On paper, the Hue Play Gradient Lightstrip paired with the Hue Play HDMI Sync Box looks amazing. In practice, the Sync Box is the most frustrating piece of technology I’ve used in recent memory. When the system works, it’s beautiful. But that’s a big “if.”
If you’re not familiar with the Hue Gradient, this is Philips Hue’s ambient TV light strip. On its own, it’s basically just a simple light strip. But when you pair it with the Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box, the lights react to what’s on the screen. It’s not unlike the Govee Immersion I reviewed a few months ago, but the colors are a lot more accurate, thanks to the Sync Box.
Sounds great, right? A beautiful, reactive, completely immersive experience that can take your entertainment setup to the next level? That’s exactly what you get when it works the way it should. But there are so many hoops to jump through to get to that point; I can safely say that the Philips Hue Sync Box is the most frustrating product I’ve used in years.
I abhor it.
Philips Hue Sync Box: An Exercise in Frustration and Self Control
The premise of the Sync Box is really smart: You connect all of your HDMI devices to the box, then the box into your TV. It pulls info from the source before it hits the TV screen and tells the lights how to react in real-time. It’s a brilliant idea, but it doesn’t come cheap. It costs $229. It also requires the Hue Bridge , which is an additional $60 if you don’t already have one from other Hue products.
I’ve been using Philips Hue bulbs for years. I have at last one Hue light in every room of my house, and my whole family loves them. Because of that, I’m pretty familiar with the Hue app. So you can imagine my surprise when I had to install a second app—the Hue Sync App (Android/iOS)—just for the Sync Box. I have no idea why it has its own app, but I can tell you that I’m not a fan of installing two apps for the same product line.
And then there’s the setup process. It’s easy enough if you already know what you’re doing, but I can see how this incredible unintuitive experience could be a nightmare for someone who isn’t tech savvy. If I bought this for my parents, for example, there’s no possible way they would’ve been able to get it set up. The instructions are just too vague.
The lights are easy enough to install, as you just stick them to the back of your TV. Except the double-sided tape that comes with the mounting brackets is pretty crappy, so it doesn’t really hold. I ended up using 3M picture hangers to mount the brackets to the back of my TV, which not only worked better but will make it easier to remove these from the TV.
The good news is that it doesn’t work any better once everything is set up and connected.
Here’s how it’s supposed to play out: You turn on the TV and your streaming box, console, or whatever source you plan on using. The Sync Box detects the signal, kicks out of sleep mode, and pushes that content to the TV’s screen.
Now, here’s how it actually plays out: You turn on the TV and your streaming box, console, or whatever source you plan on using. The TV says it can’t detect a signal because the Sync Box didn’t turn on. So, you open the app to see what’s going on and realize the Sync Box is still in sleep mode. You can’t wake it from the app, so you have to get up and press the button on the front of the box.
Once it’s awake, maybe it detects the signal from your source. Or maybe it just sits on the last-used source, waiting for a signal. You re-open the app to find out what’s going on and see that it, in fact, detects the source, but it didn’t change to that input. So, you do it manually.
Now you can finally watch TV or play a game or whatever. Take that scenario and apply it to everyone in your household. Except you always have to be involved when someone wants to watch TV because you’re the only person with access to the app and no one else understands how the damn Sync Box works in the first place.
No, I’m not kidding. I’m not being hyperbolic. I’m not exaggerating. This is what my family has dealt with every single day since I installed the Sync Box. My wife has been begging me to write this review so we can get rid of the box. She hates it. I hate it. We all hate it.
But wait, it gets better. Once everything is up and running, you’d expect the lights to just work, right? Lol, nah. You have to open the app and manually start the sync every time the box is woken from sleep. Fortunately, there’s a setting buried in the Automatic Control Options that will turn the sync on when it detects an input source. I have no idea why this isn’t enabled by default.
I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.
All that is on top of the fact that the Sync Box uses HDMI 2.0, so all of your HDMI 2.1 devices will get downgraded the second you plug them into the Sync Box. The system doesn’t currently support 120Hz gaming but will get an update to enable this, though it will downgrade 120Hz content to 1080p because of HDMI 2.0 limitations.
Oh, and if you use your TV’s built-in OS, you can kiss that goodbye—at least if you want to use the lights. Because this relies on an HDMI input, so your TV’s built-in Roku (or whatever OS it runs) isn’t compatible. You’ll need to add an external source, making this already expensive setup even pricier.
Philips Hue Play Gradient Lightstrip: Absolutely Gorgeous
The lights? Oh man, the lights. They’re gorgeous. Philips Hue makes some of the best, most vibrant smart lights on the market, and its lightstrips are no different. The Play Gradient Lightstrip is slightly different from the company’s other lightstrips because it’s designed specifically to go on the back of a TV.
As such, the style is pretty different. Instead of just a simple, flat strip of LEDs, it’s a fat, flexible snake of lights with a built-in diffuser. This allows the colors to weave in and out of each other as they ebb and flow with your TV’s picture. The accuracy is spot on, and the way they flow with the TV is perfect. I like the Govee Immersion, but it can’t hold a candle to what the Play Gradient Lightstrip can do in terms of brightness, vibrancy, and accuracy.
While the Immersion may not be as accurate, it has one feature the Gradient doesn’t: It goes all the way around the TV. The Gradient Lightstrip only covers the sides and top of the TV, so you don’t get color from the bottom. This creates a bit of a disconnect with the whole “extra immersion” thing—especially if you mount your TV on the wall.
Philips Hue recently announced a new $180 Gradient Light Tube that is designed to work with the Gradient Lightstrip to provide light for the underside of the TV, but that also makes an already expensive system even pricier.
Currently, the Play Gradient Lightstrip comes in three sizes: the $230 55 inch model for 55-60-inch TVs, $250 65 inch model for 65-70-inch TVs, and $280 75 inch model for 75-inch and larger TVs. So, for the full experience, you’ll be out of pocket an eye-watering $540 for the 65-inch lights, Sync Box, and Hue Hub. Add the upcoming Light Tube and you’re at more than $700. That’s pretty excessive.
Philips Hue Gradient + Sync Box: Is It Worth the Money?
The Play Gradient Lightstrip is easily the nicest looking lightstrip I’ve ever seen, which is doubly true for TV lights. But ultimately, the Sync Box is one of the worst pieces of technology I’ve ever used, and I passionately hate it.
So if you’re wondering if it’s worth it, that’s an easy answer: hell no. The lightstrip is probably worth the cost, but without the Sync Box, they’re pretty useless—you could get a much more affordable lightstrip and slap it on the back of your TV instead.
If you want something reactive, I’d much rather have the $80 Govee Immersion. Sure, the colors aren’t nearly as accurate or vibrant, but it just works—you turn it on, and it does its thing. No hassle, no headache.
Plus, you can buy the Immersion for every room in the house for the same price as one set of Play Gradient Lights with the Sync Box and Hue Bridge.
Here’s What We Like
- The lights are gorgeous
And What We Don't
- The Sync Box is literally the worst
- HDMI 2.0 only
- Unclear, vague, terrible setup