Caavo Control Center Smart Remote and Smart Home Theater Hub Reviewed

Caavo Control Center Smart Remote and Smart Home Theater Hub Reviewed

Caavo hasn't developed the perfect universal remote control, but they have designed a universal remote control that's perfect for cord cutters and anyone else who could use a little help mastering their AV systems.


Were the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) alive today and not so hung up on pointing out injustice and prattling on about her feelings, there's no doubt in my mind that she'd have written sonnets about home theater gear and smart home gadgets. To wit:

Oh, home theater, how do I control thee? Let me count the ways.

I control thee by handheld remote, by an app, and by voice

My smart home I can beseech--

Yeah, well, maybe not so much. She'd probably stick with sonnets about relationships rather than singing the praises of watching a movie on an 86-inch LG NanoCell 90 Series Smart TV instead of reading the book the flick was based on. Although I'm certainly no poet (and my words surely show it), I do get to write about home automation and home theater. (Ha! Take that, Mrs. Browning. You didn't even have electric lights.) In this particular instance, I get to wax lyrical about the Caavo Control Center Smart Remote and Smart Home Theater Hub, [Amazon link] one of the most exciting and easiest-to-use universal remote control systems I've ever had the pleasure to have in my system.

As the device's unwieldy name suggests, the Caavo Control Center Smart Remote and Smart Home Theater Hub is more than the standard, garden-variety universal remote control. It's actually a category-blending hybrid device that's more aptly described as an operating system for your home theater that conveniently slips in a bit of smart home integration. At its core are two hardware pieces: a handheld remote (the Smart Remote) and an HDMI switcher/control hub (the Control Center) that connects and controls up to four AV sources to a TV plus, if desired, a soundbar or AVR.

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Adding to the hybrid nature of the product is the fact that owners need to sign up for a Caavo service plan in order to get all of the features and capabilities that make the system so attractive. I'm sure no one reading this right now is thinking, "Great! I was hoping to find another monthly subscription fee I could drive myself deeper into debt with." (If so, I have a subscription plan for a bridge I'd love to offer you.) Thankfully, Caavo offers an option to buy the hardware bundled with a lifetime service plan that eliminates any additional fees, so the situation isn't as troublesome as it might appear.

I've kept my eyes on the Caavo folks since they started shipping the original Caavo (a $399 universal remote system with an eight-input home theater hub the company no longer sells and now refers to as the "Caavo Classic") in early 2018. It generally got excellent reviews, but the high price tag and lack of support for 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos were two significant strikes against it. So, in late 2018, the company introduced the four-input Caavo Control Center Smart Remote and Smart Home Theater Hub -- the current model reviewed here -- for $99. Along the way, it's been difficult (for me, anyway) to keep track of the company's approach to pricing the various service plans. One consistent option has been to offer a bundle that includes the Caavo hardware (the handheld Smart Remote and the Control Center), one of the company's high-speed Spotlight HDMI cables, and a lifetime service plan for $159.99. As far as I'm concerned, the features that come with the service plan are so integral to the overall value of the Caavo that the hardware/lifetime service plan bundle is the only way to buy the product. Thus, the $159.99 bundle -- not just the hardware -- will be the focus of this review.

mobile-UI-restricted-content.jpgSince I've emphasized the importance of the service plan, I suppose it's a good idea to take a brief look at some of its most valuable features. For starters, the plan expands the Caavo's control interfaces beyond the handheld Smart Remote to include voice control -- using Caavo's proprietary voice recognition via the Smart Remote's built-in microphone as well as integration with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant -- and a mobile app (the Caavo TV & Movie Guides). In addition to providing content recommendations, the mobile app can function as a remote control for your AV system from anywhere you have internet access. (A cool feature for parents interested in maintaining oversight or creating mischief while away from home.)

The service plan also enables what Caavo calls "simple universal search", which is a shorthand way of saying that when you enter a search term -- using either voice or text input -- the Caavo will search for results across your specific devices and subscribed services. Finally, the service plan incorporates some limited smart home compatibilities, primarily control of Sonos speakers using the TV screen and integration with the online automation service IFTTT.

The Hookup
Control_Center_box_contents_we-promise.jpgWith that out of the way, let's take a look at the Caavo hardware. The Caavo Smart Remote is an unassuming rectangular device that's about the size and shape of a King Size Zero candy bar (6.8 inches long by 1.5 inches wide), albeit a smidge thinner (0.86 inches) and a tad heavier (3.5 ounces). The back panel is slightly smaller than the front, so the sides gently slope inward from the forward face to the rear of the remote.

There's an elliptical rubber foot on the back that helps prop up the remote when sitting on a tabletop or the arm of a chair. The front panel has a gloss black finish interspersed with six rows of rubber button caps with silkscreened icons. Underneath the second row of buttons is an elliptical metallic button with CAAVO embossed on it. About a third of the way down from the top of the remote is a rubberized control ring similar to those found on other controllers (e.g., Apple TV's and Amazon FireTV's), and there's a tiny status LED in the top right corner.

The Smart Remote communicates with the Caavo Control Center using Bluetooth LE and has an estimated range of 20 to 40 feet "under typical conditions." A built-in accelerometer "wakes up" the Smart Remote from standby mode when it senses movement (i.e., when it's picked up) to extend the life of the remote's two AAA batteries, a feature that the company says will "provide months of battery life with typical daily usage." (Standby mode can be disabled for an instant-on response, but it will affect battery life.)

I would normally consider the fact that the Smart Remote is not backlit to be a near-fatal flaw for any remote designed for use in a darkened home theater, but the Caavo incorporates what the company calls "condition touch technology" into the Smart Remote. This allows the remote to sense when your thumb or finger lightly rests on any button and display a pop-up window on the TV screen indicating the function of that button.

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The Smart Remote itself doesn't include an IR emitter, nor does it directly control any of the components in your system. All of the heavy lifting is done by the Caavo Control Center, an unobtrusive gloss-black box that's 5.9-inches high, 10.3-inches wide, 1.37-inches deep, and weighs just over 35 ounces. It includes four HDMI inputs and one HDMI output (all HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2), a built-in IR emitter along with a 3.5mm IR output jack, an Ethernet port (100 Mbps), Bluetooth 4.0, and Wi-Fi (2.4/5 GHz). In the box with the Caavo hardware is a Y-cable with two large teardrop-shaped IR emitters to use in cases where the Control Center's internal IR blaster can't reach the intended component.

One of the ways in which the Caavo is dramatically different from other universal remote controls is that the Caavo Control Center is designed to perform the HDMI source switching in your system. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that the Control Center takes advantage of HDMI CEC technology to identify devices, monitor their status, and minimally control some of them through their HDMI connections. As a result, the first step of installing a Caavo in your system is to connect your source components (up to the max of four) to the Control Center's HDMI inputs. If you're using your TV's speakers for audio, you connect Control Center's HDMI output to an input on the TV.

If you're using a soundbar or AVR and speakers for audio, there are two configuration options. One way is to connect the Control Center's output to an input on the soundbar or AVR and run the soundbar/AVR's output to the TV -- essentially using the soundbar/AVR as a passthrough for the video signal. Alternatively, if you have a newer 4K TV along with one or more 4K-capable sources, but your soundbar/AVR doesn't support 4K, you can connect the Control Center directly to the TV and use one of the TV's HDMI ARC ports to send the audio signal back to the soundbar/AVR.

And that -- running the HDMI cables -- is the hardest part of installing and setting up the Caavo. Although the company's website is replete with instructions and video tutorials on how to accomplish what's usually the tedious task of connecting components, labeling inputs, setting preferences, and programming macros, it's likely that most people will never need to refer to the extensive support documentation because, once the Control Center is connected to your TV and the internet, it will guide you through the rest of the installation using an interactive set of instructions displayed on the TV screen.

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After all the components are hooked up and turned on, the Caavo will use HDMI CEC to scan for and identify all the connected devices, and, when done, it will ask you to verify that it found everything correctly. Thanks to the vagaries of different manufacturers' implementations of the HDMI CEC standards (more common with older gear than with newer models), the Caavo may sense that a component is connected but won't be able to identify it. In those cases, the Caavo will prompt you to enter the manufacturer and model number of the mystery device.

After that, a picture-in-picture window will pop up on the TV screen displaying a live image from the input connected to the problematic device. It'll ask you to attempt to control the component using the Caavo Smart Remote, and the PIP window lets you see the actions in real-time. If things aren't working as expected, the Caavo will go on to more troubleshooting steps. The system isn't foolproof, but it's one of the most consumer-friendly ways of installing and configuring a universal remote control I've ever dealt with. The Caavo knows when a device has been disconnected, or a new one added to the system, too, and will automatically make any necessary changes or prompt the user for information when this happens.

After your devices are all identified, the Caavo will ask you to select which streaming services/apps you subscribe to and, if you have more than one streaming media player, which component you prefer to use for that particular service. In my case, for example, I had a Roku Model 4670R and an Apple TV 4K Streaming Media Player connected to the Caavo. For my most-used streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Mubi, and Kanopy), I set the default player to the Roku 4670R. (Interestingly, since I use it so infrequently, the whole process made me wonder why I still have the Apple TV in my system.)

Performance
From the fundamental standpoint of its performance as a universal remote control, I found the Caavo to be extremely reliable and intuitive to use. The only time I can remember having an issue with my theater system not responding correctly to a command happened after I'd turned off HDMI CEC in my Vizio TV and began using IR to control it. Two days later, I was baffled when the TV would no longer turn on with everything else. After spending more time than I care to admit, I discovered that the IR emitter I'd attached to the TV had fallen off and landed behind the BDI media console under the TV. Although I'd like to, I don't think it's fair to blame Caavo for not being able to withstand the incompetence of the user who installed it.

I must say that, despite my initial skepticism, I much preferred the Caavo's use of "condition touch technology" on the Smart Remote to (optionally) display "button hints" that pop-up on the bottom right of the TV screen based on which button your finger is resting on. In my opinion, this is a better solution than a backlit remote control since it means you rarely need to take your eyes off the screen to look down at the remote control. In addition, the buttons on the Smart Remote may perform different functions depending upon the device being controlled, and the pop-up hints tell you the function -- not the generic name or icon of the button being touched. It's also helpful in those instances when you've changed the functions of individual buttons, as I did when I swapped the default fast forward and rewind buttons to skip forward and skip backward when the Smart Remote controls my Dish Hopper. (Fast forward and rewind were still available by pressing and holding on the appropriate buttons.)


Although the Caavo is compatible with both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, Caavo's integrated voice control is quicker to respond and more accurate in its speech recognition than the other two. One reason for the quick response time is that there's no waiting for commands to be transferred from a local Amazon Echo or Google Home device to the Amazon/Google server, over to Caavo's server, and then down to the local Caavo. The Caavo's speech accuracy may also benefit from the fact that I found it very natural to hold the Smart Remote up to my face to talk into the built-in microphone, as opposed to hollering across the room at my Amazon Echo Dot. There were two instances when I did find the Alexa and Google Assistant integration quite useful, though. One was the ability it provided to turn the entire system on by voice while I searched for the inevitably misplaced Smart Remote. The other was that I could ask Alexa (or Google) to find my Caavo remote, after which the Smart Remote would emit a series of high-pitched beeps (after which I'd usually realize that I was sitting on it.)

Caavo's additional smart home integration isn't as extensive as one would hope. Native control of Sonos speakers using the TV screen is nice, but I rarely found the feature useful -- and I have several Sonos speaker systems throughout my house. Much more valuable was Caavo's compatibility with IFTTT, an online automation platform I've used for years. Depending upon the other smart home devices and services you have in your home, the Caavo can be told to display pop-up messages on the TV screen to remind you of calendar events and notify you when your Ring doorbell or Arlo security camera senses motion. It can automatically dim or brighten lights when your theater system is turned on or off, as well as use geofencing to turn the system on or off when you arrive or leave home. IFTTT is a great platform because it allows you to create your own "applets" connecting third-party services and devices, although, since everything communicates remotely via the internet, the response time does vary, and it's not 100-percent rock solid in reliability.


Where Caavo begins to truly differentiate itself from other universal remote controls is with its ability to do "universal content search & launch" with "deep linking" across a wide variety of streaming devices and components, including DVRs from Xfinity, DirecTV, Dish, and TiVo. This means that if you search for the classic movie, Mars Needs Women, and you happen to have it on your Dish Hopper's DVR (I'm not saying that I do; this is just a hypothetical), the Caavo will recognize that it's there and list it as a viewing option along with other subscribed sources whence it might be available, say on Amazon Video. If you select the search result located on the DVR, the Caavo will automatically switch inputs and begin playing the movie from your recordings. If you choose the Amazon Video option, the Caavo will change the input to whichever is your preferred device for the Amazon Video app and start the movie.

I've seen some comments complaining about the speed of this process, but I'm not sure those particular commenters were fully taking into account the fact that much of the wait time has to do with how long it takes for some streaming devices to initiate apps and load content. Short of having some sort of precognitive capabilities, I'm not sure the Caavo could speed up that process.

Crowd_Surfing.jpgI'm not the kind of person who likes to use phone or tablet apps to control my theater system, nor do I typically like to peruse other people's lists of movies they think I should watch, so bear that in mind when I say I didn't find the Caavo app all that useful. On the other hand, if you're a more socially oriented person than I am (and, unless you're a hermit living in a cave, you are), you'll appreciate the community of movie enthusiasts Caavo has been building and connecting.

The Downside
One issue with the app that I found to be both curious and inconsistent was that when I clicked on the icon to bring up the remote control screen, the app would sometimes turn the system on. I'm not sure whether I like the idea of the app assuming that if I've chosen the remote control on the app, it means I want to turn on the system. I do know, however, that I'd like it to be consistent, one way or the other. Another curious bit about the remote control section of the app is that there's not an indication of whether the system is on or off. Obviously, you don't need that if you're sitting in front of your TV, but one of the touted benefits of having the app is being able to control the system while you're away from home. That's difficult to do with only an on/off toggle and no indication of power status.

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A more significant downside of the Caavo is the limit of its universality as a remote control because, quite naturally, it can't do everything for everyone in every system. Anyone who has spent good money on an AVR with loads of connections and features will likely feel more than a little shortchanged by not being able to use every input and access every function without reverting to the AVR's original remote control. As fond as I am of the Caavo, I wouldn't get rid of my Marantz AV8805 pre/pro and all of its audio/video processing capabilities in exchange for the extreme ease-of-use provided by the Caavo. On the other hand, it's ideal for use with the TV, Dish 4K Joey, and Definitive Technology soundbar in my dining room. Similarly, since the Caavo strictly accepts HDMI inputs, legacy devices pre-dating HDMI aren't compatible or controllable.

Although the Caavo supports the standard HDR10 format, it doesn't support Dolby Vision (Dolby Labs' advanced HDR format). According to the company, "After considerable testing and investigation, we have determined we cannot support Dolby Vision enabled devices in exactly the same way as non-Dolby Vision devices in our ecosystem." That could mean the hardware doesn't have the processing power or is incompatible in some other way. It could also mean that Caavo simply doesn't want to pay a licensing fee to Dolby. Or it could be something totally different. No matter the reason, it doesn't look like Caavo will be supporting Dolby Vision in this iteration of the hardware.

Caavo did point out, though, that you can use Control Center in parallel with Smart TV models that support Dolby Vision by putting Control Center remote into TV Mode (under Devices in the main menu).

As with any product that relies on an online service for some or all of its essential (or highly desirable) functionality, though, there's always the risk that the company will be acquired, go out of business, or make some other crucial service change and leave you with a bricked device. The history of the consumer electronics industry is littered with failed or obsolete formats, product ecosystems that never took off, and services that either made no sense or were too costly to succeed. Smart home hub maker Wink is the most recent example of a company whose business model changed virtually overnight from one that sold smart home hardware with free connectivity to the company's servers to one that suddenly required a small monthly subscription fee for that access. I'm not saying that anything like this will happen with Caavo. I have no exclusive insight into Caavo's long-term financial health nor the company's marketing savvy. But I think it's fair to point out because it is a potential downside, albeit one that's not much different from other AV and automation-related products.

Comparison and Competition


A decade ago, there was no shortage of universal remote controls from which to choose. Today, the market, for the most part, has bifurcated into the super-basic (and super-cheap) sub-$25 IR remotes on the one hand and the ultra-programmable (and commensurately expensive) custom-installation models that run $500 and up on the other. There aren't many options in that middle ground where the $159.99 Caavo resides. On the low end, there's the $69.99 SofaBaton U1 Universal Remote. SofaBaton says the U1 is designed to replace up to 15 other remote controls with support for over 500,000 devices from 6000+ brands in the company's online database. Although it's compatible with devices utilizing IR or Bluetooth remote controls, it does not support IP control using Wi-Fi. The remote itself has over 30 buttons and a directional keypad along with a small OLED screen with adjustable brightness. Initial set up and programming requires using SofaBaton's app.

Due to the price point and its smart home integration capabilities, the Logitech Harmony Companion ($149.95) is much more of a direct competitor to the Caavo. In many respects, the Harmony Companion surpasses the Caavo, most notably in the ability of the Harmony's handheld remote/hub combo to combine the functions of up to eight separate remote controls. Like the Caavo, the Harmony Companion's Hub can use IR, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth to control AV devices, and Logitech says there are over 270,000 compatible entertainment and smart home devices in the company's database. The list of smart home products that can be directly controlled by the Harmony Companion -- as opposed to requiring a third-party intermediary service, such as IFTTT, with the Caavo -- is extensive and includes such luminaries in smart lighting as Lutron Caseta [Lutron Caseta site], Philips Hue [Philips hue site], and LIFX [lifx site].

Like the Caavo, though, the Harmony Companion requires Logitech's Harmony server backbone to be up and running for owners to be able to program the remote and use the app. As I mentioned earlier regarding the advanced features of the Caavo being dependent upon the company's continued existence and product support, the same applies to the Harmony Companion. Here again, I have no unique insight into Logitech's corporate boardroom and roadmap for the future. The folks at Logitech have occasionally rankled owners of Harmony gear over the years, but eventually, they've always done a pretty good job of making things right.

But there are a few crucial areas where I think the Caavo outshines the Harmony Companion (and the more expensive $349.95 Harmony Elite, for that matter). For starters, I found the Caavo to be much simpler to set up and program than the Harmony models because, for the most part, the Caavo can automatically identify devices connected to the Caavo Hub. No app or computer interaction is required. Furthermore, the Caavo handheld remote is much less intimidating in appearance than is the Harmony Companion's handheld -- although I will say that the Harmony is more ergonomic and comfortable to hold. All in all, the Harmony Companion is better suited for what could be called a "power user" who has a more traditional home theater setup with an AVR and multiple, diverse source components. The Caavo, on the other hand, is a better match for those with smaller systems.

The Sevenhugs Smart Remote U ($199.99) is an attractive, sleek little remote (only 5.4-inches long by 1.7-inches wide and a mere 0.5-inches thick) with a 3.4-inch (diagonal) "high definition LCD" screen on the front that utilizes capacitive multi-touch technology to avoid the necessity of having even a single pushbutton on the remote. Much like the Logitech Harmony Companion, the Sevenhugs Smart Remote U claims compatibility with an enormous number of devices (over 650,000) -- although its smart home device integration doesn't appear to be as extensive as Logitech's -- and control connectivity includes Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz), Bluetooth, and IR. Sevenhugs says the Smart Remote U can control up to 80 devices, although only 20 of them (!) can be controlled via IR. As with the Harmony, the Sevenhugs uses your existing components to do the AV source switching.

Conclusion
No matter how phenomenal your AV or home automation system is, the remote control, the app, and/or the voice control service you use to interact with it ultimately determines whether the system feels like a luxury or a liability. Hardcore home theater enthusiasts will likely find the Caavo's maximum of four AV sources and its minimal AVR integration capabilities to be too limiting. More casual users, on the other hand, especially those who are tech adverse (we all have friends and family members who fall into that category), as well as cord-cutters who rely on a single (or at most two) streaming media players feeding their TV and soundbar will quickly become addicted to the ease-of-use and simplicity of the Caavo's approach to becoming the operating system of the AV system.

Additional Resources
• Visit the Caavo website for more information.
• Check out our Remotes + System Control Reviews category page to read similar reviews.
Read Harmony Elite Universal Remote, Hub and App Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.

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