Surround From Above

While surround may not be as mainstream as we would like, satellite radio is probably even less known. Combine the two, and you have probably the best-kept secret in entertainment available today. Surround has been around quite a while, but satellite radio is relatively new, with less than three full years under its belt.

Still, the two providers of satellite radio have about 2 million subscribers between them. And more will be signing on: coming midyear, the distribution of products will hit the mainstream, and advertising should reach a frenzy by fourth quarter, thanks to deals with retailers such as Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, Circuit City, and Best Buy. As you can see, we’re talking major retailer here, and not just hard-to-find specialty retailers.

As a further encouragement to new subscribers, both providers, Sirius and XM, are providing forms of surround sound with their list of features. Here’s a look at the current playing field, and how each is using surround sound to lure new customers.

Five Shiny Stations In The Sky

First up is Sirius Satellite Radio, based in New York, NY. Sirius is best known by their lineup of 60 commercial-free music streams (what they call channels). While they also have 40 other channels of entertainment, including the NBA, NHL, and NFL, for our purposes here we will be interested in the music. Their stream lineup includes different programming for all the primary genres with offshoots and several specially created streams based upon consumer feedback.

Sirius uses three satellites that are in a geosynchronous orbit, which allows an antenna aimed at them to need less horizon to see them. The long and the short or it is that Sirius uses less terrestrial-based repeaters than their competition. In any event, both services get similar reception coast to coast. In major cities both seem to receive signal from land-based repeaters and the same station of stream can be listened to across the U.S.

XM Satellite Radio is based in Washington D.C., and was the first of the services to launch; it also boasts the larger of the two’s subscribership. XM’s boasts a lineup of over 60 recently converted to commercial-free channels and also has 40 other channels of entertainment, including Playboy and NASCAR as their premium draws. While both services are subscription based, XM is cheaper at $9.95 a month excluding the Playboy channel, which carries an extra charge. XM uses two satellites that are in geostationary orbit and supports their signal with many terrestrial-based repeaters. XM launched almost a full year ahead of Sirius, and their partnership with many auto manufacturers and Delphi has put them in the leader position with regard to consumer awareness.

Surround From Above

Both Sirius and XM have surround capabilities but each approach it differently. Sirius offers a surround experience that works with any Dolby Pro Logic II system by controlling the mix on their end first.

According to the company, they chose Pro Logic II because it works with any of the 100 million units already out in the marketplace. They use Dolby model DP563 encoders to transfer 5.1-encoded material from SACD and DVD-A to 2-channel matrixed stereo. The material is then stored on their digital audio storage system and played back as stereo-compatible audio. For those receivers feeding surround decoders, the channels will be decoded and steered appropriately.
XM will be taking a different approach even thought they currently encode stereo using a proprietary pre-processing software from Neural Audio. Neural Audio’s process enhances CT-aaacPlus results by optimizing temporal and spectral elements prior to encoding. This year’s NAB show should feature the newest decoder from Neural, which will take 5.1 steering a step further by controlling specific decoding as sent from XM.

Sirius offers a more readily available surround experience today, but the potential of XM’s venture leads the possibility that their offering will be better. Expect that if it is a better surround offering, then Sirius will quickly respond with a better offering themselves. The good news for consumers is that the newest form of music entertainment has identified surround as a priority for not only now, but for the future as well.

Rob Hephner is editorial director of Car Sound & Performance and AutoMedia magazines.

Surround Professional Magazine