Roadshow

Make your car's satellite radio sound better

You aren't mistaken, that sound you hear is your ears frying.

CNET

"Pure digital quality" is one of the great sales jobs in tech history. Whether it applies to cell phones, MP3s or satellite radio, it's code for the provider cramming more signals into the same bandwidth or space and sacrificing audio detail in the process. They have a more efficient business but you end up listening to tin.

Sat radio is a major culprit. I ran XM channel 130 here at CNET in the early 2000s, so I know it addresses a number of FM broadcast's shortcomings, but it makes you pay with a signal that often sounds dry and lifeless. There are a few things you can do, however, to "rehydrate" SiriusXM.

Now Playing: Watch this: How to make satellite radio sound good. Well, less bad
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Give the bird the bird. The satellite is the biggest problem with satellite radio: Its bandwidth is precious so when you have to ram 200+ channels through it you crush them with compression. When I was covering the launch of satellite radio in the US in the mid '90s, the companies raved about their "perceptual coding," an algorithm that removes audio data they think you won't perceive is missing. But that kind of heavy compression adds unpleasant artifacts in music that your brain notices and works to process. If you stream sat radio instead of actually getting it from a satellite you can mitigate the problem via the maximum fidelity option in the app. Streaming is already part of your SiriusXM subscription, though the 4G LTE data you'll need to receive it is on you.

Listen with prejudice. If you're buying a new car, don't be all agog just because it's new. Listen critically to the audio system, comparing its sat radio sound to FM, a CD you bring along and against Bluetooth streaming from your phone. If sat radio sounds more brittle than the other sources, know that you'll probably notice that more over time, something I learned from reviewing over 1,100 cars. A few car systems do a good job of making sat radio sound comparatively good, but the majority don't.

Upgrade your audio system.  A new amp, in particular, can make a difference in sat radio sound by using sophisticated EQ or digital signal processing (DSP) to emphasize the best parts of sat radio and attenuate the worst ones. By the way, be wary of a shop selling you an upgrade to Hi Res Audio: That relies on having a high detail audio source to start with, exactly what you don't have with satellite radio. 

Look into AI audio. It's a bit of a catchphrase, but these new systems inspect sound for what's missing and then try to add it back in just before the signal goes to the amp and speakers. I've reported on these new technologies like Bambu AWSM or Harman Clarify, the latter now available in a few JBL aftermarket car amps. AI audio is distinct from any other EQ or processing that may also be present on a given amp or system.

And that's it. You can only do so much when the data just isn't there.