Control4 EA-5 Home Automation System Reviewed

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Control4 EA-5 Home Automation System Reviewed

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Control4-lifestyle-225x149.jpgAfter working on the other side of the world for a year, I returned to Florida and purchased a new home in the Tampa area. With all due respect to everything that this home does right, the electrical and lighting design were about as bad as I have ever seen. Simply turning on the lights on the main floor required using light switches in five different areas. I needed a meaningful control solution, or I was going to ultimately wear a pentagram into the floor.

Of course, these days, all of that walking is completely unnecessary. In the world of the Internet of Things (IoT), even your refrigerator can be controlled remotely from your smart phone or tablet. The marketplace is filled with simple, DIY lighting control solutions that would have made my life easier, but I longed for something a little more sophisticated. Seeing the professional automation systems that my friends have installed in their homes with increasing frequency, I thought it might be time to focus some of my audiophile energy into a new category: home automation. And so my journey with Control4 began.

The simplest Control4 package gets you the entry-level EA-1 controller and SR-260 remote control, which would allow you to control the entertainment system in one room, with the option to add in control of a few lights, a thermostat, etc. (Adrienne Maxwell reviewed an older version of Control4's entry-level combo here). Depending on the size of your home and imagination, the sky is the limit from there. My system falls somewhere in the middle, with multi-zone audio, 4K distributed video, lighting control, a monitored security system with surveillance cameras, and HVAC control all in one unified system, allowing control of the entire home from pretty much anywhere.

Control4-EA5-thumb-225x140.jpgMy system is designed around the newest Control4 EA-5 system controller (shown right, $2,000) with a Control4 Leaf 4K UHD Matrix Switch Kit ($6,000) and Control4 Eight-Zone Matrix Amplifier (shown below, $2,495) providing 120 watts per channel into eight ohms to all 16 channels from any of eight analog sources. I chose to use two Control4 SR-260 remotes ($300 each) for the theaters, plus a 10-inch Control4 Tabletop Touch Screen ($1,200) for roaming use and outside. I installed 10-inch in-wall touch screens ($1,200 each) by the kitchen, master bedroom, and in the loft/office area. Countless dimmers, switches, keypad dimmers, and keypads were also installed strategically throughout the house (ranging in price from $40 to $250 each). Motion sensors and programming further added to the budget, which can be looked at as either pricey (compared with a growing number of DIY products) or very cost effective (compared with players like Savant and especially Crestron, which can cost many times more for a similar system configuration).

The Hookup
Installing single-room or even basic whole-home automation can absolutely be a DIY project these days. Automating an entire home with the complexity of this system is a whole different story. You can't install a Control4 system yourself. They have a nationwide network of dealers who are extensively trained and then trained some more. Some installers you'll talk to will suggest that they design systems using all three major automation brands (Control4, Crestron, and Savant), but that makes me a bit leary. Spend the time to do your due diligence to find the right Control4-certified dealer to quarterback your project. This is the single most important advice that I can give you when starting the project of automating an entire home. The chef is as important as the ingredients in many cases. I selected Hoppen Home Systems out of Tampa.

Control4-amplifier-225x86.jpgMy system required a three-inch conduit running from the ground level to the third floor's attic, a full Middle Atlantic rack, spools and spools of CAT-6 cable and 12-gauge speaker wire, high-end network switchers, routers, wireless access points, and power protection. All my electronics in both theaters (in the living room and bedroom) were connected via RS-232 or IP when available. My UHD Blu-ray player, FiOS cable box, and LG OLED display had to be run with IR relays, as no IP or RS-232 drivers have been released for them to date. This added an additional $500 to the cost of my project, since an I/O extender was necessary to add more control ports than my EA-5 had to offer in a standard configuration.

An electrician ran extra wires to the ceiling fans, allowing the fan and its light to be controlled independently. He switched out fluorescent lighting for LED lighting in the kitchen, allowing dimming and color control. He also ran dedicated 20-amp lines to the equipment closet and replaced every electrical switch in the home with Control4-enabled products. You can see the whole-home concept coming together.

Since my home was already built and I wasn't up for tearing up all of the drywall, we used a wireless-heavy mix of control versus an all hard-wired solution. Obviously, the more of your system that you can hard-wire, the better--but we all live in the real world, and not every home automation project is going to be in a new home construction. Using anything but high-level, commercial-grade Internet routers and switchers is a huge mistake, as it decreases the reliability of every one of the devices connected in this way. My installer used Pakedge routers, switchers, and wireless access points on each floor, giving me simply the best download speeds my home has ever seen. I can pull nearly 100 Mbps down all the way out on my deck, about 100 feet from the closest wireless access point.

My HVAC system has been tied into my Control4 setup, allowing climate control and scheduling of temperature, which is no small issue living in Florida. I not only save on air-conditioning bills, but it also allows me easy access to adjust the temperature when I come home early or when I forget to dial the thermostat back when I go on vacation or leave town for a few days. It doesn't take long to learn to love this level of control. I advise people who would never consider doing a full automation system to at least try out a DIY solution for their HVAC system. You save money, energy, and just live better because of it.

My system took about a week just for the wiring and electrical to get installed. Programming, perhaps the most important part of the project, took another good week. The programming is really where the system comes to life, where all of this equipment is truly personalized to your needs and lifestyle. It's also where things can go horribly wrong. One mistake that many custom installers make is to overly complicate things. For example, most control systems, Control4 included, stream music at one level or another, but exactly how many streaming subscriptions do you need? The right answer is a few. Perhaps Pandora or Spotify. TIDAL is good for music lovers like me who want millions of CD-quality songs at a fingertip's reach. Sirius is familiar from the car. But how many more do you want? There are devices that can do a dozen more, but do you need them? Nope. Nor do you want the complication. Keeping things simple is key to home automation success, I have learned.

Also, don't feel pressured to get your system 100 percent dialed in on day one. That's an unreasonable standard. Make notes as you use the system. Schedule your programmers and installers to come back every week or so for a few weeks to tweak and get things perfect. That's a much more realistic road to success.

Lastly, it is fully acceptable to ask a dealer that you are looking at hiring to test their programming. Does it feel intuitive to you? If not, hire someone else. A well-done Control4 system should be a pleasure to use. Without question, mine is, even if I had to put a lot of time into finding just the right firm to accomplish my goals and the level of "tweaking" that I wanted.

Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclsuion...

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