The Best Alarm Clocks

As a resident New Yorker, there are 2 things I can’t seem to get enough of: space and sleep. So when it comes to the 375 square feet that I call home, I take great care in making it feel like a respite from the chaos that is Manhattan. But I confess that, in my relentless pursuit of small-space, utilitarian design, I overlooked an essential bedroom accessory: an alarm clock.

Somewhere along the line between graduating college and becoming a full-fledged adult, I picked up the nasty habit of using my smartphone as my alarm clock. I rationalized my way out of purchasing a proper one for years. “Why spend the money or precious nightstand real estate?” I’d ask myself. For starters, the default Radar ring of my iPhone has consistently woken me up in a panic attack. (I realize I could change it to something slightly less offensive, but did Apple really design its ringtones with a quality wake-up experience in mind?)

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All jokes aside, smartphones are notorious for weakening the quality of your sleep. Aside from the temptation to text and check social media late into the night, the blue light of your smartphone has a proven track record of suppressing the sleep hormone, melatonin. So it’s probably for the best that you treat your phone like a first date — meaning don’t invite it into your bedroom.

I decided to break up with my smartphone alarm and get cozy with a real clock that’s both functional and easy on the eyes. I knew of a few brands with which I could launch my search, like Newgate and Philips. Once upon a time, I worked as an interior design consultant at a gallery on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, home to some of the world’s foremost names in design, including the iconic Pacific Design Center.

But I didn’t stop there. I scoured Pinterest boards, Amazon wishlists, and design blogs for the most iconic clocks I could find. I was looking for clock brands with a signature style — you know, some chutzpah. And I didn’t want an art piece. Unlike my shoe collection, these clocks had to be as practical as they were pretty, but I tried to steer clear of reproduction and imitators. No Canal Street knockoffs here.

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This Tivoli alarm clock is the one I ultimately end up with — what a beauty.

I had to kiss a few frogs to get there, but I finally settled on 12 of the most eligible, design-forward alarm clocks that successfully marry form and function — from those 12 I chose the one for me. Of course, I had to do my due diligence: I had nearly 20 alarm clocks delivered to my studio apartment. The scene was surreal, and I definitely tripped over some boxes to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. In the end, it was worth it: I’ll sleep better at night knowing I’ve spared you the indignity of falling naked into a pile of packing materials in your own quest for the best alarm clock.

I started with clocks that were designed for small spaces — like my apartment.

Who knew an alarm clock could be so chic? Depending on which color you fancy, the Tumbler Alarm Clock by Norm Architects for Menu has a painted stainless steel or brass body with a glass-protected face. It’s deceivingly hefty because of its weighted bottom, which allows for a Leaning Tower of Pisa-esque design. It also has a tendency to spin, and like the QLOCK2 TOUCH clock I also played with, it’s not something you’d want to knock off your bedside table. (It’s not something you’d want to drop on your foot either — ouch!)

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Not that I’m giving points for packaging, but it’s worth mentioning this clock does come in a lovely, cylindrical box that could make for quite the impressive gift.

The clock is simpler to set than it is to read. No numbers on the face plus the leaning design make it just a little harder to tell the time — especially in the middle of the night. To turn the alarm off, you actually have to flip the clock (gently) on its face, but only if it actually wakes you up. That’s the real drawback to the Tumbler: Its ring volume is very, very weak. This critical flaw renders this piece best for the office and timed tasks instead of slumber. Let me put it to you this way: The ambient noise from the restaurant patio below my apartment is more than enough to drown it out, and I can sleep quite soundly through bottomless mimosa brunch.

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Onto the Natalie Sun Cube Clock, where minimalist design delivered surprising maximalist function. I purchased it at the MoMA Design Store and despite its low-tech appearance, it’s pretty sophisticated: the clock responds to touch and sound. You can either tap it or snap your fingers to reveal the display; otherwise, it disappears in the same manner as an inactive computer screen. Clapping or tapping the table it rests on works just as well. At first, I didn’t realize that was a feature. I thought the clock was a dud, and I kept whacking it like my dad used to slap our old box television. Imagine my humiliation when I consulted the user manual. In any case, a gentle tap or audible snap will bring the Natalie back to life.

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In addition to telling time, this clock tells you the date (MM/DD or DD/MM) and temperature (Fahrenheit or Celsius). It also offers weekend and weekday alarms, with 3 different wakeup times available for both, in addition to a 5-minute snooze function.

But, despite its aesthetic simplicity, it is not the most intuitive clock to set. It only has 4 buttons, but I found it difficult to navigate amongst the different alarm times. (Definitely do not throw out the user manual.) Also, the ringtone was a disappointment; it only offers one setting and volume, and it’s an annoying double-beep. And truth be told, I didn’t actually like the sound/touch activation functionality. When the clock’s display isn’t illuminated, it just looks like an ordinary wooden block. Hipsters in Williamsburg may appreciate the irony of the aesthetic, but I live in Manhattan. I don’t have time for irony.

I moved on to clocks that are best known for their “thing.”

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The large, conical orb was bigger than I expected — about the size of a soccer ball — making it unideal for my teeny Manhattan studio.

The Philips Morning Wake-Up Light has the friendly aesthetic appeal of Apple products from the early 2000s, and much like Apple products, it has a cult following. The internet is rife with testimonials speaking to the life-changing effects of this alarm clock, so I figured I’d be remiss not to give it a whirl myself.

Size concerns aside, I was impressed by its visual statement. The overall look is gender-neutral, modern, and playful, while still appearing adult. Plus, I was completely sold on the marketing of this clock as a tool for “cleaner” sleep. (The American Sleep Association defines sleep hygiene as the behaviors and routines that promote better sleep quality, and light exposure can be a powerful regulator of your body’s internal clock.)

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The touchscreen face of the Wake-Up Light is crafted to imitate a natural sunrise, easing you into consciousness with a glow that steadily strengthens until the alarm sound is triggered. Alas, the light alone wasn’t enough to wake me up, but I blame that on the fact that I’ve grown accustomed to sleeping through the light my fraudulently advertised “blackout” blinds let in every morning. For light-sensitive sleepers looking for a wake-up call a little later than dawn, though, this clock would fit the bill.

The Wake-Up Light also comes with an FM radio, so you can wake up to music or one of 5 natural sounds. These were kind of a letdown. There were chirping birds and beach sounds, neither of which I found particularly palatable (blame it on my familiarity with New York City sirens and street noise). There were also a few instrumental sounds, which in my mind, didn’t qualify as “natural.”

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This clock’s 11 (!) buttons seemed like way too many. (As my experience with the Natalie Sun Cube proved, I am not the best with buttons.) The 4 touch-activated buttons are used for setting the clock, alarm times, ring, and brightness, and the 6 others are used to activate each of the alarms, snooze function, radio, and adjust the brightness. All that said, though, setting the clock and both of the alarms (so you can accommodate 2 users, or differentiate between weekend and weekday wake-up times) was easy enough.

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Despite their playful design — they are the most gimmicky of the bunch — these high-functioning alarm clocks aren’t meant to be toys.

For something focused way more on fun more than clean sleep, I tried Nanda’s Clocky and Tocky alarm clocks. These guys are hyperactive toddlers, as cute as they are exhausting. Both models are designed to run, bounce, or roll away from you, so you have no choice but to get out of bed and chase them down to turn them off.

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Nanda’s design approach is fusing function with interactivity and humor. Both Clocky and Tocky were born out of founder Gauri Nanda’s alleged oversleeping, which made her regularly late for class when she was a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab. While they certainly might not be for everyone, these models do deliver on the Nanda Home design philosophy.

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The Clocky and Tocky have signature sounds that blend cute with quirky: Imagine if R2-D2 had babies with a Furby. Both are very intuitive to program, especially the Tocky, which you set by swiping your finger along the rim of the face. If I had to pick between the 2, I’d go for the Tocky, which offers more advanced options, like setting your alarm to play your favorite music or pre-recorded voice memo. With Clocky, you’re stuck with the manufacturer’s settings.

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A little too much? The Lexon Flip Alarm takes it down a notch: It stays in place, but requires you to flip it over when the alarm rings. The word “on” is written on the top of the clock, and “off” is written on the bottom. If “on” is up, the alarm is activated; to silence the beeping alarm, I actually had to flip the clock over to “off.” Playful, sure, but ultimately quite functional: By getting you to do a small task, the alarm feels more imperative than suggestive, but it doesn’t require you to leave your bed either.

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The Lexon comes in black, white, and an array of primary colors. I ordered red and regretted it: If the whole point of buying an alarm clock was to be more grown-up, this shade, along with the big “on/off’, felt childish.

That said, I think this clock could be an excellent travel companion for the globetrotter that doesn’t trust a hotel concierge to wake them up on time. It’s battery powered and about the size of 2 decks of cards, plus it offers both 12-hour and 24-hour time display.

Then I tried out some styles that have been around for a long time.

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Newgate is to clocks what KitchenAid is to standing mixers. It’s a tried and true, 25-year-old British brand that offers timeless designs with relatively few frills. (And in 2012, the company moved its manufacturing operation to the UK from China, making Newgate clocks authentically English.)

The Small London Alarm Clock is a pleasant throwback to bell-style alarm clocks of mornings past, but unfortunately, the ring is an unforgivable, battery-powered beep. I was hoping for an old-timey bell wakeup call and was sorely disappointed.

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For something a little more contemporary but equally classic, I tried the Cubic Table Alarm Clock: the plain, white T-shirt of alarm clocks. It literally goes with anything. Like the London, this clock’s alarm makes a beeping sound, although its more modern aesthetic makes that detail more forgivable. The discrete cubic body and vaguely deco-looking numbers that adorn the face are a nice mélange of old and new, making this model suitable for almost any style or decor. Yeah, okay, it’s kind of vanilla. But who doesn’t like vanilla?

The L.L. Bean Moon Beam Alarm Clock, on the other hand, is full of personality with a ring volume to match. The design dates back to the late 1940s and was first introduced by the Illinois-based clock manufacturer, Westclox. In many ways, this clock could serve as the mid-century predecessor to the Philips Morning Wake-Up Light: The Moon Beam clock was originally designed to wake the user with a flashing light that grew more and more intense for 4 minutes until the alarm was signaled. (The original model, which was known as the “Considerate Alarm,” was popular among the hearing-impaired.)

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Despite its old-timey appearance, this clock is functionally up to date, complete with a snooze button and an optional backlight. The alarm can also be set so that the left side panel light flashes when it’s time to wake up.

This alarm is loud. Too loud for my tastes. If you find the ringtone of your iPhone alarm jarring, the L.L. Bean Moon Beam will feel more like a foghorn at short range than a wake-up call. Even the lower of the 2 settings is enough to jump start the soundest of sleepers (read: me). The retro aesthetic is even reflected in the ringtone itself, which mimics the old-school bell I expected from the Newgate.

The Moon Beam is pretty hefty too — about the size of a football — which isn’t ideal for my smaller space, and I noticed that the lights don’t work when it’s running only on battery power. (Did I mention it has battery power?) All in all, not for me, which is when I turned to the Sentry Retro Design Analog Flip Clock.

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You’ll likely stumble across similar clock designs on your Pinterest hunt, but as I discovered, very few offer an alarm function.

If you consider yourself a present-day Don Draper or Peggy Olson, this style is right up your mid-century modern alley. This one is very easy to set, and has the fun added feature of a flip-date readout. On the downside, the plastic is lightweight in a way that feels cheap — not surprising considering it’s less than $10, but like I said, I didn’t want any knockoffs.

Also, snoozers like me beware: You’;re out of luck with this guy.

All of this brought me to a couple of true beauties.

The Tivoli AM/FM Clock Radio is a throwback to nights spent at my grandparents’ house in Long Island. My grandfather actually fell asleep to radio talk news from his clock radio for as long as I can remember. His wasn’t a Tivoli. It was some 1950s or ‘60s relic that I’d have to pester my 90-year-old grandma to get the name of, but I’d venture to guess Tivoli modeled its clock radio after ones like his.

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This clock gets extra points for being able to stream music via Bluetooth — and with pretty great sound quality.

The mid-century-style piece is heavy and takes up a lot of space — in the same way a Cadillac from the same decade would take up a lot of space in your garage — which would have been a problem if it wasn’t so lovely to look at. I tried the white finish, but it also comes in a few real, handcrafted wood finishes.

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The Tivoli provided the best auditory experience of all the clocks I tried, probably because Tivoli is an audio company first. It’s the legacy of audio and video innovator Henry Kloss, who came out of retirement to found the company with partner Tom DeVesto. (Kloss is kind of a big deal: he and one of his former teachers founded the Acoustic Research Corporation in 1954, and together, they created the first commercial acoustic suspension loudspeaker. He also invented the high-fidelity cassette deck, which is what those of us born before 1990 used to make and play our mixtapes.)

The clock and alarm are relatively easy to set, but compared to some of the others with digital displays, it’s more challenging to read — like the Sentry, the face and its numbers are small. If you aren’t good with analog before your first cup of coffee, the readout may leave you scratching your head and late to work.

Finally, the QLOCK2 TOUCH Table Alarm Clock by Biegert & Funk. All I could think when I saw this baby was, “Hey, sexy.” What really sets this clock apart is its display: There are no numbers, just words. For example, “It’s 5 past 4.” (Told ya it’s sexy.)

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It can read the time in 19 different languages (although certain languages will require additional glass faces to accommodate different alphabets) and you can adjust the brightness to one of 4 settings.

The QLOCK2 TOUCH is composed of 3 elements: a primary component, the clock face, and a stand, which are all magnetized and quick to assemble. Less quick is learning to read the clock: It writes out the time in 5-minute increments, with dots in each of the 4 corners to signify the minutes in between. It’s all explained in the user manual, but for a houseguest who needs to know the time down to the minute, it could prove perplexing.

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The verdict

So which alarm clock did I choose to wake up to every morning?

The Tivoli. Blame it on nostalgia for those warm summer nights on Long Island, when I used to sneak into my grandparents’ bedroom to sleep in my grandfather’s reading chair and doze off to the monotone voices of AM newscasters. Or maybe it’s the mature simplicity of the design. The Tivoli struck just the right note of old and new to fit my eclectic-yet-subdued aesthetic. Plus, I really hate listening to music from anything else than a quality stereo.

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Sure, it’s a bit of an investment, but if I can pay for my own health insurance and Netflix subscription, surely a proper alarm clock can find its rightful place in my budget. I guess I’m a little more of a grown-up than I thought.

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