As an avid golfer, a lot of talk goes into the quality, condition, and design of the grips on your clubs, as they are the singular point of contact between your swing (mine currently resembles a controlled epileptic fit) and the actual club as it hits the ball. For the home theater enthusiast, the remote control is that key point of contact. Both audiophile systems and home theater systems alike need some form of control, but so often the ones that come in the boxes with our lust-worthy products are not just mundane, they are outright lame. Dennis Burger, Andrew Robinson, and I have crowed about this topic until we’re almost sick of it ourselves, but the simple fact of the matter is that so many remote controls just plain suck.
It’s easy to complain about bad design, though. It’s a little tougher to talk about what actually makes a remote spark joy in our hearts. But that’s the exactly the topic of this discussion. Before we get there, though, I’ve got a little more griping to get off my chest.
What Makes a Remote Bad?
So many remotes that we see in the course of reviewing products are just terrible afterthoughts, hastily designed, shoddily built, and shoved in the box because, well, there has to be some sort of clicker in the box, doesn’t there? They exist mostly in the form of metal bricks with no backlighting on the audiophile side. On the home theater side, we get plastic hunks of crap with too many buttons and little to no thought given to day-to-day use. There are companies who design and build OEM remotes for third parties, and some of these are actually quite good, but that costs money and dealers demand high margins, so features need to be cut somewhere, right?
Often, said cuts come via the remote control. It is the same baffling logic that you see in hotels where the youngest, least-trained, least-capable staff are put at the front of house, which has a huge impact on your first impressions of a hotel. Remote controls have so much to do with the way you feel about a product that bad ones can absolutely ruin an otherwise fine product. They are key to your setup experience. They are key to your long-term enjoyment. More attention needs to be paid by AV manufacturers from every corner of the industry to offer better remote solutions, along with drivers for popular control systems like Crestron, Control4, Savant, and others.
What Makes a Remote Control Good?
I have been going through a bit of a transitional period in terms of AV as I sold pretty much every component that I own when I sold our last house this past spring. I kept my Roku and my Kaleidescape and sold off my Oppo BDP-203. That’s about all I had. Don’t worry, with the help of Simply Home Entertainment, we are putting Humpty Dumpty back together with a killer new AV rig. The Middle Atlantic racks are getting populated as I type this, and I will report more on that later. For the past two months, I have had nothing more than two Sony G-series UHD TVs (a 65 inch and an 85 inch) with DirecTV on them, as well as my trusty Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge and Bass system running on Airplay from my computer for an “audiophile system,” if you’ll allow me to hang that description on a wireless music system.
In that time, I’ve grown to really love the remote control that DirecTV’s provides with its current generation receiver/DVRs. No, it isn’t perfect, as it would need to be made of metal, come with a rechargeable battery, and be backlit to earn that level of praise. But what it does do right is come with very thoughtful ergonomics, excellent placement of key buttons, and really fantastic toggles for volume up/down and channel up/down. This isn’t some fancy Crestron solution or an iPad dialed-to-the-nines with a $100 app and a $150 per hour programmer. This is a simple example of an excellent remote from out in the real world that knows its purpose and works fantastically well.
Content Selection versus Channel Surfing
One of the biggest quandaries out there in the world of smart home and control is how to meet the needs of two very different tasks: looking through content on image-driven apps and components as opposed to wanting to simply and easily channel surf television or pause and rewind your current disc or stream. Those are two very unique challenges, and most remotes don’t do both well. I learned this lesson a long time ago with my first real Crestron system in my old screening room. I had a bad-ass touch panel remote that also had some hard buttons. It wasn’t the fastest in terms of reaction speeds because of old Wi-Fi technology, but the remote was nicely and beautifully programmed. It worked well when I finally got a Kaleidescape server and could even run a silver disc player nicely. Apple TV (more popular then than now) also worked pretty well on this touch screen. Where it sucked out loud was on watching DirecTV. We had a page for searching or punching in specific channels. We had a page for preset channels. We had hard buttons for surfing up and down channels. And it all worked for shit.
Today’s touch screen remotes are smaller, lighter, have better battery performance, work fantastically on your Wi-Fi network, and more. And be sure to include Apple iPads in this conversation, too, as for cover-flow art work, accessing Ring doorbells and cameras, controlling your shades, tweaking your lighting, adjusting your HVAC system, and all of your other smart home needs, an iPad with, say, the Crestron or Control4 app (or any number of other apps that can work more on an à la carte basis) is a killer solution.
My new Crestron system (the third major one of my life) is being installed now, and we will have iPads in places like the master bedroom, the master bathroom, the media room, and the kitchen. But iPads just can’t do it all. Not well. We will also have hard button remotes in many other places that allow for channel surfing and more simple music control. These remotes, like my old favorite Crestron MLX-3 (now discontinued and likely updated), is just better for channel surfing and some basic functions.
Dennis just reviewed Control4’s sexy new Neeo remote, which is a recent acquisition on their part that they’ve brought into their platform, thus it needs a Control4 “brain” to operate. But what’s unique about the product is that they have made a physical remote that tries to suit both masters mentioned above. They also made the remote out of better materials, with better ergonomics, so it’s a control solution that might be exactly what you’re looking for if you do a lot of music listening or movie watching and smart home control at the same time. Perhaps the most exciting thing about product, though, is its superior build quality and excellent ease of use. All-in programmed price for a one-room system with Neeo as the remote could come in for as little as $1,500, which isn’t too bad considering how plug-and-play Control4 can be for the right custom installer who knows his or her programming chops.
The iPhone as a Remote
While you can use an iPhone (or Android or whatever) as a TV or system remote, I seriously don’t recommend it. I have comingled the world of cellphones and AV control with the Bowers & Wilkins app for the Formation Speakers, and I find that I have to be very mindful of turning off all of the other apps on my iPhone X when listening to music via the B&W speakers. Not only does that app singularly drain your battery with enthusiasm, there’s also the issue of other distractions, and that might be even more concerning to me. This is where a cheaper, Wi-Fi only iPad can be good for a music system, in that you don’t have to setup your web browser and especially not your email. Are there other apps you might want to add to a dedicated control iPad? Sure! The Nest app, the Ring app, perhaps a lighting control app? It depends on your system, but take it from this burnt-out Gen-Xer: your iPhone isn’t a good solution for your main remote control of your audiophile or home theater system.
So, Where Do We Go from Here?
In the end, there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to stock remotes, universal remotes, and even the most expensive custom programmed remotes from the fanciest smart home companies. The first step is to try to think about the user experience as much as possible, as DirecTV has done with its throw-in remotes. Projector companies can’t make remotes without backlighting and expect to get positive reviews. Projectors are used in the dark and need a backlit remote. Buck up guys.
Other AV companies need to also buck up and offer more functional, better remotes across the board. Big-box brands can eat the extra expense thanks to volume sales. Smaller, more boutique audiophile and specialty home theater companies are already charging a premium in many cases, and some of that upcharge needs to go into hiring good remote designers or working with OEM partners to offer something better than the slab of rectangular cluster-foxtrot they so often include with their gear these days. That’s true even if many of the customers are going to leave the remote in the box in lieu of a fancier control system.
Speaking of fancier control systems, manufacturers seriously need to get better about ensuring that their gear plays well with advanced control solutions, by way of well-designed two-way IP drivers that simply make the entire control process snappier, more reliable, and more interactive. This is especially important as integration becomes more important–as we stop thinking of entertainment, HVAC, lighting, shades, security, and the like as independent domains and truly embrace the concept of the integrated smart home.
While remote controls have a long way to go to rise to the level of excellence of so much of the other technology in our lives, we do have many excellent options to invest in today, many of which meet the needs of everyone in the home with simplicity and elegance. And that is a cool thing indeed.
• One Thing We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Cord-Cutting at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• AV Bliss Is About More Than Merely Audio and Video at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Getting Started With Basic Home Automation: Control4 Edition at HomeTheaterReview.com.