HD Radio vs. Satellite Radio: Which Is Better?

The pros and cons and ups and downs of HD and satellite radio.

The main difference between HD Radio and satellite radio is the broadcast technology each one uses: The former uses satellites to transmit content while the latter is just a digital extension of terrestrial broadcasts. There are some key differences in programming, availability, and costs, as well.

While satellite radio is available over entire continents, HD Radio is only available in certain markets. Satellite radio requires a monthly subscription, while HD Radio is free. Which one is better depends largely on personal driving and listening habits.

HD radio vs satellite radio

Overall Findings

HD Radio
  • Digital extension of analog radio transmissions.

  • Limited geographical range.

  • Digital signal conversion allows for clearer signal than analog radio with displayable content.

  • Requires compatible head unit or tuner.

  • No monthly fee or subscription.

Satellite Radio
  • Satellite broadcast covers whole continents.

  • Only one service (Sirius XM) available in North America.

  • Requires compatible receiver plus a monthly subscription.

  • Limited advertising.

Terrestrial/HD Radio vs. Satellite Radio

Terrestrial radio is limited to geographic regions. Although syndicated content from other markets may appear in local ones, that content is still broadcast and received locally. Satellite radio, on the other hand, covers an entire continent with the same programming.

HD Radio is a trademarked term for a hybrid digital/analog transmission technology developed by iBiquity. The system allows for the delivery of digital content to analog receivers. The appeal of this is clearer audio with no fuzz or static. It also allows information about content to be transmitted to a car head unit or display, and for more local stations to come through within a given signal.

You need a compatible head unit or tuner to listen to HD Radio, but once you have HD Radio you have it for good. There's no need for a monthly fee or subscription. Satellite radio, on the other hand, requires either a compatible head unit or a portable satellite tuner as well as a monthly subscription.

The Only Satellite Radio Provider in North America

In North America, there is only one satellite radio provider: Sirius XM. Sirius and XM originally operated as two independent 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 FCC approved the merger because it saw the service as being in competition with audio-streaming services.

Should You Get HD or Satellite Radio?

Satellite radio offers programming you cannot get through terrestrial radio—and vice versa. Some popular radio hosts, like Howard Stern, jumped ship to satellite radio early on and are only available with a satellite subscription. Another reason people like satellite is for the lack of commercials on some stations.

Terrestrial stations have the benefit of catering to local rather than national audiences, with local music highlights, news, and live call-in shows. To compete with satellite radio, podcasts, and streaming services, some terrestrial radio stations have begun broadcasting content with limited or no advertising.

If there is a lot of HD Radio content available in your market then you may be happy with HD Radio. If you like satellite's national and (mostly) ad-free programming then you may enjoy a Sirius XM radio subscription.

Another option is to skip both terrestrial and satellite radio altogether and either a) stream radio via an app like iHeartRadio, or b) just make the leap to the world of podcasts.