The Sandman Doppler, with its retro appeal and Alexa-powered smart features, is a distinctive alternative to the Echo Show and Google Nest Hub for people who don’t want a video display or camera in the bedroom and seek higher-quality sound. If you also need a substantial charging station, the $200 price might be worth it.
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Now that we’ve said our misty-eyed goodbyes to the iconic iPod, let’s turn to the edge-of-extinction clock radio.
Just as the iPod morphed into the iPhone, the venerable clock radio–as old as Keith Richards!–is evolving into a smart assistant with a built-in timepiece. The $200Sandman Doppler, though endowed with Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant, does not aspire to compete with either an Echo Show or a Google Nest Hub Max, those so-smart (and less-expensive) speakers with a video display, camera, and full alarm-clock functions.
“The Doppler,” says Sandman Clocks CEO Alex Tramiel, “is designed for your nightstand. The Show and Hub are best in the kitchen or living room.”
Alexa, what do you get if you pack into a little black brick the sonic equivalent of a high-achieving portable speaker, the powers of an Echo Dot, a music streamer, Bluetooth, six USB charging ports, companion-app control, and an oversize clock with impossible-to-miss, 1.8-inch-high numbers displayed in the color of your choice?
It’s the sorta-retro Sandman Doppler, created by a self-funded company with seven employees called Palo Alto Innovation, a gadget maker that includes Sandman Clocks. The company, relocated to more affordable Santa Clara, Calif., is only six miles from tech giant Apple.
Gotta love the little guy. This is a company that still characterizes the 2015 Kickstarter launch of its first product–a clock with multiple USB charging ports but no alarm functions–as a “massive . . . failure.” It responded with the massively more successful Sandman Doppler, fully crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 38 minutes and finishing with close to $152,000 from 1,218 backers.
About 1,000 days later, in November 2020, the company started shipping Sandman Dopplers to Kickstarter backers. Now it’s looking for a cozy spot on your nightstand after a recent firmware update that upgrades the Yocto-based (Linux) operating system, stabilizes the Wi-Fi connection, and adds programmable Alexa routines to a pair of heretofore unusable smart buttons on the Doppler’s top. It’s also playing some much-needed catch-up: The 1.4 update now displays real-time local weather information, not merely the day’s forecasted temperature.
Is it worth $200? The Sandman Doppler might be the best of its kind. It also might be the only one of its kind.
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best smart speakers, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.
What’s a Sandman Doppler?
Despite “Enter Sandman” references on its website, the mythical character who puts people to sleep–and not the 1991 Metallica song–inspired the Sandman name. “Doppler” refers to the Doppler effect, the scientific phenomenon that occurs when the source of sound waves moves in relation to the listener, as when a fire truck passes a pedestrian.
“We just thought the name Doppler was cool,” says Tramiel, “and wanted some name that was sound-oriented.”
That’s a lot of contemplation over an all-black device measuring 4 x 11.6 x 4.7 inches (HxWxD), dressed in a rubberized wraparound with a speaker grille on either side of the plastic clock face. The full-range drivers, barely visible beneath the grilles, are about 3.5 inches tall and 2 inches wide. A rear port coaxes lower frequencies from the speakers, though let’s not presume any speaker this size–powered by 4 watts of Class D amplification–can possibly hit its claimed 40Hz lows. That’s a challenge for even a much larger bookshelf speaker.
The charging station, below the port, offers a choice to those ordering a Doppler: You can get six USB-A ports or three USB-A and three USB-C ports. (Early Doppler adopters can buy a DIY upgrade kit consisting of a three-USB-C plug-in and a replacement USB cover. It costs $25.) So, assess your household’s devices before buying a Doppler. The all-USB-A review unit, for example, was not a fit for the USB-C cable that came with my Google Pixel phone.
The charging station is responsible for the Doppler’s substantial 12-volt power adapter, yet it does not offer Quick Charge. This clock radio assumes you’re an overnight-charger type.
The media and volume control bar on top doubles as a snooze button. The second row of controls sets an alarm, the time, wakes or interrupts Alexa, turns the microphones on or off, and pairs a Bluetooth device. To change the display’s color, press and hold the play-pause button until a row of rainbow-colored dots appear, then select your favorite color using the forward-back buttons. (Please note that science suggests warm colors are better for sleep. Red can actually improve sleep. Blue can disturb it.)
But why bother? Virtually every function can be duplicated in the app–where you’ll find a more expansive color wheel with 16 million options to dial in the display–or via Alexa. Even the smart buttons serve more as a convenience so you won’t disturb who’s sleeping next to you. At one point, I programmed in the Alexa app one button to turn on all Philips Hue lights downstairs in my house; I programmed a second button to turn them all off. During waking hours, of course, I’d ask Alexa to handle the task.
No matter where you set an alarm–using the onboard controls, the app, or Alexa–the alarm icon lights on the display and the day and time appear in the app. Only Alexa, however, allowed me to set jazz saxophonist Mark Turner’s new Return from the Stars as my morning wakeup.
As for Alexa: Both microphones are mounted on the downward, rear slope of the Doppler’s top, flanking the clock’s auto-dim light sensor. The microphones, perhaps because of their location, sometimes had trouble picking up a voice commands when the clock’s face was at or below eye level. Raise your head, not your voice, to get Alexa’s attention.
Who is that male voice during the Doppler’s setup?
Bringing the Sandman Doppler to life in your home requires a perfunctory Bluetooth-to-Wi-Fi handoff through the app, but I’ve never seen such handholding–Palo Alto Innovation does not want you to mess up the setup!
The moment you open the box, you’re greeted with QR codes for the manual, support, and quick access to downloading the app (iOS and Android are supported). That’s on the cardboard packaging. A “Please Read” insert reminds the user of a mandatory six-digit code when pairing in the app.
OK so far? Let’s start pairing with the app. But who is that voice and where is it coming from? Setting up your Doppler will only take a couple of minutes and I’ll help you every step of the way. Turns out it’s our setup escort Tim, the new voice of the Doppler 1.4 firmware update, and it’s coming from the speakers.
Nothing to worry about, Grandma or Grandpa. You’ll have no trouble getting started with your new Sandman Doppler.
“We wanted the setup process to be as easy as possible,” says Tramiel, “not targeting the older demographic necessarily, just wanted to minimize issues with onboarding.”
Mission accomplished. And for future reference, you’ll also find operational instructions on the bottom of the Doppler–just like some old-time clock radios.
Is that really you, Alexa?
It ain’t easy being a third-party device like the Sandman Doppler that wants to add a smart assistant, whether Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri. Palo Alto Innovation landed Alexa, but with some restrictions. It’s still working with Amazon to add Alexa calling and messaging, and the Doppler doesn’t support Alexa Together, a subscription service with hands-free access to Urgent Response that allows you to check in on an aging parent or relative.
Support for Apple’s assistant is coming soon, says the company.
“And we would love to add Google Assistant,” says Tramiel, “but Google has silently dropped this option for third-party commercial devices. . . . As soon as Google changes this, we will be on board.”
Does music sound good on the Sandman Doppler?
The Doppler is a bedside speaker, not a public address system. It’s finely mannered by design, almost impossible to dissolve into ear-bending distortion with its digital signal processing.
“We spent a lot of time on the sound,” says Tramiel. “We’re happy with how it turned out.”
In unscientific tests using Bluetooth and Amazon Music, the Doppler sounded a lot like an Ultimate Ears Boom, a distinctive cylindrical portable now in its third generation. The Boom plays louder and wider, but easily distorts at high volumes.
The obvious challenge: Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” The Doppler, even at 90 percent volume, remained listenable during “Sandman” but is unquestionably underpowered and too small to faithfully reproduce heavy metal. The Boom, for its part, distorted and almost fainted. Tiny speakers are not for headbangers.
Now the language test: “Meðan höndin mín í hendi þinni hvílir” by Iceland’s Marina Osk, my nomination for most cheerful voice in the Northern Hemisphere. Not sure if they understood it, but both speakers seemed to love this more laid-back, midrange-dominant music.
The Doppler app provides five audio settings–boosts for bass, mids, treble; “balanced;” and untuned–but not enough precision. I settled on the default, balanced, but still wished for a better blend of midrange presence and bass. The Alexa app, with its bass-midrange-treble slider audio settings, is a better DIY approach that worked only sporadically. (Palo Alto Innovation is working with Amazon to resolve the issue.)
The Doppler needs Spotify, with its 182 million subscribers, in its streaming lineup. Until Spotify’s expected arrival later this year, available streaming services besides Amazon Music are Pandora, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, SiriusXM, Audible, and Deezer. To play your favorite radio stations, just ask Alexa. (The Sandman Doppler does not have a conventional AM/FM tuner.) You can also ask any Alexa-enabled device, whether an Echo Dot or Echo Show, to play music on the Doppler.
Is the Sandman Doppler a good value?
If you’re looking for an inexpensive smart assistant dressed up as a clock, try The Echo Dot with clock ($45) or the Lenovo Smart Clock ($70) with Alexa. A second-generation Google Nest Hub ($70) with a 7-inch touchscreen (no camera) and a Sleep Sensing feature that uses a Soli motion sensor and sound to monitor your sleep also functions as a versatile bedside clock radio.
The Sandman Doppler is something bigger and something different.
Kevin, a former consumer electronics columnist for The Chicago Tribune, writes about technology and health from his home on the Connecticut shoreline overlooking an osprey platform. Smart-home confession: He has two nightlights in his home connected to smart plugs.