REVIEW : Broncolor Siros S

I want to give a shout out to Rod Macleod of Henry's Professional Services and Henry's Rentals for making this Siros kit available to me.

Introduction

Broncolor is known by professional photographers and demanding enthusiasts the world over.  My first experience was a very long time ago with a product called the Broncolor Hazy.  If I recall correctly, it was similar to today's Hazylight, basically a flash modifier simliar to a softboxbut rigid.  The light as I remember it was beautiful, but for a number of reasons I ceased having the opportunity to work with Bron products for a very long time.

I was chatting with Rod recently about the growing trend for demanding enthusiasts and developing pros to move up from the entry level studio heads that had been so popular six or seven years ago, instead demanding higher quality and a certain reputation that comes from using the best gear.  Gear doesn't make one a better artist, but better gear certainly can give you more time to be that artist and to spend less time in frustration.

Bron made their bones with separate flash heads and power packs, and to be fair, they still do amazing kit in this space.  However, what many photographers want these days is something portable and easy to carry.  Battery power is nice, but it's not a priority for their use cases.  AC is reliable and delivers really short recycle times, critical when you have to work efficiently and swiftly.  That said, Broncolor has since announced the Siros L, basically Siros on a battery and this is pretty darn cool.

We understand that strobes bring the power.  We also understand that the idea of a self contained unit where the flash tube and the power supply are in the same case is really popular.   These units are often called Monolights or monoblocs.  This is where Bron delivers their lineup called Siros.

The Unboxing

The Siros kit came in two carry bags.  The top bag held a pair of simple Broncolor branded light stands.  They are much like any other air cushioned style stand except that the leg release is a circumferential twist lock.  It's different and quick to use.  The height adjustment locks are the typically knob type and have a spring levered pressure plate.  You can have them loosely tight to turn the stand section but prevent it from moving up or down.  Lock it in and nothings moves.  Very efficient.

Also in the bag is a Broncolor black backed silver umbrella.  It's a couple of feet in diameter, has a short shaft and is well put together from high end materials.  People ask me how to tell good umbrella material from not so good.  You'll know it when you feel it.  It's robust without being all plasticky.  The umbrella is big enough for head shots and appears to be a wide parabola, so the falloff is quite smooth.  As you'll learn when we talk about the heads, there is an umbrella shaft channel built right into the Siros casing, so no extra clamps or mounts are required. 

Next up is a 60cm x 60cm softbox.  Again the materials are excellent.  The softbox mounts to the supplied speedring with four colour coded rods and set up is very easy.  The speedring is the usual styleof this sort of thing with an insert to mount to the Broncolor Siros heads.  The Broncolor mount is a two blade bayonet style mount, with two different sized flanges on the bayonet.  You cannot get it wrong.  There is a locking stud to keep things from falling apart, and the entire speedring can rotate through nearly 360 degrees when mounted so you can orient the softbox to your choice.  The smaller size of the softbox negates the delivery of two diffusers.  The main diffuser velcros into place, and the mounting strips allow you to recess the diffuser to make a feathering softbox very simple. 

The second bag is a bit larger and has two well padded semi-solid casings to hold the Siros heads.  They fit snugly, and there is a space for the AC cords, the sync cords and the case that holds the RFS 2.1 radio remote.  This case has a number of locking fasteners to attach the two bags together and also has a drag handle and high resiliance casters to make walking the bag kit simpler than carrying everything.  I had to deal with many stairs and it is possible to carry the complete kit one handed, but it is rather heavy so you and your own muscles can decide your course.  The bag construction is excellent with really nice materials and good fit and finish on both pieces.  It's subjective, but you defintely have the sense that you are handling top line kit, even before opening the bags.

My kit came with a pair of 400ws heads, although there is also a kit with 800ws heads in the Siros lineup.  Broncolor is swiss so think minimalist, clean functional design.  The monolight casings are metal instead of the plastic we find in other lines.   The AC jack, power switch and sync cable input are all on the bottom of the monolight.  The unit has a carry handle and a very high quality tilt locking mechanism.  The front of the light is by default an integrated reflector.  The flash tube is protected by a ventilated glass cover, and there is a diffusion plate in front of this to help deal with hot spotting.  As is expected in a studio strobe, there is also a modeling light, and it can be used at full power or proportional mode to match the flash output settings and of course can be turned off.  This appears to be a halogen modeling light instead of LED so it is nice and bright, but also generates heat, so you would not want to use plastic fittings or modifier mounts on a Siros light.  The back panel is very clean and easy to use.  There is a large silver knob that also functions as a momentary switch.  You can make all the settings on the head with this one knob.  You will control power, studio set, lamp set, Radio sync or slave, high speed as well as an internal WiFi network.  I'll speak more about the WiFi in the user experience section, but it's very nice.  The display is large and easy to read and delivers its data in a nice blue colour that will not make your eyes bleed, particularly in a darkened studio.

The kit also contained the Broncolor RFS 2.1 Transceiver.   This very small transmitter / receiver can mount to a hot shoe or connect to a PC sync port using the supplied cable.  If you plug in the USB connection, it switches automatically to receiver mode for use with systems that do not have a built in RFS receiver.  The unit has four buttons, Set, Test, Up and Down.  Everything you need to do can be done here simply by holding a button for a short, medium or longer time to change functions.  You're going to want to read the documentation on this little guy.  Basic use is intuitive, advanced is not.  To work as a transmitter, the unit must have a CR2450 Lithium battery installed.  The unit I received had a dead battery, these things happen, so I needed to buy a replacement.  The battery is about the size of a quarter and delivers 3V.  They are not overly commonplace, so I would carry a few spares although with proper management it could last a very long time. 

Real World Use

I setup a light stand in the studio from the kit and mounted up the first head.  It's pretty straightforward.  I liked that the umbrella channel is already in the head and also liked that the Broncolor umbrella shaft is optimized for proper umbrella coverage when the shaft is fully inserted.  You can still play with this, but it's a little thing that I appreciated as will folks needing to work quickly or still building expertise.  I connected the head to a 1D Mark IV via sync cable for the first set of tests because I needed to go get a new battery for the transmitter.  It was at this point that I read the sparse documentation on the Wifi functionality.  I downloaded the BronControl app from the Apple Store (an Android version exists as well) and then connected to the private WiFi network that the Siros creates.  I then launched the BronControl app and found that I could control all the settings on the head from my iPhone.  The user interface is extremely well designed and the numbers and virtual buttons are large and easy to use.  Working this way and without my trusty flashmeter, I was at proper exposure in three test shots. 

The silver umbrella was punchier than I expected for its size and to get decent softness with it you need to get it in quite tight.  The softbox, was larger and produced a light that I preferred.  This is not a surprise to me, I tend to go softbox over umbrella most of the time.  That's a personal choice thing, you should use what you like.  Recycle time was near instant, even when I ran the power up full.  Full is 400ws and compared to even a really good speed light, that's eight times more powerful.  So for product work, there's more than enough power to use small apertures.  Dropped down to minimum, there's just enough light to be able to use the Siros for very subtle and gentle fill.  A two head set is going to be very flexible and by throwing a reflector into the mix, you could very well have all you will need.

Power output control is in one-tenth of a stop.  You can cycle up and down very quickly, slowing down gives you fine control.  I really prefer this to the one knob for full stop, a separate knob for one tenth stop system that some other brands use.  For me, it's about speed and precision simultaneously.

I like that there is WiFi to a smartphone to control setttings.  I also like that Broncolor will be delivering support for Enterprise Wlan in a later version of the app.  The button exists in the version that I am using, but Enterprise Wlan was not functional during my testing.  In this mode, you could put your Siros heads on your studio or business WiFi network and thus be able to keep your smart device on the business network and control your lights at the same time.  When working in the studio that would be my preference however while on location, having the head maintained WiFi would be optimal.  Good to see this level of thinking and I know that this will be a real benefit.

 Screen capture from the Broncolor app on my iPhone

Screen capture from the Broncolor app on my iPhone

I really appreciate the size and simplicity of the screen layout on the app.  As I get older, my patience with teensy type and artsy pastel colour schemes has vanished.

There are some people who say that a flash is a flash is a flash.  From a technology of flashtube perspective, that's mostly true, but a flash is more than just the tube, and there is a different quality of light from better heads.  You as the user should do your own tests, but I see a difference in the quality of light even over very good mid-tier strobes.  Broncolor units are not inexpensive, but in my experience, the quality of their light is nicer than many less expensive offerings.  You will have to decide if that, amongst the other benefits, is worth the investment differential.

When using the modelling lamps, you are definitely generating some on set heat.  This is no different from any other strobe that uses halogens for modelling lamps.  It's another reason why you will pay a bit more for Broncolor light modifiers as I have seen some inexpensive offshore units go yellow over time because of heat.  Quality does have a cost.  Without the modelling lights on, the Siros heads are completely silent except for the alert beep, which is silenceable.  When the modelling lights are on, particularly when in full power mode, built in fans are running to manage temperatures.  The sound is not awfully loud, but loud enough that it could impact quiet conversation or instruction and would definitely be heard if you were filming a video while doing a photo shoot.

Unlike some vendor offerings, the AC power cables are good and long and the cabling is heavy duty.  Expect cables to get walked on, taped down and otherwise take a fair bit of stress over their lifecycle.  I like the durability but am less fond of the connection point on the bottom of the Siros.  This position maintains the look of the unit, but in practical use, you will want to use a cable tie to bind the AC cable to the handle or the stand to prevent inadvertently pulling it out of the receptable.  The power switch is right beside the receptacle and is inset, so turning the unit off or on is a very deliberate act.  The fuse holder is on the opposite side and is easily accessible.  I experienced no issues at all in my testing but would advocate having a spare fuse per head in your working kit.

The supplied Broncolor light stands are decent.  I like that they are air cushioned, and they are light enough for ready cartage, but I personally find them a bit lightweight for studio work.  Perhaps this is because I am sometimes clumsy, but more because I like to use booms for greater flexibility in positioning the heads.  These stands are not tough enough to take even a lightweight arm.  They will get you by, but for serious use, you will want to consider C stands or even a tougher light stand such as a Manfrotto 420B.  Check your own use cases and work accordingly.

I had the lights for a limited amount of time and so did many tests using my passive model Darla.  She can be a bit creepy but she sure can hold the same expression for days.  Some example images are included here.  I use Darla for skintone rendition testing very often and I found that the Siros lights do a fabulous job on skin tone.  Hair is often a challenge for some strobes, but the variegated blonde that Darla wears was rendered really nicely with good highlights and shadows and no discernable colour cast.  Leaving the lights powered on produced no colour shift over time, again a differentiator versus less sophisticated systems.

 Yes, she is creepy but she can really hold a pose

Yes, she is creepy but she can really hold a pose

Next I convinced my daughter Dagny to come into the studio for some quick headshots.  As often happens, she had limited time but we managed to spend about 10 minutes with the camera and the Siros S.  This image is a single head in the 60x60 softbox, set about 3 feet away and up to the left.  The Siros S light was very nice and I liked the out of camera RAWs for colouration as I did not have to do any colour adjustment even given her naturally pale skin.  The image is retouched in Lightroom as all my RAW images get some level of processing, with live beings getting much more attention than those made of plastic and plaster.

Dagny.jpg

Conclusions

The Broncolor Siros system is superb.  Set up is easy, controls are clear, and performance across the board is consistently excellent.  They are also quite beautiful and don't look like they were put together in the garage from scraps and labelled with all the available Letraset lettering fonts.  The industrial design is gorgeous but it wouldn't matter one iota if the lights didn't work well.  You can get brochures and documentation at Bron's site.  My use cases were limited somewhat by the gear I had as part of the evaluation.  As professional gear, there are a great many light modifiers available in the Broncolor family.  I really like that the Siros are usable right out of the box without having to drop more money on mountable reflectors, but when the time comes that you need one, Broncolor delivers many options.  In addition to the standard expected reflectors, Broncolor does a number of specialized shapers including flood domes, spots, snoots, and the aforementioned Hazylight.  As one should expect, the power of a solution like a Broncolor is more than just the heads, it's that you are buying into a system, a system that is proven and has been proven for decades.  In the softbox family you will find everything you might be seeking, from squares to rectangles to octas to strips.  Broncolor also make a line of umbrellas of either 85cm or 105cm diameters.  They may have fewer total shaping options than some other vendors, but there is nothing conspicuously missing.  I admit, it took a little time to get used to the bayonet mount for reflectors and accessories, I could have been quicker had I read the manual first, but once I had it figured out, it's very quick and the protective dome reduces a lot of the stress involved in shaper changes under pressure.

The Siros S 400 Expert kit (the S is the more flexible flashtube with greater duration range) including the two bags, the two stands, the umbrella, the softbox, the speedring, cables and the RFS 2.1 transceiver retails for approximately $4400.  You can certainly buy similar power and features for less, but respectfully, I think that you are also getting less.  Knowing what I know now, after many years at this and having bought into other strobe systems only to outgrow them or become frustrated by their limitations, I would definitely put the Siros S system on my qualified list.  I would pay more up front, but would expect to get longer life and greater flexibility and reliability out of this system.