Introduction to the Control4 HC-250 System System

After years of reviewing home theater equipment I’ve managed to put together a nice setup downstairs. A 122″ 2.40 screen, 5.1 sounds with a nice processor and amplifiers, reference quality sources, and even some nice leather powered recliners. I don’t really feel the need to go to the local movie theater anymore.

Unfortunately my wife hates watching movies in the basement. The components continually change as I review things and it is impossible to control. She would much rather watch things on the main floor, but wants it to be simple. The only components there are a 50″ plasma and a Blu-ray player. Nothing more in order to keep it simple. I wanted to add a receiver and some speakers, maybe a media streamer for my music. But I didn’t want to make it harder to control than it currently is.

Control4 offered to help me out. They said with a system from them, I can install all of the gear that I want in the living room and it will be just as easy to control as before.

Am I intrigued? Yes.

Does my wife believe them? No.

Despite the doubts I pressed ahead and found out what Control4 offers me, and what it can do beyond a simple living room.


Control4 HC-250 System Controller

  • AV Inputs: Analog Audio (3.5mm)
  • AV Outputs: HDMI, Component Video, 3.5mm Audio
  • Network/Control: 10/100 Ethernet (PoE supported), 802.11g/n Wi-Fi, USB 2.0, ZigBee Pro, 4 IR Ports (2 can be RS232), 1 Contact, 1 Relay
  • Streaming: TuneIn, MP3, AAC, FLAC (Networked or USB drive)
  • Size: 1.23″ x 8.59″ x 4.92″, 1.8 lbs.
  • Price: $750

Control4 SR-250 Remote

  • Display: 4-line OLED
  • Buttons: 47 Backlit
  • Sensors: Motion, Light
  • Communications: Two-way ZigBee
  • Size: 8.3″ x 2.1″ x 1.1″, 8.8 oz.
  • Price: $250
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Control4 vs. Universal Remotes

Control4 specializes in home automation, not universal remote controls. So how are they different? A universal remote is designed to follow the steps you give it for an activity. You tell it that to watch a Blu-ray; it needs to send power to three devices, what inputs you need to change to, what component controls the volume and to set the controls to work the Blu-ray player. It doesn’t know more than that; it just simply repeats those steps.

Control4 is built upon knowing the components of your system and how they interact with each other, not just the steps necessary for an activity. It not only knows the manufacturer and model of components that you have but how they are connected to each other. It knows what activities a component can perform, and can have different actions for those different activities. It can also communicate with supported devices to determine their current power status, input and volume level.

Control4 also can go far beyond replacing your universal remote. If you desire, it can control your lighting systems, HVAC system, and more. You can integrate it into your security system, allowing an image of who is at the door to pop-up on-screen when you are watching TV. You can control a whole-house, distributed AV system from a single remote control if you wish. You don’t need to do any of this, but the ability is there.

The key is tying all of this together in a single, uniform interface. Anyone can now go down to Home Depot or Lowes and pick up a universal remote, some light controls, and a Nest thermostat. Once installed do they work together, or do you have three new interfaces that don’t communicate and you control individually?

Installation and Setup of the Control4 HC-250 System

Before the Control4 system was to be installed, I had to add some extra gear to make this a challenge. Anything can control a TV and a Blu-ray player and nothing else. Paradigm helped out and provided a set of their Millennia One speakers as well as an Anthem MRX 500 receiver for the audio. I also added an SVS PB-1000 subwoofer and a Roku 3 media streamer. The remaining components are an Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player and a Samsung PN50B650 Plasma TV.

To control everything, Control4 provided an HC-250 control unit and an SR-250 remote control. The HC-250 is their smaller control unit, capable of controlling a system of this size. A larger system, like my main home theater, could require the HC-800 that is faster and has more inputs and outputs. Control4 systems can be controlled with a free iOS or Android app but I still prefer a hard remote. Unlocking my phone, opening an app, and bringing up a menu to adjust the volume instead of hitting the ‘Vol +’ button doesn’t appeal to me.

Control4 systems are installed and programmed by a certified installer. I got to understand the reasoning for this first hand when I took the installer class and discuss that in-depth later. My installer came from Chelsea Audio Video, a local store in Beaverton, OR. My system is still simple compared to what the installer often sees, and installation took around two and one-half hours to complete.

Control of the components was handled with IR repeaters connected to the HC-250 controller. Some devices provide Control4 with drivers that allow for RS232 or IP control. Both methods are more robust and stable than IR if available. IP control has the benefit of not requiring any additional cables or connections as well, making it the easiest to implement. Regardless, the installer can handle any control method and make sure the setup is robust and fully works before leaving.

The only information I had to provide the installer is a login and password for my network attached storage (NAS) to allow streaming of my music library. Aside from that information he was able to accomplish the install without any other input. A quick five-minute tutorial on the remote and I was ready to see how well Control4 worked.

Daily Use of Control4 HC-250 System

I spend far more time with my living room system than my home theater system. Watching two young kids most days, they aren’t allowed in that room as it is not kid-friendly. The living room system is also surrounded by toys and adjacent to the playroom. The addition of Control4 changed this system from being used for occasional TV and movies to being used continually.

The best feature is having someone else over to the house and handing them the remote. All I say is “Choose Watch or Listen, and then choices are simple” and it is. You select Watch and you can choose from TV, Blu-ray, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and more. Selecting Listen brings up my music library, favorite stations, Blu-ray (for SACD and DVD-Audio discs), Internet Radio, and the Wireless Music Bridge. It is very simple and it works flawlessly. This interface is the same on the TV screen, a remote, or a touchscreen controller like my iPhone.

When my three-year-old son gets up in the morning, he can turn on whatever he wants to watch. He grabs the remote, selects Netflix, and then chooses his favorite titles from there. I get to watch a lot of Thomas and Friends and things related to monster trucks. He can even select his favorite playlist, Robot Music, to listen to the latest Daft Punk album, Random Access Memories. He has much better taste in music than in TV shows at this point. A full home theater system is distilled down to be simple enough for a child to use, and he can’t even tie his shoes yet.

Guests also find it easy to use. Our babysitters are able to listen to their favorite music, or watch their favorite shows on Hulu Plus and Netflix. Not once have I come home to find that devices were left on or that it was too confusing to use. My Netflix suggestions might have changed, but Control4 has let them enjoy themselves instead of being stuck with a system that is too hard to control.

Adding Control4 has made my system get far more use than it ever did before. Streaming audio is easy and is utilized all day long. From my favorite Internet radio stations and podcasts with TuneIn, to playing back my entire library from my NAS in the basement, everything works. Even browsing through over 500+ albums with the SR-250 remote is possible. I can’t say the same for any receiver or processor remote that I’ve used to date.

It’s hard to describe what Control4 does in controlling my system beyond this. Everything just works. It is simple and easy to use. Even your child that is in pre-preschool can watch a movie or listen to music with it. The only issues I had were related to the Roku 3 IR sensor being poor but updating to an IP driver will likely fix those. The months spent with Control4 have been trouble-free and provided a lot more enjoyment from our entertainment system.

Installer Training and System Updates of the Control4 HC-250 System

To provide more insight into setting up Control4, they sent me to Chicago for a week for their dealer training. Before you can install a Control4 system, sell one, or even have access to their software you need to pass this class. It consists of four days in a classroom, with your own rack of gear to control. Spending 8+ hours a day in the classroom, along with homework assignments at night, and finally a test to make sure you understand what you are doing in the end. The class is intensive enough that I didn’t see anything in Chicago beyond the airport, my hotel, and the classroom.

Another press member, Grant Clauser of Electronic House, was in the class as well. Both of us started with almost no Control4 knowledge compared to others in the class. They all work at stores that do custom installation and have seen people doing programming in their stores, at a job site, or even tried it themselves with a coworkers’ license.

Despite our lack of any previous experience, by the end of the week we were both certified Control4 installers. We also learned what is possible to do with Control4, some of which I am planning to implement in my house. Among those plans:

– When it’s nighttime and I sit down to watch something, dim the lights in the room to 20%.

  • – If I’m in my basement theater and the doorbell rings while I’m watching a movie, pause the movie, flash the lights, and display a message on-screen to notify me.
  • – If I’m not watching a movie but the lights are on when the doorbell rings, flash them twice to let me know.
  • – When I double-tap the bottom button of the main keypad, turn off all the AV systems in the house and set the lights to my defined Away mode.
  • – When I get home and double-tap the top keypad button, turn on the lights in the main room and kitchen for me.

    If I had a gas fireplace or a whole-house music system, I could go even further.

    Gentle music to wake me up in the morning? No problem.

    Automatically send my playlist from the living room to the kitchen when I head in there to cook dinner? Simple.

    Setting up a keypad in the kids’ room to let them queue up their favorite music with a single click? Done.

    To really test out my knowledge, I installed a couple of components into my system after acquiring my certification. First up is the Control4 Wireless Music Bridge. This adds on AirPlay and Bluetooth support to a Control4 system. As more and more people get their content from a smartphone or tablet, adding it as a source becomes more important. The Music Bridge lets that smartphone or tablet becomes a source for any room in your Control4 system.

    Adding this to my system took 15 minutes. Once it was added, the Wireless Music Bridge option I mentioned earlier appeared under Listen and everyone could stream music to my system. Spotify and Amazon Cloud Player now worked perfectly from my iPhone and Nexus 7. That was a pretty easy one.

    The next upgrade is replacing the Anthem receiver with a Pioneer SC-79 receiver I am reviewing. This is a lot more complex. Instead of just adding a device, I have to migrate everything over to a new device that is the center of the whole system. I am a bit more nervous on this, but thought if I fail I can easily go back to my old setup.

    I back up my existing system configuration and take photos to let me reconstruct it later on. Adding the Pioneer SC-79 to the system is easy in the Control4 software, and the receiver has IP control. Simply plugging in an Ethernet cable lets it be found and controlled by Control4. Very nice!

    The configuration of the system is easy enough as well. I connect the appropriate HDMI cables in the Control4 Composer Pro software (Oppo HDMI Out to Pioneer BD HDMI in, for example) and then everything should configure itself. 30 minutes of cabling and software work later and it is done. Almost.

    I can watch TV. I can listen to music. But I can’t watch my Blu-ray player or anything off the Roku. The options are missing from the Watch menu. Did I connect them wrong? I swap some cables and test again.

    Nope, still broken. Still no options.

    What in the world is going on? Then I realize I failed to tell the software that the HDMI output from the Pioneer SC-79 is going to my plasma! I make that connection in the software and everything comes back. Now everything works perfectly. Best of all, the control for everything is exactly the same, so my wife won’t even notice the receiver in the cabinet has changed.

    This shows me the upsides and downsides of Control4. The good is that you can upgrade your system and make changes and everything still works exactly the same. My wife only noticed the change a week later as she asked why the on-screen volume display had changed. Otherwise the move from one receiver to another was totally seamless. The IP control even enhanced the system, as it provides on-screen feedback to my iPhone of the current volume level that IR control does not.

    The downside is needing someone to come and do the upgrade for you. Even with the issues I ran into the total time to redo the system is under an hour. That includes unhooking the Anthem, connecting the Pioneer, and programming the software. This was only possible for me to do after a full week of intensive training, and even then I forgot a simple task that temporarily broke the system. Despite years of AV experience and a background as a software developer with a computer science degree, I would have failed at this task without the class. I understand the desire to want to have full control over the system yourself, but I can also tell you that it really requires the training class.

    Current Conclusions of the Control4 HC-250 System (July 2013)

    In my current use as a system controller, Control4 does an admirable job. The issues I’ve run into have either been due to poor drivers from a company, or tasks that only a certified installer would handle. For daily use, the system has done nothing but work flawlessly.

    The ability to use both a smartphone or tablet and a hard remote is very useful. The hard remote is good for most things, and especially controlling while watching a movie or TV. For browsing my music library or searching online for a podcast, the iOS and Android devices do a great job of adding additional functionality to the remote. I could control everything with just my phone, but I do like having a physical remote to use.

    What I would like to see in the future with Control4 would be more streaming content through the controller itself. The Wireless Music Bridge makes sending Spotify and other content easy, but doing it straight from the Control4 app is even easier. I’d also appreciate the ability to directly add a playlist to the Listen menu, so my wife or son can access their music more directly.

    I plan to add-on to this review as my Control4 system expands. Later this summer I will be upgrading much of the lighting in my house to be controlled by the system as well. Will this be as easy for my family and guests to use as the current system is, or will the complexity overwhelm them? I believe it will be a success based on my current experiences and look forward to finding out.

    When I set out to do this Control4 review, all I wanted was to add a receiver and speakers to the living room without upsetting my wife. I wanted it to be easy to use and provide a better entertainment experience. Now I’m planning how to add full house distributed audio in our next home, and have the lighting and music in our bedroom gently rouse me from sleep. Forget making TV easy, it’s going to make my whole house easy and more enjoyable.

    So I suggest you go down and find a Control4 dealer. Pick up the remote and hit the ‘4’ button at the top. You’ll be watching a movie or listening to music in no time, without any assistance at all. Then you’ll want it in your house so it can make everything that easy.