Ken Taraszka M.D. is an anesthesiologist by trade based in Tampa Bay, Florida. Ken is also a professional audiophile and home theater writer specializing in AV preamps and all facets of the audiophile market. In the past, Ken has been a staff writer and editor at AVRev.com. He has also at times been a frequent contributor at AudiophileReview.com.
After 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.
My 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).
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.
My 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...
I can control my system in any number of ways. Light switches and keypads in the walls control anything they are programmed to operate. I can use Control4's SR-260 remotes for the theaters to control most of the system, although they are better suited to AV control. The 10-inch Tabletop Touch Screen (shown right) allows control of everything from anywhere in or near the home, and my cell phone and tablet function just like the touch screens from anywhere in the world with the added $99/year Control4 4Sight subscription.
Switches can be programmed any number of ways, from simple on/off to multifunction system control. I have dimmers set for one tap to be full on and a double-tap to dim the lights to 50 percent. Pressing and holding up or down dims in the same direction. The lighting of the switches themselves can be fully configured as well, allowing you to choose any color for illuminating the switch status, or none. Scene buttons, once engraved, display the name over the button. Scenes can be set up for specific keys or even double taps, and they can control any number of lights, audio, video, security, HVAC--anything your system has can be controlled by the single touch of a button. Levels are all configurable by the user, or if you're really hands off, you can let your programmer do it for you. I thought of how I used my home and tried to make scenes that fit my space. Fortunately these aren't set in stone. Any scene can be customized directly from any touch screen, phone, or tablet.
The SR-260 handheld remote (shown right) is a great size, and it feels sturdy to me. Its rubberized back keeps it stable in your hand, which is great for surfing channels on TV. Refreshingly, the SR-260 comes with an optional recharging base, so you never need worry about replacing the batteries like you do with other comparable remotes. When fully charged, the SR-260's charge lasts over a week with regular use. The remote has the full complement of directional, transport and numeric buttons, as well as many buttons available to be customized as you see fit. The OLED alphanumeric display can be any of 19 available colors. Overall, I love the layout of this remote, and the buttons are easy to see and reach any time of day, thanks to the motion-activated backlighting. The remotes are able to control the vast majority of my system; when lying in bed, I can turn the A/C down from the TV remote. The functions are slightly limited, though. For instance, you can only turn the ceiling fans on or off. You need to use a touch screen, the fan controller, or the onscreen navigator on your TV to adjust the fan to an intermediate level.
My touch screens all act pretty much the same, whether they are the in-wall, mobile, or tablet variety. Anyone who has ever used an iPad or smartphone will be able to navigate the Control4 system without a tutorial. You choose the room you want to control, then the home screen directs you to choose Watch, Listen, Lighting, Security, Comfort (HVAC), and Settings. Submenus allow you to quickly adjust scenes, lighting, temperature, audio, or video settings, as well as check security cameras and arm/disarm the alarm system. Within the Settings area, you can customize each touch screen with dozens of stock backgrounds or even import your own pictures for that truly custom feel. Deeper functions, like favorite channel buttons that fire up your entertainment system and dial in to your channels of choice, require a little more programming and customization from your dealer, but they are doable based on your budget.
There's also an optional add-on called Composer Home Edition, which is a much scaled-down version of the professional software that dealers use to configure and program your system. It allows you to tinker with creating your own custom favorite channel menus, as well as make your own macros and so forth--although it doesn't allow you to add new devices, tinker with the bindings between control hardware and your own devices, and things of that nature. You will need to spend some time with your dealer learning how to use the software, though; even in its scaled-down form, it's quite a complicated program.
For all the talk about control interfaces, some of my favorite aspects of the Control4 system require absolutely no active input from me at all. Strategically placed motion sensors, for example, trigger a lighting scene when I enter the garage, illuminating a clear pathway into my home. In my case, this involves a light in the storage room that abuts to the garage, as well as the stair lights going up to the main living area. Should you walk in the front door, the stair lights come on and dim to different levels based on the time of day--so you aren't blinded at night but can see well during the day. This is a small but significant automation trick that makes my home so much more livable.
Lighting scenes allow you to control entire moods with a single button. In my living room, I have an "Entertain" scene that is designed for watching movies or TV. This scene sets the front lights low, dims the dining room light, and turns on the bathroom lights at minimal intensity as an aid to guests during the film. With a few simple keystrokes from any touch screen or my phone or iPad, I can tweak exactly what percentage of dimming each light has. Pressing and holding the hard buttons on the keypad dimmers or touch screens allows me to raise or lower the entire scene. This scene also dims shortly after sunset to compensate for the difference in ambient lighting.
In my kitchen I have a cooking scene, a morning scene, and a cleaning scene. Some other scenes I have set up for the main living area are a 'Settle In' mode that ensures all doors are locked, the garage doors are closed, the alarms are set, and all lights on the lower levels are turned off. A 'Floor Off' button is great on the way to work, as it turns off any entertainment that I may have turned on in the morning and all lighting except for the lights I need to use to leave the home. In the master bath, I have a night scene for when the facilities are needed in the middle of the night, so I can see but not be blinded, as well as a morning/shower scene allowing me to control all three different switches, in different places, with a single button.
I installed stereo speakers in five zones throughout my home. Each of these zones is capable of playing any source in my system, and any source can be simultaneously streamed to any number or all of these zones. With feeds for TIDAL, Pandora, and AirPlay, as well as FiOS, TuneIn, and my Oppo player, I can always find something to listen to. When moving about the home, I simply add the zone I'm heading to, and my music leads me there.
The 4K Leaf switcher (shown right) works the same way, sending any of my video sources to any or all displays and passes 4K easily from my Roku 4 and Oppo BDP-103D, and it sends 4K with HDR from my Samsung UHD Blu-ray player to the LG 55EF9500 OLED display in the bedroom. Of course, it sends along the uncompressed audio tracks from UHD Blu-ray, as well. It will stream multi-channel audio from SACD and DVD-Audio to both the 5.1 systems in either PCM or bitstream.
Having security tied into the system allows near-instant access to all surveillance cameras. A front door station doubles as a security camera and doorbell. This allows me to see who is at the front door from a touchscreen, open the door for them, and shut off the alarm system, saving me running down flights of stairs. The remaining security cameras are all viewed the same way, and a hard drive backup gives weeks of full 1080p video recording, should the video ever be needed. Having the security system monitored saves money on my homeowner's insurance, as well.
Other things that can be integrated into your home automation project include controlling blinds for enhanced lighting options. You can even get crazy with biometric devices, so your thumbprints can be used to unlock your home, with each person having their own dedicated scene start upon their entry. Anything can be added into scenes, including HVAC points if you like the theater colder during movies. Anything on the system can be part of a scene or set to start or stop at any time of day. Control4 also recently announced full Amazon Alexa integration, so now you can even control the system with your voice.
Having lived with a fully automated home for several weeks, I am absolutely in love. I did lose some closet space for the equipment rack and the large conduit going from the ground floor to the ceiling of the third floor, but boo-hoo, right? I still have to change out the door on the closet for better ventilation due to all the electronics in there, but that's a little out of the scope for my installer and more in the realm of a contractor.
A Control4 system at this level is not a system for a renter unless the landlord is paying for it. All the home modifications required for this system cost several thousand dollars, and the parts are home-specific. You can take the electronics with you when you move, but it would require a new install budget, electrical work, etc. This is a project that you do expecting to live with it for a long while; so, if you move every year or two, this may not be a smart investment.
In the end, there's really only one thing that I wish my system were capable of that turned out to be a little more than Control4 is designed to handle by default. I wish all my lighting scenes ramped up and down in intensity as the height of the sun changed throughout the day. It is possible to do this, but it would require extensive programming, and I felt it best to avoid. We were able to make my key scenes change in intensity by a set amount after sunset, but my dream of a smooth and gradual fade in and out as the world darkened never came to fruition.
Comparison and Competition
In the world of home control, there are hundreds of DIY solutions, like Harmony remotes and SmartThings and Wink, just to name a few. For a single-room system or for very basic whole-home control, any of these solutions can and do work nicely. They will not handle the depth of a system such as this review system, though, with its distributed 4K video, audio, security systems, and surveillance cameras. Since they aren't run by control over IP or RS-232, they also lack the reliability of a more integrated solution.
In talking about home automation options, one must discuss the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Crestron has been the high-end standard for many years and appeals to many of the top-tier installers. A well-done Control4 system can do much of what can be done on Crestron, and in some cases--like the new voice control option using Amazon Alexa--Control4 is even better. Crestron is a much more expensive, enterprise-class solution, though, and a much more difficult one to program. On the other hand, it allows for a level of nuts-and-bolts programming that's a few steps beyond what Control4 is capable of. To give you just a taste of what I mean: with Control4, the GUI is standard from project to project. If you and I have the same equipment in our homes and roughly the same floor plan, the Control4 system installed in your home would likely look identical to mine, except perhaps for backgrounds and screensavers. With Crestron, every screen and every button can be personalized, moved, or otherwise modified. Our publisher, Jerry Del Colliano, just completed a large-scale Crestron installation, which will be reviewed on HomeTheaterReview.com soon.
Savant is a sexy alternative to Crestron and/or Control4, but they've struggled to really get going in the large-scale automation world, and they seem to be in a bit of a transitional period at the moment. They have a sleek, Apple-like interface but seem to be struggling to figure out exactly what sort of control company they want to be. That's not to say that they don't have the big solutions; they do, but Control4 and Crestron are far ahead in market share at this stage of the game.
Control4 has been a life-changer for me, as cliched as that may sound. My home is so much more livable and enjoyable. My rooms have a cleaner look with all the gear hidden out of sight. The ability to control my music from any remote or touch screen from anywhere, even the dock behind my house, is a joy. When guests arrive, I can see them instantly via any and all touch screens, speak with them, and let them in remotely, avoiding running down a flight or two of stairs. The motion detectors will even turn on the stairway lights for them to enter safely and adjust them depending on time of day. The Control4 SR-260 remote works incredibly well and is one of the finest remotes that I have ever used.
Overall, this was a costly endeavor, well into the tens of thousands of dollars, and one not without its issues along the way. But it's one I am very glad to have undertaken. If you've got the itch to get into home automation, I highly recommend doing it. And when it comes to Control4, expect to have nearly every feature at your disposal at fair prices with excellent reliability when installed by the right installer. A bad installer can ruin any system, and God knows there are plenty of them out there relishing as poor legacy installations. In this case, I picked the right gear and the right installer, resulting in one happy camper.
• Publisher's Note: Special thanks to Hoppen Home Systems and Control4 for their help with the installation at Dr. Taraszka's new home. Hoppen specifically was able to dial-in often complex solutions that now work flawlessly.
Hoppen Home Systems
333 N. Falkenburg Rd a117
Tampa, FL 33619
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