every time I sat in the car, it would bug me. So, I bought a BMW—one using the XM decoder—instead.

jnemesh's picture


drny's picture

Satellite radio survives on sports talk, News and political jabber.
Music listening on Satellite radio is ancient.
I'm 57 and I've been over Sirius for years.
I heart radio rules. Yes it is downloading data and you pay through the nose if you don't have unlimited cell data.
The solution is to get a car with Wi-Fi and stream using wi-fi.
Your music streaming will be free or much lower in cost.

jnemesh's picture

But the cars that serve up wifi do so using a 4g CELLULAR connection...and yes, they come with a bill, and yes, your data is metered.

hk2000's picture

$10 a month buys you premium on Slacker, Spotify or any number of other services that allow for offline listening. Slacker even includes ESPN and other live programming. I don't know what Satellite radio charges these days, but it can't be much less than $10.

pw's picture

I'm selecting my next Car (used) only for the quality of the Sound System.. Lexus wins with a Mark Levinson with 15 speakers!!

mishuk3's picture

Is it Lexus LS 460?

mishuk3's picture

Hello Ken,

I have been googling and could not find any mention of which car uses which satellite systems. I do have a yearly subscription to SiriusXM which I most use to listen to CNN or Fox News (depending on the mood) and occasionally hard rock/metal channels. I found the source to be adequate and with enough volume I could blast the music to acceptable standards. After reading this article, it gave me a pause and now I am curious to make a comparison. I would like to know which vehicle uses which satellite. I currently drive a 2011 Toyota Avalon. Do you know how to find that info? Thanks.

John_Werner's picture

As an owner of a '04 Audi S4 and a '07 Audi RS4 I have a unique position. The '04 model is XM and the '07 model is Sirius. I absolutely hate the metallic swishing sound of cymbals on the '07 and simply don't have that problem on the '07. As meticulous as German engineering goes it seems when blended systems are integrated they always drop the ball on something left to an outside supplier, or existential market systems as in the combined XM/Sirius company's pusht to mothball XM and push Sirius. I ended up dropping both subscriptions in disgust.

Eidan Elbaz's picture

I agree. I got a 2017 GLE350 and I cannot believe how bad/ poor the quality of the decoder is! I had a 2011 Toyota Highlander and 2015 Lexus NX300h before all with XM decoders with a fantastic sound quality. The Sirius decoder is horrendous!

I cannot believe MB went cheap in that area as they put a decent HarmanKardon system in it. MB please fix this in future models or offer a replacement decoder!

Thank you.