We recently looked at several 4K projectors to identify the best (relatively) inexpensive light cannons for your viewing pleasure, and found that the Epson Home Cinema 5050UB provided the best quality and feature set for a reasonable cost. But we have a challenger! The BenQ CinePrime HT3550 is designed to knock off the champ with similar performance and a much lower cost!
Enter the BenQ CinePrime HT3550
BenQ has been making projectors for over 10 years. Early experience with BenQ from 7 or 8 years ago indicated that they were often overestimating their lumens by a fair bit. No matter how high of a max lumen level they advertised, it always seemed that the picture was just not bright enough. Low-lumen-level issues were compounded by poor contrast and dynamic range that plagued most projectors of that era.
However, times have changed. The consumer experience improvements that BenQ has brought to the table in the last few years are substantial, as real-world performance has been increasingly prioritized across the product line. The HT3550 embodies the modern vision that BenQ has for its consumers. With the HT3550, BenQ has engineered a projector with a feature set designed to punch well above the weight of its price tag.
The HT3550 is a DLP projector that presents a 4K UHD 3840 x 2160 (2160p) picture consisting of 8.3M pixels and 1.07 billion colors using a Texas Instruments .47-inch DLP chip and a 6-segment RGBRGB color wheel. As always with DLP, the color wheel may cause some folks to observe a rainbow effect in some images. With HDR10 and HLG support as well as a super-wide DCI-P3 color space, color reproduction is accurate, rich, and dramatic. To achieve those 8.3M pixels, the HT3550 employs pixel-shifting technology. While the image may not be a native 4K, the human eye generally can’t tell the difference.
With 2,000 ANSI lumens and a contrast ratio of 30,000:1, it is easy to get a bright and detailed picture with minimal tweaks to settings. The HT3550 employs a Dynamic Iris mechanism between the projector lamp and the lens to achieve this high contrast. For bright images, the iris opens wider to allow more light through. For darker images, the iris closes to reduce the amount of light projected, ensuring that a flood of extra light won’t wash out the details on a darker image, thus improving overall contrast.
A fairly short throw ratio means that it is possible to project a 100″ picture from just over 8 feet to just under 11 feet. Vertical lens shift is also provided, which helps with dialing in vertical keystone. The manual controls for vertical lens shift, zoom, and focus are simple enough to use to get a decent picture. Unfortunately, horizontal lens shift is not included, which limits the ability to correct imperfect picture geometry when the projector lens is not perfectly centered on the screen. In this case, the lack of a horizontal lens shift resulted in a slightly “taller” image on the right half of the screen.
With the 245W lamp rated at 4,000 hours (normal), 10,000 hours (Economic), and 15,000 hours (SmartEco), the HT3550 can serve as a daily driver of the primary video entertainment source. Viewers can use the projector an average of four hours per day for almost three years in the brighter “normal” lamp mode before the bulb would need to be replaced. Light leakage was minimal, with a bit leaking out around the lamp fan shrouds. It isn’t enough, however, to be distracting. Cooling the lamp in normal mode results in a reasonable 30dBA hum. Unless there is total quiet in the room, the viewer forgets that the unit is making any noise is all.
BenQ wisely includes a decent of speakers built into the projector case. The sound from these speakers is sufficient for a smaller theater room or even projecting movie night for the kids in the backyard.
Comprehensive Connection Options
The HD3550 includes a flexible array of connection ports, which includes the HDMI-1 port that supports Audio Return Channel (ARC). This makes it possible to plug a 4K 60Hz HDR video device directly into HDMI-2, while sending digital audio data to a surround sound receiver or soundbar through the HDMI cable connected to HDMI-1, as long as the receiver or soundbar also supports ARC.
The HD3550 also includes a number of other useful ports, including a 2.5A USB port that can drive just about any streaming device powered by a 5v USB cable. This includes the Amazon Fire Stick 4K, Roku Streaming Stick+ 4K, and Google Chromecast. The HD3550 also includes video playback support for a multitude of audio and video file types via the USB3.0 media reader port. Finally, digital coaxial and optical SPDIF ports are available for yet another way to get a digital audio signal to a receiver or soundbar.
Unboxing and Initial Setup
With a full Saturday allocated to working with the many bells and whistles on the HT3550, it was time to go to work. I was quickly able to get a pretty great picture going by plugging a Roku Streaming Stick+ directly into the projector’s HDMI-2 slot. The audio signal was sent via HDMI-1 over a 50-foot HDMI cable to a Denon surround sound receiver that supports ARC. Selecting “TV Audio” on the Denon resulted in glorious Dolby Digital sound filling the theater room.
Flipping through the various picture modes of Bright, Vivid TV, Cinema, D. Cinema, and User, it is immediately apparent that Cinema mode presents the best picture right out of the box. This is not surprising, as BenQ calibrates the projector at the factory. They even include a Factory Calibration Report that shows the Color Gamut and Color Gamma results from this process.
In order to test more video sources, I used a Denon surround sound receiver connected to HDMI-1 via the long HDMI cable to switch between multiple HDMI sources, such as Xbox, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Fire Stick 4K. This presented a noticeable and dramatic issue with the picture. Occasionally, the left 50% of the screen would have a distinctly different brightness level than the right 50% of the screen.
After consulting with BenQ, it turns out that the 6-year-old, 50-foot HDMI cable used to carry the video signal simply didn’t have the chops to properly service the projector. The lesson here is to be sure that your source HDMI cable supports 4K @ 60Hz as well as HDR over the length of the cable you choose. You should be using an HDMI 2.0b cable.
Without this, the HT3550 may experience synchronization issues between the left half and right half of the projected image. Armed with this new information, the Roku stick was returned to the HDMI slot on the projector for most of the testing process.
Dialing in a Preferred Configuration
Eager to see the HD3550 in all its glory, it was time to fire up Aquaman via the Vudu app on the Roku. Once the video started playing, the projector automatically switched from Cinema to HDR10 mode. Fast-forwarding to some colorful underwater scenes led to a WOW moment as the picture lept to life! Reds and greens pop, and skin tones were stunning with absolutely zero adjustments! Contrast levels on the darker scenes are excellent at default settings and even better when the HDR Brightness is bumped up to +1. However, the brighter image comes at the cost of a small amount of color saturation. The camera used to take the previous image doesn’t do justice to the color and detail of the viewing experience.
When configuring Dynamic Iris, the contrast change is not immediately obvious. But after setting Dynamic Iris to “high” and watching the results for a bit, the system is clearly adjusting the light output when switching from very bright to very dark scenes. A bit of an iris flicker can be noticed from time to time in certain scene lighting. But, most of the time, the transition is very smooth and imperceptible. This level of unobtrusiveness allows for a continuous enjoyable viewing experience. Setting Dynamic Iris to “low” virtually eliminates iris flicker, while ensuring plenty of contrast. Even with the Dynamic Iris turned completely off, the HT3550 presents good contrast and dynamic range in low-light scenes.
For non-HDR content, Cinema is the mode that most users likely intend to use. Bright mode is great if you have a lot of ambient light flooding your screen, but the colors are noticeably washed out. Vivid TV mode actually does a decent job of approximating HDR mode for non-HDR content, once the color levels are adjusted a bit. The picture started out with a blue-green hue that had to be tweaked a bit to achieve balance. After the minor color modifications, non-HDR sporting events look quite good in Vivid TV mode.
The D. Cinema (Dark Cinema) mode is supposed to be the closest thing you can get to an actual theater experience. It is meant to be viewed in complete darkness with no ambient light. Even with complete control over all light in the test environment, it seems that D. Cinema doesn’t have enough brightness (i.e., lumens) for comfortable viewing. It is difficult to make out finer details in anything other than bright scenes, which quickly becomes distracting. To be fair, this subjective opinion may have been influenced by the fact that most of the previous testing time had been spent in Cinema and HDR10 mode, which are very bright and have excellent dynamic range.
Sports, Gaming, and 3D
The HD3550 review unit conveniently arrived just 10 days before SuperBowl LIV, which was streamed in 4K HDR on the Fox Sports App (available on the Roku). With almost 20 people crammed into the theater room to watch the Chiefs vs 49ers battle it out, so it was an opportunity to get plenty of additional feedback on the projector. Using four Philips LED Dimmable recessed lights set at 20%, there is plenty of light in the room for eating chicken wings while the HD3550 presented the game in beautiful 4K HDR on 100- inches of projection surface. Several party members commented on the incredible detail and colorful picture. Even with the intentional ambient light, the game was clear and bright.
As a daily driver, the HD3550 can also handle gaming requirements. Input lag when playing Xbox is almost always imperceptible. There were no issues fighting bad guys on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and alien landscapes on No Man’s Sky were simply gorgeous. To ensure close combat wouldn’t be an issue, a 17-year old gamer was brought in to spend some time with Fortnite. He experienced no noticeable lag issues and really enjoyed the 100 inches of big screen provided by the BenQ projector.
It is somewhat rare to find a 4K projector that also supports 3D. These days, 3D is almost relegated to gimmick status, which is a shame because there are a lot of movies that provide a superior viewing experience when presented in 3D. The HD3550 does support 3D and looks really great.
Spending some quality time with Tron Legacy, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Batman v Superman, it iwas really enjoyable to watch these movies in 3D on the BenQ. While the picture from Tron and Batman v Superman were darker than I would have liked, the DLP-Link 3D glasses used for the test were a contributing factor. Still, it would be nice to have better control over gamma and brightness, similar to the HDR Brightness gain, when in 3D picture mode.
Changing between video sources, source resolutions, and picture modes can take quite a long time. At least twice, the projector was not able to lock onto the video signal even with the Roku plugged directly into the projector. This is certainly not desirable, but it seems to be a rare occurrence and is easily remedied. The first instance occurred when switching from HDMI-1 to HDMI-2. In this case, the fix was to simply remove and reinsert the Roku stick into the HDMI-2 port on the projector.
In the second instance, the HT3550 was unable to lock onto the Roku signal at power up. Before blaming the projector, it’s important to always hit a few buttons on the remote control of your video source. Some video sources go into a “sleep mode” where there is no video signal. But this was not the case with the Roku, as I had hit the Home button a few times to ensure the device was sending a signal before the projector tried to lock onto one. In this case, I needed to use the buttons directly on the projector to shut it down safely. Once it had gone through the cool down cycle and powered down, I turned it back on. This time, it had no trouble locking onto the signal.
It is never a good idea to just cut power to a projector. The projector bulb is extremely hot and must be allowed to go through the cool down cycle. Otherwise, the bulb may experience premature failure.
Manufacturer specs are always helpful during initial research, and the BenQ HT3550 clearly doesn’t disappoint with plenty of fancy features and solid numbers around lumens and dynamic range. However, numbers don’t tell the whole story. When viewed in person, this projector is greater than the sum of the individual specifications. BenQ is clearly succeeding in its mission to impress the end user with the overall perceived beauty.
As for whether or not it beats the Epson Home Cinema 5050UB, that’s largely dependent on the viewer’s priorities. The Epson is the total package when it comes to all things image rendering in the sub-$3,000 range. It simply does everything well. But if you need to get into the sub-$1,500 price point, and you are looking for an excellent projector that gets VERY CLOSE to the quality of the Epson 5050UB, you can’t go wrong with the BenQ HT3550. Frankly, the Epson 5050UB is probably not $1,000 better than the BenQ HT3550!
Here’s What We Like
- Bright, high contrast 4K HDR picture
- Factory calibrated 100% Rec.709 color accuracy
- Impressive feature list for the price point
And What We Don't
- No horizontal lens shift to improve geometry
- Occasional issues locking into a video source