There's something slightly mysterious about Control4 CEO Martin Plaehn. On the one hand, he has the twinkly-eyed sparkle of a mischievous tinkerer; on the other hand, there's no question that he's focused, alert, and completely in charge as he walks through the Salt Lake City offices of the company he oversees. He smiles a genuine smile as he shakes my hand—firm, friendly; a real handshake, not the business equivalent thereof. I can't help but think in passing that there's no way this gentleman has a violent bone in his body. And yet, it doesn't strike me as out of character at all when he grins and says, "We're about to drop a bomb on this industry. It's going to be devastating!"
The payload in question? Three new entertainment and automation controllers with high-resolution audio playback and, in the step-up and flagship products, integrated multi-zone audio distribution capabilities. The detonator? The fact that these three new controllers are shipping to dealers today, on the very day they make their public debut.
Control4's EA-1, EA-3, and EA-5 entertainment and automation controllers
So, what's so special about this new line of entertainment and automation controllers? I traveled to Salt Lake City last week to find out for myself. Across a big boardroom table from me sat Paul Williams, vice president of solutions for Control4, along with director of product marketing Brad Hintze. If they had tails, they would have wagged in tandem as three big cardboard boxes were slid between us. The first thing to come out of one of those boxes was the new flagship EA-5, a sexy beast of a thing that looks a lot like an HC-800 (the company's previous flagship controller) on steroids, with a fresh new faceplate and a back panel stuffed to the gills with new digital and analog audio connectivity. Not to mention a new four-port Gigabit Ethernet switch, built right into the controller.
It's the inside bits that get me really excited, though. Despite looking similar (and being pretty much the same size), the new EA-5 boasts twice the processing power of the old HC-800. And there's good reason for that. As Williams explains, over the past three years, the number of devices per home integrated by Control4 has pretty much tripled. The average Control4 home, he says, now boasts more than 40 connected devices (and as he's saying this, I run a quick tally and come up with 44 connected devices in my own middling suburban Alabama home), whereas the largest installations are running northward of 250 devices.
That extra horsepower will also help the EA-5 push five independent, simultaneous streams of audio. Like, legitimately great sounding audio, thanks to a new advanced audio subsystem that gives the EA-5 an impressive 118dB signal-to-noise ratio. To show off just how good the new EA lineup sounds, Control4 public relations manager Blair Sonnen took us next door for a demo, which consisted of several A/B comparisons between the old HC line and the new EA line, both fed into different inputs in the same Marantz amp. The differences weren't subtle. At all. The EA gear boasts not only a significantly lower noise floor, but also substantial better imaging and dynamics. Honestly, the first thing that ran through my mind as we listened were the components in my system that are now rendered practically obsolete.
The Control4 EA family audio demo
"So, what happens to the old HC-250 and HC-800?" That question comes from my media colleague Darryl Wilkinson, who was also in SLC for a sneak peek at the new EA line.
"HC isn't orphaned," Williams says. "That line still has some life in it. It will continue to be supported, it will still work with future OS updates, and you can easily mix-and-match EA and HC controllers in the same system."
Back in the boardroom, next out of the box was the new EA-3, which is a surprising mid-priced controller in the new lineup that fills an interesting (and much needed) niche. It's definitely a step up from a single-room solution, but doesn't quite offer the same expansiveness and wealth of connectivity as the EA-5. As its name implies, it's equipped to deliver three zones of independent, simultaneous audio (one via HDMI, one coaxial, one 3.5mm), with 110dB signal-to-noise ratio. It also boasts seven times the processing power of the HC-250, along with a two-port Gigabit Ethernet switch and both 2.4 and 5 GHz Wireless N connectivity. All from a package barely bigger than the existing HC-250. Throw in an included mounting kit, contact closure, and relay connections, and a new cool-running design that turns the entire enclosure into a heat sink, and I think it's safe to say that the EA-3 delivers more than enough oomph to make it the logical brain of most mid-sized Control4 homes.
You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out that the last EA controller out of the box, the EA-1, is Control4's new single-room solution. "The EA-1 really represents a brand-new opportunity for Control4 dealers," Williams explains. Which may seem a little confusing given that it sits in pretty much in the same position as the HC-250. Indeed, it's even a little scaled-down, given that it lacks that older controller's contact closure and relay connections.
Consider what it adds, though: a new ARM processor with triple the speed of its predecessor; the same ShairBridge capabilities as the rest of the EA lineup, meaning you won't need any additional hardware for AirPlay streaming; high-resolution audio playback capabilities, with support for new services like Deezer and TIDAL built right into the Control4 Listen screen.
Perhaps most surprisingly, though, the EA-1 ships with Control4's SR-260 System Remote, all for $600 suggested retail. "We think this is the perfect family room universal remote solution," Williams says, "but what sets it apart from the competition is that it's not a separate thing. The EA-1 is fully capable of integrating all of the 9,500 devices supported by any of our controllers, with the same interface, the same remotes, the same programming software… and if a homeowner wants to expand, they're not starting over from scratch. It all works together flawlessly."
"This is the platform that will form the bedrock of years of future innovation for Control4," Plaehn says to us out in the hallway, on his way to grab a quick bite to eat. "I'm really proud of the EA lineup... This is going to enable our dealers to do more installations, and do more with their installations, with fewer potential points of failure and fewer connections."
And just like that, the hint of playful mischief I mentioned before sneaks into the eyes of the sensible businessman: "This new lineup is going to destroy everything in its path."
The Control4 circle of power is giving way to a new linear on-screen interface, but only on connected displays.