The Spark Concepts xPRO v5 and the Openbuilds Blackbox are two popular CNC controllers in the maker community.
While both are known for being plug-and-play options and making life easier for a CNC hobbyist, each has its strengths and weaknesses.
In this review, I take a deep look at each controller by comparing them on the most important parameters relevant to a CNC user.
In the end, I also compare xPRO v5 with the latest version (X32) of Openbuilds Blackbox.
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Both xPRO v5 and BlackBox controllers come fully assembled.
Blackbox used to ship as a kit but has since changed to a fully assembled form.
This means both controllers are plug-and-play modules.
You only need to connect the wires to the computer and the CNC components for operation.
There is no need for crimping, soldering, or putting anything together before you can start using it.
Assembly- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
Currently, BlackBox sells for around $220 on the Openbuilds store, while the xPRO v5 sells for around $210 on Bulkman3d.
*Prices can fluctuate without notice. For current pricing, refer to the seller's website.
|xPRO v5 Price
Price- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
xPRO v5 is thick but small in terms of length and width compared to the BlackBox.
The xPRO v5 has a neatly enclosed ABS casing with integrated cooling.
The cooling fan is visible from the top and has ports/receptacles on three sides.
BlackBox is thinner in height but is larger in terms of length and width compared to xPRO v5.
It also has a cooling fan that's open from the top side and has ports on three sides for connections.
BlackBox uses muscle and brain boards stacked configuration with the muscle board providing the electrical power and the brain board providing the processing power.
Both the controllers perform very well provided they are operated with the recommended settings.
They both have in-built heat sinks and fans to cool the stepper drivers during heavy loads.
The microcontroller, or what is called "the brains" of a CNC controller, determines how much space you have to tinker around with your CNC controller.
Blackbox uses the ATMega328p 8-bit microcontroller, which is used in the most common Arduino boards, such as the Arduino Uno and Arduino Nano.
By using only the brain of the Arduino, the ATMega328p, Openbuilds has managed to shrink the size of the BlackBox controller while remaining within the Arduino development platform.
This also means Blackbox runs on GRBL 1.1 firmware and gets all the updates that happen with GRBL.
On the other hand, the xPRO v5 uses a newer 32-bit microcontroller called the ESP32 manufactured by Espressif Systems.
It runs a firmware called the GRBL_ESP32, which is an open-source port of the GRBL for the 32-bit ESP32 microcontroller.
Without going into the details of the circuitry, I'll talk about the practical implications this has on each controller.
While an 8-bit microcontroller is good for most CNC applications, a 32-bit microcontroller offers much more processing power and memory.
One major advantage to using the ESP32 microcontroller is the built-in WiFi and Bluetooth support.
This means with the xPRO v5 you can operate your CNC using your computer or phone via WiFi.
Although you have controllers like the Duet3D, which support WiFi and Bluetooth, they are not based on GRBL (or its variants).
That's less cable to manage and freedom from the wire length.
xPRO v5 also supports push notifications, which means you can configure it to send you a text/mail when a job is completed on your CNC.
|USB-C, WiFi, Bluetooth
Microcontroller- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
xPRO v5 runs the GRBL_ESP32 while Blackbox runs on the GRBL 1.1 firmware.
Both are open-source firmware and get frequent updates through Git Hub.
Although GRBL 1.1 is the more popular firmware, a 32-bit microprocessor is the direction in which the industry is moving and that makes the GRBL_ESP32 more futuristic.
While there are a lot of GRBL CNC Controllers on the market there are very few GRBL_ESP32 controllers.
Firmware- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
Number of Axes
As xPRO v5 runs on GRBL_ESP32, it can support up to 4 axes and is a true 4-axis motion controller.
BlackBox runs on GRBL 1.1, and that limits it to 3 axes control. However, a fourth slave axis is possible and BlackBox uses a slave driver to achieve this.
What this means is that you can run dual-drive CNCs which have dual motors on Y-axis and one motor each in X and Z with both xPRO v5 and BlackBox (with slave configuration).
However, if you want to add a 4th rotary axis in addition to using the X, Y, and Z axes, you can do that only with the xPRO v5 and not with the BlackBox Controller.
Also, it's possible to have two motors in each of the axes of the xPRO v5, giving it the capability to support up to 8 stepper motors simultaneously.
|No. of Axes
|True 4 axis
|True 3-axis (4-axis with slave)
Axes- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
More detailed dedicated review of Blackbox- Openbuilds Blackbox Controller Review 
Both the xPRO v5 and the BlackBox recommend a 24v power supply.
In fact, both brands recommend using the same Meanwell 24V power supply bundle for powering their controller.
Openbuilds actually warns that the warranty of the BlackBox will be affected if other power supply bundles are used.
In any case, Meanwell is an excellent power supply kit that delivers power reliably without any power surges that can happen with cheaper power supply bundles.
Power surges can destroy the stepper drivers in your controller.
Since both these controllers have integrated stepper drivers, if any stepper driver gets burned, the whole controller will have to be replaced.
Power Supply- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
xPRO v5 uses four Trinamic TMC5160 stepper drivers that can deliver a peak current of 6.0A.
This stepper driver can do micro-stepping of up to 256 micro-steps per full step.
Openbuilds does not specify the exact stepper driver used in their controller, but it can deliver a peak current of 4.0A.
Similar to xPRO v5, there are four stepper drivers in the BlackBox as well.
The stepper driver in the BlackBox can do up to 32 micro-steps per full step.
The upside of higher micro-stepping in a CNC is that the motion will be smoother with less noise.
The downside is that torque delivered by the stepper motor decreases at higher micro-stepping values.
So what do the values imply in terms of the stepper motors that can be run by these controllers?
The peak current of 6A for the driver implies that the xPRO v5 can run stepper motors with up to a 6A rating (theoretically).
But since you need to extract the full output (torque at high speeds) of the stepper motor, ideally the peak current of the driver should be 1.4 times that of the stepper motor.
Using this thumb rule, you can use a 4.2A stepper motor (NEMA 23 and some NEMA 34 stepper motors) with the xPRO v5.
And you can use up to a 2.8A stepper motor with the BlackBox controller such as this highly popular 269 oz.in NEMA 23 stepper motor.
However, even with the xPRO v5, the power that you can supply is limited to 24 volts.
High torque NEMA 23 motors such as this 425 oz.in NEMA 23 motor requires 36V of power to deliver the high torque you need at high RPMs.
Powering it at 24V is fine but it will limit the torque you get.
For knowing how much torque you can extract out of a stepper motor at each voltage and RPM, you need to refer to the torque vs RPM chart of the motor.
To know if you'll get higher torque out of your stepper motor with the xPRO v5 compared to BlackBox, you need to see how much torque the high-torque stepper motor can generate at 24V, which is the maximum recommended power for the xPRO v5.
In effect what this means is that you are looking at similar torque outputs from the stepper drivers on both BlackBox and xPRO v5, even though the xPRO v5 drivers have a higher peak current rating.
Stepper Drivers- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
With any controller, you need an interface with which you can send the Gcode generated by the CAM software to the controller firmware.
The interface usually sits on your computer or a similar device and connects to the controller using a USB or WiFi connection.
The WiFI support is a major distinguishing feature of the xPRO v5 and to take advantage of it you need to use an interface that supports it.
The two most recommended options with the xPRO v5 are CNCjs and ESP3D-WEBUI, both open-source interface software programs.
If you wish to connect to the xPRO v5 controller via WiFi you need to use ESP3D-WEBUI, and if you prefer a USB connection, you can the CNCjs desktop app.
Note that CNCjs has more features compared to ESP3D-WEBUI in terms of job tracking and graphics.
Although these are the two recommended Gcode senders, xPRO v5 is backward compatible with GRBL, so you can use almost any Gcode sender that works with GRBL.
With the Blackbox, you have the Openbuilds Control software which integrates well with the BlackBox controller.
Openbuilds control is a non-cloud interface for GRBL that works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
|CNCjs (or any other)
|Openbuilds Control (or any other)
Assembly- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
xPRO v5 is a plug-and-play controller with all the ports you need for making the connections including neat labeling for each port.
You have the stepper motor ports which support up to 4 stepper motors.
Although xPRO v5 can connect to your computer via WiFi, it has a USB-C port for USB connections.
USB-C is another welcome change as that's the USB standard the world is moving to.
Then you have the receptacles for connecting your spindle/VFD.
xPRO v5 supports three types of spindle connections.
PWM (0-5V) for low-powered spindles such as the ones on engravers.
Then you have the 0-10V ports which support VFD CNC Spindles which work in that voltage range.
Lastly, you have the RS485 ports for spindles of that type.
The other important output port is the coolant output receptacle, which lets you connect and control the chip-evacuation, dust-extraction, or cutting fluid systems of your CNC.
An IoT relay is a really cool accessory that can make your CNC operation a lot easier.
The xPRO v5 has inbuilt ports for connecting an IoT relay to it.
An IoT relay lets you turn something on or off from your computer through G-code commands.
With an IoT relay you can turn your spindle, router, dust control, and chip evacuation system on or off with your computer rather than physically press the on or off switch on these devices.
On the BlackBox, you have the four stepper motor ports including the port for the 4th slave driver.
Unlike the xPRO v5, BlackBox uses the normal USB port, also called the USB-A port.
Both 0-5V PWM and 0-10V VDF spindles are supported on the BlackBox as well with dedicated ports for each.
The PWM ports on the BlackBox can be connected to an IoT relay as well, which lets you turn your spindle on or off from your computer.
BlackBox has brought an offline controller/standalone controller called INTERFACE CNC Touch which is probably the best such standalone controller on the market.
It is a well-designed product that integrates well with BlackBox.
This lets you jog, home, and do all repetitive operations without using a computer by pressing the buttons on the INTERFACE.
You'll find it most useful for Zeroing before an operation with your Z-Probe.
INTERFACE can be connected to a WiFi network, which lets it do automatic firmware updates as soon as they are released.
If you are wondering whether you can connect controllers other than BlackBox to INTERFACE, the answer is that it can connect to any GRBL 1.1-based CNC controller if it has a UART port on it.
However, INTERFACE is designed to naturally integrate with just BlackBox and you'll need to design your own wiring for other controllers.
Overall, I'd say INTERFACE is much better than most offline controllers out there and it costs less than many of those poorer ones.
In comparison, Spark-Concepts does not supply any offline controller as an accessory for the xPRO v5, and you are left with 3rd party offline controllers which can be unreliable especially if they have a Chinese make.
Also, if you are wondering, you cannot connect xPRO v5 to Openbuilds INTERFACE as the xPRO v5 runs on GRBL_ESP32 and not GRBL 1.1.
|INTERFACE CNC Touch
Offline Controller- xPRO v5 vs BlackBox
BlackBox lets you connect a laser module to the controller through the PWM receptacle.
Like most GRBL-based controllers, it uses the Grbl v1.1 Laser Mode code to control laser operations.
xPRO v5 also supports a laser module and you can connect to the PWM receptacle here as well.
It uses the GRBL_ESP32 laser mode for laser operations.
Both controllers have documentation that explains how to use and operate them in laser mode.
Lightburn software is a highly popular software for laser operations and is compatible with both controllers.
However, it is paid software and costs $40 for a perpetual license.
This is one area where the BlackBox truly outshines xPRO v5.
The community at Openbuilds is highly active and you can get all questions answered by asking in the forum.
You can also access multiple projects documented by people in the community helping you tinker around a lot with the BlackBox.
xPRO v5 has no dedicated community and most discussions on the xPRO v5 controller happen within the Openbuilds community itself.
All the documentation on xPRO v5 is on GitHub and is overall well documented.
However, there is no real place to ask questions on the documentation other than Github or the contact form on the spark-concepts website.
In comparison, Openbuilds has highly detailed documentation on the Openbuilds website itself. Also, the documentation on the firmware GRBL 1.1 is well-maintained and updated regularly on GitHub.
Openbuilds also has a YouTube channel with a lot of product videos and tutorials that help you while operating the BlackBox.
Spark-concepts does not have a YouTube channel.
Customer Support and Warranty
While both brands are known for taking care of their customers, Openbuilds has a more professional approach to customer issue resolution.
You can raise support tickets and get them answered on the Openbuilds website.
Whereas you only have a contact form with Spark-Concepts.
Both are US-based brands.
Spark-Concepts is based in Waynesville, OH, and Openbuilds is based in Monroeville, NJ.
Spark-concepts does not offer a warranty on the xPRO v5 while Openbuilds offers a one-year warranty on the BlackBox.
The general feedback on both these controllers is excellent from their users, with most people being able to smoothly operate their CNCs with them.
xPRO v5 has a 32-bit board, better connectivity options (WiFi and Bluetooth), four-axis support, and better stepper drivers going for it compared to the BlackBox.
But the most recent version of BlackBox has all these features are more...
xPRO v5 vs BlackBox Motion Control System X32 - New!
Openbuilds has recently bought out a new version of the BlackBox Motion Control System.
Unlike the 8-bit processor used in the initial model, the new variant has a 32-bit processor, providing better performance.
In addition, it is compatible with multiple machines as it now supports rotary, air assist, coolant, and other attachments.
Also, the true 4th axis capability of X32 reinforces its equal footing to the xPRO v5.
In terms of connectivity, X32 supports WiFi, USB, SD, Bluetooth, and OpenBuild's proprietary Xtension system.
X32 supports the GrblHAL firmware, which adds a Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) to easily port with new microcontrollers without having any knowledge of GRBL Core.
If these features matter to you, you can opt for BlackBox, which has better community support and is a more mature and well-established product.
It has better documentation, supports advanced firmware, and has better offline capability and connectivity.
BlackBox also has the advantage of being a part of the Openbuilds ecosystem, where you have CNC machine kits, accessories, and several other things which are naturally compatible with the BlackBox.
If you wish to buy any of these controllers, you can find the links to them below: