Review: XtremeMac Luna Alarm Clock + Room Audio System for iPod
Pros: An impressively designed iPod docking clock radio with a fantastically adjustable LCD screen and novel settings menus. iPod-like interface provides access to all sorts of user-customizable settings for the clock face, AM/FM radio and dual alarms; great included remote control provides bass and treble controls, plus considerable use of unit’s other features.
Cons: Price is higher than ever-improving sub-$100 options with similar features but less impressive total performance. AM/FM radio performance varies from unit to unit based on revision; new units (2.12U firmware and beyond) are substantially better here, and generally unobjectionable, by comparison with earlier units. Early units may have reversed stereo channels. No easy way to tell difference between boxes of old and new units, or update the firmware to get small interface improvements.
iHome may have created the first and best fusions of iPod docks and alarm clocks, but with Luna ($150), billed as a “revolutionary alarm clock and room audio system,” XtremeMac has released a fully worthy rival. As impressive on the inside as it is on the outside - no easy feat, given the unit’s ambitious design - Luna is a step above other iPod clock radios we’ve tested, with only a few notable issues that you should know about before making a purchase.
Updated April 11, 2007: Prior to our original review from December, 2006, manufacturer XtremeMac informed us that substantial changes were coming for Luna, and they did; the April 2007 edition of the unit (version 2.12U) made a few noteworthy improvements to the one we tested late last year (version 2.05). We have updated our section on Luna Issues and Changes to discuss the differences in these models, which are substantial enough that consumers should be aware of them prior to making a purchase.
Design and Pack-Ins
Luna’s appeal begins with a clean and very attractive industrial design. Though the basic concept is quickly becoming familiar to iPod speaker watchers - white top and bottom plastic frame a surrounding black metal grille - XtremeMac has added a large clock face and subtle top-mounted metal dials to the Tango-, iPod Hi-Fi-, and AudioStation Express-like shell, creating a device that, with only small changes, could have been released by Apple itself. It’s a big step above iHome’s best clocks in class, and only a small step behind JBL’s beautiful, shrine-like On Time radio in ambition: Luna looks like a nice bedside clock radio, and occupies the right amount of space for one, besides.
XtremeMac ships Luna with a number of additional components: a very nice Infrared remote control, three Dock Adapters (in old nano and 4G-ready sizes), separate external AM and FM antennas, and a wall power adapter. The unit’s back panel is relatively simple, with ports for the two antennas, a line-in port for a non-iPod audio source, and power; there are no dedicated video-out or data synchronization ports of any kind.
A compartment on the bottom lets you insert two AA batteries for back-up clock power in the event of an outage. Though they weren’t found in the originally shipped Luna packages, the latest boxes come with these batteries, and they work properly to preserve the clock’s time, date, and settings in the event of a power outage.
Luna also includes an 18-button Infrared remote control, which like the one developed by XtremeMac for its earlier Tango system is surprisigly nice. Its front and back are matte white, and its sides a glossy black, accenting gray-marked front buttons and the rear’s XtremeMac Luna badging. iPod controls are found on the top, alongside a system power button, an audio source selector, a shuffle button, and a reset button; bass and treble controls are found below, along with playlist or preset toggles, buttons to activate or deactivate each of the two built-in alarms, and a snooze/sleep timer activator. Though the remote is limited by typical Infrared issues - it doesn’t work through walls or at 60-foot distances - it can fully command the system from 30-foot distances, and its buttons feel responsive.
Screen and Menu Functionality
Some users may opt to use Luna solely with the remote - thankfully, that’s legitimately an option. XtremeMac has made excellent use of the unit’s central LCD screen, which places light text on a white background, or the opposite, based on your preference. Though a choice of fonts might have been nice, numbers on the clock are generously sized and thick, and on-remote activations of features such as forward, reverse, or even the Sleep control are indicated in large text characters that you can easily read from a distance. So are the unit’s countdown timers, which you can reset at will.
Setting the clock and alarms requires use of the system’s built-in menu system - the most sophisticated we’ve yet seen on an iPod alarm clock, and one that’s partially explained via an included cardboard overlay. XtremeMac’s top chrome buttons turn out to be somewhat multifunctional: the two at back are solely buttons dedicated to alarms 1 and 2, while the two in front are both buttons and dials. Lightly pressing the alarm 1 or 2 button will turn the alarm on or off; holding the button in will bring up the system’s separate settings for each of the alarms. The front dials let you navigate the settings in a mostly smart, quickly understood way.
Interestingly, XtremeMac has spent a lot of time on its display feature set, permitting users to make the screen as light, contrasty, or dark as they prefer. Our pictures attempt to do justice to the screen, which looks more black in person than blue, and is easy to read - even on a sharp angle - when properly lit. An Invert feature lets the screen go iHome-style, with dark text on a much brighter backdrop, an advantage for users who aren’t light-sensitive at night; others can keep the clock dark with numbers that are only as brightly backlit as preferred. In any case, the date is displayed up top, with a battery warning if there aren’t any AAs inside, and the time settings for both of the unit’s alarm clocks appear at the bottom.
Dimmer adjustments are available at all times using the unit’s front right knob - there’s no need to dive into the settings menu every time you want to make a tweak. Though an ambient light sensor would have been a nice addition to keep the unit’s brightness automatically adjusted to different levels of room lighting, it’s really not needed here, as the manual settings and dark screen are easy on any pair of eyes.
Luna’s other settings are robust. You can set the time and date to display as you prefer - European style, military time, and so on - plus tune each of the alarms to your particular preferences, waking you from the iPod, radio, or a buzzer, at your preferred volume, with the ability to preview the current alarm settings automatically without setting the alarm and waiting for it to go off. Similarly, radio presets and the length of the snooze timer can also be adjusted through the menu system, all in an intuitive way.
Overall, Luna’s great screen and menu system are its shining stars - more than two steps better than the ones on JBL’s more expensive On Time, and several additional steps above anything that iHome or any other competitor has yet released for the iPod. Some of the interface’s features are subtle, and are worthy of a little experimentation; it’s obvious that XtremeMac thought it through very thoroughly, and has made additional tweaks to the latest version 2.12U. While it could be simplified a little - just a little - and we really think that the firmware should be user-updatable, we’ll go out of a limb and say that we’d be very surprised to hear any serious reader complaints about the features or screen performance, as we had none.
Our overall feelings on Luna’s sound quality are generally very positive: by iPod alarm clock standards, our first review unit sounded great as a mid-priced iPod speaker dock, and offered a level of user adjustability that we haven’t seen in even iHome’s most recent clock dock offerings. You can use the remote’s bass and treble buttons to tune the sound to your liking: each one provides 15 different settings that are indicated graphically on Luna’s screen, with a bar growing from -7 to 0 to +7 for each parameter. Though Luna doesn’t have a dedicated bass driver - an omission from almost all of the clock radios we’ve seen - it was otherwise hard to find major fault with the first version’s sound, which was clean, easy to balance to your preferred signature, and good enough by default that you won’t need to play with it out of the box unless you want to. The second version of Luna is very similar, except for a small change noted below.
In response to a reader’s inquiry, while we wouldn’t pick Luna over a larger dedicated 2.1-channel audio system such as Altec’s inMotion iM7 on sound alone, the comparison’s not especially useful as they’re very different types of iPod speakers. If you want an iPod clock radio that’s designed to sit in a bedroom or office and run off of wall power, Luna is amongst the best we’ve heard, but if you want a clockless stationary or portable speaker with an iPod dock, there are many other great options out there.
Luna Issues and Changes
When we first reviewed Luna, we opted not to assign it a rating based on the fact that some major changes were being proposed by XtremeMac, and it was our feeling that rating a version that would only be on store shelves for a few months wouldn’t be useful to our readers. But we highlighted its great aesthetic design, novel features, and great sound as major positives, with additional caveats that have been largely resolved in the updated Luna model.
Our first concern was radio performance, an issue that XtremeMac acknowledged and substantially corrected. The original Luna’s FM radio tuner was able to pick up stations just fine, but with more static than iHome’s comparably priced iH7. Today’s Luna exhibits markedly better FM performance: stations come in stronger and with much less static than before, placing Luna in contention with the better clock radios we’ve heard. Last year, XtremeMac was contemplating tossing out the AM tuner altogether, but thankfully opted not to do this; consequently, all Lunas have AM radio tuning capability. However, the first-generation Luna had pitiful AM tuning by comparison with the newer model, which doesn’t bring in stations without a fair base level of static, but does enable you to understand the majority of talk radio stations without an issue. XtremeMac has also improved the on-screen display for radio tuning, using a large font to let you see what you’re dialing at any given time. We’d call the new unit’s overall radio functionality a major improvement over the prior one’s, and though it’s still not perfect, it’ll satisfy most users.
A second issue was reversed stereo channel audio. Neither of our review units had any issue of this sort, and they sounded strong in our audio testing, but some units in Apple Stores - including a version 1 display model we tested - do have reversed left and right channels. XtremeMac has fixed this issue in currently shipping units, but if you’re concerned, test your unit early with a properly separated song. Our standard test track, Edwyn Collins’ A Girl Like You, makes this easy.
Third is a new issue we noticed in the most recent edition of Luna. XtremeMac quietly made a small change to the unit’s sound signature that we discovered with routine A-B comparison testing, and confirmed with the company thereafter: Xtreme called it an improvement to the unit’s frequency response, but to our ears, it sounded like a slight thinning of the system’s warm mid-bass. In all honesty, the difference is small enough that typical users would never notice or care, and it can be compensated for with Luna’s integrated bass and treble controls, but as a matter of principle, we really do not like when companies change the sound of their speakers after release.
Finally, there’s Luna’s price. On one hand, the iPod clock radio market is starting to skew even less expensive than before, with many good options available at $80 or lower price points, and Luna is selling for $150 - the same price as a three-speaker iHome iH7 - while most people are looking for sub-$100 options. On the other hand, with the exception of the issues noted above, XtremeMac’s design is pretty close to fantastic, and most certainly worthy of some premium. At a time when companies such as Philips have stepped up what you can expect for under $100, Xtreme has raised the bar for $150 clock radios with Luna - the screen, menuing system and iPod sound performance are very impressive, and the radio’s more than acceptable enough at this point to satisfy you if you have the budget.
Overall, we think the current version of Luna is deserving of our high recommendation, with only one caveat: companies often make changes to their products in the midst of their production runs (as noted in the Revving link below), but some of Luna’s changes are serious, and offset by the facts that there’s no way to easily tell one Luna’s box from another, and no way to self-update the firmware if you get an older version. As such, we would advise readers to buy from a merchant with a good return policy just in case something isn’t the way it’s expected to be: assuming you get Luna in the form we’ve just seen it, you’ll be very impressed by what XtremeMac’s pulled off.