With the idea of going to a good ‘ole movie theater seeming like a bigger and bigger pipe dream every day, I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about how to upgrade my TV and movie-watching experience. Right now, watching TV is one of the few reliable methods of stress relief a lot of people have, so any way to improve that experience is worth checking out, and after Philips Hue released the Hue Sync box last year, Hue has followed that up with its new Play Gradient lightstrip for 2020.
On a technical level, the Play Gradient lightstrip represents an important advancement from Philips Hue’s previous lightstrips. That’s because instead of every LED on the strip being locked into the same color, the Play Gradient lightstrip has individually addressable LEDs grouped into several sections, allowing one section (which measures a little more than a foot in length) to display different colors than the surroundings sections.
There is a catch though, because while technically the Play Gradient lightstrip can display various colors across the length of the strip, currently, it can only do so when connected to Philips Hue’s Sync Box, which is available separately for $230. That means if you just want a lightstrip to add some ambient lighting behind your couch or under a counter, one of Hue’s regular smart lightstrips or something like Nanoleafs’ new Essentials lightstrip will be just as good and significantly cheaper. Philips Hue says it’s planning to unlock the Play Gradient’s full-color customizability sometime in the future, but there’s no specific timetable for that yet.
Furthermore, while we’re talking about price, between needing to have a Hue Sync box and the price of the Play Gradient itself (which starts at $200 for a lightstrip designed for 55-inch TVs and goes up to $240 for a 75-inch model), you’re looking at a bare minimum entry cost of $430 if you’re starting from scratch. That’s a pretty hefty premium for what basically amounts to fancy bias lighting behind your TV and makes things like Play Gradient and Hue Sync box definitely luxury items. However, if you’re a fan of colored lighting, I must admit that the ability to have colors that dance around behind your TV synced to what’s playing on the screen does make watching movies at home feel a bit more special. And in a time when so many of us have been stuck at home, that’s not an insignificant perk.
Furthermore, even with its relatively high price, the Play Gradient offers some significant advantages compared to creating your own DIY lighting solution using other Philips Hue lights. The first is that thanks to its seven lighting zones (three going along the top of your tv, with two more on either side), the Play Gradient offers a much better range of color responses along with more even lighting across the back of your TV.
Also, setup and installation is more streamlined. When I tested the Hue Sync box last year, I used two Hue Play lights mounted on each side of the TV, along with the lightstrip running across the bottom. And just having those three lights added a lot of extra wires to the already tangled bird-nest behind my TV and media console, while the Play Gradient just needs one. And because the Play Gradient is pre-configured to work with your TV, you don’t need to go in the Hue Sync and position each light properly to get the best results. The work is already done for you.
One other thing to mention is that if we go back to the costs unless you only have two or fewer Hue lights connected to the Sync box, the Play Gradient will probably come out ahead in price. Currently, a two-pack of cheaper Play lights goes for $130, and by its nature, only gives you two zones of light. Adding a third will take you around $200 which is effectively breaking even, but after that, the Play Gradient is the clear winner in terms of cost and simplicity.
Installation is also a breeze. Along with the strip, the Play Gradient comes with a handful of adhesive mounts that help hold and guide the lightstrip around the perimeter of your TV. The instructions say to position the light strip a few inches from the edge of your TV, but you don’t need to be super precise, so if you need to adjust to make sure you don’t block an HDMI port or something, it’s not a big deal.
Meanwhile, for all the people who commented on my Hue Sync box review (yes, we do read your comments) and asked about Philips’ Ambilight TVs, there are a couple reasons I didn’t mention them specifically. The first is that not everyone wants to buy a brand new TV to get color-synced bias lighting, because while $430 ain’t cheap, dropping $800 to $1,000 on a new TV is even pricier, and for anyone who’s happy with their current TV, upgrade your entire set probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. The other and even more important reason is that a lot of Philips Amibilight TVs (which do still exist) simply aren’t readily available in the U.S. It’s much easier to find them in Europe and other markets overseas, but at least here in the states, it’s slim pickings. And I’d argue, the idea of importing one and having to deal with customs or taxes just to get a TV set with built-in bias light is a non-starter for most people.
But back to the Play Gradient, because in the end, the results speak for themselves. Compared to my previous DIY Hue Sync setup with a couple of Play lights and a regular lightstrip, the Play Gradient is superior in almost every way. The lighting is more even and consistent, and while some might say it’s subtle, the effect of having additional light zones to work with means you get an even bigger phantasia of hues and tints swirling behind your TV.
Installation and configuration is much simpler as well, and with my DIY setup consisting of around $200 worth of Hue lights, the Play Gradient doesn’t really cost that much more (and might even be cheaper) too. If I was starting from scratch, I would definitely choose the Play Gradient instead of buying a collection of individual Hue lights and creating my own lighting setup. The extra hassle and cost required to deliver better results with a custom setup just isn’t worth it. So while there’s not much to combat the relatively steep entry cost into the world of synced bias lighting, if you’re looking to spice up your home theater with dazzling colors, the Hue Sync box plus the new Play Gradient is the way to go.
- The Play Gradient Lightstrip is available in three sizes (designed for 55-inch, 65-inch and 75-inch TVs), and it’s flexible so there’s a little wiggle room if you have a less common TV size.
- The Play Gradient comes with adhesive mounts that help you wrap the lightstrip around the back of your tv.
- Measuring over half an inch, the Play Gradient is significantly thicker and stiffer than Philips Hue’s other lightstrips, which means it may not fit behind some TVs mounted flush to the wall.
- At least for now, the Play Gradient’s individual lighting zones are only fully usable when connected to the Hue Sync box, though Philips Hue says it hopes to change that in the future. That means the Play Gradient doesn’t offer any major advantages over a standard Hue lightstrip when not synced to your TV.
- Unless you plan on connecting the Play Gradient to a PC (where you can use the Hue Sync app) directly) you kind of need to have a Philips Hue Sync Box to get full value of the Play Gradient, which means if you’re starting from scratch, you’re looking at a minimum entry cost of around $430.