By Jim Kerr

XM or Sirius. The battle is on for satellite radio supremacy. Is it as good as they say? Will it replace local broadcasting? Who uses it? Which service is better?

It began in Canada in June of 2005, when the CRTC gave approval for Canadian Satellite radio service. Before then, there were a few listeners who were using U.S. addresses to subscribe to satellite radio service broadcast from south of the border, but use was not widespread. There are differences between Canadian and U.S. satellite radio. Canadian regulations require a certain percentage of Canadian and French language content. With over 100 channels to listen to, there is something for everyone.

Satellite radio uses digital broadcasting technology to transmit line-of-sight signals from orbiting satellites to receivers on the earth. Right now, most of those receivers are mounted in vehicles, but home, boat and hand held satellite receivers are becoming more popular. Even here, XM and Sirius claim differences. XM combines satellite transmission with “Canada’s largest network of strategically positioned repeaters.” Sirius claims to have the “highest quality of satellite coverage among all satellite radio providers in Canada.” You can hear the boasting come through as loud and clear as their radio signals but is there really a difference in sound quality? I can’t hear it in the vehicles I test.

Both systems offer excellent reception in the open country, but pull into the shadow of a tall building, under dense trees or into a parkade and the signal drops out. Delayed playback in the receiver allows the radio to keep on playing if you are driving through a short area of blocked reception but stop and the signal will fade out in a few seconds. The drivers that really appreciate satellite radio are those who drive mostly outside of larger urban centres. I found the system worked well in the mountains, where local broadcasts were non-existent.

XM satellite radio is offered in more than 80 vehicle models from GM, Suzuki, Subaru, Acura, issan, Infiniti, Lexus, Toyota, Harley Davidson and Hyundai. As of December 2006, XM Canada claimed they now have 80% of factory installed satellite radios (this will quickly change with the increase in vehicles with Sirius systems) and with 147,000 subscribers. XM radio boasts a two-million song playlist and growing.

Sirius satellite radio is offered in Aston Martin, BMW, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Jaguar, Jeep, Land Rover, Lincoln, Pana-Pacific, Subaru, Volkswagen and Volvo. With 110 stations and a total of 65 commercial-free music channels, the most in Canada, SIRIUS claims to be the original and only home of 100% commercial-free music.

According to Al McCormick, Director of brand management for Ford of Canada, by the end of 2007, nearly every new Ford and Lincoln vehicle sold in Canada will come with SIRIUS Satellite Radio. According to McCormick, local radio stations will still have an important role as drivers want to listen about local events, weather and driving conditions. Satellite radio will complement the local broadcasts.

So what are the real differences between XM and Sirius radio? I think it’s the programming. XM radio has sports programs such as NHL hockey, PGA golf, major league baseball, comedy from Mike Bullard and programs from Oprah and Friends as well as many other diverse programs and music stations. Sirius offers sports programs from the CFL, NHL, NFL and NBA. In addition, SIRIUS is home to broadcasts of U.S. College Football, English Premier League Soccer and a big draw – NASCAR. Talk radio by Howard Stern, comedy and news channels complement their diverse entertainment offerings. Choosing really comes down to what you want to listen to, or what you are driving.

Chrysler has just raised the satellite radio ante by offering a one-year complimentary SIRIUS subscription when satellite radio is purchased on a Chrysler, Jeep or Dodge vehicle – the longest available from any auto company in Canada. Most others are offering a three-month complimentary subscription. Beware – once you listen to satellite radio, regardless of the supplier, it is easy to become hooked. The diverse programming, digital clarity and the program and music information provided on the radio display are addictive: you just might want to keep subscribing.

As a final note, there are many aftermarket satellite radio systems designed to be retrofit into vehicles. Most of these re-transmit the radio signal as an FM signal to the vehicle’s radio. While these systems do sound fine, they typically don’t have the sound quality or signal reception capability of factory installations. Select an aftermarket system for vehicles without satellite radio, but factory installed systems look better and sound better.

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