satellite blues

I would pay Sirius/XM the same – or maybe even a little more – money, and take fewer channels, if they would improve the quality of the sound.

This isn’t a new or unique complaint; there’s been a cottage industry in lamenting/decrying/lambasting the sound the satellite service(s) puts out for at least a decade. Clearly, it isn’t in the S/XM business plan to do anything about it.

Which is a shame, because the internet-based service S/XM offers is pretty acceptable at 128 kbps. To my ear, it doesn’t sound as good as Pandora or good f.m., but it’s ok, listenable, which is more than I can say for the Sirius side of the operation as it comes off satellite into my car – and I have a decent car stereo. Off satellite, everything sounds tinny, compressed; the RealJazz channel, which is part of the reason I subscribe, is hard to pay sustained attention to. Every time the drummer hits a cymbal, the radio gives off a loud, sibilant hiss, like an angry cat was just dropped onto my dashboard – and in jazz, drummers use their cymbals a whole lot.

The spoken word channels are better than the music channels, but that’s not saying much. I listen to the POTUS political channel, and it just sounds…lousy. Not actively off-putting like the music channels, but lifeless.

Mind you, I’m not opposed to compression – it’s what makes the streaming world go ’round, and I’m convinced by the blind tests that show people can’t distinguish between music that’s well-encoded with lossy compression and “lossless” (which really isn’t).  S/XM doesn’t say what their compression rate is, though it’s reported in places as 64 kbps for music and 48 for voice. I know S/XM uses proprietary encoding, but there’s no way it can make up for what’s being cut in bandwidth. You get below a certain threshold and all the fancy compression algorithms in the world won’t fix things; you just remove too much of the original source material.

I’m not being picky here – the difference between what I hear off satellite in my car and what I hear in my home off the internet is close to the difference between a.m. and f.m. It’s that big.

I assume S/XM’s ultimate solution to this problem is to get those of us who care about what the service sounds like completely off satellite and onto streaming, but I live in a rural area and doubt that will ever be much of a solution, even setting aside the increased expense associated with paying for bandwidth. So I keep renewing S/XM every six months, but it’s always on the bubble, I’m always dissatisfied and one of these days the dismal reality of what it really sounds like will once and for all outweigh the enticement of more than a hundred channels at my disposal, even though I couldn’t care less about most of them.


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