CMT Water Housing Review - CMT vs. SPL

Mahalo for reading my review…please note, I’m a photographer and not a professional blog writer so please excuse any common grammatical mistakes.  While I want to share my knowledge and experience with photography and equipment; I’m much better at spending hours editing images versus words.   This review details my use of both CMT and SPL Housings.  I’m a local photographer on Oahu who focuses on wave and ocean landscapes, and I shoot mainly around the East and North Shores of Oahu.

I just want to state one thing before you read this review – I am not paid by either CMT or SPL, and I have not received any kickbacks for my review.  I pay just like every other customer so please don’t think my opinion is swayed by any type of compensation.  If I have received any type of discounts, it’s because I’m a repeat customer not a paid blogger (I don’t promote misinformation and my reviews are just from my experience).  I switched from SPL to CMT a few years back and I’ve owned a few different housings from CMT.  I first owned a carbon fiber housing for my 7D Mark ii, and now I’m shooting primarily with my Canon 1DX.  Before using CMT, I used an A-Series SPL Housing for my Canon 5D Mark ii.

Weight, Build and Design:

Both CMT and SPL housings are well built but there are some subtle differences which CMT gets my vote over SPL.  First, the weight – it’s bad enough the camera and lens gear add a lot of weight to the housings, but CMT is constructed out strong light weight carbon fiber…not only does it look awesome, it’s also extremely light (I think it’s 1.5 pounds).  SPL is constructed from a heavier welded aluminum material.  The SPL A-SERIES (A for aluminum) are considered SPL’s latest and best design.  From a competitive standpoint, they position aluminum as also very lightweight, and stronger than normal fiberglass housings.  As weight goes, it’s a tank.  At the end of the day, it’s the port glass that is going to break on you if bashed against the reef (in most cases).  I assume if you were taking a sledgehammer to both, metal would outlast the carbon fiber, but I prefer the lighter weight over the heavier material.  Again, both housing frames are extremely strong which is what’s really important.  A lot of people tend to focus on the frames, but again, it’s the port glass that can become the main weakness on the housings.  Or put another way, if you have an aluminum or carbon fiber housing and using a standard dome port, what do you think will shatter or crack first, that thin rounded port glass, or the heavy duty frame?   While the SPL frames are aluminum, the port bodies are heavy duty plastic.  CMT uses carbon fiber for both the housing and the port body leaving only the port glass as the weakest spot.  From the design aspect, with CMT, the camera slides in from the back of the housing with a clear hard thick plastic back-plate secured by metal screws (in addition the ports screw-onto the housing extremely snug).  With SPL housings, the camera slides in from the front, with the lens port as the front plate that lays on the seal.   CMT gives you metal/aluminum screws to secure the back plates, and SPL’s are light weight plastic wing nuts.  

Seals:

I will keep this section simple – CMT seals are a dense foam and run about an inch wide and a quarter inch thick so there is less room for error here compared to SPL.  SPL’s seals are rubber and about the size of a spaghetti string – this is where you need to be careful because literally one grain of sand or hair can cause a leak…and leaks are a no-no in this world.  While I didn’t have an issue with my SPL seals coming off; I felt it could happen easier with SPL since they were so small, leaving less room to glue/secure on the housing.  I always stressed about it with SPL over CMT.   It’s also easier to get your trigger cord caught between the front plate since it needed to be tucked under the base plate, leaving another opportunity for error.  Again, please note - I never had that issue because I’m pretty OCD about it, but I’ve heard flooding horror stories, so always triple check your seals and fit before entering the water (you’ve been warned).   SPL has the same thin seals for the port plate, the trigger handle and the flash outlet, so you will need to beak each of these down after each use to clean the space between the seals (I’m not a fan of this design).   The SPL seals are also rounded so there is more room for sand to get trapped on the edges.  CMT seals are flat and wide so I rarely have to deal with sand buildup.

Controls:

The controls are a feature that sets CMT apart.  First, all the control buttons and knobs are on the back plate for CMT (with a few on top).  The entire back plate is made of clear hard polished plastic which makes viewing your images in the view finder extremely clear and easy to see.  SPL’s screen is a really tiny window which is oddly designed and difficult to view anything from the back (especially in low light while swimming in the water).  For CMT, you can see your entire camera from the clear back plate, and you basically have all controls: a button for f/stop, ISO, a shutter knob, a trigger button, playback button, a button for view finder or video, an additional button for a manual setting, etc.  My SPL had the two knobs for shutter and f/stop, and this clunky handle for the upper trigger control.  I also had two back buttons bt they did not line up or work for any controls.  I say it’s like driving in a convertible versus a VW Bug (maybe newer SPL versions have improved but mine didn’t’ so I can only review what I had).     

Port Zoom Feature:

I had a port build for my 24-70 or 24-105 lens from both CMT and SPL – both the port bodies were built pretty durable and the lens fit both with no vignette.  CMT was also carbon fiber (same as the housing body) and SPL’s was made from harden plastic.  The CMT port fit both lens but the SPL only fit the 24-70 so the CMT was a little more universal (the universal fit was due to the gear system).  With that, the major differences were with the gears to control the zoom.  CMT has a durable flexible sleeve that covers the lens, it has grip secured on both sides for traction on both the zoom knob and the lens.  It functions perfectly and I haven’t had any issues with it malfunctioning in the water.  SPL’s gears are designed a little different – SPL has a gear band with hooks that straps around the lens, secured to the lens by a rubber band.  The gear grooves then attach to the gear on the external zoom handle.  You will need to align these gears up as you slide on the port, it takes a little adjustment and perfection.   If it sounds confusing, it is…slightly.  But, that wasn’t a major issue – the real problem occurs in the water as the gears almost always slipped off of each other in the water (which may also be an issue with the camera moving in the housing) – the problem with the gear is that it’s only about a half an inch wide so any slight movement or pump will result in the gear slipping.  The result, it renders the gear inoperable in the water so you’ll be stuck at whatever was the last zoom length before the slip (this is not good, especially if you’re in the water at big Pipeline shooting from the channel).   I actually requested to have a wider zoom gear built from SPL to help reduce the slipping but was told to use a folded dollar bill between the gear and the lens to make a tighter fit (yeah).  So, in conclusion, I felt as if the SPL zoom feature was poorly built and poorly represented by the company, and CMT’s functioned as needed.  CMT was a much better build when it comes to the zoom lens.   

Trigger Handles:

I was a little hesitant at first with CMT’s handle as it’s smooth carbon fiber - my initial concern was slipping or grip but I really don’t notice a difference in the water.  If there was an area of improvement, it could be with adding more grip on the handles.  SPL does have nice form fitting rubber or foam handles (the A-Series handle is rubber grip and form fitted).  SPL has a good handle design but the negative to the design is that you need to break it down after each use and clean the sand and seal so there is room for damage and/or lost screws/parts.  It is also time consuming (but you need to take time to care for your equipment, don’t think I’m lazy…just doing it at 5AM, in your truck, in the dark can be a challenge).  You don’t have to take CMT’s handles apart as it’s built to attach more firmly to the housing.   I guess one could argue that you can remove SPL’s handles if you wanted to be flat on the ground, etc…but I haven’t had that need thus far.  Lastly on the handles, the SPL A-Series has a large metal side handle where you grip the handle, and the CMT has a material velcro strap that locks your hand to the side of the housing.  They are both fine and this is minor, but I prefer the strap because it’s less clunky and I prefer holding the housing versus the handle (plus I’m left handed so I use the handle more anyways).

Customer Service:

I’ve experienced both services on a few occasions either for orders or yearly services - CMT has been very good to me as a customer, they have always responded in a timely manner and the gear is priced competitive in the market.  Just like most places, the more you order, the more they will work with you on pricing.  Jay the owner is a good guy and he’s never tried to price gauge or mislead me in anyway (and please note - you should know what you’re doing and what you are ordering beforehand…don’t wing it…do your research and know your gear and your budgets…and set deadline expectations when ordering).  When I ordered my current 1DX housing, it was a 10-day turn-around (that’s pretty quick).   As a matter of fact, he’s really made every effort to retain me as a customer and has spent a lot of time talking with me for input on his housings.  I’m not going to go in depth on my opinion of SPL’s customer service since I don’t work through them anymore…the owner just runs the sales and orders as more of a business versus with a customer-first focus, so you don’t get as much personal touch as I would have liked (unless of course you’re a sponsored shooter, I assume).  Just dial into the local Hawaii coconut wireless and you’ll get what you’re looking for in regards to the customer service at SPL.   It’s not terrible, it’s just not as personable or as friendly as some would expect when spending that much money.  Lastly, it’s in my opinion that if you’re going to write a review than at least open your review up to comments for ongoing dialogue.  Feel free to leave a comment below.    

Pricing:

Let’s get one thing straight…this stuff is not cheap.  You’re going to spend around 2K but SPL has introduced their ‘SPLASH’ housings which are made of hardened plastic bodies versus the A-Series aluminum structuring.  You may see some lower pricing out there but just make sure it’s what you want for the price (and will adequately protect your expensive camera equipment).  Here’s one other thing to consider – from a business perspective, SPL has been around a little longer so you might see more housings in the water because they got there first…with that, competition (and pricing and customer service) in Hawaii wasn’t a major concern since they somewhat owned the market at one point.  But in the last few years, the competitive landscape has changed…especially since wave photography is more popular than ever; there are now more water housing companies in the market.  I think competition is good, it keeps companies honest and hardworking.   For pricing, these are custom housings made to fit specific camera and lenses so it’s hard to give you a price quote, but CMT has always been less expensive than SPL from my experience.  In reference to incremental cost and spending for services and repairs - to sample the cost on a yearly service – I send in my housings each year for servicing.  The comparisons – I have the seals checked, added a foam pads for better fit, a cleaning, and tested the water tightness and handle functions.  SPL charged $125 (and for SPL I had to change a port lens which was an additional $100) so a total of $225 total and CMT charged $35 plus shipping (but I didn’t have a port lens change) for my last servicing.  That really stood out to me, CMT is much cheaper with the accessories and services.  Jay has even sent me new screws so I can have a replacement set, and more seal grease for no charge…he’s a good dude and I really like working with CMT due to pricing and customer service.  They don’t nickel-and-dime you.  

Depth Ratings:

SPL is rated for 15-20 ft max whereas CMT is slightly deeper at around 30ft.  Please note, I only free dive for turtle and dolphin and CMT performs better underwater just due to the depth rating – with my SPL, I had small pressure leaks in the past and it seems to be due to water pushing through the thin seals.  CMT seals are about an inch thick so there is more room for resistance.  Again, both housings are not constructed for deeper water so take this section with a grain of salt.   I just wouldn’t trust SPL with the seals when swimming down on turtle dives, etc.

So there you go, I give CMT the ultimate thumbs up over SPL from my experience and I’m very happy with the overall company, customer service and housings. 

Please leave a comment below if you want some dialogue.  Please also reach out if you want me to compare another water housing…more than happy to get a review going for you.  

Mahalo and Aloha everyone!