High-End Clock Radios – The Naked PC Newsletter (#3.12)

A belated Christmas present finally arrived last week: the best clock radio-CD around. And no, it’s not the much-advertised Bose Wave Radio, but the Model 88 CD from arch-rival Cambridge SoundWorks.

It’s a stretch to call it a computer-related product, although both companies sell computer audio equipment and do say their radios can be hooked up to a PC.

But it is kind of cool. And I like the idea of price competition creeping into the clock radio-CD market. Make that the high-end clock radio market. We aren’t talking sub-$100 units here, but pieces that go for as much as $500.

Dr. Amar Bose, patron of the eponymous company (sorry about that folks, but I have been looking for a chance to work “eponymous” into an article for months) and Henry Kloss, of Acoustic Research, KLH, Advent, and now CSW fame are certified legends of the hi-fi world. Both are based in Massachusetts and both are famed for their “my way” approach to design. “Stubborn” is the frequently used term.

There is one big difference, though: Bose’s product lineup evokes the old Clint Eastwood flick, “For a Few Dollars More,” Kloss goes for a few dollars less.

Bose is devoted to his “acoustic waveguide” design–at the risk of shrieks of protest from the Bose HQ in Framingham, that essentially means that there is a long tube folded up inside the Wave radio to boost its bass response. Bose contends that this approach allows a small radio to approach the sound reproduction of a much larger system. But it has two problems: it’s pricey–a Bose Wave radio-only goes for $350 and the radio-CD for $500 (no discounts offered anywhere). Also, it’s non-adjustable, so if you don’t like the Bose view of bass response, tough.

Kloss’ method for increasing bass is simply to put a subwoofer inside the box. Not as elegant, but there is a knob for adjusting bass up and down. Plus, Kloss provides a headphone jack whereas Bose thinks headphones are an assault on his acoustics.

Not that Kloss has been all that user-friendly either. The original Model 88 table radio introduced in 1998 was intended to be purely just that: a radio to sit on a table. Period. The Cambridge SoundWorks marketing people eventually noted that the number of people wanting to gather around the family radio to listen to fireside chats and “The Shadow” was a little limited. A “control clock” unit–basically, a glorified remote control with dual alarms–was introduced to make the 88 usable as a clock radio. Finally, after a variety of production delays, the 88 CD has appeared, with the clocks and alarms built in along with the CD player.

The Model 88 theoretically sells for $250, but is usually on sale for $200 and the control clock is $50; the 88 CD is $350–so they under-price the comparable Bose’s by $100 and $150 respectively.

Mind you, the whole concept of spending that much on a clock radio boggles many people’s minds. Sony, among others, have a range of clock radios and radio-CDs for much, MUCH less money. If your only need is to catch five minutes of weather and news in the AM before heading into the shower, the high-end units are not for you.

In part the object of the exercise is to allow the picky music- lover to hear tunes that don’t grate on the ear. The units also have some cool features such as being able to program the volume level when setting the alarm so you can play music softly to go to sleep and have it loud enough to wake you up in the morning.

But an equal part is to have a unit that supplements your main stereo system. The “room-filling sound” that Bose and CSW pitch is a bit of a stretch, but not much of one. You can crank up the volume and get respectable results–better than a lot of speakers, boom boxes, and compact stereo systems in the comparable price range. Think of it as a mini-system with a clock built in. And a solution to the age-old “I want to hear classical; no, I want to listen to jazz” debates in your household.