Alarm clocks remind me of referees -- they're both necessary, but I frequently get annoyed at them for doing their jobs. You want an alarm clock to reliably wake you up on time, but that doesn't make it any less aggravating when a repeated buzzing sound rouses you from a restful slumber and prompts you to get ready for work.
Fortunately, finding the right alarm clock for you can make the process of waking up easier. Search any major US electronics retailer and you'll find dozens of options from a wide variety of brands, at prices ranging from $10 to over $100. Given that they all mainly serve a single purpose, sorting through the crowd can feel like splitting hairs.
Complicating matters further, you likely have a phone and possibly a smart speaker, which can render a separate alarm clock redundant. Nevertheless, alarm clocks still have their place and I understand the appeal -- I like turning my phone off at night and having a clock I can check at a glance if I wake up and it's still dark.
In pursuit of a more refreshing morning, I tested 10 alarms over the past couple of months to find the best alarm clock on the market. I checked the recommended products on other sites, and looked at top sellers and top-rated models on Amazon, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and Walmart. I compiled the common denominators into my list and bought them for testing.
I let each alarm wake me up for at least two nights, making notes about the experience as I went, and I was surprised to find big differences in usability even at such a simple task. Extras and customizability were nice, especially at higher prices, but I generally preferred those that got the basics right for an affordable price.
Disclosure: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.
Best alarm clocks
||Best overall||Best features for the price||Best gradual wake alarm||Best ultrabudget||Best for deep sleepers|
||Travelwey Home LED Alarm Clock||Sony ICFC-1||Philips HF3500||RCA RCD30||Sonic Alert Sonic Bomb|
||See at Amazon||See at Amazon||See at Amazon||See at Amazon||See at Walmart|
|Backup battery||2x AAA||CR 2032||None||9V||9V|
|Snooze length||9 min||10 min||9 min||9 min||customizable between 1 and 30 minutes|
|Wake up options||Two volume options||Buzzing or radio||Sunrise light and buzzing||Simple buzzing||Loud buzzing and/or vibrating accessory|
|Other features||Nightlight||Sleep timer||Can use as reading light||None||Multiple volume and tone settings, multiple alarms|
Best overall: Travelwey Home LED Alarm Clock, $20Tyler Lizenby/CNET
Travelwey's alarm clock excels at simplicity. It's $20, which is a little more than other competent models I tested, but still easily affordable for something you'll use every day. It only has a handful of buttons, all of which are easy to understand and use. The big red numbers dominate the front and the snooze button is easy to find and smack when you want to shut up the alarm in the morning.
You can adjust the brightness of the numbers with a slider on the back. At all levels of brightness, the numbers are large enough to be easily visible from across a dark room and they don't cast a glow that could disrupt your sleep. The Travelwey Home LED Alarm Clock also has a separate nightlight feature if you don't want your room to be pitch black.
Other than the nightlight, Travelwey's alarm doesn't have much in terms of features. You can't adjust the snooze time -- it's 9 minutes. You can't set a second alarm. You can switch between two volume settings for the alarm, but you can't change the tone or have it play music or the radio.
It's a simple alarm clock, but Travelwey made sure all of the basics were well implemented. A simple indicator shows the alarm is armed. It has a backup battery. You can check the time with a button and press a separate one to turn off the alarm but leave it set for the same time the next day. There's not much to the Travelwey Home LED Alarm Clock, but what's there works well.
Best features for the price: Sony ICFC-1, $18Tyler Lizenby/CNET
The Sony ICFC-1 costs $20, the same as the Travelwey Home LED. It has a radio built in so you can wake up to your favorite station or a more traditional buzzing. You can set a sleep timer so you can fall asleep to the radio as it plays. It adjusts the time automatically for daylight saving time. Even the buzzing alarm gently ramps up to ease you out of your slumber, and the snooze button is easy to find if you need more time.
You'll want to keep the manual handy when first setting up the Sony ICFC-1. Even setting and checking your alarm time is counterintuitive at first. There's no button for it -- you hit the plus or minus on top to see the time then keep hitting one or the other to set the alarm time. Once you know what to press, using the ICFC-1 is simple enough, it's just not quite as brainless as the Travelwey alarm.
The cube design is also a little hard to get used to, and the orange numbers aren't as easily visible from across the room as those on the Travelwey alarm. That said, you can cycle through three levels of brightness by tapping the snooze button, none of which create an unwanted glow. The ICFC-1 also has a button to turn off the alarm that keeps it set for the same time. It has a backup battery and a clear indicator when the alarm is armed.
I liked Travelwey's alarm slightly more as it's easier to set up, and its clock is easier to see from across a darkened room, but Sony's alarm makes a strong case for itself by doing more for the same price and it could easily be the better choice for you if you value those extras.
Best gradual wake alarm: Philips HF3500, $43Tyler Lizenby/CNET
If you're willing to spend more than $20 for an alarm, you can look for all kinds of different features. Of all of the potential alarm upgrades, the sunrise alarm on the $50 Philips HF3500 is the only one that actually makes it easier to wake up in the morning. Shaped a bit like a UFO with a kickstand, the HF3500 has a simple circular orange clock face surrounded by a couple of buttons and a wide light ring. Thirty minutes before the scheduled alarm time, the light gradually starts increasing in brightness until it reaches a customizable max at the scheduled time and starts beeping with increasing intensity to finish the task of waking you up.
The light is supposed to gently ease you awake by simulating the sunrise. On both mornings of my testing, I had a relatively easy time getting out of bed. Aside from the light, the Philips HF3500 is easy to operate with minimal buttons. You can use the light as a lamp and it has 10 levels of brightness. You can cycle through three levels of brightness for the clock face, but the orange numbers do a good job of not casting much of a glow even at their brightest.
Snoozing the alarm is counterintuitive, as you need to whack the upper half of the light -- there's no button. I'd worry that I'd accidentally break my fancy alarm on a particularly grouchy morning. For around $50, the HF3500 surprisingly lacks any extras other than the wake-up light, and I doubt that will be much help for deep sleepers, or those with rooms that already get bright when day breaks.
Nevertheless, the HF3500 keeps things simple and elegant while still innovating on the basic concept of waking up in the morning. Splurging on the HF3500 could be a worthwhile experiment if you're looking for a more peaceful way of waking up.
Best ultrabudget alarm: RCA RCD30, $11Tyler Lizenby/CNET
The RCD30 has a lot in common with my favorite of the bunch, the Travelwey. The RCD30 is simple, with only a couple of buttons. It has a large red display with two levels of brightness -- neither glow and you can easily see both from across a dark room. The snooze button is easy to find, but double-checking your alarm time and resetting it for the next day aren't as easy on the RCD30 as on the Travelwey. Also unlike the Travelwey, the RCD30 doesn't have a nightlight. Given that it's only about $11, it's a good alternative if you want something cheap and simple.
Best for deep sleepers: Sonic Alert Sonic Bomb, $37Tyler Lizenby/CNET
I hated the Sonic Bomb -- but that's a good thing if you're a semicomatose sleeper. To be clear, I didn't hate the $32 Sonic Bomb because of poor design or poor performance, I hated it because I woke up to my pillow shaking and I thought the world was ending. The alarm has an incredibly loud buzzer and a vibrating attachment you can place on your bed in case the buzzer itself isn't enough. The Sonic Bomb offers two alarms and plenty of customization. The controls are easy enough to figure out. It's worth your consideration if you have trouble waking up and it deserves to be mentioned alongside the Philips HF3500 as a good implementation of a novelty concept. But unless you truly are a very deep sleeper, the Philips makes for a much more pleasing morning routine.
The following alarm clocks do some things well but have flaws that make them tougher to recommend.
American Lifetime Day Clock, $45
I was torn about the American Lifetime Day Clock, because the large print design struck my fancy and could come in handy if you have an elderly relative or impaired vision. The clock even spells out the day and date, and you can program alarms with a reminder message such as "take your medicine" to help relatives with memory trouble. That said, I'm primarily judging alarm clocks here, and it isn't a good alarm clock. You can't snooze, the display casts a glow even at its dimmest, and setting alarms is a pain. You have to scroll through a menu that could easily be confusing for an elderly relative -- so you'd be stuck with all the setup and even maintenance when a setting needs to be changed. The $45 American Lifetime Day Clock might be worth considering if you need a time display capable of reminders, but you can find better options if you just want an alarm with big numbers.
iHome iBT29BC, $43
If you want features, the $43-ish iHome iBT29BC likely has you covered. It has a built-in radio, two alarms, it doubles as a Bluetooth speaker and even comes with an auxiliary cable. It has a backup battery, it can double as a speakerphone and communicate with your phone's digital assistant. It has a light that changes colors and lots of customization for what to play when you wake up. The light won't fade up like the Philips HF3500, but it can turn on when your alarm sounds. Plus, the sound quality is surprisingly good. The snooze button is a little too small and you'll want to keep the instruction manual handy when you first start using it. The clock face shines too brightly when turned up and it's hard to see from across the room when dim. The iHome iBT29BC does a little bit of everything, but it's not great at any one thing, and for the price, if you want a speaker to wake you up, you might as well get a smart speaker.
Homelabs Home Sunrise Alarm Clock, $18
Given that the Home Sunrise Alarm Clock performs ostensibly the same trick as the Philips HF3500 for a fraction of the price -- $18 for the Home Clock as opposed to $50 for the HF3500 -- I was excited to try it out. It even has a few more features -- the light changes colors, you can customize which color turns on in the morning and how long it fades up before your chose alarm time. It has a radio and you can pick from a variety of wake-up sounds, including waves crashing and classical music. On paper, the Sunrise Alarm Clock offers everything you could want in an alarm at a great price. It also proves that you get what you pay for. The touch buttons on the front aren't very responsive -- setting the time, setting an alarm and turning off the alarm in the morning are all more difficult than they need to be. Using the radio is surprisingly tedious. The brightness ramps up too quickly in the morning and the white numbers showing the time cast too much light at night. If you can get around the tedium, the Sunrise Alarm Clock does offer a lot of features for the price.
I don't recommend the following alarms to anyone.
Sharp LCD Digital Alarm Clock: This compact, $15 clock takes two AA batteries and is fully portable, but you can't see the time in a darkened room without turning on a backlight that will in turn hurt your eyes because you're in a darkened room. The snooze button and the backlight button are the same. When the alarm sounds, that backlight turns on automatically, but turns off again after a couple of seconds. If you take a moment to wake up you won't be able to check the time when deciding whether or not to snooze. If you need an alarm for your home, use a different one. If you need a portable alarm, you're better off using your phone.
Brandstand BPECT CubieTime: This ugly $60 alarm costs too much, has a clock face that glows, lacks any meaningful features and gets a lot of the basics wrong. It's hard to find the snooze button in the dark. Setting the alarm is relatively tedious, and the alarm resets to 6 a.m. every time you turn it off, so you'll need to put it back to your preferred time every day if you happen to wake up at any other time.
What to look for in an alarm clock
If you're out shopping and don't see any of the above, you can find a good option for your nightstand by keeping a couple of things in mind.
Red and orange numbers are less likely to cast a glow. That might not matter to you if a glow won't bother you or if you actually want a glow, but if you don't like a bright sleeping environment, the color of the numbers is a bigger deal than you'd expect. That's one thing you can learn about the alarm just by looking at the display.
Focus on the basics. Alarms that perform a bunch of extra tricks are nice, but you probably have something else in your house that's better at playing music or charging your phone. Look for an alarm that's easy to set, easy to check, has an indicator so you can see that it's armed and has a big snooze button that you can find when you're groggy.
Get the extras you want. After you find a couple of options that get the basics right, find the one with extras that appeal to you. Do you want a nightlight? Do you want multiple alarms? Do you want to customize the length of the snooze timer? Do you want a radio? The great thing about the breadth of the alarm category is that you can find a model that fits all of your desired criteria. And yes, if you really want to go crazy with charging ports or even wireless phone charging built-in, those models exist too.
Gentle wakeups are great. If you don't know what features to prioritize, look for an alarm that gradually increases in volume or slowly raises the light level to ease you out of your sleep. That was my favorite feature of the bunch and I generally felt less grumpy with alarms that didn't shock me awake.
More "smart" alarm clocks are on the way. Finally, keep in mind that if you want an alarm with smarts -- something that's compatible with Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple's Siri -- you have options now with more on the way. iHome offers a couple of smart alarms and Google has a smart alarm due out in the next couple of months from Lenovo. And Insignia's Google-compatible alarm clock is a good option if you can snag it when it's periodically marked down to $25.
Originally published March 21.
Update, April 1: Added a video with tips for buying alarm clocks.