TRIED & TESTED: SOUND THE ALARM

The clock radio is one of the great gadgets of our time. But how to pick a good one? Our panel sampled five
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The Independent Culture
MORE people listen to the radio when they get up in the mornings than at any other time of day and most of us require some external means to persuade us that it's time to get out of bed. Enter the clock radio, which on the face of it must be the best combination of electronic equipment yet devised. The great disappointment with clock radios, however, lies in their aesthetics. While some alarm clocks, and a few radios, are designer statements, we could find no clock radio that was not encased in plastic or would make a covetable bedroom accessory. Manufacturers please take note.

There's a popular notion that the Japanese have cornered the entire electronics market, but Morphy Richards are the market leaders with their very simple, inexpensive CR340 (pounds 9.99) according to independent industry figures up to August this year. Sony, alleged by some high- street dealers to be "definitely the most popular", produce the second best-selling model, the IC-FC270 (pounds l5.99). The general trend is for the top five models in the purchasing charts to cost less than pounds 16, indicating that most people don't want fancy clock radios; they just want something to wake them up.

THE TEST

We decided to test five radios across a wide price-range - many of them offering extra features such as light or cassette player. We awarded marks for radio quality, ease of setting up, alarm efficacy and aesthetic appeal.

THE PANEL

Two "experts": the inventor, cartoonist, writer and self-confessed gadget- lover Tim Hunkin, whose TV series The Secret Life of the Home is now echoed in a new gallery at the Science Museum showing the history and workings of domestic appliances; and writer and broadcaster Peter Hobday of Radio 4's Today programme, who has to get up "very early indeed". I was the token technophobe.

**PANASONIC RC-XI60

Clock radio and cassette player; three wavebands; dial tuning; dual alarm function; 12-hour digital clock; adjustable sleep timer; snooze facility. Size: 303x152x113mm. pounds 39.95

In general, you can't alter the volume of the buzzer on clock radios. Nor does the "dual alarm function" allow you, as I at first supposed, to be woken by the buzzer, snooze a while and then finally be driven out of bed by the sanctimonious sound of Thought for the Day. The Panasonic, however, is the only one we tested that allows you to hear buzzer and radio simultaneously. The booklet advises you to use this function to set two different wake-up times, one for work days and one for weekends, but whose life is this programmed?

Since this model costs about the same as the Sony Digicube, the inclusion of a cassette player is quite a bargain - you can fall asleep to your own soothing tapes and wake up to a day without news. We all thought the quality of the radio excellent, too - if only the whole thing were smaller. It's the size of a rugby ball. Peter Hobday said, "It looks like a tea caddy," adding, "Any clock radio I buy has to leave enough space on the bedside table for my keys, wallet, glasses and telephone. Anyway, I'm completely paranoid and always get a wake-up call in case the alarm doesn't go off.

****SONY DIGICUBE

Synthesised clock radio; three wavebands; five random memory presets; dual alarm and snooze functions; adjustable sleep timer; 24-hour digital clock; self-power back-up on clock; count-down timer. Size: 115x110x105mm. pounds 39.99

The Digicube was voted best in the beauty stakes and overall winner. Peter Hobday declared himself "in love with it" despite the fact that the clock on his test model "kept getting stuck at 16.00". I was fascinated by the digital display, with its classy grey numbers on a gentle green background; checking the time is like gazing into a silent pool. The wide snooze bar means you can tap it on the edge with your eyes shut. Unfortunately, the smooth undulations and tactile buttons like pebbles on the beach encouraged me to run my fingers over them all as if they were keys on a piano, which proved a big mistake when I finally looked at the 80 page instruction manual (admittedly in different languages).

The clock has a self-power back up so you don't have to reset it if somebody unceremoniously pulls the plug out in order to use a hairdryer or vacuum cleaner; this was generally thought a good idea. The very high pitched sound of the buzzer - "like a needle through the temple" - won no points, but Tim Hunkin judged the radio to have the best sound, "because of the synthesised tuning". We all found it a technical feat to set up, but completing the learning curve made us feel cool and sophisticated.

*MORPHY RICHARDS CR327

Clock radio with integral lamp; three wavebands; dial tuning; dual alarm function; 12-hour digital clock; snooze facility; adjustable sleep tuner; battery back-up on the clock. Size: 230x175x60mm. pounds l9.99

Tim Hunkin described this Morphy Richards model with built-in lamp as "unbelievably tacky" in the way it's made. "You practically have to wrench the funny light out of its socket to get it to work, which makes me wonder about the quality of the rest of it." He complained that he had to read the instruction booklet twice before he could get it to work; the clock kept leaping from 12.00 to 02.00 so he had to go round again, and pressing the snooze button disabled the whole thing.

The light was certainly hard to position; you would never be able to read by it - it only shines on the clock, which is illuminated anyway. Peter Hobday said he was "very tickled by the lamp idea" but agreed that the radio was hard to tune. The buzzer sounds like "action stations!" on a submarine and made me feel like hurling the whole thing across the bedroom. Interestingly, however this model is the third most popular on the market.

*SONY CST-1

Travelling clock radio and cassette player; AM/FM wavebands; dial tuning; dual alarm function; 12-hour analog clock; battery operated. Available in bright blue, orange and green. Size: 186x101x54mm. pounds 59.99

Clearly aimed at the youth market, with its brightly coloured casing and matching bootlace strap to swing it from your wrist, this travelling version of the clock radio with built-in cassette player appealed to the child in myself and Tim Hunkin. "I would choose this one because it doesn't disappear into the background like the others," he said." It's cheerful and portable and it has a proper clock face." In fact, the retro design of the controls made it the only one we were able to set up without reading the instruction manual - most appealing. Too bad the alarm is allowed a hilarious 20-minute margin for error: the manual notes that "the alarm may sound about 10 minutes earlier or later than the preset time". Perhaps this wouldn't matter so much if you took it on holiday (there is a very nice drawstring bag to pack it in, with this in mind). Peter Hobday scoffed at sch a notion, commenting that this model was "terribly fiddly" and, indeed, "completely useless".

***MATSUI

Clock radio; AM/FM wavebands; dial tuning; dual alarm function; 12-hour digital clock; snooze facility; adjustable sleep timer. Size: 230x130x45mm. pounds 9.99

The simplest and cheapest of all the models tested, the Matsui scored points with Tim Hunkin because it "seemed very standard and took up little space", but also because it has old-fashioned dial tuning, with sliding knobs and press buttons for the other functions. "It's more intuitive to set up," he said, pointing out that although manufacturers were obliged to improve the quality of radios with the advent of button-tuning (previously, if there was screeching in the background, the user often attributed it to his own lack of sensitivity in turning the dial), "at least all the controls were very different. With more modern designs, you never really know whether you've pressed all the buttons in the right order, so you can't have confidence that the thing will actually work." I thought the tuning rather crude, but agreed with Peter Hobday that the radio quality was fine. The Matsui even has the popular ajustable sleep-timer function, which means you can doze off to the sound of the radio without the risk of leaving it on all night. The buzzer is certainly effective; it's so loud that it got me out of bed in two rude beeps.

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