Control4 review

UPDATED: This is high-end, bespoke, smart home automation - but does it deliver?

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Update: Control4 has been improved greatly over the last few months thanks to the awesome new Neeo Remote and revamped integrations with voice assistants. As such, we've revisited and updated this review, which originally went live in September. Read on to find out how the improvements affect the overall feel of Control4.

Chances are you've experienced a Control4 system somewhere, but you may not have even realised it was there.

The Salt Lake City-based company, which has been in the home automation game since the early 2000s, doesn't have its products sitting alongside other smart home brands in Best Buy or Target, and you certainly won't find them on sale on Amazon.

Instead, Control4 specialises in bespoke connected systems for houses, hotels, business premises, and more, with only authorised dealers able to install and configure the setups.

It's a high-end offering that, granted, costs a lot, lot, LOT more than kitting your house out with do-it-yourself smart home devices powered by the likes of Alexa, Google Assistant, SmartThings or HomeKit. But at the same time, Control4 offers reassurance to its customers that they're getting a best-in-class system, with a support network in place for any issues or alterations.

A Control4 system can be configured to control lighting, multi-room audio, HVAC systems, security systems, smart locks, and more. It uses the likes of Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth and is compatible with over 35,000 devices from a huge collection of brands.

Guide: The best hubs for your smart home

Over the last six months I've been living with a Control4 system in my house and, while I'm not necessarily the exact target audience for the brand, my experience of living with pretty much every smart home ecosystem out there - alongside hundreds of different devices - over the past few years, gives me a unique perspective to compare and contrast a high-end, bespoke, custom-installed setup and a DIY, 'regular', off-the-shelf smart home setup.

Here's what I found out...

Control 4 review

Control4: My setup

A review of a Control4 system is an incredibly difficult thing to do because no two systems will be the same. However, the one essential ingredient of any Control4 setup is the controller; the brains of the operation, which connects to your home network and, in turn, hooks up to any compatible devices.

My controller, the EA-3, is bang in the middle of the Control4 controller hierarchy. It costs around $1,000 and hooks up to my TV over HDMI for on-screen visuals.

It's essentially a little black set-top box, which is powered by Power over Ethernet (PoE) and features three audio outputs - HDMI, stereo analogue, and digital coax. It's capable of distributing up to three simultaneous, high-resolution audio streams.

It's the EA-3 that makes everything I'm going to talk about in this review work. The streams, the integrations, the remote control, the speakers... everything is powered by this little black box that sits out of sight behind my big, Triad 50-inch soundbar (around $500).

Which brings me to the speakers. I already lived in a house with multi-room audio thanks to an array of Sonos speakers and, while Control4's audio setup syncs quite nicely with that (more on that in a bit), I've now got two dedicated Control4 audio zones - in my living room and my garden.

These are Triad systems (an audio company Control4 acquired in 2017). There are a vast amount of audio and video configurations on offer with Triad, 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 huge mansions with hundreds of rooms.

Control 4 review

My first Triad setup is that soundbar mentioned, which works as a 2.1 system alongside an InRoom OmniSub 8 ($400), all powered by a Triad One Streaming Amplifier ($700).

In the garden (yep, told you it was high-end) I've got a pair of Garden Array Satellite speakers ($500), working with a Subwoofer (around $2,000 with the underground burying kit). These speakers are powered by a PAMP1 amplifier ($800).

Ding dong: Control4 Chime review

I've also got Control4's latest smart video doorbell, the DS2, which costs $1,050; a universal remote control that will set you back $300 and a couple of smart light switches (prices vary depending on load from around $125 to $200 each).

Control4 excels with multimedia. Streaming audio and video through the system is a delight.

Mounted on a wall in my kitchen is a 10-inch touch screen for controlling the system, which costs $1,200.

Finally, there's a Pakedge (another Control4 acquisition, purchased in 2016) home network, featuring a plethora of access points, network switches, a router, and more. All in, this would set you back around $6,000. Individual wireless access points, for reference, are $1,350 each. The router alone is $750.

In total, the Control4 system in my house costs around $14,500 - and that's just the kit. You'll have to pay for various subscriptions, service agreements, and the dealer installation on top of that. Plus, if you want changes made in the future you'll be forking out a fair bit too - again, more on that later.

I did tell you it was expensive. Very, very expensive.

Control 4 review

Control4: Installation and the dealer

Control4 is anything but plug and play. You'll have to locate an authorised Control4 dealer and then arrange for them to help create and install your system for you.

Control4 recommends getting a few quotes from a range of different dealers and its Product Planner portal helps you get started. You answer a series of questions and are 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.

For me, Control4 arranged for Kent-based New Wave AV to be my dedicated dealer. New Wave was (is) awesome. I can't recommend them highly enough. The installation was faultless and subsequent customer service levels have been immense.

The dealer not only installs your Control4 equipment but also incorporates any compatible tech you want in the system; i.e. your existing smart tech. For me, this included the likes of my Sonos speakers, Sky Q box, Hue smart bulbs, Nest Thermostat, Sony TV, Apple TV, Xbox, and a whole lot more.

But, be warned, all of this comes at an extra cost. You'll need to get dedicated drivers installed for non-native tech; anything Control4 doesn't directly make itself. A lot of the time these drivers will cost you money. Extra ‘middle-man' devices are also sometimes needed to make things work, such as with Somfy and Honeywell kit.

Even very simple changes require logging a request with dealer

For example, I changed from a Nest Thermostat to a Honeywell Evohome setup a month or so after my initial Control4 installation. The cost of changing this on my Control4 system was $1,000 for the driver and a Sensible Heat bridge, $400 for Sensible Heat engineers and then the same again for New Wave work. So, over $2,000 to get a touch panel and a phone app to replicate what you can get - for free - on any iOS/Android device, and what can be added to an ecosystem such as Alexa and Google Assistant in seconds, again, for free.

This is bonkers, even if you aren't tech-savvy and have money to burn. It's hardly embracing the openness of the whole 'works with' smart home movement.

On the plus side, the idea is your Control4 dealer is always at your beck and call - on hand to sort any issues or make any changes as and when you need them.

However, while this all-in system would suit a lot of people - i.e. the people that Control4 aiming their systems at - you don't get access to configure anything on their system. Everything needs to be done through the dealer. If you're anything like me you'll end up feeling pretty handcuffed and, dare I say it (for the money you've spent), a little bit of a burden if you want to make frequent changes to your system, as I do.

Even very simple changes require logging a request with the dealer. For example, I smashed a Hue light in my kitchen. ‘Kitchen 1’ it was called on my Control4 system and in my Alexa app. Putting a new Hue bulb in place and reconfiguring it through Alexa took about 2-minutes. Through Control4 it required logging a change-request over email, followed by a phone call to get it all up and working as it should.

Even something minor like changing what's plugged into the HDMI ports on TV needs to go through the dealer. It often seems like overkill and you end up feeling guilty for making so many minor requests (sorry Joss and everyone else I hassle at New Wave).

The Control4 system is pretty much faultless - which can't be said about most DIY-smart home setups. Even if it does wobble your dealer can often see this and fix it remotely before you've even noticed. But there are times, as with anything software-powered, when things go wrong. As my Control4 system did one Wednesday evening (New Wave subsequently detected that a firmware update had got stuck in a loop).

On that Wednesday evening, everything just stopped working. I must stress that is the only time it has fallen over to this extent in those six months. But it was incredibly frustrating to not be able to just try and sort it out myself, as I would if Alexa went haywire, or my Sonos speakers started playing up.

Instead, I had to dig out my old TV remote, set-top box remote, manually unplug the Triad stereo system, and watch TV the old way, with the TV’s tinny speakers providing the sound.

Control4 review

Control4: The remote controls

Speaking of remote controls, that is just one of several ways you can control your Control4 system and all the devices connected to it.

The most common Control4 remote control, the SR-260, is incredibly good in terms of functionality, easily on a par with the likes of the Logitech Harmony. I do everything TV-related with it. It's replaced four remote controls in my living room: the TV remote, and those for Sky, Apple TV, and Fire TV. They all just live in a drawer now.

The Control4 system is pretty much faultless

Your dealer will configure every device you want it to replace, as well as add any streaming services you want quick access to. For example, in my living room, Disney Plus is popular with the kids, and the remote can jump straight into that Android TV app at a push of a button. It can then jump between that, Netflix, Sky, whatever you want really, through a simple scroll menu. It's also great for controlling the volume of any speakers in your Control4 system.

But, while it can control other smart home aspects such as smart lights and automations (just like Logitech's universal remote) this all feels very clunky and I don't use it at all - save for having one of the custom buttons configured to turn all the lights to 'TV mode' when it's time to tuck into some Netflix.

The good news is that Control4 snapped up Neeo in 2019, makers of a universal remote control that was originally a huge hit on Kickstarter back in 2015.

The SR-260 is, first and foremost, a remote control that specializes in TV navigation, the Neeo Remote is a master of many trades.

It works superbly as the main controller for your TV setup, but is also great at adjusting lighting and setting smart home scenes. As a music playback companion, it also excels; with album art, track information and much more all available at your fingertips.

I never use my SR-260 to change the lights in my house, or initiate multi-room audio. It's just too cumbersome. That's certainly not the case with the Neeo Remote, where it's easy to swipe between rooms on the touchscreen, or easily jump between different control modes.

Take a look at my Neeo Remote for Control4 review for more info on the touchscreen remote control.

Whichever remote control you choose, there's also microphone on board, so I've lost my Google Assistant on my TV and Alexa with Fire TV.

Control 4 review

Control4: The touchscreens and UI

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.

As mentioned earlier, I've got the 10-inch model in my kitchen, mounted to the wall and powered using PoE (no wires on show, yay). Essentially, it's an (expensive) Android tablet, locked-down, that gives you an easy way of controlling everything in your system.

The software used to be a bit crap, like 2012 stock Android. Clunky, ugly, and something that was far from high-end. However, everything improved tenfold earlier this year with the launch of Smart Home OS 3, which was far more than just a spit and polish of the previous OS.

Turning off the lights, altering the heating or streaming multimedia in different rooms is now a much more natural, intuitive affair. Rather than everything being set in a rigid layout, OS 3 allows for more customization as to what is front and center, with users able to select their favourite operations to see on the main home screens of each room.

A video doorbell for $1,050? I can't get my head around that.

For example, in a kitchen, you might want easy access to get the right lighting in place for dinner; while in the living room your main concern may be getting a one-touch button to jump straight into Netflix.

All of this was possible with the old Control4 interface, but it often required digging through numerous screens and menus.

You can now prioritise what rooms are most important to you and swipe through them in the order that you want. Rooms will also remember what you've done previously, making it easier to initiate the things you use most often, such as lighting scenes, music by artist, albums or playlists, and so on.

There are also enhancements for climate control screens, security, shade control, native support for streaming high-resolution audio, and a whole lot more.

These dedicated touchscreen panels can be replicated – albeit with some limitations – on smartphones or tablets; there are versions available on both iOS and Android. If you've got a EA controller going into your TV's HDMI input, you can see also the Control4 UI on that TV.

Control 4 review

Control4: Other controllers

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 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.

My main Control4 keypad is in the kitchen. Not only is it configured to initiate a number of different lighting scenes, but we also have a dedicated button that kickstarts our favourite radio station on our Kitchen Sonos speaker.

The Control4 customer portal is a browser-based hub that leaves a lot to be desired, to be honest. It's not Somfy Tahoma levels of bad, sure, but it's not somewhere you'd want to visit often. There's hardly anything you can actually 'do' in there in terms of configuration and, what is there feels clumsy and unnecessary.

On the plus side, your Control4 dealer is always at your beck and call.

It's clear Control4 wants to move into the modern, mainstream, smart home space, but it is still playing big-time catch-up here. A great example of this is within the customer portal. The When>>Then feature, where you can add automations and scenes to your controllers above (but not replacing) the ones your dealer has set up, is where I set up that 'movie time' light scene I mentioned for one of the custom buttons on my remote control.

But it's like using IFTTT when it was still in beta testing. It just feels massively clunky and is nowhere near what you'd expect from a smart home automation tool in 2019, in terms of both UI and functionality.

Finally, I'll give a brief (very brief because they're terrible) mention to the Windows-based software and the Mac app that you could technically 'use' to control and configure your Control4 system. Just don't. Pretend they don't exist. Trust me.

Control 4 review

Control4: Multimedia

Control4 absolutely excels with regards to multimedia. Streaming audio and video through the system is a delight. How the likes of Netflix, Prime Video, Spotify, locally-stored media, and a whole lot more are both accessed and dealt with within the system is just great.

Smart Home OS 3 vastly improved the media screen, where you can see what's playing in each room - whether that be music, movies or both, with a new media bar that provides artwork and info, alongside quick controls.

Most people, if they are looking at a Control4 system, would probably go all-in for a Triad powered setup on the audio front, and that certainly makes the most sense.

As mentioned, I've got a lot of Sonos speakers in my house and, while Control4 does let me tie these into the system, it's not as slick as just using the Triad zones. Likewise, with Spotify Connect - it works, but again it's not as good as just using a Triad streamer.

The media hardware is seriously high-end. The 2.1 system in my living room blows my old Sonos 3.1 system out of the water and, in all the years I've been reviewing tech, I've never had a reaction from friends and family like I get when they see, and more importantly hear, the garden speakers. They are so loud. They are such overkill in my garden - I don't think I've ever had the volume above around 30%.

Did I mention I'm not exactly the prime Control4 target audience?

Control 4 review

Control4: Smart Doorbell

Control4's flagship smart doorbell is the DS2, which actually looks nothing like the current crop of popular smart video doorbells. Instead, it looks like an old-school intercom. That's not necessarily a bad thing; my wife much prefers it to the Ring 2 that we had previously.

It's another PoE device, which is great for connectivity; you'll get no buffering issues. The video chat feature is built into the Control4 touchscreen, but on your phone or tablets it doesn't work through the Control4 app, instead, you use a dedicated Intercom Anywhere app.

This means you get doorbell alerts when you're out and about but at an extra cost. You'll need an annual $99 4Sight subscription. That subscription does also give you remote access to your whole Control4 system, when not on-site, but it does seem like another unneeded cost. Especially when you consider the DS2 costs $1,050, which is around five times the cost of the leading smart doorbells.

It's an area where I think Control4 is a bit out of touch with what's going on in the market. The high prices on the multimedia and network devices can be justified as they are supreme quality. But a video doorbell, with less functionality than its much-cheaper rivals, for $1,050? I can't get my head around that.

Control 4 review

Control4: Home network

A Pakedge network, the in-house networking kit offered by Control4, is not compulsory by any stretch - but it's highly recommended if you want to guarantee a seamless setup (although much more affordable home mesh systems are getting better all the time).

People who know me will confirm I'm an absolute network bore. I live for Cat6. Can't get enough of it. As such, I had what I thought was a pretty robust home system already set up; Sky Q mesh, managed switches, and so on.

One of the key aspects is it can all be monitored and managed remotely by your dealer.

But my system now - powered by a Pakedge router, network manager, 3x access points (including outdoor) and all the amazing monitoring that comes with it - is about as good as you are ever going to get in a residential home. It's actually, again, overkill in a house the size of mine. (Not the target audience, blah, blah, blah).

One of the key aspects of a Pakedge system is it can all be monitored and managed remotely by your dealer. If the devices themselves don't detect and fix any network issues automatically, then your dealer will be alerted and can make fixes without you ever knowing anything is wrong.

For most customers, a dealer will install racks for a Control4 system. For me, they did it all in the cupboard under my stairs. And a great job they did too, as you can see from that image above (ignore my old shoes in the shot).

Control 4 review

Control4: Changing times

The restrictive shackling that comes with Control4 will get better, I'm assured. I've spoken with the company a lot over the last few months and it clearly knows that, while it's a market leader in its niche, that niche is becoming a major mainstream movement and it needs to keep pace. That will mean opening up a bit more of what is currently a closed shop.

Smart Home OS 3 was the first major sign of this and opening up the system to both Alexa - and more recently the Google Assistant - indicates it knows that its customers will want digital assistants onboard.

I've got my system synced up with Amazon's effort and it's a work in progress, 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 cleaning and sorting before it's anywhere near useable. It's still a bit unnatural and hit and miss though. You can ask Alexa to control certain devices that are imported over as 'devices' - e.g. "Alexa, turn on the porch light"but other actions require more detailed requests such as "Alexa, ask Control4 to run bedtime" to kick start a routine.

It's clear Control4 is moving toward the mainstream though. I've mentioned a few times that I'm not really the target audience for Control4, but it's obvious that the company does have people like me - who don't necessarily live in a humungous house, have money to burn, and do enjoy playing around with tech - in their sights.

Control4 is designed for people that have both serious money to spend on high-end smart home automation, while at the same time have no interest in dirtying their hands building their own DIY system. However, whereas the latter was once cumbersome, the likes of Alexa, SmartThings, and Google Assistant have made it not only a cinch but incredibly affordable too. So, where does that leave Control4? With an ever-shrinking target audience, I'd have to suggest. The good news is the company realises this and is making great strides to make its offering more mainstream-consumer facing, through the likes of Smart Home OS 3 and digital assistant integrations. It does, high-prices aside, offer its customers absolutely world-class tech in a rock-solid, expert-supported, system. If you're looking for the very best home network or a premium audio experience, Control4 has you more than covered. It will be fascinating to see how the company evolves over the next few years to keep pace with an ever-growing army of more affordable alternatives.
  • High-end devices
  • Amazing customer service
  • Slick looking controllers
  • Evolving system
  • Very, very expensive
  • Locked-down system
  • Limited user configurations
  • Smart doorbell isn't great

TAGGED    smart home

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