Its first big step forward was offering XM Passport, a little black cube that is, in essence, an XM subscription to go. With the latest equipment, you can carry the Passport from car to home theater to portable device. Listen wherever you want, and pay just the $13 monthly fee. Announced in January, The Passport is only now creeping into stores. (It will replace XM's current Connect and Play antenna, which also lets you move service from one device to another, albeit with the help of a rather bulky antenna and a long wire.)
XM's next move has been to introduce a surround-sound version of its service for the living room. Like DVDs, some XM tracks are in 5.1 audio that is, they contain separate sound for five speakers and a subwoofer. So XM has partnered with Yamaha and others, who have introduced audio receivers that decode XM's surround audio stream. I borrowed Yamaha's new RX-V659 ($550; yamaha.com/yec) and tuned to XM Pops, to test it out.
The overture from Die Fledermaus was playing, and even though I once heard the same piece performed in the Vienna Opera House, I thought it sounded great. Amid thrashing strings, chirping flutes and thundering timpanis, I could hear coughs and rustles of a live audience, who cheered the performance at its end. It was lively for sure, and I was certainly surrounded. The problem is that you can hear the music even if you don't have the special decoder on, and it still sounds fine.
On another front, XM continues to promote the portable idea. I wasn't nuts about last year's XM2Go mobile device but the latest batch Pioneer's Inno and Samsung's overdue Helix and Passport-compatible neXus promise more. They're much smaller, and even the Helix and Inno have built in antennae. You can record swaths of programming from a station, and find it already listed by song title or artist. You can delete songs and station identifications to create a tidy playlist of good music you didn't have to buy. It's yours as long as you pay your subscription and dock your player regularly.
The trouble is, XM radio, when heard up close through headphones, sounds pretty bad. You can bookmark tracks, and buy better-quality versions from Napster for 99 cents each, but where's the fun in paying? Besides, like their predecessors, these devices were designed by XM, not Samsung or Pioneer, and the result is a poor user interface. Just because you've located a song doesn't mean you can instantly play it, for example.
XM is definitely striving to reach new audiences, but there's competition all around. In an age with so many ways to get music, XM is no longer just up against Sirius and some local FM channels, but Apple iTunes, MTV Urge even your cell-phone carrier. Here's to the bloody battle ahead.