Customer Review

32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Design, Beautiful Sound, Hidden Tweakability!, April 7, 2009
This review is from: Boston Acoustics HDUOIMIST Horizon Duo-I System For Ipod(R) With Am/Fm Radio (Mist) (Electronics)
Up until a few months ago, I was living happily with an XtremeMac Luna iPod clock radio, which worked perfectly with my 60GB iPod Photo. It woke me up reliably (and gently), and played music with pretty good sound quality (although radio reception left something to be desired). Looked good on the night table, too. Then, I had the opportunity to get the newest iPod classic (120GB). Got it, loved it (you can find my review of it elsewhere here), and happily passed on the Photo to Significant Other.

All was well until I slid the classic into the Luna's dock. It would still play music though the Luna, but the alarm function became terribly erratic: sometimes the alarm system would awaken me to music, sometimes to the alarm buzzer, regardless of what setting was used. What started as a minor annoyance get more annoying with time...if it didn't matter at all to me, I wouldn't have bothered with getting the Luna in the first place (which turned out not to be the easiest thing to track down and buy). After a few months of this, I decided it was time to sell it (preferably to someone with at least a slightly older iPod), and move on to something else.

"Something else" turned out to be something of an adventure. The iPod clock-radio market is a weird one: there's an almost frightening array of brands and models, from craptastic-cheap to I'd-mortgage-my-house-for-one-if-my-house-was-still-worth-anything expensive. The craziest thing is that price doesn't necessarily tell you anything about what something sounds like, or how useful it is on the nightstand. (That is, IF it fits on that stand: I checked out units from Denon, Polk Audio and a few others that struck me as oversized and over-buttoned...and let's just skip the price tags on them too.)

Then, among the more mild-mannered models, there were these head-scratchers:

- Sony's XDR-510HDIP HD Radio with iPod Dock: This looked so promising, and I was hoping Sony was finally pulling itself up from its near-decade-long product-development nosedive while Apple proceeded to clean their clock. No dice: firstly, where in Hades is the Snooze button/bar? A few might say that this unit isn't *really* marketed as a clock radio...but, (1) it has a clock, and (2) an alarm system, which works in tandem with an iPod. Secondly, the illuminated display can't be shut completely off. I don't care what the manufacturer regards as a "dim" setting for the display; Significant Other has vetoed several models for being too bright...and the units were on MY side of the bed. If it doesn't go out, it doesn't come the house, that is. Sony isn't quite the House That Akio Built anymore

- Logitech Pure-Fi Dream: Another unit I had high hopes for, given my satisfaction with other products from them. Things got off to a bad start when, stopping off at an Apple Store to try one out, I encountered a dead demo unit, and they couldn't roll out a replacement. Not too confidence inspiring, but I managed to check out a working unit elsewhere. The sound was great, but the display was awful: not only am I not too fond of orange backlighting, this unit, like the Sony, cannot be completely turned off...if anything, it was BRIGHTER at its "minimum" setting than the Sony. Pass.

- iHome IP99: The first iPod clock radio I ever purchased was an iHome IP7. It went back the following day because-you guessed it-the thing was bright as Christmas at night. They got this issue licked in subsequent models, including the '99. But the '99's almost-Luna-like rotary controls are terrible...wobbly, cheap-feeling, and difficult to use. Sound was sub-par compared to the Luna. The sad thing is, this appears to be iHome's best offering, IMO.

- XtremeMac Luna X2: The obvious heir-apparent, which was MIA well over a year after its announcement, which wasn't a good sign. Worse than that, in the time between the X2's announcement and its eventual shipping in small numbers a short time ago, (1) XtremeMac was bought by Imation, (2) XtremeMac's founder and president abruptly resigned and left the company, and (3) there were discouraging reports from a few too many of the few people who've actually gotten their hands on an X2. Going by my own version of the 60/40 rule, I had to scratch this off my list as well...assuming I could even find one.

This brings me to the Boston Acoustics Horizon Duo-i. When I first saw a picture of it, I almost immediately dismissed it just looked huge and bulky next to something svelte like the Luna. The problem was, the old Luna doesn't do it for my anymore, the new Luna is starting to sound like a kneecapped second act, and everything *else* roughly bearing that form factor was often even worse.

What brought me back to trying the Duo-i was the company behind it. In another lifetime, I sold a lot of Boston Acoustics loudspeakers as a high-end audio salesperson, and I always had a good feeling about the company. the reps were straight-shooters, and so were the products: no obscure techno-BS dazzle, just good, solid-thinking design and build quality. I wanted to believe they still maintained these qualities, so I turned around and decided to give the Duo-i a shot.

Glad I did. The Duo-i is not only an extraordinary product in its category, but also an object lesson in remembering what a given product is actually going to be used FOR, not just a laundry list of "features" dreamed up by Marketing in an overheated bull-session and shoved down the Product Manager's throat. This product works and feels like the entire product team had to take a working prototype and actually *use* it in their homes for a few weeks before signing off on its design. It's clear to me that above-room-temperature IQs still prevail at BA.

Let's start with the form-factor thing. Yes, the Duo-i is noticeably taller than many competing units, but not all: and, what these few larger-sized models have in common is speaker-driver size, which makes itself apparent as soon as you fire the thing up. But I'm getting ahead of myself here: in spite of the added height, the Duo-i is somewhat less imposing than pictures on a Web page might lead you to believe. Granted, the unit is by no means small: if you find it tough to fit your old Westclox Big Ben back on the table after winding it, some serious adjustment is in order. But if you're replacing another iPod clock radio, the change should be relatively manageable.

The payoff is definitely worth it, starting with The Sound. The Cliff Notes version goes like this: the Duo-i kicks the Luna, and most every other iPod clock radio I've demo'd, clean to the curb, not merely in terms of quantity of bass, but quality: no mere boom-boom-boom, but tight, articulate bass, the kind of bass you'd take as read from a company steeped in hi-fi loudspeaker experience. I was reminded of the first time I heard a KLH table radio, the first table radio with hi-fi credentials in the 1960s. (This is important, because BA's lineage can be traced back through companies like Advent, KLH, and Acoustic Research, among others.) Listening intently to music in the bedroom, from a Peter Pettinger album of Elgar piano music via my iPod classic, a little Nirvana *Unplugged* afterward, or Billie Holiday via radio (WKCR in New York is finishing up a Birthday music marathon in her honor right now), there is a fullness and depth, and a sense of ease, in the music's presentation that's hard to put into words...but I like to believe you'd know what I mean when you hear it. The Duo-i should just about hold its own with all but the most outrageous dedicated iPod-based amplifier/speaker systems.

But those outrageous amp/speaker systems (one of them know who I mean) won't wake you up in the morning. They aren't designed for that. The Duo-i is.

With a nod to the aforementioned KLH table radio, the Duo-i has three control knobs that dominate the center control panel. With a nod to the 21st Century, these are multi-purpose: they push in, button-style, to execute several functions, which are quite intuitive. There are all of seven buttons on the front panel, five of which are radio station presets. (The other two control the function of the two separate alarms.)

The alarm system is straightforward. The Duo-i doesn't have separate weekday/weekend alarm settings, nor does it have a Playlist option for waking up to your iPod. (Neither of these is an issue for me, but your needs may differ.) Otherwise, the system is about as comprehensive as one would want. Control layout is superb: no phalanx of buttons in bewildering arrays. As sophisticated as the Duo-i controls are, these strike me as about as intuitive as I've come across, even compared to the Luna, which is high praise indeed.

About the remote control: frankly, it reminds me of remotes from certain other iPod clock radios. That being said, it's well thought-out, and has the added feature of a magnetic back that allows it to be "stored" against either of the Duo-i's metal speaker grilles, a small but nice move). The remote is IR-based, so you have to be within sight of the Duo-i to control it. On the other hand, you won't have to worry about somebody's keyless-entry car door system triggering your radio on in the middle of the night. (Go ahead...ask me how I know this.)

Now, about those "hidden" functions: a few reviewers here have mentioned the problem of some Duo-i units not being able to play music above a certain volume level. Turns out that there's a "hospitality" setting that limits the volume to a preset level. There happens to be an undocumented "fix" for this, as described in at least one other review here (the owner got this from BA tech support, which happens to be quite good: read on).

The hidden feature I'm about to describe regards what I thought to be the one remaining major "flaw" in the Duo-i's design: the ability to completely extinguish the backlit display when going to sleep. Way too many iPod clock radios are sorely lacking in this regard: when it's time for "lights out", there's that damned display, either glaring at you directly or reflecting off the wall or the like. The Duo-i display, with 21 (count `em!) levels of brightness control, could get *really* low, but, to my mind, not quite low enough...S.O. might have signed off on it as being "good enough", but I was worried. So, yesterday morning, I called up tech support to try and get some answers. I was told that, if I unplugged the unit from the back, then plugged the power cord back in *while pushing and holding in* the "Alarm 2" button, I could access the brightness calibration function (controlled via the "Tune" knob). This allows one to set the minimum brightness level of the display...including having the display go totally dark at its lowest setting!. Perfection.

Speaking of tweakability: on the back of the unit, besides useful input/output jacks (did I mention that the Duo-i has a headphone jack, which allows you to listen to music while your main squeeze sleeps in peace? Do we have to start handing out Nobels before more companies get a clue about this?), the Duo-i has a mini-USB port. This means that the unit's software/firmware can likely be updated as needed, making the Duo-i at least a bit more obsolescence-proof than the next company's offering. If the Luna had this sort of forward-thinking design, I wouldn't be forced to sell it.)

Finally: the Duo-i has an honest-to-goodness threaded coax connector in back. Importance? You can hook the thing up to a REAL antenna for serious FM reception. Which isn't to say the tuner section needs a lot of help: it's quite good with the supplied wire antenna, but the system comes into its own when connected to a something more serious. (I have mine connected to the hard-to-find and wonderful Technics SH-F101 tabletop antenna, and it's all I could ask for in terms of quality FM reception.)

About the only fault I can find with the Duo-i is that, now that I can get the display to completely darken at night, there's no straightforward way to illuminate the display momentarily in the middle of the night without turning on a night light near it (the Duo-i has a sensor which automatically dims the display when the ambient light in the room decreases). The Luna could do this with the push of a button; this the only instance where the Luna excels.

To sum up, the Boston Acoustics Duo-i is possibly the best-thought-out iPod clock radio I've ever come across. Sound quality, logical control layout, input/output versatility, and just plain all-around *livability*, I'd say it's close to impossible to top. Of course, the bar has been set by a company with decades of experience, not just a handful of years. Experience still counts for something.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 22, 2009 3:18:51 PM PDT
M. Finn says:
Thank you for soooo many details. I've been searching for weeks and have had similar results. I've decided to go with this BA even though I would have loved to have had some of the additional connection capabilities of the Philips DCM230, a model that I bought and then returned in my research. This one even has a CD player. The sound is way better than average on it, too, but the display is nearly impossible to read with the reflection of the super-shiny silver surface. The backlit remote with the Philips gives you much better IPod control than the BA and you also have a USB port; nice features to have but not worth giving up the clock display. I'm with you. Thanks for finishing up my research!
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