One Remote Control To Rule Them All

Over the years the stereo system (with tuner, pre-amp, amp, turn table, tape deck and CD player) and TV in the living room of our old house gradually morphed into a audio/visual (AV) setup with components from various manufacturers of many different ages. Connections varied from analog signal cables with RCA phono plug connectors through an early version of HDMI. Controlling this required a number of device specific remote controls. I did, at least, retire out the old components that had no remote capability.

To give a semblance of order and control I had programed a Harmony remote control. Overall it worked okay but had the issues expected of any open loop control system with information being sent over an unreliable path. Sometimes one of the controlled boxes would miss a command and then nothing seemed to work. The Harmony attempts to deal with this by having a help button where it successively trys to correct the issue asking you if the problem has been fixed after each thing it tries. Basically a nice techie toy but the Spouse Approval Factor (SAF) was never very high.

Changing Times

The advent of streaming players like Roku and inexpensive Network Attached Storage (NAS) boxes dramatically changed the landscape.

First example: Most NAS boxes support serving up media using either DLNA or a built-in web server. Roku has a number of “channels” (anyone else would call them apps) that can play media served up via DLNA or a web server. So all my LP records (I think the kids call it “vinyl”), audio CDs, purchased DVDs and old VHS tapes were digitized and now can be called up instantly without needed a dedicated turn table, tape cassette deck, CD, DVD or VHS player in the living room. We still keep the physical items, mostly as a proof of ownership but also in case things go wrong and we lose our digital backup copy. So the DVD/VHS player can be in a closet along with the boxes of media rather than taking up space by the TV. And, as importantly, does not need to be controlled via a remote while watching TV.

Second example: Many, probably most or all, radio stations transmit a live stream over the Internet. And there is a Roku channel that can play them. So no need for a separate FM tuner. Bonus points for allowing me to listen to that favorite station in the city I used to live in.

Third example: DVD rentals, including Netflix DVDs in the mail, have gone the way of the dodo bird. With rentals I felt obliged to play the DVD on a player directly attached to the TV. No physical rentals means no need for a DVD player attached to the TV.

At the new house we decided we wanted a new TV and I selected a Roku TV to fit the bill. This got our AV equipment in the living room down to just one item, that being the TV. Spouse Approval Factor is very high: Only one simple remote controls all our local media, over the air TV, streaming radio and programs from various streaming providers like Netflix.

The Problem At Hand

While having everything available through the TV with one simple remote is great the sound from that TV is terrible. This is an issue with the new large flat screen TVs: Basically they are too thin and have too small a bezel to put in a decent speaker. And the speakers are generally facing the rear so the sound has to bounce off the wall behind.

The industry’s solution to this is to sell you a sound bar. And there are sound bars that sound great.

But sound bars come with their own remote controls. In my view it is okay to have to use a separate remote control to do one time setup but not for powering on the device or adjusting the volume. So we really wanted the TV’s remote to control the volume.

Confusion At Hand

A long while ago manufacturers often had a proprietary way of controlling more than one of their devices with a single remote which is why I ended up with a Harmony remote control at the old house.

It still sounds like they might all have incompatible control systems with all the marketing names like Anynet+, Aquos Link, BRAVIA Link and/or BRAVIA Sync, E-link, EasyLink, EZ-Sync, INlink, Kuro Link, NetCommand for HDMI, Regza Link, RIHD, SimpLink, and VIERA Link.

But many/most/all of those above are all a renaming of the “Consumer Electronic Control” (CEC) that is part of the HDMI specification. In the early days of HDMI there was either a lack of definition on the command set or a reluctance of component manufacturers to implement the specification as written so there were issues. But today, especially for simple things like setting audio volume, the commands on the one-wire CEC bus that runs through your AV system by HDMI cables is pretty compatible. So in our case you can plug a HDMI cable into any HDMI input on the Insignia Roku TV and any HDMI connector on the Sony soundbar and have the remote control work.

But you will not know that by looking at the sales information. You need to look into each owners manual to see that it is possible and if any settings have to adjusted to make it work. How many people download and read the manual for each device before buying them? In my case the clerks at the local consumer electronics store left me alone after I explained that for each item I was considering buying I was downloading and reading the manual on my phone. Okay so I am a bit strange.

Setup Is Easy Except. . .

Typical setup listed in most of the sound bar manuals is quite simple: Plug the provide optical audio cable from the TV into the sound bar. Done.

Digging deeper, further in the manual you can find stuff about using a HDMI cable to have the TV remote control the sound bar.

Voila! Streaming FM radio works. My ripped DVDs work. Programs on the Roku PBS channel work. All sound very nice the volume control on the sound bar is nicely controlled with the Roku TV remote.

But what? No sound on many Netflix films? What the. . .

Time to dig out the manuals and find buried in on page 35 of the sound bar manual under “supported formats” there are little asterisks which lead to the statement “It is possible to input these formats only with HDMI connection.” Forget that nifty optical audio cable supplied with the sound bar, make sure that the HDMI cable is between the one TV input that says “ARC” for “Audio Return Channel”. Be sure that the HDMI cable is on the one HDMI connector on the sound bar that says output and ARC.

Voila again! Now all the sound formats seem to work and we are back to one cable between the TV and sound bar and the TV remote control works everything.

Another glitch

But connecting an HDMI output on the sound bar to an HDMI input on the TV means the TV now detects another input. Forget the fact that the only reason for the cable is for using the TV’s remote control (CEC) and providing sound from the TV to the sound bar (ARC), the TV now thinks there might be some video from the sound bar that it should be able to display. So it puts a icon up in the main menu to make it possible to select it. I can rename it (the TV even has an option to name it “sound bar”). I can move it to the bottom of the menu. But I can’t remove it: If I try to remove it, it is added back to the top of the menu with a default title. At present I am living with this artifact but it would be nice if I could get rid of it.

I can see why at least one of the national chains of consumer electronics has a “squad” that you can pay to hook up your fancy new home AV system. Even in a simple and common case case like mine where all I needed to do was connect one cable and verify one setting on the TV takes way to much reading and research for the typical non-technical person.