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Caavo review: Visionary universal remote falls short of HDR reality

While it succeeds beautifully at simplifying a sprawling home theater, the Caavo's lack of HDR compatibility kills its appeal.

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David Katzmaier
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David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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Would you pay $400 for really nice universal remote? What if it made your system incompatible with today's highest-quality home video and audio formats?

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7.0

Caavo

The Good

The Caavo is a unique universal remote control and HDMI switching system that integrates all of the gear in your home theater. It supports voice commands both by talking into the remote and using Alexa. Its onscreen overlay allows you to access devices, apps and TV show and movie watchlists to easily get to what you want, regardless of where it is.

The Bad

The Caavo's lack of support for HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos is unforgivable for a product this expensive. The remote isn't backlit. It can't perform advanced commands for smart TVs or audio gear, and customization isn't as deep as Harmony products.

The Bottom Line

The Caavo does a great job simplifying the complexity of home theater, but this pricey system is fatally flawed by lack of HDR support.

If you answered "Hell, no!" to either question, the Caavo isn't for you. But if you don't mind the expense and don't demand the latest in picture quality, it could be the greatest thing for your home theater since popcorn.

Namesake of a Silicon Valley startup, the Caavo is a unique, ambitious product that does more to tackle the daunting complexity of modern home theater gear than any device I've tested. It effectively takes over your system, smooths over the rough edges and makes it all much easier to use. Unfortunately, it requires two big sacrifices.

The first is money. Cheaper competitors, namely the excellent Logitech Harmony hubs and hub-remote combos that cost between $80 and $250, also provide superb control of just about every device you can think of. I've been using Harmony for more than a decade and recommend it to everyone juggling multiple remotes. For people with more roomy budgets, Caavo also faces competition from custom installation services that use systems such as Crestron or Control4.

Caavo wood like to be your universal remote

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The second, and more pertinent, sacrifice is that the Caavo won't work with high dynamic range (HDR) video, which provides the best image quality to midrange and high-end TVs -- even better than 4K. It lacks the HDMI hardware to pass HDR and Dolby Vision signals from source devices like game consoles (the PS4, PS4 Pro, Xbox One S and Xbox One X support HDR), 4K Blu-ray players and media steamers (Apple TV 4K, higher-end Rokus, Chromecast Ultra and Amazon Fire TV support HDR) to 4K HDR TVs

The Caavo can handle 4K video, but no software update will enable HDR support in the generation of Caavo hardware reviewed here. It also doesn't support Dolby Atmos audio, the most-advanced home audio format.

I'm betting just about everybody that's game to pay $400 for a remote has (or will soon buy) both a new TV that supports HDR and at least one of those 4K HDR sources. With Caavo, he or she will be stuck without HDR and Atmos. The picture and sound on that TV could be great, but it won't be the best available.

That's a shame, because Caavo is really good. It has polish and simplicity, lovely design and some sleek extras found on no other device. Voice control with Alexa works very well, and setup even for a complex system wasn't terrible. Once the presumed Caavo successor gets HDR support, it will be a clear upgrade over the Harmony Elite in many ways. Until then, however, high-end remote shoppers who care about HDR should stick with the Elite or give their custom installers a call.

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Caav-who?

The Caavo system consists of two pieces: the remote control itself, and the big, low-slung box. You connect all of your sources -- cable box, Xbox, PlayStation, Roku, Blu-ray player, whatever -- to any of its eight HDMI inputs, then connect the Caavo's HDMI output to your TV. If you have an AV receiver, the Caavo's output goes to its input and then on to the TV.

Unlike a traditional AV remote like the Harmony, which simply controls switching between different inputs on the TV or receiver, Caavo's box does the switching itself -- which is why it makes your whole system incompatible with HDR.

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You might be wondering if you can just use the HDR apps built into your smart TV to get around the Caavo's limitation. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to control smart TV apps with the Caavo; the system is designed to use external devices for streaming, not built-in TV apps.

Like the Harmony, the Caavo can control just about any device using the same infrared commands as their included remotes. The box has six IR emitters -- two pointing out the front, one out each side, and two pointing out the top -- and comes with two additional wired emitters to hit hard-to-reach gear. It also supports Wi-Fi, IP and Bluetooth control.

The remote doesn't need line of sight, so you can stash the whole system inside a cabinet or closet, for example. It communicates via Bluetooth and has a respectable range to the box of 30 to 60 feet, depending on conditions, so you could control the system from another room. Although it lacks a charging cradle, battery life between charges is three to four months.

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Nicest. Remote. Ever.

The first thing you'll notice about the Caavo is its striking design. The box is available in three different real wood top covers: bamboo, barwood or ebony. The latter two cost an additional $40, and my review sample was lovely barwood. The wood top is removable, so you can easily access all those HDMI connections, the two USB ports (for power), an Ethernet port, infrared emitter port and the AC power connection.

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Doing so reveals Caavo's slick cable management system, which consists of 15 posts that keep the cables in line. The Caavo includes a single matching 3-foot HDMI cable in "signature barolo white and red," a scheme that also matches the other included cables: Ethernet, power, remote charging cable with wall adapter, short HDMI extender and two IR emitters.

I found the included HDMI cable too short to reach my gear when the Caavo was placed on top of the AV rack, in front of the TV, but that all depends on your setup. The company sells additional matching (or black) 3- or 6-foot cables for $24 and $29, respectively, or you could slum it with normal cables.

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The box itself is devoid of controls aside from volume up and down, and play/pause. After setup they mapped correctly: to control the main device's volume and to play/pause on the active device. Pretty sweet, although I'd also like to see a button on the box for system power, too. I did love that pressing all three simultaneously evoked a remote finder function: the clicker emitted a series of notes, making it easy to locate among the couch cushions.

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The remote follows the box's sleek look and feel. Matching wood on the bottom is interrupted by a little riser that makes it sit at a slight angle on the table, which I loved. It was just the right size for my hand, and the array of 16 buttons plus the circular cursor hit another Goldilocks note. There's no backlighting, unfortunately, but I'm sure ditching illumination is the main reason the battery lasts so long between charges.

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It took me awhile to get used to the layout of the keys, especially the offset "Home" button, but in general it's an easy learning curve. I would have liked better tactile differentiation -- the bottom set of nine, in particular, all feel the same -- but the Caavo's awesome capacitive key feature really helped. Just placing a thumb on the key caused an on-screen pop-up describing its function. Aside from helping keep my eyes on the screen as opposed to the remote, the popup helped develop my muscle memory quickly.

Using Caavo: Home screen takeover

So what's the point of the Caavo taking over your switching? In the simplest terms, it allows the Caavo's menus and functionality to overlay the screen, offering a bunch of capabilities and features a normal universal remote cannot. Yes, it still commands your devices directly, and responses were quick and flawless in my experience, but the on-screen stuff is what really separates it from Harmony in day-to-day use.

The big oblong Cavvo button summons the main menu, a bottom overlay with selections for search, devices, apps and watchlists, as well as settings and a power icon.

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Search performs a keyword search for TV shows and movies across devices and apps you've linked (see below). It worked similar to search on Roku or Apple TV: Once results came up I could choose the season by hitting the "$ Watch On" button. Beyond the false indication that I had to buy or rent titles I already owned, it worked well, and as usual I appreciated being able to talk into the remote instead of typing on an onscreen keyboard.

It's important to note that Caavo's voice remote just uses Caavo's own search catalog and results, not the (typically much more capable) voice features of native devices. For example, you can't use the Caavo remote's voice feature to perform Siri voice tricks, like "What did he say?" or turn on lights using the Nvidia Shield's built-in Google Assistant. To do that, you still have to use the original device remote.

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The devices and apps tabs are simple yet functional: each calls up a grid of connected devices or apps, respectively, and lets you go to one quickly. You can choose to associate any app with just about any device, which I really liked. Hulu is better on Apple TV, Roku and Fire TV than Nvidia Shield for example, while YouTube works best on Shield.

Unfortunately, some devices were missing from some apps: I couldn't choose Apple TV as my preferred app for DirecTV Now, Sling TV or Amazon, for example. It's also worth noting that app launching on some devices, particularly Apple TV, is more of a kludge and takes longer than others, but they all eventually worked in my experience.

Note that only Caavo's selection of supported apps is accessible from this screen. The company is working to add more, and when I asked for specifics, a rep said, "The top sports and music apps will be first, but from there we're listening to users to determine what's most important."

Choosing a Device from that tab, or hitting the Sources button on the remote, not only switches to the source, but also causes the buttons on the remote to control that device, with the exception of volume and mute, which are always mapped to your main audio device. The "keypad" button, the one with nine dots, calls up an onscreen menu with additional commands.

So what if a particular command isn't there? You can customize the little on-screen pop-up menu somewhat, but not nearly as much as with Harmony. Long-pressing the keypad button summons a menu with additional commands, and you can add them as long presses to certain keys. I was able to map the important "options" and "Fios TV" keys as long presses to the default channel up and down buttons, for example. Unfortunately, the command for "menu" on my Fios box was absent, and in general I would have preferred more freedom to customize.

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There's also no way to control commands specific to your TV, like aspect ratio control or picture mode, or your AV receiver or sound bar, such as sound mode toggle. Since the Caavo lacks a "learning" function, you'll have to dig out your original remote if you want to access those features.

Perhaps the most unique and powerful aspect of the Caavo interface is Watchlists. It gathers all of the recently watched shows and movies across many of the the apps you've signed into, and also lists the contents of compatible DVRs (currently DirecTV, Dish Network and Comcast X1 DVRs). You can quickly resume and watch recent shows, and even access different profiles (e.g. "kids" on Netflix). Selecting one launches the app on your preferred device and immediately begins playing the show.

Watchlists worked very well in my testing, although as you might expect, its list of supported apps is relatively narrow. Currently it only works with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime and Vudu. Still, very impressive.

Unlike Harmony, there's no app that allows control of your system from a phone or tablet. Caavo is working on one, and when it arrives it could provide additional functionality. For example, the ability to directly control functions on the the TV or AV receiver, or access commands not supported by the physical remote.

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Caavo can also accept commands via Alexa speakers.

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Alexa, tell Caavo to find my remote

The Alexa skill for the Caavo is still in beta, and that's the version I tested on a special Alexa account, but company reps assured me it would be working the same way for any user at launch. If that's the case, prepare to be impressed.

Using the standard prefix "Alexa, tell Caavo…" I was able to launch apps, switch devices, control volume and mute, pause and play, tune to specific channels, and power the system on and off. You can do those kinds of things with the Alexa skill for Harmony too, but Caavo's is much more capable.

The coolest is that I was able to search for specific shows and movies -- and get relevant results -- via voice. "Alexa, tell Caavo to search for 'Despicable Me,'" brought up the Caavo's Watch screen, for example, and "Alexa, tell Caavo to search for 'Game of Thrones'" worked great, too.

Also really cool: "Alexa, tell Caavo to find my remote" causes the clicker to emit its "find" tone. I was also able to navigate the screen in basic ways, for example by saying. "Alexa, tell Caavo up" to move up in the menu and "Alexa, tell Caavo OK" to select something. It was slow and annoying, but I could do it without the remote.

As expected, Alexa wasn't flawless. For example, "Switch to Verizon Fios" didn't work; "Switch to Roku" actually turned off the system; and "Search for 'Mad Max'" provided no response aside from Alexa's little "fail" tone. Even so, I'd call Alexa on the Caavo a success, as long as you can remember the "tell Caavo" catchphrase.

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Tear it down to set it up

The Caavo's setup is as easy as it can be for a complex home-theater system, but that doesn't mean it's fast. It took me a couple hours total to get up and running with my full test system including eight sources and an AV receiver, and I do this kind of thing for a living. For the record, my system consisted of:

  • Verizon Fios HD DVR
  • Xbox One
  • PlayStation 4
  • Roku Ultra
  • Amazon Fire TV
  • Nvidia Shield
  • Apple TV 4K
  • Oppo UDB-203 4K Blu-Ray player
  • Onkyo TX-NR575 receiver
  • LG OLED65E7P TV

First you'll create a Caavo account, which entails the usual username and password setup, then telling it what devices and streaming apps you use. And yes, that also means you'll need to give Caavo your sign-ins for every app you want to link (and potentially there's a lot). The setup process also encourages you to download the Caavo companion app on certain supported devices, namely Apple TV, Fire TV and Nvidia Shield. This allows it to launch apps directly.

Once you unpack the Caavo box itself, the first step is figuring out where it will go -- you'll need room somewhere in your AV rack, or on the table in front of your TV if you want to show it off. Then you'll have to disconnect all of the HDMI cables from your gear, run them to the Caavo, and run the Caavo's HDMI output either directly to your TV, or to your audio component (AV receiver or soundbar) then to your TV.

At that point, you'll finally turn on the system. The Caavo goes through all of the inputs and tried to recognize them automatically, just like a late-model Samsung TV or Roku player. Three of the eight devices in my test system (my Fios DVR, a PS4 and an Oppo 4K Blu-ray player) failed to be identified initially, at which point another simple menu let me choose them manually.

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After your devices are recognized, the Caavo sets up and tests control of each using a slick on-screen overlay, individual instructions and a video feed from the device. Troubleshooting functions were great: at one point for example, to deal with that troublesome Fios box the system had me place an IR emitter near it.

The one issue I had was the inability of the system to control my Apple TV 4K via Bluetooth, so I had to use IR control at first. Restarting the box and re-adding it to the system fixed the issue. I was also never able to sign into my Vudu account properly, so it didn't retrieve my viewing history.

The box also seemed to need to be reconnected to my wireless network every time the power failed or it restarted. Annoyingly, it wasn't as easy as just reconnecting, I had to "forget" the network and re-enter my password. For what it's worth, Caavo recommends a wired connection for best results.

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Wait for the HDR-capable version

The Caavo aims really high, tackling one of the most difficult problems in tech, and it's amazingly polished. I barely encountered any issues in normal use, and for day-to-day activities it worked great at its basic level: allowing me to use a single remote to control everything.

Of course, I can say pretty much the same thing about the Logitech Harmony. In many ways the Harmony Elite is better, for example by offering more complete customization and better ergonomics and backlit keys on the remote.

Caavo's Watchlist function, combining a bunch of content on one screen, is pretty sweet, although it's similar to Apple TV's "TV" app and not as nice-looking -- nor does it go as far to eliminate the app middleman between you and your shows (but hey, it does include Netflix). And I do love being able to choose devices and apps on-screen, although again something like Samsung's new smart TV features offer the same thing (and those TVs also auto-detect your sources for easy setup).

This first generation of Caavo amply demonstrates what the platform can do, and I'd love to see the next version: hopefully cheaper, with perhaps less visual flair, and actual support for HDR. If that happens, Harmony will have a problem on its hands.

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7.0

Caavo

Score Breakdown

Design 10Ecosystem 8Features 7Performance 8Value 5