If you’ve started looking for a controller for your Christmas lights you may have noticed the many different types of controllers that are available.
There are different brands, types and options, and it can be confusing!
It can definitely be overwhelming but how do you know which one is right for your set up?
In this post, we’re going to cover both sides of the spectrum – if you’re just starting out, or perhaps you’re looking to get a new controller.
This will be directed more towards those starting out however, well cover different type of controllers and how to choose the best one for your set up.
We’ll talk about brands of controllers later, but first we need to cover the different types of controllers available.
I am a firm believer that there are many good controller brands out there, but the more important thing is getting the right type of controller for your display!
Types of Controllers
When you begin looking for controllers you’re going to see a few different types on the market. You have your short-range units and then you have the long-range units.
Short-range controllers are normally just one piece and they are great to use for smaller setups. You just have a single controller box to pull out, and that’s it!
The range on these to keep in mind is roughly 50 feet. I recommend not going any further than 25′.
The data that is sent from the controller to the pixels is not designed to go long distances, and when the controller is also providing power (which I generally recommend), that voltage of that power drops as you go longer distances – it’s a “double-whammy” to your string of lights!
Can you “hack” pixel data to go further with null pixels and F-Amps? Yes, but I don’t love those methods as you still have to add power again once you get to the lights…and we can do better than this (see below!)
As you begin to get further from the controller, you may need to add in additional power supplies at the end of your light strings. This is called “Power Injection“
Depending on the length of string, total wattage, and your wire’s thickness, you may need to reinject power over any controller’s output that is pushing even 15′!
As your voltage drops over distance, you will need to consider the additional power supplies needed. Remember, if the voltage of the signal drops too far (and this happens around 50′, sometimes sooner, sometimes later), you will have signal issues!
This is where some hobbyists insert “null pixels” to boost the signal, but I would rather simplify things and just use long-range controllers for most displays.
Long Range Controllers
Long-range controllers come with 2 separate control boards.
One of the boards is the brains of the operation while the other is a receiver. These units can normally extend to 300 feet or even more.
It’s essentially a “split system” where pixel data is sent over Cat5e network-type cable between the controller’s processor and the receiver, where the lights plug in.
It’s the best of both worlds because you can easily extend the distance from your main controller box to 300′ or more and without having to even think about null pixels or degrading signal.
The receiver boards will provide power to the pixels are well, so gone are the days of having to bring in power injection over a longer distance (which gets complicated fast).
What’s the Difference?
The difference between these two types of controllers is the range. The short-range controllers are more ideal for smaller setups as the range is only 50 feet.
The long-range style controllers offer the ability to put different strings of lights further away from the controller itself.
When you start to work past that range your voltage and data reach begins to drop off. This will force you to find an additional power supply to help extend the range. While this is doable it’s just much easier to go with a long-range unit instead, and often offers little cost savings with significantly more time invested.
The one type of controller that we haven’t talked about yet is the hybrid-type controller.
In the early days of long-range controllers, you generally had to choose between a 100% short-range and a 100% long-range type controller.
Not so anymore!
And this is great, because for most people, you can get a least a few of your props close to the controller itself. So you can use short-range ports for that, and long-range ports for those props that are further away.
My personal preference and recommendation are to go with a long-range controller because of the distance, the configuration, and they just work better for you in the long run.
With a short range unit, you’ve got (1) piece that all of your power flows through, and if ANYTHING goes wrong, you have a big problem. But with a long-range unit, you have two separate boards working and in most cases, you can replace just a single piece as opposed to a while unit.
However, the hybrid-type controllers, as I mentioned earlier, give you the best of both worlds. You get short-range ports for dense props like matrix’s, and long-range ports for things that are further away.
When you look at it cost-wise, you can see how often a long-range or hybrid type controller can quickly cost the same or less as a large short-range controller.
Considering that the most popular long-range unit – the Falcon F48 can drive 16 receivers of 4 pixel outputs each, the cost per output really diminishes as you grow!
What Brand Should You Buy?
Since working in stage lighting I’ve always loved the ENTTEC brand units but when you are just setting up displays as more of a hobby the ENTTEC units can be a bit expensive and have more/different features than you need.
In a nutshell, at the time of this writing, all 3 brands are reliable and well-priced. Advatek is Australian, and more popular in that market while Kulp and Falcon are US-based.
Advatek and Falcon both offer “traditional” short and long-range controllers that require a computer or micro-computer to be separately playing back your show.
Kulp controllers offer a built-in FPP show player that allows you to actually run your show off of the controller board – requiring no extra hardware!
The choice is yours – while each type of controller has it’s pro’s and con’s, there should be 1 that matches YOUR display better.
Want more info or need help finding the correct controller for your display? Join us inside of Learn Christmas Lighting Academy for in-depth info on choosing your controller and personal assistance from myself and others on choosing the right controller for your needs!