Introduction: The Broncolor Senso A2

Introduction

Broncolor, Swiss maker of fine lighting equipment, holds a long-established seat in the elite ranks of the industry’s finest.  Among the finest and also the priciest, Bron packs are known for scientific accuracy and a degree of control to satisfy the most laser-eyed among us.  Ranged around the Broncolor standard are several high end industry heavy weights from the inescapable line of giant Para reflectors to the mighty Scoro strobe packs.

While other companies are content to offer both high end and entry level products, that division has never suited Bron.  The company has never gone head-to-head with more economically accessible product lines like the Profoto Acute.  The recent introduction of the Senso/Litos line is a bold move, then, calculated to extend the school of Bron science to a new classroom, the entry level.

The Senso A2 1200 Ws pack is compact, flexible, easy-to-operate, easy to tote around, and affordable for a wide range of photographers.  It is Broncolor’s direct attack on Profoto’s Acute line, and it is certain to be very tough competition.

Features

The Broncolor Senso has outlets for three lamps and can operate any Broncolor strobe head.  The three plugs are divided into two channels that can either evenly divide power or operate independently.  Each of the two channels has a three-way rocker switch for full, half, or quarter power and a pair of silicone buttons offering fine tuning in tenth-stop increments over an additional two-and-a-half-stop range.  The combination allows a degree of asymmetry between channels unique at this price point, and an easy and intuitive way to dial in light with pinpoint accuracy.

The box is tripped in one of three ways, via an on-board eye, eighth-inch sync plug, or a built-in radio receiver (RFS 2).  Broncolor’s proprietary RFS 2 transceiver can both fire the pack and dial its power level up or down in tenth and whole stop increments (and it does both from a stylish little box with excellent build quality).

The pack’s top panel is clearly laid out and easy to use.  Two bright blue digital-clock style readouts indicate the current power of each channel and can be set to read in either f stops or Watt seconds by holding the test button for two seconds (Broncolor typically use the Ws-interchangeable scientific unit “Joules,” but not on the Senso’s printed markings).  An “aux” button flips through three options: RFS address, slow or fast recycling, and ready beep or no ready beep (aka “buz”).  With an option selected, the silicone up and down keys make a selection.

Four settings have been given dedicated keys, “cell” to activate the pack’s slave for old school wireless tripping, “rf” to activate RFS tripping, “mod” to engage modeling bulbs, and “full/prop” to set modeling bulbs to either full power or power proportional to strobe output.  The buttons are all firm and operate with an affirming pop.  The silicone is high quality and, according to the manual, dust and weather proof (in our demo kit, Bron also included a cute little clear raincoat for the pack).  While quick presses dial power up and down in tenth stop increments, a long press on the fine adjustment keys allows full-stop jumps.  A long press on both the “mod” and “aux” keys bring up a menu allowing photographers to adjust a few parameters and to see things like how many times the pack has fired and the current software version.

Besides the two full/half/quarter rockers, The Senso has two more hefty plastic switches, an on/off control on the side by the standard AC connection and a switch to choose between symmetric and asymmetric operation of the dual channels.  while in symmetric mode, only the top power read out and fine adjustment buttons are engaged, though both full/half/quarter switches still function, allowing, full/seven-eighths/three-quaters/five-eigths/half… etc.

The pack puts out 1200 Ws and has a bigger brother, the A4, that puts out 2400 Ws.  According to Broncolor, the pack has respectable recharging time ranging from 0.4 to 2.7 s depending on available power and power settings on the pack.  Less impressive is the pack’s rated flash duration, listed as ranging from 1/180 to 1/360 s (t 0.1) with Litos heads and only 1/100 to 1/200 s (t 0.1 s) driving Pulso G or Unilite heads.  As we put the pack through testing over the coming weeks, I look forward to determining if the lackluster speed numbers affect shooting.  On paper, it’s the most obvious area of compromise compared to pricier Bron packs.  (See “Considerations” below for results from our initial testing.)

Edit: Bron Imaging, Broncolor’s US distributor, has brought to our attention that the pack is rated in t 0.1 terms, while many competitors list in t 0.5.  Broncolor’s provided flash duration stats for the Senso A2, 1/180s – 1/2200s specify the amount of time needed for 90% of strobe power to be delivered.  In t 0.5 terms – the amount of time needed for one half of strobe power to emit – Broncolor tells us the pack ranges from 1/600s to a striking 1/6800s.  The pack’s downloadable data sheet from Broncolor.com lists the pack’s t 0.1 full-power duration as 1/100s and its t 0.5 duration as 1/300s, so Bron Imaging’s number is less conservative.  Our findings, based purely on exposure, indicate Bron Imaging has the right number, not Broncolor: t 0.1 1/180s aka t 0.5 1/600s.  Also, I’d point out that the frequently given t 0.5 value has little real world application, while t 0.1 is 90% useful… More on that in our July issue!

The pack has a selector switch for 115 or 230 v power input and should operate happily world-wide.  Broncolor recommends replacing modeling bulbs to match local current, though the pack has a built-in 110 v modeling bulb limiter that can be engaged via the aux+mod menu.  Its trademark teal handle is wonderfully rubberized as are all four corners.  the Senso has little metal rings for feet, which are isolated from the body via the rubber corner guards on which they’re mounted.  Once the little box heats up, a quiet fan kicks on to keep it cool.

On the Job

The Broncolor Senso’s interface is very easy to use.  When the pack first arrived, I read through the manual, searching for hidden features, shortcuts, or surprises.  There are a couple, like the hidden mod+aux menu mentioned above and the unique use of both full/half/quarter switches in symmetric mode.  Nothing, though, prevents the interface from being thoroughly intuitive and fun to use.  It’s not mega brainy like some bigger Brons, but, by comparison, is geared for streamlined shooting on the go.  I love the feel of the keys and clear visual and audible feedback.

Strobe heads are connected with Bron’s standard plug, which is a long thing that never feels quite right at first.  With practice, it becomes quick and satisfying to use, both firmly locking and popping in and out with one quick motion.  To connect, jam the top edge in and press down to lock in the bottom with metal clips on the pack.  Once connected, it makes for a nice looking photo set, with cables exiting downward and flush to the box, not at wonky right angles or straight up as on most other packs.  It keeps the control panel clear for action and is wonderfully free of locking collars or aligning dots.

Once things are hooked up, the pack comes to life with a dazzling blue display.  The LEDs and power readouts are really something to see: clear, clean, and vividly easy to read.  The ready light glows with a futuristic blue (should we say “post-futuristic” in 2011?)  Our demo Litos heads pop with an audible clap and the pack recycles with what may be the industry’s most prominent ready beep (clap…. BEEP!)  After a few pops, cooling fans come to life in the strobe heads and aboard the pack.  Mounted in the thick, rubber-clad box, the Senso fan can barely be heard.

Taken as a package, the Senso, Litos, and RFS 2 is a smooth, compact, and smartly designed system that is sure to have a wide range of appeal.  It’s Broncolor tech that packs into a suitcase fit for an airline overhead compartment, which is impressively minute for so sophisticated and flexible a system.

The Senso’s Place in Broncolor’s Line

The current Broncolor lineup of strobe packs are divided into a range of six families, with the Senso, they are: Mobil, Verso, Grafit, Topas, and Scoro.  The Scoro is Bron’s top of the line family of packs with a staggering feature set and $8,000-$12,000 price to match.  Scorsos are fast, cover a nine-stop range, and allow color temperature control.

The Grafit line is Bron’s upper-mid-range offering, ranging in price from $7,000-$11,000.  These are fast packs with adjustable duration down to a rated 1/7500s (t 0.1).  They auto-adjust color and allow internal RFS 2 control.

In roughly the same price range, the Verso line trades in the Grafit’s speed and some of its programable flexibility for the useful ability to run off either AC power or an attachable battery unit.  It is Bron’s high end travel pack, and brings impressive asymmetric studio control to battery-powered lighting.

The Topas, is a high-tech, high power line of packs, offering programability and high-power precision.  Broncolor describes Topas as the workhorse of the lineup.

The Senso’s closest battery-powered sibling, and answer to the Profoto Acute B, is the Mobil line.  They are relatively simple and compact packs compared to bigger Brons, but offer go-anywhere battery power with a nice range of speed and adjustment range.  Unlike the Senso, Mobil packs have connections for only two heads and, while they can power a wide range of Broncolor heads, they can only power modeling bulbs for Mobil heads.

The Senso, then, enters the Broncolor lineup as a true entry level studio pack, offering a tremendous amount of Bron controllability for a much lower price.  It is a considerably more economically-friendly option than mid-range Grafit and Verso packs, though photographers needing short strobe durations or fast recycling are unlikely to be satisfied, except for adding a compact and simple additional pack to an existing mid-range or high-end Bron rig (The Senso, after all, can power any Broncolor head and is as small as a lunchbox).

Photographers interested in Broncolor lighting, but on a budget, will likely also consider Bron’s Minicom monolights.  As monolights, they function without a pack, and come in a wide range of power options.  An entry level kit, consisting of two 300Ws heads, stands, and cases, sells for roughly the same price as the Senso A2 2-head kit, and is an interesting alternative.  Monolights are nice to have, especially as a clean addition to an existing kit, they can be placed anywhere on a set and run with standard AC extension cords.  Packs advantageously relocate weight and controls (along with the majority of the financial investment) to the ground and typically offer more power and control range per dollar.

Market Possition

The Senso A2 can be ordered as a $4,154 kit including the pack, two Litos heads, a simple 28″ square softbox, Bron speed ring, built-in RFS 2 receiver, and a snazzy zippered hard case emblazoned with Broncolor’s logo.  The whole kit is tough and compact, slightly smaller than the Pelican 1600 cases I use for my studio’s location lighting kits.  At that price point, with today’s prices, the kit is within $6 of an Acute 2R 1200 pack and similarly equipped.  The addition of soft box, and especially a speed ring, is nice a consideration.  It’s notable that the included Litos strobe heads have smartly designed covers that reverse to function as simple reflectors for umbrella or hard light use, but the Profoto kit includes full-size traditional reflectors that add a useful focusing function.

The 2400 watt A4 can be ordered as part of the Senso 42 kit, here.

In terms of price, the two kits are obviously head-to head competitors.  We’ll certainly dig into the comparison in a future article.  Profoto, though, isn’t the only company competing in the compact light kit arena.  Reprinted from our recent Acute 2R introduction (read it here) here are a few others worth consideration:

Dynalite MK-16-1222 Roadmax 1600, 1600 W/s, supports 4 heads, Internal Pocket Wizard receiver, 6-stop range
$2,350 with 2 heads, case, stands, and 2 umbrellas

American-made Dynalite has a cult-following among location photographer who like to travel light and light with strobes.  They are hard to beat for compact dimensions and light weight.  The Roadmax 1600 is a new pack offering a wide range of output adjustment in a travel-sized package.  It is also available in 800 W/s form.

Speedotron 1005 Deluxe Location Kit, 1000 W/s, supports 4 heads, 2-stop range,
$1,835 with 2 202VF heads, reflectors, case, stands, and 2 umbrellas

Speedotron is an American classic, known for robust construction and longevity.  Speedo gear is easy to find used and for rent.  The relatively new 1005 pack is uniquely compact for a Speedotron pack and strikes a nice balance between size and power for the location photographer.  Compared to European competition, Speedotron keeps it simple, low-cost, and sturdy.

Norman D12R Pack 2, 1200 W/s, supports 4 heads, Internal Pocket Wizard receiver, 5-stop range
$2,950 with 2 heads, reflectors, case, stands, and 2 umbrellas

Norman is another American mainstay with a long history of robust, straight-forward lights.  In recent years, Norman has gone high-tech, creating feature-rich packs, priced competitively below European competition.

Elinchrom is, perhaps, the Dynalite of Europe, specializing in location gear.  Unlike Dynalite, Elinchrom offers a wide range of battery-powered packs and has a unique dedication to monolights (self-contained strobe heads without a pack).  They also offer a wide range of remote control options (check out the Skyport Universal system as an economy-friendly Pocket Wizard alternative) and modifiers (notably the incredible 74-inch Elinchrom Octa-bank).

I haven’t listed a specific Elinchrom competitor to the Senso, because Elinchrom works too differently to draw a sensible comparison from their product line.  They’re worth a look, though, for photographers considering a new light kit.

Selling Points

With the new Senso/Litos product line, Broncolor is entering a whole new market.  The pack brings a lot of what makes high-end Bron gear standard equipment for the industry to a more widely accessible price point.  The Senso packs a lot of power (1200Ws) for its size and offers amazingly precise control with a high level of asymmetry and digitally precise feedback.  Its user interface is clean, easy, and highly functional, making high tech lighting as easy as ever.

The pack can accept all Broncolor heads and world-wide AC  power.  When purchased as a kit, it includes Broncolor’s excellent new compact heads, the Litos, which are tiny, powerful, robust, and smartly designed.  The whole kit packs into an overhead-compartment sized zippered hard case and is ready to travel.

Build quality is excellent, with oversized rubber bumpers and nice-feeling materials on every side.  If the Profoto Acute line feels like worthy military hardware, the Broncolor Senso line feels made for NASA.  Indeed this box would fit in nicely as a prop in some futuristic space-flight movie, especially once powered up and brightly glowing with blue LEDs and dual digital readouts.

When compared to similarly-priced models from competitors, the Senso brings an astonishing level of precise control.  It offers digital button-pressing fine tuning in 1/10 stop increments and familiar full-half-quarter rocker switches to dial in big changes.  Both controls can be set for full asymmetry, making this a powerfully flexible first studio pack or location pack that brings the studio precision to the field.

It’s a pack that looks, feels, and operates like its big brothers, which is to say it’s about the best in the business.  This is a great new way for photographers to start assembling a high-end lighting kit, as it’ll be fully compatible with big Bron boxes and heads and is an excellent introduction to the bigger systems.

It’s also highly portable, packing away, with two heads and a small softbox, into a tight little case that would impress even Dynalite shooters.  Though the Profoto Acute 2 packs are smaller, the whole Senso/Litos line is compact, from the new Litos heads, to the flat speed rings, to the minute RFS 2 transceivers.  Combined with a wide range of asymmetry and power-down ability, the pack will serve location shooters well, though I’d like to see a shorter duration for the H-series, S2, and 645DF shooters out there syncing strobes at 1/500s, 1/800s, or even 1/1600s.

Considerations

To sell a strobe pack for a fraction of the price of Grafit, Verso, and Scoro units, Broncolor had to compromise in a few areas.  Those areas appear to have been largely related to flash duration.  According to Broncolor, at full power,the pack tops out at 1/180s (t 0.1) and that’s a stat of critical importance to a few photographers.  Those photographers will want to look higher up the black and teal lineup.

As a test, I set up a shoot with a Nikon D3, a camera that strobe syncs up to a not-atypical 1/250s.  With only strobe light lighting the scene, I would not expect to observe an exposure difference between 1/100s and a 1/250s exposure times (with aperture, ISO, and strobe settings unchanged).  Yet, disappointingly, there is obvious exposure falloff between the two settings.  Clearly, at 1/250s, the Nikon is capturing only a portion of the full strobe pop.  Also, with the pack at half power, the same exposure falloff is noticeable, though to a much lesser degree.  It can be accounted for, when setting exposure, but will be a frustration while balancing ambient and strobe light, as both will be altered by exposure settings, as opposed to only ambient exposure with a quicker pack (a Grafit pack pumping off shots at 1/1700s, for example, doesn’t care one bit if the shutter is 1/60s or 1/800s).  With the Senso, even Canon shooters with a lowly 1/200s max sync will notice falloff between 1/100s and 1/200.  Pentax and non-LS Mamiya 645 shooters limited to 1/125s, well, they might be alright as long as fast action freezing isn’t on the shot list.

Edit: Our findings regarding light falloff make sense, assuming new flash duration numbers provided by Bron Imaging, Broncolor’s US distributor, are accurate.  They’ve told Photo Arts Monthly that the pack rates 1/180s minimum duration at full power in t 0.1 terms.  A camera exposure lasting 1/250s, therefore, is too brief to benefit from the full 1200W of strobe power.

In our next article on the Senso, we’ll take a close look at speed and test images and report back.  I look forward to it!  In the meantime, it’d be worth reading through our speed test with the Profoto Acute 2R (read it here) which as luck would have it, is a pretty quick pack (though will a lower degree of control).

The kit’s Litos heads, which we’ll review fully in a future article, are wonderfully compact and smartly designed.  A front cover reverses to form a simple umbrella or direct light reflector with a nice spread, making the overall kit significantly more compact compared to Profoto Acute heads.  With built-in aiming wand, umbrella mount, cooling fan, and tough molded construction, they are vaguely reminiscent of Speedotron’s utilitarian and very good 202VF heads.  By contrast, though, Litos heads are smaller, feature a thermostat-controlled cooling fan, and include Bron’s standard modifier attachment system.  The accessory mount accepts the full range of Broncolor modifiers (not including the smaller Mobil mount) and, according to the company, the heads can be connected to any Broncolor pack.

Conclusion

An exciting new product for studios, location shooters, and rental services, the Broncolor Senso A2 is a highly capable strobe pack in a beefy little box.  It brings a high level of digital precision to a new entry-level point.  When compared to mid-range and high-end Broncolor gear, gear that may well be six times the price, the pack surrenders varying degrees of asymmetry, power, degree of control, and especially speed.  When compared more fairly to actual competitors, the pack brings High Tech in high doses and is certain to find a very happy following.

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The Broncolor Senso A2 at Samy’s Camera

The Broncolor Senso Kit 22 at Samy’s Camera

The Broncolor Senso Kit 42 at Samy’s Camera

 

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by Matt Beardsley  – all photography by Matt Beardsley

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