Control4 Media Controller System

A controlling interest in your home theater can turn into a wholehouse-friendly takeover.

Silly girl. My wife thinks our home theater system ought to sound great and be easy to operate. She also wants one remote control to work the gear, the lights, and whatever else she desires dominion over.


Truth be told, I'm right there with her. The trouble is, even without a calculator, I know that it could be frightfully expensive to bring that dream home. Crestron and AMX, for instance, offer systems with incredible control capabilities (home theater and wholehouse) using absolutely gorgeous touchpanel controllers.

That's not to say that there aren't manufacturers that offer home-automation and home theater control on the cheap. But, whereas the AMX and Crestron systems typically deliver rock-solid performance, a system built around inexpensive devices isn't always 100 percent on target. I've spent more than my fair share of time waving at an X10 motion sensor trying to make it acknowledge my existence, and almost as much time explaining to my wife why it isn't working the way I said it would.

Promises, Promises
So, along comes Control4, promising to, in my words, do a lot of what AMX and Crestron can do for a fraction of the cost (but it's still in a higher price range than the X10). Furthermore, Control4 explains that their systems are easy to retrofit into an existing home. Finally, they say there's no need for extensive, expensive, customized programming. Oh, it's sweet music to my ears: a fairly affordable full-blown home theater control system that's expandable and extendable to wirelessly control my devices all over the house.

A Control4 system starts with a central controller that communicates with and controls other devices using a combination of Ethernet, RF, IR, RS-232, and—for most of the home-automation devices—ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4) mesh networking technology. (See sidebar for more on ZigBee.) Both of the controllers currently available, the basic Home Theater Controller and the more advanced Media Controller, include a two-way RF system remote control that, if you didn't know better, you'd assume was just another universal remote control.

For the price of a midlevel Philips Pronto, Control4's $599 Home Theater Controller offers extensive control of your home theater system. Control4's included two-way RF system remote control uses video sense inputs, an RS-232 connection, multiple IR outputs, and more. But, unlike a typical universal/programmable/macros-out-the-wazoo remote control, the Home Theater Controller incorporates an Ethernet connection and wireless ZigBee connectivity, providing multizone audio and wholehouse automation upgradeability.

At a bit more than twice the price of the Home Theater Controller, Control4's Media Controller ($1,495) starts with all the features of the basic unit and then piles on oodles more. For starters, it offers many more control capabilities, thanks to additional RS-232, relay, and contact connections, plus built-in Wi-Fi (802.11g) connectivity. Hidden inside the black box (with its large front-panel LCD), however, is a full-blown, three-zone digital music server with disc recognition of music on the internal 80-gigabyte hard drive (via an online database). It also provides automatic title recognition of CDs and DVD movies loaded in RS-232-equipped disc changers.


Think about that for a moment: For less than the price of most single-purpose digital music servers on the market, Control4's media controller is a three-zone-capable music server plus a home theater control system and the beginnings of a wholehouse control system. While $1,500 certainly isn't pocket change, it is one heck of a value for the money.

Taking Control of the Controller
Any control system—even one as simple as a basic universal remote control—requires at least some amount of programming. Typically, the more elaborate the control capabilities, the more extensive the programming, which ultimately equals more time (self-installed) and/or more money (professionally installed). Control4's goal is to hit the exquisite but elusive sweet spot that balances cost and capabilities.

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