Designing a Home Theater - Home Theater Remote - Choosing The Right Remote

What To Look For In A Home Theater Remote Control

Although it may not have been in your Home Theater Design, you will need a home theater remote control.

Setting up a home theater buries you in remotes pretty quick. It becomes a 3 or 4 remote task to do anything unless you get a home theater remote.

There are a few different calibers of remote controls. If you only want to reduce the number of remote controls you have, then a basic universal remote would do the trick.

But, if you want a remote control that does more than control the A/V equipment, your choices will be slim.

Features like controlling lights and/or blinds. Or setting up macros/scenes which turn on and off various devices depending on the activity.

In this article, I’ll go over what I looked at when choosing my remote and how I set it up.

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Why Not Just Use The Remotes You Have

Choosing the right remote control will completely change your home theater experience. A typical home theater will have at least 3 remotes (for the TV/Projector, surround sound, Cable box or DVD Player).

Fumbling between all the remote becomes a pain pretty quickly. Many of the remotes that come with home theater equipment do try to be universal-ish. But they still fall short with home theater scenarios.

The Remote Criteria

The remote I was searching for would control:

  • the projector
  • The surround sound amplifier
  • 4K BluRay DVD player
  • The Cable Box
  • Some way of controlling Insteon lights
A Home Theater Remote that can control all that is pretty sophisticated. And the more features a remote has, the more expensive it gets.

On the low end, they are about $100. These remotes will have a low limit on the devices that can it can control and no macros. On the super fancy high end, there is a complete home automation system. That system can control just about any electronic device, but of course, it’s at a cost. The Savant is one of those systems and runs about $1000 a room.

For my scenario, I already have a home automation system so Savant wasn’t something I had any interest in.

My home automation system is an Insteon based system. A Universal Devices ISY controller (Model ISY 994i/IR Pro) that controls everything. Things like the door lock, the thermostats, lights, and door sensors.

Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home

After some research, it became clear the Harmony family of remotes is the best value for the features. They’ve been in the remote control business for a very long time and they have excelled over the years.

Which a Harmony remote, you base your choice on how many devices you plan on controlling. The Harmony remote I chose was the Ultimate Home. It can control up to 15 devices with up to 15 activities. The activities are basically macros. Press one of the macro buttons, and it’ll turn on all the devices you need turned on for that activity.

Update:  The remote that I chose is now discontinued. The Logitech Harmony Elite Remote is the latest home theater remote from Logitech. It looks a little different but the specs are very similar.

An added bonus is that the Harmony Elite Remote also works with Alexa! 

Designing a Home Theater - Home Theater Remote - Logitech Harmony Elite Remote

Logitech Harmony Elite

Logitech Harmony Elite Remote Control, Hub and App, works with Alexa

Logitech Harmony Home Ultimate Features

The Harmony Home Ultimate (and the Harmony Elite) is a feature-rich remote control.

  • The Harmony App On your Droid or iPhone lets you control your devices using the app
  • Configure macros or activities to set up all your devices with a click of a button
  • Control up to 15 Devices
  • Control devices using infrared, IP and Bluetooth
  • It Syncs the cable providers channel line up with your remote. When the cable provider changes channels around your remote will update itself
  • Save your favorite channels as favorites, which show up as icons in the remote’s screen
  • a digital screen on the remote allows you to customize buttons and activities
  • The hard buttons are all back-lit (very important when you are sitting in a dark theater)

The Parts To The Home Theater Remote Control Setup

There are three physical parts to the remote control. The remote control itself, a Hub and infrared blaster cables.

The hub is the brains of it all, and the remote control communicates to the hub using RF (radio). It’s great for home theater setups like mine, where the AV equipment is in a closet out of sight.

The hub should go where the majority of your electronics are since it’s the one doing most of the controlling.

The AV Equipment

In this setup, there’s a total of 6 devices listed in the MyHarmony app:

  • Universal Devices ISY-994i/IR (Home Automation)
  • Yamaha TSR-7810 (Amplifier)
  • Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5040UB (Projector)
  • Arris DCX3600M (Cable/DVR)
  • Panasonic DMP-UB900 (4K BluRay Player)
  • Windows Computer

Setting Up The Remote For Your Home Theater

Harmony has done a great job with their remote controls. The basic initial setup was pretty straight forward.

You’ll need to install their MyHarmony software and run the setup. You can either install it on your PC or on your phone and it will guide you through the setup process.

During setup, the hub was able to automatically detect the Yamaha amplifier on the WiFi.  For the other devices (cable box, DVD player and projector) I needed to supply the make an model.  Based on the make an model, it knew the full set of remote codes for them.

Much easier than the old days where you had to teach your universal remote the codes for each function.

A Home Theater Gotcha

If you have a theater like mine, you have AV equipment tucked away in a closet close by but out of sight.

The Harmony Hub goes in the closet along with all the AV equipment, but one gotcha is the projector.

Initially, I wasn’t sure if I’d have to run one of the infrared blasters into the theater to get it to turn on/off the projector.

Well, luckily Harmony had already thought of that. In the MyHarmony App, you determine what controls the device, either the remote or the hub.

That’s done here:

  • Go to the MyHarmony App and click settings
  • Click More >>
  • Remote and Hub Assignments

Problem solved. 

Update:  The solution above worked great, but it would only work if you were in the room to turn on the projector. I sometimes use the MyHarmony app on my phone to turn the theater equipment on or off from outside the room.

 
Since the remote controlled the projector, the projector didn’t turn on. In
 
the end, I ran one of the IR blasters from the Harmony hub to the theater, and that worked like a charm.

Getting Harmony To Talk To Insteon

Like I said earlier, my home automation is Insteon based. When I was setting up my home theater I expected to one day be able to control the lights. And maybe even the curtains using my home theater remote control.

Insteon has a user-friendly device called InsteonHub, which Harmony can communicate with natively.

My setup uses a Universal Devices controller, which is more flexible but not as user-friendly. Initially, it didn’t seem obvious how I could get Harmony and Insteon to talk to each other.

At first, I thought I’d have to use some sort of Rest based commands to control the lights using the Harmony remote.

During my googling, I did see something using a Raspberry PI and something called ISY Helper to do just that.

From what I understand, the ISY Helper is the go-between for the Harmony and your ISY.

For my setup, it sounded like way too many moving parts.

Luckily the ISY I purchased had infrared, I think you can also buy the add-on module for the ISY if your ISY doesn’t have IR.

What Insteon Devices Can You Control With Harmony

With the Insteon Hub, I think you can only control the lights. With the infrared module in the ISY, you can control everything that the ISY can control.

On the ISY you would create a program with the things you want the ISY to do. Then assign that program to an IR code.

Let’s say you want to set the temp at a certain level, dim the lights in the theater and lock the front door for the evening.

Create a program with those steps and assign it to an IR code. Now create an activity on your remote that sends that IR code, you’re all set!

Pretty cool! And you have no limit to the possibilities.

Actually, you only have 40 IR codes to play with. But each of those codes can be configured to do a whole lot on the ISY side.

Add ISY To The Remote

Adding the ISY to the remote was straight forward. Add a new device in the Harmony app. And use Universal Devices as the manufacturer and ISY994i/IR as the model number.

As soon as you do that it will add the 40 infrared codes that the ISY uses into the remote.

Setup On The ISY

To add the IR codes on the ISY side was just as easy. Go into the admin console, click the IR tab and click the ‘Import Default IR Codes’ button. That adds the same 40 infrared codes into the ISY.

Using You ISY From The Remote

I wanted to be able to turn off/on Insteon lights using the remote control. Both within Harmony activities and independent of the activities.
 
To add your ISY IR commands on the remotes menus click the buttons option in the MyHarmony app.
 
Under ‘Screen Options’ select your ISY device, in my case, I called it Lights. and click Go.
 
Here you can add soft buttons for each IR command you would like to control directly from the remote.
 
Here’s a list of my configured soft buttons under Lights:
  • High Hat On
  • High Hat Off
  • Screen Light On
  • Screen Light Off
  • Stair Light On
  • Stair Light Off
  • Loft Dim/Off

The ISY Listed as a device on the remote

Designing a Home Theater - The Fixed Projector Screen - The Edgeless Screen
Designing a Home Theater - Home Theater Remote - Logitech Harmony Elite Remote - The Digital Screen with the ISY Commands Listed As Soft Buttons

High Hat Off Program In ISY Admin Console

Designing a Home Theater - Home Theater Remote - Logitech Harmony Elite Remote - ISY Program To Turn Off The High Hats

Setting Up Harmony Activities

This is where the really cool functions of the remote control start to shine.
 
With the Harmony remote you can set up activities. Activities are basically macros with functions for any of your configured devices.
 
An example of an activity that I have set up is “Watch TV”. When I press the button for that activity it does the following:
  • Powers on the projector
  • Sets the projector input to HDMI1
  • Powers on the amplifier
  • Sets the amplifier input to HDMI2
  • Powers on the Cable/DVR
  • Turns of the lights in the Movie Theater

When you are done watching TV and want to turn everything off, just press the button next to the activity again and it’ll turn everything off.

Now if you have a home theater and don’t yet have a remote control with macros, I think you can appreciate how this remote can have everything on, set and ready to go with the press of one button.

No more fumbling with every remote control you have to get things set up just to watch TV.

Before Harmony these were my steps:

  • Get the projector remote, press the power button
  • Get the amplifier remote, press the power button and set it to HDMI2
  • Get the Cable remote, press the power button
  • If the lights were on, get up and press the button to turn them off

A big difference in user experience.

In a way, the remote control is the mortar in the electronic building blocks of your home theater. It changes your experience completely.

Tweaking The Activities

MyHarmony has a GUI that helps you create activities in a pretty intuitive way. To set up a basic activity is not very difficult, it’s just a matter of following the prompts.
 
Once the activity has been created the software will ask you to test the activity. I’d say the majority of what it sets up works pretty nicely.
 
Activities need tweaking with devices that take a long time to turn on or if it uses cursor commands. An example would be clicking left once then up then enter.
 
No matter how complex the activity, after a bit of tweaking things will work pretty reliably.
 
Below are my activities along with their settings.

My Activities List

Here are all my configured activities and settings. The “Lights – IR004” entry triggers the “Turning off the Movie Theater lights” program on the ISY.

The Watch Amazon activity is an example of an activity using cursor movements. The DVD Player has no built-in button for Amazon so I used cursor movements to select the AmazonApp.

I also added mute at the beginning and the volume down at the end because of an annoying ding sound the DVD player made. Every time the cursor in the interface moved there was a ding, and I didn’t like hearing it.

Watch TV

  1. Projector – Power On
  2. Projector – Input HDMI 1
  3. Amplifier – Power On
  4. Amplifier- Input HDMI 2
  5. Cable DVR – Power On
  6. Lights – IR004

Watch A Movie

  1. Projector – Power On
  2. Projector – Input HDMI 1
  3. Amplifier – Power On
  4. Amplifier- Input HDMI 2
  5. Cable DVR – Power On
  6. Lights – IR004

Watch Netflix

  1. Blu-Ray Player – Power On
  2. Amplifier – Power On
  3. Amplifier – Input: HDMI 1
  4. Projector – Power On
  5. Projector – Input: HDMI 1
  6. Wait 10 sec
  7. Blu-ray Player – Netflix
  8. Lights – IR004

Watch Amazon

  1. Amplifier – Power On
  2. Amplifier – Input: HDMI 1
  3. Blu-Ray Player – Power On
  4. Projector – Power On
  5. Projector – Input: HDMI 1
  6. Wait 15 sec
  7. Amplifier – Mute
  8. Blu-ray Player – Internet
  9. Wait 14 sec
  10. Blu-ray Player – DirectionLeft
  11. Wait 2 sec
  12. Blu-ray Player – DirectionDown
  13. Wait 2 sec
  14. Blu-ray Player – OK
  15. Amplifier – VolumeDown
  16. Lights – IR004
Designing a Home Theater - Home Theater Remote - Logitech Harmony Elite Remote - The Digital Screen with the Activities List

Summing It All Up

Having a Harmony Home theater remote control is way better than trying to manage 6 remotes…. but I had no idea how much better the experience was going to be.

The remote control makes it a real pleasure to turn on and off your devices. If you have a home theater getting a Harmony remote control is a must!

The simplicity of use that a remote like this gives you is amazing.

In my opinion, a home theater design is incomplete if it doesn’t include a home theater remote control.

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