Dennis Burger is a native Alabamian whose passion for AV began sometime before the age of seven, when he dismantled his parents' brand new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV and exclaimed--to the amusement of no one except the delivery guy--that it was missing all of its vacuum tubes. He has since contributed to Home Theater Magazine, Wirecutter, Cineluxe, Electronic House, and more. His specialties include high-end audio, home theater receivers, advanced home automation, and video codecs.
Adrienne Maxwell recently wrote a great update to a popular story we ran a few years ago. That piece--Shopping for Smart Home Products? Here's What to Expect--is a great overview for do-it-yourselfers looking to dip their toes in the world of home automation and control. But what if you're looking for something a little more than what the SmartThings, Winks, and Harmonys of the world can provide? What if you're itching for some professionally installed, truly customized home automation? Then you're in the right place--because what I hope to answer in this piece are a couple of fundamental questions: what's the difference between DIY and custom automation? What's the price delta? What do you actually get for a certain level of investment? And what are the avenues for expansion?
For the purposes of this article, I'll be viewing all of this through the lens of Control4 because it's the professional automation system that I live with, the one I'm most adept at programming, and in my opinion (let me stress that again--in my opinion) it's the best entertainment control and home automation solution for the largest variety of homes, homeowners, and budget levels.
Let's just start with the simplest entertainment and automation solution available from Control4 and see what that gets you. The EA-1 (in Control4's new controller parlance, EA stands for "Entertainment and Automation," and the "1" lets you know that this model provides one zone of high-resolution audio) is probably the right solution for most home theater aficionados just starting out with this level of control. It features four IR control outputs (two of which can be configured as Serial), an HDMI output (for onscreen menus and music delivery), IP control capabilities, ZigBee wireless control, and a built-in DAC that can decode AAC, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, M4A, MP2, MP3, MP4/M4A, Ogg Vorbis, PCM, WAV, and WMA (up to 192/24, when applicable). There are also plenty of streaming audio services built in.
Paired with Control4's SR-260 remote, the EA-1 comes in at $600, which ain't half bad when you consider that the remote itself sells for $200.
But what does this box actually get you? First of all, you get amazingly reliable (and, more importantly, ultra-intuitive) control of your home theater and music systems, complete with an onscreen user interface, app control, and touchscreen remote compatibility if you want to go that route. In addition to reliability and intuitiveness, you also get a deeper level of control. In my own system, for example, I don't select Watch>Roku and then navigate the Roku's UI to get to the app I want. I simply select Watch>Netflix or Watch>Amazon or Watch>IMSA, and I get dropped off directly at my intended destination.
And, of course, you can easily add more than just AV control. You can add climate control via your Ecobee, Nest, or Carrier thermostat (or any number of other models--a quick glance at my programming software reveals 57 thermostat drivers from various providers, and I'm sure there are more to be found online from third parties). You can also do lighting, by way of Lutron Caséta, Philips Hue, or any number of other solutions you might already have installed. Or, of course, you can opt for Control4's own proprietary lighting controls. You can add locks, motion sensors, humidity sensors, fan controls, and (like everything else in the world right now) Amazon Alexa voice control capability.
The beauty of having all of these devices connected to and controlled by the same system is that they become interconnected. Let's say you have your home theater system, thermostat and a dimmer in the living room all connected to your Control4 EA-1: you now have the ability to set up automated routine--like, say, when you watch a movie, the system automatically turns the thermostat down to 72 (or up to 76, or whatever you find most comfortable for movie watching) and dim the lights to 20 percent. That's just barely scratching the surface, though.
What's the advantage of having a professionally installed and programmed system as compared with a DIY solution like SmartThings mated with a Harmony smart hub? Well, like I said, you get enhanced reliability. For another thing, since all of the actual control in a Control4 system is handled via a black box (not the remote control itself), you can have multiple remotes in one room, and they're constantly updated via two-way communication, so they don't conflict with one other. Having His and Hers remotes on each end of the couch has probably saved my marriage.
You can also do more sophisticated things with device interactions because, unlike those DIY hubs, programming a Control4 system isn't merely a drag-and-drop experience. I went through the dealer training myself, and the first day I nearly fell asleep, thinking, "Geez, anyone could do this." By Day 3 (and after having 2.5 hours of homework every night in between), I was thinking more along the lines of, "Eeesh, am I going to pass the final exam?" The reality of it is, some professional programmers that I went through training with did not pass.
Of course, all of that comes with a cost--but it's not always as much as you might expect. I called my buddy John Sciacca, a partner at Custom Theater & Audio in Myrtle Beach, who installs Control4 systems and custom home theaters for a living. I asked him, "If a customer came to you with an existing home theater system and maybe a DIY lighting control system like Lutron Caséta, and wanted to buy an EA-1 from you and have it installed, how much would the installation cost?"
He paused. "That's not an easy question to answer."
Okay, I said, let's make some assumptions. The HT system is comprised of a relatively new Denon or Marantz receiver with IP control capabilities, a Dish Network receiver, a Roku media player, an Oppo UHD Blu-ray player, and a new Sony TV. Could you program an advanced control solution for that for, say, $200 or $300?
Yes, he answered. Of course, any esoteric gear that required the writing of new drivers, or any gear that needs an IR connection, or anything like that would add to the time. So, too, would requests for really advanced programming. A simple macro that dims the lights and adjusts the temperature at movie time--or that raises the lights when you pause or stop the movie? No problem. But anything more complicated than that will add to the time, which adds to the expense.
Mind you, we've been talking about the EA-1 in terms of one-room control, and that's really where it excels, but it can also control up to 50 smart home devices in and around the home, as long as they can be reached by a ZigBee wireless signal or an IP connection. If you want to add another room full of entertainment to the system, though, that requires the addition of another controller. (Think of it like this: you need a controller for every TV connected to an entertainment system you want to control.) One of the few limitations of the EA-1 is that it cannot act as the central brain for a multi-room entertainment control solution. In other words, two rooms doesn't equal two EA-1s. You'll need to move up to an EA-3 (or even an EA-5 if your home is large enough) as the central brain in your home control system once you move past a one-room solution.
That's not to say that your investment in the EA-1 becomes obsolete once you decide to expand your system. It's just that, in a multi-room control situation, the EA-1 will serve as an add-on room controller. So, it has to be moved to a new room. But the beauty of Control4 is that all of the programming your dealer does to your system is stored in your system, not on his or her computer. So, if you have to hire a completely different dealer to upgrade your Control4 solution from one room to three or four or more, they only need to connect to your network, load up your existing programming, and add your new controller(s), and all of your custom macros and associations are still intact.
Of course, I've lived with a professional automation and control solution for going on six years now, so it has second nature for me. As such, I might be forgetting some of the basics. Let me know in the Comment section. What questions do you have about getting started with professional home automation that I didn't think to address?