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HD vs. satellite radio: Readers sound off

When MSNBC's Gary Krakow suggested that digital radio might prove a challenge to satellite services, many readers took exception.

Last month I told you how much I liked the Boston Acoustics HD Receptor, the first HD table radio to hit the market.

I said the sound quality is much better than I ever thought possible from local AM or FM stations.  And, I thought that the possibility of new, varied programming channels might give satellite radio services a run for their money.

I was amazed to receive a slew of poison pen (poison key?) e-mail telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about. That may be. But I think many of the satellite radio fans who wrote in missed my point.

Several people told me that they preferred satellite service because of the content:

Erik Larsen: Nothing’s free — you have to listen to all the crappy commercials and all the same crappy spun out top 40 hits. Not to mention that I listen to satellite radio in the middle of the Eastern Oregon desert. I doubt XM or Sirius are overly concerned. I’d spend $50 a month for satellite if that’s what they were charging.Jeff Gruenhut: You miss the whole point about satellite radio. It’s less about the “sound quality” and much more about the CONTENT. No commercials, sports stations, Opie and Anthony, etc. ... I will never listen to local radio again.Bevin Hooper: You are so “out of touch” you don’t even realize it. The lure of satellite radio (I am an XM subscriber) is not the quality of the broadcast. IT’S THE CONTENT!  I get scores of music channels that play the exact genre when I feel like listening to it ... WITHOUT COMMERCIALS!!

I agree that AM, FM or HD radio cannot compete with XM or Sirius when it comes to content choice. As I've written many times before, you have to try really hard not to find something you like listening to on satellite radio. At the moment, there’s no way for local radio to compete. And in places like New York City, where diverse programming doesn’t exist, fans of genres such as country music, for example, have no choice but satellite radio.

That said, I think HD radio is in the exact same place where satellite radio was five years ago. That means not only are the first receivers quite expensive, but that station programming is still being ironed out. One of the promises of HD radio is multicasting, which means more channels and hopefully, eventually, more content choices. Also, note that for now, most of the current HD feeds are coming from non-commercial stations, so much of this content is also commercial-free.

Whether the giant corporations who ruined and currently run most of our radio stations will get it right going forward is another story. But for now, I’m excited about HD’s promise of new and diverse programming over our current AM and FM bands — and all without having to pay a monthly fee.

A number of respondents cited the freedom they think satellite broadcasters have from the Federal Communications Commission:

Charles P. Mandeville: You have missed the point: Regardless if there is HD radio or not, it will still be loaded with advertising and subject to FCC regulations. I have purchased my Sirius over a year ago and have said goodbye to old fashion radio and FCC interference. Sirius has noting to fear.Rose Marcus: I believe that (satellite service) sounds great, and that if you get the right radio, it will be quite the listening experience. I love it. The millions of people who subscribe love it. Terrestrial radio can spin its wheels and come up with all this new “technology” they want. Bottom line is ... commercials and free speech. Satellite doesn’t have to worry about either issue. And the FCC cannot do a thing about it because we pay for it. Just like HBO and that’s why shows like "Sex in the City" do so well at the award shows ... it’s because they are not subject to the foolishness of the FCC.

While the issue of whether removing FCC regulations automatically improves quality is an open one, I wouldn't count on a permanent holiday. Lawmakers have been taking a look at the exceptions for cable TV and pay radio and many would like to extend the FCC's control.

Other readers acknowledged the sound quality issue, but insisted they didn't care:

Douglas Jacobson: Your argument about having incredible sound is 100% true, however, the excitement of satellite radio is not about it "sounding better," but about having niche segmented (mostly) commercial-free music.Jeff Breitner: You’re right; the sound from HD radio is incredible. The problem for incumbent broadcasters is that it’s the SAME drab radio that’s driving people to satellite. I have, for all of my 40 years of existence, tolerated analog FM without much problem. Works great, lasts a long time. But since nearly all radio seems to be programmed by five guys sitting in a conference room in New York, I’ve had no choice but to seek alternative programming methods.

I’ve been writing about satellite radio for more than five years, since before it became widely available. I have both XM and Sirius radios and listen to them often in my car and at home. (Did you know that you can use the same antenna for both XM and Sirius?) I've also auditioned many other car and home units over the years.

At their best they sound good. At their worst they sound horrible — like a MP3 song file processed to take up very little hard drive space. There are a number of technical reasons for current satellite radio sound quality; I won’t bore you with most of them. In a nutshell, each satellite service sends out one signal which then has to be un-squeezed/sorted out into a hundred or so channels by the receiver. Not all channels are created equally.  Some channels are allowed to sound better than others.

At their best, music channels on a satellite radio system offer about half the bandwidth of a local FM radio station signal. There just isn’t enough room for numerous higher fidelity feeds. That means, at its best, satellite radio barely approaches terrestrial radio sound quality. I won’t discuss satellite music stations which utilize less bandwidth than the better sounding ones. And forget about all-talk feeds. When you get a chance, try to listen at the same time to something like "Car Talk" on both FM and satellite. Switch back and forth and compare what you hear.  One sounds like it's being channeled through a car muffler.

As for those who say they're fine favoring content over sound quality: Shame on you! Content is important but so is the overall quality of the listening experience.

But if you do feel that way, I'm assuming you're just as uncritical of quality when it comes to your television viewing. I hope you’re not thinking of buying a large-screen HDTV or renting monthly digital cable services. You can get the gist and enjoy TV programming by watching on a $99 TV that you buy in Costco or Sam’s Club. You could use regular, analog cable services. That way you can still enjoy the show without having to worry about the problems/costs of high quality TV viewing. It’s the programming that counts, right? Not the way it looks!

THAT'S JUST PLAIN WRONG. It's both. If you like your satellite radio service you should be complaining about the sound quality. Tell them you deserve better for your monthly fee.

Same for you if you prefer AM/FM radio. Tell the behemoths how you feel about their endless commercials. Let them know you’ll switch to satellite radio if they don’t do something about it.

Quality radio might be within our reach.  It would be nice if someone gave us a choice of good-sounding stations that don’t bombard us with tons of crap.