Review: Logitech Harmony Smart Control Universal Remote

Harmony RemoteIt’s been a thorny problem for years. Numerous electronics devices purchased across different eras mashed together to create your home entertainment system with no simple way to integrate or control them.

To connect the components you first need to navigate the maze of cables, inputs, outputs and converters. This is not an easy chore as there are no less than 15 different possible cable types that could be part of your array of devices. Next comes the number of input and output jacks which are always limited on equipment. For example, you may want to add an Apple TV but you don’t want to use your TV speakers. Instead you want the sound to be boosted by your Audio/Video receiver which doesn’t have any HDMI inputs nor an Optical audio in jack. So you need to get an Optical to RCA converter, which also needs a power source. There are numerous other things that can pop up. You get the picture.

One way around all of this is to purchase all new equipment that connects wirelessly and use a Sound Bar that incorporates both speakers and an amplifier. As an electronics-phile, I already have thousands of dollars of perfectly good equipment and a custom wired high end speaker system. It seems wasteful to sunset that amount of investment. Besides, what I have now sounds amazing and also controls my outdoor patio speakers which I would likely lose by installing a new system indoors.

Here’s a handy chart Radio Shack has published that is very helpful as you piece together the maze of cables and inputs.

Audio Video Hook-up Guide

Once you get everything connected you’re still left with a stack of remotes that cannot be wired together. The Universal Remote has always been the purported savior to that problem, but they present their own challenges.

I have owned my share of UR’s in my time. My set-ups require RF (radio frequency) not IR (Infrared). The differences is with IR you have to have clear line of sight to all your devices and point the remote directly at the equipment for it to work. I hate seeing wires and components so I hide them in cabinets. In my bedroom they are 40 feet away from the TV buried deep in a closet. I first went with entry level models that worked fairly well for a while but never lasted more than a year. Then I broke down and purchased a high end model that required a technician to program it; total cost over $800. It’s working well and solved the issue in my bedroom, but the media room remote recently bit the dust.

I didn’t want to shell out that much money again, so I went on the research hunt, which led me to the Logitech site. They make the Harmony brand of UR’s and have been at it for quite a while. After much thought I selected the Logitech Harmony Smart Control. The list price is $129.00, but you can find them for $98.00 at many online stores.

This modest looking remote is amazing! It is surprisingly small which turns out to be a big advantage. My high end model is very long and requires you to reposition your hand while using it. The Harmony fits snugly in your palm and you can reach all the buttons using your fingers. It’s thin and has a tactile back that prevents it from sliding in your hand or on a table.

It has dual activation, meaning both IR and RF, providing high flexibility for control. It comes with a very small hub that sits inside a cabinet, connects to your home WiFi network and an IR blaster that sits outside an enclosure to control your components. My other URs required wires that would connect to the hub and then stick on the front of the components over the IR sensors. The Harmony’s IR blaster emits the signals across your room and bounces off walls, finding their way to the sensors on your components. Very, very cool.

The Harmony Smart Control software is programmed to understand thousands of brands of electronics inputs and source settings. The key is you need to invest quite a bit of time to carefully document all your component model numbers and which inputs and mode settings have been used in your current working configuration. I’m pretty savvy and it took me a while to get it all down, including pulling the cabinet out and using a flashlight to record the precise model numbers of my 10 year old Denon A/V receiver.

The set-up was also a bit time consuming but worked seamlessly. One of the ways Harmony extends the utility of this remote is through an iOS or Android app for smart phone. No app for a tablet at this time. You are guided through an interface on the app where you type in model numbers and and select inputs for the connected components. I was truly amazed at how they got all the labels from my Denon exactly right. It found all three Apple TV’s and all of my Sonos bridges and speakers in under ten seconds. There are three activity buttons that act as go to shortcuts. There are only three buttons, but each one can control two activities using a long or short push. So you’ve got six, which works fine for me.

The most impressive thing is there is almost no lag between pushing a button and the activity on the devices. It’s instant. I highly recommend this remote and love that it saved me $700.

My set-up:

  • Samsung PN60E7000 Plasma TV
  • Motorola DAC224 Cable DVR Box
  • Denon AVR-3802 Audio/Video Processor
  • Onkyo 2 Channel Amplifier M-282
  • Samsung BDP-1500 Bluray Player
  • Apple TV A1378
  • Sonos Bridges (2) and a Sonos Play Speaker
  • Monitor Audio Radius 225 High Performance Speakers
  • Monitor Audio Radius 90 Compact Wall Speakers
  • Definitive Technology ProSub 1000 Subwoofer

Image Credits: Harmony remote courtesy of Logitech, Hook up chart courtesy of Radio Shack

Yet Another Format, Blu-ray

A trademark of Sony

I’ve had all the home video formats. It started with the Sony Betamax, then quickly moved to VHS, as the electronics company JVC won that war. Marketers take note, never use the word Beta in the name of your product. From my perspective Beta was superior to VHS in almost every way. Then Laser Disk came along and I was immediately seduced by the texture and depth of the visuals and crispness of the soundtrack. No more tapes to get tangled or broken, an easy way to skip to chapters/scenes, and no rewinding! Laser Disks are the size of record albums (you remember those 12″ black vinyl circles with grooves that produce music when you pass a diamond needle across the surface) only shiny. They were also much easier to store than tapes. But the format never caught on. My hypothesis is the studios knew they could eventually reduce the disk size to a 5″ optical format like CDs. And sure enough they did as the DVD debuted and put VHS and LD out to pasture. Now we have the next generation of home video in high definition; Blu-ray. My experience started with Sony and has now come full circle with Blu-ray.

The launch of Blu-ray seems well timed now that the latest format war has ended and HD sets are rolling into consumer homes at a healthy clip. When I got my first HD TV five years ago I was anxious to see what my LDs would look like on that beautiful flat screen. I plugged in the cables and fired it up. I was horrified. The TV production quality had, for the first time, surpassed the source material, making those shiny disks look like mud. I had to retire my Pioneer LD player to the basement keeping it connected to my 35″ ProScan tube monitor. It was a sad day. Not just for the financial investment, but for the many hours of enjoyment watching CAV versions and hearing the delightful hum of the motor turning the laser reader over to play the other side of those platters that mattered. I purged all my vinyl albums when CDs came along and did the same with VHS when I purchased the same movie on LD or DVD. But I’ve kept my entire LD collection. All 275 of them.

Some of my Laser Disks
Some of my Laser Disks

So Blu-ray. Video tape was primarily mechanical, LDs and DVDs were fully compatible, simple read only formats. But a Blu-ray player is computer-like and the discs are software programs. They have a longer load time and many players have an ethernet connection used to get firmware updates from the mother ship. Be sure you get one with this feature. None of this is bad, and all necessary to get to the phenomenal picture quality of Blu-ray. But it does evolve the consumer from a movie watcher who inserts a media format and pushes play into something closer to an interface user. I don’t find there is much difference in sound on Blu-ray from the later generation DVD. The first DVDs on the market had less than pristine sound, but it has been pretty reliable the last few years. The picture however is in another league all together. Blacker blacks, richer colors, amazing depth, texture and clear details from the surface to the farthest background image.

Like any display format, the source material is key. Newer films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight are solid all the way through. But older pictures, The Godfather is one, are a bit uneven. This is less the fault of the format than the horrible preservation practices of the studio system. Still, I saw dozens of visual details while watching The Godfather that I can honestly say I hadn’t noticed before, and I’ve seen that film probably over 50 times in the theater, on TV, VHS, LD and DVD. For example, when Captain McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo are driving Michael to that fateful dinner meeting in the Bronx, they pass a commercial sign that reads Exterminating Co.

Studios are rushing to bring their films to Blu-ray to cash in on sales. The process costs money, and some will cut corners. Wen Laser Disks came out, I learned this lesson the hard way. I began to rely on Douglas Pratt’s Laser Disk Newsletter to help guide which films I would buy on LD. Mr. Pratt would watch all new LD releases and rate them for technical quality. There might be a market for this kind of service for Blu-ray, but online this time. I would strongly suggest you not go out and replace your perfectly good DVDs with Blu-ray versions. You may be disappointed in how the new version looks. Instead a good strategy would be to purchase only newer films, or favorites you have seen via rental or at a friends house. Since all Blu-ray players are backward compatible with DVDs there is no hurry and nothing to lose

Some final thoughts. Some releases come with a digital copy DVD which allows you to insert it into your computer’s drive and download a free digital copy from iTunes using an activation code. It’s like getting two versions of the movie for one price. Also noticed that you can sometimes get a rebate if you have the same movie on DVD. Send in the proof of purchase codes from both formats and get a check in the mail. These are very good marketing tactics to help consumers make the switch. I’ve also noticed one other benefit. No Blu-ray disc I’ve watched so far has any coming attractions or ads! Please, please keep it that way studios. Is it possible that this is the end of Disney’s Fast Play? One can hope.

Here’s a logo gallery of all the home video formats I’ve watched and collected for over time (so far that is).