HD Radio vs. Satellite Radio: Which One Should You Get?

JVC car radio

 JVC America/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

The main difference between satellite radio and HD Radio is that one is an extension of the terrestrial radio broadcasting technology that has been around for a century, and the other uses newer satellite technology. There are also key differences in programming, availability, and cost. While satellite radio is available anywhere that you can receive the satellite signal, HD Radio is only available in certain markets. Satellite radio also comes with an associated monthly cost, while HD Radio is free. As to which one is better, or which one you should get, that depends largely on your driving and listening habits.

Radio via Satellite

The history of satellite radio is a little convoluted, and current availability depends on where you live. In North America, the two satellite radio options are both owned and operated by the same company: Sirius XM Radio. These services were originally operated by different companies, but they merged in 2008 when it became clear that neither could survive on its own. This effectively created a satellite radio monopoly in the United States and Canada.

The main benefit of satellite radio versus traditional radio is availability. While terrestrial radio stations are limited to relatively small geographic areas, satellite radio can cover an entire continent with the same programming. In the United States, Sirius XM offers coverage from coast to coast, and you can even use your satellite radio up to 200 miles offshore. If you do a lot of driving from one market to another (or you have a boat that you can transfer your portable XM/Sirius receiver into), then satellite radio might be a good choice.

Celebrities and Commercial-Free Music

Satellite radio also offers some programming that you can’t get on terrestrial radio. A number of popular radio hosts jumped ship to satellite radio early on, and that leaves you with no choice if you want to hear those particular shows.

Another reason some people subscribe is commercial-free music. Although services like Sirius and XM have broadcast varying amounts of commercial advertising over the years, there has always been a certain amount of “commercial free” music programming available. That’s subject to change from time to time, but it is worth taking into consideration.

Of course, some terrestrial stations also choose to broadcast additional subchannels with fewer or no commercial breaks, and these channels typically also offer unique programming choices. Some stations choose to highlight local music, feature call-in or talk radio programming, or other unique listening options on their subchannels.

Costs vs. Benefits of Satellite Radio

If you want to listen to satellite radio in your car, you’re probably going to have to buy either a head unit or a portable tuner device. In either case, you have to pay a monthly fee for satellite radio. If you stop paying the subscription, you’ll lose access to the satellite radio programming.

HD Radio also requires an initial investment in hardware. Although there are some exceptions, most OEM head units lack an HD Radio tuner. Although a lot of OEMs jumped on the HD Radio bandwagon initially, there has been some backsliding, and there have even been rumblings that radio may vanish from OEM dashboards altogether. That means you’ll probably need a new head unit or tuner device if you want to listen to HD Radio. However, you’re then able to access HD Radio content in perpetuity for no extra fee.

The Limited Availability of HD Radio

Although you can listen to HD Radio for free, as long as you have a compatible head unit, it isn’t available everywhere. You can see from the list of stations that iBiquity maintains that uptake has been fairly decent, but that doesn’t mean your favorite station is guaranteed to have HD Radio broadcasts.

If there is a lot of HD Radio content available in your market, and you mainly drive inside the geographical area that’s covered by those stations, then HD Radio is a good choice. Otherwise, you might want to consider satellite radio, or even Internet radio if you have access to a wireless data connection in your car.