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Clock radios with the right bedside manner

May 15, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

THE first thing that millions of people see and hear in the morning is ugly.

We're not talking about significant others. It's the clock radio, which has a functional appearance at best, and a sound that's disagreeably tinny.

But a new generation of clock radios -- including a just-released model from Tivoli Audio, with electronics created by the legendary, late Henry Kloss -- aims to make these morning companions a sight and sound to behold.

Maybe to the point of being counterproductive. If they live up to their hype, you'll be tempted to stay in bed and listen.

The new Model Three from Tivoli, designed by Tom DeVesto, is not just the best-looking clock radio made in about three decades, it's one of the most beautifully crafted home audio products ever. Made of solid wood with a cherry veneer (the real wood kind, not plastic), it resembles a fine nautical instrument -- the kind you might find on a proud, vintage yacht.

The $199 unit has smooth-turning knobs, a taupe-colored faceplate and an analog clock. Instead of the usual buttons, an outer ring on the clock is swiveled to set the alarm.

All this analog does have disadvantages. The unlighted tuning dial is impossible to use by sight in a darkened room. But all in all, the Model Three recalls a time when clock radios were not so taken for granted.

Clock mechanisms used to turn on a radio started to show up in the 1930s, but not for wake-up purposes. "More or less, they were used as a reminder that it was time to gather together for the latest episode of the family's favorite radio programs," said antique radio collector Jim Menning of Appleton, Wis.

The golden age of clock radios as we know them was in the late 1940s and 1950s, when the Bakelite plastic models now treasured by collectors became popular. They were even promoted as healthful -- a 1948 General Electric magazine ad used brain wave diagrams to make the claim that a "clock radio wakes you soothingly," while an old-fashioned alarm causes a "shock" to the system.

As the years wore on and the novelty of clock radios wore off, the designs became mundane, all the more so when digital clocks became the bedside norm. The sound quality was usually awful too, as if these radios were proclaiming they were merely functional and not meant to be enjoyed.

In 1993, the Bose Corp., which makes speakers and home audio components, broke the pattern by debuting its Wave, a stereo clock radio with proprietary technology.

Neither the price ($349 for the basic model) nor the company's claims of sound quality is modest. According to Bose's Web site, the radio produces "beautiful music that may change the way you think about sound and its importance in your life."

At least it doesn't describe the look of the Wave -- which fits two speakers and a digital clock into a plastic housing resembling a stubby airplane wing -- as beautiful, and for good reason.

One swell design feature is that the Wave's power cord doubles as its FM antenna, eliminating the need for an unsightly wire hanging off the back. And the Wave has a number of smart performance elements. For example, instead of blaring when it comes on in the morning, the radio starts out soft, then steadily increases in volume. And if that doesn't do the trick, after 10 minutes the Wave interrupts the broadcast to let out a series of electronic bleeps that will surely get you out of bed.

Boston Acoustics, which is best known for its speakers, debuted its tabletop Recepter Radio, with digital clock, late last year at a list price of $159.

Even though it has a plastic case, the Recepter is a sleek, handsome unit that looks as if it could fit into a jet's instrument panel. And the design is friendly -- tuning and setting the alarm are accomplished with the turn of a dial instead of the less satisfying push of a button.

The company Web site also makes heady claims, declaring that the Recepter will "deliver sound comparable to the finest radios ever made."

The Tivoli folks are not as promotionally reckless, saying on the Web site that their clock radio has a "warm sound, ease of use and distinguished appearance that gives the Model Three its wonderful bedside manner."

But since it's going up against the extraordinary claims made by Bose and Boston Acoustics, we brought in a panel of discriminating Times experts: pop-rock critic Richard Cromelin, classical music critic Mark Swed and investigative reporter Chuck Philips, who covers the music industry.

To put it mildly, they deflated the hype, especially of the Bose sound. Cromelin described it as "thin and tinny," Swed said it was "annoyingly unmusical" and Philips thought the "treble was overdriven almost to the point of distortion."

The panel liked best the least expensive of the three, the Boston Acoustics Recepter, judging it the most true to life.

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