Projectors under $1,000 used to be dumpster fires. Color accuracy was awful, black levels would be better described as gray levels, light output was mediocre, and input lag was often atrocious. But as happens with almost everything (except the economy), the technology from the top has slowly trickled down to more inexpensive models. It's now completely reasonable, and expected, to be able to bring home a sub-$1,000 projector and get some decent performance right out of the box. Sometimes it's even better than decent and, dare I say, good?
The BenQ TH685 ($788.99 at Staples) is one that might even qualify for "great" status. Out-of-the-box color accuracy is very good for its price range; its light output is nice and bright, making it useable in a setup with some ambient light; and input lag is low enough that the vast majority of gamers won't feel it. The black level isn't exactly reference quality, but three out of four ain't bad.
Output resolution for the TH685 is limited to 1080p, so if you're looking for a 4K projector, this isn't it (it will accept 4K signals, though). But if you're looking for a good 4K projector, you're not getting it for under $1,000 anyway. In fact, you'll be looking at almost twice the price of the BenQ TH685 for a worthwhile 4K projector. Honestly, for the majority of gaming right now, 1080p is more than fine. And even with next-gen consoles coming out this winter, 1080p will continue to be more than fine for a lot of gamers.
The BenQ TH685 has a throw ratio of 1.13 to 1.46 and zoom ratio of 1.3x. For a 100-inch screen diagonal (like mine), it needs to be placed between 8.18 and 10.6 feet from the screen. There's a manual zoom and focus on the projector, and a vertical digital lens shift of up to five degrees in either direction (always best to avoid this type of adjustment, if possible, as it can lead to artifacts). Ideal height placement is to have the projector lens just below the edge of the screen (or above if you're putting it on a ceiling mount).
There are two different display modes for the on-screen menu: Basic and Advanced. Advanced is the typical box with rows of adjustment options that can extend three menus deep. The layout and nesting are relatively straightforward if you've had any experience with displays, and you'll find access to a color management system where you can adjust RGBCMY hue, saturation, and gain, as well as white RGB gain (no bias controls, though).
But what's nice is that once you've made any in-depth image adjustments, you can switch to the Basic menu, which has a simplified column of oval bubble-ish buttons that appear on the left side of the screen for Picture Mode, Sound Mode, Volume, Mute, Fast Mode, 3D Mode, 3D Sync Invert, and Settings. Selecting Settings leads to a 3x3 bubble grid secondary menu in the middle of the screen, with options like toggling a test pattern, seeing projector information, or changing the menu format back to the Advanced version. That primary Basic menu is a nice option to default to once all of your picture modes are dialed in to keep things simple.
The number of picture tweaks I did was minimal. Sharpness was, as usual, set too high out of the box, so I dialed it down. Brilliant Color adjusts the white part of the image, so a setting of 10 (its default on a scale of 0-10) makes the overall image look the brightest. This does come at a cost to color accuracy (see Performance below). I made changes depending on the viewing environment. Whenever I watched SDR content on the TH685 during the day, especially with curtains open, I kept Brilliant Color at 10 to help keep the image bright and vibrant. At night, I'd bring it down to 5. With HDR content I wouldn't touch it (keeping the default value of 10) and would only adjust HDR Brightness slider that adjusts the overall brightness of the HDR image. I'd toggle between a setting of 1 or 0 (on a scale of -1 to 2) for overall darker films and overall brighter films, respectively.
Given the TH685's $799, the extra cost of a calibration (which could be more than 25 percent of the cost of the projector, depending on where you live) might seem a bit much. I completely understand that viewpoint and, while there are color management system controls that can do a good job calibrating, I'm going to look at this from the perspective of how the projector performs out of the box.
Not unsurprisingly, the most accurate of the picture modes is Cinema, although that comes with come caveats that I alluded to earlier and we'll discuss in a minute. Color balance is very good in default settings – full white is a little green, while in the mid-tone grays it can be a tad purple – and the DeltaE numbers are still 3 or below. (DeltaE is a number used to indicate how far off a measurement is from being perfect. The general target for a reading where it is difficult to see a discrepancy without scrutiny is 3.0 or below, with a value of 1.0 or below being virtually perfect and indistinguishable from reference. Above 3.0 and we can start to see inaccuracies.) The average grayscale DeltaE – from a 20-percent gray field to a full white – is only 3.3 and the average color temperature is 6457K (the target is 6500K). Gamma tracks almost spot on 2.2 (the default setting for Cinema picture mode) with a spike at a full white field. There's some grayscale inaccuracy in the mid-tone grays (from 30 to 60 percent brightness) where the gray is a little brighter than it should be.
The TH685 covers 92.5 percent of the Rec. 709 color space (this is slightly below the 95 percent published by BenQ, but within tolerance). But here's where our Brilliant Color discussion needs to happen. The DeltaE numbers for the BenQ TH685 color points with Brilliant Color set to 10 are off the charts, although you might not see that by looking at the CIE 1976 diagram. When Brilliant Color is at 10, the white brightness is turned up and is actually very accurate in measurement. But the compromise of white getting brighter – along with the overall image – is that each color's luminance is way under target. On the TH685, this hits green, cyan, and magenta hardest, with DeltaE values of 10.1 and higher. That said, you'll get a punchier image with Brilliant Color at 10 that will hold up against ambient light for daytime viewing or if you have some lamps on.
On the flip side, when you turn Brilliant Color down to 0, the color DeltaE get significantly better, with values of 3.3 or below, because the color luminance is closer to its target. The one color exception on the TH685 is red that gets too bright and is undersaturated. White also gets too warm at this setting. If I'm not combating too much ambient light, I found that a setting around 5 was a good compromise. Most colors were still good, as was white, although cyan and green were missing a bit of vibrancy.
Numbers are interesting, but it's more important how a projector looks with some real content. And considering the TH685 is marketed as a console gaming projector, I started with Outer Worlds. I've spent most of my time with this title on my computer, so when I started a game on the Xbox, it was brand-spanking new and a bit refreshing to start over. This also gave me the chance to try out the 120Hz refresh rate option. Terra 2, one of the game's main environments, has a colorful and vibrant ecosystem, and the colors popped nicely via the TH685. Motion with the 120Hz setting was overall very smooth, and response time was very quick, but I did notice a slight amount of screen tearing, primarily along the top of some rock formations as I was panning by.
It should be noted that I had fast mode on for all of my gaming. With a Leo Bodnar lag tester, I was able to measure an input lag of only 16.7ms (at 60Hz). While there are some displays that have an input lag of half that, it's a nice low number for a projector (and at 120Hz, BenQ says the TH685 input lag is 8.3ms, which would be expected at double the refresh rate over my test). It also means that the BenQ TH685 is fast enough for anyone that might be playing against other players in Overwatch. With fast mode turned off, though, input lag jumps up to 33.6ms. Really not that terrible a number (there are plenty of projectors out there with input lag triple that), but you still might feel it, especially if you go head to head with someone.
Games in HDR looked pretty good, too. My HDR go-to for a while now has been Sea of Thieves. The waves can look incredible, and the definition in the sun's corona is beautiful on the best displays. With the TH685, the depth to the waves is there in the crest of the white caps that crash against the ship, and the sun is bright, but you do miss some of the definition to the corona.
For a projector at this price, that's actually still pretty good performance. I've found that the definition around the corona is a difficult HDR effect to display, especially for projectors. I usually only see decent definition on more expensive projectors (or televisions).
Of course, the decision to call this a "Gaming" projector is mostly a matter of marketing (and, to be fair, its low input lag). There's nothing to keep you from using it with movies and TV shows, as well (or exclusively, for that matter). Thankfully, the movie-watching experience was similar to what I experienced with games. Darker HDR films like Blade Runner 2049 and Solo benefited from having the HDR Brightness at 1 to help with some of the darker detail (2 made it look a little too washed out for my taste). Detail was very good for a 1080p projector. There were times when things could look a little soft – closeups of Ryan Gosling's face, for instance – but I never found myself overtly wanting a 4K replacement.
There's a bit of light spillage around the screen with the TH685. During the day it's of no concern, but when the sun goes down and the lights turn off for movies, it can be seen easily. My Stewart screen's border is 3.25 inches, and I can still see some light spillage around it. That's a pretty wide border, so chances are you'll have to deal with it. It's not the biggest deal (especially during the day), but the extra light on the side of my screen did occasionally pull my attention from what I was watching when my room was dark. The black level is also a bit high, so there's some loss of detail in dark parts of the image.
Projectors in general still don't do a great job at HDR. They just don't have the light output for it to make it dynamic enough, and many have problems in the midtones. The TH685, of course, isn't immune to any of this. The luminance is off in darker gray areas, and because of it there's a loss of detail. The adjustments to HDR Brightness can help, but it still doesn't get you all the way there. And honestly, I'm not a fan of having to change settings from movie to movie. I do it, but I don't love it.
There are a bunch of gaming-focused projectors available for under $1,000, but the most direct comparison to the BenQ TH685 is the Optoma GT1080HDR (look for an upcoming review). They are both DLP projectors with a lamp light source, put out relatively the same number of lumens (although manufacturer numbers should be taken with a grain of salt), cost around $800, and have impressive sub-10ms input lag at 120Hz. The main difference, and it is significant, is their throw. For many, the BenQ throw ratio might put placement right in the middle of their couch (it would for me if I didn't have it on a ceiling mount). The Optoma is a short-throw projector that only needs 3.66 feet for a 100-inch diagonal. If you have space on a coffee table, it might be the better solution for your space. Optoma has another gaming projector – the HD146X – with similar specs, although it's a couple hundred dollars cheaper and has a longer throw.
Epson has a few options – such as the Home Cinema 1060, Home Cinema 2100, and Home Cinema 2150 – but their overall light output is going to be less than the BenQ and Optoma projectors, making them more suitable for rooms where the ambient light can be controlled. Their input lag is also a bit higher than the BenQ (although still under 30ms). Epson in general also has very good color accuracy out of the box, and I'd assume that these models would have similarly good performance relative to their price point.
The BenQ TH685 does a lot of things right for a projector in its price range. For any daytime viewing, there's plenty of light output for a great image. The tradeoff – as with any bright projector at this relatively low price point – is a higher black level. If your room has much light streaming in, as mine does when the curtains are open, it's a worthwhile compromise. The low input lag means gaming is quick and responsive, keeping you at the top of the frag list. As long as the throw ratio works for your space, the TH685 is a great entry 1080p gaming projector.
• Visit the BenQ website for more product information.
• BenQ HT3550 Projector Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
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