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.


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.

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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