Control4 EA-5 Controller Review
By Chris Heinonen on
Despite what you would think, I rarely watch movies in my main home theater. I use it daily for testing gear and writing reviews but at night I’m more likely to turn on my VT60 in the living room. The main reason is just that the theater is big, and complex, and a pain to control. The past few weeks I’ve been watching far more movies in there than usual. That’s because I had a Control4 EA-5 system installed in there. Now despite the complexity, even my 4-year-old can operate it.
The EA-5 is the new top-of-the-line controller from Control4. It has a huge number of outputs, allowing you to control even the most advanced home theater. But it goes beyond that, with outputs for 4 more zones of HiRes audio beyond your home theater. It also integrates all the smart home control you want, from lights to locks and more. The Control4 EA-5 serves as the brain for your smart home and does the job well but with some important caveats.
What sets Control4 apart from other universal remotes is the level of control it offers. The Control4 EA-5 offers 8 IR relays, four RS232 connectors and four 12V triggers for any size home theater. It can also control devices that use IP control. RS232 support, while seemingly outdated, it still the main method of control for many AV components. My Epson 5020 projector and Oppo Blu-ray player both utilize it. The 12V triggers support more advanced home theater features, like a drop down projection screen, that IR may not control at all.
It also has an integrated ZigBee controller for whole home devices. I installed a light switch in my home theater room and the EA-5 has full control over that. When the movie starts, the lights go down. If I pause the movie it raises the lights up so I can see while I leave the room. Then it turns them off when the movie starts again without any extra work. My furnace is next-door to my theater so I can use the EA-5 to control my Nest. When I turn the system on, the furnace goes off. Turn the system off, and the furnace will start up again.
Control4 also lets you control your whole home with each room as a zone. Instead of different remote systems in every room that don’t interact, any Control4 remote or app can control any zone. I can place Sonos players and light switches in different rooms of the house and control them all through Control4. Now you can control any Sonos zone through the Sonos app, and any of your wireless light switches through their app, but with Control4 they all get tied together.
Where this gets impressive is when you program actions with the Control4 software. My home theater is in a basement, with a hallway and a stairwell to get upstairs. When I’m watching a movie at night, the last thing I want is extra light distracting me so I turn them all off. When I leave the theater, it’s now dark and there are no convenient light switches. You can program Control4 to do complex logic that gets around this problem. If I turn off my system and it is after sunset, I can have it raise those lights to 50%. That makes is easy for me to leave my theater and get upstairs again.
Once there, I can turn the lights off using their switches or inside the Control4 app. I could even set up a wall switch with a button to turn everything in the house off at night. It can even make sure the doors are locked. This same functionality lets me have the lights on when I wake up or play a routine of lights to run while I’m on vacation. You can even trigger indoor lights and music when you open the garage door after work. There is a limitless amount of customization that you can do.
That customization is why Control4 is not a system you can pick up at Amazon or the local Best Buy. You have to be a trained dealer to sell and program Control4. All those cool things I just described? Those work great when set up and configured correctly, and my prior system ran rock solid for years without an issue. That said, it’s not a simple tool. It’s a full week training class that not everyone passed when I attended.
During testing of the EA-5, I managed to lose my Roku channels from the on-screen display, disable video output, lose the on-screen navigator, and have my lights turn on and off at incorrect times. Now I fixed all these problems, but that is after a week of training and years of use at home. Once fixed, it works without issue. For most people, who have it installed and don’t change gear monthly like me, it will continue to work for years.
Better still, if you want to, you can allow your dealer to connect to Control4 remotely to resolve issues. I have had issues I can’t fix, but a friend of mine installs Control4. He is able to connect to my system from 2,500 miles away, diagnose the issue, and make the change in minutes. Every issue will not be so easy but many can be fixed without having to visit a location.
Life with Control4
The EA-5 can support up to five zones for music, but for my system I had it working with a single zone. I controlled a Denon AVR-S710W over IR, an Epson 5020 projector and Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player over serial, and the remaining components (Roku 4, Sonos) with IP control.
When in my home theater, I control the EA-5 using the HC-260 remote. With a small OLED screen and an automatic backlight, it is easy to use in the dark. Unlike the Harmony Elite or some other remotes, there are no icons or fancy graphics, but the simple text on the screen. While not flashy, the HC-260 works for the job it has to do. The backlight kicks on when you pick it up in the dark, making it easy to read and not requiring you to seek out a button.
This ease-of-use is what led to me watching far more movies and TV shows in my theater than ever before. I zipped through Season 4 of House of Cards because it was so simple to do so. I’d sit down, select Netflix from the remote control, and everything just happens. The lights turn off, the projectors and receiver kick on, the Roku launches Netflix, and I’m ready to go. If I pause it mid-way the lights turn on so I can find my way to the bathroom or get a drink. When I’m finished, everything turns off and the lights turn back on in the room. Watching a show in here required 3 remotes or more before so I almost never did it, but now I do it all the time.
Since the HC-260 uses ZigBee, it works regardless of where your EA-5 controller is stored. I can be down the hall or even upstairs and the HC-260 will still work. Hard buttons make it easy to control everything by feel. Over two months the only reason I’ve needed to pull out another remote control is if I had to update the settings of my receiver but never in day-to-day use.
Control4 also provides an on-screen interface. Press the red 4 button at the top from anywhere and you’re taken right back to this. This and the iOS and Android apps are virtual mirrors of each other. It provides access to all your content and a much better interface for music playback. It’s designed to be simple and intuitive, so anyone can start here and control the system with no help. Selecting Watch gives me a list of sources I can use, from the Blu-ray player to my Roku. When I select Listen, my entire music library is available, with cover art, and is easy to navigate through. Tidal and TuneIn are also integrated for me, making it easy to stream content through the EA-5 into my main system. Before the EA-5, playback of HiRes audio on my system usually involved me using the Oppo BDP-105 for streaming as Sonos does not support it. While this worked, the interface is clunky and it meant opening up yet another app on my phone to control it. With the EA-5, I use the same remote or app I use for everything else and it just works.
This interface for Control4 is universal across your different rooms and systems as well. During the past two months, I replaced the Denon receiver with a Marantz AV7702mkII preamp, the Epson projector with a JVC X550R, and installed a Samsung UltraHD Blu-ray player. While almost all of the equipment behind the scenes changed, the Control4 experience did not. Anyone using the system would be able to use it the exact same way. You don’t need to learn one control scheme for the theater and another one for the living room, you just know how to do it.
This really is what Control4 is about: things just work. The remote isn’t flashy, and the EA-5 is a black rackmount box that sits in my AV system behind a door. If you didn’t know any better, you’d forget that it was there, and that is the point. When you want to watch a movie or listen to music, it’s easy and automatic. No complex codes, no worrying about line-of-sight and pointing the remote in the right direction. You just tell a guest “Press the big red 4 button at the top” and they can figure it out. When you have a Control4 system in different rooms, they interface and control is the same. No learning different systems or interfaces, they all just work the same way.
Compared to Harmony
The big question is what can Control4 do for you that Harmony can’t, and is that worth paying the extra cost? The Harmony Elite, which I run in my living room and installed for my Dad, works well at controlling a standard AV system. IR emitters and IP control mean it will support most devices you have, and the touch screen complements the buttons well. It supports activities that can control lighting and other smart home features and works well.
What the EA-1 offers on top of that is support for ZigBee smart home devices built-in for even more home automation. It has an HDMI output for an on-screen interface while the Harmony only has the remote or smartphone apps. Integrated support for local music, streaming services and AirPlay let you stream music through your existing system. It offers more IR outputs, two of which can control RS232 devices which a Harmony cannot. In the bigger picture, the EA-1 can be a zone in a much larger Control4 system that includes the entire house while each Harmony system lives in its own instance unaware of other systems around the house.
If you have a single AV system that you would like to control and that is it, you probably are going to stick to the Harmony system. It is cheaper to buy and you can set it up yourself. If you want to add some basic home control, you can do that with the supported products and still come in below the cost of a Control4 system.
If you want to control many systems or rooms and tie them all together, Harmony isn’t going to get you there. A Control4 system can start with a single EA-1 and grow into something large that needs the EA-5 or EA-3 over time. In my own experience both have proven to be reliable over time when correctly set up, they just differ in their size and scope of operation.
Control4 EA-5 Conclusions
My home theater is the heart of my job. Unfortunately, that means that as nice as my theater is, it is almost only used for work and not play. After installing the EA-5 I began using my theater outside of work far more. The KEF speaker system I bought last year had barely been used before the Control4 EA-5 arrived. Now I use it all the time. What the EA-5 did is unlock my home theater from being complex and a burden to use to something so simple my kids (aged 4 and 6) can control it.
A Control4 system is an investment but offers benefits a standard universal remote cannot. For the person that swaps gear in and out constantly it likely isn’t the choice for you. For the person that wants everything tied together and to work all the time, and can tie together your entire smart home, it does that flawlessly.
Flawless control, integrated music library and streaming features offer huge improvement over prior models, powerful enough for even the largest system
Has to be installed by a professional, no Z-Wave support
Control4 offers a uniform, flawless home control experience. It makes a home theater a breeze to use and let me derive more use out of my home theater in three months than in the past two years.