One of the unique selling points of the Philips Ambilight TV experience has been the ability for the TV set to project the colour on the screen out further than the screen itself using coloured lights. The idea is that it makes the picture feel even bigger and the experience even more immersive.

The catch is that it has only ever been available to Philips TV owners, until now. But can a box that you plug into any TV, replicate the Ambilight experience? We had a play with the new Philips Hue Play box to find out ahead of the global launch in October and the UK launch in January.

What is the Philips Hue Play?

Put simply it is a small black box with four HDMI inputs and one HDMI output that can read any HDMI signal you pass through it. The box then analyses the signal to send colour instructions to connected Philips Hue bulbs to replicate the predominant colours on the screen.

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If the content on the screen mostly features a green football pitch, the lights you connect will shine green, if it's blue skies you'll get a different colour, and so on.

And because the box reads the signal before it is output on the TV, the colours replicated on your lights match that of the screen at the same time with zero delay.

Does the Philips Hue Play work?

In short yes. By analysing the images that will be shown on the screen it can change the colour of the bulbs in the room (up to 10) to immerse you in colour, and when we say bulbs, it works with any Philips Hue light, be in an LED light strip or colour changing GU10 bulb you've got in the ceiling. 

There are four levels of intensity from subtle to intense and this determines how quickly the lights change and with what brightness. These settings can make a really difference to the experience.

The intense is bright and comes with lots of quick changes, while the subtle is probably more suited to watching movies and TV shows. It doesn't take into effect every colour change, but focuses on the main colour shifts in the picture, to, as the name suggests, give you more subtle transitions.

Anything with a HDMI cable is supported

Philips Hue and third party developers have offered similar systems before that either encouraged you to point your phone's camera at the screen to try and read what was going on, or ran through a Mac or a PC. Both are limited, clumsy and certainly not consumer friendly. This approach is a lot easier, although it does come with a higher price tag.

Philips Hue has told Pocket-lint that it has worked hard to be compatible with all the relevant HDMI licensees and the outcome means the 4K box will be able to read and process any signal passed through the box via HDMI and auto switch to that source when the time comes. It can even read 8K content, however the light effects only work on content up to 4K.

That means it is able to work with any set-top box on the market be it Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire Stick, or a Sky Q box. It will also be able to handle games consoles like the Xbox, PS4, or Switch, as well as Blu-ray players and the such like.

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And if you’re wondering whether the content is restricted on those devices, it isn't. It will work with all services and content on those devices.

The system can even work with audio inputs, via HDMI, allowing you to interpret music via Spotify, for example, into a light show for a party.

The only thing we believe it can't read is when you run an online service, like Netflix, directly from the TV as you aren't able to pass that signal through the box itself.

In our demo we watched an array of different on different intensity settings including movie trailers via a connected laptop, and Horizon Zero Dawn on the PS4. All worked seamlessly with zero lag with the five Philips Hue lights in the room.

Setup is via an app

Plug in the box and you control everything via a dedicated Philips Hue app rather than the app that you are already using to control your lights. Philips allows you to set up "entertainment zones" and tell it exactly what lights you want in the zone and where they are exactly placed.

The placement is important as it allows the app to work out how to deal with the light in your setup, and more importantly whether it is in front of or behind your sofa.

Furthermore you can set a light to be on outside of the room – handy if you want to see when the kids have snuck into the lounge and turned on the TV. You can create up to 99 zones for those that really want to push the system to the limits.

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How is it different to Philips Ambilight?

Although it sounds like the same bit of tech that Philips offers in its TV range, the Philips Hue system uses a different algorithm to read the information and colours on the screen. Philips TV read just the outside edge to allow the TV set to extend the colours beyond the set, while Play system here reads the entire picture with a focus on the centre of the picture because it wants to replicate the colour for the whole room.

The two systems can be used to compliment each other if you have the latest 2019 Philips TV models. If you have an older 2018 Philips Ambilight TV you have to decide which system you want to opt for and turn the other one off as currently the 2018 range and before don't yet have the required software update to work in tandem.

First Impressions

We've always loved the concept of the Philips Ambilight system, and this effectively takes that idea and allows you to use enjoy it on other sets like Samsung, LG, Sony, or Panasonic.

From what we've seen in our brief demo so far, the experience is certainly going to be immersive, however we suspect the "intense" setting will be too intense for many.

With our movies, TV, and games trying to immerse us in their worlds even more, the idea of being fully bathed in matching light will certainly appeal to many and we look forward to getting a Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box in the office to see how it performs over a much longer period.

The Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box is available for €249 / $229.99 and available from 15 October in Europe and the US. It will be available in the UK in January. The UK price hasn't been set yet.