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.”
Control4 is best known for its whole-home automation services, but its newest offering is a single box that promises to smarten up your home’s entertainment capabilities. The new Control4 EA Series (that’s “EA” for “entertainment and automation”) line of connected home controllers will range from $600 for a single-room setup to $2,000 for a unit powerful enough to smarten up a large home.
Each offering in the EA Series acts like a hub for your home entertainment. The system is compatible with over 9,500 connected home products — including entertainment devices ranging from Blu-ray players and gaming consoles to cable boxes and streaming gadgets such as Roku or Apple TV.
The EA Series pitch: control all of it — along with your smart home gadgetry — using a single remote and a single app. That means, for example, you’ll be able to set your lights to dim automatically when you start watching a movie, then dim back up when you press pause or stop.
Music is another major point of focus for the EA Series. Each server features native support for a number of streaming services, including Pandora, TuneIn and Napster (Spotify is a notable omission). You can also stream music from your phone, tablet or external hard drive, including support for high-fidelity, lossless formats such as FLAC.
Control4 is also showcasing a feature called “Shairbridge,” which uses Apple’s Airplay feature to stream music from any iOS device throughout customized zones in the home. The idea is that you’ll be able to use AirPlay as you normally would, but stream your music to multiple rooms at once. The rub is that you’ll need to upgrade past that $600 base model — which only supports a single audio stream — to take full advantage of it.
That $600 model is called the EA-1. Next in the series is the EA-3, which supports three audio streams and costs $1,000. Finally, there’s the $2,000 EA-5 which can wrangle — you guessed it — five audio streams at once. The EA-1 comes packaged with the SR-260, Control4’s take on the universal home remote.
What does a Smart Home look like? You may not be able to tell from just a quick glance.
Often, these homes are indistinguishable from standard homes. Sometimes you can only tell from looking at the homeowners — they look happy and relaxed because they have more peace of mind and more free time on their hands.
What can making your home smart do for you?
Save You Money
Investing in smart home technology can save you money in several ways, but the most common is by controlling your HVAC. Sure, you may have a programmable thermostat now, but it’s not the same. A smart thermostat learns the comfort levels and habits of your entire family, adjusting to your needs more and more precisely as time goes on.
Plus, you can set the more advanced systems to different temperatures in different rooms, providing more individualized comfort and saving energy at the same time.
Remote control for your blinds or shades also saves money, primarily by either letting in or keeping out the sunlight, depending on the season. You can also save money by having your system turn lights and electronics off when no one is using them.
Once you program your preferences into your system, you don’t have to think about them again unless you want to make a change. Your lights will come on and go off, your thermostat will adjust, your doors will lock — all on their own.
Protect Your Family and Belongings
A good security system is a necessity in this day and age. The types available with smart home technology are better than a live security guard, because there’s no room for human error.
These systems can be set up to arm every window and door in your home, plus provide live, streaming video of any potential intruders, not to mention calling the police for you. The only thing these systems can’t do is cuff the burglars and transport them downtown — yet.
Do you really want to get out from under the covers to close the blinds when the moon moves right in front of the window while you’re trying to watch your favorite show? What if the dog is waiting for its dinner, but you’re just getting to the good part? Just stay comfortable and press a button.
Make Your Home Fun Again
’Tis the season for colored lights, and not just on the bushes out front, but in your foyer and living room and anywhere else you want a blast of color. Stream music into the bathroom and switch the song with a simple voice command. You know you love giving orders, and your family isn’t going to follow them, so rely on a smart home system to recognize who’s the boss.
If you want your home to be smart, come visit the experts here at Theatron Home Theater and Smart Home Automation. We can make your dreams of a smart home a reality.
With the holiday decorating, shopping, and cooking in full swing, there has never been a better time to automate your home. Home automation can help you manage the wonderful chaos, entertaining your family when they come to visit, setting that special ambiance that inspires the holiday spirit, and keeping your valuables and loved ones more secure than ever. Control4 can help you custom design your smart home to sync with your existing products and spread the holiday cheer.
Light Up Your Home
Home automation allows you to step up your game when it comes to holiday decorating and setting the vibe for the season. You can sync your lights to your holiday playlist, customize your holiday tunes to play at certain times of day, and completely control the light patterns and colors to fit your decorating visions. Home automation can help you make all of your holiday decorating dreams come true.
Share the Classics
An automated home theater system helps you share the classics like never before. With the push of a button on the Control4 Touch Screen, your living room sets itself up for prime viewing. The shades lower, the lights dim or turn off, and the movie begins. If cooking and other activities are going on throughout the home, no one has to be left out of the viewing-you can stream the classics to all of the rooms. If you prefer newer movies, you can also stream the latest hits or newest holiday releases.
Spend More Time with Loved Ones
With smart timers, alerts, and synced appliances, you can spend less time turning things on and off and more time enjoying the company of your loved ones. With the right oven, you can keep an eye on what’s cooking, control your oven and stove settings, and receive alerts about the food right from your phone. You can also control all of the lights in the house from your Control4 Touch Screen and set up timers to lock doors, change the temperature, raise or lower blinds, and many other functions.
Sleep in Peace
When it is time for bed, an automated home can set security systems, lower blinds, and lock doors with the push of a “Goodnight” button. With compatible cameras tied to the Control4 system, you can look at security views or check in on the baby, right from the Control4 App. You can also adjust fans and make sure all lights are off from the comfort of your bed.
If you are interested in finding out how a personalized Control4 smart home can make the holidays more enjoyable—along with every other day of the year—give us a call at 703-883-0970 or contact us.
What makes a smart thermostat so much smarter than a programmable one? A more flexible schedule, a wider variety of features and ease of use, to name a few.
Some years ago, when many homeowners upgraded from old, dial thermostats to a digital, programmable ones, they gained some advantages. Getting up on cold, dark mornings to turn up the thermostat became a thing of the past, like stoking the embers. Programmable thermostats have your home at the temperature you want it when your alarm goes off, making it that much easier to get out of bed.
Handy, Not Revolutionary
Programmable thermostats also allow you to keep the house cooler (or warmer, in summer), while you are at work during the day, but have it toasty again for you when you arrive home. Like a programmable coffee pot, these features allow you to have what you want when you want it, but realistically, it’s not greatly different from flipping a switch yourself and waiting a few minutes.
While convenient, a programmable thermostat that saves you the trouble of walking over to the control unit to turn your HVAC up or down is not likely to make huge difference in your life, or your energy bill. Smart thermostats are a bit different, however.
Programmable thermostats generally give you a limited number of schedules — sometimes only one. This is fine if you keep to the same schedule every day, but if you do, you don’t really need a fancy thermostat anyway.
Smart thermostats allow you to choose a variety of options for schedules during the week and on weekends. You may not get home from work until six, but maybe your kids get home from school at 3:30 — except on days they work (which change every week) or have practices or rehearsals, which change every season, or sometimes even more often. Or what if you’re expecting them home, but they go to friends’ houses instead, leaving your house at a balmy 72 degrees for hours with only the goldfish to benefit?
Last-minute schedule changes can leave your home too hot or too cold and waste money. Smart thermostats allow you to log in to your system from work or from your phone and make any necessary changes to the temperature in your home.
Knowledge is Power
An indirect way smart thermostats can help you save money is by tracking your energy consumption and making this data available to you. This way you can see how much energy you are consuming and whether it is in line with your past usage.
If you find, for instance, that it takes more than an hour to bring your home’s temperature up or down to the requested level, you might learn that something’s wrong with your furnace or air conditioning.
If you find your heat usage spikes between 3 and 5 p.m. when your kids are playing video games in the basement, you may save money installing extra insulation or instructing them to don sweatshirts before retiring to the subterranean level.
A smart thermostat will give you better control over your home’s energy usage and help you save money. To find out more about smart thermostats and how they can help you, stop in and talk to the experts at Theatron Home Theater & Smart Homes Automation.