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The New Wave in Radios

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first blush, the idea of satellite radio in a car is about as exciting as satellite television at home--100 channels, sure, but are any worth tuning to?

In a week with a car equipped to receive XM Radio--the first of two competing satellite systems to hit the market--my wife and I passed on the half-dozen talk channels, the sports programs and Raw, a channel featuring uncensored hard-core hip hop with lyrics we can’t even hint at in a family newspaper.

But we did find lots to listen to. That’s the appeal of satellite radio--programming so far is generally pretty high-class, and there’s enough variety to keep almost everyone happy. Everything from Radio Disney for kids to live interviews and mini-concerts by top recording artists.

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And, of course, you can listen all the way across country without losing the signal or changing channels.

Still, XM’s auditors recently said the company needed a big influx of cash to ensure survival, and though XM execs say that’s not a problem, you might want to take it into consideration when pondering a decision that requires an initial capital outlay of $300 to $800. On the upside, XM reported this week that it signed 76,000 paying customers in its first quarter of operation, about 6,000 more than previously forecast.

I didn’t think satellite radio was worth the start-up costs and $9.99 monthly subscription fee--until I turned in the XM-equipped Cadillac DeVille we had been driving for a week.

(General Motors and Honda are part-owners of XM, and GM is the first to equip some of its cars with satellite-receiving radios. XM has just one competitor, Sirius Radio, partly owned by Ford and DaimlerChrysler, but it has yet to launch in California.)

When I hopped in my own car, with its measly selection of six preset FM channels, it took about five minutes of listening to the same old L.A. stations with their same old playlists for me to start missing some of those satellite channels. Even my 10-disc CD changer wasn’t very interesting, although it might help if I remembered to change the CDs once in a while.

So, yes, satellite radio sounds good, assuming you can justify the expense. The ads all stress variety, sound clarity and affordability. “Less than $10 a month,” they say.

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It’s just a penny less than $10, though. And that’s after you pay a sizable chunk of change for the hardware--and $14.95 for a connection fee.

As with any automotive audio equipment, it pays to shop around.

The radio and TV ads for XM talk about radios for $299 and mention that additional equipment might be needed. Indeed, you’ll need an antenna, a satellite signal receiving unit and, unless you’re really, really good, a professional installer.

I found installation fees ranging from $50 to $150, satellite receiving units from $199 to $299, antennas from $49 (after rebate) to $99 and radios from $159 to $399.

You can save a little money by adding satellite radio reception to an existing car stereo system: The receiver and tuning element, which mounts much like the faceplate of a remote CD changer, run from $249 to $299.

If you buy an XM-capable replacement stereo for your car, you get all the bells and whistles you would expect in a new audio system, including in-dash CD player, and you’ll spend $199 to $399.

That’s unless you find a special, as I did at one Circuit City store that was advertising an “out of the box” deal--a model that had been unpacked but not installed--for $159. But whatever you pay for the stereo, you still need a satellite signal receiver, priced at $199. And an antenna, of which there are several models, none particularly good-looking.

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Circuit City’s Antwon Baylor, a car audio specialist in Orange, said a window-mount model his store sells for $99 was hot because it requires no drilling.

But Ed Majangos, a salesman at a nearby Al & Ed’s Autosound store, says his customers did not like the window-mount system because the antenna is “like three times bigger and really ugly.” His store sells a roof-mount model for $99. It looks like the broken-off stub of a fat CB radio antenna and requires a hole in the sheet metal to feed the wiring through. Circuit City’s price for a similar roof-mount antenna is $79, and there was a $30 rebate when I was looking.

Installation prices vary from store to store, and the best rule of thumb is that you’ll probably get what you pay for. But if you know that the less expensive place does good work, then by all means go for it. The antennas all require wiring to be run up to the roof under the A-pillar’s plastic cladding, and most also involve running wires under the roof liner.

Any satellite radio shopper would be well advised to sign on to the providers’ Web sites (www.xmradio.com and www.siriusradio.com) to look for specials and rebates that occasionally are offered.

Regardless of the kind of system you end up with, satellite radio has a few quirks.

There are 100 channels, but aside from those you program into your radio presets, you can’t get from Channel 1 to Channel 100 without traveling through Channels 2 through 99 as well. Other than the presets, there’s no system that allows you to punch in a channel number and go there.

And the signals don’t penetrate into parking garages or through tunnel roofs, so prepare to lose sound from time to time as you travel under freeway bridges and railroad overpasses.

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We also got spotty reception driving alongside an elevated freeway onramp one day--apparently the satellite was at such a low angle that the tall concrete-and-steel structure blocked its signal for a bit. True, we’re talking outages of half a second to a second, not great long chunks of time, but when it’s a favorite tune or the punch line to a good joke that gets chopped up, it can get annoying.

There’s also the occasional lapse when the signal is lost or the radio is turned on after being off for a bit while the system searches for the signal--satellite television users will be familiar with the “searching for signal” delay.

Even though they are charging you to listen to it, satellite radio is not commercial-free. About 60 of XM’s stations air ads. Many of the stations pepper their musical programming with chatter from DJs who can be just as irritating as those who interrupt the music on FM. And some of the programs are canned and repeat on a regular basis--I found myself listening to the same musical selections on one of the rock stations two mornings in a row. That’s when having 99 other programs really comes in handy.

(XM spokesman Chance Patterson said repetitive programming from playlists is more likely on the 30 channels XM buys from outside providers than on the channels it programs itself. )

Finally, radios that get the XM signal cannot get the Sirius signal, and vice versa. The incompatibility problem is being worked on, but unless a universal system is developed, consumers will have to pick a system and stick with it--or spend a lot to change radios.

So far, Alpine, Sony and Pioneer make XM systems for the aftermarket. Delco makes the system that is now in select Cadillacs and Isuzus and due in a total of 24 GM models next year. (Announcements about satellite radio-equipped models from Honda, Volkswagen and Audi are expected shortly.)

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Sirius users have the choice of systems from Kenwood or Jensen.

Because it isn’t available here yet, we didn’t try Sirius, but its Web site’s program log shows content that is quite similar to XM’s.

Final words: Satellite radio in the car is an idea whose time has arrived. It is especially great for those addicted to the niche music that commercial FM no longer supplies and for road warriors who spend days on end in the car.

As for me, I’ve got way too many other things to spend money on right now. I’ll probably put the satellite radio on hold until I buy a new car with a factory-installed system.

For more satellite radio, visit www.latimes.com/xm.

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