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Caavo review: Visionary universal remote falls short of HDR reality

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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.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 10
  • Ecosystem 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Value 5

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?

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.

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 ($179 at Apple), higher-end Rokus, Chromecast Ultra and Amazon Fire TV ($70 at Best Buy) 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.

David Katzmaier/CNET

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 ($350 at eBay) built-in Google Assistant. To do that, you still have to use the original device remote.

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