SiriusXM vs. FM Quality – Which Sounds Better?

SiriusXM, a form of satellite radio, usurps FM regarding range, static reduction, and uncensored audio. However, what about when it comes to audio quality? Which is better, satellite or FM?

FM has better audio quality than SiriusXM due to the greater bandwidth of the former. The bitrate of SiriusXM is also lower than FM, which further contributes to its overall lower quality.

This article will explore why SiriusXM lacks audio quality compared to FM and when both forms of audio entertainment are the right choice for you.

This Is Why FM Sounds Better Than Satellite (SiriusXM) Radio

Radio interface with dials and switches with a blue filter on top
FM sounds better than SiriusXM due to its higher bandwidth and higher bitrate.

Given that FM radio technology was created in the 1930s versus the 1990s for satellite radio like SiriusXM, it’s not at all erroneous to assume that FM wouldn’t sound as good as Sirius.

However, that’s just not the case for two surprising reasons: decreased bandwidth and bitrate.

Let’s explore these factors and their role in SiriusXM audio quality in more detail.

FM Has Higher Bandwidth

The first factor impacting SiriusXM audio quality is bandwidth.

Bandwidth is a form of signal processing that measures lower and upper-frequency differences over a continuous frequency band. This output is produced in hertz.

Bandwidth can be baseband or passband.

Baseband bandwidth refers to a baseband signal’s low-pass filter, with the bandwidth representing its upper limits.

Passband bandwidth for a signal spectrum, communication channel, or passband filter differs between lower and upper cutoff frequencies.

Breaking it down a lot more simply, bandwidth measures the frequency range copyable by an audio system.

This range doesn’t have an infinite limit, as the human ear can only hear so many frequencies, usually from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz.

So why does SiriusXM have a lower bandwidth than FM? Satellite radio requires high frequencies sent toward one narrow beam.

No other radio waves have higher frequencies, as the beam receives a lot of power at once and in one direction.

This leads to a lower bandwidth rate than FM and other forms of terrestrial radio.

FM Has a Higher Bitrate

We’re so used to discussing video bitrate when it comes to streaming services like Netflix or Hulu that we sometimes forget audio has bitrate too.

Audio bitrate is how much data the audio file receives. It’s different from the audio quality and can make even high-quality audio sound poor.

The standard radio bitrate is 128 kbps, which you can expect when listening to radio stations across America and beyond.

Music broadcasting usually requires a higher bitrate than broadcasting talk due to the greater dynamism of the files and the larger file sizes.

However, some FM stations broadcast at 300 kbps, although less frequently.

So why doesn’t satellite radio have comparable bitrates? SiriusXM is a streaming service, and most streaming services have markedly lower bitrates, anywhere from 96 to 160 kbps.

However, even streaming audio won’t drop below 90 kbps as an average bitrate, which sounds noticeably bad.

What About Static? Does SiriusXM or FM Have More?

SiriusXM and other satellite radios have two modes: silence or signal.

Only if you had signal problems would you hear any hints of interference, which means a reliably static-free listening experience whether you’re in Tucson or Trenton.

However, FM does not promise the same. Terrestrial radio is prone to static, and even though FM generally has less than AM, it’s still not static-free.

I’m sure everyone can recall at least one experience of driving long-distance, finding a great FM station, and changing stations two or three times over your journey because all you hear is static as you get out of range of that station.

It’s a hallmark of the terrestrial radio listening experience, but it won’t happen when enjoying SiriusXM.

While technically, FM has higher-quality audio, we’d be remiss to omit static’s role in one’s listening experience.

It doesn’t matter how well the audio quality of an FM broadcast is; if said broadcast is full of static, you can’t appreciate the audio quality.

That still doesn’t make satellite radio higher quality at the end of the day, but its quality is more reliable.

Can You Tell the Difference in Audio Quality Between FM and SiriusXM?

Hand adjusting SiriusXM radio in car
SiriusXM audio quality might be poorer, but to the untrained ear, you can’t really tell!

We’ve made it thoroughly clear that FM exceeds SiriusXM in audio quality, but is it to a noticeable extent?

That depends!

Try this audio quiz. It features the same song played at two bitrates: 128 kbps vs. 320 kbps.

Does one sound that much different to you? The answer will depend on several factors.

For example, audiophiles have a much more trained ear than average. They should be able to tell the bitrate differences between the two files with no problem.

You can accommodate the lack of audio training by listening with high-quality speakers and headphones or earbuds.

However, you must consider how the average person listens to FM or SiriusXM. They’re in their car, where they won’t wear headphones.

They might have shelled out for a high-quality stereo, but more than likely, they have the OEM equipment.

Bearing this in mind, we’d see that in this scenario, the average listener would be hard-pressed to tell the difference in audio quality between SiriusXM and FM.

When to Choose SiriusXM vs. FM Radio for Your Listening Needs

SiriusXM might have lower audio quality, but that doesn’t stop a lot of people from subscribing.

Statista reports that the satellite audio service will have 34 million subscribers in early 2023. Its numbers have leveled off over the 2020s but rose steadily from 2011 to 2019.

Does that mean satellite radio is right for you, or should you stick with FM?

Here are some considerations to help you decide.

Choose FM If You’re a Stickler for Quality

To reiterate the last section, dedicated audiophiles can tell the difference between FM and SiriusXM quality.

Your ears would get used to the lower bitrate of satellite radio eventually, but if you can find a static-free FM station, you’d probably be happier.

Choose Satellite If You Drive a Lot

Satellite radio is the ideal accompaniment for long drives for business or pleasure. SiriusXM broadcasts nationwide, so you can listen to one station for your cross-country trip.

You also won’t have to deal with annoying static forcing you to change stations every hour or two.

Choose FM If You Want a Free Option

Besides its superior audio quality, one of the biggest advantages of FM radio over SiriusXM is its cost.

Satellite radio requires a subscription and special equipment to listen to. In contrast, you can enjoy FM in your car, at home, at work, or anywhere without paying a cent.

Choose Satellite If You Want Uncensored Audio

Another major perk of satellite radio is its uncensored audio. You can hear your favorite songs without any bleeps or changed lyrics on SiriusXM, and nothing a talk show host says will be censored, either.

Wrapping Up

SiriusXM is a subscription satellite radio service with a far-spreading reach and no static, but its bitrate and bandwidth are lower than terrestrial FM radio.

While FM technically has better audio quality, it has more interference.

Trained audiophiles can tell the difference between FM and satellite audio, but the average person listening in their car might not.

Ultimately, you should listen to whichever you enjoy more!

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