Do-It-Yourself Home Theater Control

television. (Image credit: stock.xchng)

Cords and controllers can make the best home theater system more frustrating than entertaining. A beautiful flat panel should stand on its own and display content from many sources: a Blu-ray player, DVD player, cable box, and an Xbox or PS3 gaming console. All of these peripherals must be connected to the TV and most operated by its own remote control. Have you grabbed a remote, jabbing at the buttons with no response, only to realize it's the wrong one?

The solution: a universal RF remote.

There are many choices, but today I'll recommend one that you can connect most of your devices to, one that self-programs, will allow you to control components from another room (turning the volume up or down, for example), and if you have wireless peripherals, allow you to hide all of the components behind doors or even in another room. A perfect solution for minimalists or for those who hate clutter.

The key to this magic is choosing an RF (radio frequency) controller over an IR (infrared) controller. An RF controller uses radio waves to send signals rather than the more common controllers that use infrared waves. A radio frequency controller does not require line of sight like an infrared controller does. The signal can travel through doors and walls, giving you much more flexibility in home theater setup and control.

Radio waves, like infrared waves, are types of electromagnetic radiation. Radio waves are relatively low-frequency, long-wavelength emissions ranging from a few millimeters to a meter. The light we see comes in higher frequency and shorter wavelengths, while infrared waves span the region between radio and visible with lengths no longer than 1 millimeter. Both the wavelength and the material that the wave encounters determine whether or not a wave can get through. In the case of your living room wall, RF control signals can pass, but the wall will not allow infrared signals (or visible light, of course) to get through.

RF controllers are just one application for radio waves and their ability to see through walls. Sure, this technology can make a home entertainment experience far more enjoyable, but research with radio waves is also being done to develop radio tomographic imaging (RTI), a low cost way to detect people behind walls. RTI measures "shadows" in radio waves created when they pass through a moving person or object.

Last month, engineers at the University of Utah showed that a wireless network of radio transmitters can track people moving behind solid walls. The system could help police, firefighters and others nab intruders, and rescue hostages, fire victims and elderly people who fall in their homes.

"RF [radio frequency] signals can travel through obstructions such as walls, trees and smoke, while optical and infrared imaging systems cannot," the engineers wrote. "RF imaging will also work in the dark, where video cameras will fail."

Once you've made the choice for an RF remote, the most important feature to look for is easy programming. Many universal remotes require the user to punch in a series of digits for each of the devices, which can be frustrating and time-consuming. Logitech offers the Harmony 900 RF remote that is programmed through a computer, Mac or PC, with a USB cord. Owners select their components from a list of 5,000 brands and 225,000 devices and the site programs the remote. Updates are equally simple and can be done whenever you add or replace a component in your home theater system.

A note to PlayStation 3 owners: Unfortunately, the new PS3 slim and its predecessor, PS3 are not compatible with any universal remote. Sony opted for a proprietary remote. However, adapters are available to integrate the PS3 into a universal remote. It’s best to buy the adapter from the same manufacturer as the remote to ensure compatibility. Considering the PS3 offers the best Blu-ray value on the market, the adapter may be worth the extra money. Logitech's is priced at $60.

An RF remote will allow you to make the same adjustments to any of your devices plus the TV from another room just as if you were sitting in front of the TV on the couch. One remote for many devices, usable up to 100 feet away, through walls and floors. In that way it's similar to your wireless router for an internet connection to one or more computers anywhere in the house.

Convenience comes at a price: $400. But if you want out-of-sight control, there is no better option. If you contracted with a home theater professional to set up a universal remote, you would pay $600 or more. With an automated programmable universal RF remote, you can do everything a pro would do at two thirds the price. And you won't have to call him back when you get that new Blu-ray player for the holidays.

This article was provided by TopTenREVIEWS.

Leslie Meredith
Leslie Meredith is a contributor to Live Science. She has a bachelor's degree from UCLA in psychology and has directed tourism and ski publications for the Salt Lake Visitor & Convention Bureau and managed promotions and events for Sunset Magazine.