Monster Cable Home Theater and Lighting Controller 300 review: Monster Cable Home Theater and Lighting Controller 300
Editor's Note (February 19, 2009): The rating on this product has been changed due to competitive changes in the marketplace. Readers interested in this product should compare it to the more recent Logitech Harmony 1100.
Ever since Logitech started licensing out its highly regarded PC-based Harmony universal remote software, a handful of Harmony clones have gradually trickled onto the market. Some, such as the Harman Kardon TC-30, look similar to their Logitech counterparts and are essentially rebranded products. But Monster's Harmony-powered remotes offer completely new designs that keep them from being true clones.
Both of Monster's 2006 universal remotes feature color screens, but the Monster Home Theater Controller 100 ($350) is IR only, while the step-up Monster Home Theater and Lighting Controller 300 ($600) comes with both IR (infrared) and RF (radio frequency) capabilities, the latter being useful for components hidden behind cabinets or even in other rooms. The Monster 300 is also able to control lights in your home using the optional IlluminEssence lighting modules, which work on the Z-Wave wireless technology standard. Because of its RF and multiroom capabilities, the Home Theater and Lighting Controller 300 most closely resembles--in terms of features, anyway--the much less expensive Logitech Harmony 890.
Like the Harmony 890, the Monster 300 (sometimes referred to as the AVL300) comes with a docking station for recharging and one RF-to-IR receiver, or what Monster dubs Central OmniLink. The OmniLink is a little box that you can mount underneath a cabinet and plug in to up to four dual-headed IR blasters; this allows you to control up to eight components that sit behind a closed door or cabinet. If you have more components in other rooms, you can purchase additional OmniLink units and add them to your system.
While we don't think the design of the Monster remote is particularly slick, we do like it better than that of the Harmony 890. The remote feels pretty comfortable in hand, and the buttons are more thoughtfully laid out and more tactile. We particularly like the raised Select button in the center of the remote and the raised/angled transport buttons (play, pause, skip forward/back) buttons that surround it. The rockerlike buttons for volume control and channel up/down are also well placed and easy to get to by feel alone, using your thumb. The remote offers a good amount of blue backlighting that makes the keys fairly easy to distinguish in the dark.
Measuring 8.1 inches long by 2.4 inches wide by 0.75 inch deep and weighing 6 ounces (with battery installed), the Monster 300 isn't exactly svelte, but it's not--excuse the lame pun--a monster. In addition to the screen's color capabilities, the LCD is larger than those of Logitech's monochrome Harmony models. The increased screen real estate offers room for a total of eight activity-based icons that correspond to adjacent hard buttons.
We were a little disappointed by the low-resolution (read: early Palm color screen) 128x160 color display. It's on a par with the Harmony 890's screen, but with the Monster's high price tag, we were hoping it'd be a little sharper. Monster uses its own text-based, activity-based icons, and while they're not superclean looking, they're at least easier to read than those on the Harmony. One item for the wish list: it'd be nice if you could create custom-labeled icons simply by typing in the text to describe the activity you wanted to assign the button to.
As noted, the Monster 300 comes with a docking station for juicing up the included rechargeable lithium-ion battery; you simply lay the remote down in its cradle. Not only is it nice to have a recharging option to save dough on batteries, but if you're good about leaving the remote in its cradle, you'll always know where it is when you need it.
The Monster 300 has a built-in motion sensor so that when you pick up the remote, it automatically turns on (this feature is now available in other, less-expensive Harmony remotes). You can add your own digital images as backgrounds and screensavers--there's a slide-show feature--though we found that we had to crop our images into vertical shots or they'd appear hideously stretched on the screen. And it really wasn't a good idea to have a picture as a background because it made the icons difficult to read; stick with the default blue background.
In terms of programming the remote, the Monster 300 works the same way that other Harmony remotes do, but it comes with its own special flavor of Harmony desktop software, as well as a Monster-modified interface on the remote itself. As we noted in our earlier reviews, programming a universal remote can be a frustrating and time-consuming process, involving punching a series of multidigit codes for each component in your A/V system. By contrast, Harmony remotes are programmed by connecting them to your Internet-connected Windows PC or Mac with the supplied USB cable, installing the model-specific version of Harmony software (in this case, Monster software), and following a fairly straightforward wizard.
You choose your home-theater components from a list; explain how they're connected; and define their roles in activity-based functions, such as Watch TV, Watch DVD, and Listen To Music. For each function, you specify which devices and inputs the remote must enable. You can also choose which keypad functions will punch through to which specific devices--always having the channel buttons control the cable box or the volume controls dedicated to the TV, for instance. After you've completed the setup, the software uploads all the relevant control codes to the Monster 300. Depending on the system, sometimes setup is a snap; other times, it isn't.
The more affordable Harmony 890 is also compatible with Z-Wave lighting controllers, but Monster has done a better job integrated lighting control (you can set lighting "scenes" to accompany various activities, such as starting a DVD) into both the setup of the remote and the remote itself; notice the hard button at the top of the remote that gives you one-touch instant access to Monster Central Home Lighting System functions. The Monster software also does a better job guiding you through multiroom setups--we actually set up the remote to work in three rooms in our house, and there's a dedicated A/B Sys button at the bottom of the remote that's a shortcut to controlling multiple systems for multiple rooms.
Once you finish setting everything up in the Web-based software wizard, it's easy to toggle between rooms on the remote, but it's not necessarily the most elegant solution since you're left with activity-based icons that read Watch TV 2 and Watch TV 3 for your second and third rooms. On the plus side, you can add advanced, macro-style options for delay times, multistep commands, and other functions. Also, the remote's Help key aids in troubleshooting by asking natural-language questions on the LCD. For instance, the screen might read, "Is the digital set-top box on?"
Even as user-friendly as the remote generally is, you will probably encounter a few snags. And as one might expect, the more rooms and components you have, the more time you can expect to invest in getting everything to work properly. A certain amount of trial and error is involved. You must verify that the commands work with your equipment as intended, then modify them as necessary. This can get a little tedious as you run through the software wizard, connect and reconnect the remote to the USB cable, and then wait for the remote to update itself.
In our case, to set up three rooms with three lighting control modules took more than three hours--and our setup still hasn't quite been perfected. You might also encounter USB connectivity problems when trying to update your remote--or update the OmniLink unit, which also has a USB connector--and we experienced one serious crash of the desktop software. Luckily, we'd saved our programming info and were able to restart our computer and update our remote the second time around. It's also worth pointing out that Monster, like Logitech, will continue to offer updates to the desktop software and firmware upgrades to your hardware, including the OmniLink RF unit/IR blaster. This should improve the user experience with time.
To test the remote's RF functionality, we simply walked out of our dedicated home-theater room and headed to a bedroom on the other side of our apartment. The remote was able to continue controlling the equipment, even when separated by two walls. Monster says you can expect to stray about 130 feet from your equipment, but RF performance will vary depending on what your walls are made out of. Also, you may occasionally have to resync the remote with the wireless receiver (you simply press the Connect button on the top of the receiver).
As for battery life, Monster says you should be able to go a few weeks without recharging, but obviously, if you leave the unit in its cradle, the battery will remain fully juiced. It's also worth noting that the batteries are replaceable, so when they eventually wear out--and they will--you'll be able swap new ones in.
When all is said and done, the Monster Home Theater and Lighting Controller 300's superior design and enhanced setup options for lighting and multiroom capabilities give it the edge over Logitech's Harmony 890. However, to put it bluntly, the Monster is extremely overpriced at $600--it should cost $400 max, and probably less. That said, if price is less of a concern, this is an excellent advanced remote. While it may not eliminate the challenge of setting up a universal remote to control a complicated setup, it does make it easier.