Review: ‘Awesome’ New HDMI/Audio Switcher for Control4
Built for Control4 home automation systems, HydraConnect has high-end HDMI switching features offered by the “other guys” but provides unique twist with audio and CEC control.
HydraConnect HSS-1 HDMI/audio switcher with Control4 home automation processor and HDBaseT Cat 5 extenders
But for the most part they don’t solve a big problem that plagues home entertainment systems in general: pesky IR emitters and RS-232 contraptions on the A/V components themselves.
Start-up HydraConnect solves all of these problems with the new HSS-1 HDMI switcher ($9,000), shipping this year (specs below).
I discovered this awesome gem at CEDIA Expo 2011 in September. I almost passed it up – it was a strange-looking 2u blue box with two large fan vents on the front -- but I thought to myself that a box that ugly has got to have some good stuff inside! (Thankfully, the shipping model has a black case.)
Scoping out the rear side of the rack, I witnessed 8 HDMI inputs, 8 HDMI outputs, 8 analog audio inputs, 8 analog audio outputs, and a single Ethernet connection.
Even more curious was the Control4 HC300 home automation controller sitting atop the unit.
Being the huge Control4 fan that I am, who could I pass that up? I have tried many excellent switchers with Control4 and couldn’t image what another matrix could bring to the party. Now I know.
What I like about HydraConnect HSS-1: Audio & CEC
First off, let me say that this product is not integrated with HDBaseT, the one-wire Cat 5 technology found in some of today’s top switches. HydraConnect wanted to give integrators the flexibility to use existing HDMI cables, traditional HDMI extender baluns or HDBaseT extenders. The company does make its own HDBaseT extenders starting at $450 for the transmitter/receiver pair.
Having said that, not only does the HSS-1 appear to handle HDMI switching better than some of the others, it offers a couple of innovative, if not downright unique, features.
HydraConnect HDBaseT extenders
HydraConnect HDBaseT extenders
First is the built-in analog audio matrix. HydraConnect addressed a major request of most Control4 users with this its independent 8x8 audio matrix that provides 1:1 ratio volume control. This feature has become pretty common for full analog switches but not so much in HDMI switches. Generally, we’re forced to use a third-party switch or an amp with built-in switching at a high price.
Second, and most interesting, the HSS-1 takes advantage of the much-maligned (and rightfully so) HDMI Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) protocol, which enables A/V control via the HDMI cable.
HDMI CEC is built into virtually all HDMI-enabled devices, but it seems no one uses it and most integrators despite it … for good reason. Many CEC functions are not supported by the HDMI components and/or the controllers; there may be little interoperability between components and controllers; and it can generally confuse the system.
For those reasons, most of us integrators make sure CEC is turned off on every device in an HDMI distribution system. In this case, however, CEC actually works and it works well.
The Virtues of CEC
The effective use of CEC in a distribution/control system allows integrators to scrap ugly IR emitters, toss out cumbersome RS-232, and save a few ports on their network switch by controlling devices with CEC.
HydraConnect accomplished this by creating some "generic drivers" for TVs, DVDs, and AVRs. Inside the switch driver is the ability to create a number of virtual IR ports, so the Control4 system thinks it is using IR.
Here are my thoughts on each driver type:
TV control is a no brainer. In most cases we only need ON and OFF. If this is your scenario you are in luck. Go ahead and yank the IR emitter now. However, if you need volume control and MUTE be careful. Toshiba seems to have some of the few TV sets that support these functions over CEC, although I have found that the new Sharp 70- and 80-inch displays also support these functions. Check out HydraConnect's HDMI CEC Compatibility Chart.
Who hates to see those ugly emitters on a nice finished rack? All standard CEC commands are supported in most of today’s Blu-ray players -- one less connection, one less wire, one cleaner-looking rack!
Here’s what it gets tricky. While some if not most of today's AVRs support CEC I do not think it is a viable solution if RS-232 or IP control is available. If either is available for two-way control, there is just too much to lose going the CEC route.
Direct commands to specific surround modes is lost, direct jumps to specific types of streaming media as in the new Sony 5700es will be lost, and true volume feedback to navigation is gone also.