I've had the opportunity to spend the last two weeks checking out a pre-production sample of the new BenQ HT3550 True 4K Home Cinema Projector. Please consider this a preview or 'pre-review' as the firmware on my sample is not the same as the one that will ship with the HT3550 when it goes on sale next month. By the time this review will be posted my sample will be en route to receive a rework and update. Once I receive the projector back I will update this space with any changes necessary.
EDIT 3/11/2019: My HT3550 sample has received a 'rework' the first week of March to bring it's performance and firmware in-line with the final production model. I have updated my review accordingly.
As always, please feel free to post any questions or comments below and thanks for reading!
2. Hardware Tour
3. Features and Performance
5. Viewing Experience
BenQ has long had a reputation for making high performance, high value projectors. A year ago they introduced the HT2550, the first 4K projector to retail for less than $1500. While the HT2550 certainly gets credit for pushing 4K into a new realm of affordability, in many ways, it was representative of the entry level 4K segment it effectively launched-- Lacking many of the features and some of the performance that similarly priced 1080p projectors had been enjoying up to that point. Since then, the market has been flooded with affordable 4K projectors and it is into this competitive market that BenQ is introducing their latest, the HT3550 True 4K Home Cinema Projector. I've spent the last two weeks with a pre-production HT3550, putting it through it's paces and viewing a wide variety of content in various room conditions. Amazingly, BenQ has managed to significantly improve image performance while introducing a host of exciting new features while not raising the price. The HT3550 will cost just $1499.99 when it launches next month-- the same price the HT2550 sold for just one year ago! This is the first projector below $2000 to offer real (95% coverage) DCI-P3 expanded color gamut support and the first in it's class to offer an Active Iris to improve contrast and blacks. BenQ is also introducing it's new HDR-Pro tone mapping technology with the HT3550 and it's the best implementation of HDR I've yet seen on a projector. As if that wasn't enough, BenQ pre-calibrates each HT3550 that leaves the factory. Let's check it out in more detail below.
2. Hardware Tour
The HT3550 is single chip, True 4K DLP projector with an RGBRGB colorwheel rated at 2000 ANSI lumens. By now you probably all know the drill, the HT3550 utilizes Texas Instrument's XPR pixel shifting technology to achieve a True 4K UHD resolution of 3840x2160. What you might be surprised to hear is the HT3550 uses a new version of Texas Instrument's ubiquitous .47" DMD that… wait for it… finally eliminates the grey border that has been a fixture of affordable 4K DLPs for the past year. Hurray! While I was on record saying that some of the outcry over this artifact *may* have been slightly exaggerated, I'll be the first to say that it's a real pleasure to have it gone.
The basic size and shape of the HT3550 should be familiar to anyone who has owned or shopped for a DLP in the past several years. It's a rectangular box-- lens in the front, connections in the back, weighs about 10 lbs. Still, BenQ has added some nice touches both cosmetic and functional that do help to set the HT3550 apart from it's competition. While the external housing is a matte white that resists reflections and finger prints, the face plate is a handsome dark taupe with a brushed metal look that I was surprised to find is actual metal! The lens sits in a recessed aperture cut into the front face plate. BenQ includes a lens cap that attaches to the projector with a string and snaps into place with very little effort. In front of the lens sits a black plastic lens guard that is a functional element to block light from leaking onto the ceiling when mounted (BenQ added this element in response to complaints about the prior HT2550). The lens shift and focus/zoom dials sit beneath a sliding plastic door on the top of the projector. Both sides of the projector have large vents cut into them and I can count three fans drawing air through the chassis (more on that later). In operation, these vents do reveal a fair amount of light from within the projector but, again, BenQ has been careful to ensure that no light is leaking forward. Around back, you'll find possibly the finest looking derriere in all of projector-dom. The entire rear face plate is dominated by a perforated metal speaker grill that matches the color of the front faceplate. BenQ clearly designed the back of the HT3550 with the assumption that it might be used on a coffee table and therefore be visible. The grill hides two 5 watt chamber speakers that do a surprisingly good job of filling a room with sound. All of the HT3550's connections are arranged neatly in a thin strip cut into the center of the grill.
Speaking of connections, the HT3550 comes well equipped with two HDMI 2.0a / HDCP 2.2 ports both of which are capable of accepting 4K @ 60Hz. You'll find a pair of full size USB connections, one for the included media player and firmware updates and the other strictly for power. Another mini USB is included for firmware updates. You get both SPDIF optical and 3.5mm audio out ports. Finally, the HT3550 includes both an RS-232 port and a 12V trigger for those that utilize a home automation system or motorized drop down screen.
The included remote is backlit with a soft orange glow that is perfect for use in a dark room. I have one complaint about the remote and it concerns a button I feel is missing from it but I'll discuss that more in the performance section. In the meantime, I want to thank BenQ for acquiescing to my OCD by finally including a button for 'test pattern' on the remote. And featured prominently in the upper right corner no less!
Lens and Placement
Fans of the W1070 and later HT2050/HT3050 will be happy to hear that BenQ has equipped the HT3550 with a 'shorter' throw of 1.13 - 1.47. This will allow the HT3550 to target a 120" screen in just under 10 feet. Zoom ratio is 1.3X and the projector features a small amount of vertical lens shift. Overall, I had little issue getting the projector aligned and focused but the focus ring is a bit touchier than I'd prefer. I also ran into an issue where the lens shift wheel on my sample had an unusual dead spot in the middle of it’s travel. Again, this didn't impact my ability to align with my screen but was a minor annoyance. As I mentioned above in the introduction my review sample is a very early, pre-production, 'engineering' unit and as such it’s fair to expect some flaws. Still, I contacted BenQ about the problem and they confirmed to me that it was an issue with the batch my sample came from and would be fixed before the HT3550 begins first production.
The lens is a new 10 element all glass design that BenQ says helps contribute to improved contrast and black level performance. The lens on my sample is very good but not at all perfect. Focus is sharp showing only an ever so slight softening at the extreme left/right edges of the screen-- nothing that I would consider objectionable. However, the lens did exhibit what I would consider a higher than expected amount of chromatic aberration. To be fair, I had a very difficult time seeing any evidence of this from my seat and it didn't impact any of my testing.
BenQ has seen fit to include the same auto leveling, vertical keystone feature from the HT2550/TK800. As always, I recommend taking the time to square your projector with the screen to avoid using keystone when possible but's a nice feature in a pinch.
If you've been following any of the 4K DLPs released over this past year you'll know that complaints about noise stemming from the optical actuator have permeated the conversation about these models. I'm happy to report that, just like the elimination of the grey light border, BenQ has eliminated the actuator buzz in the HT3550! Switching the projector between it's default 4K and silent modes-- silent mode disables the pixel shift and thus the optical actuator--and with my ear up close to the projector I could barely detect any audible difference. Very impressive indeed!
Now, none of this is to say that the HT3550 is a silent projector. This is, after all, a very compact DLP. I mentioned earlier that the HT3550 has three fans that draw air through the chassis. My apartment usually hovers around 37dB of ambient noise. Running in Eco lamp power the HT3550 only raised that to 40dB. In normal lamp operation, the volume of fan noise increases significantly and I now measure 44dB of ambient noise in my room. That's not quite loud enough to be distracting but it is loud enough to be noticeable over a quiet movie soundtrack.
Lastly, I received a few questions about iris noise. While the iris does make noise the sound is a quiet crackling that is barely audible. It didn't bother me.
3. Features and Performance
Motion Enhancer (MEMC)
A lot of people are fond of this feature and it's one that has been requested for some time. For the record I've never been a fan of motion interpolation (also referred to as motion estimation/motion compensation) but for this review I did test the function and it works surprisingly well. On the two lower settings I found the smoothing effect to work well enough without introducing noticeable artifacts. I could see myself actually using it for streaming content or TV sports-- From me that's high praise. At the higher settings you get the 'soap opera' effect that some people enjoy but I do not.
3D is all but dead but there continues to be a lot of enthusiasm for the format especially among the projector community. Happily, BenQ is still supporting the format with the HT3550. Some readers will remember that I had some difficulty with 3D on BenQ's two prior 4K projectors, the HT2550 and TK800. I had no such issues this time. The HT3550 detects when a 3D source is present and automatically switches into it's 3D picture preset. 3D is displayed in 1080p only. The image is satisfyingly sharp with no hint of crosstalk. All four of my various brand 3D glasses worked without problems. As will any RGBRGB DLP the image brightness in 3D is definitely more suitable for dark room use.
Built in Speakers
I always suggest pairing your projector with a proper surround sound system but if you're in a pinch or maybe using the HT3550 in another room, BenQ has you covered. The HT3550 contains a pair of rear facing 5 watt chamber speakers. While they won't shake your foundation with deep bass they do a surprisingly good job filling a room with sound and dialogue intelligibility is high. Because they face rearward this obviously works better if you have the projector sitting on a table in front of you as opposed to mounted above or behind your seating.
Input Lag and Gaming
Input lag is 63/64ms. To achieve this measurement you have to make sure all extraneous image processing is turned off. That includes the Active Iris, Motion Enhancer, and setting the 4K pixel enhancer to 0. The HT3550 does not feature any game mode or fast mode to improve performance here further. This is a bit disappointing as this is a full frame slower than last years HT2550 (for the record I clocked that projector using the same Bodnar tester at 45/46ms). Although not totally unexpected-- DLPs equipped with the MEMC Motion Enhancer always seem to score slower here than DLPs without even when the feature is turned off. As such, gaming performance is a bit lackluster which is a shame considering the outstanding visuals. Casual gamers might find the input lag here acceptable but competitive gamers will want to look elsewhere.
I was happy to see the HT3550 has improved on it's predecessors when it comes to handling 24fps film content. The HT3550 is the first 4K DLP I'm aware of to not require a 3:2 pull down meaning it can display movies in the correct cadence with no judder. It does this in a rather clever way: by slowing down the color wheel from 120Hz to 96Hz. It is important to mention here that I noticed no ill effects from this process such as increased rainbow effect or image instability. When compared against my reference for 24fps content, the BenQ HT2050a (yes, really), the Ht3550 largely matches it's performance with only scrolling text appearing a hair smoother on the older projector.
I did throw a wide variety of HD (1080p) content at the HT3550 and my takeaway is the up scaling to 4K is superb. The HT3550 displays HD material beautifully and without the addition of unwanted noise reduction that might obscure detail. In truth, I found myself watching a lot more HD material than I had planned simply because it looked so good.
The HT3550 is a bit like a modern sports car… bear with me here. If you've driven a modern performance car you know there is a setting for everything. You can adjust steering feel, suspension firmness, throttle response, etc. all to get the right performance for the road you're on or the mood you happen to be in at that time. While each of the controls, individually, is not that complex the trick is in just how many different combinations you can achieve simply by adjusting one of two features. See where I'm going here?
The HT3550 offers a LOT of picture controls. And just like my analogous sports car each of the controls by themselves are not difficult to understand what effect they will have on the picture. In fact, you may even wish for slightly more granularity when it comes to certain controls— like the Active Iris, for example (it's on or off, by the way). What is amazing is just how many combinations you can achieve by subtly tweaking different features.
Now, if this sounds daunting to you, don't worry. I understand it's not everyone's idea of a good time to tweak menu settings or to customize picture presets. The good news is BenQ has setup the HT3550 very well to work great out-of-the-box without having to touch a thing besides maybe selecting the right picture mode or maybe the right lamp power for your room/ambient light situation. I'm going to spend the next few paragraphs attempting to explain, as simply as I can, the different options that are available to you. If your eyes have already glassed over I suggest you skip forward to the Viewing Experience section.
The HT3550 comes with 5 selectable SDR picture presets and one HDR preset. The SDR presets are Bright, Vivid, Cinema, D Cinema and User. The HDR10 preset only becomes accessible when feeding the display an HDR10 source. Unlike some projectors the HT3550 will auto-detect HDR content and automatically switch to the HDR mode.
You can break down the different SDR presets by the kind of viewing environment they are intended for. Bright is the requisite high ambient light mode that should only be used as a last resort due to it's strong green tint. Vivid and Cinema are both appropriate for less than ideal rooms or rooms where some ambient light might be present. Both have very good color with Cinema offering a more natural image while Vivid is brighter with enhanced color saturation. D Cinema and User are both appropriate for dark room or theater room viewing. The D Cinema preset is the one that is calibrated from the factory and it's here you'll find the best black levels and color accuracy for SDR content in an appropriately dark cinema environment. All of the modes allow access to adjust basic picture controls such as contrast, brightness, sharpness, etc. as well as access advanced color/gamma controls and customization of the Iris, Brilliant Color setting and lamp power. In addition, BenQ provides a host of other picture enhancements as part of their 'CinemaMaster' suite such color and flesh tone enhancers, 4K pixel enhancer and the motion smoother (MEMC/CFI) feature. There is only one function that is greyed out in the picture menu and that is the Wide Color feature. In Cinema and Vivid is I locked in the off position and in D Cinema and User it is locked in the On position.
As I mentioned, when you feed the HT3550 an HDR10 source it will automatically switch to it's HDR10 picture preset. Out of the box, the HDR10 picture mode is bright and punchy with a more natural image akin to the Cinema setting. There is more than enough output to compete with some ambient light. It should be mentioned here that in this default state, all wide color gamut content will be displayed as Rec. 709. There is only one HDR10 mode so you can't select from different presets like you can with SDR content although you can tailor just about every aspect of the picture as you can with the various SDR modes including the one that was not accessible before: Wide Color.
The Wide Color feature engages and disengages a color filer inside the projector. This filter allows the HT3550 to natively display the DCI-P3 expanded color gamut for richer, truer to life color. I'll get into the effects the filter has more in the Viewing Experience section but in my personal opinion this is a game changer at this price point. However, using the filter does make a significant impact on the HT3550's lumen output. Using a crude lux meter and some calculation it appears the filter costs around 30% of the HT3550's light output. For this reason, use of the filter is recommended only for dark room or theater use.
A quick note about the lamp power settings. There are three settings: Normal, Eco and SmartEco. SmartEco is BenQ's lamp dimming feature but it's important to mention here that turning SmartEco on will disable the Active Iris. You get the choice of lamp dimming or the action of the iris. I love that BenQ gives you a choice here but my guess is the vast majority of users will stick with the iris as it offers the greater benefit to picture quality.
5. Viewing Experience
I started my viewing with the Kingsmen 2: The Golden Circle. This is a fun movie even it misses the mark set by the first film. The UHD Blu-ray is upconverted from a DCI 2K source and yet I wanted to start here for one reason: color. This is a vibrant and colorful movie that I thought should be a good test for the HT3550's DCI-P3 capabilities. Immediately I was struck with just how much better the HT3550 is able to render contrast and blacks than it's predecessor. Early in the film Eggsy confronts Merlin in the bombed out shell of the former Kingsman headquarters. Shadow detail here is excellent and the HT3550 is able to produce a black that actually looks black. Later in the film we're treated to a fly over of the jungle and a pull in on our villain, Julianne Moore's Poppy. Here the advantages of the increased color gamut become obvious. The green of the jungle is lush and much more realistic while the red paint of Poppy's diner gleans in a rich hue simply not possible in Rec 709.
Next I threw on Thor: Ragnarok. I'm going to be honest, at this point I was less interested in viewing serious reference material and more interested in just seeing all the pretty colors the HT3550 is capable of producing. Thor is far from a reference disc but I'm happy I threw it in because it cued me into one of the more massive improvements BenQ has made with this new model. There is a moment early in the film when Thor and Loki attempt to flee their sister Hela by summoning the Bifrost (if you haven't seen the movie the bifrost is a rainbow road in ancient Norse Mythology…anyways) and a fight ensues knocking Thor and Loki into space. While certainly beautiful thanks to the great contrast and color volume, my biggest takeaway was the HT3550's vastly improved motion performance. With all the debris and colors flying past in the background it’s hard for some displays to adequately translate the punching and kicking happening in the foreground. The last time I saw motion clarity like this I was reviewing the HT2050A. With the HT3550, BenQ has reclaimed one of DLPs biggest advantages over competing tech.
At this point it was time to get serious and so I decided to watch the massively underappreciated Bladerunner 2049. Both of the prior discs I watched were upconverted from a DCI 2K source but not this one. Filmed on ARRI Alexa cameras at 3.4K and displaying some of the finest cinematography and lighting in recent memory, this pristine UHD Blu-ray transfer is one of my all time favorite reference discs. My two favorite scenes to reference are the scene where K and Joi are flying over the wasteland in the driving rain and the moment when K and Decker have a drink. The former for the display's ability to render fine detail and the latter to check for proper tone mapping. The TH3550 aced both tests. In the first scene, you can see individual streaks of rain in the sky and water droplets on K's windshield are rendered in precise clarity. In the second, the oppressive orange glow of the irradiated skyline reflects on the actors faces without them appearing too dark while the deep red fabric of the barstools retain their color. This is a testament to BenQ's revised HDR PRO tone mapping. Throughout, contrast and black levels looked great. Even the black bars of the letterbox managed to remain black during scenes of high APL. I should mention here that I had still not seen any pumping artifacts or evidence of the iris in action besides the occasional distant crackle overhead to prove that the iris was indeed working. Really impressive performance here.
Next up was the UHD Blu-ray release of the Dark Crystal. One of my favorite films growing up the Dark Crystal has recently received a brand new digital 4K scan from the original film stock. A lot of people might challenge my assertion that this is reference material simply owing to the fact that this is not always the prettiest movie. In addition the noise present in the original 35mm comes through loud and clear in the transfer. But this is one of the reasons I love 4K. With the extra resolution 4K provides, film can actually look like film. Every detail of the Skeksis puppets, the complexity of Aughra's lab (and her nipples— I never realized she had nipples before— I wish I could go back to a time I didn’t know that) and the texture of Kira's cloak all come through in resounding clarity.
I finished my 4K/HDR testing with the amazing Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2 UHD Blu-ray discs. And, yes, I re-watched all of the episodes. There's not much else I can say about this series that hasn't already been said. The HT3550 handled it with aplomb. I was paying special attention to scenes that had given the prior HT2550 trouble such as the flyover of the icebergs and the scene with the massive waves. These scenes caused the HT2550 to clip detail, washing out the snowy surfaces of the floating ice and obscuring details in the crests of the waves. But the HT3550 never lost track and BenQ's HDR PRO tone mapping proved itself again and again. About mid-way through the Blue Planet series I witnessed my first example of the BenQ struggling with black levels. There is a scene where a mini sub prowls the artic ocean floor with a singular bright spotlight shining in a sea of black. This is a very tough scene and here the HT3550's blacks appeared a bit hazy although they were far from the mushy grey it's predecessor displayed in this same scene.
4K may be all the rage these days but let’s be honest: HD content is ubiquitous and many owners will likely spend just as much time watching 1080p as they will 4K. The HD Blu-ray copy of Oblivion is most certainly reference material and one of the few movies where the HD disc is superior to the UHD disc. Giving the HT3550's calibrated D Cinema mode a spin I can honestly say this is one of the finest experiences I've had watching this film. The HT3550 handles HD up conversion exceedingly well and at several points during the film I was gob smacked by just how much detail I was picking up in 'only' a 1080p release. Color looked spot on and viewed back to back with my THX plasma the HT3550's colors, especially green, appeared a bit more realistic. Contrast sparkled and the black levels were back to looking solidly black.
Next up I checked out the HD Blu-ray release of Avengers: Infinity War. And, yes, before you ask I do own this in UHD but, well, who cares? This offered another great chance to check out the HT3550's up conversion abilities and let's not all pretend that Avengers wasn't one of the most disappointing UHD releases last year (did you know this movie has IMAX scenes? Yeah you wouldn't if you bought the disc). It was here that I ran into the first and only real issue with the Ht3550's iris performance. During several scenes in the movie I would notice the iris seemingly over-reacting briefly resulting in split second of pumping back and forth. I say over reacting because there was really nothing for the iris to be doing during these scenes. They were bright scenes and largely static which is what made the iris' activity all the more unusual. This unfortunately wouldn't be the last time I saw the issue as it popped up again in my viewing of Punisher season 2 on Netflix. It was at this point that I decided to reach out to my contact at BenQ and he informed me that they were aware of it and had already developed a new firmware to tweak the algorithm that manages the iris. I’ll update this space when I receive the revised firmware.
Edit: Since receiving my updated HT3550 the performance of the iris has been markedly improved with the iris action much less invisible in these brighter scenes. Still, my continued testing has shown that the only time I really ever notice the iris is on brighter content that, seemingly, would require less intervention from the iris. Content like sitcoms and cartoons. It was rare enough that I didn't find it distracting but it would have been nice had BenQ included an option to adjust the iris' level of intervention or 'strength' as opposed to a simple on/off. Still, BenQ did include the option to enable lamp dimming which is a viable alternative to the iris for higher APL content. I found myself using the iris for Cinema mode and the SmartEco lamp dimming for Vivid mode.
Razer sharp picture and motion clarity
Excellent color with both Rec. 709 and DCI-P3
Superb HDR tone mapping
Good contrast and solid black levels
What Could Be Better
Fan noise in normal lamp mode
The BenQ HT3550 True 4K Home Cinema Projector packs a dizzying amount of performance and value into a projector costing just $1499.
It's difficult for me to describe just how much I've enjoyed my time with the BenQ HT3550. If you've been on the fence about upgrading to 4K the HT3550 makes a very strong case. It might just be the model you've been waiting for. The HT3550 represents a comprehensive improvement over last years 4K lineup and offers a level of picture quality and refinement that was simply absent before. The inclusion of DCI-P3 color gives the HT3550 legitimate home cinema cred while it's solid contrast and impressive handling of HDR content makes this a benchmark in the segment. It earns my highest recommendation.