Logitech Harmony Tag

What Makes a Good Control System?

What Makes a Good Control System?

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

What Makes a Good Control System?

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.

What Makes a Good Control System?

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

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.

What are the Media Room Essentials?

media rooms

Continuing our conversation about media rooms, I’m going to run with Dennis Burger’s initial premise that, for a room to qualify as a media room, some thought and effort have to go into creating the highest quality AV experience your space and budget will allow. Simply plopping a 55-inch HDTV, cheap soundbar, and set-top box on a TV stand in your family room doesn’t magically transform the space into a media room.

 

I contend that a high-quality media room system does two things: It offers great AV performance and it embraces the advanced technologies of the day. The beauty is, in today’s AV landscape, you don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune to get both of these things.

 

Here’s what I consider to be the core elements of a modern media room system:

 

A Large-Screen UHD Display

Just like in a dedicated home theater, a media room needs a large screen that draws you in and allows you to feel truly immersed in the source content, be it a movie, TV show, or game. The display should be the focus of your eye (at least when the system is turned on), and the room’s seating and layout should reinforce that principle.

 

What constitutes a large screen? It kind of depends on your room and how far the display is from the seating area. I’d say the screen needs to be at least 65 inches in a smaller room and 75 inches or more in a larger room. At these screen sizes, 4K resolution on its own isn’t crucial, but the other aspects of Ultra HD—namely, High Dynamic Range and expanded color—represent the best of what the video world has to offer right now. Once you see high-quality HDR content on a high-performance TV like an OLED, you won’t want to go back to standard dynamic range.

 

A word of warning: This is one area where you may get what you pay for. Lots of budget LED/LCD TVs support HDR but don’t deliver the level of contrast needed to fully exploit it. You really need an OLED or a good LED/LCD TV with a full-array backlight and local dimming technology to make the most of HDR.

 

An Ultra HD Source

You can’t enjoy HDR if your sources don’t support it, and it’s not difficult or even terribly expensive to upgrade to UHD-friendly source devices. Pretty much every new UHD TV is also a smart TV with UHD-capable streaming sources like Netflix, Amazon Video, and Vudu built right in. The newest streaming boxes from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and NVIDIA support HDR and are priced under $200 (some of them are priced way under that).

 

For those who have more to spend, it’s tough to beat the user experience of a Kaleidescape 4K movie server. And the company’s Movie Store offers 4K downloads that match the AV specs for Ultra HD Blu-ray.

 

We’ve also reached the point where every major Blu-ray player manufacturer now offers at least one Ultra HD model (if not more), and entry-level models are priced around $150. Many of these players also support hi-res audio playback via disc, USB, or streaming, so they can serve as a high-performance audio source, too.

 

Gamers can enjoy a complete 4K multimedia experience in one box, thanks to consoles like the Xbox One and Playstation 4 that support 4K/HDR gaming and streaming video. The Xbox One even adds an Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

 

Surround Sound

Just as the big screen will immerse you visually in the source, surround sound is a must for creating that “you are there” experience. If you hate the idea of running wires across the room, there are now plenty of creative ways to incorporate wireless surrounds. A 5.1-channel system is the minimum, but I’ll take it a step further and suggest that your system at least needs to be upgradeable to support 3D formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

 

3D audio adds a height element to complete the soundstage, and you can get Atmos and DTS:X decoding in 7.2-channel receivers costing as little as $400. A 7.2-channel receiver only gives you two height channels, but it’s better than nothing. There’s no shortage of in-ceiling speakers at all price points that can serve as the height channels. But if your room can’t support overhead speakers, check out all the Atmos modules designed to sit atop your existing speakers and bounce sound off the ceiling. This path provides an easy and inexpensive way to upgrade your system as your budget allows.

 

A Unified Control Experience

Nobody wants to look at a pile of remotes on the coffee table, let alone have to use them all in order to launch media playback. A universal remote control is essential. Logitech’s Harmony brand still reigns supreme in the world of third-party universal remotes, and TV manufacturers like LG and Samsung have really upped their game in the control department, making it easer to control multiple sources with the TV remote and adding support for Alexa and Google Home voice control.

 

The wide range of smart lighting systems and window treatments makes it easier and cheaper than ever to add automation elements to your media system without having to invest in a full-fledged control system—although there’s no denying the appeal of a well-executed Control4 or Crestron setup, should you choose to go that route.

 

There you have it: My list of must-have components in a media room. Do you agree or disagree?

Adrienne Maxwell

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. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.