Last updated on July 4th, 2021 at 10:03 am

One of the best ways you can get fresh, new tunes in your car is adding XM satellite radio. Satellite radio is an easy upgrade and will work with many factory and aftermarket head units. In this article, we are going to look at what XM radio is, what makes it desirable, and the best ways you can start listening to your favorite programming quickly and affordably. 

What is XM Satellite Radio?

Satellite radio was a dream that took a long time to come to fruition. Initially begun in 1988, it wasn’t until September of 2001 that U.S. subscribers could pick up radio from space. Today, XM radio offers some of the best features of over-the-air broadcasting with the ability to receive content that isn't always suitable for radio (e.g. The Howard Stern Show!). XM radio works by broadcasting a signal to dedicated satellites orbiting Earth. The satellites redirect the frequencies to XM receivers which provide access to content virtually anywhere.

Where is XM Radio Available?

Despite dedicated efforts including the initial launch of satellite radio to Africa and Asia in 1999, XM radio today is only available in the lower 48 states and parts of Canada and Mexico. XM radio programming in Europe, Asia, and Africa collapsed due to bankruptcy around 2009. Today, SiriusXM is the only remaining company in the marketplace with a sole focus on providing content to US and Canadian subscribers.

What Kinds of Content Does XM Radio Provide?

Talk shows like Howard Stern -which ran into on-air legal problems over the types of content are less restricted due to the subscription-based platform. Many stations dedicate air time to playing rare, unreleased tracks from some of the most popular bands of all time. XM radio is the best way to find content not available anywhere else, including Pandora, Spotify, or Google Play Music.

One major reason people are attracted to satellite radio is the availability of non-mainstream content. Listeners tired of hearing played-out tracks can find artists that are not on the radio. You’ll find many songs you know performed live or on unreleased tracks. If you are the type of person who loves music made off-the-beaten-path, XM radio is a fantastic option.

Satellite radio is a great way to catch live, out of market content like sports games and news broadcasts. If you want to listen in on the Dodgers vs Marlins game while stuck in downtown Chicago traffic, you can do that. Want to catch a news broadcast from Buffalo while sitting in your Seattle office? That’s easy. The caveat is that if you are trying to find a local broadcast via XM radio, you won’t be able to. XM satellite radio only provides out-of-market content.

How is the Sound Quality of XM Radio?

Satellite radio was once promoted as featuring “CD-like quality.” In reality, XM signals suffer from a lack of bandwidth. SiriusXM radio, the only U.S. provider, utilizes two satellites to beam all of the available content. This limits the sound quality available due to the limitations of content and space. Quality is considered to be less than that of a well-tuned FM signal as the compressed format strips away any sound not apparent in the foreground and can give you an “underwater-like” sound.

Today, SiriusXM is available through an app-based streaming service that improves quality significantly. Streaming content directly from a satellite feed works out to approximately the quality you’ll get from an MP3. Using the app, you will get better than CD sound.

How to Get SiriusXM Radio in Your Car

Now that you know what XM satellite radio is and does, you will need to know how to add it to your car. Getting XM radio up and running isn’t a difficult process. We will show you the best ways to get XM radio in your vehicle.

Factory Head Unit- Not XM-Ready

Many modern vehicles use an integrated head unit that makes aftermarket upgrades difficult. A great way to get more content without the expense and hassle of upgrading to an XM-ready head unit is to use an adapter. Most of these solutions will include a controller that mounts to your dash which you’ll use for tuning to your favorite XM radio content rather than your factory controls.

FM Modulator

One of the easiest and least expensive options is to use an XM adapter that incorporates an FM transmitter. This device will convert the satellite signal and send it to an unused FM channel on your head unit. These devices work in one of two ways. The least expensive way simply uses Bluetooth to beam the signal to your head unit. Alternatively, you can purchase an adapter that allows the modulator to plug into the factory antenna and the head unit.

There are several downsides to this installation. First, FM signals are vulnerable to interference, so you won’t always get crystal clear audio. The second issue is that you will have wiring running about your interior. If having things plugged into your 12v accessory port irritates you, there are other options.

Aux-In Adapter

Another way you can add XM radio to your car is by purchasing an adapter that sends the signal to the head unit through the aux-in port. Of course, this method only works on cars that have a port, but you will get clearer, more reliable audio from this type of installation. You will still need a dash-mount controller and you’ll also have cables for power and connection.

XM-Ready Head Units

Some factory head units and many aftermarket options are “SiriusXM-ready”. This basically means that your head unit is built to handle XM, but you will need to purchase a signal adapter. The adapter will plug into the head unit and features a dedicated antenna for picking up the signal. Once installed, you’ll have control over XM radio using the built-in head unit controls. This makes for a clean installation that looks professional and is easy to accomplish.

Head Unit Upgrade

If you are on the fence about adding XM radio to your car and you are already thinking about a head unit upgrade, you’ll find dozens of excellent XM-ready aftermarket head units that will provide much better sound quality over factory equipment. You will still need to purchase an adapter to add the antenna and access programming, but the cost will be less and the installation is simple. This is the best way to get the most up-to-date XM capabilities in any vehicle.

How Much Does XM Cost?

The service is only available through a subscription, even if you drive a car that has built-in capabilities. At the time of this writing, SiriusXM radio -the only option available- runs $19.99 per month for access to all available channels. You can get packages that offer less content for less money. For example, you can pick your favorite 50 channels and pay only $9.99 per month or you can pay $17.99 to have all adult channels scrubbed from your content.

A huge number of budget head units offer the ability to add XM radio to your listening experience. You can find basic head units for less than $100 that will out-perform your factory head unit and make connecting to SiriusXM fast and simple. If you want to keep your head unit and add XM capabilities, a $50 receiver is needed. This device plugs into your AM/FM stereo to provide access to XM content.

What's the Difference between XM and Streaming?

There are a few notable differences between the content and performance you’ll get from XM vs Pandora or any of the other mainstream streaming services. First and foremost, most XM stations are commercial-free, which should be universal since you pay for the service. As you know, Pandora and Spotify love to ruin the mood with commercials.

The other main difference is the types of content you’ll get. While streaming services are great at finding mainstream tunes that are similar to tracks you like, XM radio offers music you have never heard before. From songs by the world's biggest bands to tracks cut by artists you’ve never heard of before, XM offers content that isn’t easily available anywhere else. Just try and find an LP of unreleased Doors tracks. It’s not going to happen, no matter how good your local record store is, yet you get several channels of XM radio dedicated to nothing but rare and unreleased tracks.

Unlike streaming services that require a WiFi connection, you won’t lose your tunes when travelling. In fact, you can listen to the same station from Tacoma, Washington to Washington D.C. This lack of interruption is one of the best promises of XM radio and makes a difference when you spend lots of time driving long distances.

Conclusion

Satellite radio isn’t for everyone, and that may be one of the reasons the platform has struggled to find a marketplace while services like Pandora and Spotify continue to expand. If commercials annoy you to no end and you are tired of listening to the same Top-50 Songs from 1984 on a streaming service, you’ll find content you’ve never heard before.

Where XM radio really comes into its own is in situations where traditional AM/FM and streaming services are not possible. Applications for marine environments let you get great music on your boat even when you are well out of sight of shore. The versatility of XM radio makes it an excellent choice for people who drive a lot, are frequently looking for clear FM signals, or miss having their favorite program on the radio.

Installing XM radio is a straight-forward task that the average DIYer can do without trouble. Depending on the manner in which you plan to add XM radio, it could cost anywhere from very little to quite a lot. Once you install satellite radio, you will love having on-the-go content without interruption no matter where you are. The ability to get clear signals on the water, off the beaten path, or hundreds of miles from home makes XM radio an excellent choice for many people.