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.
We have been blessed lately with a plethora of HDMI switchers that solve some of the worst deficiencies of HDMI: key limitations, switching lags, EDID support, and so many others. Indeed, I’ve written glowing reviews of some of them.
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.
HydraConnect HDBaseT extenders
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.
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.
So on the AVR side I would have to say CEC is just not ready for the big show. This is not the switcher’s fault, just a limitation of CEC in its current state.
Easy set-up but follow directions
The first thing to note about the HSS-1 is there are no front panel or buttons. Who needs ‘em? This switch is set up with an easy-to-use admin menu that is accessed from any Web browser. Set-up is fairly easy if you follow the directions.
But definitely do follow them. A few things to note:
- It’s very important to configure all devices as indicated in the HydraConnect CEC Compatibility Document.
- Ensure that all sources are displaying HDCP-protected content during the configuration process and that they are in PLAY mode.
- All cable and satellite boxes should be tuned to pay-per-view channels (you do not have to purchase a movie, just tune to the channel displaying the purchase screen).
- All A/V receivers should be configured so that the HDMI input which connects to the HSS-1 is shown on its front panel as the selected input
- All displays that have multiple inputs should have the input selected which has the HDMI cable connection.
Here is an overview, which probably sounds very familiar to those who currently enjoy the high-end HDMI switching features (instantaneous video switching, unlimited keys, etc.) offered by some leading CE brands.
- True 8X8 video and audio matrix with no HDCP key limitations on number of simultaneous displays
- Automatic EDID management ensures maximum video resolution and all audio format support
- Integrated CEC control for nearly all sources and displays eliminates most IR blasters and controllers
- Integrated IP support for DirecTV receivers to eliminate IR blasters
- FlashConnect ensures near instantaneous video switching and no picture loss when adding or removing displays to or from a video stream
- Supports HDMI 1.4a - 36/30/24 bit deep color (225 GHz), and EDID and CEC processing
- Supports all HDMI 1.4a pass through 3D formats; HDCP 1.4 compliant
- HDTV formats supported: 1080p/1080i/720p/576p/480p/576i/480i resolutions
- Supports all the latest HDMI audio formats including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD
- On screen display shows users the shared status of any source
- Integrated stereo matrix switch and volume controls require only a low cost amp for whole house audio
- Full support for separate audio systems—a theater can support 7.1 while other rooms support 5.1 or stereo
- A/V remix allows the viewing of one video source while listening to a separate audio source
- Reclocking for both inputs and outputs supports the use of up to 10+ meter HDMI cables (depending on cable quality and the mating equipment in the system)
- Fully integrated Control4 Composer support
Availability and Future Products
HydraConnect was founded by David Schanin and Tony Anzelmo, two microprocessor engineers that have Control4systems in there house. They thought there had to be a better way to handle switching, so they came up with this product.
Even so, the company will be coming out with drivers for other popular home control systems.
The HydraConnect HSS-1 will ship later this year. Units can be pre-ordered (with a $400 holiday savings) at store.thesohoshop.com, starting Dec. 3.
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With over 20 years of experience in home systems installation and design as well as being an award winning product designer, Joe Whitaker currently is principal of the integration firm thethoughtfulhome.com. He is a current member of the CEDIA board of directors first elected in 2013 and is a frequent contributor to CE Pro magazine. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org
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