The Best Alarm Clock
Waking up is hard to do
Smartphones are sleep saboteurs — we've experienced it and sleep scientists have confirmed it. An alarm clock doesn't come with the distractions of the internet; instead, it's designed to get you out of bed the way that works best for you, no matter if that's mimicking a rising sun or literally shaking you awake.
An unassuming, feature-packed update to the standard clock radio. This guy comes with a plug-in pod that'll shake the bed and dual alarms that start gently, but get as loud as a jackhammer.
The 4 Best Alarm Clocks
Here’s a thought: If you have so much trouble getting out of bed that you require an alarm clock on wheels to roll itself out of arm’s reach, blaring until you are fully awake and capable of catching it, you’re not making mornings any easier. (And you’re not endearing yourself to any of your bedmates either…)
Chances are, Clocky and its brethren are a big reason so many of us use our smartphone’s built-in alarm function or an alarm clock app: no gimmicks, and it works well enough. But smartphones could be sabotaging your sleep — something the best alarm clock, like the iLuv TimeShaker Micro, will never do.
“Exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders,” the American Medical Association says as evidence to leave your smartphone on the couch. Perhaps even more problematic is the temptation to scroll through Twitter or your email: Before you know it, 45 minutes have gone by and you’re left wide-awake. “I’ve found this more with the younger generation who tend to wake up to answer emails and text messages into the wee hours,” says Dr. Ed O’Malley, Phd, FAASM and founder of Your Optimal Nature. “Since your brain is still developing into your late 20s and learning its sleep patterns, this constant interruption to your internal clock is reaching epidemic levels as we become divorced from our natural sleep systems.”
Standalone alarm clocks are the better alternative, and we tried 39 top sellers to find which ones had intuitive setups, customizable settings, and useful features for all kinds of sleepers. These clocks may not be the most beautiful; iconic German minimalists did not necessarily consult on their designs. Does function always trump form? Of course not. But if you’re having trouble rousing yourself to greet the day, every day, maybe it should.
How We Found the Best Alarm Clock
Fundamentally, the best alarm clock needs to be easy to use and reliable. Ilrae Kim, a New York City-based product designer, agrees, explaining that high-quality alarm clocks are readable from various distances and have a well-thought-out alarm function that really works. They should feel sturdy, with long-lasting wires and buttons. A poorly designed alarm clock, on the other hand, is complicated and has too many unnecessary features. “Extras like weather forecasting or voice activation can be especially problematic,” she says. “They clutter the display, make the clock look more complicated than it is, and typically don’t even work that well.”
That said, it would be a stretch to compare one that rings as loud as a lawnmower to one that simulates the sunrise.
Alarm clocks are designed to fit specific needs: Rare is the alarm clock that can appease both a heavy sleeper and someone who wants to wake up slowly. We wanted to find the best for different types of sleepers. With that in mind, we set out to find the best alarm clocks tailored for specific results.
- All-Around Classic: Good for someone who wants a dependable, feature-packed update to the standard clock radio.
- Heavy Sleeper: Good for chronic oversleepers who can snooze through anything (telephone calls, doorbells, barking dogs, an earthquake…).
- Projection: Good for when you want to know the time without having to roll over. These units project the time on the ceiling or a wall.
- Gentle Wakeup: Good for people who prefer to ease into the morning.
- Phone Dock: Good for anyone who’s ready to graduate from using a smartphone alarm, but still wants to keep the gadget close. These types of alarm clocks tend to have better-quality speakers too, so they’re great for audiophiles who like to wake up to music.
- Analog: Good for lovers of classic, traditional design; nostalgics; and luddites who don’t want to bother with plugging in and programming something.
- Travel: Good for road warriors who are tired of asking for hotel wake-up calls.
We read through roundups and hit the comments sections of major electronics brands to find which models were praised again and again. Consumer reviews from retail sites like Amazon and Bed, Bath, and Beyond also came in handy: We wanted to compare the best against the best, and gave preference to those with high ratings.
To whittle down an overwhelming list of 123 clocks, we looked for some of the baseline features we knew we wanted.
- Easy to set: either auto-syncing time as soon as it’s plugged in, or at least a manual setting that accelerates or goes backward if you overshoot your mark (so you don’t have to cycle all the way through again).
- Multiple alarm settings: dual alarms in case you share a bed, and alarms for each day of the week.
- Volume control, different options for sounds, and adjustable snooze times: so you can customize your wake-up experience.
- Different levels of brightness: a choice in how vividly the time glows when everything else is pitch-black.
That left 39 clocks to try out ourselves.
The goal of our testing was to evaluate how easy each clock was to use. Was setup intuitive, or did it involve studying the manual at length? Did the placement of the buttons make sense?
We also checked out aesthetics and design. Did the unit feel sturdy, or was it likely to get knocked over while we fumbled for the snooze bar? Was it just plain ugly?
And then, of course, we wanted to get firsthand knowledge of how the alarm itself worked. Were the alarms easy to set? And how was the sound quality? (Our neighbors love us…)
Any other special features — the ability to mimic sunlight, for example, or plug-in pods that shake the bed — were evaluated individually.
A couple of units didn’t pass our hands-on testing. The AcuRite 13027A Intelli-Time Digital Alarm Clock, which we flagged for the all-around classic category, was very cheaply made: Several of the buttons got stuck while we were trying to set it up. And then there was the Sternreiter. A true analog clock, with no batteries, a wind-up back, and ticking. Endless ticking.
The Screaming Meanie Timer and Alarm Clock with 120 dB Alarm, which is for heavy sleepers (and, apparently, for lost hikers? Screaming Meanie co-markets this alarm as an emergency beacon.) requires a 9v battery and was hearing-damage loud. The buttons on the front are labeled with difficult-to-decipher pictures: a lighthouse, an arrow, a key. Huh? We were confused about how to set it up — and accidentally triggered the alarm while holding it. Its test ended with us ripping out the battery and throwing it across the room.
Our Picks for Best Alarm Clock
We initially flagged this model for the “heavy sleeper” category because it has a plug-in pod that goes under your pillow and vibrates to wake you, plus an alarm that gets plenty loud. Its first beeps are pretty quiet and it crescendos to jackhammer levels (106 decibels). But once we started testing this unassuming clock radio, we realized it has all the features a person would want in a daily use alarm clock. (And if you don’t need the shaker, you can unplug it — that piece is optional.) You can set two alarms on the iLuv, and they can be programmed for all seven days of the week, weekdays only, or weekends only. Choose from the shaker only, shaker and buzzer, buzzer only, FM radio only, or FM radio and shaker.
Speaking of the FM radio, it’s easy to tune, since the dial is digital and shows you exactly what station you’re on. The speaker quality is totally acceptable — small gadgets like this tend to have anemic bass and an overall tinny sound, but the iLuv had a cleaner, deeper sound than we were expecting.
Other features we liked: You can adjust the display by toggling through 10 different brightness settings. There’s a headphone jack, USB charging port, Bluetooth connectivity, and an auxiliary line input so you can connect and listen to your smartphone. A sleep function lets you doze off while listening to the radio or a podcast on said smartphone; simply program the iLuv, and it will switch the sound off after a set amount of time. Battery backup will save your settings in the event of a power outage. The only real “nice to have” feature that this gadget is missing is the ability to automatically pull up the correct time when you first plug it in.
Looking for a clock that’s sleek and simple? The CubieTime is frequently used in hotels for its straightforwardness.
There’s a knob you rotate to set everything, plus a snooze button and a bunch of charging ports, but that’s it — there’s not even a radio.
There’s not much here to go wrong and it’s solid as a brick. Every element of it feels heavy duty, including the thick, round cord (it feels more like a surge protector than a clock cord, and in fact, the CubieTime is surge protected). If you’re using it at home, make sure to switch off the hotel-friendly default factory setting that requires you to set a new alarm daily. (There’s a button in the battery compartment.) If all you’re after is a fairly attractive, easy-to-use alarm, that’s reliable enough for hundreds of hotel rooms, definitely check it out.
We didn’t love the design of the Sonic Alert Sonic Bomb. It’s a cheap-looking, red-and-black plastic disc with buttons all around the perimeter. It’s super lightweight and easy to tip over. This is the clock you’d get someone going off to college as a gag gift. (The name alone is pretty hilarious: the Sonic Alert Sonic Bomb with Super Shaker — super and doubly sonic!) But what can we say? It won us over with how effective and customizable it is.
Pick an alarm, and then change the volume and the tone. Choose how long the alarm rings (1–60 minutes), then decide how long to snooze (1–30 minutes). And this thing gets LOUD! Up to 113 decibels loud, which is slightly more earsplitting than a chainsaw. Too piercing for you? Use its vibrating pod as your wake-up call: It slips under your pillow and buzzes away when the clock strikes.
The Clarity Wake Assure, on the other hand, has only one alarm, and no back button or fast-forward option for the time. But the alarm is loud — 85 decibels, about as loud as a freight train — and the bed shaker is no joke: It would be a feat to sleep through it.
The Wake Assure isn’t gimmicky; in fact, it’s developed to help those with moderate hearing loss know when to wake up. If you simply want something to startle you awake in the morning, this model is just the ticket.
Rolling over to check the clock a little too much to bear? A projection clock might be for you.
We liked the Sony version the best — not only can it project, but it’s not ugly, either. Adjust the focus and placement via the silver wheel attached to the side of the device; there’s also a “rotate projection” button in the back that lets you flip the image in 90-degree increments. You can be in a full-body cast, completely immobile, and still have a way to see what time it is.
Setting the Sony up was intuitive; we barely needed to consult the manual. It auto syncs the time, but you can also set it manually if you like to set the clock a few minutes fast. The device has a USB charging port and battery backup, too; when we unplugged it and plugged it back in, it brought up the correct time and remembered our alarm settings.
In addition to being easy to use, this Sony alarm clock is packed with some great features. Wake up to the radio, a buzzer, or one of five nature sounds, and choose what volume your alarm goes off at (this, it turns out, is a relatively rare feature). The speakers on this device are average for a small gadget — that is to say: not great, not awful — so some of the nature sounds work better than others. We liked waterfall and birds; the rainfall sounded more like static between radio stations.
Once you set the dual programmable alarms, the clock’s display gets a bit cluttered: It shows you the time the alarm is set for (helpful), but also whether it’s programmed as a weekday or weekend alarm and what source you’ll be waking up to (e.g., “radio”). It’s more information than we need at a glance.
We went with the Sony over the Electrohome because it has better-sounding speakers, was easier to set up, and offered more features, like nature sounds and alarm volume control.
But if you don’t mind that the Electrohome Selfset sounds tinny (maybe you don’t plan to listen to the radio much), it’s less than half the price of the Sony, still has dual alarms, and projects the time or temperature.
There are several versions of the Philips’ Wake-up Light, but they all have a late-’90s iMac sensibility (lots of curves, a milky opacity), and the full spectrum of sunrise colors.
The model we looked at (HF3520/60) has five gentle alarm sounds to choose from in addition to 20 levels of light intensity. The sound quality is good — the seagulls in the beach scene squawk just like seagulls — and to snooze for nine minutes, you can tap anywhere on the light. Not a seaside sounds person? Program it for a classic FM radio wake-up instead.
Philips sent the Wake-up Light to a town in Northern Norway where the the sun doesn’t rise for months. It’s sunless there from November to January.
The Salubrion Enso Pearl is technically a meditation timer, but it totally works as an alarm clock, too (and because it’s compact and round and comes with a carrying case, it would be great for travel).
The alarm is a pleasant chime (it sounds a bit like a Tibetan singing bowl) that rings every four seconds until you turn it off: a truly delightful way to start the day.
It displays the time and, above it in smaller font, the time the alarm is set for. The snooze button is located along the outer edge of the circle and isn’t easy to find when you’re fumbling for it in the morning — but you won’t be clamoring to turn this thing off, either.
The Soundfreaq Sound Rise boasts some surprisingly decent sound quality. Its bass is deep and rich. The overall sound is crisp and clear. There’s even a tone button in the back that lets you change the sound equalization. But since the Sound Rise displays the time and has its own programmable dual alarms, you won’t need to keep reaching for your phone — and possibly disturbing your sleep — once you go to bed.
The crisp display shows the time, day of the week, and whether or not an alarm is set (but not the time the alarm is set to). Wake to the buzzer, radio, or an audio file from your device. You can choose how loud the alarm will ring, and if you wake up to a song from your phone, it starts out very quiet and slowly gets louder. Very pleasant.
A more modern take on the analog clock, this guy doesn’t tick; the second hand runs smoothly rather than counting one second at a time.
We liked that the alarm on/off button is easy to locate on the side of the clock and clicks securely in place. The knob you wind to set the clock is in the back panel and also locks — this clock does not want anything accidentally adjusting your settings. The auto backlight (which you can turn on or off entirely) has a cool feature: If the alarm isn’t set, it’s yellow, and if the alarm is on, it’s green. Seiko describes this as its “alarm setting reminder” functionality.
The alarm on this analog clock isn’t your classic brass bell sound: It sounds the beeping of a very loud watch alarm and stays on until you turn it off or hit snooze (which lasts five minutes).
Keep in mind that, like all analog clocks, there’s no way to differentiate AM and PM. So you have to wait until later in the day to set your alarm; if you tried to set it at 4 pm, your 6 am alarm will actually go off at 6 pm.
Most travel alarm clocks only provide the basics, but this compact cube sneaks in some cool features. For example, it can automatically pull up the time via short wave radio signal.
The easy-to-read rectangular display takes up nearly the whole face of this alarm and shows the date, day of the week, the time the alarm is set for, and even the temperature of the room you’re in. (Why anyone needs to confirm the temperature of the room they’re already in, we’re not entirely sure. Maybe to help you decide if you should find your slippers?) The automatic backlight, which you can turn on or off, glows a pale orange/yellow when the room is dark.
The alarm isn’t super loud; at 78 decibels it’s a hair louder than a watch alarm. That said, it was louder than all the other travel alarm clocks we tested. There’s one flaw to be aware of though: The alarm only goes off for one minute, and then it stops, so it could be easy to sleep through if you’re especially jet-lagged. In those cases, you may need to ask your hotel to provide a wake-up call as a backup.
The Bottom Line
Standalone alarm clocks are easy to use and reliable — sometimes even beautiful. Better yet, they’re available with features designed to accommodate any sleep style (and any wake-up style too).
The Best Alarm Clocks: Summed Up
Nothing is going to improve your sleep (and your ability to wake up) as well as starting some good habits. You’re already abandoning your smartphone alarm clock — that’s step one.
Step two is to keep your smartphone from messing with your sleep in the getting-ready-for-bed phase too. Any type of artificial light can disrupt your circadian rhythm and delay the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. But blue light — the kind emitted by smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets — suppresses melatonin for twice as long as other types of light, according to Harvard research. To help address this, Apple introduced Night Shift in version 9.3 of its iOS software: In the evening, your phone’s colors switch to softer orange/reds, then return to the cooler blue colors in the morning (you can get the same effects with apps like Twilight via the Google Play Store).
To learn more, we spoke with Aric A. Prather, PhD, a sleep researcher and associate director of the Center of Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco. “Sleep is critical to your health and well-being,” he says. “Lack of sleep is related to lots of bad things, from daily lapses in judgment and problems handling stress to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes in the longer term.” His advice:
Practice good sleep hygiene. “The more care you put into ensuring a pleasant night’s sleep, the greater the likelihood you’ll feel refreshed to take on the day. That means keeping your room cool, dark, and quiet; avoiding things like caffeine, alcohol, and vigorous exercise near bedtime; and keeping to a regular sleep schedule.”
Set your alarm for the same time each morning. “One of the best ways to ensure a good, consistent night’s sleep is to wake up at the same time each morning, even on weekends. The more predictable your wake-up time, the more efficient your sleep tends to be.” This can also help you avoid “Sunday night insomnia” according to Dr. O’Malley, which often occurs when your circadian clock gets reset by getting up later on the weekends.
Turn your alarm clock away from you at night. “A common problem that insomnia patients have is an anxiety about lost sleep. They worry about how they will feel the next day and agonize about each minute lost to wakefulness. Alarm clocks often add to this anxiety because they provide an objective measure of time awake. When treating patients, I often tell them to turn the clock around.” (Attention anxious insomniacs: Projection clocks are not for you!)