Friday, June 28, 2013

Did You Know You Can Cheaply Mod Your AlienBees B400 to be a B1600?




But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a great idea. A DIY cautionary tale, inside.

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Editor's note: First off, DON'T EVEN CONSIDER this if you are not an experienced electronics DIY'er. (And even then, it's probably not a good idea. As I said, this is a cautionary tale.) But still, a reminder that capacitors hold dangerous charges and do not taste like chocolate. In fact, they can taste rather like getting kicked in the face by a mixed martial arts champ.


This strange trip all started when Strobist reader Phillip Slawinski posted to the group his findings on just how easy it was to convert his AB400 to an AB1600. And better still, he did it for less than fifteen bucks.

Upon extracting the circuit board from his flash, board layout was all but unmistakable. Clever designer that he is, Paul Buff had basically designed the same board to be used across the AlienBees 400-800-1600 line. This gave him crazy economies of scale from the get-go, and allowed photographers to buy exactly as much flash as their wallets could handle.




All this proved too tempting for Phillip, who in the spirit of any 12-year-old who as ever disassembled an old radio was now staring at several obvious vacancies in the board of his AB400. Could it be as simple as just adding a couple of caps (and a diode, as it turns out)? Yes, it could.

Adding one cap to an AB400 would give it the power of an AB800. Adding two more to that would get him to AB1600. Could he find a capacitor model that would match the size, voltage and capacitance to fit?

Yes he did—on eBay, no less. They were the right size, voltage and capacitance—an exact fit. For less than $4, in quantities of ten.

For an experienced solder monkey like Phillip, this seemed almost too good to be true. So he happily set out souping up his AB400 to an AB4001600. He posted the photos to Flickr and that's where I came in.

I thought it was pretty cool. Actually, I thought it very cool. I wasn't that surprised that Paul Buff had designed one board for three flashes. That's classic Paul, and very clever cost control engineering.

But I was surprised that such a close (or rather, exact) match for such a specialized cap was readily available on eBay for so cheap. So I shot Paul an email.

Paul was a bit surprised himself. Especially since the lot numbers on the caps appeared to show them as components specially made for AlienBees flashes. And on top of that, they were selling for far less than what Buff pays for them wholesale. And he buys in what can only be described as ridiculously large quantities, and at an appropriately thin profit margin from the OEM.

Bought one-off, these caps (if first quality) should be about $25 a pop to an end consumer. Which starts to make a lot more economic sense in the grand scheme of AlienBees pricing.

A little digging later, and Buff's folks figured out that the eBay AlienBees caps were not exactly first quality. In fact, they were junk caps—rejects that for one reason or another had failed the quality tests. They might have current leakage, they might have faulty mounting posts, or whatever.

For one reason or another they had been rejected by Buff and/or the OEM company and slated to be destroyed. Only now they were on eBay, and finding their way into the AlienBees flash of an intrepid hobbyist.

Phillip was smart enough to test his out for proper capacitance and for current leakage. Good thing, as it turns out since these had been manufactured several years ago and left to sit in unknown conditions during the interim. (We now know what can happen as a result.)

Even so, one of the caps he inserted in his AB4001600 turned out to have bad terminals. After just 300 (low power) pops, this was the result:




Fortunately, this magic smoke event was not catastrophic for Phillip, and his AB was fixable. Coulda been worse.
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The moral of the story is, when something appears to good to be true, it just might be too good to be true. Similarly, one should henceforth beware of flashes that might be listed as AB1600s on eBay, but with "the wrong cover" (i.e., labeled as AB400 instead of AB1600) because of [fill in the seller's dodgy cover story here].

You just might be buying a flash with more of a potential pop than you bargained for.

But here's the silver lining part: unbeknownst to many people, Paul Buff will officially upgrade an AB still in warranty to one of its bigger siblings. You just have to pay original price difference + a fee of $25. And since it's now a legit factory AB800 or AB1600, they'll also swap the case out for you.

You can even pick a new color if you want.

But if you happen to come across a temptingly vacant PC board in your AB400 or '800 and you want to add in a couple cheap caps, just be aware you might get a little more bang for your buck than you expect.

Photos ©2013 Phillip Slawinski, used with permission


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22 Comments:

Blogger Simon said...

Great read and again I love how you managed to contact Paul C. Buff and he did the research!

You don't get that kind of info/feedback from larger companies!

Although we have 1 AB400 at school that is WAY past it's warranty and for 75$ more (3 good quality capacitors) this could STILL be a good hack! Just less of a bargain that originally.

June 28, 2013 8:59 AM  
Blogger Dustin Schmidt said...

Can I just say how ridiculously cool Paul Buff is? He finds out people are modding his lights and instead of getting in a huff about it he does research, offers comment and also offers upgrades to existing lights. It's one of the reasons I recommend his stuff to everyone over the more expensive brands out there. Amazing quality, great service and a fair price. If this seems like gushing it kind of is, but as a working photographer I appreciate what he's done to make things affordable for both photographers AND their clients.

June 28, 2013 9:33 AM  
Blogger Gary Dates said...

I'm a lurker....meaning, I read this site often, but seldom comment. That's because David does such a thorough job of covering the issue at hand (mostly), that I wind up going; "Wow, that says it all." So at the risk of becoming yet another sycophantic Strobist follower, my compliments on both another great little article, and on being one of THE most informative photog site around. Just remember, "with great power comes great responsibility." :)

June 28, 2013 10:02 AM  
Blogger Gary Dates said...

And as far as Paul C Buff goes, here's my little story: During a shoot one of my Einsteins' modeling lights came on, and wouldn't turn off. After my powering it off and on a few times, it was clear there was something wrong. A call to PCB tech support yielded a brand new Einstein on its way to me at no expense BEFORE I returned the defective one! That alone just doesn't happen these days with most tech companies, so needless to say I was already blown away. Then, several days later I get an email who's subject line read "We're Sorry", (or something like that) from PCB. In it was a $50 credit towards my next purchase from the company!!!! No one.....I mean NO ONE....does that! As a result, and not least of which is because they make affordable, kick*ss gear, I am completely loyal to this company, and will buy as much as I can afford (based on need of course) from them!! That level of customer service is as amazing as it is rare!

June 28, 2013 10:13 AM  
Blogger PicsDallas said...

Ok, I have just spent 30 minutes of staring and I STIL can't figure out the after photo. WHAT IS IT !

June 28, 2013 10:14 AM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

No mention of the flash tube, it's safe to assume it's the same across all models?
Another very useful article. It would be nice if Paul's stuff was a bit cheaper in Europe.

June 28, 2013 10:19 AM  
Blogger Dave E. said...

Obviously, I can't tell just from the pic but at casual glance those caps don't seem to be anything you couldn't find at Mouser, Digikey, et al. At my last job - electronics parts store in the vein of what Heathkit and Radio Shack were in the good ol' days - we had quite a number of caps that fit many of my different flash units; even had a couple that were drop-in's for the Vivitar 283's.

Paul Buff kinda kicks ass. I had a problem with my Cybersyncs several months after I bought them. Imagine my surprise when my email to tech support was answered in short order *on a weekend* by Paul himself. He wanted to know all the specifics... not to be argumentative, but to better understand the issue so it could be fixed. And he fixed the problem immediately.

If I could justify the expense I'd stock up on his lights, right now.

June 28, 2013 10:32 AM  
Blogger MarcosV said...

Thanks for posting this.

Paul is a great guy. I must now buy some of his lights sooner than later.

June 28, 2013 10:32 AM  
Blogger sparkrow said...

I have been an ardent supporter of Paul C.Buff products and the excellent quality of service the company provides. Let's make sure that we prop up one of the few American made products and American job creators. Let's not spoil it for PCB.
Buy American by Americans .

June 28, 2013 12:20 PM  
Blogger Alfred said...

Really great post and knowing a little bit about capacitors, the findings do not surprise me.
Most capacitors you buy at hobby stores or on the net will be of low quality, good capacitors undergo many tests, for leakage, insulation and so on and are normally not sold to the general public, they are reserved for quantity customers who pay a premium.

June 28, 2013 12:47 PM  
Blogger Jared said...

@Simon - I'd pay $75 to upgrade my B400!

I've got 2 really old B400 units.

Just need to find the good capacitors.

June 28, 2013 1:12 PM  
Blogger Darrell Noakes said...

Tinkerer that I am, I'd be tempted to do the mod. But when you consider the cost of getting good quality parts from a reputable supplier, and then the labour involved, it seems more worthwhile just to buy the 1600 in the first place.

June 28, 2013 1:22 PM  
Blogger Gordon Huston said...

As long as thread is heading toward a tribute to Paul Buff, let me throw in my recent experience.

I used another very popular brand of flashes for years, but when the Einsteins came out, I could not resist. The specs are great and they perform as advertised. However, it is really the service that has cemented my loyalty.

I had an Einstein go down a couple of months ago. It was no fault of Buff. Electronics fail. Any brand. It happens. That's why you have backups. Anyway, it was an older unit that I bought soon after they first hit the market. I knew that the stated warranty had expired, so I was blown away when the repair department told me that all Einsteins, regardless of age, are still under warranty. On top of that they offered to loan me a light until mine was repaired. (Not an Einstein, but one of their other heads.) When my unit came back (less than two weeks later with ground shipping in both directions), it had the same serial number, but I think that it was actually a brand new head.

How do you top that kind of service?

Here's how: In the course of solving this problem, someone in the service department noticed that my nine other Einsteins were older models. Without any prompting from me, they contacted me and let me know that I could send those other units in for updates and upgrades that were covered under warranty. I have never dealt with another company that offers that kind of customer care.

Yeah, I'm a fan, and I'll be a customer for life.

June 28, 2013 2:16 PM  
Blogger Jim D said...

Well, I think I am beginning to see a common thread here regarding Paul's service. A month or so back, I had the misfortune to have one of my AB1600's that I was using on an outdoor portrait shoot go crashing to the ground because of a sudden wind storm. Yes, I had it sandbagged, but the wind won anyway. To say that I was sick is an understatement. It landed on the area where the power cord is inserted and the force broke the circuit board into two pieces and damaged the housing. My thoughts were, this is probably not repairable, I'll just have to replace it with a new one. But, I sent it to PCB for an estimate. To my surprise a couple of weeks later, what appeared to be a brand new AB1600 unit (had the same serial # as mine)arrived and the work order was marked "Warranty-No Charge". I am an eternal PBC customer. As a matter of fact, the money that I had set aside to replace the 1600, I spent on some new PCB gear that I had been wanting. Paul C Buff and Company are awesome to do business with. Everybody has product but no one has customer service like Paul.

June 28, 2013 3:41 PM  
Blogger pslawinski said...

@Dave E.
Before I found the eBay capacitors I looked for similar capacitors elsewhere, no such luck.

@Jared
It would cost you more than $75. Most capacitor manufacturers aren't going to be interested in making just making three capacitors. They'd want a much larger order. Also these are proprietary capacitors, so it's likely that there are restrictions in place that would prevent the manufacturer from selling them to you anyways.

June 28, 2013 3:47 PM  
Blogger Want to help said...

first, a plug for David and his website - been following him for several years, and bought his first DVD set that was shot in a hotel meeting room. I learned more about flash photography with that DVD than I ever thought I would, and it rekindled my passion for the hobby (note: it's also cost me a bunch of money for all the toys I realized I needed!). I continue to read Strobist each time a new article is published, and am very pleased to see David's popularity grow.

Based on his comments about Paul Buff, I purchased the einstein flash and am very pleased. These articles about how they treat customers reinforce my decision. The fact that he's built his business to the level he has, against some very big names in the business, is a result of better products, better service at a competitive price - while it may sound like business 101, it's amazing how many companies don't get it right. Obviously, Paul has! And, showing my bias, it's great that his company and it's products are made here in the USA.

June 28, 2013 5:18 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

The info about construction differences between models was detailed years ago on the old PCB forum. I even have a video from back then on how to disassemble it, on YouTube.

June 28, 2013 11:02 PM  
Blogger Clement said...

I think it is worth mentioning that you can die doing this mod... for ever...

June 29, 2013 2:04 AM  
Blogger Tom Legrady said...

@Simon, you're mis-interpreting the price difference.

There's a $25 charge for doing the work, plus the price difference between a 400 Bee and a 1600 ... currently around $130, for a total upgrade fee of $155.

June 30, 2013 3:14 AM  
Blogger NBPhoto said...

@PicsDallas - That's the internals of the capacitor.. I thought that was obvious from David's comments!

@Gold old Clive: PCB are as cheap in the EU as they are in Aus, where we bought over $5k in gear inc 4 E640's some Vagabond lithiums an AB and $1k in mods. Issue is, the local (EU or AU) stockists, literally pay Buff the same coin as you or I used to before these middlemen, and the shipping costs we'd pay also, then try and make a living from the tiny remaining amount (i.e. giving you warranty and after-sales service)...

I see it as:
1x Einstein costs $500USD
Add some ridiculous cost for shipping.
Currency conversion.
You're now already Even-Steven on cost.. I know! We looked into it!
VS 1x AU E640 $750 + no hassles with the rest of it? No contest old boy!

From the service we've had from the AU PCB reseller, I think it's great compared to brands. FYI We've had 2 E640's and 1 vagabond die to date in a bit over a year, which isn't too fantastic however, considering they get used for about 50 days in the year, and not at full pelt either.

June 30, 2013 11:16 PM  
Blogger Scott Campbell said...

Just to hammer this home one more time....

Even if you think the part looks new and fresh, it may be a counterfeit part. I used to make large radio broadcast transmitters (think of the radio you listen to in the car, we did the beast pushing out that signal) and ended up with a batch of counterfeit transistors that looked *almost* like the real thing. However, they did NOT perform like the real thing. Imagine having a 1 MW (yes, 1,000,000 watts) transmitter with BAD amplifiers. Pfffff!

A word to the wise: futzing with high power electronics is not something to be done unless you are an expert, because even if you are an expert, things can go horribly wrong!

July 02, 2013 8:04 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Tramontana said...

You can probably find a high quality capacitor that meets the specs at mouser.com. My X1600 recently took an 8ft fall and one of the smaller caps broke off. I replaced it with a mouser cap.

Insides of the broken X1600:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/jtramontana/9200537227/in/photostream/

Testament to the build quality - the flash took an 8 foot fall with an Octa on it, which popped off when it hit the ground. The back corner got cracked on the flash (where it is plastic) and the modeling lamp outer shell broke, but the thing actually still fired! When I got home, I heard something rattling around and it was a small cap that had broken off. $10 (with shipping) later, it was back in business.

July 03, 2013 2:35 PM  

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