Get Arca Swiss Cube at B&H Photo.
See my review of the Arca Swiss Cube. The 'Cube' is what I use almost exclusively for all my shooting, the only exception being when I have to cut weight way down.
Silky smooth to start, a key weakness of the Cube is the brass gearing: if the head gets knocked even modestly hard, it notches the gears. For example, if the Cube is on a tripod at minimum height (22 inches or so above the ground), knocking over the tripod and having the Cube hit a rock notches the gears. The gears then become sloppy at some point in the arc of rotation. Over time, things steadily go downhill from there, with steadily increasing resistance as the gears wear badly, until at some point the Cube becomes hardly usable.
I’ve damaged the Cube three times in about eight years. It’s damage, not a failure on its own, and nothing else has ever gone wrong.
Up in the mountains in August 2016 on a 3-night backpacking trip, the Cube gearing went awry as can be seen below; the brass gearing left its internal tracking slot and rendered the Cube inoperable. I was able to put the gearing back into place with some effort (3 or 4 times) and get some more use out of it, but after a while I gave up. Fortunately it was the bottom gearing, so I could still use the flip-up feature of the bottom portion, which is what allowed these photos of the gearing.
This is the 3rd gearing failure (same Cube), with each repair costing around $290. I wish there were a more durable and robust implementation. because I work with rocky terrain all the time.
Update: back from repair, the gearing is wonderfully smooth again.
My cost to repair is $290 (plus shipping). Some readers are making an inappropriate comparison of $290 X 3 vs $new, but $290 X 2 is sunk cost over the past 5 years, and thus irrelevant. The issue is thus just a $290 repair now. Further, the idea that the alternatives will never need repairs is not credible. I’ve had this Arca Swiss Cube about eight years, used it in really difficult terrain*, and this is the 3rd repair in 8 years—each time only from impact damage—no issues of any other nature. I’d say that’s darn good for a fine instrument that does what it does. Who is to say how those other options would fare, perhaps being even non-repairable upon certain impacts? The fact that the Cube is repairable to like-new operation is a testament to its fundamentally solid build. While I wish the gearing were more robust against impact, the relatively soft brass gears are probably superior for operational characteristics. Just like the brass helicoid in Leica M lenses. Every material has pluses and minuses but brass is silky smooth in operation.
* Ironically the first damage to the Cube was knocking over my tripod in a parking lot.
A few readers have suggested alternatives like the $800 KPS T5 Geared Ball Head and $2000 Linhof 3D Micro Geared Leveling Pan and Tilt head. But these appear to fall short on features, which I use, including the ability to get to 90° (pointed straight down), the dual leveling (top and bottom rotations) which allow for level panos—and so on. From what I can tell, nothing else on the market can do all these things the Cube can. Moreover, the Linhof is rated for only 22 lb (1/3 the weight) and it has a dubious top mounting plate design (apparently padded plate and small screw; I would mount a beefy clamp there and it would be too large anyway). The KPT head looks good for what it is, but like all ballheads you're stuck with that slotted nuisance factor (rotation required to find the slot when needing to point down)—I don’t like that nuisance when working in the field (I have half a dozen ballheads!).
All in all, it’s a question of total robustness (gearing aside), key features and usability. These other products just don’t get there. The one exception: the clamp that Arca Swiss offers is not compatible with most of my plates from Really Right Stuff, and the Arca clamp is vastly inferior to the incredibly beefy RRS clamp I discuss in my review of the Cube.
The Arca-Swiss C1 Cube is a three-axis panoramic head with a 66 lb load capacity, making it ideal for use with the heaviest cameras while maintaining a high degree of accuracy.
The C1 Cube allows for finely-calibrated gearless panning adjustments with tension control. The two panoramic axes permit you to first center the Cube's controls to your position with the bottom axis, and then readjust the camera to point straight ahead with the upper axis.
The gears' rubberized knobs give pinpoint control even when wearing gloves, and don't obstruct the head's movements. On the bottom there's a hinge allowing 62° tilt so that most cameras can reach the 90° vertical position.
On top of the Cube there are two bubble levels and Arca-Swiss' Classic style quick release clamp. Although universal, the Cube's main use is in architectural and studio work, where precise movements and adjustments are required. Also suitable for macro photography, its design allows far fewer focusing readjustments while creating images.
It essentially places the camera inside a sphere, as if the axes met at a point upon the image plane itself, with the camera rotating around a stationary image plane. This engineering feat was achieved to minimize movements to the optical system's entrance pupil during composing, making for speedier field work free of perpetual height and focus adjustments.
Compatible with Arca's Classic quick release system
Sophisticated engineering, machined from a single billet
Designed in Switzerland, manufactured in France
Geared x-y axes with adjustable gear tension and 28° of motion
Third 62° tilt-only axis underneath geared adjustments
Rubberized knobs easily manipulated in the cold and with gloves
Movements allow camera's image plane to stay relatively stationary, easing macro work
Jeff S writes:
I use the Arca Swiss D4 geared head in addition to my RRS BH 40 Ballhead. It's really nice and just over 2lbs. It easily supports a good size load-better than the bh40. It tilts 90 degrees down, though I think the Cube can go past 90 degrees. The nice think is the gearing is like a clutch system allowing you to freely rotate all axis and then tighten the knobs to engage the gearing for fine tuning. It also has a separate pan axis so you can truly lever the axis and create a level pano.
Now here's the one caveat. It's not waterproof or water resistant nor designed that way. Also the gearing is a softer metal for smoothness, and eventually breaks down from heavy use-especially when subjected to outside elements.
I made the mistake when I first bought it in 2012 taking it to the Northwest and shooting in damp-wet conditions-not covering the head adequately while hiking. My stupidity. Later on I noticed some signs of rust, and sent the head in. Well it cost me around $300 to replace some parts, as it almost permanently destroyed it- from a little rain. I was told it really isn't designed for heavy outside use. So now I baby it, and minimize my use in such conditions- I take both heads and decide based on conditions which I'll use. However it is by far the best head I've ever owned.
DIGLLOYD: my Arca Swiss Cube goes with me in the outdoors rain or snow or shine. It has been wet many times. No issues. The Really Right Stuff ballheads are excellent (I have the BH-55 and 3 others), but they are not geared heads.
The other issue with Arca Swiss and others is the clamp-plate compatibility: often there are compatibility problems which can be so bad that the plate will slide right out the clamp. It's a non starter to use any of these other products if one has RRS plates.
Moreover, Really Right Stuff has the breadth and depth of camera and lens plates and other mounting gear to cover the range of gear I use, particularly in delivering new camera plates as cameras debut.
Note that the Arca Swiss clamp design FELL APART on me when I first bought my Cube; its design was pure crap from a field use perspective (the newer version *might* be better but still looks to have the same design flaws). When compared to the bulletproof Really Right Stuff B2-Pro II with Metric 6 Screw clamp that I use, it’s not even a contest on quality, durability and robust design, all in favor of the RRS clamp, night and day. I don’t mess around with toy-grade gear, and that Arca Swiss clamp really turned me off to their clamps. Hence to further complicate matters, I would consider only tripod heads that can accept a B2-Pro-II. Bottom line is that the Cube itself (with B2-Pro-II clamp) has served me well, and 3 repairs in 8 (maybe 14) years is not a huge deal. In that context it makes absolutely no sense to go spend $1500 or $2000 on some other dubious design that probably won’t hold up as well anyway.