What is Control4: A complete guide to high-end smart home automation

Here's all you need to know about Control4

What is Control4: A complete guide
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You've probably seen a Control4 system somewhere. Maybe on a documentary that showed off the inside of a footballer/rapper/NBA star's house. Maybe in a swanky hotel you stayed in.

You probably didn't realise it was Control4 because it's not a brand you'll see advertised in the mainstream media. And you certainly won't find any Control4 kit on the shelves at Best Buy, or listed on Amazon.

Comprehensive verdict: Control4 smart home review

Control4 has been in the home automation since the early 2000s, way before the current smart home boom took hold, and when the only echo at Amazon was the one you'd hear if you shouted something in one of its big warehouses.

However, while Control4 is able to control lighting, multi-room audio, HVAC systems, security platforms, smart locks and more – working via the likes of Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – and is compatible with over 35,000 devices, it's an exclusive club reserved for people with the cash to go through an authorised Control4 dealer.

Want in? Here's everything you need to know in order to get started.

Control4: Installation and dealers

The first thing you need to know is that Control4 is anything but plug and play. You'll have to locate an authorised Control4 dealer and then arrange for them to pay you a visit.

Control4 actually recommends getting a few quotes from a range of dealers before you decide on exactly what system you want installed, but a good place to start is its Product Planner portal, where you'll answer a series of questions and be emailed suggested equipment lists and setup ideas.

Your dealer isn't just there to install the hardware though. They will configure everything on your system from the software to make attached devices compatible to specific device settings and scenes.

Unlike the likes of Alexa, HomeKit and dedicated smart home hubs such as SmartThings or Wink, the user doesn't really get access to configure anything on their system. Everything needs to be done through the dealer.

Sure, there are some services such as When>>Then (Control4's answer to IFTTT) that let you add layers of automations to preset ones, but it's very much a system that's designed for people that want someone else to take care (and control) of their smart home upgrades.

What is Control4: A complete guide to high-end smart home automation

Control4: Controllers

The one core component you'll need in order to get involved in the Control4 party is a controller. A Control4 controller – essentially the brains of the operation, a smart home hub of sorts – connects to your home network and, in turn, hooks up to any compatible tech.

The most basic Control4 controller, the CA-1, is a little white box that offers Zigbee and Wi-Fi connectivity (you can add in an additional module for Z-Wave) so you can control things like smart lights, electric blinds and connected locks.

Upgrade to the EA-series controllers – the EA-1, EA-3 or EA-5 – and you get streaming audio thrown in (the amount of streams correlates with the number in the model number, so three on the EA-3, for example) as well as HDMI out, for total control over your TV, digital media and compatible set-top boxes.

The CA-10, the most recent addition, is the top-end controller. It boasts four times the processing power and memory of the EA-5 and is really designed for vast smart home systems, with hundreds - or even thousands - of connected devices.

What is Control4: A complete guide to high-end smart home automation

Control4: User interface

Controlling your Control4 system, and all of the tech you have set up within it, is done in a number of ways.

If you've got a EA controller going into your TV's HDMI input, you can see the Control4 UI on that TV. And the easiest way to navigate that is with a dedicated 'universal' remote control that not only controls your audio and video feeds, but can also control any connected lights, thermostats, security systems and so on. You have the choice between the standard, SR-260 remote or the new Neeo Remote for Control4.

What is Control4: A complete guide to high-end smart home automation

A better way of taking a more in-depth and intuitive approach to controlling your Control4 system is through a dedicated touchscreen panel – Control4 offer 7-inch and 10-inch models that either go in a wall, or sit on a table.

These dedicated touchscreen panels can be replicated – with some limitations – on smartphones or tablets; there are versions available on both iOS and Android.

Aside from touchscreens, Control4 also offers keypads that wire into your regular light switches. These can be configured to not only turn lights on and off, obviously, but can also be the triggers for Control4 scenes. Scenes, as you probably guessed, are routines that automate smart home actions. So you could have a 'good morning' scene that turns on your favourite radio station, turns off the alarm and switches the kettle on.

Finally – we say finally because it's the least useful way of using Control4 – there is Alexa compatibility. It's not the smoothest Alexa integration, with scenes, settings and devices all pulled over if you add the Control4 skill to your Alexa setup. It takes a heck of a lot of sorting before it's anywhere near useable.

In August 2019, Control4 also added Google Assistant to the mix as well.

What is Control4: A complete guide to high-end smart home automation

Control4: Compatible brands, devices and drivers

As we mentioned up top, Control4 is compatible with over 35,000 devices from a huge number of brands. However, unlike the mainstream smart home ecosystems, it isn't just a case of scanning your home network in order to see what's available to sync up.

You'll need to get dedicated drivers installed for non-native tech; i.e. anything Control4 doesn't directly make itself. And you'll need to get your dealer to install these drivers. Sometimes – well, most of the time – these drivers will cost you money.

It's a bit of a hassle, it's expensive and it's hardly embracing the openness of the 'works with' smart home movement. However, as we said already, Control4 is not a smart home system for people who like configuring their own devices; it's designed for people that want someone else to take care of everything.

If that's you then you'll be pleased to know that a whole host of major smart home devices, along with most of the mainstream digital audio and video services, play nicely with Control4, including Philips Hue, Nest, Sonos, Apple TV, Yale, Netflix, Amazon Music, Lutron and more.

What is Control4: A complete guide to high-end smart home automation

Control4: Native devices

Control4 also offers purpose-built products – and this is really where the company excels. The tech it makes is seriously high-end and, if you're looking to splash some cash on a superb multi-room media setup, or you want a professional grade home network, then you really should consider Control4 above some of its better known rivals.

Starting with digital media, those EA controllers we mentioned earlier work alongside a wide range of audio switches, amps and speakers – some branded Control4, some branded Triad (an audio company it acquired in 2017). You can add third-party audio components to the mix – such as Sonos – although you'll get a much better, and natural, experience if you keep it all in-house.

There's a huge array of audio and video solutions from Control4, from one-zone systems designed to sit under your TV, to hugely powerful matrix systems that can live in a rack and power the audio and video for the largest of mansions. There are even outdoor speaker systems like the awesome-looking (and sounding) Triad Garden Array outdoor system pictured above.

Another big Control4 acquisition, Pakedge (purchased back in 2016), results in a home network that will blow even the best consumer-grade mesh system out of the water. You don't need a Pakedge router for a Control4 system but everything just works much better if you do. Especially if you add in a Pakedge NK-1 wireless controller that fixes glitches on your network without you even knowing they've occurred, and also allows your dealer to access your system remotely to make changes without paying you a visit.

Again, as with the audio side of things, there's a vast range of switches, access points and network accessories that are available to create a world-class network in your house.

Control4 also has its own smart doorbell solution. The Door Station DS2, syncs up with the Utah-based company's Intercom Anywhere app to allow you to remotely communicate with whoever is knocking at your door.

There's also a new Chime Doorbell, launched in 2020, which is a bit sleeker than the Door Station range.

Ding dong: Control4 Chime review

Smart video doorbell brand DoorBird was officially certified for use within a Control4 system in 2021.

This means that, rather than using premium third-party drivers, DoorBird IP door stations can now be integrated directly into Control4 systems, using an official - and crucially, free - driver.

That's not it though. Control4 also offers smart outlets, security cameras, thermostats, centralised lightning panels, motion sensors, KNX devices and a lot, lot more.

What is Control4: A complete guide to high-end smart home automation

Control4: What it costs

Control4 does not come cheap. Even for the most basic of setups – let's say simplifying your AV controls – you'll have to fork out, say, $1,000 for an EA-3 controller and $300 for the remote control; and then you'll have to pay for the visit of an authorised Control4 dealer on top to set it all up.

From that basic setup, the sky is pretty much the limit when compiling your Control4 home system. If you want touch panels in every room, multi-room audio, a professional grade home network, a cinema room – you get the idea – then you can easily run up a five-figure bill. Heck, go for a home like this and you'd probably be looking at six figures.

The cost of some individual items gives you an idea of the price-brackets we're dealing with here. A 10-inch in-wall touch panel is $1,200. The Pakedge router Control4 recommends is $750. A single load light switch costs from $500. A 2.1 system with a Triad Soundbar, an amp and a subwoofer will be around $4,000.

Even the Door Station video doorbell is expensive. That's $1,050 on its own, with a $99 subscription on top.

You get the idea. It's expensive.

Control4: Where can you buy

As mentioned, you won't be able to walk into a shop and walk out with a load of Control4 kit. You'll need to visit an authorised dealer – or, better still, have them visit you – and have them configure your system.

To get started simply find a dealer located near you.

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