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11. 16. 2006

Face Time: Monster AVL-300

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I’ve spent some face time with the Monster Central AVL-300 home automation remote over the last two weeks. The AVL-300 remote is an all-in-one programmable home theater remote control, but it’s also a controller for Monster's IlluminEssence automated lighting systems. By integrating the two systems together seamlessly the company has produced a very powerful remote with a great feature set. However, that level of control adds a level of complexity that makes the learning curve for the initial setup a little steep.

Home Theater Control
The configuration software is web based – Plug the remote into the computer via the USB cable, pick your settings, and just sync it up. Hooray! The real magic comes when devising control Activites to manipulate several devices with a single press of a button. With a little tweaking it's possible to fully automate all home theater compononts. I’ve found it useful to put the charging cradle on the table where I always throw my remote control to keep the battery fully charged. There’s no harm in constantly charging the remote so I’ve just been storing it on the cradle, but even after a week of trying to empty the battery I’m still at half power.

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The 300 brings a better remote to the table by augmenting the infrared signals of standard remotes with radio frequency controls. The included Omnilink is an infrared bridge which accepts radio signals and translates them into the infrared commands that most audio/video equipment use. Radio signals, unlike infrared commands, can pass through walls so it’s possible to control standard devices from different rooms. The Omnilink uses four IR blaster extension cables to control up to eight devices. A single Monster 300 system can control up to five Omnilink bridges for extending the A/V control to additional rooms. I’ve worked with IR bridges in the past, and I really enjoy the simple setup of Monster’s Omnilink implementation.

The Lighting Controls
Monster teamed up with Leviton to develop their IlluminEssence lighting system, and thankfully designed it with industry standard innards. The system uses Z-Wave radio technology, so it’s possible to integrate the Monster AVL-300S into existing lighting system automation installations. Every Z-wave switch and dimmer acts as a repeater to enhance the radio signals and repeat commands. Over two hundred Z-wave devices can be installed in a single system and controlled from a single remote. With proper configuration it’s possible to control all the entertainment and lighting systems in the largest of houses without ever leaving the couch.

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Lighting options are fairly straightforward. There are dimmers and switches that lamps may be plugged into, and in-wall dimmer switches that can replace existing room light controls. All of the wall dimmers can still be hand controlled, and there are master switch controllers for triggering preprogrammed scenes from a wall switch. The outlet switches respond quickly, and dimmers are responsive. I have no complaints beyond the price of $99 for a switch or outlet dimmer, and $130 for a remote control light switch. There may be cheaper compatible devices out there, but I haven’t had a chance to start experimenting with gear from other companies yet.

Lighting Scenes
The “Watch DVD” action can not only power up the DVD player, television, and change the input on the receiver, but also dim the room lights to a set level of brightness. Lighting scenes can also be programmed as standalone schedules; the big button on top directly accesses the lighting controls. Preprogrammed master scenes, single device controls, and individual room schemes are all available from the lighting button, and it works great.

My only problem with programming lighting scenes is that there isn’t enough fine tuning in the control schemes. Let me explain: I’d like to program my Dinner Party scene to raise and lower the lighting in stages to create impressive effects; “First lower the accent lights to 50%, then take the drop lights down to 0%, a two second delay, and finally the chandelier slowly up to 100%.” That level of control is unavailable with the current Monster Control software; all lighting and device commands in a scene happen almost simultaneously. The sudden change of light and sound can be disorienting, but I’m sure that more scheduling options can be added in a later software update.

It was an easy matter setting up an action to extinguish the lights when I triggered “Watch TV,” but configuring the lights to come back on when the TV went off was more difficult. Again, the configuration software was the largest stumbling block. The commands were somewhere in the configuration package, but it took me an hour to find them. The learning curve feels much steeper than it is, but now I can just zip through the entire lighting setup.

Johnny's simple guide to Monster AVL-300 setup:
(Just FYI, The Monster remote programming application crashed on me several times due to memory leak issues. Just make sure to save your work often and it shouldn’t be a big deal when it happens.)

1. Add a room to program. Start with a single room and program it completely before moving on to the rest of the house. Trying to juggle all the A/V settings for all the rooms at once gets confusing, and it’s easy to cross wires.
2. Add your different AV components (TV, receiver, Xbox) by picking the manufacturer from a drop down list, and inputting the model number of the component. This is definitely a lot easier than the ancient method of checking a pamphlet and inputting the codes. “Press the 3 key 14 times” was a common method of defining a TV model on the first generation of universal remotes, and I'm glad that it died. Set the device to either be controlled directly by the infrared sensor on the remote, or through the Omnilink.
3. Add the control activity buttons (“Watch a DVD” or “Play a record”). This is where we tie an action to the devices that it controls. Activities can send commands to multiple devices so this is where the actual single button features are defined. The Lighting Scenes can also be added here, but don’t do it yet. There’s a place for that at the end.
4. Add the dimmers and switches for each room
5. Define the Lighting Scenes. This step defines the on/off status of lights, and sets brightness levels for the dimmers. After defining the scenes there’s a button for “Map Lighting Scene to Activity” at the top. Use that to tie the new lighting scenes to the Activities defined earlier. It’s a much better idea to make the connection here at the end than trying to do it from the earlier screen.
6. Sync it up! Connect the Omnilink and the ASL-300 via USB and synchronize. It takes anywhere from two to ten minutes per device. The Omnilink requires synching so it will know which devices are controlled by each port of the IR blaster.

Final Thoughts
The Monster 300 is a solid remote for controlling a full featured audio video system, and at $600 it’s priced within the realm of reason. Buying separate home theater and lighting controllers with comparable features would cost close to $600, and there’s a lot to be said for the convenience of having all the necessary features in the palm of your hand.

Setup is a very time consuming process that turns into a trial-and-error circus when first dealing with advanced functions. Yes, it's possible to make the receiver cycle through the proper output modes depending on which device is playing, but it's maddening trying to hunt it down for the first time. I would have greatly preferred to see a flowchart style interface for the programming, or direct access to a simplified scripting language. Only advance users would use a scripting language, but only advanced users are likely to feel hindered by the limitations of Monster's setup package.

The $600 retail package contains the remote and charging cradle, the Omnilink, a couple of power supplies and all the necessary cabling. Amazon is including a free remote dimmer at the suggested price, so I’d suggest buying it there until prices come down.

Posted by Johnny    Category: devices
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