Remote Controls for Less Than $500

Best Remote Controls for Less Than $500

After opening the wallet for your home theater, don't skimp on the remote. Here are some "affordable" options.

Sep. 12, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

You can have all the latest gear, the most up-to-date display and the biggest, baddest speakers known to man but there’s still one thing that can ruin an enjoyable romp through an action-filled blockbuster, and it’s likely the smallest piece of equipment in your theater.

I’m talking about the remote – an extension of everyone’s hand, the one thing that lets you have total control over your world. A universal remote done right can make even the most complicated A/V setup easy enough for grandma to watch “Murder She Wrote” reruns without help.

There are endless options from a number of manufacturers for both custom installers and general consumers. While you could certainly walk into the local discount retailer and spend $15 on a “universal” remote, we’re guessing that you’re looking for a bit more control than that. With that in mind, we’ll examine some features to look for in a remote and look at a few offerings from some of the top brands in the consumer space.

What to Look For
Before shopping for a remote, make a list of all your components. Add any items you may buy in the near future. Think beyond your electronics gear for such items as lighting, HVAC or curtains.

Any universal remote should have the ability to “learn” from other remotes, allowing your new remote to copy buttons from your old remote without having to program it. Similarly it should have the ability to combine multiple button pushes into one button, also known as macro commands.

Finally, look at how the remote sends it commands. Those that come with most A/V gear use infrared (IR) signals that send an invisible beam of light to the unit. This means there needs to be a line of sight from the remote to the unit. Radio-frequency (RF) signals, however, do not need line of sight and can control equipment in various rooms around the house. Keep in mind that you will likely need a RF receiver (many times included with RF remotes) to go along with the remote if your equipment doesn’t accept RF signals out of the box.

Other things to keep in mind include:

  • Backlighting – A remote with buttons that aren’t backlit can be very hard to see with the lights down during a movie.
  • Batteries – More and more remotes are coming with docks and rechargeable batteries, ensuring you’ll never find yourself rummaging through a junk drawer looking for a pair of AA batteries with a room full of movie-hungry guests.
  • Button type – Touch-screen remotes are becoming more common, but are generally more expensive than those with hard buttons. If the remote has a touch-screen, or even a LCD window, be sure you can label the commands in those areas.
  • Size – Remotes that exclusively use touch-screens are likely to be larger than a typical remote. Make sure whatever you settle on is comfortable and intuitive.

When it comes to setup, there are generally two methods: using codes pre-programmed into the remote or by hooking it up to a computer. Logitech’s Harmony brand pretty much owns the PC setup space, utilizing a web-based program that updates itself with new equipment regularly. Lately, however, the pre-programmed method is making a bit of a comeback. Some manufacturers are tweaking this tried-and-true method with pre-loaded wizards that walk you through setting up your remote without needing a book full of three-digit codes.

With all that in mind, let’s look at some offerings from a couple consumer brands. It’s certainly possible to purchase remotes intended for custom installers and set them up yourself, but for this article we’ll be looking at remotes intended solely for consumer use. Note that all the options below feature learning and macro abilities.

Logitech Harmony (View slide)
The company that popularized the PC-guided remote setup, helping to bring the full-function universal remote into the consumer space. Harmony sells a wide range of remotes, starting at $100 and moving up to $500 for its top of the line, touch screen Harmony 1000.

  • Setup-type – PC-guided wizard.
  • IR/RF signals – Both available, depending on model.
  • Backlighting – Yes.
  • Batteries – Rechargeable and standard available.
  • Featured Remote – The Harmony One, priced at $249, has a full-color touch screen window along with hard buttons and a rechargeable battery. It was awarded Best of Innovations at CES2008 for home theater accessories.

Philips (View slide)
The Prestigo is Philips advanced remote line, currently four models. The Prestigo line, which starts at $80 and tops out at $179, replaces the Pronto line which has moved into the custom install space. They feature a library of channel icons that you can put in the remote’s LCD screens.

  • Setup-type – Pre-programmed wizard walks you through setup without needing codes.
  • IR/RF signals – IR
  • Backlighting – Yes, depending on model.
  • Batteries – Standard.
  • Featured Remote – The Prestigo SRU8015, priced at $179. Features a full-color screen, 400 channel icons and backlighting. Of note is the less feature-rich SRU8010, which was recently listed among CNET’s top universal remotes.

Universal Remote Control (View slide)
The clear winner for most intuitive company name, URC is big in the custom install world but has a robust consumer line as well. Each remote comes with a DVD to help make setup as easy as possible. The consumer line features seven remotes, but home theater buffs are likely to choose one of the three MasterControl models.

  • Setup-type – Three-digit codes.
  • IR/RF signals – Both available, depending on model. All MasterControl series remotes have RF abilities.
  • Backlighting – Yes.
  • Batteries – Standard.
  • Featured Remote – The MasterControl RF30, priced at $149.99. Features a touch screen LCD window along with hard buttons. When paired with the $69.99 PowerBlaster (MRF-100B) RF receiver can send RF signals from up to 100 feet.

Marantz (View slide)
Marantz, known for decades for their audio components, was a pioneer in the programmable touch screen remote field. The company’s line features five remotes (along with an available second zone remote) that starts at $99 and goes all the way up to $1499 for the fully touch screen, Wi-Fi RC9001.

  • Setup-type – PC guided and three-digit codes, depending on model.
  • IR/RF signals – Both available, depending on model.
  • Backlighting – Yes.
  • Batteries – Rechargeable and standard available.
  • Featured Remote – The RC3001, priced at $349.99. This remote includes all the equipment needed for RF use, eliminating the need to buy any add-ons. It uses a PC wizard for setup and features rechargeable batteries and 512kb of memory.

Monster Cable (View slide)
The company known for high-end cables offers a pair of remotes that are powered by a modified version of the Harmony software. The Home Theater Control 100 will run you $299 while the 300 is $499. Both feature a color LCD screen. 

  • Setup-type – PC guided wizard.
  • IR/RF signals – Both available, depending on model.
  • Backlighting – Yes.
  • Batteries – Rechargeable.
  • Featured Remote – The Home Theater Control 300, priced at $499.95. The 300 includes all the equipment needed for RF use and can also control lighting throughout the house. It also features a one-button A/B system switch to control multiple systems.

One other company to keep an eye on is tvCompass with its click365 wireless network. They are the people behind the ESPN Ultimate Remote ($300) that combines a universal remote with wireless Internet.

There are remotes available from other top brands such as Sony, Harman-Kardon and others, so as you can see your options are endless.  Feel free to drop us a comment if you’ve used one of the remotes above, or have a suggestion for one we didn’t mention.

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