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May 15, 2012

Sunwayfoto XB-44 Low Profile Ball Head Review

Sunwayfoto XB-44 Low Profile Ball Head on Benro A296EXKeeping always an open eye for new and innovative products, it was in the beginning of 2012 when the completely new Sunwayfoto Low Profile XB Series of ball heads captured my attention, as one of these might be a possible answer to my seeking of a low weight, well balanced, smoothly operating at any angle, yet sturdy ball head.
Last February, SUNWAYFOTO introduced the new XB Low Profile series to the public, in "2012 PMA@CES", in Las Vegas, U.S.A., raising once again my interest on the product.
Having had a good experience with the Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler ball head urged me to know more about the XB series.
My request for more detailed information on the new Low Profile XB series, led to an invitation by Sunwayfoto headquarters to participate in their Test & Review Program released early last March, which I gladly accepted and applied for. That in turn led to the delivery of a small package at my door by DHL at the end of last April.

The above introduction aims to point out that the XB-44 Low Profile ball head under review is a complementary sample provided directly by Sunway Opto-Electronics (Group) Ltd, in China, for the exact purpose, and for which I paid only for the appropriate import duties and taxes.

Sunwayfoto's course up to now shows clearly their intention to be at the top with the market leaders. Through my little experience with other Sunwayfoto products, their precision, their innovation but also their pricing definitely declares the market placement.
Aiming to the top, makes it far more difficult to build a name, as the competition gets harder.
The recommended retail price of US $ 330.00 for the XB-44 Low Profile ball head places it at direct competition with RRS, Markins and  Photo Clam  to name a few, who have similarly priced products with a 40-44mm ball. But on the other hand the Low Profile design limits the competition between only two other rivals (at least to my knowledge) that follow the same design concept, these are RRS with BH-40 and Induro with BHL-2.
RRS follows a premium pricing marketing strategy with a US $ 356.00 tag on the CNC machined BH-40 (with screw knob clamp) while Induro (Benro's high end product line for the U.S.) follows the discount path with a tag of US $ 267.00 on the Die Cast BHL-2.
Somehow the low profile design similarities stop here, as both RRS BH-40 and Induro BHL-2 have open clamp (calliper) design, obvious from the seam on the back of their body shell. To put it simply, the ball movement is controlled by the pressure exercised on it, the more the two parts of the body are brought closer together.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 design differs greatly from the other two as it has a completely closed CNC machined body shell, with an internal ball control mechanism which I'll try to describe later on, and that's it. It's a unique in concept fusion between Arca Swiss® classic design and a low profile calliper design, applied for and patent pending.
How well is the concept implemented, we'll see in the following review.

One of the things I have learned from my tutors early in life, is that in order to excel in any field except from knowledge, endeavor and stamina, persistence in detail is also a factor that will discriminate one from the mass and put him/her at the top with the Elite.
Therefore, I intend to be more persistent and strict with detail in my review, so as my comments may give room for improvement.


The Package & Contents

Sunwayfoto XB-44 boxAt receipt of the package, after opening the "travel outfit" (the standard DHL envelope and an extra carton box), I was expecting to see the usual up to now Sunwayfoto "luxury" black box with the golden rims and lettering, but I realized that Sunwayfoto has changed into a more environmental friendly attitude by enclosing the XB-44 Low Profile ball head in a thinner and lighter, recycled carton box.
As I was later informed, from now on all Sunwayfoto ball heads, monopod heads and leveling bases will be shipped in similar recycled carton boxes. In one way this gives me a hint that emphasis is now in the content rather than the box. Although I suspect that the black and gold boxes will be kept for special occasions, like anniversary editions etc.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 box label
While there is a small label with the model number on the front, one side of the box is covered with a big white label with technical specification a picture and the barcode of the product.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 box contents
The XB-44 Low Profile ball head travels in the box within thick foam padding together with ...
Sunwayfoto XB-44 warranty card
A credit card sized warranty Card stating Model and Serial Number (which in my case is followed by the word SAMPLE and the sample number)...
Sunwayfoto XB-44 customer info card
And as I had already mentioned in a previous review, a rarely met even with non-Chinese products "Customer Information Card" for use together with the Warranty card in case of applying for a warranty claim.
I should point out here, that Sunwayfoto offers a 5 year limited warranty extension, upon registration of certain products in their website, within one month from the date of purchase.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 box contents closeup
However, what seems to be missing from the picture here is a leaflet or manual with specification, operational and maintenance tips as in previous models. The response to my communication with the Sunwayfoto headquarters on the matter, was that new manuals for all products are under preparation, expected to come out by the end of May 2012.

The Ball Head

Sunwayfoto XB-44 / XB-55 dimensions
The dimensions of XB-44 and the larger XB-52 ball heads
(Photo by courtesy of Sunwayfoto).
Manufacturer Specification

Superior Low-Profile Ballhead
Model: XB-44
Ball Diameter: 44mm
Pan Base Diameter: 58mm
Height: 79mm
Weight: 483g
Max Load: 40Kg
Bottom thread: UNC3/8"
                                               


Note: The verified weight of the XB-44 ball head copy I received is 465gr on my electronic scales, just a little better than the 483gr stated in the manufacturer specification.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 top-front
Coming in direct contact with XB-44 ball head, I got a feeling of a sturdy structure with a very fine and high quality CNC machining and finishing. The new design is pleasant to the eye and remarkably almost all edges are flattened giving the ball head a distinguishing appearance. It's more compact than it shows in the photos.
The body shell and the quick release clamp are hard coat anodized in a black color with a mat finish. The ball head front is occupied by the white laser engravings of the company logo, brand name and model name.
The 50mm quick release clamp fits optically well with the relatively narrow footprint of the whole structure. The minimized panning base, compared to other Sunwayfoto models, is still quite visible due to the white engraved markings.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 top-back
In order to achieve the lowest profile possible, the designers of the XB-44 ball head, have moved part of the friction/locking mechanism in an extension at the back of the body shell. The offset placement of the friction/lock and the panning lock knobs, as well as the behavior of the mechanism (which I will discuss later in "Using the ball head") suggests that a totally new mechanisms have been designed (Patent pending) using an innovative rack and pinion mechanism for the ball and a clutch like mechanism for the panning control.
The control knobs follow Sunwayfoto's standard of non rubber ring wrapped knobs, in order to enhance long term reliability. All three knobs follow the same design and are made from aluminum alloy with CNC cut grooves and diamond patterns in the perimeter. The quick release clamp knob is smaller while the friction/lock control and panning lock knobs are oversized, all hard anodized black as the body shell. There is no scale ring on the friction control knob as with previous models.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 bottom w/ bushing
The ball head bottom has no visible screws for opening the head, other than the central 3/8"-16 threaded hole for tripod attachment, which is actually occupied by an 1/4"-20 to 3/8"-16 bushing, in order to convert the thread for tripods with  an 1/4"-20 stud. There are also two small Torx head screws visible, that hold a small cover of the ball control mechanism.
Further, there are two laser engravings on the bottom, "Made in China" and the ball head serial number.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 bottom bushing removed
By removing the conversion bushing the ball head is ready to be mount on a standard 3/8"-16 tripod stud.

The ball & Controls
XB-44's ball follows the Sunwayfoto standard of their ballhead balls being ellipsoidal but closer to spherical form than balls made by other manufacturers. At present, on most ellipsoidal ballheads in the market, the Y-axis diameter of the ball is about 0.07mm longer than the X-axis, in order to compensate for the extra torque generated when the ball is tilted to the side, by increasing the friction and thus avoid the risk of drift or drag.
On Sunwayfoto ballheads the ball Y-axis diameter is 0.03mm longer than the X-axis, aiming to a smoother operation, while retaining the previous advantage.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball detail
The ball is very finely finished in the same black mat color with a very short stem that carries the quick release clamp.
Even with a slight increase in friction, you can immediately feel the ellipsoidal form of the ball by the increasing resistance when trying to tilt it in any direction.
I have already discussed in other reviews the benefits of a short ball stem, but this is an opportunity to bring the matter up again as this ball head has a very short one. Short ball stem means increased stability, since the center of gravity remains close to the ball's pivoting point as the camera/lens combination is tilted, thus exercising less torque. The optimum tilting range is also dependent on the size of the ball, as with larger balls the center of gravity remains within the limits of the perimeter of the sphere for greater angle tilts.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 dual drop notch detail
Another similarity of XB-44 to the other Sunwayfoto ball head models, is the two drop notch design. One for portrait, one for tilting, on a robust outer shell, but still with a very low total weight for the category of the ball head.
The usual bullet or flat grooved screw head existing in previews Sunwayfoto ball heads, just between the two drop notches has been replaced by a safety head screw that means clearly "Keep away"!. It is a functional screw retaining and fine tuning the Teflon insert on the top perimeter so better not play with it.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 lock knobs - side
The side view of the ball head is more explicit, in regard of the offset positioning of the Main Friction/Lock knob and the protruding hump that houses part of the ball control mechanism. A distinctive difference between XB series ball heads and other low profile heads is the very low positioning of the Friction/Lock knob that leaves only 3mm clearance from the base. The low positioning signifies that the knob controls a locking mechanism that operates below the ball pushing it up instead of pulling an open body shell together near the top. This is a variation of the classic Arca Swiss® design. Innovative and wise, while more complex and expensive to produce!
Sunwayfoto XB-44 main friction/lock knob detail
The 36 mm diameter, oversized Main Friction/Lock knob takes one and a half rotations from the completely loose to the fully locked position. Due to the knob size and the locking mechanism design, far less force than usual is required to turn the knob in order to control the friction even to the fully locked position. One may find easily the desirable "sweet-spot" for his/her camera/lens combination. Minimum Friction control is accomplished through a limiting thumb screw on the Main Friction/Lock knob which is common to ball heads following the Arca Swiss® lock mechanism design. Once you set the desired friction then by tightening the thumb screw, the lock knob may not unscrew either intentionally or accidentally beyond that point.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 panning lock knob detail
The 22mm in diameter panning Friction/lock knob is also oversized compared to the usual 15mm (or even smaller) panning lock knobs found on the majority of ball heads and takes three (3) full rotations from the completely loose to the full lock position. Despite the knob size, the offset positioning of the knob signifies the use of a calliper mechanism, which applies far more strength in immobilizing the panning base, than any other mechanism using the tip of a screw as a break on the panning base perimeter.
Panning base rotation is fluid and well dampened. Controlling the panning base friction up to a rock solid lock is quite easy without exercising too much force.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 panning base detail
A small laser engraved triangle, placed just beside the protruding hump at the back of the ball head body plays the role of the panning index mark.
The panning base itself is low profile too, extending only 2mm from the ball head body. It has laser engraved marks every 5 degrees and numbers every 30 degrees. The numbers are engraved in small recesses which in turn serve as a grip to facilitate screwing and unscrewing the ball head on a tripod.
However, considering the rock solid lock of the panning base and the existence of the small hump on the back of the ball head, which may act as a grip and as a lever, the ball head may be securely tightened on a tripod, either way. 

The Quick Release clamp

Sunwayfoto XB-44 Quick Release clamp tilted-top
The screw knob Quick Release clamp is especially designed to fit the Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball head, both in dimensions and optically.
There are 2cm long laser engraved decimal scales on both jaws, the first cm closer to the center is marked in 1mm increments and then in 2,5mm increments, with numbers every 1cm from 0 to 1 counting outwards. There are two safety stop screw relief grooves 5mm deep, one at each side, permitting a motion of 15mm either side into the clamp, for better camera/lens plate alignment. On the outer jaw opposite the screw knob, exists a 12mm spirit bubble level which is bright and accurate.
Clamp's dimensions: jaws length 48mm, width 86mm (including the screw knob and the bubble level), thickness 14mm.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp removed
The quick release clamp can easily be detached by unscrewing the stainless steel M6 screw with the proper Allen hex key (Not provided with the ball head. If and when someone wants to exchange the quick release clamp Sunwayfoto provides extra screw and Allen hex key with all quick release clamps that are sold separately).

Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball stem closeup
By taking off the quick release clamp and revealing the short ball stem apart from the obvious anti rotation islands (bosses) beside the M6 threaded center hole, there is a hard Teflon ring fit around the stem of the ball. Although I did not have any technical information from the factory, in my opinion this ring may serve for two reasons. One is to strengthen the already thick ball stem for any possible thread deformation under excessive loads, (remember the ball head is designated for 40kg load) and second to protect the stem from friction when the ball is tilted in one of the drop notches and maybe used as Gimbal ? (More on that later in "Using the ball head")
Sunwayfoto XB-44 Teflon insert detail
Another very fine detail is the thickness and precise positioning of the Teflon  insert around the top body perimeter.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp top
The Quick release clamp that comes with XB-44 ball head is completely different from the standard  Sunwayfoto 50mm screw knob quick release clamp. The sides are narrower by 1mm, the height is shorter by 1mm, the safety stop relief grooves are deeper by 1mm and all edges are flattened matching the design characteristics of the XB-44 ball head.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp bottom
Also a lot of work has been done in removing not only the edges but also any possible excess material with deep CNC carving at the bottom side. This leads to a surprisingly low clamp weigh of just 66gr including the spirit bubble level, which is even lower than the Sunwayfoto's own 42mm clamp which weighs 85gr.
In the beginning I was a little skeptical about the strength of this clamp but after I run some torque tests on the ball head, which loaded the clamp with excess weight, I became more confident. (More details in the XB-44 Low Profile Ball head Torque test later).
Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp moving jaw detail
The new knob is smaller in diameter (17mm) and with a shorter to the minimum stem, than the original design depicted outside the carton box or the Sunwayfoto web site. There are quite a few possible reasons for this change, but I can only  speculate some, as decrease the overall clamp overhead, lower total height, or save some weight, or even to discriminate it by size from the other ball head knobs.
The moving jaw opens up to 39,5mm, enough to accommodate any width of Arca Swiss® compatible rail or camera plate. It takes five (5) full revolutions of the knob from the completely closed to completely open position and vise versa. After the jaw is adjusted to a specific rail/plate, it only takes one (1) revolution of the knob to release a rail/plate for removal from top and only a quarter (1/4) of a revolution to release a rail/plate for adjustment.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp moving jaw bottom detail
In this photo is easier to see that the center hole is thread for 3/8"-16 screws, as well as the alignment grooves for attachment on a ball head, beside it.
Further, the alignment tongues of the moving jaw have rounded corners precisely moving in the appropriate grooves on the side of the clamp. The springs are hidden inside to avoid any concentration of debris or dirt.

Removing the Bubble level

Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp bubble level removed
The removable spirit bubble level is not unusual to the Sunwayfoto Quick Release Clamps. It's very easy to remove the bubble level holder by unscrewing the M3 retaining screws, using an appropriate Allen hex key (Not included).
One reason someone would do that, is to minimize the clamp's overhead, which we'll discuss later on in the "Using the ball head" section. Another reason of course would be just personal preference.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp bubble level side position
However, what is innovative, is that Sunwayfoto designers have provided extra M3 threaded holes, on each side of the clamp that you can fit the bubble level there.
Should I praise here, the perfect alignment of these holes, especially for fitting a bubble level which needs utmost accuracy. Something that can be achieved with very high precision CNC cutting machinery.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp bubble level side mounted
In this way, the bubble level can be attached either to the right, or to the left side of the screw knob.




Somehow, attaching the bubble level on either side, blocks the corresponding safety relief groove. This may prove a restriction if someone uses camera or lens plates with M3 safety stop screws installed at both sides of their bottom.

Nevertheless, this once again is a matter of choice and personal preference.






Mounting the Ball Head on a Tripod

Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball head on tripod top plate
The greatest benefit when using a Low Profile ball head is that it lowers the center of gravity of the mounted gear closer to the summit of the pyramid formed by the legs of a tripod.
This results in better stability and less vibrations which can be easily realized in practice without the use of special measuring equipment.
Any type of tripod, meaning with or without a center column will benefit from it.
Further on, I shall try to elaborate a little on the matter of the combination of tripod legs with the XB-44 Low Profile ball head.


Sunwayfoto XB-44 bubble level vs tripod top plate
Due to the very low profile of the ball head, something that has to be taken into account when mounting it on a tripod, is that the bubble level goes lower than the panning base of the ball head, when the quick release clamp is tilted fully at 90 degrees into one of the drop notches. Therefore, if you intend to use it on a tripod with a larger top plate than the head's base or on a tripod without a center column like a Gitzo® GT3542 Systematic, the bubble level must either be removed or relocated to one of the QR clamp's sides.





Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball head on Benro A-296EX versatile tripod top
My first choice was to mount the XB-44 ball head on  the Benro A-298EX Versatile Tripod on which I have worked quite a lot, knowing its strengths and weaknesses well. That would immediately show if there was any substantial improvement by the ball head. And it actually did prove a more stable and vibration free solution. It also showed to me which limitations were to be assigned to the tripod and which to the ball head.
XB-44 fits nicely on the tripod's top plate which has the same size as the ball head base.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 position in Benro A-296EX leg virtual pyramid
One of the first things that I realized was the significant decrease in vibration even though the specific tripod not only has a center column but also a complex articulated column stem which permits it turning the center column in various angles.
In the right section of the photo above, we can see that the axes passing through the tripod legs forming a virtual pyramid coincide just at the base of the XB-44's ball. Although not ideal, the center of gravity has lowered by approximately 2cm compared to a conventional ball head with a 44mm ball. These 2cm are a big difference when calculating the torque that will be exercised on the center column stem causing vibrations at least.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball head on Benro A-296EX w/o center column
The ideal setup that would really promote the XB-44 Low Profile ball head capabilities would be a flat top tripod without a center column. Since at the time of writing this article I had not one available (but after using the ball head I persuaded myself that I need one :) ) I edited a little the previous photos in order to illustrate what the difference would be. 
Sunwayfoto XB-44 position in Benro A-296EX leg virtual pyramid w/o center column
In the right section of the photo above, we can see that after the center column is removed the axes  passing through the tripod legs coincide exactly at the QR clamp. So the center of gravity of whatever we mount on top of that will be at the pyramid summit with the maximum stability and minimum vibration possible.

So what would be a good tripod leg combination with XB-44 Low Profile ball head?
That depends on what gear one wants to mount on the head of course, in terms of weight and lens focal lengths.
Putting down the ball head bearing weight capacity and stability combined in a compact low weight structure, I would say that a series 2 tripod* would benefit from the ball head giving an easily transportable solution, for lenses up to a 300mm focal length.
On the other hand, while increasing the total weight, a series 3 tripod* would enhance the ball head's attributes to the max.

*Standards being set by the leaders, I boroughed Gitzo®'s terminology of Series 2, 3 etc for tripods referring to largest leg diameter of 28mm, 32mm, and so on. Somehow, keep also in mind that a tripod's smallest leg diameter plays a significant role too.


Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball head on Benro A-296EX tripod sun
Sunwayfoto XB-44 posing on top the Benro A-298EX in the bright sun.
Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball head on Benro A-296EX tripod clamp tilted sun
So bright, that had to lower the "hat" to protect  the "eyes".
"I look smart, Don't you think? " :)

Using the Ball head
There was not sufficient time to use the ball head extensively since its arrival on April 25th but still, I'm in a position to comment on some of the excellent characteristics and some of the restrictions of this ball head.

First I can say that the hard coat mat anodizing on the ball head shell is excellent, it is non reflective, does not show hand / finger prints and is scratch proof.

Second, the stability of the ball head is exemplary under any load, even not fully locked and left at a "sweet spot" friction point when shooting. The ellipsoidal form of the ball is a great advantage. That means there is no need for much lock knob manipulation once you find a sweet spot for the camera lens combination in use, as the ball takes it from there and compensates for the increased torque when tilting. When the circumstances bring the need for locking it, e.g. strong wind,  fully locking the ball the drift is unnoticeable, I have only noticed a tiny drift when shooting with a 400mm lens (640mm equivalent on 1.6x FOVCF) which compared to other ball heads is insignificant.

Vibrations even purposely induced on the tripod or the camera, fade out really fast so even if you don't have a cable release handy, shooting with a 2sec delay can give excellent results.

The ball operation is smooth out of the box. However, after a little running in for a couple of days it became even smoother, maintaining the same characteristics under different loads, balanced or unbalanced on the head.
The large control knobs, combined with the innovative ball and base control mechanisms, are very soft in operation requiring less force than I am accustomed to with other ball heads, so that I had a tendency to over tighten them in the beginning. But more on this a little further down.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 top angle view
The grooves and the small pattern on the perimeter of all knobs ensure a firm grip under all circumstances, even with wet or greasy fingers or wearing gloves. Although there is no need in everyday use to reach the limits of tightening the knobs, excess pressure on them gives a pinchy feeling on the fingers. We can't have it all, can we?

Next, I shall go deeper into detail, for some characteristics I feel that need some improvement so as this ball head would be considered excellent in all aspects. Before reading further, everyone has to understand that a Low Profile design imposes some designing restrictions by itself. As with all things, there are some advantages and some disadvantages but for the sake of extra stability some compromises have to be made.



Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp & knob hitting body
One limitation of the Low Profile design with an extended hump on the back (apparent also in other low profile heads but not so discussed) is the inability to utilize the full 45 degree tilt backwards. Although Sunwayfoto designers have wisely moved the extending hump as low as possible compared to other manufacturers low profile heads there is still a problem, as the control knobs interfere to the free motion of the QR clamp. When tilting the clamp backwards, either the screw knob hits marginally on the Panning Lock knob (Top-left photo above) or on the oversized Friction/Lock knob. Likewise any corner of the QR clamp may hit on the Friction/Lock knob (As in the bottom-left photo above).
Of course one would simply suggest "Just turn the ball head around and tilt the QR clamp backwards as much as you like!", however doing this would place the control knobs on the other side and might cause frustration to some users as does the placement of the Friction/Lock knob on the right side due to the dual drop notch design.
Nevertheless, I trust that Sunwayfoto engineers can and will come up with a solution at least for the interference with the Panning Lock knob.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp knob stem detail
(Photo by courtesy of Sunwayfoto.com)
I can't come up with a probable solution for the interference with the large Friction/Lock knob though. Even the utilization of a much longer stem for the screw knob, as other manufacturers do, (much longer than the original design screw knob which had a stem, as depicted in the Sunwayfoto web site - photo left), could not override and stop the QR screw knob or its stem interfere with the large knob.
Only by raising the ball stem significantly would do the trick (another manufacturer solution) but this would sacrifice all the stability the extra low profile offers. No thanks.


Now coming again to the matter, regarding the corners of the QR clamp interfering with the Friction/Lock knob, that also occurs in another case bellow.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp & bubble level vs panning base
I have already mentioned previously the restriction of the extending bubble level, which may be surpassed by removal or relocation (Top-left photo above). Still there is no problem if the QR clamp is tilted sideways in portrait position, into one of the notches, although it has a marginal distance from the side wall of the body shell (Bottom-left photo above). Another problem with the clamp corners arises if one tries to tilt the QR clamp backwards or forwards, while in the portrait position. The clamp corners will hit and brush against the panning base.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 clamp vs panning base tele
For the same reason, the idea inspired to me by the Teflon ring around the ball stem, that of the ability to extend the use of the XB-44 ball head as an alternative Gimbal solution, cannot be materealized. By resting the ball stem in one of the drop notches and by attaching a long telephoto lens on the side the ball head could be used as a handy Gimbal. While the ball head holds very well and the large friction control knob is perfect for the task, then... if the lens is tilted backwards or forwards more than 24 degrees from horizontal the clamp stops, when one of its bottom corners hits against the panning base.
There are three suggestions I may address to Sunwayfoto engineers for the solution of the annoying interference of the QR clamp with other parts of the ball head.

a. Raising the height of the ball stem only by 1-1,5 mm would give the clearance to the XB-44 dedicated or any other clamp like the DLC-50 Lever release clamp to function better not hitting the panning base. This would not affect the ball head geometry match, but still it would not stop the clamp's corners from hitting on the Friction Lock knob.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 QR clamp suggestions
b. Further trimming or rounding the corners of the XB-44 QR clamp either only at the bottom or fully would give it enough clearance all around, both with the Panning base and the Friction/Locn knob, while it would maintain the maximum clamping area.


c. Finally, creating a totally new dedicated 54mm Discal Clamp like the DDY-64 would solve all the interference problems of the rectangular clamp corners. Due to the circular shape it would decrease the clamping area a little though. As I said before, we can't have it all...


Last but not least on the usage experience of the XB-44 Low Profile ball head, are the control knobs. Based on my recent experience with Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler ball head , which despite its small size has a very smooth and very gradual Friction and Panning control, which I would describe as more linear.
I was expecting something similar from the XB-44 Low Profile ball head, but mainly due to the design difference in the ball and panning lock mechanisms, things are a little different here. First, the larger knobs with their longer radius require less force to turn. Second, both the ball and panning lock mechanisms by design require less force to close and capture the ball or panning base respectively, in the beginning and stiffen as they reach the end of the knob drive. Therefore, the feeling you get by operating these knobs is very soft in the beginning but gets quite stiff towards locking. But let me elaborate a little on each one separately.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 main friction/lock knob closeup
As I have mentioned in the description, the larger Friction/Lock knob has a total drive of one and a half  rotations. The first 1/3 of rotation feels loose and it's only after 1/2 of rotation that the friction mechanism starts to have an effect on the ball movement feeling mildly stiffer until the 11 o'clock position (setting as a mark the position of the friction limiting thumb screw as in the photo above). While in the limits of this half turn, minor adjustments are very smooth and easy to be made without actually exercising any force on the knob. I would describe it as operating the Volume knob of an older stereo.
If you are used to other ball heads you might tend to over tighten the knob as I did in the beginning. Actually this is the most usable range for most medium weight camera/lens combinations or heavier combinations balanced on the lens collar foot. For example at the 12 o'clock position (one full rotation of the knob) the friction mechanism can immobilize a Canon 50D+70-200 f2.8 L IS USM clamped on the camera base plate (not balanced on the lens foot) at any angle! But more on that in my XB-44 Torque Test article that will follow.
However, after one full rotation and for another 1/2 rotation, things get really tough. Turning the knob requires much more force as it becomes really stiff. When this point is crossed, is hard to make fine adjustments and by turning the knob counterclockwise to loosen the ball a little bit, the knob turns abruptly more than required, while the locking mechanism does not respond immediately. It shows a latency to open and loosen and may require more turn of the knob to unlock or the ball has to be moved helping it. In anyway the frame is lost and needs readjustment.

The reactions of this new locking mechanism remind me of a strong wild animal but with great potential. Sunwayfoto engineers have to tame it a little. In my opinion this can be done, playing a little with the thread length/density of the screw that controls the mechanism, so as it becomes less soft in the beginning and less hard towards the end, in one word more linear and gradual. Further, I would suggest the consideration of using a spring as a counter force to help the faster release of the locking mechanism when tighten too much, in combination with use of a higher density (more sticky) silicone paste for the lubrication of the knob screw threads in order to dampen the abrupt jump when trying to unlock.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 panning lock knob closup
The panning lock control mechanism seems to be based on the same principle as the ball lock mechanism, however the reactions of the the Panning lock knob are quite milder, without any jump even when over tighten. Although the knob has a total drive of 3 rotations, only the last rotation shows to have an effect on the panning base.
The Pan Lock knob starts also easy getting stiff during the last half rotation. Towards the end of its drive it can immobilize the panning base to a rock solid lock. And I mean rock solid!
For example, turning my versatile tripod center-column horizontal, the same camera/lens combination of 50D+70-200 f2.8 as above was mount on the ball head by the camera base plate, extending horizontally out. The set was held easily without vibration and without even having to tighten fully the pan lock.
But once again, please save your appetite for more photos and details, in my XB-44 Torque Test article that will follow.

Torque Test results
Having had a limited time not only to perform all my tests on XB-44 Low Profile Ball Head, but also write down and document -a task that takes longer than anticipated- I can only say here that the ball head passed easily all preliminary load, ball and pan lock torque tests, just to prove that manufacturer specification is up to par and not only!
The maximum measured Torque of approximately 205 Kgf*cm (~2010 N*cm) is compliant to the maximum load of 40kg as declared by the manufacturer (measured directly on the ball head). This locking strength combined with the exemplary stability of the head can signify that lenses up to a focal length of 500mm can be handled. For this estimation I take into account lens lengths and weights.
To be on the safe side I would recommend the ball head for lenses up to 400mm f2.8. Maybe the ball head can cope with more, but for longer focal length and heavier lenses, using the larger XB-52 model will be more beneficial in many aspects. All the above are valid, given a quality, vibration free tripod, is used as well.

Lycabetus hill top 2km dist. Canon EOS50D+EF100-400L-IS-USM 640mm ISO100 f11 15sec
This is the low resolution sample of a photo, shot on the full moon night of 05/05/2012, from the rooftop of a 10 stories building. It was a clear night with a slight breeze.
Equipment used: Canon 50D + EF 100-400 L IS USM mounted on the Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball head by the lens collar foot + Arca plate directly, without any Long Lens Support Bracket.
Focal length 400mm (Equivalent to 640mm on 50D's crop factor ), ISO 100, f 11, exposure 15sec!, No shutter lockup, 2 sec delayed timer. Distance from subject approximately 1,8-2,0 Km (1.12-1.24 miles).
There was no other manipulation on the original raw file except for a slight increase in contrast and sharpness as I shoot with the neutral template. That's stable enough for me.
If you have enough bandwidth you may view here a High Resolution version of the photo above.
For a few more sample photos you may have a look at the 99.5% Full Moon Night... in Albums.

You may find more detailed description and info on the ball head's performance and bearing weight capacity, in the upcoming Sunwayfoto XB-44 Ball Head Torque Test.

Pros
Innovative and original design.
Exceptional machining, finishing, fitting and build quality.
Compact size and low weight.
Great stability and vibration absorption.
Very good panning friction control that permits fine tuning until a very strong panning lock.
Very smooth ball operation at all angles when a "sweet spot" is reached.
Good value for money ratio.
5 year limited warranty extension upon registration.

Cons
Limitations in Quick Release Clamp design that need reevaluation.
Friction /Lock control mechanism with long gap until to start locking the ball, leaving little space for fine adjustment.
Friction /Lock control mechanism does not un-tighten smoothly from full lock.

Conclusion
Having in mind that this is a newly released product with an innovative approach to the low profile design, some operational irregularities or small design flaws that need improvement may be expected.
Sunwayfoto's public Invitation for testing and reviewing the new XB ball head series, declares a company that lacks arrogance and accepts well intended criticism for the betterment of their products.
On the other hand a few minor flaws cannot obscure the built quality, the great stability and the smoothness of operation under different loads.
Therefore, I consider the XB-44 Low Profile Ball Head a top product, which after a little refinement yet may be ranked above competition.

Disclaimer:
This review and test was run on a single product sample, using the specifically described methods. Although the findings are good and some overcame the expectations for the product, it can not be used as a rule, unless more samples of the same product are tested. Furthermore, similar comparison tests should be run with comparative capabilities products so as to reach a solid conclusion.

As this is a very innovative and interesting ball head design, I got carried away with the length of this review.
I apologize and hope you found the article interesting and useful, thank you for viewing and your patience if you read so far.

Update: July 2012
XB-44 Low Profile ball head is now available also as model XB-44DD2
with a DDH-02 Panning Clamp



Update: August 2012
A Useful Friction Tool by Sunwayfoto




Update: October 2012
Sunwayfoto XB and FB Series Manuals Available for Download

All Photos & Photosynths: © 2012 S.C.Vlachos
Photos by courtesy of Sunwayfoto.com are individually tagged.

Availability:
Sunwayfoto XB-44,  Sunwayfoto XB-44DD2  from Amazon.com

Relevant Articles:
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler Ball Head Review
Sunwayfoto DLC-42 Duo Lever/Knob Quick Release Clamp Review
Benro B-2 Ball Head Review
Triopo RS-3 Ball Head Review

Referenced Articles:
Benro A-298EX Versatile Tripod Review

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