BenQ HT3550 Projector Reviewed

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BenQ HT3550 Projector Reviewed


Earlier this year, BenQ released the HT3550 projector as a replacement for last year's HT2550. Those familiar with BenQ's product lineup will notice the price of this year's model has increased $250, bringing the MSRP to $1,499. For the extra dough, BenQ says they've stepped up performance and introduced new features. The light engine has been completely redesigned, bringing improvements in both color saturation and contrast. The latter is, in part, thanks to the new dynamic iris, which boosts contrast performance threefold over last year's model, up to a claimed 30,000:1.

The light engine also now includes an optical light filter to increase color saturation performance up to a claimed 95 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut. This is a welcome upgrade for those who plan to watch a lot of Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, as most have color saturation well beyond REC709. Rounding out the upgrades is an additional fully compliant 18Gbps HDCP 2.2 HDMI 2.0b port and a pair of five-watt stereo speakers. All in all, the HT3550 seems to offer a comprehensive set of features and performance that would have been unheard of just a few years ago at its asking price.

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The HT3550 employs Texas Instruments' new 1080p 0.47-inch DLP DMD with XPR technology to achieve perceptual on-screen resolution of 3,840 by 2,160. For those unfamiliar with this technology, XPR is a form of pixel-shifting similar to what JVC and Epson have used in the past. But unlike the implementations used on those projectors, TI is able to achieve even greater perceived on-screen resolution with this 1080p DMD. They do this by flashing four optically shifted 1080p frames on screen, compared to just two from competing pixel-shift implementations. This, in effect, creates a single native 4K image on screen. This can be more easily achieved with a DLP DMD due to the mirrors having extremely fast response time and a unique ability to optically tilt light, something LCD-based technologies can't do. This offers far more possibilities in how pixels can be shifted, especially when combined with the specialized optical glass actuator that all pixel-shift implementations use. Until TI decides they want a true native 4K DMD in the consumer space, companies like BenQ, who rely on TI for designing and manufacturing display devices for their projectors, must hold fast and use pixel-shifting as a stop-gap technology.

The Hookup
As far as home theater projectors go, the HT3550 is compact and light. The chassis measures in at just 5.0 inches by 14.96 inches by 10.35 inches and weighs only 9.3 pounds. It's flexible enough to allow for table-top, ceiling, and rear-screen installation, build quality is excellent for its price, and the matte white finish should look good in most rooms. BenQ claims the HT3550 allows up to 2,000 lumens of image brightness with the included 240-watt lamp. The lamp is rated for 4,000 hours in Normal lamp mode and 15,000 hours in SmartEco mode. The supplied remote control is ergonomic, well laid out, and backlit for convenience.

Connections on the back of the projector are the two aforementioned full bandwidth HDMI 2.0b ports, an RS-232C port, a 12-volt trigger port, two USB ports, an S/PDIF optical digital audio port, and an analog 3.5-millimeter analog audio port. The USB ports differ in their functionality, with one of them meant to power a streaming device like a Roku or Chromecast, while the other is meant to be used for local media playback from either a hard drive or flash drive.

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The HT3550 is one of the first XPR-based DLP projectors I've come across that supports 3D, and all major consumer 3D formats are supported. Just remember that you'll need DLP Link 3D glasses to properly sync to the projector if you plan on watching 3D content.

As this is a single-chip DLP projector, color needs to be provided sequentially to the DMD. To facilitate this, the HT3550 is using a six-segment RGB-RGB color wheel. Unlike some of the other color wheel configurations typically found near this price point, an RGB-RGB color wheel boosts color saturation performance and helps to cut down on the dreaded rainbow color breakup artifact common to most budget-oriented DLP projectors. In my testing, I found this to be true. BenQ claims the color wheel included inside the HT3550 is able to cover the entire REC709 color gamut natively, something the HT2550 couldn't do. As mentioned above, for Ultra HD/HDR video, a color filter can be placed within the light engine to boost color saturation up to a claimed 95 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut.

The HT3550 includes support for HDR10 and Hybrid Log-Gamma HDR formats. The projector can also automatically detect an HDR image and change picture modes to correctly display this content. Furthermore, the projector allows you to adjust the HDR image within the menu system via a tone map adjustment slider.

The HT3550 has both a SmartEco lamp dimming mode and a physical iris in the lens that can be enabled to boost contrast performance, though only one can be enabled at a time. Both of these options work in a similar way by modulating how much light either enters or leaves the light engine, which helps boost on/off contrast performance past what the projector can do natively. So, when a movie scene gets dark, these systems will dynamically adjust light output to aid contrast and black level.

Due to the way the pixel-shifting XPR system works, there is an inherent high-pitched noise when the optical glass actuator is moving. For those sensitive to this noise, BenQ have given owners the option to manually disable XPR by choosing Silence mode in the Display submenu. When this mode is engaged, all content will be scaled to 1080p. In my testing, I didn't find the noise coming from the projector to be particularly annoying, but your mileage may vary. I would imagine an annoyance to this noise will depend on how close you sit to the projector. 

BenQ_HT3550_1.jpgSetting up the HT3550 can be very tricky, especially for those unfamiliar with projectors. Several factors inherent to the HT3550 need to be taken into consideration for potential buyers. The projector has a relatively short throw range at only 1.13 to 1.47:1. For context, I own a ten-foot wide screen, which means placement of this projector can only be 11.3 to 14.7 feet away from my screen. A second factor potential buyers need to take into consideration is the image offset and lens shift capabilities this projector has. The HT3550 has 100 percent image offset, which means the projected image will be 100 percent below the center of the lens in image height. However, with the included manual vertical lens shift, you can adjust this offset by ten percent. This means the HT3550 must be placed at least level with the top of your screen, but not more than ten percent higher than your screen's height. No horizontal lens shift is included, so the lens will have to be dead center with your screen in order to properly fill it with an image.

BenQ_HT3550_3.jpgOut of the box, Auto-Keystone mode is enabled. In general, keystone software manipulates the image in a detrimental way. For best image quality, I would advise owners to disable this feature and physically adjust the projector to achieve correct geometry on your screen. BrilliantColor is also enabled by default. While BrilliantColor is an easy way for owners to achieve more lumen output, it comes at the expense of color and greyscale accuracy. Like keystone, I would advise owners to disable this feature unless you absolutely need the extra brightness.

You'll find useful settings in the menu system, such as the basic Brightness, Contrast, Color, and Sharpness adjustments, as well as smooth motion creative frame interpolation (called Motion Enhancer 4K), a smart image sharpening tool (called Pixel Enhancer 4K), several preset gamma modes, and access to the built-in media player should you have a flash drive plugged into the back of the projector. The HT3550 also offers two-point greyscale adjustment, as well as a full color management system should you want to calibrate the projector yourself. Additionally, the HT3550 is ISF certified, which allows a calibrator to access the ISF submenu. This type of calibration can lock in picture settings, ensuring that accidental changes to a calibration can't occur.

Click over to Page Two for Performance, Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...

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HTR Product Rating for BenQ HT3550 Projector

Criteria Rating

Performance

4

Value

4

Overall

4

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Performance
With the built-in greyscale and color management system, it's possible to calibrate the HT3550 to a near-reference level of image accuracy. For those who aren't planning to calibrate the projector, I found the Cinema preset picture mode, with the Warm color temperature setting enabled, measured closest to the ideal D65/REC709 standard for SDR content. However, greyscale still had a significant blue shift across all IREs, which could only be corrected with the included two-point calibration controls. Out-of-the-box color accuracy fared much better, with delta errors averaging 4.2 and only 1.1 after calibration. I found the 2.3 gamma setting tracked very close to the reference 2.2 gamma most SDR content adheres to. While BenQ is claiming 100 percent REC709 gamut coverage, I only measured 98 percent in this mode, with green and yellow not quite reaching the saturation requirements to cover the entire triangle.

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You could use the D.Cinema picture preset mode to get full REC709 coverage. This is probably where BenQ's claim of full coverage comes from. To achieve more color saturation, this mode places the P3 color filter in the light path. However, using this filter reduces light output by almost 30 percent, but also, the extra color saturation this filter provides past REC709 is wasted on REC709 content. When you consider Cinema mode gets extremely close to completely covering the REC709 triangle, I don't think the reduction in lumen output that comes with D.Cinema mode is worth it.

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The HT3550 has a dedicated HDR picture preset mode which the projector automatically switches to anytime it receives an HDR flag. You're also locked into this mode when an HDR flag is received, so this is the only mode in which you can calibrate for HDR10. Like Cinema mode, HDR mode had a blue shift in greyscale that needed to be calibrated out. Color accuracy, again, fared better, with average delta errors of 4.8 out of the box and 1.7 after calibration. This mode takes advantage of the P3 color filter, and after calibration, I measured it to cover 91.3 percent. Despite it not quite reaching the manufacturer's specified claim, this level of performance still places the HT3550 in the same league as some of the far more expensive Sony and JVC native 4K projectors, which themselves measure in around 90 percent.

Image brightness on the HT3550 will vary depending on the type of content you're watching and the image preset mode you choose. BenQ claims up to 2,000 lumens of light output from this projector, and when using the Lamp Native color temperature setting, it can get you close to that number. However, in this mode, the image has a significant green tint that should be avoided if you value image accuracy. With the lens at maximum zoom, I measured 603 REC709 calibrated lumens in Cinema mode. For HDR10 content, I measured 430 calibrated P3 lumens in HDR mode. This drop in light output is due to the forced use of the P3 color filter, which sacrifices light output to boost color saturation. gamma_HT3550.jpg

Contrast performance will also vary depending on the settings you've chosen in the menu system. Disabling both of the dynamic contrast systems, I measured native on/off contrast of the projector to be 528:1. Opting to enable the dynamic iris set to High mode, I measured 1,382:1 dynamic on/off contrast. Switching to the SmartEco lamp dimming dynamic contrast system, I measured 2,200:1 on/off dynamic contrast. Taken at face value, you might assume using SmartEco would be the dynamic contrast system to use with this projector. However, in use with everyday video content, I found SmartEco had a tendency to clip highlights within the image to a very noticeable degree when the content got dark. When this happens, the image can take on a harsh digital appearance. Because SmartEco has a more aggressive contrast multiplier, gamma needs to be more aggressively adjusted, which causes the clipping.

To give an example of what I mean, about an hour into the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Blu-ray, our protagonist, Bilbo, goes after a few trolls that have stolen some ponies. In this scene, there's a wide shot of him walking into the woods where he's lit by nothing but moonlight.

With SmartEco enabled, Bilbo's white shirt loses all detail and becomes a swath of all-white sameness due to clipping. Switching back over to the dynamic iris, we still get a boost in contrast performance but with those details unobscured by a less-aggressive form of gamma adjustment. Because of this, my recommendation would be to use the dynamic iris instead of SmartEco.

As these DMDs continue to get smaller and smaller, physical limitations due to the size of the mirrors hinder potential contrast performance. Even compared to the recent 0.66-inch XPR DMD, contrast performance has taken a step backwards. Not all is bad, though; even with up to 2,200:1 dynamic contrast, a lot of the content I watched still had excellent dynamic range and apparent contrast. I found most broadcast TV and sports looked excellent on the HT3550, as that type of content doesn't typically require high-contrast performance for it to look great. It's only when content gets dark that you start to see the limited contrast performance this new 0.47-inch DMD has. You'll need to step up to a 3LCD or older generation DLP projector if you're after more contrast near the HT3550's price point.

While contrast performance may not be a strong suit of this DMD, onscreen resolution definitely is. BenQ has opted to use an all-glass, ten-element lens with low-dispersion coatings to help minimize chromatic aberrations. This lens, combined with this pixel-shifting DMD, does an amazing job getting 4K resolution onscreen. Pulling up the R.Masicola Sharpness and Overscan 4K single pixel test pattern revealed remarkable performance from this non-native-4K DMD. It couldn't render the pattern perfectly like JVC's native 4K models can, but performance here beats out every other projector I've personally seen, including the Sony native 4K models, which, for some reason, have issues displaying single-pixel information properly. This level of performance means you should be able to extract nearly all the information found on UltraHD Blu-ray (and other native 4K source material) in exquisite detail. Compared to my reference JVC DLA-RS2000, I couldn't discern a meaningful difference in resolution and apparent sharpness with any of the Ultra HD Blu-rays I used to compare. It's really that good.

With most HDR10 content mastered for 1,000 nits of peak brightness or more, the limited image brightness the HT3550 has can pose a problem for most people using it with a projection screen of typical size. BenQ has provided a tone map adjustment slider that can be used to compensate for this. You'll find this tone map slider in the menu system when the HDR picture mode is in use, labeled HDR Brightness. On my ten-foot-wide unity-gain screen, I opted to use the +2 setting for most of the HDR10 content I watched, which is the lowest tone map setting this projector offers. Using this setting subjectively increases overall image brightness and gave most of the HDR10 content I watched a boost in apparent dynamic range. With that said, some high-nit portions of HDR10 content did show clipping due to the aggressive tone map.

For instance, the glowing orb that represents the eye of the seven deadly sins in the opening scene of the film Shazam (2019) on Ultra HD Blu-ray, lost a bit of detail in the high-nit portion of the orb. Personally, I'm fine with this type of clipping if it means the rest of the image looks subjectively better overall. I think most others will too. BenQ has found a good compromise with this tone map software that keeps a good amount of dynamic range, color saturation, and subjective image brightness.

Gamers will be happy to find out that the HT3550 allows for a 120 Hz refresh rate input with a 1080p signal. Considering this is a DLP projector, native motion performance is excellent, so combined with the high refresh rate, gamers should have a decent advantage in games when it comes to motion resolution. I measured input lag to be 50 milliseconds with my Leo Bodnar input lag tester. While not class leading, this should be low enough for moszt non-competitive gamers.

Throughout my time with the HT3550, I opted to use the built-in speakers when playing back the demo material I use to test projectors. While the pair of five-watt speakers can't compete with a real set of surround sound speakers, they'll do an adequate job for those looking to use them for an outdoor movie night. Dialogue intelligibility was quite good and I didn't notice any major artifacts in the sound, even with the volume cranked up.

The Downside
The limiting factors in how and where this projector can be set up may be a deal-breaker for some. This model is meant for home theater, and that typically necessitates a longer throw-ratio lens, allowing owners to place the projector farther back from their screen. The shorter throw of the lens means, more than likely, the projector will need to be placed close to the viewing position. While the fans on this projector aren't particularly loud, the close proximity to the viewing position may mean the projector will be audible during quieter scenes in movies and television shows.

Contrast performance isn't competitive compared to some other projectors near its price point. While not completely BenQ's fault, the new 0.47-inch DMD severely limits potential contrast performance. This may be another deal-breaker for some who were hoping to see more competitive contrast performance. With that said, the HT3550 should be close in performance with other projectors using this same DMD.

Comparisons and Competition
Those looking for a good DLP alternative to the HT3550 should look into Optoma's UHD60. The UHD60 fixes a few of the complaints I have with the HT3550, namely a longer throw-ratio lens, more vertical lens shift, and better contrast performance. However, the UHD60 employs the older 0.66-inch XPR DMD, which means it won't be able to match the HT3550's stellar on-screen resolution performance. 

In the 3LCD camp, Epson's Home Cinema 4000 is a good alternative to look into. Image brightness, lens quality, placement flexibility, and contrast performance will be a decent step ahead of the HT3550. However, the Epson only flashes its 1080p panels twice for pixel-shift, compared to the HT3550's four, to make a quasi-4K image on-screen, which places the Epson quite a bit behind the HT3550 if the 4K source material has a lot of image detail.

Conclusion
As I said in the introduction, the HT3550 has a combination of features and performance that would have been unheard of at this price point just a few short years ago. This is the first non-native 4K projector I've come across that gave my JVC DLA-RS2000 a run for its money with onscreen image resolution. Considering the huge price difference between these projectors, it makes the HT3550 all the more impressive. The extra color saturation of the HT3550 gives it a distinct advantage over other projectors near its price point. When you factor in the growing number of Ultra HD Blu-ray and 4K internet streaming services available that can take advantage of these strengths, I can give this projector a little leeway for its lackluster contrast performance.

Additional Resources
• Visit the BenQ website for more product information.
• BenQ Announces the HT2550 HDR-Capable UHD DLP Projector at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit our Projector category page to read reviews of similar products. 


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