Harmony SST-659 Universal Remote Control 
Home Theater Remotes & System Control Remotes & System Control
Written by Ben Shyman   
Thursday, 01 April 2004

Home theater systems are increasingly complex. In the old days of audiophilia, you likely had a tape deck, stereo preamp, power amplifier and two speakers. Maybe you even had a television in the same room. Well, those days are long gone and systems today likely include a digital cable box, digital video recorder (TiVo), audio/video preamp processor, DVD and/or CD player, VCR and television. Throw in a high-resolution disc player (SACD or DVD-Audio), music server (Apple iPod or ReQuest) or video processor (Faroudja), and if you can successfully make it all work seamlessly, you deserve an honorary engineering degree from Radio Shack. If you are anything like me, you yearn for a simple, one-stop solution to control it all and rid your living area of those unsightly remotes.

There can be little debate that modern technology has spurred a revolution in quality and functionality of home theater gear. This revolution has been driven by consumer demand and intense competition between hundreds of consumer electronics manufacturers competing for your hard-earned buck. While undoubtedly home theater has benefited, another result has been that most audio/video systems are comprised of components from many manufacturers, each with its own remote control.

Universal remotes are nothing new. In fact, they range from $10 models that have learned and preprogrammed codes, to models costing as much as $500 that will control lighting, macro functions and sequenced commands.

In the middle of all that is a range of universal remotes in the $300 range that can do sequenced macro commands and have many of the controls of the big boys. The problem to date is that they are hard to program, often requiring hours, if not days or weeks, of dedication to learn how to make them do what you want.

Most audio/video salesmen will try to convince you that universal remotes are the cure for all ills. But get that remote home and you will likely discover the most universal fact about universal remotes: they are surprisingly dysfunctional and difficult to use. Despite all the technological advancements in home theater and the intense competition between manufacturers to create products that cater to every conceivable facet of home theater, it is shocking that few manufacturers have attempted to conquer consumers’ appetite for a functional universal remote.

Harmony Remote has a new way of attacking the issues that have plagued lower-priced universal remotes. All of the universal remotes in their line are programmed via the Internet. No more complex macros to program. You connect the Harmony Remote to the USB plug-and-play port of any Internet-enabled computer, install the software, tell Harmony the components in your system and how they are connected, and preprogrammed "Smart State Activities" that control your components are downloaded to the remote. Any changes to your custom configuration are updated on Harmony’s website and synchronized to your remote. Even if you upgrade to a new version of a Harmony product in the future, your system settings are saved to your account on their website.

Harmony Remote makes several different universal remotes and all are available for direct purchase on HarmonyRemote.com or from most leading consumer retailers. The model they sent for review was the SST-659, which sells for $199. I found the SST-659 to be lightweight, thoughtfully organized and comfortable in my hand. The remote is backlit and contains a liquid crystal display (LCD), which while helpful for advanced functions, is a little small for my tastes. Text is often compromised or cut off due to the limited space on the screen, but other than the smallish display, I would characterize the SST-659 as a well-constructed product.

Open Source for Remotes
Generally, if you are looking for the biggest nerds on the planet, you need look no further than the open source community. This is where computer geeks speak of Linux and Unix in glowing terms and share software code and programming tricks mostly for free or sometimes for a nominal fee. The sprit of Harmony Remote takes cues from this world. Their proprietary database is constantly improved with each new customer they acquire, which benefits all their customers, new and old. While there is nothing proprietary to remote codes themselves, every customer has different components, a unique set-up and individual preferences toward their system. Harmony’s database continually improves with each customer who configures a home theater on his or her system. While a user may encounter a function or quirk when integrating a Harmony remote with the system or have a system preference that either Harmony has not seen before or is not a default user activity, once a Harmony customer support teammate works you through your problem, their database now contains the solution for the next customer who potentially has a similar problem or custom request. Simply put, with every customer Harmony acquires, the more comprehensive their proprietary database gets.

While this is the idea behind open source, you need to be hip to the investment of time and enthusiasm required before you invest in a Harmony Remote, in my opinion, because it is unlikely at this date that every component you have will be available to download onto your remote exactly as you want it. Sadly, I encountered problems with many of the most basic functions on almost every piece of equipment in my system. My Proceed AVP2 audio-video processor and Lexicon RT-10 Universal Disc Player are not commonplace in average AV systems, but it was disappointing that the Harmony SST-659 was ill-equipped to work the mute, sound surround, fast forward and rewind functions with these components right from the get-go. Both products are manufactured by Harman International, a multi-billion-dollar consumer electronics conglomerate. As a result, I can only say that tweaking and modifying your remote is a part of the ownership experience. If you aren’t up for the challenge, you are better served plunking down thousands of dollars for an AMX or Crestron touch screen remote, complete with professional programming, RF transmission and RS232 hard-wired connectivity between all of your gear. It took me over two and one-half hours of support and triple that time on my own with the Harmony website to get the Harmony SST-659 up and running with the basic (but far from all of) functionality of my system.

It is essential to understand that getting your Harmony remote working at an acceptable level for a home theater enthusiast or lifestyle consumer is a labor-intensive experience. Thankfully, their technically-oriented customer support team is intimately familiar with their products and your components and has the patience and enthusiasm to put you on the path to satisfaction. It should be taken as a compliment that after hours of tweaking the Harmony SST-659, my patience was exhausted before Harmony’s customer support team was willing to quit. In the end, however, after working with the Harmony technical team, it became obvious to me that pretty much anything was possible and that their product was able to handle literally anything that I requested. It was just the time it took to make progress with the remote that left me frustrated.

In fairness, while I was frequently overwhelmed with the complexity and labor-intensive nature of the set-up process, my system probably is more complex than most and contains components that are not considered “mainstream.” I am certain that if your system contains names like Pioneer, Sony, Yamaha and Denon, to name just a few, your set-up process will be far more conventional and less frustrating than mine.

Using the Remote
I did find many of the functions of the Harmony SST-659 quite clever and simple to use. The most functional aspect of the remote is switching between different functions of your theater system. When I simply pushed a programmed button for “Watch TV,” the Harmony SST-659 sprang my AVP2, Faroudja NRS, Fujitsu plasma and cable box to life and set each component to the correct input or output. When I wanted to switch from “Watch TV” to “Watch HDTV,” simply pushing that button and the Harmony disengaged the Faroudja, which I do not use for HDTV sources, switched the input on the plasma to the component video input for HDTV and switched the television channel to the HDTV stations, which for me as a Time Warner Cable New York City customer are the channels beginning in the low 700s. Want to “Listen to DVD-Audio” or “Watch a Movie”? No problem! The Harmony SST-659 switched every component nimbly to its correct settings. And when a component does not get switched properly, the Harmony SST-659 is smart. Pushing the “Help” button gets this product to walk you through the necessary steps on the LCD to get your components back on track so that you do not have to leave your couch. All these functions do not happen for the first time by magic, however, so you must configure and set up the remote to make it all work. It requires an in-depth knowledge of your system’s connections and a fair amount of understanding of how everything in your system works.

The Downside
The biggest downside is clearly the lengthy and tedious nature of programming and set-up process. This was disappointing in that it failed in the very area it was designed to excel – ease of set-up.

I still keep my pile of original remotes at my side for certain applications, which kind of defeats the purpose of having the Harmony in the first place. Component switching was easy, but getting all my components to perform as they do with their original remotes is still a problem for many basic functions. Additionally, I found many instances where, for my lifestyle, the remote was clearly not up to the task. For example, as an avid hockey fan with NHL Center Ice, I like to channel surf from game to game. Quite often, I listen to music in lieu of game commentary. The problem is that the Harmony utilizes the same buttons for changing channels for television and changing tracks on my disc player. This seems counter-intuitive to me. Although I am sure one can program another set of buttons to switch tracks or channels, I would rather just have kept my Lexicon, Proceed and Time Warner digital cable remotes at my side. I do not think that with a product that claims to be universal and widely programmable, my expectations for such functionality are unreasonable. I encountered many such instances where I found the effort necessary to make the remote do what I wanted simply not worth the effort I had to put in.

After spending several weeks with the SST-659, I have mixed feelings about enthusiastically endorsing this Harmony remote. Upon learning of the Harmony assignment, I had every intention of purchasing the remote at the end of the review. I cannot say I am going to go through with the purchase now. The Philips Pronto is a competitive remote that I will consider before making a purchase. I am going to explore that option before I plunk down $5,000 or more for an AMX or Crestron system, although that might be what I ultimately need. Studio tuner, audio guru and AudioRevolution.com staff writer Bob Hodas recently purchased a Harmony remote after owning a Pronto. After over 10 hours of set-up by a highly skilled, professional audio engineer, he is more enthused about Harmony than the Pronto, which he exiled from his system. If a Pronto takes more than 10 hours of my time to program, as Hodas suggested to me, I might as well wait until I can justify the expense of a more robust and professionally programmed remote system.

While my experience was not what I had hoped for, I do believe that in a system with more mainstream components, setting up and getting the Harmony to work seamlessly is doable. If you are really struggling to get control of your home theater system and you are a very patient person who is willing to put in the time and effort to get it right, then you could give the Harmony remote a try. It is increasingly possible that someone has already done the leg-work for you to make your system really sing. If you aren’t the techie kind of person who wants to learn a new skill in programming remote controls, you might just hire a dealer to program it for you.
Manufacturer Harmony
Model SST-659 Universal Remote Control
Reviewer Ben Shyman

Like this article? Bookmark and share with any of the sites below.
Digg!Reddit!Del.icio.us!Google!StumbleUpon!Yahoo!Free social bookmarking plugins and extensions for Joomla! websites!
Joomla SEF URLs by Artio