Good sound or sounds good?


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Satellite radio is here. Five years after the FCC issued the two licenses, this service, anticipated by some and feared by others, is a reality.

Over the past year, consumer media, from Rolling Stone to USA Today, have been covering the coming services. The stories converted rocket science into a Cliff's Notes version of the technology, but all of them reported that radio was about to change.

XM, which was first on the scene with service, reported from the Consumer Electronics Show in January that it had 30,000 subscribers after only five weeks of operation — an impressive figure. Projections on future satellite radio sales vary from survey to survey, but all of them show steady increases. (See Sign Off, page 76, for one look at the expected trend.)

A few months ago, knowing that the service launch dates were around the corner, I visited some electronics retailers to see what information was available to consumers, what the retailers were telling consumers, and to see how much the retailers really knew. I was impressed with how much accurate information was available.

Just before I wrote this, I returned to the local stores of the national electronics chains and listened to XM Satellite Radio. I wanted to listen to it myself so I could make my own evaluation.

There are several hardware options available for XM receivers. The easier, less expensive options are to use a receiver interface with an FM modulator output or cassette deck interface. While many consumers will choose these systems without regard to the aural effects of the conversion, I chose to listen to an in-dash, XM-ready Pioneer system. I wanted to hear the best audio quality I could find without worrying about artifacts introduced by an afterthought interface.

I started at channel 1 and tuned up the dial, stopping at least long enough to hear the verse of a song or a phrase of a movement. I'm not a fan of every format, so I listened longer to the styles that I do like. The talk channels are at the top of the channel line up. I listened to about one minute of each one before moving on.

My initial reaction: I was impressed. The music channels sounded clean and clear. The audio is encoded with PAC, but I could not hear any objectionable artifacts. There may have been some anomalies, but nothing so objectionable as to make me want to change channels. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about the talk channels.

Most of the talk channels are services from outside sources, such as USA Today and Bloomberg. Because they are created and delivered from another source, I expect that XM has little or no control over the technical parameters. Most of the services appeared to have their mics processed with less-than-natural sounding settings. Some had no bass, others had too much presence. In addition, these talk channels are probably delivered to XM via some encoded digital link. I could hear obvious audio artifacts on nearly all of these channels. If I were a subscriber I would stick to the music channels.

The audio processing on the music channels does not sound as aggressive as what you hear on terrestrial radio. Because of the less aggressive audio processing, there was sometimes an obvious difference in level between channels. While I'm sure all the channels are processed with a peak limit in mind, the overall densities are lower, hence the perceived difference.

The true consumer test is not the audio quality but the audio content. To borrow from the tuna company slogan, listeners aren't so concerned with good sound, listeners want radio to sound good. In this case, sounding good means variety and less clutter. Some of the channels with formats to which I would regularly listen were playing songs that are not typical finds on terrestrial radio. There may not be a local reference, but what is being played sounds great.

Last year people asked if satellite radio will ever happen. We know that answer to be yes. Now the question being asked is will satellite radio succeed? From what I have seen and heard, that answer is also yes.




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