image: SkyFi
The SkyFi radio tuner, seen here tuned to XM channel 40, known as "Deep Tracks." The current song playing is David Bowie's "Fame."
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msnbc.com

What’s the proper term for Delphi’s new SkyFi satellite radio system, a low-cost tuner you can plug into your home stereo, car stereo or even a specially designed portable boombox? I think the word I’m looking for is - WOW!

InsertArt(1827362)THE DELPHI SKYFI radio system is great. Not perfect, but great. And great for two reasons, one being the design, the other the programming.

The SkyFi is well thought-out and versatile. It works as part of your car radio system, which is where nationwide radio is a good idea; as part of your home stereo as a plug-in external tuner; and as a portable music system when you slide the SkyFi into its speaker-amplifier enclosure.

As for programming, I’m basically a skeptic. I didn’t believe that anyone should have to pay to listen to radio. Radio is supposed to be free, right? But with the current state of affairs in radio programming in this country, you need more choices. (There are only six to ten good radio stations nationwide in my opinion — and none of them is in New York City.) More choices is what satellite radio is all about and within minutes of flipping through the XM stations I was hooked.

(A much smaller satellite radio service, Sirius, is also available in the United States, but only in vehicles. XM works both on the road and at home.)

XM offers 70 music channels and 30 more of news, talk, sports and entertainment for $9.95 a month per radio. They’ve also started to roll out premium programming, such as a Playboy station, for an additional $2.95 a month. Two satellites — aptly named Rock and Roll — hover over the East and West Coasts, ensuring that you can (theoretically, anyway) listen to your favorite stations anywhere in the United States. A co-worker of mine can’t wait to try the service out at his extremely remote home, where FM reception is non-existent. In urban areas, where large buildings might interfere with satellite reception, XM has installed terrestrial transmitters — ground repeaters — to bring their signal closer to you.

In the six or seven locations I’ve tried so far, XM comes through loud and clear on the SkyFi. As you’d expect, it works flawlessly in a car or an outdoor setting. Indoors, you need to have the antenna unit near a window or pointed in its direction.

THE COMPONENTSSkyFi is a second-generation XM receiver system — and the first to provide for portable listening. The basic SkyFi unit costs $129.99 and is about the size of a small PDA. It has a large, orange, five-line readout screen and a number of small little buttons for direct tuning and 20 presets for favorite stations. SkyFi’s receiver allows you to tune by music genre, station title, song title, performer or by station number, for when you memorize the programming scheme. It also comes with a tiny remote control, but since there’s no readout on the remote you still might need to be near the radio to see what you’re doing. I’d pay extra for a redesigned remote that eliminate that need.

The radio alone doesn’t do much; that’s where the installation kits come in. The SkyFi Vehicle Adapter Kit ($69.95) comes with a bracket to mount it on the dashboard, a magnet-mounted external antenna, a cigarette-lighter power cord and a cassette adapter which plugs into your car stereo to provide the actual music. If your car doesn’t handle cassettes, there’s the SkyFi Translator ($49.99) that takes the XM signal and routes it through your car’s FM radio. The Translator needs professional installation.

For home use, you can get the SkyFi Home Adapter Kit ($69.99) which comes with a cradle for the radio, an indoor/outdoor antenna with a 20-foot cord, an AC power adapter brick and a mini-plug to RCA cord to connect SkyFi to your stereo or to powered, multimedia speakers (like the ones attached to your computer).

Image: SkyFi Audio
The SkyFi bowtie. Slip the tuner in the boombox enclosure and you get a great-sounding portable, if somewhat heavy, satellite radio system.
Finally, there’s the SkyFi Audio System ($99.99) which is basically a boombox enclosure for the radio. The box contains two dual-cone speakers, internal amplifiers, a docking cradle for the radio, an integrated, detachable satellite antenna (with 20-foot cable) and an AC power adapter brick. You can also power the system with 6 “D” cell batteries.

Loading this thing up with batteries adds to the weight, however. You really need the built-in handle to schlep this thing around. I’d leave it on a shelf. The remote allows you to control the volume from across the room. There’s also a headphone jack provided in case you’d like to listen privately.

THE SOUNDSound quality is the only thing I could find fault with on the SkyFi. When listening in the car, or via the boombox, SkyFi sounds really, really great. But you begin to hear problems when you listen through a good home stereo unit.

First of all, audio output is low (even at its highest setting) so you have to turn up the volume on your amplifier to hear it at a proper level.

More importantly, at times you hear remnants of what happens to sound when someone digitally compresses 130 stations and then you decompress them at the listening end. At times you can hear a mechanical edge to the sound plus roughness in the range of the human voice and above (upper midrange and treble). The distortion sounds like what you hear on a MP3 recorded at a slower rate or a noisy Internet audio stream.

In addition, all the time you’re listening there’s a lack of three-dimensional sound quality (front to back and side to side depth of the musical stage) — what audiophiles like to call “soundstage.”

Overall, think of the sound via a good stereo as “near-CD” quality, about what you’d get from a $150-$200 FM tuner. Considering that SkyFi for your stereo costs about the same ($129.99 $69.99), I think they’ve done a pretty good job.

In a perfect world, I’d also like to see the song title readout improved in future versions — long song titles are sometimes shortened for space.

Otherwise, I’m sold on satellite radio. I’m buying the whole SkyFi set-up because I love listening to my favorite stations, and would miss them if they went away. There’s so much to choose from that a monthly fee is almost worth it.

Future generations should improve the sound even further, but for now I’ll stick with SkyFi. Bottom line, I’ve unplugged my trusty (old) FM tuner and now listen exclusively to XM. Give it a listen for yourself.

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