Control 4 Home Automation

Whole house lighting, media & heat

Control 4 is the most versatile, affordable, standards-based, programmable home automation plus digital audio solution I’ve seen. More than a few IMs from my wife with questions like “Why does the light in the hallway keep flashing off and on?” proves it hasn’t been 100% smooth sailing, but once you get it all wired, it’s a very cool system.

If you’re just looking to fire up digital music in your home you have a few tiers of options: Squeezebox or Roku gets you in the game for $150; Sonos is the Rhapsody-enabled, Mossberg-approved whole home music solution. With Control 4 my house is now an MP3 player, but I also have the ability to control the heat, lights, Tivo, DVD, XM radio, etc., which is magical. The other night we ordered takeout and watched “The Office.” From the couch we were able to turn on the heat (it was cold in there) and turn on the porch light for the delivery dude. Handy! Motion sensors are for security lights. For the “Hey, this is the house you’re looking for” light, you want to be able to make your house look inviting with a quick switch.

Before bed, we just hit “goodnight” and all the lights, music, etc. go off. I also have a few “scenes” programmed. The lights come on automatically in the evening, and it’s cool because you can set it to coincide with sunset — and the timing automatically changes with the seasons. You can even insert some randomness so the lights don’t come on at exactly the same time each evening (for security). I even programmed a “media scene” tying the dining and kitchen together so that when you play music in the kitchen it automatically plays a little less loud in the dining room. I can also mount a share from a computer in my home office and the HTC will index all my MP3s, then allow me to pump the audio through any configuration of speakers in the house. The HTC has two analog outputs that plug directly into the amp, so you can listen to two different MP3 streams at once. My teenage daughter can listen to Girl Talk in her room while my wife can listen to James Taylor in the baby’s room and the rest of the house. We also rigged up the turntable in the living room so it slides out of the wall unit, plays through the living room system, and is route-able to any or all of the speakers in the rest of the house.

While whole house music has been my dream since the spring of 1995, being able to sit in the rocker with our newborn, turn down the lights, turn on the music, and adjust the heat all from a hand-held remote control the size of the one that comes with a TV is pretty crazy.

Here’s how it works in my house: a Control 4 Home Theater Controller (HTC) sits in a rack in my closet, attached to my home network, along with a Control 4 16 channel amp (also networked), Control 4 XM/FM/AM Multi-Tuner (ditto), DirecTV TiVo, and Marantz 8500 A/V Receiver. The receiver is tied into the plasma and 5:1 surround in the living room, and the 16-channel amp is hard-wired to in-ceiling speakers in every room in the house (both living room and in-ceiling speakers are from TruAudio). The HTC has little infrared remotes so it can control the TV, receiver, and TiVo box, and it talks directly to the components on the network. Additionally I swapped all our light switches for Control 4 switches or dimmers as well as our thermostat, and these all talk to the HTC via the Zigbee RF protocol (the electrician who puts these in doesn’t have to know anything about them – he/she just swaps out the old switches with the new). This allows everything (lights, heat, TV, etc.) to be controlled from any Control 4 remote, of which there are a few options: mini touch screens in the walls, hand-held remotes which are in a few of the rooms, or the hand-held remote and the TV. Control 4 has done a very good job making the interface 100% consistent across this variety of control points.

Yes, I had help with the installation, and the average buyer shouldn’t install this themselves; but there is a cheaper way to go: they sell this equipment at Magnolia. I was prepared to go old school analog with little knobs in the wall until a friend introduced me to the folks at Control 4. They really seem to be the only ones who get it, leveraging standards like IP, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and MP3, and creating something reasonably priced, useful, and easily extended.

A setup like this definitely isn’t for everyone – and neither is home automation in general — but I’ve had enough people ask me about what it is and how it works that I wanted to explain the basics and have a place to point people when they ask. If you’re looking for a whole-house solution, I don’t think there’s much competition on both price and flexibility. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it if I hadn’t gotten a discount, but if you’re already in the market for home automation gear you’ll probably find it to be pretty reasonably priced. A friend of mine looked at another high-end system and the bid came in around $10K. I did fifteen switches and two wireless outlet dimmers in addition to the other gear, but depending on the number of components and outlets you desire, you could do a starter for $5K on the C4 side.

-- Ian Rogers 02/27/07

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