A good control system is the backbone of any high-end home entertainment system, whether that system resides in a dedicated home theater space or in a multipurpose media room. No matter how great the picture quality, how immersive the audio, how effective the lighting control, the experience falls apart if the control system falls short. If people don’t enjoy operating the system, they won’t enjoy using the system.
But what makes a good control system? I pondered this question recently as I reviewed a pair of universal remote controls sold directly through retail channels. Both remotes shared a common goal: Simplicity. There was simplicity in the design of the remotes themselves. Both had a minimalist layout, stripping out a lot of the buttons found on your typical universal remote to produce a clean, unintimidating look. And there was simplicity in the setup process, making it as easy and clear as possible for the average consumer to program the remote to switch between activities and control a variety of components.
Simplicity seems like a good goal, but in the world of system control, it’s definitely possible to make something too simple. While I found both remotes easy to set up and pleasant to use, neither could perform all of the advanced functions or accommodate all the use cases I needed. They were great for controlling my basic living-room system, which consists of a
TV, streaming media player, gaming console, and soundbar. But when asked to handle my more advanced home theater setup, built around an AV receiver and usually including some lighting control, they were just too simplistic to get the whole job done.
The trick in system control is finding the sweet spot between simplicity and functionality. You need a system robust enough to handle anything and everything you might want to do, but also simple enough that anyone and everyone in the house can use it. And that sweet spot is different for each person, which is exactly why universal remotes have an inherent disadvantage compared with control platforms like Control4 or Crestron. A universal remote locks you in to someone else’s idea of what’s
Logitech Harmony Elite universal remote, with hub and app
intuitive, both in the setup process (which has to be simple and scaled down enough that anyone can do it) and in the remote design. Sure, you can reassign buttons here and there, maybe choose some specific functions to show on the small touchscreen at the top of some remotes, but for the most part you have to work within a one-size-fits-all grid.
The Harmony remote brand revolutionized the direct-to-consumer universal remote by making it so much easier for the average person to program complex macros and present them as simple activities anyone would understand. But how many times have you programmed a Harmony remote to work exactly the way you want it to, sat back all pleased with yourself, and then watched a family member pick up the remote and stare at it blankly, uncertain what to do next? It has happened to me a lot.
And that’s just AV control. If you want to add elements like complex lighting scenes, shade adjustment, and temperature control, a universal remote simply isn’t built to handle that load.
In the world of luxury home cinema, you don’t need universal control. You need personalized control. That’s really what you’re paying for when you choose to step up to Crestron or Savant or Control4. You’re getting a team that’s been trained to perform all that complex, behind-the-scenes programming so you don’t have to, and you’re getting a system that’s flexible enough to accommodate your idea of what’s intuitive.
You can get the handheld remote with a preset button layout, but you can also get the touchscreen controller,
with fully customizable screens in which the page layouts and button names make sense to you. You can add customized in-wall keypads to quick-launch lighting/room scenes right when you walk in the door. It’s all about putting the right control options in the right place for you and your household—and you should absolutely include the whole family in the discussions with your custom installer.
Of course, just like in the world of DIY control, an advanced control system is only as good as the people who set it up, so don’t treat this step like an afterthought. Do some research on your local installers and what control systems they’re trained to program. Check references. Ask questions. Be involved. After all, what’s the point in paying more for personalized control if you don’t take the time to truly personalize it?
Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.