By Laurance Yap

What, pay for radio?

That seems to be the reaction of most of my friends and family when I tell them about satellite radio. They all seem to be just a bit offended that radio – the last true bastion of “free” programming, now that you can barely get two channels without cable – is now becoming pay-to-play as well.

Relax. It’s going to be a very long time before you’ll have to pay for radio, but satellite radio, which has been available in the U.S. for the last couple of years, is now in Canada. And with two services, XM and Sirius, both offering dozens of channels of programming for less than $15 a month, it’s certainly tempting. Especially when you consider that the vast majority of that programming is commercial-free.

I first came across satellite radio on a car launch down south about a year ago, and was thrilled by the variety of programming available. I was less impressed by all the commercial-free music than I was by the range of talk programming available – news services from all over the world, uncensored comedy, and intelligent discussion about everything from current affairs to the latest movies. That you could listen to the same channel wherever you were in the country was also a prime attraction, especially for long, boring drives; unlike FM or AM signals, satellite radio doesn’t fade out as you go out of a broadcaster’s range.

After a fair amount of wrangling with the CRTC over how much Canadian content was necessary, and other regulatory hassles, XM and Sirius are both available in Canada. And while both offer portable devices as well as kits to equip your home stereo to receive satellite signals, they’re largely targeting drivers as their primary audience, with billboards along major roads reminding you of just how much programming you’re missing while stuck in traffic.

I tested two car units, both listing at about $100: the Delphi RoadyXT (set up for XM), and the Sirius StarMate. Both are semi-portable devices that come with various devices to mount them to your car dashboard as well as magnetic antennas that need to be placed on the roof or hood of your car for the best reception. Neither, frankly, was easy to install, though the Sirius unit’s suction cup mount for the windshield was far better than the RoadyXT’s flimsy vent clips, which broke after a couple of tries (it also comes with a mount that sticks to your dash – okay, but only if you don’t want to move the unit from car to car).

Beyond connecting these units to your cigarette lighter for power, you’re also going to need to run the cables for their antennas through your car’s various nooks and crannies – around weather seals and in between trim panels – for a halfway elegant installation. Thankfully, both have antennas that come with very long cables that you can run around your car’s cabin; because I was moving the units between various test cars, I would usually just stuff the excess cabling underneath the passenger seat. Once connected, both units offer the option of connection to your car stereo via an audio-out jack (meaning another mess of cables but better sound quality), or the ability to broadcast over an FM frequency that you then program into your car’s radio.

While the programming available on both networks is excellent – more on that later – neither the XM or Sirius units could be considered truly easy to use. On both, you use fiddly up-down controls to switch channels (which often means their mounts wobbling as you do so), and program your presets like on your regular radio. But because both these units are portable – you can hook them up to docking stations at home – their buttons are tiny, and very close together, and their screens, despite displaying lots of information like the song name and artist, are difficult to read. Of the two, the Sirius unit is marginally better, thanks to its inverted display and six preset buttons instead of the RoadyXT’s 10; its channel flipper is also a larger paddle that you “click” to select a channel, rather than the XT’s three separate buttons.

Sound quality from either source, even if you have it connected directly to your car radio, isn’t much better than FM radio, and if you’re driving through heavily built-up areas downtown, and through tunnels and underpasses, both units will occasionally lose their signals. As for the programming itself, both networks’ commercial-free music channels are a treat, and offer a sufficient variety of channels so that you only get what you want to listen to. But my favourite channels – the news and talk stations – often do have commercials, if at intervals that are a lot less frequent than on regular commercial radio.

Which unit you end up choosing will have to do largely with whose programming you like better. From a couple of weeks of testing, my preference was – slightly – in favour of XM, which has some great alternative music channels, a movie soundtrack channel, and better comedy content; it also offers the BBC world service. On the other hand, Sirius has better mainstream music, good talk programming, and CBC Radio One and Radio Three, the second of which is a satellite exclusive, and one of my favourite stations, period (Radio One is available, on various FM and AM frequencies, around the country). It’s really too bad you can’t have both in one unit.

As satellite radio becomes more common – which will largely depend on how many Canadians decide they have another $12.95 to spare for XM, or $14.95 for Sirius, over and above their bills for digital cable, high-speed internet, cell phone service, and all the other electronic content-delivery systems they’re finding it hard to do without – you will start to see it factory-installed on most vehicles. GM now offers several models with XM built-in, alleviating many of the inconveniences associated with installing and using a tiny portable receiver. Other manufacturers will surely follow; in the U.S., Audi, Infiniti, Volkswagen, and others offer you a choice of Sirius or XM (though not both), and most other car manufacturers offer built-in satellite reception as an option on their higher-end audio systems.

My suspicion is that, like most of the other digital content we now grudgingly pay for, satellite radio will find a large enough audience to have some staying power. What remains to be seen is whether the smaller, and traditionally more-economical, Canadian market, will grow enough to support both networks. With 100 channels, Sirius is slightly ahead of XM’s 84 – and has more Canadian content – but XM has a price advantage, and its connection with GM should make for a larger installed base of factory-ready satellite units.

Time, I guess, will tell.

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