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Readers sound off on satellite radio

A great number of readers had a whole lot to say about Gary Krakow's column on the current state of the art of satellite radio.
F.Birchman / AP

A great number of readers had a whole lot to say about last week’s column on the current state of the art of satellite radio.

Many of you told me how off-base I was (and am) concerning the ultimate sound quality of satellite radio broadcasts versus FM radio. (I believe satellite services can provide better sound.) 

Some respondents were very, very vocal. Others, and there were many, surprised me by agreeing with my views:

“I agree with your standards of radio as compared to satellite. Fortunately I am one of the many that can hear 128kbps compared to 320kbps. I hope the industry will step it up a bit, and quite trying to sell us the low end to justify the upgrades.”  “Bravo for exposing the terrible quality of the new radio formats. The constant marketing hype of these radio formats and their “digital sound quality” implying CD-like sound, risks loosing good sounding radio forever. All in the name of ‘progress.’”“As a former major market programmer and now co-owner, programmer, etc. of a smaller market stand-alone FM that tries to do real radio, applause on capsulizing what so many radio folks have been dealing with for the past couple of years. Technology won’t improve crappy radio or the god awful processing many station employ.” “It was like you were reading my mind, or maybe you have ESP. Let’s see, we spend $800 MILLION to put a satellite into orbit. A satellite that can handle the complete spectrum of light and sound and we have already advanced audio hardware to the point that something the size of a small pack of gum can reproduce a full range of audio that the human ear/mind can enjoy and comprehend. Then we parse it up, so that what remains, is actually worse that the media you are competing against? Why?”

A number of readers don’t like their satellite radios:

“I have been using Sirius satellite for almost a year and I always thought the music was ‘just not right.’ I even contacted Sirius and they said ‘their digital play was state of the art.’  Now I know why my FM sounds better.”"I have an Audi S4 with a Bose sound system with XM. I have been very disappointed with the sound quality. The dealer tells me that I am crazy. I love the selection but can’t stand the sound quality.”

Satellite's defenders
Many other readers shared my colleague Gael Cooper's affection for satellite radio. Some defenders couldn’t wait to describe the sound:

“I agree with your premise that the sound quality is not as good as terrestrial radio, but I think it is good enough ... for now.”

“Satellite radio has passable sound quality. I find that it is better than my local stations. But satellite radio isn’t for everyone in my opinion. It is best suited to those that make long trips driving or for people with little to choose from in radio stations."

“I have been a Sirius subscriber since Aug 2003 and I can say that my plug and play system has near CD quality.”

Some were a little stronger in their comments:

“Satellite Radio is hear to stay. I will never listen to local FM or AM stations again. As for the sound quality, when I listen to XM in my car it sounds like a CD playing in my disc player. It’s crystal clear. You must be listening to satellite radio in a car that has a cheap audio system.”“Who may I ask is paying you? Clear Channel? I wonder if there is ONE reader out there that believes FM radio sounds as good as satellite. That statement you made about the poor quality of Satellite is LAUGHABLE. Go find yourself a good ear doctor. I’m sure Clear Channel is picking up the tab.”

For the record, I did not say ALL FM radio sounds better than satellite. Nor would I ever commend Clear Channel for what they’ve done to radio in this country. But there are some good sounding FM stations out there. I had assumed there was at least one or two in each market, but perhaps not:

“I read your column about satellite radio. Maybe the quality is better on FM stations in the cities, but if you live in the rural area satellite radio is greatest thing since FM.”

One reader was upset with the idea that a listener might be able to tell the difference between good and bad sound: 

“Your allegation that the human ear is able to readily detect the quality of a compressed audio format and therefore that substantiates your claim that satellite music is inferior is absolutely baseless.”

Another reader offered this eye-opening explanation on how XM satellite radio encodes its music:

“AACPlus has been around for a while — it’s what XM satellite radio has used from the outset. At 48 kbps, it’s almost as crisp as a CD. At 128 kbps, it can deliver 5.1 channel surround sound. AACPlus works by combining three technologies, each of which shrinks the size of an audio signal. The first is AAC, the Advanced Audio Coding technique that Apple licensed from Dolby for iTunes. AAC analyzes the sound and throws away any data it knows human ears won’t be able to hear, which is a lot. Then, AACPlus adds Spectral Band Replication, which strips out all of the music’s high frequencies and replaces them with a tiny bit of analytical data. AACPlus players reconstruct the highs as a mathematical function of what’s left.”

Other solutions
Then again, one reader has abandoned all modern sound:

“FM, even at its best, still delivers this squashed, overly compressed sound that is the most unmusical thing I have ever heard. I avoid it like the plague, opting to listen to AM oldies, where the music was specifically engineered to sound great out of a 3-inch speaker as well as a full range speaker.”

Others said they’re frustrated too:

"You are completely on target. I think it is telling that the satellite companies just don’t discuss stream rates or compression algorithms. Instead of satellite radio gear I bought an iPod Shuffle. I am a semi-retired 55-year-old male who can spend what he pleases on music. I looked into satellite radio and then went out and bought a $99 iPod Shuffle.

And one reader said I neglected to tell you about one great bit of programming available on satellite:

“Your article was dead on re satellite radio except you failed to mention the best dang radio program anywhere — and it’s ostensibly a program for kids! Check out "Buck Howdy’s Cow Pie Radio" on XM Kids.”

Finally, the best letter I received sums up my point of view on all compressed music:

“Perhaps the only good that will come out of lesser quality audio is getting people off their butts and out to listen live to a good symphony or actually go to a good jazz hall.”


By the way, I have received an offer from one satellite broadcaster to do a side-by-side comparison of satellite vs. FM sound quality. That’s not so easy to do. It requires an FM station and a satellite stream to play the same exact music at the same exact time. I’ll let you know if and when we can get this to happen.