A Better Clock Radio

Have you noticed how bad most clock radios are? Here is a product that virtually every person in the industrialized world uses every day – twice, actually; once to set the alarm and once to wake up – and nearly everything about clock radios is horrible. Setting the alarm is nutso stoopid or hard. Some don’t have battery backup so every time there’s a power glitch you’re setting the clock and the alarms again. The radio tuner sucks, big time. The volume control has no granularity at the low end, so you either have silent, or too loud. Etc. The problem is even worse in most hotel rooms, where, 1) you have an unfamiliar set of controls, and 2) you usually have an important meeting and you must wake up on time. Talk about your product development opportunities.
The best clock radio I ever had was a Sony, in the mid-1980s. I bought it because it was a stereo model, though it turned out that didn’t matter much. The hidden feature that turned out the be the best thing since sliced bread was the rotary control on the front panel for setting the alarm time. You turned the left knob for the hour, and the right knob in five-minute increments for the minute. As a college student, who had a different alarm setting every day, this was a godsend. I was heartbroken when that unit broke and I had to buy a new one.
Sometime last year I discovered that if I set the alarm before 6 AM, my local NPR station was playing classical music, and I could wake up before the news came on. This turned out to be a real mood enhancer, and I started getting up earlier just to avoid having all that war-mongering in my ear first thing in the morning. Then, maybe six or nine months ago, they started in with the news at 5 AM, but also launched a 24/7 classical station. So I switched over to the classical station and never looked back.
But then about three or four or five weeks ago, the classical station stopped working. Just a hum where there used to be a station. So I ignored it, figuring they’d fix the problem and it would return. After a week, still humming, so I emailed saying, “Hey, did you know I haven’t been able to hear 88.1 for a week? Are you closing that down or what?” They never wrote back, but within an hour it was working again. That hum was probably a loose wire, and they were probably embarrassed, and who could blame them – off the air and no one told them for a week!
But then a week after that they switched the old station to a 24/7 news format, and started pitching the classical station as an alternative. Fine. But simultaneously, the classical station got real static-y. Really hard to listen to. I thought, “This is beat.”
When radio and television stations first go on the air, the engineers set the transmitter power in an approximate manner. Then, after a while, a few weeks to a few months, they drive around the coverage area taking measurements, and adjust the power patten to fit their license. This is probably what hosed me: They finally got around to precise measurements, and my area had to be turned down for some reason. Hence the lousy static.
Well, boo hoo hoo. Wake up to whatever, Notio.
Yeah, that’s more or less what I thought, too. So I just set it back to the news station, loud and clear, and didn’t think much about it. Until maybe a week later, when I noticed that I’d had a really bad week. My mood was off, optimism was hard to come by, and life kinda sorta sucked. And then from the depths of what’s left of my psychoacoustic memory arrived the thought: Maybe it’s the news.
Yeah, that seemed totally plausible. The news is beat. Talk about your lack of depth. So I spent 20 minutes very carefully tuning the crappy tuner to get as close as possible to the least static on the classical station. Move close to the radio, less static. Move away, more static. Adjust so that when near the radio, more static, but when moved away, less static. Lay in bed and see if the static cares how close to the edge of the mattress I am. Finally, I got it as good as it could be gotten, and I went to sleep.
And then for a week I woke up to static-y classical music. Which was better than the news, by far, but it was just not floating my boat. Finally one day I decided, My state of mind is valuable. A lot more valuable than this crappy ten-year old piece of crap clock radio. I will buy a new one.
Fifteen minutes on Amazon and I realized that there are two categories of clock radio: Under $25, and $120 to $250. Are you kidding me? I can’t spend, say, $50 or $60 and get a decent clock radio? I have to spend a hundred bucks? And will it not suck, even then?
So I pondered that for a day or two, and decided – well, rationalized really – that in fact, my state of mind is worth a hundred bucks. In other words, I got my head around this ridiculous affluenza pricing, and went back online.
Eventually, I ordered the Boston Acoustics Receptor radio, for about $120. They pitch this thing as having a top-notch tuner, solid controls, and damn good sound. The only missing feature is an aux-in jack for the occasional iPod use, but that’s not in my spec, just a “nice-to-have.”
It arrived last Friday, and I set it up that night. First impression: It’s big, takes some room on the nightstand. But indeed the controls are very, very good. I won’t go into the details here, this blog post is long enough as it is, and virtually content-free to boot, but things work pretty much exactly as they should. Someone thought about it, and made some decisions, and the decisions were good. I wish the light dimmer had an even dimmer setting, as the ‘dim’ is not all that dim, but that’s my only real complaint, interface-wise.
On the topic of the tuner, which was the driving force for the buy, the matter is more mixed. Granted, I live in the sticks. But if there’s a signal there I want the radio to pick it up. And while messing with the included loose wire antenna, it sometimes did. Problem was, it was never clear why, or when, or how to make consistent the perfect signal quality, vs the crappy static that was sometimes present. I messed with that wire antenna for 20 minutes, and sometimes it was stunning perfect, and sometimes it was no better than the $10 clock radio. Arrrrggg!! Gag me with a spoon.
Eventually I went downstairs to the big rig stereo, and disconnected my $75 Terk AF1 Q powered, amplified, tunable antenna and cleared yet more space on the nightstand. Nearly unbelievably, this too required messing around, turning it this way and that on the nightstand to optimize the sound. But when I hit the spot, oh man, now that’s a clock radio!
The sound is clear, and deep, and spot-on tuned in. The volume control works well throughout the range (hello log potentiometers!). It gets loud, and it plays well soft. I can easily set the alarm to a different time every day. I wake up to a much fuller sound of the orchestra, and I’m certainly much happier in the first hours of the day. It’s definitely rockin’ good, and I’m glad I bought it.
So if you’re willing to spend $200 on this combination, you too can have great sound, a solid tuner, and well-designed controls. It’s absolutely crazy that it takes $200 to get a decent clock radio that works in the woods, but I suppose that’s late-stage capitalism in action.
Just thought you’d like to know.