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Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box review: Want to make your Hue lights sync with your TV? Here's the answer

This compact device does an impressive job of syncing your Hue lights with your TV without any detectable latency, but it’s pricey, and there’s no remote.

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Such as setup means you can use your universal remote (if you have one) to switch video inputs, and yes, connecting your AV receiver’s video output to one of the Sync Box’s HDMI inputs works just fine as far as light syncing goes (the Dolby Vision and HDR10+ limitations still apply). That said, even if you switch inputs using your AV receiver, you’d still have to use the mobile Hue Sync app to change light mode presets (such as Video, Music, and Game).

Performance

After focusing almost entirely on the intricacies of the Hue Play HDMI Sync Box’s inputs, setup and settings, let’s get to the good stuff: cool flashing lights.

One of the biggest issues that the Hue Play HDMI Sync Box licks when it comes to responsive TV bias lighting is latency. On other systems I’ve tried, the lights take a split second to sync with the images on the screen, and even that brief moment of distraction can ruin the effect. With the HDMI Sync Box, there’s probably still be some latency going on, but I sure haven’t noticed it.

Here’s the acid test when it comes to light-syncing latency: the scene in Mad Max: Fury Road when Furiosa steers her war rig into a giant dust storm, punctuated by terrifying flashes of lighting. Those sudden, frequent, and blinding flashes of light pose quite the challenge for any responsive bias lighting setup, but as far as I could tell, the Hue Play HDMI Sync Box kept my Hue Play lights in perfect sync. That’s quite an achievement.

I was also pleased with the color choices that the Sync Box made. While other responsive lighting sets sometimes cast (for example) purple light when the TV screen didn’t seem to call for it, the Sync Box’s onboard video processing rarely made a misstep, whether I was watching the haze-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge on Apple TV’s animated screensaver or the sinister green hues of The Matrix.

Finding the right intensity setting for the HDMI Sync Box can be a challenge depending on what you’re watching. The “intense” setting, mainly intended for gaming and action movies, aggressively and instantly syncs your lights with the TV picture, sometimes resulting in flickering lights as the Sync Box reacts to even small color changes. That’s fine for Avengers: Endgame or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but you might not want all those flickering lights during This Is Us.

That said, down-shifting to the “moderate” or “subtle” intensity comes with its own set of issues. While the color syncing on these lower settings is far less aggressive and therefore less prone to flickering, the fading color changes between shots (for example, during a back-and-forth conversation) can be distracting as the colors slowly ease in and out. Personally, I found the “high” intensity setting to be a good compromise, but I suspect most users will discover their own preferences.

Another option is to simply not sync your lights for a particular video input, which might be a good option if you want pulsing lights while you’re gaming on your PS4 but not for movies and shows on Apple TV. To do so, you can turn syncing off manually in the Hue Sync app. You can also disable a setting that automatically turns on light syncing when the Sync Box detects a video signal for a given input.

Bottom line

Technically speaking, the Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box delivers the best “responsive” TV bias lighting I’ve ever seen, precisely syncing your Hue lights with your TV screen with latency so low that it’s basically imperceptible. But while the HDMI Play Sync Box’s actual syncing performance is excellent, its saddled with an involved setup process and sometimes clunky operation, while its lack of a remote or (for now) support for a third-party remote is frustrating.

Updated May 28, 2020 to report that Philips Hue has released an update for the Play HDMI Sync Box that addresses two of the chief complaints in this review: A lack of support for IR remotes, as well as the unit’s inability to sync your Hue lights with Dolby Vision/HDR10+ content.

In addition to activating the Sync Box’s once-dormant IR receiver, which allows the unit to be controlled with third-party IR remotes, the update lets the Sync Box perform its light-syncing duties with both Dolby Vision and HDR10+ visuals. The update also adds support for Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri voice commands. These are all welcome improvements, but we’d like to test the update ourselves before altering our conclusions or reconsidering the Play HDMI Sync Box’s rating.

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At a Glance
  • If you want pulsing lights that sync with your TV screen while you’re watching videos or playing games, the Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box is currently the best way to make it happen.

    Pros

    • Accurate color syncing
    • Low latency
    • Automatically switches inputs when a video source is powered on

    Cons

    • Expensive
    • No physical remote or support for third-party universal remotes
    • Can’t sync your lights with Dolby Vision or HDR10+ content
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