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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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