The Hue Play HDMI Sync Box may have an awful name, but it has awesome functionality. It synchronizes the picture on your tv screen with your Hue lights, essentially providing color matched backlighting and immersion.
Other companies have tried this before, namely Dreamscreen which was a led frame you could put on the back of your TV that sync’d your content.
Philips has been slow to roll out these accessory features to their colored smart light universe, even though they were technically supported in their API for years now.
So now that it is finally here, can it live up to the hype, or will the Hue Sync Box just be another tech gimmick?
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Hue Sync Box Hardware
Lets start with the hardware.
It’s a pretty non-descript black box, with a soft touch matte black finish throughout. On the front there’s a single button to turn it on, and a LED next to it to display its status.
On the back you’ll find 4 HDMI input’s, a single HDMI output, a power supply input and a microUSB port.
In the box you’ll find the Hue Sync Box, the power adapter, and an HDMI cable.
This box is set up in a way that all of your devices will plug into the Sync box, and then the Sync box will connect to a single HDMI port on your TV, much like a HDMI switcher. For all of you that use your smart TV’s built in apps, this box is useless to you. But you can also get a Fire Strick or Roku stick for pretty cheap and plug that into the Sync Box.
So how do you change your inputs on your tv? Pretty easily, but we’ll get to that in just a little.
Hue Sync Box Software
First you have to set it up.
The Sync Box uses its own app called Hue Sync, which is separate from the standard Hue application, and is exclusively controlled from there.
The setup process is very straight forward; you’ll pair the Sync Box with your Hue Bridge (yes, you’ll need that as well, it is not a standalone device. more on that later)
Once that is done, you’ll assign it to an entertainment zone. Chances are you haven’t created one of these before.
This is done in the regular Hue App. Essentially the entertainment zone tells Hue where your lights are placed in relation to the screen. You add and place your color lights into the entertainment zone in a top down view, so that Hue knows which lights should be synced with whatever is on the screen.
Once you’ve completed that, and assigned your Sync Box to that entertainment zone, the setup is pretty much over. All that’s left is the fine tuning of location and figuring out your preferences for the brightness and responsiveness.
Let’s explore the Hue Sync app a bit more, since everything is controlled through there.
There are several things you can configure in the Hue Sync app.
At the top right you can turn the box on and off.
There are three sync modes; video, music, and game.
Each have their own preset for the intensity of the color synchronization and brightness, however they are all able to overridden, thankfully.
This is where each person will want to play around with the settings to find what they like the most. I personally found that for TV and more chill movies, 70% brightness with moderate intensity was nice, whereas more action-packed movies were better with high intensity.
Gaming is set to extreme intensity by default, and that works well if you’re playing a game with lots of shifting colors, otherwise high intensity is fine if you’re playing something a little more casual.
Finally, at the bottom you can select between the HDMI inputs, and enable/disable the syncing. This also means that you don’t need to have your lights syncing with your TV all the time, because during the daytime it’s pretty useless, unless you have a purposefully dark room.
In the next tab of the app are the settings. Here you can rename your HDMI ports, so you know which port is attached to which device. I personally have an Apple TV 4K, Xbox 1, and a Nintendo Switch plugged into my Sync Box.
You can also dictate how the device reacts to different inputs. When the Sync Box detects a new signal, it will automatically switch to that input, even from standby mode.
There is also a setting where you can enable it to automatically sync the lights as soon as an input is detected. This is all user configurable at the input level, meaning you have control of which input triggers what response.
The Sync box supports CEC via HDMI, so it will turn off when it detects that the TV has been turned off. For those of you that don’t have a TV that supports this, you can plug a USB cable between your TV and the Sync Box that will also provide this feature.
There’s an option to enable constant background lighting for the video and game modes. This will mean that a minimum brightness light level will always be present even when the screen is dark. This is off by default, and will mean that a black part of the screen will result in the lights turning off completely while it is all black.
Lastly you can enable ARC bypass if you have a certain device connected to a receiver for your audio needs. This will unfortunately only work with one input, so you may need to fiddle with some settings to come up with the optimum setup for your needs.
For those of you with a receiver setup, you’re most likely going to want to have everything plugged into your receiver inputs, and then out from your receiver into the Hue Sync Box. The Hue Sync Box will then connect to the TV.
This way your TV will pretty much always be set on the same input, and you’ll continue controlling your inputs with your receiver remote. It also then means that the ARC bypass system will be enabled for all of your devices, just as it was before.
Hue Sync Box Performance
Now that we’ve established all the settings, how does it perform?
I would say it works remarkably well, but there are definitely some hiccups. The software hasn’t been completely ironed out yet, so there have been moments when in a fast sequence of color changes, my lights will just randomly flash white in full brightness, which can be pretty distracting.
There have also been a few times when it wouldn’t work altogether and required a hard reboot. Thankfully it’s pretty quick to restart, but it also takes you out of the moment, especially if it happens while you’re watching a movie, or even downright embarrassing if you’ve got friends or family over and you’re showing off your latest tech.
When it works, it feels awesome. It can certainly appear gimmicky, and it’s not something I would argue that all home theatre setups need. But with certain media, it can really accentuate the immersion. Cartoons and video games are particularly great with the syncing, as they are very bold and rich in their colors.
There are also no noticeable latency issues when it comes to video games, so you won’t be distracted with lights being slow to keep up in a fast-paced game. Though it really shines in games where the background colors don’t change a lot, like Mario or Zelda.
The Sync Box supports up to 10 lights at a time, most people shouldn’t have an issue with this, and honestly I can’t imagine what 10 lights flashing in a room would look like. I personally had a set of Play Bars behind the TV, one stuck to either edge.
The Hue Sync Box supports 4K60hz at all of the inputs and HDR10. Notably, however, it does not currently support HDR10+ nor Dolby Vision, which are the two main standards for high quality video. Hue states that it will passthrough the signal, so you can still watch the content, but it is unable to decode the signal to sync with your lights.
I’m guessing that this is something that can be solved with a software updated down the road, and not a hardware limitation. It’s possible that Hue just didn’t want to pay the licensing fee at the initial phase of hardware release, and can add it depending on consumer demands.
If you watch a lot of your content in Dolby Vision, or even HDR10+, then I would caution you wait until Hue confirms that these standards will be coming to the box, and even then, probably wait until it actually happens, rather than just a promise from the company.
All of this brings us to the golden question.
Should you buy this?
Let’s start with the price.
The Hue Sync Box is a whopping $230. Ultimately, it’s a pretty impressive piece of hardware, but even with the Hue tax, that is a lot of money. I standard 4K HDMI switcher is about $40-$50, so while you get a lot more functionality and control, it’s a big step in terms of price.
However this doesn’t even consider the Hue lights and Bridge that are also required to make all of this work.
The minimum setup I would want for this is a set of Hue Play bars on either side of the TV. That is what I have and it works really well, if you wanted a complete setup, I would probably get a light strip for each edge of the TV, with some sort of soft diffusor over it as well.
So even at that minimum configuration of two Play Bars, you’re looking at almost $400, not including the bridge, to make all of this happen, and that is very hard to justify. If you want the high end option with 4 light strips, you’re closer to $600.
I think the only way I can recommend this device to anyone is if you’re already invested in the Hue ecosystem with plenty of color lights, and you’re ok knowing that there are still some software bugs to iron out. But you get sweet color synchronization with your TV.
Comment down below what you guys would be willing to spend to have this kind of setup in your home, if anything at all.