Let’s talk about budget dive watches. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that divers that represent value, whatever you define it as, are the most important segment in watches today. The dive watch is so ubiquitous and desirable by the non-diving masses that the term has become somewhat interchangeable with “sports watch,” the canopy under which a diver would usually sit. The reason for the diver’s popularity is pretty simple. In a world where getting “dressed up” for work, weddings, and other social events has an elastic meaning (and that’s before the global pandemic relegated most of us to a life of Zoom meetings and sweatpants), a watch that’s inherently casual makes a lot of sense. The dive watch is typically big, easy to read, goes with anything, and can stand up to daily abuse, whether that’s a deep submersion or simply whacking it against the door of a front loading washing machine. And, for the rare occasion when you do have to suit up, it doesn’t look out of place. If James Bond can do it, why not the rest of us?
So the diver is a natural choice, an all-purpose favorite, and the type of watch that you just can’t go wrong with. It follows, then, that it would be a critical watch for any brand to cover in their catalog if they’re interested in attracting new enthusiasts and having an evergreen product that will likely survive all manner of trends.
The Sonar is Collins Watch Company’s first dive watch. The brand’s previous watches, the Hyperion and Bronson, take inspiration from classic aviation watches, field watches, and – a bit surprisingly – audio equipment. The Sonar, though, seems to be a genuine departure in terms of design language, and that’s an exciting thing. Brand found Jimmy Collins is a designer by trade, with a history of designing eyewear, and his watches have always been loaded with the types of small details that don’t necessarily register immediately, but become rewarding after spending some time with them. The Sonar, with its use of bright primary color, is also just a lot of fun, and makes the Hyperion and Bronson look a bit conservative by comparison.
Review: Collins Sonar
Stainless steel bracelet
39.5 x 47.5mm
At $ 650, the Sonar is Collins’s most expensive watch to date, but is still well within the value end of the watch spectrum. Watches under $ 1,000 are incredibly important, because they draw so many new consumers into the space. A disappointing experience, or feeling as if you overpaid for something that was already value oriented, can have the effect of distancing a would-be watch fan from the hobby altogether. For that reason, and others, it’s important to take these watches seriously, and judging from the time I spent with the Sonar, I think Jimmy Collins would agree. Let’s take a closer look.
A dive watch lives or dies by its case. All watches do, but with a diver the case has a distinct function, in addition to any requirements that it be aesthetically pleasing and wear comfortably: it has to keep water out. The Sonar is rated to 300 meters, and has a case of real heft to match. Frequently, cost cutting measures can be seen on watches at this price point in the way the case is machined, but I found the Collins has a clean and well executed finish that feels good in the hand and on the wrist. Simply put, it doesn’t feel cheap.
The design is fairly modest and unassuming, with three distinct layers: the screwed in case back, the substantial mid-case, and the bezel assembly. At 12mm thick, nearly all of that measurement is made up of the mid-cae. Case diameter is 39.5mm, and the lug to lug measurement is 47.5mm, which on my 7.5 inch wrist equates to a comfortable wearing experience. The watch has a compact feeling to me, but it still has a very real presence thanks to its weight. The dimensions are basically perfect – any bigger and the watch would have felt strangely oversized, and if longer from lug to lug it wouldn’t have been nearly as comfortable. The attention to detail when it comes to the proportions is without a doubt the impact of having a trained designer at the helm.
The aluminum rotating bezel is, in my opinion, the case’s weak point. It’s nice looking with a circular brushed effect, but rotation action left a bit to be desired. The bezel is relatively thin compared to the rest of the case, so can be challenging to grip, and the movement is a bit stiff. If you’ve ever played with a dive bezel that feels like it takes a few false starts to get the turn going, you’ll know what I mean. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, and your mileage may vary depending on the size of your own hands (I have the types of fingers that piano teachers dread), but the execution here doesn’t match the rest of the case in my experience. Aesthetically, however, it’s a great fit, and if this functionality isn’t critical, it can probably be disregarded entirely.
The Sonar is available in a total of six dial variants. In addition to the blue seen here, you can choose a sonar in black, white, orange, yellow, or green. My favorite thing about this watch in the abstract is the playful use of color, which to me came as a real surprise having been familiar with earlier watches from Collins, which (with a few exceptions) stuck pretty rigidly to a black dial with radium colored lume palette. The Sonar is fresh and fun, and all the things an affordable dive watch should be, and that’s largely thanks to Collins experimenting with color. (Naturally, this effect is negated a bit if you choose the black or white dialed Sonar, but as a product line, this watch represents a shift).
The blue dial I was able to sample has an interesting tone that appears purple in more conditions than I was expecting. It’s not a typical royal or navy blue that we often see in sports watches – it’s much more contemporary and a little unusual. It reminds me of grape soda more than the Smurfs, and that’s perfectly fine by me.
A simple cross-hatch pattern divides the Sonar into quadrants. This subtle detail gives the watch just that small amount of additional visual interest. Had it been left out, I think it would just be a little too plain for my taste, but perhaps be more appealing to folks who are looking at this as their only dive watch, or indeed their only watch. In the context of a larger collection, or rotation of watches, I think it’s nice to have a dial that’s out of standard in some way, and both the cross-hatch and color help make that happen with the Sonar.
The hour markers are applied, and the cardinal positions get larger indices that flow out of the cross-hatch symmetrically. At the non-cardinal positions, the markers are a bit thinner than what is currently in favor among dive watch brands, but I like this choice as it lets the dial color dominate. Everything is in balance – this dial should please those who might nitpick about date windows throwing off symmetry, or excessive text (here we have just the brand’s signature at 12:00, and the text “Sonar” along with a depth rating at 6:00 – all very tasteful, clean, and minimal).
Wearing the blue Sonar for a while had me wondering which version I’d go for if I had to choose one to buy with my own money. The black and white are out, because as I’ve mentioned, I think the point of this watch is to have fun with color. I’ve come to enjoy the blue, but I’m mysteriously drawn to the orange. Not having it in person makes it tough to evaluate of course, but I have a sense that it’s the brightest and boldest, which is where I think this watch’s design is best utilized. Regardless, I think it’s great to have options, and I hope that this is a trend that continues with future Collins releases.
Straps & Wearability
On a budget oriented diver, the bracelet is often where corners get cut. Honestly, it’s hard to blame watch brands for this. Making a great bracelet is hard, and expensive. And so many of us get the watch in hand and immediately remove the bracelet in favor of almost anything else. I think this explains why many brands seem to make watches that have dials and cases that punch well above their weight, but bracelets that range anywhere from average to unwearable.
The Sonar’s bracelet is definitely wearable. It’s an Oyster style setup, with thick, substantial links that articulate freely and wear comfortably. It’s solid and modern feeling, as opposed to light and chintzy (which, I should point out, can be quite charming in a bracelet). The clasp is stamped metal, and the folding mechanism isn’t finished, which doesn’t convey a premium feeling, but it’s completely functional and employs a dual trigger with flip lock design, which I always felt was completely secure.
Because the Sonar is somewhat compact and wears thin for its size, it worked well for me on nylon straps, and the blue toned dial should make it compatible with a wide range of colors. A huge part of the fun in a watch like this is freely experimenting with straps in a variety of textures and materials, and if that’s something that appeals to you, I don’t think you’ll be let down by the Sonar as it can easily exist off the included bracelet.
The Sonar runs on a Sellita SW200 movement, which is a perfectly capable caliber that anyone who has experimented with watches in this price range is likely quite familiar with. The Sonar’s appeal, if you haven’t already figured it out from this review, is largely in its design and aesthetic pleasures – it’s not a watch that’s likely to appeal to movement nerds on a visceral level. The Sellita will keep good time without having to give it much thought, which is definitely the best attribute of a mass produced Swiss movement like this one.
One point to note is that the SW200 normally features a date display, and as you can plainly see in the photos here, the Sonar is time only. You will experience the “phantom click” often associated with this caliber in watches that forego the calendar option. While some have very strong opinions on using the SW200 in this way, I tend to be somewhat agnostic. I like the clean, no-date look of the dial, so the extra click doesn’t feel much like a penalty to me, but it’s something to keep in mind before purchase if this type of thing is a dealbreaker.
In a watch landscape with no shortage of budget divers, it’s tough for any single product to stand out. The specs of the Sonar are shared by many watches – things like 300 meters of water resistance, a good sapphire crystal, screw down crown, and a reliable Swiss movement have become the gold standard, and not the exception. So it comes down to whether or not you like how it looks, and how it fits your wrist, like just about any other watch purchase.
That the Sonar is nice looking and well thought out is a credit to Jimmy Collins and his attention to detail as a designer. There’s nothing about this watch that exists by accident, and that leads to a really pleasing experience when you’re actually wearing it. Unlike a lot of watches that have an obvious gimmick to draw people in, the Sonar is essentially made up of a series of little decisions that, when added together, become something coherent, useful, and, most importantly, and just enough outside the bounds of “traditional” to be fun, but not so far outside that it becomes an unusual curiosity.