TiO Home Automation System Review

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AT A GLANCE

Plus

  • Easy retrofit replacement of wired volume controls
  • Dedicated router creates private TiO Wi-Fi network
  • Exceptional level of user customization

Minus

  • Limited direct IP control of third-party components
  • Few streaming services supported—but more coming
THE VERDICT

With TiO’s unique approach to home automation, systems are a breeze to design and install, quick to configure, and intuitively natural to use—with the bonus of being highly configurable by the user without the need for a return service call from the dealer.

The folks at TiO (short for “Turn it On”) claim they’re taking “an entirely fresh approach to home automation” with a philosophy that considers the user to be the most important part of a TiO system. In other words, if a home automation system were a round hole and the user a square peg, the manufacturer should re-engineer the hardware hole into a square rather than force the user to become a round peg. Of course, making things truly and honest-to-goodness-ly easy for the user is way, way simpler to pontificate about than it is to accomplish.

Here’s a brief overview of TiO. To begin with, TiO is definitely not DIY. So if you’re allergic to paying someone to install gear, this isn’t for you. If the benefits of having a pro do the work (and the inevitable troubleshooting) are worthwhile to you, read on. Can’t decide? Stick around, because the ability the user has to simply and near-instantly customize the way the TiO system operates (on both a day-to-day basis and a scheduled one), without having to pay for a service call from a TiO dealer, could be very appealing to you. The other main bit to know is that, unlike a lot of systems that specialize in one aspect of home automation (such as lighting or security), TiO is a “jack of all automations” system that’s capable of governing your home (lights, motors, cameras, etc.) as well as your home entertainment gear, including wholehouse audio distribution. Added to everything else TiO can do, its A/V integration gives it a significant leg up on other home automation systems.

TiO’s Idiomatic Table of Elements

The folks at TiO speak in a dialect that might be slightly off-putting at first. That’s because, as part of their re-imagining of home automation, they’ve created a lingo for describing features and functions in ways that resonate with users. People familiar with custom installation systems, however, will probably recognize TiO’s terms under other names. The first bit of TiO-speak we’ll run into is Element, which is the company’s word for “a TiO system device for control of music, lighting, and more.”

All TiO systems are built around the MasterCoordinator 2 (MC2, $500). The “foundation of the TiO ecosystem,” the MC2 is an Asus RT-A68U router running proprietary TiO system firmware. (It’s basically a specialized hub/router combo.) Once connected to your home network, the MC2 creates a private wireless network (802.11b/g/n, 2.4 gigahertz, WPA2 encryption) and becomes the central communication hub for the TiO Elements (system devices, remember?)—up to 250 of them. Importantly, the MC2 controls everything locally without requiring a 24/7 Internet connection to a remote server. (Of course, you’ll need Internet access if you want to stream audio from an online service or control a Nest thermostat.) TiO says the MC2 provides a Wi-Fi signal with a 360-degree range of 450 feet or more. A TiO Network Extender ($250) can be added to extend the wireless coverage even more.

TiO is somewhat unusual among automation systems in that it’s exclusively Wi-Fi when it comes to the wireless communication. A big reason for going Wi-Fi-only (plus Ethernet), and especially for employing a modified Wi-Fi router, is that it greatly speeds up installation and configuration of a TiO system. Whereas Z-Wave and ZigBee devices, for example, require registration with a hub/console or coordinator before they’ll operate within a system, TiO devices are automatically (or, in TiO-speak, “automagically”) discovered by the MC2 during the configuration process.

It’s Elemental

Surprisingly, there are only two primary Elements used to build a TiO system: the StealthStream 1 and the TouchLite 4. TiO likes to refer to them as the company’s Swiss Army knives because of the impressive list of things each one can do. I’ll agree it’s an apt description, but I’m disappointed that the lingo-slinging TiO tech talkers don’t mention the obvious connection with being on “the cutting edge.” (Hold your applause, please.)

The StealthStream 1 (AZSS1, $500) is an amplified streaming audio player, and it’s unlike any I’ve seen so far. For starters, it’s small—small enough, in fact, to fit into a single-gang electrical box. It runs off of 24 VDC from an external power supply, connects to the TiO network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and packs a 50-watt x 2 Class D amplifier inside. On the back are an optical audio input and a 3.5mm analog stereo audio output.

The AZSS1 currently supports TuneIn, Rhapsody, and SiriusXM, with Spotify, Tidal, and Deezer said to be coming by the fall, along with AirPlay and Google Chromecast capabilities. According to TiO, the AZSS1 supports streaming of lossless, uncompressed audio up to 192/24—the supported lossless codecs include ALAC, FLAC, WAV, ALAC 96/24, FLAC HD 192/24, and WAV 192/24—and since each AZSS1 has its own internal DAC, actual playback resolution isn’t affected by the number of hires audio streams being played simultaneously through the system (as long as you remain within the overall bandwidth limit). That’s not always the case with other streaming systems, whether DIY or pro-installed. AZSS1s can stream audio from hard drives connected to the MC2, as well as from NAS drives and servers on the home network. Available Wi-Fi bandwidth limits the number of simultaneous wireless streams to six, while sanity is the primary limitation on the number of wired streams. (TiO says they’ve worked with up to 30 simultaneous streams in a system.) If you still can’t find anything to listen to, the AZSS1 includes Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity.

The AZSS1’s digital audio input is auto sensing and can be configured to automatically select the digital input when an audio signal is detected. This means that, unlike the case with most other streaming systems, the user simply turns on the local source—be it an HDTV, a BD/DVD/CD player, or, hell, even an old MiniDisc player—in order to listen to it. That’s the sort of hassle-free, confusion-eliminating “automagic” that should be the goal of every smart home/home automation system. Of course, auto sensing isn’t a TiO innovation. It’s the company’s employment of the feature in combination with the rest of what the AZSS1 does that’s so worthy of note.

The AZSS1’s small size, Wi-Fi connectivity, and freestanding, enclosed-chassis design allow you to stash it just about anywhere—shelf, drawer, closet, humidor, Faraday cage (well, maybe not a Faraday cage if you expect to use Wi-Fi)—as long as you can run the power and speaker wires to it. But what’s even more awesome about the AZSS1’s little chassis is that it’s a perfect fit for a single-gang electrical box. Why? Because it makes it stupidly easy and insanely quick to replace an old, wired, analog volume control with a new AZSS1 without replacing speakers or redoing any of the existing wiring; in some cases, you can even reuse the volume control’s terminal connectors. What’s more, if that old control was the round-knob style, you can reuse the original wall plate to cover the AZSS1. The round status LED on the AZSS1 will usually line up with the hole that remains in the wall plate after the volume control is removed. Unfortunately, TiO can’t do anything about fingerprints, crayon marks, or scratches that have accumulated over the years.

On the other hand, if those fingerprints, crayon marks, or scratches are on the wall next to your old volume control, you can actually cover those, and bring some additional utility, with the TouchStream 7 (AZTS7, $1,299). This unusual component (which was not yet available for us to test) combines all the functionality of an AZSS1 with a 7-inch-diagonal touchscreen in front of it that provides full automation system control via the same interface in the TiO Home App (see below) —while still fitting into a single-gang mounting box.

It Turns Me On

TiO’s other Swiss Army knife, the TouchLite 4 (TL4, $180), handles lighting control and other automation functions. Installed in a wall with a standard Decora-style wall plate, the TL4 looks like little more than another upscale light dimmer—but dimming is only part of the story.

The Wi-Fi-enabled (802.11b/g/n) TL4 is a UL-approved “load-agnostic touchpad controller” that, according to TiO, “will control virtually any kind of lighting load—incandescent, tungsten, LED, CFL, MLV, ELV, cold-cathode, etc.—even controlling multiple types on the same circuit at the same time. The TL4 will also control motors, fans, and other load types.” Rather than having individual physical pushbuttons, the TL4 has a full-length rectangular capacitance touchpanel that’s configurable to operate as one, two, or four “button” sections. Customized labels with words, graphics, or any other images can be inkjet- or laser-printed on special vellum paper and inserted behind the TL4’s clear acrylic cover (but in front of the adjustable backlight), where they won’t get dirty or worn off over time, and they can be easily swapped out, too. TiO’s Action Group feature makes it possible to assign up to 12 remotely located TL4s to a single button and have them operate in unison, all turning off/on or dimming simultaneously. But the TL4’s buttons don’t have to be assigned to lighting control at all. They can be programmed to initiate any activity, ranging from a single action (like muting the audio from an AZSS1) to, well, anything else the system can do. In other words, you could think of the TL4 as a touchpad system controller that, by the way, also happens to control lighting.

Elementary Bits and Pieces

Other Elements are used to integrate home A/V gear and other automation devices into a TiO system. The TiO Connect Wi-Fi Module (TCWiFi, $230) and the TiO Connect Wired Module (TCIP, $200) are both used to convert IP communication from the MC2 into whichever protocol that’s required, including infrared (IR), serial, and contact closure. TiO also offers a Security System Keypad Emulator Adapter in order to integrate a home security system into the TiO system. The only thermostat that TiO supports at the moment is the Nest, although the company is working on adding other thermostats soon. IP-based security cameras need to be ONVIF Profile S compliant, which eliminates most of the common DIY brands, but dealers will be familiar with the ones that are, such as several from FLIR and TRENDnet.

The system that TiO provided for review included two AZSS1s audio streamers, four TL4 dimmer/wall controllers, one each of the TCIP wired and TCWiFi wireless IR connectors, and, of course, an MC2 MasterCoordinator, along with an Android tablet (TTBLT, $299) running an authorized Pro version of the TiO Home App. With the exception of some added configuration options, the Android-only Pro version is identical to the standard Android and iOS releases of the TiO Home App—which, by the way, can be downloaded and used in demo mode if you’d like to get a feel for how the TiO user interface looks and operates.

Thanks to the private network created by the preconfigured MC2, the process of discovering the TiO Elements was quick and nearly brainless. (If only replacing and wiring light switches could be that easy.) Aside from the physical install, the part that took the most time was giving each Element and, er, Space (see below) a unique, friendly name. That’s when I found myself struggling to come to terms with—and tiresomely translate—TiO-talk’s user-friendly (rather than installer-centric) lingo. Once I decided to forget what I “knew” about custom installation (well, that was easy) and look at the TiO system the way a typical homeowner would see it, configuring and programming the system was as easy as—if not easier than—any other system I’ve dealt with.

TiO’s Mode of Moods

After understanding Elements, the next important TiO concept is a Space, which is any area in the home that’s controlled by a TiO Element. (If you say, “Oh, you mean a zone!,” I’m going to slap you.) A home can have lots of Spaces of varying sizes, including part of a room, a whole room, multiple rooms, the entire house, and an outside landscaped area. Spaces with AZSS1 streamers can be cloned, so they always operate in unison, or shadowed, so the audio source is the same but the volume can be adjusted independently. After the hardware has been installed, named, and assigned to its Space during configuration using the Pro TiO Home App, the installer—or, more importantly, the homeowner—can then begin to create Moods.

In essence, a Mood is a snapshot of the status of every device or gadget that TiO controls in a particular Space, including lighting, audio source, volume, and third-party A/V gear, as well as thermostat settings. Much like taking a picture, all the status settings are captured by pressing the TiO Capture Mood button icon that appears on every screen of the TiO Home App (Pro or standard version). Then you name the Mood, select which Elements are to be included, and (if desired) schedule it for specific times or events, such as sunrise and sunset. Moods can be created, recalled, or edited at any time by the installer—or, more interestingly, by the homeowner after the installer is long gone—and they can be assigned to buttons on TL4s. Conveniently, each time a Space is created in the TiO system during setup, the system automatically generates a “Space Off” Mood for shutting off everything in that Space.

A TiO Experience is a selection of Moods in different Spaces that are activated simultaneously. As with Moods, Experiences can be created, recalled, or edited at any time— again, by the installer or homeowner. Creating an Experience is done by pressing the (surprise!) Create Experience icon that’s also on every screen in the TiO Home App. Then you simply drag and drop existing Moods into the Experience’s list. Party and Goodnight are two obvious examples of useful Experiences that would provide easy control over most, or all, of your home. Vacation Experience might include Moods with scheduled lighting or audio activities to make it seem like someone is at home.

It Ain’t Easy Being Easy

The TiO Home App was simple to navigate without being too simplistic, and it offered a high degree of customization without being overly confusing. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish in an app, either. Once you’ve chosen the Space you want to control from the home screen, a scrolling arc of circles becomes available. The circles contain icons for the different Elements and Moods that are already part of the system. The Elements and Moods appropriate for that Space are colored in, while the unavailable ones are grayed out. It’s not quite a warm and fuzzy user interface, but it’s much friendlier and more approachable for a lot of folks than a higher-tech, more Star Trek-ish/Star Wars-ian layout would be.

I really liked the TiO Home App overall, but that doesn’t mean it was perfect. For instance, although the app will recognize existing playlists on connected drives, NAS devices, and network servers, you can’t create playlists on the fly from within the app. [Ed. Note: TiO said at press time that playlist functionality will be released by the fall.—RS] And to put it mildly, I’m not a fan of the app’s text-based, folder/subfolder style of selecting music (which, for example, requires you to take a path like Synology BC214se/Music/By Album Artist/Adele/21/Rolling in the Deep). It’s a far more natural experience to choose music from an array of cover art icons, the way Mirage and Plex, for example, allow you to do. TiO is hardly alone in using this method, but it’s the very first thing I’d change about the app. It would also be helpful if the app would present the available music as a single library, rather than make you choose the individual server that a song is on. Strangely, there was no obvious way in my system to fast-forward or rewind a song in the app, either. (TiO’s documentation for the app under “Audio Controls” says, “Depending on your music source, you may have access to these control options: Rewind, Pause, Fast Forward, Repeat, and Shuffle.”)

Balls in Your Walls

Hardware-wise, I can’t say enough about how awesome the two AZSS1s were in this system. That streamer/integrated amp is a marvelous device (um, Element), packing so many features and so much power into one small chassis that it’s hard to believe it works. But it does work—and very well, too.

The auto sensing digital audio input worked like magic, switching to that input and back to the streaming section each time I power-cycled the Oppo BDP-105 player connected to it. StreamSharing is TiO-talk for streaming audio from one AZSS1 to others in the system while maintaining the audio in perfect sync across Spaces, and it worked precisely as promised. Interestingly, the AZSS1 also let me share audio from the Oppo, but there was a delay in the second AZSS1’s audio.

I have to admit that I really didn’t expect much from the AZSS1’s built-in 50-watt x 2 Class D amp. After all, it’s designed to fit into a single-gang electrical box. How good could it be? Well, it turns out that if you do get a couple of these AZSS1s installed, you’ll have some real balls hidden behind your walls. The amp not only plays powerfully and cleanly but also sounds open without any edginess in the high end. While I was working on this review, I had Paradigm’s excellent Play-Fi-enabled streamer, the PW Amp, along with the company’s phenomenal Prestige 75F towers, so I was able to spend time comparing the two amps playing the same speakers. The PW Amp is a damn impressive amp in its own right, but I must say that I was floored to hear the AZSS1 give it a close run for its money (in Canadian dollars, of course). The differences were small, and some variables were difficult to account for, but overall I thought the AZSS1 had a bit more punch in the bass region, while the PW Amp provided slightly more depth in the imaging.

From a lighting-control standpoint, the TL4s were rock-solid and responsive— consistently faster to react, I have to say, than a lot of Z-Wave- and ZigBee-based lighting systems I’ve worked with. The fact that the TL4 can handle so many different types of loads and do so simultaneously on the same circuit is something for installers to admire, but I fell in love with the design of the TL4’s capacitance touchpanel. It’s sleek without calling attention to itself, and, well, it just worked—even when I was wearing gloves, which is especially important for TL4s used at front or back doors or in garages. It was incredibly easy to reconfigure the TL4, too, including the backlighting, number of buttons, button function assignments, and even the ramp rate and min/max levels for TL4s used as dimmers. Unless your home is a museum, the way you live in it is going to change over time, and there’s no way to predict those changes when a home automation system is first installed. Providing an easy way for the homeowner to adapt the system’s operation to those changes is by far one of a TiO system’s most compelling features.

Although neither is a fatal flaw, by any means, there are two potential issues that might crop up as a result of the TL4 being TiO’s only in-wall lighting control Element. (TiO also makes a $180 touchscreen-less, plug-in, load-agnostic lamp dimmer, the LMPNA.) The first issue is the TL4’s 600-watt maximum incandescent load. While that’s likely not going to pose a problem for most people, especially with the prevalence of LED lighting today, it still might not be stout enough for some fixtures, such as large chandeliers or extremely vain vanity-mirror lighting. Fortunately, TiO says the TL4 supports a booster that can control loads up to 2,000 watts if needed.

The other possible negative is that, at $180, the TL4 is a bit expensive to use as a wireless light switch for, say, a basement or garage light where all you need is remote on/off control. (TiO recently announced plans for a “low-cost, three-way” switch as part of a future update.)

Last, TiO’s Elements for A/V and other home device control worked very well. In my case, the TCWiFi and its IR output adapter (TIR3, $30) consistently functioned as programmed with a basic AVR, BD, and HDTV system. TiO’s IR driver library didn’t seem as extensive to me as some of its competitors, though that can be overcome in time; the company currently uses the Global Cache IR library that has more than 150,000 codes in it. Also, direct IP control of some select IP-enabled devices (Nest, cameras, garage door openers) was only added after my review period, though the list of controlled devices is said to be expanding. That’s good, because IP control is more reliable than IR for automation. So TiO is on the right track.

Conclusion

Recommending a home automation system isn’t as simple as giving a thumbs-up to an AVR or an HDTV, because home automation isn’t something you can easily return to the store or trade up for something better. Home automation gear becomes part of your home, and you can’t transfer the programming from one company’s system to a competitor’s. Unless you’re buying a $50 smarthome hub and you have lots of free nights and weekends to tinker, you should definitely take your time deciding on the best system for you.

So here’s the thing: I think TiO has hit a towering home run (pardon the install-related pun) with the company’s new home automation ecosystem. It’s perfect for small- and medium-sized homes—especially those in which music (streaming or local) and A/V control are of high importance. TiO has absolutely succeeded in making the system both easy to operate and easy to customize. The AZSS1 and the TL4 are unique and cleverly designed, with a bundle of functions that, hard to believe, are all in one product. In case you can’t tell, I really like what TiO has done. Of course, there are some things I would change, mostly dealing with the app, but nothing egregious. Other automation systems, such as those from Control4, will provide more extensive options for many homeowners. On the other hand, there are quite a few situations in which a modest TiO system will do more and do it for less money—both up front and in the future. Without any doubt in my mind, TiO’s approach to home automation and its impressive ecosystem make this a system highly worthy of consideration.

Specs

  • MC2: 8.2.11b/g/n, 2.4GHz, WPA2 encryption, External antennas (3), WAN port (1), LAN ports (4), 8.6 x 6.3 x 3.3 in (WxHxD), 1.4 lb
  • AZSS1: 50 watts x 2, Inputs: Bluetooth 4.0, optical digital, Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz, Ethernet, Streaming services: TuneIn, Sirius XM, Rhapsody, Spotify, Outputs: 3.5 mm analog audio, 2.75 x 1.88 x 3.9 in (WxHxD), 0.55 lb
  • TL4: 802.11b/g/n, 2.4GHz, Selectable dimming/switch modes, programmable capacitance touch buttons (1, 2, or 4), Dimming loads: Incandescent/Tungsten (600W, expandable to 2,000W), LED (250W), Dimmable CFL (250W), Motors/Fans (1/8 Hp), Replaceable custom labels, 2.51 x 4.12 x 1.5 in (WxHxD), 3.8 oz
  • Price: $2,979 (MC2, $500; AZSS1, $500; TL4, $180; TCWiFi, $230; TCIP, $200; TIR3, $30; TTBLT, $299)

(soundandvision.com, http://goo.gl/5N4CRN)

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