A Day With XM Radio (from 2001)

My boss walked in my office complaining about the hassle and cost of the music service in our corporate café. On a whim I suggested XM Radio as an alternative and he asked me to make it happen. XM Radio is the new satellite radio service that is supposed to deliver CD quality sound to your car or home. I have been following the technology but rarely think about signing up. I don't like pay-as-you go anything. So the idea of paying for radio is really not in my plans. I jumped on the task and with a faint hope I would have an opportunity to test out the program. I terminated the existing café music contract and put an order in to wire the café speakers to the south wall of the building so we could mount the XM antenna.

Acquiring an XM receiver is not difficult. After a short Internet search I found the Sony DRN-XM01. This is a mini receiver designed to add XM Radio to your existing car radio. I chose it because it has a 1/8" line out that can easily link to a home system. I bought the unit at an electronics mega-store. Like many of the small Sony products it is very well built. It looks kind of retro and makes the most of a few buttons. I sign up for the service via the Internet back at work and am told the unit had to be on during the next 24 hours to activate. So I run out to my car (since the café wiring was not ready yet) and have it hooked it up in about ten minutes. It was very simple.

As wishes are sometimes granted, the unit is live when I start my home commute and the café wiring is not complete. I put in the cassette interface and sat in the parking lot learning the ropes. Logic would dictate the cassette interface is much less than ideal, but the unit did seem to be a significant improvement over FM. I start my commute rolling the cool "mouse" through the channels. There are a number of interesting songs but there does not seem to be any life to the stations. Radio stations know they have to be more than juke boxes, they have to have personality. The XM Radio stations seem to be just rolling through the songs. The few announcements I do hear are drone except the direct radio station uplinks: LA, Houston and New York. The commercial-free station announcers remind me of operaradio.com where they lull you into a pleasant state and then an announcer blasts you when you least expected it. I am not impressed.

I wait until after dinner to hook it up the unit on my bedroom system, a Marantz 2270 with MB-1 bookshelf speakers. The hook up is much less than ideal as I am restricted to a 1/8" to RCA connector and the XM01 output was below the standard RCA voltage. I had to turn the Marantz about 1/3 above my normal listening level to get to my normal SPL. The sound quality is better than FM but not at CD level. I notice a small increase in tweeter activity on all stations. I won't knock the XM01on sound quality since I am not using an ideal setup. I can only assume the signal is CD quality but my interface is not. I really need an XM home receiver for this. As soon as I fire up the XM01at home I am confronted with a fan noise I missed in the car. The XM01 has a CPU like fan in it and I could hear it throughout the entire home trial. The LCD screen is hard to read, even after fooling with the contrast and back light buttons. A home receiver should resolve these issues.

I start in the same place I started in my car; channel four which plays 1940's music. I have a fleeting moment of panic when the station is playing the same piece I heard when I first fired it up in the car. I think again that they were just rolling tapes, but it never happens again. Maybe it was just dumb luck. The people at XM did a great job of grouping the stations. It seems logical right from the start. Channel four is 1940's, five is 1950's, six is 1960's, and so on. The types of music are grouped so you can scan through your genres easily. There are fifteen categories including Decades, Country, Hits, Urban, Jazz, Latin, Talk, and a bunch more. Right off the bat I am setting and resetting the presets as I scroll through the channels. The XM01 does not have enough presets. I would need ten.

Now I was getting into serious listening. The 1940's station is very nice. Not the perpetual big band thing other 1940's stations do. It is a good mix of singers, bands and acoustic with no Sinatra (in the allotted few minutes, plus there is a whole channel called "Frank's Place"). The 1950's station sounds good but I am still tired of it. 1960's, Hmmm. Not a lot of existing models for this. We usually get the 60's thrown into the 50's or 70's. This 1960's station was actually pretty good. 1970's: yup. I was there and this is what it sounded like, lets move on. 1980's: I was there too and this is also what it sounded like. I like the sound and will have to come back to 1980's later. Skip over country. Skip over Hits and the stations that sound like the bleed through from my daughter's bedroom.

Broadway! Now this is very nice. Not just mainstream but a little of everything. But I have to start watching the clock. I only have 2.5 more hours. I will have to go back to Broadway later. Ethyl playing Weezer. Reminds me of Greg Kihn, I like Greg Kihn. XMCafe; I have no idea what they are thinking but interesting. The Loft: Nice. I will have to come back to this one also. Only have 2.0 hours left. On-The-Rocks was interesting as I hear Muzzy Marcelino. I will have to come back to this one also also. Deep Tracks: too deep for me. Unsigned: too unsigned for me. There are two "kids" stations. One plays little tikes songs and the other Disney one is playing, well, modern heavy rock. I remind myself it was late evening and Disney owns half the top ten groups and a host of other pop stars. I will have to let my daughter hear it . . . later.

I skip the whole Urban section and move on to Jazz. Now, I have a fair collection of Jazz but I must admit it is mostly female vocalists. I scroll through Ella, The Duke, miscellaneous horns and some contemporary. Even Frank's Place is not doing it for me. I think maybe the rock stations have temporarily corrupted me. Then I hit Bluesville. It is just like a New Orleans club: romping and lively. I lose fifteen minutes and really start watching the clock. Serious listening is becoming power listening. Luna is better than expected playing Poncho Sanchez. I lose another fifteen minutes when I "accidentally" go back to the 1940's station. Then Ethyl again. Then 1980's. I take five for water and a bathroom break. The Loft is playing Tom Waits. Back to 1940's, then Broadway. Fifteen more minutes are gone. Tick, tick, tick.

I skip over Dance, Latin, World and jump to my second favorite category: Classical. I only have 1.5 hours left and luckily (or sadly) there are only four stations. XMclassics gets boring in about two minutes. Fine Tuning is interesting but nothing grabs me. I will have to come back to that one. Vox!: Oh no! My biggest weaknesses: early and sacred music. And something I have not heard in a long time: Mendelssohn's Psalms. I lose 20 minutes. Then Kalinnikov and another 20 minutes are gone. Then Russian Easter. Who is doing Russian Easter? I have no way of finding out. The little LCD screen tells me the title and only sometimes the composer. I need more information than that. This won't do for jazz or classical. Tick, tick, tick. Robert Aubry Davis comes on to let me know he has defected from NPR (and is probably starting a retirement account at XM). Now Chesnokov and another 30 minutes are gone. I only have 30 minutes left. I jump to 1940's again, 1980's, Luna, Bluesville, back to Vox! I definitely need at least 15 presets.

My wife walks in. It is 11:00pm. I quickly contemplate relocating to the living room system. I have work tomorrow. I slowly pull the musical IV from my arm and dim the Marantz blue light. I lie in bed trying to make sense of it all. My heart is beating fast. I keep thinking I am missing something good on one of the many stations. Now I know the key to XM Radio is not personality so much as content. In the short few hours I could not pass 10 channels without finding something I really wanted to hear. Not just OK songs but something very interesting. So maybe paying a little for the service would not be such a bad thing. But the technology still has a few hurdles. There has to be a decent home unit that won't break the bank. There has to be a way to have one account with XM and be able to hear it in the car and in the home. And there needs to be more time in the day for listening. I think I will need 20 presets.

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Copyright: Peter J. Smith 2003 Return to helarc.com