Zenith Chronomaster Sport Review

The Zenith Chronomaster Sport has, quite unexpectedly (at least to me), become perhaps the most important new watch of 2021 thus far. Yes, somehow surpassing watches like the White Birch Grand Seiko and an all-new Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch, we’ve received an incredible degree of interest of this model. And yet, despite what may be the birth of a new Zenith icon, the watch is also the subject of controversy, as many have rushed to compare it, sometimes favorably and sometimes not, to the Rolex Daytona. The question I have to answer, then, is why this model has such a powerful resonance with fans and whether it even ought to be compared to the Daytona. Before I entertain the deeper questions about the Chronomaster Sport, we should first examine it in a vacuum, simply as a watch.

There are a few elements that make the new Chronomaster Sport stand out against its dozens of brethren and predecessors, but surprisingly, none so highlight the difference as this simple photo of the bezel. We first spy the bezel itself, in a gleaming black ceramic that is quite provocative in its own right. You don’t often see bezels this bold outside of divers, with, of course, some notable exceptions. That marks the beginning of a stylistic change, but the writing on the bezel is at least as profound. Instead of the ordinary, and borderline useless, tachymeter writing you traditionally find on chronographs, you find something far more interesting: a tenth of a second declaration, and, stranger still, a bezel that only counts up to 10, not 60. That’s because this chronograph, unlike almost all others in existence, has a chronograph seconds hand that makes a full rotation around the dial once every ten seconds. More on that later.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that the bezel is not entirely novel for an El Primero; you’d find something similar in the old, somewhat obscure, Zenith De Luca, a comparison that many reviewers, and even Zenith, are apt to make. Personally, I don’t find this comparison particularly compelling. In my opinion, the Chronomaster Sport has much more in common with the relatively recent Stratos Flyback Striking 10th. The De Luca is far more utilitarian, and has a lot less El Primero design DNA. The Stratos Striking 10th, by comparison, has the familiar Tri-Color dial but with the black bezel. That said, I’m unclear as to why commentators are in such a hurry to find historical connections. The Chronomaster Sport is intentionally a contemporary watch. Those who want a Zenith of great provenance should go for the more conventional Chronomasters, or ideally, the A384. This new model is designed to push forward into modernity.

Setting aside the ceramic bezel, I’m left with another question about the Chronomaster Sport: wasn’t the Chronomaster already pretty sporty? It’s not as if the various long-running versions of the Chronomaster were discreet dress watches (that’s why we felt the need to do a new A273-inspired model to begin with), after all. In some ways, weirdly, I think the Chronomaster Sport is actually more subtle than some existing Chronomasters. There’s no open heart dial available, for instance, and only the tip of the seconds hand is red compared to the entire hand. The size isn’t even extravagant at 41mm, a totally ordinary case size by modern standards (particularly with a large bezel making it wear a bit smaller than you’d expect), and you can get non-Sport Chronomasters larger than it. Don’t get me wrong, of course, the Chronomaster Sport is clearly a sports watch, but so are almost all of the other Chronomasters. The visual distinction here is mainly limited to the bezel, but this is ultimately a good thing. We don’t need another crazy Defy Xtreme; the Chronomaster is sufficiently sporty that it doesn’t need an overhaul to gain a “sport” moniker.

Consequently, most of the Chronomaster Sport is familiar. We’re greeted with the Tri-Color Dial, among my favorite design elements of all time. We also see minimal overlap of the subdials, another plus in my book. The dial itself (as opposed to the bezel) is cleaner than most Chronomasters as there is no longer a tachymeter scale, which looks great, and Zenith took the time to color-match the date rings on both the black and white models. I would definitely have preferred a no-date option on these watches to clean up the dial even more, but the date complication is at least very discreet.

Looking just at the hands now, we can see that Zenith has color-coded the Chronomaster Sport’s functions. All timekeeping hands (i.e. for telling what time of day it is) are silver, while all hands involved in chronograph functionality have red tips (the 6:00 subdial is a bit hard to see, but if you look through the star counterbalance you can find the red tip). The Chronomaster Sport is a very interesting watch to read, and this is one of the confusing nuances that you have to confront when exploring the model. You might think, for instance, that the Chronomaster Sport is a unique El Primero model in that it has 1/10th of a second precision, but, in fact, all El Primeros have 1/10th of a second precision (in contrast to almost all other chronographs, which are generally limited to 1/8th of a second). What’s special here is that the main chronograph seconds hand gets to use an entire revolution to break down 10 second increments rather than 60. The result is that, while any ordinary Chronomaster would stop on 1/10th of a second increments, you can actually read it to a tenth of a second now. That is to say that the advantage of the Chronomaster Sport over most other El Primeros isn’t horological precision, it’s legibility. I’ll call gimmicks out where I find them (and I often do), but this isn’t a gimmick. The watch is genuinely much easier to read, at least, if you’re doing the kinds of things that benefit from split-second precision.

Just because other El Primeros already have 1/10th of a second precision doesn’t mean that the movement in the new Chronomaster Sport isn’t special. The El Primero is among the most venerated watch movements of all time, and is arguably the single most important chronograph movement ever made, but horology has moved on a bit since it was initially released in 1969, and this new 3600 version basically gets it caught up to speed. The 3600 is not a totally new beginning the way the El Primero 21 is; rather, it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. Without getting deep into the minutia, the EP 3600, at least in my view, differs from its predecessor in three noteworthy different ways: the chronograph seconds hand, the power reserve, and hacking. While, as I’ve mentioned above, the Chronomaster Sport isn’t the first Zenith to feature a 1/10th second chronograph seconds hand like this, it is still an exotic and rarely seen feature even among Zeniths. What’s unique here, then, is the mainstreaming of the design in a high-volume model.

The next two features I’d describe more as significant pluses rather than headline achievements, but they can make living with the watch easier. The power reserve has been increased to 60 hours from 50, reflecting a normalization of lengthy power reserves that’s occurring, more or less, industry-wide at this point. While 60 hours may sound merely good, as opposed to great, by contemporary standards, keep in mind that high-frequency movements are notoriously power inefficient. Achieving 60 hours on a 36,000 BPH movement is a significantly more impressive number than it would be on a conventional 28,800 BPH movement. Finally, Zenith adds hacking (stop seconds) to the El Primero. As I pointed out in my preview, even this isn’t entirely novel, as the obscure Zenith Synopsis featured this, but the 3600 is the first El Primero chronograph movement to have hacking (and, bizarrely enough, you’re reading that right; the Synopsis was an El Primero with no chronograph). Hacking will allow you to stop the seconds hand while setting the watch to get the time just right, so for the obsessively precise this will be highly valuable. Personally, I kind of liked Zenith’s weird holdout against hacking in the El Primero (a stance they didn’t take with their other modern movement line, the Elite). I’m sufficiently neurotic that I feel a need to get the seconds just right when I set my watches, and being literally unable to do that actually ended up freeing me from that compulsion, at least where Chronomasters were concerned. That said, I have no doubt that the addition of hacking is going to be one of the single most well-received features of the 3600.

Setting aside the prominent ceramic bezel for a moment, the case of the Chronomaster Sport isn’t especially sportier than the ordinary Chronomaster. The size remains surprisingly everyday-wearable at 41mm, which, while on the larger end of Chronomasters, is hardly the largest available. The overall shape and design of the lugs is pretty typical to the Chronomaster as well. This is all to say that, if you liked the Chronomaster’s case before but wish it had a massive ceramic bezel, you’ll really love this watch. Again, it’s more evolution than revolution.

Now, I suppose, I’m required by some emergent standard to compare the Chronomaster Sport to a Daytona. Sure, they’re both chronographs with black bezels, but so is the equally-famous Speedmaster and dozens, if not hundreds, of other watches. The Tri-Color dial immediately sets the Chronomaster Sport apart as, well, a Zenith, an iconic design that’s been produced for over five decades. The design of the subdials themselves, setting aside the color, is extremely different as well, with a ring-like depiction on the Daytona compared to the disk appearance of the Zenith. The pointy hour markers of the Rolex are absent, too, replaced by the more conventional (and, in my opinion, more attractive) rectangular markers found on many other Zenith models. The Zenith (unfortunately, in my book) has a date; the Rolex does not. The Rolex’s case has a crown guard and more streamlined lugs while the Zenith lacks crown guards and has more angular lugs. And this is all before we get into the movement, which is profoundly different from the Rolex’s. That is to say, the differences are numerous and important, and I’m left wondering why these were even considered unusually similar to begin with. About the only thing I find remarkably similar here are the hour and minute hands, but even these aren’t new to the Chronomaster Sport, as Zenith has been using similar hands for decades. Clearly, I’m the odd man out on this, but in my opinion, this is nothing more than a case of watch pareidolia. That said, I’m not a fan of viewing these kinds of comparisons as zero-sum games; it’s perfectly reasonable to like both the Daytona and the Chronomaster Sport. Nor do I think people should rush out and buy Chronomaster Sports merely because they’re more affordable or accessible; sure, those should be factors in deciding what watch to buy, but they shouldn’t be overriding factors.

Nonetheless, the right watch for me is the Zenith Chronomaster Sport, with the better price ($10,000 on bracelet, or $9,500 on strap) and availability simply being icing on the cake. I just like how it looks more than the Daytona and I think the movement is far more interesting. That said, the El Primero has always been my favorite chronograph, so I was firmly entrenched in the Zenith camp long before this watch came out. The much more difficult question, at least for me, is whether the white dial or black dial is better. I vacillate between these choices constantly, but right now, at this particular moment, I think I prefer the black dial. I suspect that’s because of the consistency between the bezel and the dial that makes the watch feel a bit more low-key than it otherwise would, but tomorrow I might very well change my mind. I would, however, get the watch on the bracelet, which just suits the character more regardless of the color.

But returning now to the first question I posed, why does this watch, as opposed to so many other great watches in a surprisingly strong 2021 lineup, resonate so deeply with enthusiasts? I think that this is, in part, just a reflection of adopting a more contemporary design that’s already quite well-loved. Ceramic bezels, particularly black ones, are increasingly popular, and we’re seeing this design pop up in many other watches, like the new TAG Heuer Carrera Porsche model and even, dare I say it, various Grand Seikos. So there is a mundane answer insofar as the Chronomaster Sport is basically just joining an emergent market trend. Furthermore, there was a significant contingent of would-be El Primero buyers that simply refused to buy a watch without hacking. But that doesn’t really explain precisely why this watch, and not the others that have added similar bezels and already had hacking, has become so wildly popular.

I think that answer may be in how effortlessly the Chronomaster Sport blends the present with Zenith’s past. It marks a step into the future, but not a leap. The design is thoroughly contemporary while still being recognizably El Primero, and this is reflected in the updated movement as well. In this regard, the Chronomaster Sport separates itself from another great new watch, the Speedmaster Moonwatch, which, despite an updated movement, doesn’t make nearly the aesthetic jump that the Zenith does. It meets a need, therefore, for fans of the El Primero that wanted something bolder, sportier, and more contemporary, but didn’t want to lose any of what makes El Primeros great. It’s far too early to say for sure, but the Chronomaster Sport is emerging as a serious contender for best watch of 2021, and, as you’ll recall, the A384 was my favorite chronograph of 2019, so Zenith is really putting out a lot of hits lately.

You can see all of the new models here.

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