The SBH-250 is Vanguard's top-of-the-line ball head currently available in the U.S. (at least as of the time of writing - a new ABH Series of Ball Heads has been announced – see the Press Release for details).
With an impressive 44 lb load capacity, the SBH-250 has all the features you expect from a modern ball head, including an independent panning base with 360 degree scale and lock, as well as separate locking and tension controls for the ball itself. The SBH-250 also has a built in quick release clamp, featuring dual bubble levels, and a detent pin to stop the plates sliding out should they accidentally come loose. It also comes complete with two camera plates and a limited lifetime warranty for the original owner.
The Vanguard SBH-250 features a slot so the clamp can be rotated 90 degrees to a vertical position (so you can quickly switch from landscape to portrait orientation). It is approximately 4.7" tall, and weighs only 20.5 oz thanks to its magnesium alloy construction.
So what does such a well specified ball head cost? $200? How about $300? More? How does $79.99 sound (see latest price at B&H Photo). There aren't many manufacturers that will sell you the two camera plates for under $80, let alone two plates and a full sized ball head.
In the interests of full disclosure, this review is a sample unit provided to us directly by Vanguard.
Installation, Fit & Finish
The Vanguard SBH-250 comes as shown below, complete with 2 camera plates and tool:
The SBH-250 comes with a reducer installed into the tripod socket, so as shipped it fits on a standard 1/4" x 20 tripod stud. Using the tool provided, the reducer can be removed in seconds, allowing the ball head to be installed onto a larger 3/8" x 16 tripod stud, making it compatible with just about every tripod available today.
The overall finish is very good, the magnesium alloy components appear to be powder coated giving them a nice texture. Controls are black plastic, with rubber inserts on the knobs for extra grip, and the camera plates also feature a rubber pad to prevent the plates from being twisted off.
The plates attach to the camera with a captive screw (meaning the screw won't fall out and get lost), and can be attached with a screw or key thanks to a large screwdriver slot for tightening.
The plates themselves are not Arca compatible, so will not work with L-Brackets and other accessories from companies like Kirk, Wimberley and RRS. The upcoming ABH series ball heads are going to be Arca compatible however. The clamp doesn't open far enough to allow you to lift the plate out: to remove it you have to slide out the plate while pressing the orange button (see picture above) that lowers the detent pin. This makes operation of the clamp very safe, and all but eliminating the risk of your camera sliding out of the clamp.
Physically, the SBH-250 is about the same size as the Manfrotto 468MG, but costing only a third of the price. Using the SBH-250, the feel reminds me very much of the 468MG also.
The panning base operation is very smooth. It is a little stiffer than some of the higher end ball heads, and very similar to the stiffness of the 468MG. The locking knob however doesn't truly lock – even fully tightened it is possible to rotate the panning base without using excessive force.
The ball motion is very smooth indeed (possibly a little smoother than the Manfrotto), and the tension (also known as friction or drag) is easy to set with its independent control. Locked down the strength is generally good, I have no doubts it will support the rated 44lbs, although you can still move the head without using excessive force if you try.
When actually locking down the ball head however, there is slight movement. The ball rotates forward ever so slightly as you tighten the Lock Knob (this assumes the Lock Knob is on the right). This is especially noticeable with longer focal lengths – not a huge problem by any means, but something to be aware of when framing is critical with longer focal lengths. Virtually all ball heads exhibit this phenomenon to one extent or another.
The quick release clamp does its job well, and sliding in a plate automatically pushes the detent pin down and out of the way, before it pops back up again once the plate is all the way in. The dual bubble levels are a very useful feature, and the clamp grips strongly.
The picture below shows the SBH-250 supporting a Nikon D700 with MB-D10 Grip and Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 Lens, a heavy combination that the SBH-250 is more than capable of managing:
For the $79.99 price tag, this is an amazing ball head. It's full featured, well designed, and works extremely well. My biggest complaint is that it is not Arca compatible so won't work with all our other gear, but it appears Vanguard have resolved that with their upcoming ABH line of ball heads. The Vanguard SBH-250 represents significant value, and provides ample strength and support for all but the most demanding of users.