When Logitech unceremoniously dumped its universal-remote business, it left a hole that’s still felt by home theater fans many years later. The company’s Harmony line of remotes may not have been the only players in this area, but seemingly every competitor has been destined to go the same way. Sofas across the land serve as memorials to the remotes forever lost beneath the cushions. Here lies Caavo. Rest in peace, Acoustic Research. Sevenhugs, we hardly knew ye.
Could Sofabaton offer the relief from juggling multiple remotes that home theater enthusiasts have hoped for? From the first blush, the U2 looks every bit like a Logitech remote — from its ergonomic shape to the button layout and the display at the top of the device. But it’s not just the looks that the U2 universal remote inherited, it also boasts the Harmony’s ease of use — plus some more.
Though you could spend 100 bucks or more on a secondhand Harmony 665, the smart money is on the $60 Sofabaton U2. The U2 is easier to set up than the old Harmony, and it’s both fun and simple to use. I’m going to get hate mail for this, but it’s also arguably a better buy than the Logitech Harmony series ever was. The Couch King is dead; long live the Couch King.
What it is
The Sofabaton U2 is a universal remote control. Using its Android or iOS mobile app, Sofabaton says, the U2 can be programmed to control more than 500,000-plus devices. The remote can handle up to 15 devices at a time, while the competitive Harmony 650 can offer only five. The remote connects over Bluetooth to your phone, and I found this to be more convenient than the USB PC connection of the 650/665, or even the Wi-Fi connection of the hub-based Harmony models.
According to Sofabaton, the main differences between the old U1 and the U2 are a greater infrared range, a redesigned battery compartment and a greater number of buttons. The remote is also slightly longer than the original at 8.9 by 3.4 by 1.5 inches (HWD). The top of the remote features a three-line OLED screen with a scroll wheel to switch between devices. The rest of the remote — which, disappointingly, isn’t backlit –features a logical layout that includes a set of programmable macro buttons.
You can add macros — where a single button performs multiple tasks at once — but it’s limited to the physical buttons on the remote. For example, you can get the remote to perform turning on all your devices, but changing inputs can be tricky as there’s no dedicated button for a third HDMI input, for example. You could program the remote to cycle the inputs by issuing the Input command multiple times, but it may not work if you’ve switched the inputs yourself manually.
If you’re looking for a remote that enables more-sophisticated macros, or in Sofabaton parlance “activities,” then you’ll need to pay a lot more. There’s quite a jump from the $60 U2 to the all-singing, all-dancing X1, which costs $190. But for the three-fold-or-more increase, the step-up does add Wi-Fi, voice control and recharging capabilities. I have yet to review the more-expensive model, but I’m interested in it as a potential replacement for the amazing and even more-expensive Harmony Elite.
Setting it up
Setting up a universal remote used to be something best left to computer scientists — looking through lists of model numbers, using trial and error to pick the right codes, and so on. Logitech’s Harmony remotes changed all that: their main advantage was that they simplified the setup process — first by using a PC and then streamlining it even further with the use of a smartphone app.
There are three main ways to program the U2 remote: Infrared Mode, Bluetooth Mode and Manual Learning Mode. Given that the bulk of the devices I used were in the database, I opted for the first mode the most. Going to “Add” in the top-right corner enables you to input new devices by adding the manufacturer and the model number.
Sofabaton offers an online device checker, where you can see if a brand is supported, though it may only be a single model in some cases. Indeed, successfully adding devices to the remote may depend on whether they’re in the database.
The remote worked great for Vizio and Samsung TVs and Marantz and Onkyo receivers, though in the latter case, I had to choose a model that was similar to our Onkyo TX-RZ50 reference. If your device is a little more obscure, you may have to program the remote yourself using Manual Learning Mode. That requires you to put the U2 and device remotes end to end while holding down buttons. It’s pretty straightforward in practice, but it’s also where I stumbled into issues.
Though Cambridge Audio appears in the online look-up, I had real trouble getting the Cambridge Audio CXN V2 music streamer to work. For instance, the play/pause control is a single button on the CXN remote but two discreet ones on the Sofabaton. This shouldn’t be an issue — you simply program the same button twice — but weirdly, the Sofabaton’s two controls performed different functions each time, sometimes pause, sometimes play. Given my years of programming remotes, I don’t actually blame Sofabaton for this oddity: some devices are quirky, and I expect this to be an easy fix. That’s because you can submit your device to Sofabaton via the app, and it can add the correct codes to the database. I’ll update this review if and when the company gets back to me.
Using the remote
I’ve used plenty of universal remotes over the years — including One for All and multiple Harmony models. Until now, remotes such as the Harmony 900 have been at the apex of the universal controller game. But the biggest plus about the Safabaton, for me, is that my family was able to pick up the remote and use it without any coaching. It’s that straightforward. Use the thumbwheel to pick your device, and then, if it’s programmed correctly, all the buttons work as expected. Apart from the Cambridge Audio device mentioned earlier, every other device performed as I wanted.
The remote sits nicely in the hand, with three ergonomic bumps on the rear, and my only complaint is that even with my long fingers, the thumbwheel was a little bit of a stretch. The lack of a backlight may trouble people who want something they can use in the dark, but I found it was pretty easy to locate the main buttons by feel.
Given that one of the main reasons to buy the U2 is for the increased infrared performance, I tested the U2 against the U1. And yes, the U2 is much better at broadcasting its IR signal than the U1 is. Previously I’d had some real problems trying to control a Vizio TV with the U1 unless I pointed directly at the sensor. Though I didn’t have the TV with me for the U2 testing, I found I didn’t have to point it directly at a Samsung TV to operate it — I could even point behind me and it would work. I couldn’t control the TV like this with the U1.
Should you buy it?
Though you can pay a ridiculous amount of money for one of the legacy Harmony remotes, the Sofabaton U2 proves that you don’t need to spend a lot to get a great remote. With its ease of setup and its ability to control a wide variety of devices, the Sofabaton U2 is the new go-to for anyone looking to simplify their living room. Hail to the king, baby!