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Pre-orders begin June 1 on AlienBees MAX monolight, new accessories  
Thursday, April 30, 2009 | by Rob Galbraith
Starting June 1, Paul C. Buff will begin taking pre-orders on a slick new pair of 320ws and 640ws monolights called AlienBees MAX that features digital controls, automatic switching between three capacitor banks for more consistent colour temperature and faster flash duration as flash brightness is lowered, a worldwide power supply, the ability to be powered in the field by inexpensive square wave AC inverters and optional remote wireless control.

At the same time, the Nashville, Tennessee-based lighting company will be taking the wraps off redesigned reflectors that feature greater dent resistance, a line of light-efficient parabolic umbrellas and a wireless remote control unit called Cyber Commander. The company is also expanding into Europe, with direct ordering and shipment from Switzerland projected to begin in June 2009.

AlienBees MAX

While we've own or used studio lights from Dyna-Lite, Elinchrom, Hensel, Profoto and a couple of others, perhaps the best bang for the buck has been a pair of AlienBees B400s, a no-frills 160ws monolight that is simple to use, reliable and just works. Their low power means they're not for every situation, and they don't offer the superbly crisp flash duration of the Dyna-Lite Arena packs we depend on for strobed sports, but for what they cost relative to what they do, the Alien Bees units are hard to beat.

Buzzing: The AlienBees AB MAX 320, left, and AB MAX 640 (Computer renderings courtesy Paul C. Buff)

AlienBees MAX is the next generation, that joins rather than replaces existing AlienBees lights, and represent a significant leap forward in the feature set of low-cost monolights. The AB MAX 320 (320ws) and AB MAX 640 (640ws) include:

Three capacitor banks, with seamless switching between each The vast majority of monolights on the market utilize a single bank of capacitors, then achieve a multiple stop brightness range by progressively lowering the internal operating voltage as a reduced brightness setting is chosen by the user. This works fine, but at the expense of flash duration, which gets progressively longer as voltage is reduced inside the monolight. Colour temperature consistency can suffer as well. This is how most monolights work, however, and is the reason why, on most of them, turning down the output causes flash duration to increase, an increase that quickly becomes significant as the output is lowered beyond about one stop.

The AlienBees MAX operates more like a power pack, offering three banks of capacitors and automatic switching between them as the output is turned down. Using the 640ws AB MAX 640 as an example, at full power it uses one bank, switching to the second bank when the power is lowered to 320ws, and switching to the third bank when the powered is lowered to 160ws.

Switching to a different capacitor bank in this way means that flash duration is shorter not longer at 320ws, and shorter still at 160ws. As a result, its full power (640ws) flash duration of 1/2400 (t0.5) becomes about 1/4000 (t0.5) at 1/2 power (320ws) and about 1/6000 (t0.5) at 1/4 power (160ws). (All figures approximate and derived from info supplied by the company). Plus, colour temperature should be more consistent across much of the flash's range, since the main culprit in shifting colour output is a change in internal operating voltage, not swapping capacitor banks. The company claims that colour consistency is +/-50K from full power down to down 1/16.

The overall story is the same for the 320ws AB MAX 320, except that the three capacitor bank increments are 320ws, 160ws and 80ws, and the AB MAX 320's 80ws setting should have the shortest flash duration of any setting on the new units. As of this writing we don't have a precise figure for what it will be.

The AlienBees MAX units also do voltage lowering, in the gaps between full, half and quarter power, and then down to 1/128 power, to give 1/10 stop increment adjustment throughout their power range.

In Paul C. Buff's lineup, the only other monolight models to offer more than one capacitor bank are the White Lightning X-Series X1600 and X3200. Each has two capacitor banks, with manual switching between them, as compared to three capacitor banks and automatic switching in the new AlienBees MAX units. In monolights from other makers, multiple capacitor banks are all but non-existent.

In short, Paul C. Buff has stuffed one of the best features of studio power packs into the AB MAX 320 and AB MAX 640 monolights.

Worldwide power supply and compatibility with low-cost AC inverters In preparation for the company's expansion into Europe, the new lights have been outfitted with power supplies that can draw 90-250VAC, for compatibility with wall sockets worldwide. In addition, the design of the power supply is such that it doesn't require a large surge of power during recycling. Mostly for that reason, the AB MAX 320 and AB MAX 640 will be among the few flash units that can plug into inexpensive square wave AC inverters (sometimes called modified sine wave or non-pure sine wave inverters). Traditionally, studio flashes can be powered in the field only by pure sine wave inverters, which are invariably much more expensive, and often heavier, than an equivalent square wave model.

In a phone interview this week, Paul Buff indicated that compatibility with this type of inverter will be broad, as long as the inverter has sufficient constant and peak power to manage the draw from the new lights. In his words, such an inverter "will either work, or it won't," meaning that as long as the inverter can handle the units' roughly 425w peak draw in particular, it should be compatible. With the same recycling time as when plugged into wall AC power in fact.

He cited, as examples of AC inverters that meet the requirements, the Cobra CPI 480 (400w continuous/800w peak) for one AB MAX unit, and the Cobra CPI 880 (800w continuous/1600w peak) for two and perhaps more AB MAX units simultaneously. These units, both of which have low street prices when compared to pure sine wave inverters, coupled with a 12V sealed lead acid battery and charger in a do-it-yourself portable power pack, will total under US$100 in the U.S. and weigh well under 10lb (4.5kg).

Incidentally, recycling time at 640ws is expected to be about 1.6 seconds on wall or compatible inverter power, though this spec is being finalized and could change slightly. The AB MAX units may also ship with three different recycling modes, each of which varies the power draw during recycling (with a corresponding lengthening of recycling time). The fastest of the three settings will deliver the anticipated 1.6 second recycling time at 640ws. On the slowest of the three settings, recycle time at 640ws would extend to around 4 seconds.  The peak power draw on this setting would drop to the point where perhaps even 200w continuous/400w peak square wave inverters could be used.

Update, July 7, 2009: The company has announced that a power supply redesign for the AB MAX flash units will eliminate the option of powering them with square wave inverters. Pure sine wave inverters will still be compatible.

CyberSync transceiver support The AlienBees MAX lights have a plug-in slot on the top that accepts an optional CyberSync transceiver module. Once installed, the unit's frequency and channel are set on the flash itself, and the transceiver can, in addition to receiving settings adjustment and trigger signals from a Cyber Commander unit at the camera, also send back to the Cyber Commander information about flash settings, flash duration and colour temperature. Both AB MAX models include a 3.5mm miniphone sync jack and optical slave cell as well.

Rounding out the list of AlienBees MAX features is a stronger internal frame and front mount designed to hold heavier softboxes and other lighting accessories than before, a frosted pyrex dome over the flash tube, 250w modeling lamp, digital power and flash adjustment controls built around a colour LCD (the LCD changes colour when you select a power level that invokes the automatic capacitor bank switching), four different housing colours (including Space Black for those frightened off by the otherwise garish shades of AlienBees products) and a Micro SD slot for loading future firmware updates.

The AB MAX 320 is expected to sell for US$399.95, and the AB MAX 640, US$429.95, in the U.S. (European prices are to be slightly higher). The CyberSync transceiver module is to be US$29.95 in the U.S. Because the new units are more expensive than existing AlienBees offerings, the older models will continue to be manufactured and sold for the foreseeable future, says Buff. Pre-orders will be accepted starting June 1, with July 1 projected to be the first day of delivery.

Note : Paul C. Buff only sells direct, they do not distribute to photo retailers.

Parabolic umbrellas, redesigned reflectors, Cyber Commander

Also being readied for pre-order on June 1, and also with a July 1 projected delivery date, are a trio of new parabolic umbrellas, each designed to give maximum light efficiency when used with Paul C. Buff lights. A total of four fabric options allow for reflected, shoot through, softbox simulation and Japanese Lantern configurations.

At about the same time, four new or redesigned head reflectors will be introduced, including one meant to be used exclusively with the parabolic umbrellas. All four are made of a slightly thicker and tougher spun aluminum that should be more dent-resistant than previous reflectors, says Buff.

Nerve Centre: The Cyber Commander wireless remote control unit (Computer rendering courtesy Paul C. Buff)
And finally, the same pre-order and delivery dates apply to the new Cyber Commander wireless remote control system.

Not ready to ship yet is the Einstein, an upcoming Paul C. Buff monolight that's designed to deliver best-in-class action stopping capabilities, owing to a design that trims the tail of the light much like a small shoe mount flash unit.

The Einstein will ultimately ship in 500ws and 1000ws versions, but its release date is unknown as the company is struggling to complete the design of the power supply at a size and cost that will make the product viable, says Buff.

Direct from Europe

The introduction of this slate of new products will roughly coincide with the establishment of direct sales, shipment and warranty repair of Paul C. Buff lights and related products in Europe. The company has paired up with Gotham Audio of Switzerland in establishing their European presence (Buff, who worked in the recording industry in years past, has partnered with a colleague from his audio days).

Tentatively called Paul C. Buff Switzerland, it will maintain full inventory, sell via a multi-language European website, perform warranty repairs and the like. Prices for all products are expected to be slightly higher than in the U.S. Details, such as what power cord(s) will be included with flash units, are still being sorted out, as is the exact date of launch, says Buff. At this moment, they're working towards a late-June commencement of European operations.

Update, June 30, 2009: Paul C. Buff has announced that the plan to establish Gotham Audio as the company's European sales and service division has been reversed. A notice on the AlienBees website says the following:

NOTICE: As of June 15, 2009, Gotham Audio in Switzerland is no longer authorized to represent Paul C. Buff, Inc.  Any purchase from Gotham after this date shall be considered an unauthorized and unsupported sale and may not be covered under warranty by Paul C. Buff, Inc. Please contact us directly at 615-383-3982 or to inquire regarding the direct purchase of Paul C. Buff, Inc. equipment.

No reason is given for the change.

Beyond that, says Buff, the company is exploring the establishment of similar operations in Australia, Japan and South America.

More information on the AlienBees MAX lights, parabolic umbrellas and new reflectors is below, in information pages from Paul C. Buff (and reproduced here with permission).


Revision History
June 30, 2009: Added info that Gotham Audio is no longer representing Paul C. Buff in Europe.

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