Not so portable

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By Satellite-radio waves hit MP3 wall, reports Eric A. Taub
  • Published 23.01.06
TUNED IN TO CONSUMERS: Satellite-radio companies are now offering inexpensive receivers.

When Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio first introduced their subscription audio services, both companies expected success to come primarily from the automobile market. Since most radio listening is done in the car, the two companies worked to sew up exclusive licensing deals with major car manufacturers.

But in the four years since satellite radio began, new technologies are making additional demands on listeners’ time and money. Today, satellite radio is competing not just with broadcast radio in the car, but with MP3 players, which can hold thousands of songs and can also be hooked up to car stereo systems. And unlike bulky satellite radio receivers, pocket-size MP3 players can be carried everywhere and are useful in the gym.

To compete with portable music devices, both XM and Sirius have had to start offering their programming over a range of devices and services. Both companies charge $12.95 a month for their programming, and discounted multiyear contracts are available.

Consumers can also hear Sirius channels on the Dish Network and on Sprint cellphones. XM can be heard by AOL subscribers, on AirTran and JetBlue flights and on DirecTV. “We want to make our service available over as many products as possible,” said Robert Law, senior vice-president of Sirius’ consumer electronics division.

For now, standard radios and MP3 players still have the edge on easy music delivery. Broadcast radios are cheap and are incorporated into virtually every home stereo system, while satellite radio tuners are mostly stand-alone devices. And satellite signals cannot be received without a special antenna.

To get live radio, most portable satellite receivers on the market need to be docked (they can, however, play recorded programmes on the go). Some have internal antennas for receiving live broadcasts on the go, but reception tends to be spotty.

Sirius and XM are trying to address these limitations with several new devices introduced at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The latest receivers have MP3 players and advanced antennas that extend the areas where satellite programming can be easily heard. But even the newest devices do not allow reliable on-the-go reception inside buildings because, as with satellite TV, the antennas work best outside.

For consumers trying out satellite radio, Sirius and XM offer a range of inexpensive receivers, including some pocket-size devices.

The Sirius One radio, priced at $50, includes a one-line display and can transmit its signal through any of 100 FM channels. A thin unit, it can be hung on the sun visor or windshield, or placed on a car’s dashboard. Up to 30 stations can be stored as presets.

The XM Roady XT, $80 from Delphi (available with a $30 rebate), is the company’s smallest plug-and-play unit, measuring roughly 2-by-4 inches. It can transmit a signal through any of 100 FM frequencies, and can display both sports scores and stock prices on its two-line display. An optional $100 pack, which will be available from Belkin by March, will include a battery and headphones with a built-in antenna. The pack will allow the Roady XT to be used as a portable unit.

XM’s original on-the-go unit, the $225 Delphi XM MyFi (available with a $50 rebate), can be used in most outdoor locations, thanks to its built-in antenna, but reception can be uneven.

The unit can also record up to five hours of programming for later listening. To improve on-the-go signal reception for this and other older XM2go receivers, users can purchase a $25 Belkin headset that includes a built-in antenna.

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