The Story So Far

As we told you last month, the Road Test is a check on the reliability of several of the newest and, in some cases, lesser-known fixtures on the market. We asked a simple question: Can an LD step away from Martin, High End, and Vari-Lite, save a little money, and still expect a useful, reliable fixture? We asked several companies to supply one of their newest moving-head luminaires in the 575W range, then took them on tour with the Peking Acrobats.

Again, our main concern was reliability in a touring situation. At first, you'd assume it all comes down to the factory: If the unit is well-designed and -built, it passes; if not, it won't. But, as the tour progressed, we discovered that the role of the distributor was at least as important. When you buy a new moving light, you are buying a host of services, too. Someday, parts and service will become issues. Tech support, however, should be available right out of the box. Many times, if you call the distributor with a technical issue, he or she will simply steer you back to the dealer. It's not uncommon for the dealer, who is, basically, a salesperson, to know less about the product than you do. In some cases, with imported units, the manufacturer has no English-speaking technicians at all. That's why it falls to the distributor to have a dedicated technical department to work directly with the end user. As we talk about each unit on this tour, I'll give you a heads-up on who will work with you and who won't.

The show and the test were both successful. After touring for many years with mostly moving-mirror units, the range of motion and smooth movement of the moving-head fixtures was a pleasant surprise. The optics in the moving-head units were also far superior, offering more light output from a smaller bulb than any of my 1,200W scanners. We were able to raise our electrics to a full 25' and still have more than enough light onstage. On the disappointing side, none of the spots come with CMY color-mixing. As they all race for more and more gobo and effects wheels, they have neglected the powerful tool of morphing from one color to the next and left us with the unsightly scrolling of color wheels. Perhaps the budgets of theatres are so small that these fixtures are being skewed more toward clubs and rock concerts. Or perhaps because there are so few instruments geared for theatrical use, theatres have no reason to include moving lights in their budget.

My thanks once again to Martin for supplying LightJockey to run our Road Test. The controller's easy profiling, along with a very user-friendly environment, made it the right choice for this application.

Now for the results.

SGM Giotto 400

The Upside: The Giotto 400 was everything the folks at Techni-Lux, SGM's US distributor, promised. It is probably the quietest fixture on the market today. The super-light weight made it easy for one person to hang. The brightness of the 400W bulb did indeed live up to the promise of Techni-Lux VP Alex Gonzalez. The 12-23° beam may have something to do with that; the light drops off noticeably in wide zoom. While a little smaller than a standard unit in this class, the size of the beam was never an issue for our show. The silent operation of the Giotto is a worthy goal for every moving light engineer to shoot for. Thanks to SGM, the days of stages that sound like an airport may soon come to an end.

The Downside: The unit was rather finicky about the DMX signal. We spent many hours replacing and testing cables when none of the other fixtures were having trouble. Occasionally, not finding the problem, we were forced to leave the unit turned off. But by mid-tour we found a configuration it liked and that issue went away. The good news is, the Giotto 400 is very easy to open and service. The bad news was that I had to open it several times because I heard screws rattling around inside. I never found homes for some of them, so I left them in the case. (I really can't imagine this as a design flaw. The demo unit I was given had been taken apart many times, and I suspect a technician somewhere got careless putting it back together.) Eventually, I went in and tightened everything down; the unit never gave us any more trouble after that.

The Verdict: Despite these small disturbances, the Giotto 400 is an excellent instrument. With a fine selection of gobos, colors, power zoom, power focus, and a very nice frost, it is creating a niche for itself. I believe it deserves full consideration anytime a spot in this class is desired.

Coemar iSpot 575 EB

The Upside: As spots go, this unit is close to perfection. We had virtually no problems on the road. On one occasion the outside generator blew and caused all the units to do a hard reset. The iSpot came back up with a stuck shutter; after several resets it failed to fix itself. We shut it off for an hour or so to let it cool down; when we fired it back up it was fine. That was the only trouble it ever gave me.

Furthermore, Coemar was great to deal with. When I had difficulty building a working profile for my controller, J.P. Zapata, technical specialist at Coemar, went out and rented a LightJockey interface so he could build and test a working profile before he sent it to me. This is exactly the kind of emergency support a touring company needs on the road.

The iSpot 575 EB's low-profile base is great for theatre use. The weight was very manageable; a single person could take it out of the box and drop it on the electric. The overall appearance is very nice; the outer skin seems to be some kind of soft rubbery material. It's a nice change from the plastic and metal housing of most gear. The heat transfer is exceptional and, after hours of operation, every surface seems to be room temperature. The lack of a power zoom was a little disappointing but the beautiful glass gobos more than made up for it. The super-smooth pan and tilt was noticeably better than any light I've ever worked with.

The Downside: I was surprised that Coemar sent the unit in a cardboard box. I suppose they really had faith that this thing could take a beating. During the tour we slowly constructed a road case for it but it didn't have a lid for six weeks. I often saw performers in the truck standing on the Coemar, trying to reach something. But the unit seemed to weather the stress well and, at the end of the tour, that rubber skin left it without a mark.

The Verdict: All in all, this was a great, roadworthy instrument.

Studio Due XS 700

The Upside: In many ways, this fixture has a huge jump on the competition. The giant 128×64-pixel LCD display is not only full of information but it also features words and sentences. This means no more running to the manual to find out what “FoER” stands for. The electronic ballasts made it easy to switch from one power to the next without thinking about it. Since the unit can handle several different bulbs, we asked the staff at New Century Lighting to supply the largest 700Ws. That became a problem because the other fixtures ran 6000K color temperatures, while the only available 700W lamp ran at 5600K. I tried to pretend that only I would notice but I had to surrender that notion when a colleague saw the show and confirmed that it was quite a distraction.

The fixture is the largest physically of the group but it wasn't the heaviest, and I never had a problem hanging it by myself. The road cases available through New Century are some of the best built I've seen, and it quickly became the dolly of choice for some of our heavier gear.

The Downside: While the effects were many, and worked well, there were some problems using them in theatres. Channel 10 is a speed channel that affects most XS 700 functions. When the channel is at zero (the default on most boards), things like pan, tilt, zoom, focus, and even shutter speed run at very slow speeds regardless of how fast you send commands on standard control channels. Because of this, I spent several frustrating weeks loading up the zoom one cue early so it would be ready in time for the cue. At other times, I watched helplessly during blackouts as it was the last to go out. Finally, I discovered that by parking channel 10 at 255 the fixture would act normally. I could see where such a channel would be of some use but the parameters need to be reversed so that the fixture acts normally at zero.

The Verdict: Bottom line on reliability: It absolutely passed. Never during our very difficult run did the Studio Due give us any trouble. Todd VanSant at New Century Lighting was great to work with and was extremely knowledgeable about technical issues. I believe if any buyer were to have any trouble, he would be there to help. In any event, it performed flawlessly. As I turned it on every day I didn't even look up to see if it was okay; I assumed it was.

Robe Color Wash 575

The Upside: This is the only wash fixture in the group. Fortunately, we traveled with our older Martin MAC 600 to compare it with. I was indeed surprised that this lamp outperformed our MACs in almost every way. The sheer number of lumens that come out of the Robe was very impressive. The power zoom morphed this beam from a 28° flood into an amazing 7° soft-edge spot. The full CYM color-mixing was smooth and saturated. As for reliability, it never had a single malfunction the entire trip. No resets, no homing. At one point, a man balancing on chairs kicked it so hard it spun 360° and still came back to position without incident.

The full electronic ballast allows it to handle almost any power source but we just left it with an Edison plug and ran it on 110V. That allowed us to plug it directly into the wall, which came in very handy on days when the house configuration made it difficult to run cable back to the distro. In addition, the price on the Robe unit is very attractive compared to other wash lights on the market. (By the way, I can't talk about the tech support. I never even spoke to the folks at Robe America. The fixture came two weeks early, in a brand-new road case with all the clamps and accessories needed. A week later I got an e-mail asking if the fixture arrived okay and if I needed anything else.)

The Downside: The weight of this lamp was significantly more than any of my other fixtures, even my old MACs. Add the cheesborough clamps instead of C-clamps and it takes two people to hang the light at a 3' trim, and three people if you have to lift it to head height.

The Verdict: Of the group, this is the one I'll most likely purchase for myself. It's not the sexiest to look at, and the weight is indeed a daily issue, but it has the features I need. I wish they made it in a hard-edge model.

Missing in Action: The Asian Players

The big disappointment of this test came from the Asian companies. I was very excited to see how they had copied the industry leaders and wondered if they cut corners that would make the fixtures impractical for road use. Unfortunately, the Yoke Scan 575 and the SP-250, manufactured respectively by the Taiwan companies Chen Imports and EMO Moonlight Industries, didn't arrive in time for the test. Lots of e-mails were exchanged about last-minute design changes that would make the models better. But by the third week on the road they had not yet arrived, and it wouldn't have been a fair test after that. I'm quite certain that Asia will someday be a major player in the moving light industry but, for now, I'm afraid the fledgling companies are not reliable enough for the needs of concert and theatre touring. I look forward to next year's test, when they may take part.

What We've Learned

Overall, the Road Test reveals that there are indeed numerous sources for 575W spots and washes other than the big names. It also shows us that some units can be purchased for substantially less money than one might expect to pay based on the MSRP of the leading brands. But we've also learned not to rush out and buy the newest fixture from completely unknown companies. Smart shopping and thorough research must be conducted before making a purchase. This is underscored by the Helix 400 wash from 5 Star Systems which was proudly on display at LDI but was sent back to the engineer for a complete redesign because the manufacturer felt it could not compete with the other instruments the company saw at LDI. The Stealth Spot 575 from Odyssey Innovative Designs, also available at the 2002 show, went completely out of production from lack of sales.

And, while it's good to have a number of new lighting fixtures to choose from, it would be a blunder not to continue to consider the mainstream manufacturers. Each of the instruments above has demonstrated the ability to perform well during a grueling road tour. But my five-year-old MAC 600s that I bought used from a rental house two years ago made this trip as well. Their scratched-up cases and large dents in the housings didn't prevent them from striking and running flawlessly throughout the tour. If you pay a little more for a name like Martin, you are paying for peace of mind. These companies have thousands of units on the road at any given time. They have decades of research and development behind them. Spare parts and even spare instruments can be found in virtually any major city in the world. That peace of mind is worth different amounts to different people. How much you would pay, only you can say.

Contact the author at cirqmaster@aol.com.