Control4 announces EA Series of smart-home controllers with more powerful processors, high-resolution audio (HRA), built-in Ethernet switches, more I/Os; goes another year without an IoT solution for DIYs.
Julie Jacobson · January 27, 2016
Control4 (Nasdaq: CTRL) has spent the last few years focusing on its core business of providing reliable ZigBee- and Wi-Fi-enabled home automation and multiroom A/V systems for the mid-market via professional integrators. The company shies away from headline-making bells and whistles, and so far has dismissed the DIY IoT market.
Today’s big announcement of three new EA Series home controllers stays the course, from the entry level ($600 MSRP) and up ($2,000). Speed and reliability is the mantra, says CEO Martin Plaehn, who wants the company to be known as an infrastructure provider rather than a device manufacturer.
Everyone seems to like the strategy – dealers and consumers at least – but not so much the stockholders, who seem to be getting bored with the slow and steady growth of the company.
On my recent visit to Control4 headquarters in Salt Lake City, Plaehn held up a very thick report from one analyst that he told me was packed with positive reviews from dealers.
“Investors are scratching their heads,” Plaehn says. “All they hear is goodness” (which is what the author hears as well.)
So you can imagine that CTRL stock probably won’t skyrocket on the news that three new controllers now have integrated power supplies, even though you can barely contain Kordon Vaughn, senior director of controllers, when he gushes, “This is a really critical component of the system!”
Previous controllers relied on external power supplies, Vaughn explains: “The problem with off-the-shelf power supplies is that vendors can make a change and you may never know. Now we can specify high-quality power supplies. … It needs to be something you don’t leave to chance.”
While a power supply may seem a little trivial in the scheme of things, it really is emblematic of Control4’s commitment to quality.
These days, the controllers “just don’t break,” says Paul Williams, VP of solutions for Control4. “It’s not like a phone where you replace it every couple years. You’re not going to do a wholesale upgrade of your home automation system every couple of years. So we spent a lot of time making sure the products are reliable.”
High-Resolution Audio for All
There are indeed some swell new features of the new EA Series controllers. I wouldn’t call them bells and whistles exactly, but they do make the products relevant and powerful.
Perhaps the most exciting thing is that all three new controllers, the EA-1, EA-3 and EA-5 (specs on next page), offer high-resolution audio (HRA) as standard.
The emphasis is on entertainment this go-around, as Control4 installations in the U.S. are mostly driven by entertainment, according to Williams.
“Customers looking into a media-room experience or a home-theater experience are lured into home automation,” he says. “So we made sure to allow for those things to be enhanced” with the new models.
Vaughn says that making HRA standard in Control4 controllers eliminates a potential “failure point” in a multiroom audio ecosystem. It also ensures that “High-Res Audio is synonymous with Control4.”
Vaughn says Control4 focused heavily on the signal-to-noise ratio for its new 24-bit audio platform to make sure “there really isn’t a need to go out and buy a separate box.”
A funny thing happened on the way to a low-noise circuit for high-res audio: Control4 begin seeing better performance from its ZigBee radio as well, according to Vaughn.
Even so, Control4 added external Wi-Fi and ZigBee radio antennas to all of its new controllers.
“This allows for much more intelligent placement of the controller to ensure good connectivity away from interference when needed,” says Joe Whitaker, a long-time Control4 dealer and contributor to CE Pro.
On top of wireless improvements, Control4’s new controllers are more powerful than their predecessors. The EA-3, for example, is five times faster than the nearly-comparable HC250, according to the company.
A platform switch from Flash to Android is responsible for much of that speediness, just as when the move to Android made Control4’s new touchscreens “blazingly fast.”
The TV on-screen display (OSD) renders lickity-split with the new Android controllers, according to Control4 and its beta testers.
Here is an excerpt from Whitaker’s short list of exciting things about the new Control4 hardware:
#5 BIG PROCESSORS!!!!!!
Ethernet Switches and Other I/Os
When controllers are located near a TV, rather than a central rack, the space can get a little tight, especially considering the other little black boxes that may share the shelf. Control4 helps with built-in Ethernet switches on its PoE-powered EA-3 (one extra gigabit port) and EA-5 (four extra ports, all gigabit).
“The addition of an extra Ethernet port on the E3, and four ports on the E5, is a bigger deal than it may seem,” Whitaker says. “It’s similar to what Sonos has done on the Connect and Connect Amp, and what Sony has done with select receivers. These extra ports allow for bonus connectivity in TV locations, where you might normally use an extra switch.”
Each controller boasts a bank of I/O including ports that can be used for IR or RS-232 control. Here, Control4 did another really nice thing for integrators. Some TVs, especially LG and Samsung, have 3.5-inch jacks for serial communications, but they reverse the wires from what is “normal.” In the past, Control4 dealers had to create their own crossover cables in the field by splicing, crossing and reattaching them.
Control4 now allows dealers to make “virtual crossover” cables through software. Simply check the box that indicates “crossover” and Control4 does the rest.
“We could have made physical crossover cables for dealers,” Vaughn notes, “but then they’d have to carry them around.”
There you go – another thing that won’t move CTRL stock, but makes dealers super-happy.
The virtual crossover cable is just one handy feature in Control4’s new OS 2.81 software. Other improvements affect consumers more directly.
For example, Control4’s new ShairBridge service — embedded AirPlay with Control4 special sauce — is available on all EA controllers. When it debuted at CEDIA 2015 last October, it worked only with the top-of-the-line HC800 controller.
Control4 demonstrated the feature at CEDIA, where TIDAL HRA music service was streaming via the HC800 to headset stations in the booth. Dealers could access tunes from the company’s new grid-style interface, with album covers shown in full HD glory – all part of the OS 2.8 upgrade.
Control4 has been slowly overhauling its historically bland UIs and is scrapping the old “circle of power” home-page look for a horizontal UI.
More fundamentally, Control4 is working to expose more useful data where consumers want to see it. The music/video interface was the first example of that effort. Now with 2.81, Control4 allows shortcuts to such services as Netflix, allowing one-click access from a touchscreen or mobile device.
“You don’t have to go to Roku first and drill down,” says Brad Hintze director of product marketing for Control4.
And some icing on the software cake: Apple Watch compatibility.
EA Series Pricing, Availability and the Business of Control4
Control4 is releasing all new products today, the day of the announcement. The company is holding several launch parties around the country and live-streaming the event.
“We want to get everyone using the controllers right away, no waiting period,” Vaughn says.
The new entry-level EA-1 retails for $600, including the controller and an SR-260 remote.
“Thank you for including the remote with the base-level controller again,” Whitaker says. “This makes ordering and explaining the system so much easier.”
The mid-level EA-3 retails for $1,000, which is $250 more than the existing HC-250 model. For that, you get an extra audio zone (three instead of two), two extra IR ports (six instead of four), five times the processing power, a gigabit Ethernet switch, high-res audio, an Android-based OSD, and a wall-mount bracket.
The EA-5, which succeeds the $1,500 HC-800, retails for $2,000.
Hintze boasts that all of the new controllers are high-performance machines.
“If a dealer only sells into a low price point, they still take advantage of everything we offer,” he says.
CEO Plaehn emphasizes the point: “We’re not running a tiered ecosystem. What’s really important is that dealers run a single platform. … Even if you put in our entry-level product, you can scale.”
Investors clamoring for a DIY-type solution won’t get it from Control4, at least not this year.
“We don’t bifurcate our brand,” Plaehn says. “We don’t bifurcate our platform.”
- Advanced multi-core processor delivers a new level of speed and performance for instantaneous, interactive on-screen control and access to lighting, security, music, and video solutions.
- Elegant, low-profile design for flexible, simple installation. Available mounting bracket allows easy mounting to the back of a TV, on the wall, or to a standard wall box.
- Incredibly fast, intuitive control from your tablet, smart phone, touch screen, remote, or TV On-Screen Navigator.
- All-new, elegant on-screen experience for easy access to entertainment and the entire home.
- Integrated music server with native support for popular streaming services, including Deezer, Pandora, Rhapsody, Tidal, and TuneIn.
- External Wireless-N and ZigBee antennas simplify installation while delivering high-performance network connectivity.
- USB port enables connection to external hard drives for easy access to local music content.
- Control4 App license enables in-home control from multiple iOS—including Apple Watch—and Android mobile devices. Connect to your home remotely with an optional 4Sight subscription.
Fluorescent lights, computer screens, neon signs—there is certainly a lot of peripheral light in our lives. And to your circadian rhythms, that light can read like a lot of excess noise.
Fortunately, smart lighting and scheduled scenes can help you cut back on the effects of unwanted light—at least in your home—keeping you alert throughout the day and helping you fall fast asleep at night.
Using Light Warmth to Wind Down at Night
Scientists who study light’s effects on neurology have noticed one clear through line: cool, white light seems to make the mind more active and productive, while soft, warm light induces melatonin, a precursor to sleep. Color ‘temperature,’ in essence, the amount of blue (‘cool’) or yellow (‘warm’) wavelengths in a light source has been shown to have a definite effect on our sleep—and by extension, our overall health. In fact, Harvard research linked lower melatonin to Type 2 diabetes.
Unfortunately, modern devices and lights tend to land on the cooler side. Standard LEDs may be better for the environment, but they usually produce a bluish light—not the best for prepping for sleep. In one study, for instance, researchers exposed participants to various amounts of green and blue light, and then surveyed their alertness levels—and measured their neural functioning via EEG. Both the responses and the test results showed a positive correlation between blue light and alertness.
Smart device manufacturers are working hard to help solve this problem, however. Using color-changing bulbs, your home can be programmed to switch from blue to yellow light as the day progresses—and kick your melatonin production into gear.
Say ‘Goodnight’ to Your Devices
Let’s face it: a lot of us are pretty addicted to the small screen. But exposing ourselves to that light at the end of the day can also ratchet up the restless nights. Scientists at the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have determined that as little as two hours of pre-bedtime screen use can impact your body’s melatonin production.
Digital screens also have a bluish tint, so they can have a similar effect on your alertness levels as bright LEDs. A command-activated scene can put your television and smart devices to sleep—so you can get some shuteye yourself.
Selective Lighting to Reduce Eyestrain and Fatigue
An overhead light can really only do so much. You can reduce headaches and eyestrain by installing task lighting in kitchens, offices, garages—anywhere you need to focus, really. In the bedroom, overhead recessed lights directed towards the pillow can also get you some of the benefits of ceiling lights without flooding your system with too much light right before bed. Automation makes it really easy to switch on additional lighting systems, too. You can program the lights according to the activity. For instance, with a home automation system like Control4, you can simply tap a “Cooking” button that turns on under-cabinet lights, ramps up the kitchen pendants and cans to 100% illumination, and—because it works in unison with other devices and systems—your favorite cooking playlist can begin playing overhead.
In the living room, you can help reduce eyestrain by installing bias lights—a backlighting system that sits behind your TV or computer screen. Use bulbs that have a 6500K color temperature, the same type of light used in your screen. That way, your eyes won’t be struggling to adjust between the bright digital light and the darkness of the rest of the room. In fact, there are certain smart TVs that come with bias lighting features, if you don’t feel like finding the proper bulbs yourself.
A well-lit home just feels more comfortable, and can highlight your decor and interior design—and smart controls make it just a little easier to manage a wider variety of lighting situations. After all, when it comes to your home life, your comfort and ease are top priority.
About the guest author: Erin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener, and aspiring homeowner. She resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve seen the overwhelming response to and growing demand for smart wearable devices. According to this article by Forbes, an impressive 245 million wearable devices are expected to ship in 2019.
Couple that with the expectation that the global smart homes market will be valued at $58.68 billion by 2020, and I think it’s a safe to conclude that there will be new expectations for how and where we’ll all interact with our homes.
Smart Home on a Smart Watch.
Today, we are incredibly excited to announce the full blending of smarts between the Control4 home and the Apple Watch. Status and control of your home just got more personal.
The team at Control4 were thoughtful in their development of this app, taking the time to deliver a rich experience with the functionality that you would desire. The goal was to provide the the most common interactions—the ones you want to get at the fastest—available right from your wrist. Not only does this up the ante for more control, it takes convenience to a whole new level.
Some of these key features include:
- Actions: Single-button control of your most popular and used shortcuts and scenes to set a mood or make a quick change.
- Media: See what audio or video that is playing in each room in your house and change volume, add additional rooms, or turn things off.
- Thermostats: See all thermostats in your home, adjust the temperature, and apply presets.
- Lighting: Control individual lights in any room of your house or activate lighting scenes that control many lights at the same time.
- Security: Check status of locks, unlock or lock doors, and open or close garage doors.
- Local or Remote: Control your home from the comfort of your couch, or use your watch when you’re away at work or traveling.
If you are one of the customers that requested support for Control4 on the Apple Watch, we are happy to be able to deliver this fun and new experience to interact with your Control4 smart home.
Note: The Control4 App for Apple Watch is included with the Control4 App for iPhone. It requires an update to Control4 OS 2.8.1 on your system controller and a 4Sight subscription.
To learn more about controlling your home from your wrist, contact Theatron Home Theater and Smart Homes Today.
- The new entry-level EA-1 retails for $600, including the controller and an SR-260 remote.
- The mid-level EA-3 retails for $1,000, which is $250 more than the existing HC-250 model. …
- The EA-5, which succeeds the $1,500 HC-800, retails for $2,000.