Does Sirius XM sound far worse than listening to music on YouTube?

That’s a question asked on Quora and deleted before I posted my answer. So I’m posting my answer here.

This is like asking if a car radio sounds better than a TV. Because it’s a matter of where, how, when, and what, more than a matter of sound.

There is some overlap in the sense that both SiriusXM and YouTube are fully useful on mobile apps. But you don’t watch your radio in your car or listen to your radio on your TV, even though it’s possible to do both through apps that are native to both the road (through Android Auto and Apple Carplay) and the living room (through Roku, Amazon, Apple, and other TV app platforms).

As for the sound itself, YouTiube lets you select audio quality bitrates up to 256kbps AAC & OPUS. SiriusXM’s default bitrate is also 256kpbs, but over the satellite link bitrates are typically lower—sometimes much lower. But, since SiriusXM does not (to my knowledge, so far) publish their bitrates in a place that’s easy to find, its bitrates are subject to debate. Here is one of those on Reddit.

But, again, it’s a matter of where. when, and what, more than how. If you want to see and hear a piece of music, YouTube provides enormous optionality, with its almost boundless collection of videos. If you want radio-like music programming, SiriusXM offers more—plus sports, talk, news, sports (including play-by-play for all the major ones), and more.

Yet the Internet has more than both put together. That’s why the image above is of Radio Paradise, which is one of the oldest and best Internet music stations. It’s live on the Net and the Web, and it has Best Of collections on YouTube as well.

Bonus link (and a lot of fun): There’s an app for that too.

2 responses to “Does Sirius XM sound far worse than listening to music on YouTube?”

  1. I vaguely recall reading on “the Internet” the satellite systems of XM and Sirius each had about 3 MB/s of data throughput. As I recall they could use different bit rates for each format channel and bit rate could be day-parted on each format channel. So, a high profile format or show could get reasonable bit rate and sound as good as possible given codec technology of the era. Or, a niche format could have awful audio quality.

    In the merged company I presume they unified the allocated RF spectrum into one service, thus they may have 6 MB/s of data rate throughput. Of course data this data rate throughput number is in the context of coding algorithms of the era. Today’s coding may enable greater data bit rate, and improvement in audio codecs could enable better subjective sound at lower data bit rates.

    In the early 2000’s I got XM for my apartment living room because I thought it would be a nice multi-genre music source for guests. Listening to XM, I was astounded at how bad the audio was, even on the tiny speakers that came with the unit. As a result I never listened to it personally, and eventually I threw it in the garbage, which is basically what their audio was at the time.

    Later I learned that in DC the XM studios were focused on maintaining top audio quality, and they had excellent engineers, and engineering leadership. This makes complete sense, they knew the originating audio had to be best quality achievable, to survive the data rate squeeze of the satellite system. They were being pros, making the best of what they had to work with.

    Thus, the poor audio quality was caused by the company’s decision to have a large number of format channels. They cut the pie into tiny slices.

    Because of the combined RF spectrum and improved data coding and audio codecs, I assume in 2023 Sirius/XM has much better sound quality than I heard on XM twenty years ago. Their main issue may be backwards compatibility with older receivers, but over time, with enough marketing, that can be solved.

    Note that what I read on the Internet or what someone told me may not be accurate.
    So take this post for what it is worth.

    And like many software and tech companies, there are many key technical details they simply aren’t going to tell you. You will be stonewalled and told lies. You have to measure it, deduce it from spectrum use, or try to determine from FCC or other filings what they are doing technically. Kind of like determining where Purina sources dog food ingredients. Good luck with that one.

  2. Thanks, Greg.
    In their separate days, Sirius and XM used satellites with very different orbits. Sirius’ three satellites had long elliptical orbits that dove low over North America and then far out into space and back again. The three took turns in their low approaches. This system put a much stronger signal down to the ground than is possible with the XM’s satellites. Those, like Dish’s and DirectTV’s, hover in a fixed position about 24,000 miles over the equator, aiming their signals at North America. What difference this made for audio quality and number of channels is moot at this point, because all of Sirius’ old satellites have been put into “disposal” orbits, to burn up in high atmosphere.
    I think the more important question now is how good SiriusXM’s channels sound on its apps. Some compression makes sense, but none require (I would think) the same degree of compression required of channels crammed into a satellite’s feed.

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