Perhaps more than any other brand, the road through one’s Seiko experience can often make one feel like a value-obsessed horological Goldilocks. For many of us, the first bowl of porridge comes early in our development of watch enthusiasm, with a Seiko 5, or maybe an SKX007, or if you’re like me, an SKX779 “Black Monster” (seen glowing below). And, while Goldilocks needed only contend with a trio of possibly perfect sustenance, from that first spoonful of Seiko steel, you’re introduced to a table with hundreds of options. Big, small, bold, subtle, modern, new, old, old-looking, JDM, limited editions, titanium, steel, kinetic, solar, and more.
The mind reels to organize this ecosystem into understandable classes and families. As Seiko Folk, we trade Latin names for reference numbers, common names for an endless array of increasingly indistinct nicknames. When a friend texts an image of a large and imposing puck of a watch on his wrist with the caption reading “SBBN013 :)”, it is incumbent upon you to translate and reply in due form, “Oh, nice Darth Tuna” (or similar).
While all of watch appreciation (and certainly collecting) is based in an evolving personal application of trial and error, few brands welcome the budding enthusiast with the offer of more raw experience for their budget than Seiko. If you have $ 500 to spend, you could literally spend it a hundred different ways and, with each selection, you have ensured the heady buzz of cracking open that simple Seiko box to a new experience. In turn, with each new experience, we get a piece of data that can be applied to the next time we feel the need to pull the handle on this specific slot machine.
Our taste develops and, hopefully, becomes more individual and tailored to our own wrist. Is a Darth Tuna a rad watch? Yes. Is it much too large for my wrist? Also, yes. Put that spoon down, try another bowl. Some will be too hot, some too cold, but when it comes to accessible daily wear sports watches, once you’ve tried a few dozen bowls, you likely want the one that is just right.
When Seiko announced a quartet of new vintage-inspired Prospex models into the SPB range, I’ll admit that my hopes were very high. As part of the brand’s 55th anniversary, these new models were loosely inspired by the brand’s first dive watch, the 62MAS. I say “loosely” because Seiko made a much more direct reissue of the 62MAS in 2017’s SLA017 (shown above). Considerably less expensive than the limited edition SLA017, the new SPB14X models used the 62MAS inspiration to offer a straightforward sports dive watch with a skin-diver silhouette and the hopes of a toolish yet easy-wearing presence with a dash of vintage effect.
The Seiko SPB
Slotted above more entry-level fare from Seiko 5s, the SKXs, the SRPs (including varietals of As, Bs, Cs, and Ds), and even SUN line, the SPB family is not limited to dive watches, but does offer an upper tier of the Prospex lineup that sits below that of the premium SLA product. Some of you are confused, but I promise that the reference numbers don’t really matter (more on that in a moment), the point is just that the SPB line exists as a sort of midpoint between Seiko’s much-loved entry-level products and their much more expensive top-of-the-line models. When considering SPB dive watches, the models typically have finer finishing and details and come with an upgraded movement and (generally) the option of an upgraded bracelet.
Historically, this line sits between $ 800 and $ 1,200 and draws aesthetic inspiration from other well-known Seiko models (both old and new). Previous popular examples include the new “Sumo” models (like the SPB101/103) and the SPB077/079 (above) which were introduced alongside the previously-mentioned SLA017 in 2017.
For a brand that is often praised for its sub-$ 500 offerings, the SPB line (among others) has had the tough job of trying to justify a more expensive offering while not directly competing with Seiko’s top-spec models (let alone those from Grand Seiko). For 2020, and with the new SPB14X models, I think they finally have a strong case.
The SPB143 (AKA The SBDC101)
The key to that case is sizing and the attempt to take the Seiko dive watch charm to a higher level while maintaining as much value as possible. Unlike past recent SPB offerings that routinely featured cases sized in excess of 44mm, this new line measures just 40.5mm wide, 13.7mm thick, and 46.5mm lug-to-lug.
As described in my original post, the most basic and simple of the four is the one featured in this review, the SPB143 with a grey dial and a bracelet. Those wanting a bit more variety can opt for the SPB145 (brown/green dial), the SPB147 (brown dial with gilt accents), or the SPB149, which is a limited edition of 5,500 units and has a radiant blue dial with gold accents for the seconds hand and a bit of the dial text. Given my personal distaste for gilt, or indeed brown accents on most watches, it was an easy choice for me to go with the standard SPB143 for this review. While there isn’t a loser in the lot, I have a deep fondness for Seiko at its most simple.
On that thought, given that we have four references from launch, does the SPB14X need a nickname? Due to the year, the vintage design, and the connection to the 62MAS, I was thinking we could just call all four the “20MAS.” Let me know your ideas in the comments. Back to the show.
Take that excellent sizing and add to it drilled lugs, a sapphire crystal, a large guard-less crown, a solid caseback, and a case treated to Seiko’s Dia-Shield hardening, and you have a balanced and handsome design that wears well on any strap I tried while offering strong legibility, equally strong lume, and really no weakness on wrist.
Fit and finish are also great, and better than what I’ve come to expect from less expensive Seiko offerings. The bezel is excellent. Smooth, easy to use and, while there is a hint of wiggle due to its 120-click design, it has no slop and manages to feel very mechanical thanks to a strong fit with the case and an excellent grip. Being Seiko, and knowing that at least a few of you will ask, the bezel aligns very well with the minute markings – but not perfectly. Many of you who have been down the Seiko path know that their bezels don’t often perfectly align with the chapter rings or the dial markings.
While on my example, I’d say the bezel insert is off by maybe a quarter of click, the delta between the markers and the dial (there is no chapter ring on the SPB143) is much less noticeable in person due to the considerable depth between the inner bezel edge and the dial. For photos, this effect is reversed as the depth is somewhat compressed by the perspective. So while on wrist, I found the misalignment to be all but invisible, after hours of working on the photos in this post, the slight offset combined with that depth means it’s very hard to show the true variance in the alignment.
All told, this is my only complaint with the watch, and it may be something I can change in the future, and for me, it’s not a deal-breaker. That said, I do think that Seiko needs to sort this out and that a watch which nails so many other details should also nail this, too.
Perhaps more interestingly, the bezel uses a black-colored and Dia-Shield-coated stainless steel insert. While many other brands, and even Seiko, often opt for inexpensive aluminum or somewhat more costly ceramic inserts, the SPB sports steel. I’ve seen reports quoting other materials, but have double (triple, even) checked with Seiko U.S. and Seiko Japan, with both confirming the bezel insert is stainless steel.
I’ve worn mine without a mind for abuse over the past month or so, and the bezel has yet to show any wear. That said, it’s stainless steel, and even with a surface hardening like Dia-Shield, it’s going to scratch. For my tastes, while I will hate the first few scratches, once the bezel is well-scratched, I think it will look amazing, and I hope the black coloring will aid in ample contrast after a few years of use.
Beyond its material, the execution of the insert matches that of the bezel action, with a lovely font and fully engraved scale. There is a lume pip at zero as you’d expect, and you can see a circular brushed finish within the black coloring. Additionally, I also really love that Seiko chose to differentiate the SPB14X models from other 62MAS re-issues by opting for a thicker bezel. When matched with the skin-diver case shape and the guard-less crown, I think it looks incredible and adds presence without adding weight or problematic proportion.
Inside that ’60s-esque case, we find the latest iteration of Seiko’s 6R35, which represents the top model in the 6R range and has also been used in a wide range of Prospex, Alpinist, and Presage models. This latest model offers a strong 70-hour power reserve and a rate of 3 Hz, and the 6R35 has hacking, hand-winding, magnetic resistance to 4800 A/m, and a date display at three. It’s a toolish dive watch – all it needs is a reliable and somewhat accurate automatic movement, and the 6R35 gets the job done.
Another side note for those who listen to my podcast, The Grey NATO. I had mentioned that my SPB143 was having trouble with how long it took to fully align the date wheel, sometimes remaining slightly off-center well into the afternoon. As it turns out, a tiny bit of rotational pressure on the crown while in the quick date setting was enough to properly align the display and the issue has not returned.
Perhaps more so than any other single element, the dial really separates this model from any other Seiko diver I’ve owned in the past. The sunburst finish shimmers between light grey and black as the applied markers balance that effect with white metal surrounds. The date is simple but effective and certainly looks appropriate for the overall design. Finally, the hands are excellent, especially compared to some of the more bold designs seen on past SPB divers. In sunlight, the dial is a bright shade of grey, and the slightly domed crystal glows along its perimeter. It feels like a proper tool Seiko, but at a more refined level. In low light, the lume speaks for itself.
While I am not generally a bracelet guy, I know that most people buying a more expensive Seiko will in turn expect a more solid bracelet, and there is a $ 200 premium for an SBP143 or SPB145 over the rubber-only SPB147. With that in mind, I think Seiko has delivered a totally acceptable bracelet. It’s a solid steel bracelet with sturdy pin-and-collar sizing, solid end links, a steel clasp with micro adjust, and even a tiny folding wetsuit extension (just like on my SKX779!).
The SPB143’s case and lug shape are not exactly ideal for a bracelet, but Seiko has opted for a simple and rugged solid end link and a link shape that tapers towards the clasp. The end result is not fancy, but it does wear well and feels solid without overpowering the watch.
For my $ 200, if I could have had a rubber strap on the SPB143, that’s what I would have bought. I don’t mind having the bracelet, but I likely won’t wear it. Especially as the 143 is nothing short of a strap monster.
On The Wrist
I took the liberty of including an extra handful of wrist shots for this review as I think the SPB143’s strap versatility is something that makes it much more special to me and that it might also matter to you. While I may have stuck my metaphorical flag in a hill of grey NATOs, I love being able to change straps on a whim – what else am I supposed to do on Zoom calls, pay attention?
From rubber to leather, NATO or sharkmesh, I couldn’t find a strap that didn’t look great on the SBP143. This is due to a mix of the case shape (which is far from unique to Seiko), the tonal grey dial, and the short drilled lugs.
Strap changes are easy, grey goes with everything, and there is something eternal about that H-shaped skin-diver-style case. Some case shapes are made for bracelets (like Rolex), and some just melt into your strap of choice. I have an old ’60s Silvana skin-diver and, while it’s only 36mm wide, it does the same trick as the SPB143. The end result is the versatility to bend what is a rather low-key and simple watch in whatever direction you’re feeling for the day. And, should you get it wrong, the drilled lugs make it easy to change your mind.
Once you’ve picked your preferred strap, the SPB143 is lovely on wrist. It’s not too big nor too small, and it looks a bit chunky while never feeling overweight. It is both comfortable and toolish at the same time, and from my desk at home to some light snorkeling in a Toronto-area lake, it does what any good Seiko does. Which is – whatever you want.
Like I said in the included video, I think this is the Seiko for guys and gals that have been down a rabbit hole or two. You’ve had a grip of Seikos and their competition, and you’re ready to pay a bit more for the right one. Admittedly, that may be more of what this watch is to me, but look at it this way: Is this a Seiko I would recommend to someone just getting into watches or dive watches? No, likely not, as I think it’s important for enthusiasts to work up to various price points, especially with a massive and varied brand like Seiko. That said, after having owned a couple of dozen Seikos and plenty of the brand’s competition – is this my favorite Seiko of any I’ve owned or reviewed? Yes.
Like almost any other watch, Seiko, while certainly beloved, does not exist in a vacuum. And in continuing to offer watches that crack into the four-digit price point, they open themselves up to more competition than you might find in the sub $ 500 space. Looking at ~40mm automatic divers that are well under $ 2,000, here are a handful of options that should be on your radar before you spend $ 1,000-$ 1,500 on the SPB14X of your choosing. That said, I couldn’t include everything, so let me know in the comments as to how you might cross-shop the SPB14X.
Mido Ocean Star Tribute
While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see this diver in person, it certainly looks great on paper. For ~$ 1,080 bucks, you get a 40.5mm x 13.4mm steel case, 200m water resistance, a sapphire crystal, and Mido’s version of ETA’s C07.621 automatic movement with 80 hours of power reserve and a day-date display. It’s a handsome, well-spec’d dive watch that doesn’t overplay the “tribute” aspect. While I don’t know the lug-to-lug measurement, and I prefer the looks of the Seiko (and don’t have any straps to fit the 21mm lug width), this is really solid competition. Nicely done, Mido.
CHF 990, mido-watches.com
Doxa SUB 200
A bit thicker, wider, and longer than the SPB14X, the SUB 200 also keeps the pricing just in the sub-$ 1,000 range. At $ 990, you get an ETA 2824 and the choice of six colors, many of which are much more exciting than those offered by the Seiko (at least until more versions come available, yellow gold anyone?). For me, the SPB143’s size, brighter lume, and general shape outpace the color options of the Doxa – but this remains a great choice if you’ve got $ 1,000 and a need for some extra color in your life.
$ 990, doxawatches.com
Zodiac Super Sea Wolf
Similar in many ways to the Doxa, if the stoic nature of the SPB143 isn’t for you, the Zodiac Super Sea Wolf starts around $ 1,100 and offers a wide collection of colors and spec. Looking at the vintage-inspired Z09201, we find a 39.5mm case that is 13mm thick with a distinctive dial design and timekeeping provided by an STP 1-11 automatic movement. If you want an extra-hit of vintage styling, this (or really any) Sea Wolf should fit the bill. Compared to the Seiko, I’m a sucker for the SPB14X’s case shape and black bezel, though I give extra points to the Zodiac for its jubilee-style bracelet.
$ 1,295, zodiacwatches.com
Sinn 104 St Sa
Thankfully, while the starting point of the lovely U50 puts it at the better part of double the price of the Seiko, Sinn does offer their model 104 in several versions starting around $ 1,300. While not a traditional dive watch layout (countdown bezel vs elapsed time), the 104 is 41mm wide, 11.5mm thick, 46.5mm lug-to-lug, and has 200 meters of water resistance and a Swiss automatic movement. If you want something at a similar price and size, the 104 isn’t going to let you down, and they even offer it in a very handsome white-dial version and with several strap and bracelet options.
Representing a huge departure in terms of style, the 41mm Hydroconquest still fits the aforementioned filter given its price and 41mm sizing. No information is given in terms of thickness nor lug-to-lug, but it’s a distinctive 300-meter water-resistant diver from a well-known brand, and it comes on a bracelet, is powered by a Swiss automatic movement, and can be had in a blue or a black dial. In this case, it’s just a matter of which I feel looks better for my wrist, and that would definitely be the Seiko.
$ 1550, longines.com
Seiko Prospex SPB151/153 – aka. “The Captain Willard” $ 1,300/$ 1,100
You had to have seen this coming – and I’m sure at least a couple of you hit the comments to mention the new Willard long before reading this far. Indeed, the SPB14X was not the only heat to be added to the SPB range this year, as Seiko also launched a re-issue of their vintage 6105 diver in the SPB151 and SPB153. Starting at $ 1,100 for the green-dial version on a rubber strap, the 151/153 are 42.7mm wide, a little over 15mm thick, and 46mm lug-to-lug. While definitely larger, the 151’s case shape should manage the extra steel, and these SPB siblings rock the same movement and the same 200 meters of water resistance (and drilled lugs!). While I love the look of the 151 and the 153, the 143’s size is just too good on my wrist (and quite uncommon to Seiko). I know there’s a fight brewing here, and you’ll find me on team 20MAS, even if that means I’ll need to run away from Cole.
$ 1,100/$ 1,300, seikowatches.com
If the Goldilocks analogy felt somewhat too whimsical, allow me another attempt. Think of your home toolbox (or tool area, if you’re lucky). It’s full of many great tools, right? From those chunky orange pencils to a measuring tape, a hammer, and maybe a drill, or something really fun like a Sawzall. The thing is, nine times out of 10, when I go to my toolbox, I’m just grabbing a simple screwdriver, or a small level, or a light set of wire-cutters. In the tool spirit of the dive watch, sometimes we want or need the veritable sledgehammer of a Darth Tuna, but generally, I just want to make sure the lights turn on and that I don’t hang a frame in an annoyingly askew manner.
Likewise, the SPB143 is that everyday tool that doesn’t let any of its design push it out of contention for my wrist. It’s light, versatile, capable, and generally speaking, more than enough watch for anything I get up to. Is it a bit bland? Yeah, maybe a bit. But I also think it’s elegant in a way that an SKX007 or SRP777 can’t compare. To my eyes, this is distilled sporty Seiko – an everyday tool that doesn’t cost a fortune but still manages to check all of the boxes.
If they had made this watch back when I took delivery of my SKX779, I would have balked at the price and added it to my wishlist as I basked in the greenish glow of my $ 200 Monster. Now, well over a decade later, I have become an expert in what I need and expect from a watch. Within that narrow but rigorously informed position, the SPB143 feels perfect, the extra cost aligns with my expectations, and for my wrist, I figure it’s the best watch in the entire lineup. It is a tool just right.