About two months ago, Monster Cable was kind enough to send me one of their new Monster Central Control System Home Theater and Lighting Controller 300 (MCC AV300) universal remotes.
I'll be up front and disclose that I was given the unit with the understanding that I'd blog about it. I will try to be as unbiased as I can about the remote in my review and give you as much relevant info as possible so you can make an informed buying decision.
So what's the skinny? The remote is a hybrid infra-red (IR) and Radio Frequency (RF) remote similar to Harmony's 890 universal remote. And while the Monster 300 uses some of the same circuitry, software and remote databases, it has more than a few enhancements that add value for the extra money you have to pay over the 890.
This unit can basically control anything that has a remote that uses IR or RF. You can get separate lighting and power control modules to control lighting or turn on and off almost any other device that has a 2 prong power cord.
Whereas the Harmony 890 is meant mainly to control devices in one room, the Monster 300 is designed to control an entire house. It does this by having you set up your devices into various rooms. Pretty convenient if you have a multi-zone AV system.
Also this remote was designed primarily with things like lighting control in mind and in fact even has a button specifically for lighting at the top of the remote. This level of integration of controls of lighting along with the usual home theater items is another thing that separates this remote from its competitors and brethren in the mid-end remote market.
So let's get cracking. First off, the packaging. As with all Monster Cable products, the presentation is first rate. They do a fairly good job on the package of letting you know what's inside and what is instore for you if you buy it. Plus it's packaged to protect the remote and other items very well. Even the worst delivery guy having a bad day would have serious problems damaging the unit and other items, it's wrapped that well. Of course, this also means it's that much harder to get out of the box, but you can't have everything.
The package contains the remote, the Omnilink with power adapter (more on that in a bit), the Lithium battery, a USB cable for plugging the Omnilink and remote into the PC for programming, a software CD, a simple manual, and lastly the charging cradle and power adapter.
Set up of the unit is fairly straight forward. You first have to install the software on the included CD onto a computer with an internet connection. Then you have to set up an account and link the account with the remote and Omnilink. Then from there it walks you through the process of setting up your rooms, adding devices to each room and creating activities for each room.
What are activities? You can think of them as macros or sets of actions to take to get everything set up for a specific function. Let's say for instance that you are listening to music on your system, but now want to watch a movie. With most systems without a universal remote (and even with some universal remotes) you would have to switch your receiver or preamp from the CD input to the DVD input, turn on the TV, turn off the CD player, turn on the DVD player, and set the TV to the right input. With the Monster 300 remote, you instead hit the "Watch a DVD" activity button and it does everything for you.
And it keeps track of what components were turned on or off by the remote. It's not completely intelligent in that it can't interrogate a piece of equipment to see if it's on or not, but that's more a function of how IR sensors on equipment are one way. A CD player can get commands from a remote, but it can't talk back. So as long as you only use the remote to turn things on or off, you are fine.
As a "for your information", while the software is very good at walking you through the process, it is inevitable, particularly if your home theater setup is more complex or you have more obscure gear than most, that you will have to tweak things around a bit. I'd say expect to spend 10 to 40 minutes per device you are setting up to get everything working how you want. So if you don't have that kind of patience, particularly if you have a lot of equipment to control, either get one of the neighborhood "gearhead" kids to help you or hire a professional installer. This is true for any universal remote, by the way, though I've found the Monster 300 to be better in this regard than most. They have done and continue to do a good job of continuously updating the device database with new equipment as needed.
For instance, I was most pleasantly surprised to see that they had my Oppo DVD player in the database, although unfortunately, they did not have my Integra Research RDC-7.1 pre-processor in it. For devices that are not in the database, customers can send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org to request addition of the device to the database.
As an example of a device that needed some tweaking, I have the DirecTV HD Tivo. When setting that device up, I had to let the Monster 300 learn some of the functions, which was easy enough. When I first started using the remote to control the Tivo, response times were very slow and more often than not it would move past what I was trying to select in a list, for instance. Ended up having to tweak settings the Monster 300 has for delay from one command to the next and how many times it sends a command to the unit in order to get it working just right.
Also bear in mind that the pain of setup is a one time thing. Once you have everything set up and working just right, the setup data is kept on the Monster Central web server, so if anything happens to the remote you have a backup of all your settings in a geographically diverse safe place.
So what's the Omnilink thingy? If you are one of the lucky people who can afford to have doors on your equipment racks, you now have a "high class" problem. How to control devices when they are behind wood or other opaque materials. That's where the Omnilink comes in. It's an intelligent RF receiver that has 4 mini-plugs in its back where you plug in the Control Link Extender IR emitters. So basically, the Omnilink takes the RF signals (that do go through wood, walls, etc.) from the remote and sends it to each piece of equipment through a wire connected to an IR emitter. Of course the other benefit of the Omnilink is that you can now control normally IR controlled equipment even when they are in other rooms from you.
As I said before, the remote comes with a rechargeable lithium ion battery. Which is a very good thing. This baby would chew threw normal alkalines pretty quickly. As it is, I highly recommend that you set the auto-shut off time for the LCD screen and backlighting to as short an interval as possible. I originally had it set to the max of 45 seconds and was running the battery low in a day.
The manual recommends that it's ok for you to recharge the unit on a nightly basis, which is a good idea. If the remote runs completely out of power, it loses its programming, so you will have to hook it back up to the computer to resend the programming to the remote. Which is kind of a pain as anytime you have to send programming to the remote it takes anywhere from 2.5 to 5 minutes. And yes, you can expect this wait for most of the other remotes out there as well.
I should also mention that the LCD panel that is built in is pretty easy to read. The unit itself is very easy to use even in a dark room. It has a nice feature that automatically turns on the LCD and backlighting when you pick up the remote and tilt it so you can look at it. You can turn this feature off, but I find it quite useful.
In general the buttons are easy to use and give good feedback. The buttons around the LCD panel wobble around in their sockets a bit, but are other wise easy to press. I have found the number pad buttons a tad hard to push at times though as they were made pretty small in order to keep the size of the remote as small as possible. The remote does fit nicely into my hand as well, so ergonomically, overall, it's a very good design.
And I really got to say that it is great fun to just sit there and play around with the lights that are set up for remote control. I've sat there for minutes turning on and off the lights in my living room and dining room, which is cool as there's a big set of walls between my seating area and the dimmer for the dining room light.
At this point, you may be thinking "sounds great, how much is it?" These units don't come cheap at suggested retail of $600 plus $100 per plug in dimmer or switch, although I have seen the remote package for as low as $450 online. Of course the big question is, is the remote worth it?
If you have a complicated home theater or multi-zone AV setup requiring RF remote control then most likely the answer is yes. If you want to be able to control lighting or power on and off devices like fans or any other devices that do not have the now standard 12V control ports but do have a 2 prong plug, then the answer is most definitely yes.
As far as I know there isn't really another product that does what the Monster Cable Home Theater and Lighting Controller 300 does at this price point and if that isn't the definition of value, I don't know what is.
- Good ergonomics - It's not a blob like most other remotes
- Easy to use
- Straightforward and helpful set up
- Very flexible, allows control of potentially a lot of equipment spread throughout a house
- RF for control of devices through walls, floors, doors and ceilings
- Controls lighting
- All your settings are backed up to Monster's servers
- Device database is pretty big, they have knowledge and settings for a wide variety of equipment from XBoxes to CD players to TVs and everything in between
- Good interface design - I like the way they set up control of everything into Rooms, Activities and Devices
- Software runs on OS X and Safari as well as Windows and IE
Remote loses programming if battery runs out (this is easily remedied by reapplying settings from the PC)
- Device database is still missing some items (you can send email to email@example.com to have your device added)
- Have to tweak things a bit to get equipment working just right - some default settings for controlling equipment too conservative