XM Radio & Audiophiles?

On August 18, XM Radio invited the press to Manhattan's Rainbow Room to announce its latest product offerings. The locale was not unintentional, according to Chance Patterson, XM's vice president for programming operations, "This building [30 Rockefeller Plaza, headquarters of NBC] was at the center of radio's first flowering, and XM represents radio's future."

XM senior vice president of retail and marketing operations Dan Murphy announced that the satellite broadcaster now boasts 2.1 million subscribers and looks to pass the 3 million mark by year's end. This growth will come out of a two-pronged strategy that offers additional programming options as well as new hardware.

On the programming end, XM will add a new Public Radio channel, which will feature programs from Public Radio International (PRI) and its subsidiary American Public Radio (APR); American Public Media (APM), the national production and distribution arm of Minnesota Public Radio; and the Boston public radio station WBUR. The Public Radio channel will feature many well-regarded radio programs, including This American Life, Michael Feldman's What Do You Know?, The Writer's Almanac, Speaking of Faith, On Point, Only A Game, and others. In a public relations coup, XM has signed the immensely popular Bob Edwards to host a morning interview program, The Bob Edwards Show, which will debut on October 4. The Public Radio channel will begin broadcasting on September 1.

On August 3, XM entered into an exclusive, multi-year strategic marketing alliance with Starbucks Coffee Company. The two companies will collaborate on the Starbucks Hear Music channel, which will feature music programming from Hear Music, the "voice of music at Starbucks." Beginning in 2005, more than 4000 of Starbucks' 8000 franchises will tune in to the Starbucks Hear Music channel, exposing "millions of Starbucks customers" to XM.

Starbucks opened its first Hear Music Coffeehouse in Santa Monica, CA earlier this year, offering customers the opportunity to create personalized CDs "in about the time it takes to order a latte," according to a press release. In the fourth quarter of 2004, the coffee chain intends to debut CD-burning services at select Starbucks Coffee Company–operated locations.

In addition, XM has announced agreements to broadcast more than 400 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Pacific-10 (Pac-10) football and basketball games as part of its basic channel package. An exclusive alliance with Rhino Records will produce a "wide range of music series and specials," including in-depth specials that will be heard on a variety of channels across the XM dial. Projected subjects include Ray Charles, The Monkees, the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, Aretha Franklin, Chicago, Richard Pryor, and Dwight Yoakum.

On the hardware front, XM announced marketing partnerships with Antex, Audiophase, Audiovox, Crestron, and Polk, as well as the newest iteration of the popular Delphi SKYFi plug-and-play satellite radio receiver, the SKYFi2 ($129.99).

The product that will most appeal to audiophiles is Polk's XM Reference dedicated home tuner ($329). The first XM tuner module aimed specifically at discerning home listeners, the XM Reference is housed in a 17" wide chassis and features Burr/Brown DACs; a signal-boosting preamp section with 104dB S/N; and discrete PCBs for its power supply, display, connector module, and audio boards. Its rear-panel connections include a screen-saver video output so that it can feed XM's text read-out to an external monitor.

Some audiophiles have expressed doubts concerning the audio quality of XM's codec, a point that remained moot as long as XM was solely considered an automotive accessory or an adjunct source for boomboxes. Now that a respected home audio company has manufactured a separate component-quality tuner, we'll be in a better position to assess XM's ultimate quality. In the crowded Rainbow Room, it wasn't possible to make a serious assessment of Polk's XM Reference, but that simply means that Stereophile will have to obtain one to put through its paces in a proper review once the unit becomes available later this autumn.