BenQ PE7700 Single-chip DLP Projector

While separate projectors and screens are not for everyone, for many of us they define the essence of the true home theater video experience. A big-screen television is fine as far as it goes, and certainly appeals to a wide market. But nothing quite matches the thrill of watching a theater-like image on a really big screen in a darkened room.

We've reviewed a lot of projectors at Ultimate AV for this very reason, and will continue to do so. And while many projectors continue to be pricey, one of the most exciting developments in home theater in the past couple of years is the growing number of relatively affordable projectors—competitive in price with one-piece, big-screen televisions. Now there is a broad choice of projectors at street prices under $4000 that in many respects will equal the performance of the typical $15,000 CRT projector of five years ago. The $2999 BenQ PE7700 is the latest enticing entry in that group.

Zooming In
At a slim 12 pounds the PE7700 looks and feels noticeably less substantial than the last BenQ projector I reviewed, the PE8700+ (and before that the PE8700—see and which is no surprise since the new model is significantly cheaper. But the PE7700 isn't all that different in features, style, and layout. The trim panel that runs from the lens up and over the top of the projector frames a well containing the manual zoom and focus. The other controls are also located on top. Around back are the source inputs, including composite and S-Video, and HDMI. There are two sets of component video inputs, one on RCA jacks, and the other on BNCs. The BNC component input may also be used with RGB sources, including computers, and jacks for Horizontal and Vertical sync are provided.

The projector is equipped with Texas Instruments' HD2+ DLP chip (though not TI's newest DarkChip3). While there is no lens shift control, the ubiquitous digital keystone correction is included. But this is not a high performance substitute for a lens shift—care should be taken to mount the projector at a suitable height to keep keystone distortion to a minimum.

The PE7700's bright, 250W lamp kicks out a lot of heat. In the projector's Economic lamp mode (which I used almost exclusively in my tests) the BenQ is relatively quiet—certainly quieter than the PE8700+. And while a High Altitude mode supposedly kicks the fan up to a higher speed, at my relatively low altitude neither the brighter Full lamp mode nor the High Altitude mode significantly increased the fan noise. Lamp life is rated at 3000 hours in Economic mode.

In addition to the usual Anamorphic, 4:3, and Letterbox aspect ratios, there is also a "Wide" mode—one of those nonlinear squeeze modes designed to stretch a 4:3 image to fit a 16:9 screen with minimal distortion. The stretch is not subtle. "Real" mode maps the image pixel-for-pixel on the screen, with no scaling.

The PE7700 also includes both Picture-In-Picture (PIP) and Picture-On-Picture (POP) modes—rare features in video projectors. Like their counterparts in most one-piece televisions, these features allow an image from a second input to be displayed either overlaid on the main image (PIP), or side-by-side with it (POP). High-definition and standard definition inputs may be displayed together. With the BenQ, each pair of simultaneously displayed images must come from one of two different groups: the so-called Video Group (composite and S-Video), or the Graphic Group (Component 1 and 2, RGBHV, and HDMI). In other words, you can overlay (or place side-by-side) an image from the S-Video input and the HDMI input, but not the component and HDMI inputs. But to use this feature you will have to run separate cables directly to the projector for each source and not use external video switching—a setup much less convenient with a projector than a one-piece television.

The PE7700 comes with one of the best remotes I've used. There are just enough well-sized buttons to control all the important functions without crowding, including direct access to sources, aspect ratios, memories, and the brightness, contrast, color, and tint controls. The remote is also brightly illuminated. The Light button is easy to locate in the dark, and most of the buttons are marked in a way that lets you read them through the backlighting.

Like the PE8700+, the PE7700 has a very short lens throw. According to a table provided in the owner's manual the maximum and minimum projection distances are 156.3 and 115 inches, respectively, for a screen 87-inches wide (100-inches diagonal).

There are five preset picture modes, but you can also save your own video settings in one of three User Memories. You may save up to three different video setups for each input. But the settings for each input apply globally no matter what the source resolution. User 1 on HDMI, for example, will have the same video settings whether the source is 480p, 720p or 1080i.

The on-screen menus are deceptively simple, but there are a few traps that are not always well-explained in the relatively skimpy user's manual (it's thick only because it's in nine languages). The Picture menu, in particular, has several potentially confusing entries. Image sharpness is controlled not only by the Sharpness control but also by a control called "Filter." At "0" the latter appears to do nothing but disable the Sharpness control. The only Filter options on the HDMI input are "0" and "1," but it runs all the way up to "3" on the analog video inputs. The only setting I ever used for this Filter control was "1." Any setting above 1 introduced excessive edge enhancement into the image, as did anything above +1 on the Sharpness control.

You can see the action (and interaction) of Filter and Sharpness quite clearly with test patterns. My recommendation: stick with the Filter on 1 and the Sharpness between -1 and +2, depending on the quality and resolution of the source. The Noise Reduction appeared to have little effect on noisy sources in my tests and I left it at "0" (off).

There are five color temperature settings: the presets Cool, Normal and Warm, plus User1 and User2. Any of the five may be assigned to any input. User1 and User2 may be calibrated using the White Balance controls located in the (user-accessible) Advanced menu, and saved. The White Balance adjustments include R, G, and B controls for both the high-end (Gain) and low-end (Offset) of the brightness range.

There is also a Color Enhancement menu, offering individual controls over Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow intensity, plus White (peaking). Normally, I avoid fiddling with controls like this, which more often than not are used by consumers for making their own "creative" color choices (if they're used at all). But I did find a use for the Red control in my tests. After calibration, the flesh tones were a little too intense, particularly on dark scenes. Oddly, this did not appear to be a classic case of "red push." But backing off on the Red Color Enhancement control did help balance things out without de-saturating the other colors. This produced an image that was minus red (a red pull?), but the overall effect on the image was definitely positive.

Once I worked through the above issues the setup fell quickly into place. A lens shift adjustment would have been nice, but wasn't critical in my situation. As with the older PE8700+, the manual zoom and focus adjustments had a smooth, high quality feel. And while the Warm color temperature looked good and measured reasonably well, I did most of my serious viewing after a full calibration which put the picture very close to the D6500 standard.

My first impression was that the PE7700 is a good projector, but not a PE8700+ on the cheap. The more I watched it, however, the better it looked. It could not compete with the best single-chip DLPs like the far more expensive Yamaha DPX-1200 in terms of resolution, black level, and the simple ability to disappear into the program material without reminding you that you're watching a video projector. But its shortcomings never got in the way of an exciting home theater experience.

In fact, by the time I had racked-up 130 hours on the BenQ and tweaked it to the nines it was obvious that this projector provides strong competition to other budget home theater projectors like Sony's LCD-based Cineza VPL-HS51. Its color quality is definitely superior to the Sony's (though not in a way that will jump out at you), its image just a bit smoother, and its light output a bit higher (with the Sony's auto iris engaged). In every respect apart from black level, contrast ratio, and that pesky DLP rainbow issue, the PE7700 is right there with the best projectors you can buy for less than $4000 (quite a bit less in this case).