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Sirius sound quality still sucks

As I’ve admitted before, I can be a stickler for sound quality when it comes to consuming audio media. Unfortunately, in so many ways the fidelity of plain old analog broadcast FM radio is rarely matched by digital media, where lower bitrates and lower sound quality are chosen for cost considerations, or to squeeze more channels into given bandwidth.

Every time I’ve listened to satellite radio music in a rental car I’ve found the fidelity to be adequate for the noisy highway environment, but been a little disappointed when I tried to listen more closely. According to a recent blog post by Steve Guttenberg, CNet’s the Audiophiliac, I’m not alone in that assessment. In fact, it’s bad enough that he’s ready to cancel his subscription.

In his post titled “Sirius Satellite Radio still sounds awful after all these years,” Guttenberg observes that, “the treble sounds like it’s underwater; it ”swishes“ and sounds garbled.” He goes on to note that

“That’s not just my opinion; CNET Editor at Large Brian Cooley loved the sound of the high-end Naim Audio system in the $195,000 Bentley GT sports car he tested, but he thought the satellite radio’s sound over that same system was ‘ghastly.’”

He does say that Sirius’ internet streams sound better, and I agree with him on that. But during a 30-day free trial of the internet service last year I discovered that the quality was adequate for background listening, but quickly grew tiresome when listening over headphones. Nevertheless, Guttenberg says that online streams of music formatted public radio stations like WBGO and KCRW still sound better than Sirius’ streams. Again, I concur.

Regrettably, the fidelity trade-off is purely financial in nature, in order to shave a few pennies of bandwidth cost or cram in a few more channels into the satellite frequencies. To me it seems like satellite radio, based on much more complex technology than the more than 80 year-old tech of FM, should result in a step forward in sound quality, not backwards. But subscription numbers would indicate that Guttenberg and I are still in the minority.

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20 Responses to Sirius sound quality still sucks

  1. Paul Thurst July 17, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    Over the years, audiophiles have cringed at .mp3 computer audio, very compressed HD Radio channels and XM/Sirius bit rate reduction schemes. The difference now, between a good vinyl or 15 IPS tape recording and the typical MP3 are startling when compared side by side. I think analog FM stations should play up this advantage and call attention to their better sounding, non-headache inducing programming.

    • Erick April 1, 2013 at 6:32 am #

      I was studying recording engineering a few years ago. two of our iso booths were used by the college radio station. There I discovered that Radio uses MP2 and MP3 for source media ( and cheap DA converters). FM use to sound great with CD sources, now it does not, it is no better than a low bitrate MP3. You all can thank Steve Jobs, Apple, Radio and Napster for the proliferation of the MP3.

      • Steed May 3, 2013 at 6:22 am #

        How on earth do you blame this on Apple? They moved away from the low bit rate MP3 crap long ago. All of iTunes music is now available at 256kbs, and they’ll even replace you lousy mp3 versions with the higher quality iTunes one if you get iTunes Match.

        If Apple was in the satellite radio business maybe satellite wouldn’t suck so bad.

  2. Stephen Kingsley July 18, 2012 at 6:18 am #

    I could not agree more. I used to listen to many of the music channels on Sirius many years ago when it first became available. I have noticed, especially on Classic Vinyl, a very tinny “underwater” sound quality. Much like a low quality internet radio. I have mentioned this to their “customer care” people on numerous occations and they claim to have the finest audio quality available. Now I mostly listen to Stern but even that is getting boring. All he does is compain how poorly they treat him. How about how poorly they treat their subscribers? When the trial subscription expires on my new car, I will go back to FM and my I-Pod, which by the way sounds much better than Sirus, without the hassle and commercials.

  3. Billie July 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Paul R., thanks for spotlighting this audio issue!

    The truly dreadful sound quality of Sirius/XM is the achilles heel of the whole operation, music-wise. It’s often like listening to an AM station — while swimming underwater. Folks who don’t care about this seem to be mostly talk radio / Howard Stern listeners, or young’uns who grew up listening to iPods where 128k was the norm — so 256k is just fine by their ears.

    But, Paul, could you elaborate a bit more on the technical side and the “fidelity trade-off” you mention? Is it currently possible to have a satellite radio stream sound as good as an FM station? Is this technically do-able for a national radio network in 2012? Or are you saying that the fidelity upgrade is a tech breakthrough Sirius/XM SHOULD be working on? (FWIW, I agree!)

  4. Gary January 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    I had never listened to satellite radio but I recently bought a car that came with it and a trial subscription to Sirius. They actually gave me a 11 month trial which I was very happy with… however, after listening to it for a few days I was cringing at the audio quality!

    I wouldn’t say that I was an obsessive audiophile but I recognize low quality digital audio having been into home recording for a while. I am so disappointed in the tinny, underwater, through a “phaser effect” quality their audio has. It’s really so bad that I won’t be listening to it anymore, regardless of the free trial.

    I can stream music over bluetooth from my iPhone to the car at a much better quality (I can also get out of the car and continue playing whilst walking around or at home). I don’t see how Sirius can actually survive in the long run, as music becomes more available through cell-phones and services from people like Spotify and Pandora which are much more personal, have better sound quality and are totally portable.

  5. David Whitney January 14, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Glad to see that others have noticed how bad it is. HD radio is, however, equally vile and is taking over due to apparently more “efficient” use of broadcast power. On one of my cars I can switch between the HD and the analog, and ANYONE could hear the difference on some stations at least. As someone alluded to, MP3 has become the gold standard for much of our youthful listeners.

  6. Kevin Fields April 18, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    I think even an MP3 at 128k sounds like a master recording compared to Sirius. This is a different-sounding type of compression that absolutely mangles the entire frequency range. I had hoped that my stock radio was to blame, and that something with a better digital-to-analog converter could maybe artificially reproduce some parts of the frequency range that are removed in the compression process, but I think that was wishful thinking. I know nothing about the logistics of getting 100+ stations beamed down from a satellite, but really, there must be some way to get a little more bandwidth. I may have settled for this in the 90’s, but as others have said, there are too many better options available these days to anyone carrying a smartphone. Personally, I’d think that cutting some stations and increasing the quality of the rest would be a good idea, but as long as Sirius continues to believe that what they offer is true “CD quality” sound, I’d doubt that anything will change.

  7. Brandon April 19, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    I also have a trial subscription to Sirius, While my Ford Expedition isn’t the finest audio lab in the world, it has the top of the line Audiophile Audio System, a 2,000 upgrade. I immediately noticed the satellite music sounded flat, it wasn’t until after I listened to 2 songs back to back, Sirius/XM then heard the same song on the radio did I realize that Sirius is transmitting a MONO signal! Incredible. How cheap can you get. Quitting immediately.

  8. tyler April 28, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

    I agree that Sirius audio quality is horrid. I got a free 3 month trial subscription with a recently purchased new car. At first, I thought something was wrong with the car audio…but no, it turns out the sound problem is in the Sirius transmission. The music sounds like it is being broadcast through water! Vocals warble and wobble, and the treble is often way too harsh. I won’t be subscribing to this awful service. In fact, it is very difficult to believe that anyone would try to sell this woefully inferior junk. I wouldn’t listen to it even if it were free.

  9. Shawn Zernik May 12, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    I just bought a car with SiriusXM. I was excited about this feature, but quickly disappointed at the sound quality. My MP3s are all 256kbps or better and Sirius is no match. FM radio over a long distance is event better. If I had to guess by re-sampling the same song, I’d say Sirus is 96kbsp… SAD. It’s a subscription I will not pay for.

    My computer system is composed of Yamaha Studio monitors… if it sounds like sh*t it’s not the speakers.

    • Jeff Hinz May 18, 2014 at 11:44 am #

      I have had XM radio in my home and car for over six years and I have found the sound quality to be superb especially in home with Yamaha receiver,details in the music are outstanding. Maybe many of you complaining should evaluate what equipment your playing XM radio through. FM radio compared to crystal clear satellite radio ?,not in the same quality league. I consider myself to be an audiophile who appreciates good sound quality.

      • Bill July 21, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

        Jeff, from my experience, the XM feed is better than the Sirius feed. My cousin has XM in his new Camaro (GM has XM) and I have Sirius in my Chrysler. With both cars side by side, his sounded much better than mine. in order to understand what everyone is talking about, you will need to listen to a Sirius radio and not an XM radio. Although they have merged, their systems are still totally different.

  10. Mike May 13, 2013 at 11:50 am #

    Late reply, but full dittos on Serious quality. One of my cars has XM, and that seems to be at least minimum acceptable most of the time.

    Serious sucks big time.

    And the audiophile in me has long ago accepted the fact that FM seriously (heh) beats Sirius.

    However, as a EE, I’ve long known that the “advantages” to digital come with almost equal disadvantages…and I’ve demonstrated that to countless undergrad and grad classes.

  11. Mike May 13, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    Oops, keep misspelling Sirius…but no matter.

    It still sucks eggs.

  12. Pabeau July 15, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    Canceling my subscription to Sirius. I cant bear the low sound quality.

  13. Michael Feigin, Esq., NY, NJ Patent Attorney November 26, 2013 at 6:45 am #

    I have my free tirial of Sirius again in my car … just did some searching to verify that I’m not the only one. I don’t get how people subscribe to it. The sound quality is awful, even for the $25 for 6 months that they’re now offering me. Rural radio is interesting and all, but…

  14. JustinC September 12, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    XM still sucks, radio quality has deteriorated. Underwater tinny. Especially when my car has FM HD radio now, FM and even AM stations received digitally sound WAY better than XM. It came free with the new car for 3 months, but I am not seeing the advantage anymore. They dont care. They just care about sqeezing more and more crap we dont want, with commercials in, and broadcasting at 10kbps. Meanwhile my FM HD Radio is getting signal at like 150kbps. Sounds nice. XM, get with the program, fools.

  15. Piotr November 1, 2014 at 4:58 am #

    completely agree that it sucks. I am used to listening to 96/24 or 48/24 at home, and actually ou can load 48/24 into an iphone – with a good sound system they sound fantastic. I use to have Sirius/XM for a few years, but I just do not see any reason to suffer listening to such poor quality of sound; I just cannot understand why they cannot siwtch to at least some nice 192kbps compression – that would not be great, but it would be bearable. I cancelled my subscription, and I made them an effor – I will pay them 3x the subscription fees if they give me better quality sound.

    It is a disgrace that we live in a digital era and all we use it for is the quantity of rubbish, rather than the quality of refined stuff.

  16. Pber November 23, 2014 at 5:09 am #

    The thing that gets me is that yo have to PAY for it! For that amount of money, I should get the absolutely highest fidelity technology can produce.

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