Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp
$400 / £250 www.arca-swiss.com
|The Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp|
It could easily be said that Arca-Swiss is the company that started it all. Its original Monoball B defined the basic design that almost every other large ball head has been modeled after. The reason so many other companies have made knock-offs of this basic design is that Arca-Swiss gear used to be very expensive, but the Z1 series adjusts the price back down to Earth, and adds many of the features that competitors have developed over time.
Arca-Swiss, as the name implies, started as a Swiss company that specialized in large-format cameras, but is now based in Besançon, France, with a product line that still includes view cameras, along with many different tripod heads, and their eponymous quick release plate system.
Two curious things about the Z1 come up when compared to the other ball heads in these reviews. First, the Z1 is not the largest, nor top-of-the-line ball head sold by Arca-Swiss. The new Z1g+ (for "giant") has a 60mm diameter ball, and the redesigned Z2+ adds separate tilt axis control to this giant head.
Next, all of the heads in this group had to have an "Arca-Swiss-compatible" quick release system to use the (almost standard) dovetail plate design. Arca-Swiss, however, has moved on and invented a new standard with its diminutive "monoball-fix" system. Thankfully, the Z1 being tested has a quick release that accommodates both of these Arca-Swiss plate types.
|Ball diameter||54mm (2.1")|
|Weight||680g (1.5 lb)|
|Base diameter||69mm (2.7")|
|Maximum load||59kg (130 lb)|
Design and features
While the Arca-Swiss Z1 no longer looks remarkable in the world of ball heads, it has a definite presence in both its finish and imposing size. The weight of the whole unit, however, is quite average for a 54mm ball of this design, and it has a fairly narrow overall profile.
Arca-Swiss has long set the standard for build quality and stability, and many of the original monoballs are still holding up cameras and gear because there is simply not much reason to upgrade them. The Z1 retains the same "simple but durable" aesthetic with a semi-gloss finish on the aluminum case and ball, and monochromatic detailing for the logos, panning index, and friction numbers.
The head comes minimally packaged inside a folding, foam-lined box, with only a photocopied sheet of English instructions. Curiously, there is no web site address for the company on the literature, and a quick search reveals most information and product support comes from independent dealers.
54mm aspheric ball
The Z1 has a 54mm diameter ball which is "aspheric" (not a perfect sphere) meaning it is slightly elongated on the vertical axis. An aspheric ball gradually increases pressure against the locking mechanism as it tilts away from the upright position.
Arca-Swiss pioneered this design to reduce the need to adjust the friction when increasing the tilt angle, and many other manufacturers have followed their lead.
Multi-level quick release
The included Arca-compatible (or dovetail) quick-release platform is actually a new design from the company that set the standard.
For the Z1 and their other current ball heads, Arca-Swiss has come up with a new standard called the "monoball Fix" system. This is the narrower channel at the bottom of the quick release with two immovable stops sticking up, while the wider channel above it is for all of the older dovetail plates.
In practice, this means that all those "Arca-compatible" plates only fit into the upper channel and any safety stops on the plate have to be rather long to catch the MonoballFix stops.
The original Monoball had separate friction and locking knobs, while the current design copies an innovation from other manufacturers where both controls are on a single knob. Arca-Swiss calls this "the multi-function knob."
The minimum friction is adjusted through a flush-mounted set screw on the face of the multi-function knob, and there is a user-adjustable, numeric ring to provide an index to see what amount of friction is currently set.
The panning base lock knob is actually a lever design, which makes it very easy to use with gloves or bare hands, and provides a very positive lock to the base rotation.
Twins separated at birth?
One curious refrain in many ball head discussions is that the Arca-Swiss Z1 should be chosen over any knock-offs because they are the original ball heads, and not the copies.
Now Arca-Swiss is an opaque, almost secretive company (without even a website!), but there is a little-known ball head called the Kangrinpoche NB1A that was sold internationally for years before the Z1 was introduced, and these older heads bear a striking exterior and mechanical resemblance to the current Z1. Curiously, Kangrinpoche stopped selling the NB1A outside of China right before the Z1 came out, despite increasing success. Is this a case of the "knock off" becoming the the legendary brand?
Construction and handling
The Arca-Swiss Z1 exterior is entirely made from machined aluminum, with a silky, semi-gloss finish. The multi-function knob is mostly metal with a rubber grip, while the panning base lock is simply an aluminum lever. All parts of the main body fit nicely together, with no large gaps, exposed screws, or rough edges on the knobs or lever. Also, unlike very early Arca-Swiss ball heads, all knobs are now "captive" meaning they cannot be unscrewed so far as to fall out.
Sadly, the overall impression of a premium product starts to disappear when the "sp" (single pan) quick release is examined. This part has sharper corners, and the anodized aluminum started to show new scratches and shiny spots at the corners in just a few days of average use (mounting and dismounting lenses and cameras). This "new standard" quick release apparently does not use the same materials and finish as the rest of the head.
With both major controls so close to each other, the Arca-Swiss Z1 keeps the ergonomics very simple. The friction and locking knob is easy to turn and provides tactile "feedback" of the friction amount by increasing the resistance as it nears the lock point. Using a lever lock for the panning base is fairly unique, and works well to distinguish the pan lock from the larger knob immediately beside it, even when operating the controls with an eye to a viewfinder. The size of the pan lock lever is rather small, but it sticks out just enough to be easy to operate with two fingers.
When using the drop slot for portrait orientation, or an increased range of tilt either forward or back, the placement of the two main controls next to each other made operation quite easy and intuitive. With the drop slot on the left to put an SLR in portrait orientation (with the grip and shutter release up), the friction and locking knob faces the photographer, and the pan lock lever is right there as well. A welcome respite from overly complicated arrangements, even if the drop slot may not be used that much by some.
Ball friction and locking
The friction and locking knob is easy to grab, and turns smoothly and easily to lock or unlock the ball. The minimum friction adjustment screw, however, did not work as well. This thumbscrew in the center of the knob is intended to set the minimum friction that the "loose" position allows, but it would not screw far enough to set a very large amount of friction as the minimum for holding a larger (1 kg) lens. This meant that extra care was needed when loosening the locking knob so the ball, and the expensive lens, would not flop over.
Around the base of this main knob is a numbered index ring (0-12) as a visual reminder of the current friction level. You simply loosen the main knob all the way, then turn the ring so the zero point is facing up at the index marker. When the main knob is turned to increase the friction, the ring turns with it, showing an increasing number for the overall friction. This ring is a bit difficult to rotate on its own, but that makes it less likely to move once calibrated to the main knob.
|The Arca-Swiss "morse code" panning index.|
Rotating the panning base on the Z1 is very smooth, with just the right amount of resistance to be precise, but not so much that it requires a large effort to turn. The lever lock for the pan is very easy to find and use right next to the main locking knob, with just a quarter turn required to go from locked to free rotation.
The panning base exterior has no numeric (degree) markings, only a pattern of dots and dashes with no initial explanation of their values. There are 15° between each pair of vertical dashes, and 5° between dots, but why make users remember that? Adding to this, there are three "starting point" index dots on the base itself, so even the initial reference point can be confusing unless only small pan amounts are done.
Most concerning of all, in a product from Arca-Swiss, is that this strip of white with the dots and dashes is actually just a plastic sticker; not engraved or painted on at all. While it might have a very robust adhesive, this is quite surprising to find on a head of this price and heritage. No other head in the test group used any kind of surface adornment other than paint, engraving, or laser-etching (and typically a combination of these). Truly, this makes the panning index seem like a style decision, and not a well thought out one, at that.
While the Z1 is almost a studio ball head by virtue of its size and (stated) maximum load, it travels very well and is quite content to be brought along for long hikes. Naturally, a suitably large tripod is also needed to hold the kind of loads this head excels at (which was a Gitzo Series 3 for these tests).
The Arca-Swiss Z1 ball movement is smooth and well-damped at all times, even when completely loose without any load on top. Adding a camera and 500mm lens (or a staggering amount of panoramic gear) on top of the head requires a large amount of friction, and while the feel of the Z1 ball became slightly rougher, it was never hard to control. The ellipsoidal (or "aspheric") ball was evident whenever the camera was tilted off-axis, and really did reduce the need to manually increase friction in most situations.
Speaking of which, due to the limited function of the minimum friction dial on the test head, the main locking knob was almost always used by itself, with no safety amount of minimum friction set at all. The friction was easily adjustable with the short throw of the main knob, and when unlocking the ball without a set minimum friction, the accurate index ring became indispensable after just a few gear swaps.
The Z1 panning base is easy to lock and unlock (there is no friction setting), and remains very smooth during rotation. When locked, it feels as positively monolithic, with no chance of accidental rotation. This also contributes to the overall premium feel of the whole head.
The location of the pan lock knob, so close to the multi-function knob, actually ended up being an ergonomic advantage. When using the head in the field with an eye in the viewfinder, it is incredibly easy to find and flip the lever. There is no confusion with the much larger control knob. With a drop-slot gimbal attachment like the Wimberley Sidekick in use, this easy locking and unlocking made the whole assembly (lens, sidekick, ball head) function like a seamless unit. The panning base easily handled the rotations of a heavy lens on the Sidekick, but, of course, was not quite as fluid as a full gimbal head.
The lack of a numeric degree scale on the base was only a minor annoyance, but this might be a deal-breaker for those who would like precise pans without reading morse code.
New quick release
Arca-Swiss can be thanked for providing a very simple and solid example of quick release mechanics that has made swapping equipment easier for professionals and amateurs alike. Perhaps now that this isn't a unique selling point, the company is pushing their "monoball Fix" (capitalization theirs) plates and quick releases. With a (thankfully) multi-level clamp, the new standard is optional, but the open space beneath an "older-style" Arca-Swiss dovetail plate is a bit worrisome, if mechanically sound.
When it comes to compatibility, the clamp just barely opens wide enough for many (competing brand) plates to be inserted. Further, the two immoveable studs for the monoball Fix system interfere with the "safety stop" screws on some lens and camera plates. Perhaps the "dp" double-pan platform, or the lever-action platforms are better, but really, Arca-Swiss should not try to make it difficult to use the major brand plates that are said to be "Arca-compatible."
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
With a 3.1kg, 500mm lens attached to the Arca-Swiss multi-level platform, the friction was adjusted to hold the lens at a 45-degree angle without slipping into the drop slot. The aspheric ball helped out with added friction, while the smooth ball motion made it easy to frame the target for testing.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
The Z1 showed very little sag in between shots taken 30 seconds apart, with an average change of just 0.33% of the frame. When the locking knob was carefully tightened, the ball exhibited only a slight shift of 2.2% which puts it on the more stable side of the test group. These small amounts indicate the head can handle large loads and critical framing situations.
Pan lock test
Flipping the panning base lever to locked (so simple), and using a long lens plate to twist the head against a braced tripod, the locking action of the panning base sustained significant force. The Arca-Swiss Z1 pan lock held quite securely, until the tripod started to give. Although this locking lever turns only a short distance, there is some kind of magic in the pan lock that keeps this head particularly solid under stress. Excellent engineering and performance.
Cold weather* test
|*It should be noted that although the head was tested in Canada, it was during the summer. To compensate for this, the head was placed in a sealed bag with a desiccant for 2 weeks, then put in an industrial freezer at 14 F (-10° C) for 8 hours. The head was re-evaluated for ball and pan motion while cold, and for control use with heavy winter gloves on.|
During the freezer test (to simulate northern winters), the ball motion of the Z1 became slightly stiffer, but not sticky or jerking. The panning base slowed down considerably, as if the grease inside were solidifying in the cold, which is somewhat unexpected. Most components of a head at this price point should not be too temperature sensitive, and many other heads manage to show little, if any, change in the panning action.
Using thick gloves to operate the head was easy enough until the minimum friction dial was required. A tool or coin might be helpful to move this without exposing the fingers too long. One concern was that the pan lock lever might be too close to the main knob for a gloved finger to easily grab and flip it, but this was curiously not the case. Using a lever has allowed these controls to sit quite close and still be usable by even the thickest of fingers.
With the Arca-Swiss name on the front, there is a high expectation of quality and simplicity from this head, and in general, the Z1 does not disappoint. The ball motion and panning base action are very good, and the feel of the main friction knob is equally premium. Unfortunately for Arca-Swiss, many other manufacturers have managed to knock off not only the look of their original heads, but also these functional aspects as well. When it comes to an Arca-compatible quick release, the Z1 does not even have the best or most compatible one available. Where they were once leaders and innovators at the high end of the price scale, Arca-Swiss are now catching up and trying to compete (somewhat) in price against a whole host of similar heads. For the Z1, it ends up being the name on the front that most distinguishes it from the crowd of other heads.
What we like:
- Smooth, apsheric ball motion
- Handles heavy loads with aplomb
- Durable finish and fine build quality (on the body)
- Excellent, simple ergonomics
What we don't like:
- New standard quick release is barely compatible with other brands
- Quick release seems cheaper than the rest of the head
- Morse-code panning base index