capsule review

Review: XtremeMac Luna

At a Glance
  • XtremeMac Luna

    Macworld Rating

Ever since iHome Audio released the $120 iH5 back in mid-2005, iPod-based alarm clocks have been popular accessories. As I said back when we reviewed the iH5: It’s a no-brainer: People like to wake up to music, so why shouldn’t it be to their favorite music? Why not combine the things most likely to be on an iPod owner’s nightstand, desk, or kitchen counter—a clock, a radio, and an iPod speaker system—into a single product? Vendors seem to have caught on, as we’ve seen an impressive variety of iPod alarm clocks over the past year and a half.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to find a really nice iPod alarm clock at a reasonable price. Some are good alarm clocks that sound bad. Some sound good but have difficult-to-use clocks. And in some cases, the products are very good overall but expensive. In fact, the only iPod alarm clock that’s given the iHome iH5 some serious competition in its price range has been iLuv’s $110 i177 —which also happens to be most similar to the iH5. (We also like JVC’s new $130 RA-P10, which we’re in the process of reviewing.)

Into this market steps Xtreme Mac’s $150 Luna (

4 Play
), an alarm clock that certainly stands out from the crowd for both its features and its appearance. In fact, this is the best all-around iPod alarm-clock-radio we’ve yet seen. Read on to find out why.

It’s got the look

The most striking thing about the Luna is its design. At 11.25 by 6.3 by 3.1 inches, it’s not much different in size or shape from other alarm clocks. However, instead of a creating yet another product with a mash of buttons, knobs, and switches, XtremeMac has taken a minimalist approach: The bottom and top surfaces of the Luna are white plastic, with a black-metal grill covering the body. On the front is a 2.5- by 1.25-inch backlit screen that displays both the time and the system’s menus (discussed below). Only four controls are visible: one chrome-finished knob/button in each corner of the top. Although the white and black form a stark contrast—one my wife actually didn’t like—I think this is the most attractive iPod alarm clock on the market right now, and one of the most attractive speaker systems.

Image

(Although the above image makes the Luna’s screen appear to be black and white, it’s actually black and pale blue)

Also on top is an iPod dock that uses Apple’s Universal Dock design. Included are dock adapters 6, 7, and 8, which fit color/photo iPods (6, 7) and first-generation iPod nanos (8). The inclusion of the latter is a bit odd, since the nano, like the fifth-generation iPods, includes its own adapter; and if you have an older dockable iPod, you’ll need to procure a Universal adapter for it elsewhere. As with most iPod-dock speaker systems, the Luna charges your iPod while docked.

The back of the Luna hosts jacks for AM and FM external antennas, a 1.8-inch line-in jack, and the connector for the system’s AC adapter. The bottom features four circular, rubber feet, the same size and in the same location as the chrome buttons on top.

That’s it—there are no other buttons, jacks, or knobs. It’s an elegant design that belies the functionality the Luna provides compared to most iPod alarm clocks.

Taking control

Despite its distinct appearance, the Luna’s most unique feature is its onscreen menu system. XtremeMac was able to reduce the number of physical controls to four by taking most of the settings and options that are typically accessed via hardware switches, buttons, and knobs and instead putting them in onscreen, iPod-like menus; the Luna’s chrome buttons let you access and navigate these menus. The rear two controls are simple buttons, whereas the front two are buttons that can also be rotated like knobs. (The buttons are very attractive, but they’re virtual magnets for smudges and fingerprints; and a rubber ring around each, or textured edges, would make them easer to turn.) The labeling on the four controls is sparse:

  • Rear-left: Alarm 1
  • Rear-right: Alarm 2
  • Front-left: Snooze - Source
  • Front-right: Alarm Reset - Menu
  • Thankfully, XtremeMac provides several resources for learning the full functionality of each control. The company’s Web site provides a page explaining what each button does, and the Luna’s downloadable manual —unfortunately, a manual isn’t included in the box—explains the buttons in detail. Best of all, the unit ships with a cardboard instructional overlay that outlines each control’s functions:

    Image
    The Luna's instructional overlay, which can be removed once you've learned the controls.

    Here's what each button actually does:

  • Rear-left: Press to turn Alarm 1 on or off; hold down to access the Alarm 1 menu on the screen (use front-right knob to navigate menus).
  • Rear-right: Press to turn Alarm 2 on or off; hold down to access the Alarm 2 menu on the screen (use front-right knob to navigate menus).
  • Front-left: Press to choose the audio source or turn audio off; hold down to access the radio menu; turn to adjust the volume. (Alternate functions: When an alarm is sounding, press to snooze and turn to set the snooze time.)
  • Front-right: Press to activate the main system menu, and to select an item in any menu; turn to scroll through menus; hold down to exit menus. (Alternate functions: If no menus are displayed, turn to adjust screen brightness, or hold down to enable Sleep mode—turn to choose sleep time [1 to 90 minutes] when in Sleep mode. When an alarm is sounding, press to turn off the alarm.)
  • Those descriptions sound a bit confusing, but I quickly became familiar with most of the functions. You can think of the front-right button to be fairly analogous to the iPod’s Click Wheel in that it navigates and selects menus, with all four controls activating menus when held down. And the two alarm buttons are simple to understand and operate, as each is dedicated to one of the Luna’s two alarms. The only confusing aspects to the control scheme are the “secondary” features—remembering which button is used for snooze and which configures Sleep mode and turns the alarm off. (Sleep is the only control function not labeled on the Luna itself.) On the other hand, all of these “hold down” features are also accessible from the Luna’s main onscreen menu, discussed below.

    In fact, XtremeMac has done a pretty good job making much of the Luna’s interface contextual. For example, the front-left button turns the Luna on if it’s currently off, and turns the Luna off when it’s on. But just after turning the system on—when you’re most likely to want to choose an audio source—the button cycles through those sources: FM, AM, Aux (for listening to another audio source), or iPod (the latter appears only if an iPod is actually in the Luna’s dock cradle; unfortunately, the iPod doesn’t start playing automatically when chosen). This means that switching to a source when you’re already listening to another involves turning the system quickly off and then back on, but I didn’t find that to be an inconvenience. As another example, turning the front-right control adjusts the screen’s brightness, but if you press the button first—which activates the Luna’s system menu—turning the control scrolls through those menus.

    What’s on the menu?

    When cycling through audio sources, the current source’s name appears at the top of the Luna’s screen. Once you’ve settled on a source, its name blinks for ten seconds, during which time pressing the button again continues to cycle through sources; after ten seconds, the name stops blinking and the button will turn the system off the next time you press it.

    The Luna’s screen also displays the current time in large, easy-to-read numbers (unless you’re viewing the system’s menus, of course). The day and date are displayed in smaller characters at the top of the screen—a nice addition. The screen also provides visual feedback for any actions you perform with the controls. For example, changing the volume or screen brightness replaces the day/date with a volume or brightness display, respectively. And if you enable an alarm, the alarm time and audio source are displayed—Alarm 1 in the bottom-left of the screen, Alarm 2 in the bottom-right. Overall, the screen is clear and readable, with the time visible from across the room. (My only complaint is that because the numbers have rounded corners, the number 4 is easy to mistake for a 9 from afar, and when tuning the radio, 8s and 9s look very similar.) You can even invert the display using the Luna’s Settings menu, choosing black characters on a lit background, or lit characters on a black background.

    Pressing the front-right button activates the Luna’s menus, which include Alarm 1, Alarm 2, Settings, Radio, and Sleep. (The former two are the same menus accessible directly from the Alarm 1 and Alarm 2 buttons; the latter is the same as the one accessed by holding down the front-right button.) You highlight a menu item, as mentioned above, by turning the front-right control; you then select it by pressing the same control. Unfortunately, there’s no “back” or “menu up” button like there is on the iPod; you have to navigate down near the bottom of each menu and choose the Back item. On the other hand, I like that a small arrow appears at the bottom or top of each menu to indicate that there are other options if you scroll down or up, respectively. After approximately 40 seconds of inactivity—or if you exit manually by choosing the Exit item or holding down the front-right control—the Luna’s display switches back to the clock.

    The system’s Settings menu is where you set the time, date, bass and treble levels, screen contrast and brightness, screen inversion, time and date formats, and Daylight Saving Time. The number of options offered is impressive and makes it easy to configure the Luna to behave almost any way you’d like. Light sleepers will appreciate the ability to dim the screen so that it’s barely visible, or even off; if you choose a brightness below 5 [out of 20], using any control will temporarily increase brightness up to 5 so you can see what you’re doing, and then lower it again after a few seconds of inactivity. You can also set Sleep mode to gradually reduce volume as you go to sleep.

    Wake me up before you go-go

    The Luna’s alarm functionality is actually quite impressive. Although the menu system requires more clicks and navigation than the best alarm clocks on the market—my gold standard is still Boston Acoustic’s Recepter —in return you get more options than you’ll find most anywhere else. For each alarm, you can choose the audio source (iPod, radio, or one of three sounds: Beeping, Buzzing, or Ringing); the snooze time (how much more beauty sleep you get each time you press the Snooze button); the maximum alarm volume and how long it takes to ramp up to that volume; and even the display brightness—you can set the wake-up brightness to be much brighter than the one you went to sleep to. (When waking to iPod, the Luna will wake up the iPod and resume playback where you last left off.) And thanks to battery power—two AA cells—the Luna won’t forget the time or your alarms if the power goes out; in fact, your alarm will still go off, although it will default to Sound mode rather than radio or iPod.

    And then there’s my favorite alarm feature: Preview. After configuring your alarm, you can see and hear exactly what the clock will do in the morning. About the only thing missing from the Luna’s alarm-clock functionality is the ability to set different alarms for weekdays and weekends, or for different days of the week. Oh, and the buttons click loudly when pressed; I speak from experience when I saw that your mate may not appreciate it if you change settings late at night after he/she is already asleep.

    Working remotely

    You can also control most of the Luna’s features via its remote, which is attractive, sturdy, and laid out well. The 5.2- by 1.7- by 0.3-inch remote feels hefty in your hand and has an attractive matte-ivory finish. It offers 18 buttons, including the standard playback controls (Play/Pause, Back, Forward, Volume Up, and Volume Down), as well as Power; Bass up/down; Treble up/down; Source; Shuffle; Reset (which resets bass and treble levels to their defaults); Previous Playlist/Preset; Next Playlist/Preset; Alarm 1; Alarm 2 (the two Alarm buttons mimic the Alarm buttons on the main unit); and Snooze/Sleep. The remote use infrared (IR) technology, which means it requires line-of-sight access to the Luna, but I found range to be very good compared to most IR remotes; I was able to control the Luna from over 15 feet away, even from well off to one side or the other.

    Although the remote’s buttons are arranged logically and intuitively—I quickly learned to use them by touch—the “bubble-style” buttons are stiff and difficult to press; I regularly had to press buttons more than once before they would register. But the remote’s worst flaw is the size of the Source, Shuffle, and Reset buttons, which are so small that I could press them only with the tip of a fingernail, and even then it was a difficult task.

    I heard it on the radio

    The Luna’s AM/FM radio is its weakest feature, for a couple reasons. The first is that the system’s tuning mechanism is somewhat confusing. When you first turn on the radio, the station frequency is displayed, blinking, at the top of the screen; as long as it remains blinking—approximately 10 seconds—you can turn the front-right control to change stations. However, after that, to change the station you must delve into the Radio menu (by holding down the front-left button or by navigating the Luna’s main menu to Radio ); then choose Tune; then choose the band (AM or FM); then turn the front-right button to tune to the desired station. I found it quicker to actually turn the radio off and then back on, which enters the aforementioned “station-changing” mode. I would gladly give up the “anytime brightness control” functionality of the front-right control for the ability to quickly change the station at any time. And although the Luna lets you create a total of four station presets, choosing a preset involves digging into the same menu; at least the Luna’s remote includes Previous/Next Preset buttons.

    The second radio issue is reception; compared to a number of other iPod-alarm-clock radios we’ve tested, the Luna’s reception is just decent. Without either of the included antennas (AM or FM) connected, I was barely able to tune in even the most powerful stations in the radio-heavy San Francisco Bay area; I could hear the broadcasts, but they were obscured by heavy static. But even after connecting the antennas, only the strongest local FM stations were received with little or no static, and I couldn’t find any AM stations that were completely clear. I had better luck with a powered external antenna, but even then the Luna’s radio reception wasn’t as good as that of similar products.

    To be fair, if you’re in the market for an iPod alarm clock, you’re probably going to be spending a good amount of your listening time with an iPod as your source. But if you’re still a fan of radio, be aware that this isn’t the Luna’s strong point.

    I like the sound of Luna in the morning...

    As someone who reviews a lot of audio gear, I can tell you that it’s fairly common for stylish, feature-rich products to sacrifice on audio quality. And to be fair, for the Luna’s $150 price tag, you can get better sound via a number of non-alarm-clock iPod speaker systems, and there are other iPod “alarm clocks” that offer considerably better sound quality if you’re willing to spend more money. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the Luna’s fidelity—I feel comfortable saying that it’s the best compromise between price and sound quality we’ve yet seen in an iPod alarm clock. The Luna’s two single-driver speakers, each just over two inches in diameter, produce significantly better sound than our previous bang-for-the-buck favorites, iHome Audio’s iH5 and iLuv’s i177—you get fuller sound, slightly better bass, and less “tinniness” overall. And the Luna plays loud enough to fill a bedroom without distorting.

    The Luna’s bass and treble controls let you tailor the sound, within limits, to best fit your tastes and room. And although you won’t get deep or pounding bass, with the bass level dialed up the Luna produces lower-midrange notes strongly enough to give you a bit of punch not found on other iPod alarm clocks in the sub-$150 price range. Stereo imaging isn’t great, given that—as with pretty much every iPod alarm clock—the Luna’s speakers are close together, but, again, for the size and compared to the competition, I was impressed. You’ll get better sound from a system such as Tivoli Audio’s iSongBook or JBL’s On Time, but with the Luna you’ll pay only half as much, a tradeoff I think many will gladly make.

    The lowdown

    Compared to a basic alarm clock, the $150 Luna isn’t cheap. But as iPod alarm clocks go, the Luna’s price tag isn’t unreasonable—there are a good number of products in the $100 to $130 price range, and you get a lot more for your money with the Luna than with those other products. In fact, apart from the lack of day-specific alarms, I haven’t seen an iPod clock radio with so many options, and certainly none with the Luna’s attractive design and innovative menu system. On top of that, the Luna offers considerably better sound quality than the less-expensive models out there. My only significant reservations about recommending the Luna are related to its radio: reception isn’t great and the radio can be a hassle to tune. But if you’re not a hardcore radio listener, this is a great little system and a significant step forward in iPod clock radios.

    UPDATE December 22, 2006: Edited to remove incorrect statement about tuning the Luna's radio using the remote.

    At a Glance
    • Macworld Rating

      Pros

      • Good sound quality for an iPod clock radio
      • Full-featured remote
      • Extensive configurability
      • Unique and useful onscreen menu system
      • Dual alarms with many options
      • Attractive design

      Cons

      • Radio tuning is somewhat confusing, and reception is not as good as that of other radios we’ve tested
      • No day-specific alarm settings
      • Remote buttons difficult to press
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