Sun Star Strobo Big Monostar 600

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Two synch outlets are a nice touch, but the flash head outlet sure makes this unit versatile.

Many of you may have seen my review last April of the Sun Star Strobo Mini-1200 flash system. At the time Sun Star Strobo was an all but unheard of flash manufacturer, producing a full line of impressive looking studio flash equipment. The Mini Series initially caught my eye at a trade show, and after reviewing the unit for Shutterbug, it seemed clear that Sun Star Strobo would become a familiar name in pro shops across the country.

In the nearly one year since that first review, Sun Star has indeed become a hot prospect. At last October's PhotoPlus show in New York they unveiled a number of new accessories for the Mini Series, a tiny but amazingly bright HMI light for cinematography and digital photography, and two brand new Monolites. Wading through the crowds at the booth, I was able to get a good look at the HMI light, which was awesome but well out of my price range, and the two new monolites. I don't consider myself a monolite guy, but these looked so good that I thought I would inquire further.

While the reasonably priced and very lightweight Monostar-400 looked very nice, it was the bigger "Big Monostar-600" that really intrigued me. Unlike most other monolites, the Big Monostar doesn't just pump its internal flash power through one flash tube. Instead, it offers an auxiliary jack just like a power pack and can divide the light between both flash tubes. Why bother, you ask? Simple--portability. A Big Monostar and a Sun Star MFH-25 head is much smaller and more portable than two heads, a power pack, and two flash cables. In fact, a brilliant little location kit can be assembled from two Big Monostar monolites, two MFH-25 Mini heads, and a pair of flash cables. This gives you 1200 ws divided through four heads, and each monolite/head group can be controlled individually. A setup like this can be carried in a small Lightware case and probably hand carried on an airplane, yet should be light enough to cover most pro assignments.

Packing 600 ws of actual power and pumping out enough light to compete with 1200 ws packs, the Big Monostar-600 is a serious threat to the traditional pack/head setup favored by most pros.

While innovative, this approach is not new. Balcar has been offering Monobloc monolites for years with a flash outlet and asymmetrical switching. While convenient, the Monoblocs were very large and needed a heavy-duty light stand to avoid the risk of having the unit crash to the floor. (This kind of defeats the purpose of having a portable rig in the first place.) While larger and heavier than many monolites, the Big Monostar is of reasonable size and weight--weighing in at a svelte 5.63 lbs, it is about 1/3 the size and 1/2 the weight of my Balcar Monobloc 2.

To really see if this unit could compete with the power pack/head setup that I had been using, I had Sun Star Strobo ship me a Big Monostar-600 and an MFH-25 Mini Head. Upon arrival I was once again impressed with the overall construction quality of the gear. The light stand mounts were solid machined aluminum, the flash tubes securely attached to the heads, and the cables capped with elegant anodized aluminum fittings. While these things don't change the quality or quantity of the light, they indicate that this is serious equipment built to last.
The Big Monostar head offers all of the modern flash features that I have come to expect. There is a separate switch for flash and modeling lamp output, warning indicators for overheating and no-flash, a full 1/16 power attenuator, and a built-in slave eye. The flash attenuator can track the modeling lamp as well or the lamp can remain at full power. The red recycle indicator is big and very bright, and there is an audible recycle alert available if preferred. The bottom of the unit features an AC power input, a pair of input jacks, (a nice touch, since a radio remote and a hard wire can be connected at the same time), and that desirable flash head connector. All of the switches and fittings appear to be of very high quality, and there are none of those cheap plastic rocker switches that show up on most budget monolites.

Here's the slick part--plug an external flash head into the bottom of the Big Monostar-600 and you've got the versatility and portability of a power pack. Light output from the monolite slaved to a head is roughly the same as my 1200 ws power pack pumped through two studio flash heads. That's pretty impressive efficiency.

The surest sign that this is a rugged unit is apparent when you power it up, as you can hear the internal cooling fan whirring. Like all of the Sun Star gear, it is a fast fan that seems to move a lot of air. I left the unit on for several hours with the modeling lamp on and when I touched the case it was cool as a cucumber. It makes a lot of sense to fan cool a monolite, since the hit modeling lamp and the head generated by the flash tube will eventually decay the flash caps in the power section. A fast fan helps keep things very cool, which should extend the life of this unit. It is surprising that more manufacturers don't utilize cooling fans in their monolites.

Once setup with a 7" reflector, it was time to see what kind of light output this beauty delivered. To compare light output, I hooked up my own Balcar Monobloc 2 in a 7" polished reflector. A direct reading at about 3m with the 600 ws Monostar yielded a reading of about f/22 at EI 100. The mighty Monobloc, with a rated 1600 ws of power yielded a surprising f/22.5. How could this be? A 1600 ws unit should deliver at least 11/2 f/stop more light, not a measly 1/2 stop. A few comparisons with some other gear in my studio--some old and some brand new confirmed what I thought...this is one efficient little unit. I would say that the Big Monostar easily equals the light output of a 1200 ws power pack and head. Even divided with a second head, I was still able to equal the light output of a 1200 ws pack and two heads.

Whether bounced through an umbrella or fired through a softbox, the Big Monostar held its own with several good 1200 ws power packs. Recycle time is a brisk 1.7 sec, although there is no switch for slower recycle. Since the unit only pulls a maximum of 8 amps, this shouldn't be a problem.

One of the major drawbacks of a unit like this for general photography is that you're perching your whole power supply up there on the top of the light stand or at the end of a boom. While a regular head might weigh 2-21/2 lbs. The Big Monostar is almost 6 lbs. At the end of a Bogen Super Boom the Big Monostar really seems precarious. A much better solution is to use the Big Monostar on a solid light stand and put the Mini Head at the end of the boom. I found that even on a lightweight Photoflex location stand the Big Monostar seemed solid, a far cry from my heavy Balcar Monobloc. The one weakness of the Big Monostar is the lack of asymmetrical power switching like the Monobloc has. It would be nice to occasionally use the Big Monostar as a power pack only and pump all 600 ws through an external head, but power distribution is only symmetrical.

While monolites are often thought of as the portrait photographer's best friend, I used this unit for a few weeks on a number of location assignments, and positively fell in love with it. A really nice feature of all the Sun Star units is their amazingly sensitive slave eyes. I put this thing behind factory equipment nearly 500' away from my main camera position and it synched just fine without having to resort to external slaves. I have yet to find another unit that could match that distance, especially behind obstacles. While a couple of these and an extra head would be a perfect portrait photographer's setup, for the location commercial photographer they are enormously practical.

After several weeks of using this slick new flash setup and exposing a few dozen rolls of Fuji Velvia, I can proclaim this truly professional lighting equipment. The unit performed flawlessly, punched out a ton of light, and stayed calm, cool, and collected while doing it. The ability to use a monolite as a power pack makes this particular monolite infinitely more practical than a similarly powered monolite with no flash head output. While there are certainly cheaper units available, I can't think of a better built or more cleverly designed monolite on the market. I would expect that this clever line of monolites, the existing line of miniature flash units, and the exciting new items to come will continue to make Sun Star Strobo a company to be reckoned with in the pro flash world.

The suggested retail price of the Big Monostar-600 is $1095. For more information, contact Sun Star Strobo U.S.A. Inc., PO Box 311, Englishtown, NJ 07726; (888) 999-4598, (732) 536-1237, fax: (732) 536-6906; e-mail: sales@sunstarstrobo.com or web site: www.sunstarstrobo.com.

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