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First there were the cola wars, and then the browser wars, and now the satellite radio wars.XM Radio and SIRIUS Satellite Radio are the only two players fighting for the biggest chunk of this still-small listening audience.
By now everyone has heard of satellite radio -- the radio that gets CD-quality reception, literally, from coast to coast. Just plug it into your home stereo, car radio, or boombox, and you get 100 channels of nearly any kind of music you choose. With channels (SIRIUS calls them "Streams") covering everything from traditional country to classic rock to traditional jazz to world news, both radios offer something for everyone.
But how do you choose which radio is right for you? While both systems are competitively priced with almost all the same features, there are a few differences that may make the choice easier for some people than others. They usually come down to one of three things: Hardware availability, monthly and initial costs, and content, which can either make or break a buyer's decision.
We'll look at these three areas and see how each radio measures up.
In this case, XM has the edge. In addition to the regular car and home units, XM also offers the PCR, a unit that hooks up to your computer, the Delphi SkyFi portable boombox-type system, and the Roady, a smaller version of the regular aftermarket car receiver.
Both companies offer a multi-zone high-end receiver geared toward the audiophile, mobile "anywhere" units that can be transported from your home to your car to your boat, and even in-dash CD/MP3/satellite radios.
But SIRIUS currently offers something that XM doesn't: wireless FM transmission. Rather than tangling with a tape deck adapter, just set your SIRIUS radio to an unused frequency on the 88 Mhz end (88.1 through 88.7), and the small, built-in transmitter will send the signal right to your car stereo.
Whether you just drive across town, to the next state, or commute to your day job, both SIRIUS and XM have the right unit for you.
The price for an XM or SIRIUS radio is roughly the same -- about $149 for a typical "anywhere" unit (this includes receiver, cradle, and FM modulator, when necessary), although there are other units available, depending on the features you need, and how much money you have to spend.
When it comes to monthly subscription costs though, SIRIUS is higher: $12.95 per month vs. $9.95 for XM. However, depending on your content preferences, the extra $3 may be worth it.
Content is king, and it's the reason most people buy satellite radio: to find music and news they can't get on their regular radios. And while both radios have 100 stations, many of them overlap. So it may be the few unique stations that are the deal breaker for your purchase.
XM and SIRIUS both have a variety of, and sub-genres within, dance, rock, pop, hip-hop, country, and Latin stations. There's also the BBC, CNBC, Fox News, ESPN Radio, C-Span, plus a multitude of other news and talk stations. But here's what each station has that the other doesn't.
- Have you ever taken a car trip and driven yourself crazy finding the public radio stations along the route? For National Public Radio and Public Radio International fans, SIRIUS has an exclusive deal with these two public radio entities. Get two channels of NPR's talk shows and news, plus PRI's talk and entertainment shows from coast to coast. No more flipping through stations as you drive from city to city, and straining to hear over the static of low-powered local stations.
- This one is huge. For you sportheads, you can catch 40 games from the NBA and NHL each week. And starting in August, SIRIUS will be the exclusive satellite radio broadcaster of the NFL. Each broadcast originates with the home team's announcers, so sometimes you'll hear your home team, or you can hear what the other guys are saying about them during away games. With the exception of live NASCAR, XM doesn't offer any live sporting events. Check the online schedule for teams and times.
- If you're looking for partisan political talk, both stations carry ABC Radio, but you get commercials, and typically only conservative talkers. But if you want left-wing radio, check out SIRIUS Left, the liberal talk channel. There's also SIRIUS Right for right-wing listeners. Both SIRIUS and XM now carry Air America, the new liberal talkshow. However, XM has replaced Janeane Garofalo's "Majority Report" with the Alan Colmešs show from 9pm to midnight. This can be a plus or minus, depending on your feelings toward Garofalo.
- For Latin American listeners, SIRIUS carries BBC Mundo (BBC World in Spanish), Radio Deportivo, as well as three other Spanish-language news stations and two music channels. XM has CNN en Espanol, and five Latin music channels.
- On the downside, SIRIUS actually has 103 streams, but they take up seven of them with three regional and one national feed of The Weather Channel (XM just carries the national), plus three "live sports only" streams that only carry live sports broadcasts at game time. So you really only get 94 "twenty-four seven" channels.
- For NEW audio theater fans, channel 163 plays audiobooks and radio drama from the US, Canada, and the UK. Both stations offer Old-Time Radio channels, but if you're into the new stuff, or love audiobooks, XM is the best choice.
- Comedy fans rejoice: XM has three comedy channels -- straight-ahead comedy, family (i.e. clean) comedy, and "radio crazies" comedy DJs. SIRIUS only has one comedy station.
- Are you a fan of international music? While both radios offer World Music, Reggae, and New Age, only XM has music from Africa with Ngoma. Whether you like drum music from Babatunde Olatunji or Juju music from southern Africa, Ngoma is your channel. Unfortunately, neither radio offers a Celtic music channel.
- For other special-interest talk stations, there's The Power (African-American), Babble On ("young & sassy talk"), Ask (experts and advice), and Family Talk (Christian talk). Like SIRIUS, XM also carries Air America, the new liberal talk radio station.
Our buying recommendation. . .
. . . we don't have one. With 100 channels covering nearly every musical genre and taste, there is no one "best" system, and there is literally something for everyone. Regardless of which system you choose, you'll be happy with it.
Do you love NPR and professional sports? Then SIRIUS is worth the extra $3 per month. Do you like new Audio Theater? Then XM is the way to go.
Our advice is to pick the one or two features you can't live without and base your decision on that. You'll enjoy great music and news programming, and crystal-clear reception wherever you go.