A chronograph is an extremely practical watch complication that allows you to time just about anything. Plus, their added subdials help make them look a bit more complex and interesting than a plain time-only watch face. This makes them great watches for everyday wear.
If you’ve been looking at buying a chronograph, you might have noticed that due to their added complexity, they often don’t come cheap. And while there are definitely quite a few reasonably priced entry-level chronographs like the Timex Weekender Chronograph, there aren’t as many great mid-tier options for those of you willing to stretch your budget a bit.
With that said, I’ve spent many hours researching, wearing, and testing the best chronographs under $500.
For a quick answer, here are some of my top picks.
The Bulova Lunar Pilot is a watch with tons of horological significance, having been worn to the moon by a NASA astronaut.
The Seagull 1963 is a fully hand-wound, mechanical chronograph, rare to find in this price range.
Check out the full list below.
Bulova Lunar Pilot
The Bulova Lunar Pilot is quite possibly one of the most underrated chronographs ever. It’s a recreation of the model that NASA astronaut Dave Scott wore on the moon during the Apollo 15 space mission, making its history as impressive as the build of the watch itself.
Featuring Bulova’s unique high-frequency quartz movement, the chronograph second-hand sweeps like that of a mechanical watch. Combining that with the overall build quality, including its sapphire crystal, the Lunar Pilot is as functional as a tool as it is good-looking.
It’s a bit larger than many other chronographs on this list, coming in at 45mm in diameter making this a watch best suited for those with larger wrists, or anyone who prefers their watch to wear on the larger side. Recently, Bulova has released a 43mm version as well, making it a more versatile choice for smaller wrists. It makes a great alternative to the Omega Speedmaster, with its dark black dial, contrasting white hands, and space-visiting history.
Overall, the Bulova Lunar Pilot is a great-looking, and well-performing chronograph that has an impressive history to back it up.
Check out the Bulova Lunar Pilot on Amazon.
Orient Neo 70’s WV0041TX
It’s hard to mention chronographs without mentioning panda dials, as they seem to be all the rage with the hip, young, cool kids these days. Well… Maybe it’s just me.
What is a panda dial, you ask? A panda dial is just a chronograph that has a white/cream dial, and darker (usually black) subdials, making it look like a panda. 🐼
The Orient Neo70 is a panda dial chronograph with a mecha-quartz movement. It’s highly reminiscent of vintage chronographs from the ’70s, as its name would suggest.
The cream dial of the Neo 70’s balances the watch between “classy” and “cool” and adds a bit of versatility, for dressing the watch up or down, depending on which watch strap you wear it with.
Thanks to its monochromatic color scheme, it looks great on just about any strap you could think of. Leather, canvas, NATO, you name it – this watch does it all, and makes a great one-watch collection because of it.
It comes in at 42mm in diameter, which is about the average size for modern wristwatches, so it will wear well on just about any wrist.
Overall, the Orient Neo70 s a great watch for someone looking for a reliable and affordable panda dial chronograph. The watch is extremely classic in its design and looks great on almost literally any strap you could think of, making it a fantastic everyday watch.
Check out the full review.
The Seagull 1963 is a recreation of a chronograph originally designed as a Chinese pilot’s watch in 1961. It has a fully mechanical hand-wind ST19 movement that’s highly regarded for its performance-to-price ratio.
It’s also fairly well decorated, and can be marveled at through the Seagull 1963’s see-through display case back, should you opt for that version.
Coming in at 38mm for the standard model, and 42mm for the larger, it’s a compact chronograph with a vintage aesthetic that can fit comfortably on just about any wrist and adds a unique bit of character to any collection.
Read the full Seagull 1963 review here.
Citizen Eco-Drive Blue Angels
The Citizen Eco-Drive Blue Angels chronograph is a highly functional pilot chronograph that keeps extremely accurate time. The Eco-Drive movement is solar-powered and can be charged for days of wear, with just a couple of minutes in the sun.
The watch has an atomic clock, which connects to a radio signal and automatically and accurately adjusts the time daily, so you can always be confident that your watch is always right on time.
Coming in at 43mm in diameter, it leans toward the average-to-large end of watch sizes, but should be suitable for most wrists, especially those who don’t mind a slightly larger watch. It has a durable stainless steel case, a sapphire crystal for added scratch resistance, and 200 meters of water resistance, making it suitable for swimming or diving without issue.
The Citizen Eco-Drive Blue Angels would make a great one-watch collection for anybody who wants a reliable and accurate watch that can also stand up to the wear and tear of day-to-day use, and other miscellaneous adventures.
Check out the Citizen Eco-Drive Blue Angels.
Seiko Flightmaster SNA411
The Seiko Flightmaster SNA411 is a highly regarded pilot’s watch with features that go above and beyond your average chronograph.
It also has an alarm function, as well as an internally rotating slide rule bezel that allows you to calculate things a pilot would need, such as fuel consumption, flight climb calculations, and more. I’m not sure how helpful that’s actually going to be in your day-to-day, but hey, I really love using this watch for timing pizzas in the oven.
While it was originally designed for pilots and engineers, its extra functionality is like having a functional mechanical calculator on your wrist.
Coming in at 42mm in diameter, you’d expect it to wear on the large side, but since the bezel and slide-rule elements take up so much space on the dial, the watch actually appears a bit smaller on your wrist.
The Seiko Flightmaster SNA411 is a seriously functional and cool chronograph with a ton of features, from an extremely reputable brand, all for a reasonable price.
Check out the Seiko Flightmaster SNA411 on Amazon.
Citizen Chandler Eco-Drive
The Citizen Chandler is a military-looking chronograph. Large hour markers and hands make this watch extremely easy to read. The sides of the case are brushed to help hide scratches, yet the top bezel is polished to still add a “pop”.
Although the watch is slightly small by modern standards at just 39mm, the chronograph pushers and crown are large, making them easy to operate, and the crown is even knurled to get a better grip.
The watch uses Citizen’s famous Eco-Drive movement which is solar-powered and charges the watch while on your wrist.
On the included canvas strap it looks rugged and casual, though this is the type of watch that excels in versatility. Throw it on just about any type of strap: leather to dress it up, a NATO to dress it down, or rubber when it’s hot out, and it will still look good.
Overall, this is one of the most versatile chronographs on the list. It doesn’t try to look too sporty, dressy, or casual, and never looks out of place. The chronograph is easy to use, the watch is accurate, and easy to charge via solar power, and it’s also one of the more affordable picks on this list.
Dan Henry 1964 Gran Turismo
The Dan Henry 1964 Gran Turismo is based on sporty racing chronographs from the ’60s. Featuring a mecha-quartz hybrid movement that pairs the reliability and accuracy of a quartz watch with the smooth-sweeping second hand of a mechanical, it has the best of both worlds.
At 38mm in diameter, the 1964 is wearable on just about any size wrist, and it also comes packaged with both beads of rice stainless steel bracelet, and a textured leather strap that’s surprisingly high quality, for such an affordable overall package.
The watch comes in a variety of colors, including a rich sunburst silver with dark sub-dials, for that classic-cool panda chronograph look.
If you want a chronograph that will give you the taste of vintage, without the hassle of tracking down and repairing a true vintage watch, the Dan Henry 1964 Gran Turismo is a great option.
Similar to the previously mentioned Seagull 1963, the Sugess 1963 is a mechanical, hand-wind chronograph using column-wheel ST19 movement.
Sugess is capitalizing on the popularity of the Seagull 1963, and its movement, by repackaging the ST19 in a series of handsomely sporty and classic chronograph designs based on 1960s racing chronographs.
Based on my own experience with the Sugess, the watch looks fantastic on a wide variety of straps, has impressive build quality with a domed sapphire crystal, and even unique accents, like the 38mm version I own with a star counterbalance on the second hand. One of my main gripes is the all-polished case which, like any polished case, show scratches easily.
Overall, the Sugess 1963 is a new chronograph contender on this list, but one not to be overlooked. Its ST19 movement is highly regarded, beautifully decorated, and reputable. The overall design takes design queues from the Seagull 1963 and combines it with that of racing chronographs from the 60s into a great value-for-the-money package.
Timex Weekender Chronograph
By far the cheapest chronograph on this list, coming in well under $100, the Timex Weekender packs a punch.
Although the Weekender has a simple quartz movement, unlike some of the smoother sweeping mechanical, or mechaquartz movements featured in this list, its simple and timeless design paired with its reasonable build quality, and affordable price tag more than makes up for it.
At 40mm, this watch will fit on a wide variety of wrists, and its simple design makes it versatile enough for swapping straps and everyday wear.
The Timex Weekender Chronograph is the watch I’d suggest to someone who wants to pick up their first watch, and is gravitating toward the chronograph design. Its affordable pricetag doesn’t at all reflect the quality of the watch, and may leave you with a few dollars leftover to spend on an extra strap or two.
Seiko Prospex Speedtimer
The Seiko Prospex Speedtimer is a solar chronograph with a racing-inspired charm and is my favorite pick on this list. The only problem is it often floats just above the $500 mark. If you have a bit of room in your budget, you won’t be disappointed.
With its black tachymeter bezel, and tricompax design, the Speedtimer is reminiscent of famous luxury chronographs such as the Rolex Daytona and Omega Speedmaster, but still has enough unique design elements to set it apart.
Their case shape is reminiscent of vintage 1960s chronographs, but with modern touches, such as a curved sapphire crystal, a sandblasted dial, and a bracelet with both brushed and smooth polished surfaces, the Speedtimer has that classic, timeless chronograph look.
The Speedtimer comes in a few variations, including a black, blue, cream, and white panda dial variant, and has been updated recently to improve its design further.
Coming in at 39mm, the Speedtimer is a moderately sized watch that has some wrist presence, without being overbearing, and can confidently fit appropriately on just about any wrist size.
Overall, the Seiko Speedtimer is a perfect one-watch collection if you’re a fan of the modern racing-inspired chronograph.
Baltic is a newer microbrand that makes vintage-inspired watches, including the gorgeous Bicompax chronograph. Coming in at 38mm in diameter, it’s very compact and tastefully sized, making it suitable for any wrist. It’s powered using a mechanical Seagull ST1901 movement, one of the best entry-level to mid-range chronographs on the market.
With a wide variety of dial and color configurations to choose from, even including an unusual gold model with a black dial, there’s almost certainly one that fits your color palette of choice.
Although the Baltic BiCompax comes in above the $500 budget of this article, I love it so much that I wanted to mention it as an honorable mention, if you’re able to stretch your budget just a bit.
The Brew Mastergraph Chronograph is a rectangular, vintage-inspired chronograph that simply brings you back in time.
Based on sporty chronographs from the 60s, the Brew has a bunch of design elements: sunburst silver dial, black rounded/rectangular chronograph dials, and white contrasting hands that really make it stand out on your wrist.
On the bezel of the Mastergraph, you’ll find specific markers that allow you to specify and time how long until the optimal espresso shot is brewed (between 25-35 seconds). Perfect for all of you baristas and hipsters alike.
The Brew measures 41.5mm by 38mm, with a thickness of only 10.5mm. As long as the lug to lug measurement (41.5mm) doesn’t hang over the length of your wrist, it should wear well and be surprisingly thin for its specifications on paper.
Overall, if you’re looking for something different, or you could use a little help brewing your next cup of espresso, check out the Brew Mastergraph.
Yema Rallygraph Panda
Yema is yet another microbrand that makes vintage-inspired heritage divers, aviation, and chronograph watches.
The Yema Rallygraph runs on a mechanical quartz Seiko VK64 movement that’s well-regarded in entry-level chronograph watches.
It also has the “sporty racecar” vibe that looks like it comes straight out of the 60s; with its angular chronometer sub-dials, doubled domed crystal, and aluminum tachymeter bezel. It has a 60-minute chronograph, that functions as a mechanical watch would, but with the reliability and accuracy of a quartz movement.
Check out the Yema Rallygraph if you want to stay on the affordable side of $500 and still have a few bucks leftover for strap changes, all while wearing an unusually quirky and cool chrono.
What is a Chronograph?
A chronograph is a type of watch complication that functions as a stopwatch timer, used to measure an amount of time.
Typically, a chronograph will have various sub-dials (smaller dials within the larger watch dial) that each measure an individual amount of time. One subdial might keep track of seconds, while another keeps track of minutes that have elapsed since using the chronograph function.
They are often activated by various external buttons, or “pushers”, typically seen protruding on the side of watchs case, next to the crown.
Chronographs have a wide amount of practical applications including timing your laundry, work breaks, how long you’ve spent reading about watches on the internet, etc.
What to Look For When Buying a Chronograph Watch
Aside from the usual aspects, you’d evaluate in any watch, like the build quality, construction, and comfort, there are a few key details you’ll want to evaluate and consider even further when buying a chronograph specifically.
The chronograph pushers are the buttons on the side of the case which allow you to stop and start the chronograph function.
A quality chronograph will often have pushers that are tactile and clicky. You can really feel the chronograph activate when you push the pusher down. However, some cheaper chronographs will have softer, mushier feeling pushers that aren’t as satisfying to press, and are often representative of worse build quality.
Movement: Quartz vs. Mechanical vs. Mecha-Quartz
Like any watch, you’ll want to consider the type of chronograph movement used. Is it fully mechanical, meaning you’ll need to wind it regularly, and possibly get it serviced in a few years, or a quartz watch that needs a battery swap every once in a while? Maybe even a mecha-quartz, a hybrid of both.
Like any movement, you’ll want to consider the accuracy, maintenance required and expected longevity.
Maximum Recording Time
Analog and mechanical chronographs often have a limited capacity for how much time they can record. Typically, they can measure up to 30 or 60 minutes, however, some have the capacity to measure up to 12 hours and beyond. Keep your use case in mind and find the chronograph that works for you.
This isn’t limited to just chronographs, but it’s important to choose one that fits you well. Chronograph pushers tend to make a watch look a little larger than their dimensions would suggest, so choose a watch slightly smaller than you normally would pick.
Also, more important than the diameter is to choose a watch with a proper lug-to-lug, the vertical distance between the top and bottom of the watch. As long as the watch doesn’t overhang across your wrist, it fits you.
How To Use a Chronograph
Typically, a chronograph is activated via the chronograph pushers, most often found on the right-hand side of the watch.
The top chronograph pusher is often used to start/stop the chronograph, and the bottom pusher is used to reset the chronograph timer, after stopping it.
Here’s how to use a chronograph:
- Press the top chronograph pusher to start the chronograph.
- Push the top pusher again, once you are ready to stop the chronograph.
- Press the bottom pusher to reset the chronograph.
You can read the elapsed time recorded by the chronograph by using its subdials.
What are The Dials on a Chronograph?
The dials on a chronograph measure the elapsed time when using the chronograph function. Typically, one dial will measure the elapsed minutes, another will measure hours, and another will have a running second hand since the watch’s larger, main chronograph second hand only runs when using the chronograph function.
Some chronographs have two subdials and are often referred to as “Bicompax” chronographs, while others have three, and are called “Tricompax”. Watches with more subdials may have room for more information in each individual subdial, like how many seconds, minutes, or hours have passed since using the stopwatch function of the chronograph.
Some watches with only two subdials might leave out a certain measurement of time. For example, the Dan Henry Gran Turismo 1964 bicompax has only two subdials, both of which are used for the chronograph.
It lacks a running second hand, as the larger main second hand is also used for the chronograph. This is just one sacrifice you have to make when considering bicompax vs tricompax models. And the function of each subdial will vary, even on a bicompax model, from brand to brand, and watch to watch.
The Final Verdict
Chronograph watches are some of the most functional and useful watches on the market, and thus, are some of my favorite for everyday wear.
While it can be difficult to find a solid mechanical or automatic chronograph under $500, it’s not impossible, and hopefully, the couple on this list satisfy your needs.
To wrap things up, some chronographs you definitely want to check out are the Bulova Lunar Pilot for an “Omega Speedmaster” vibe on a budget, Tissot V8 for an affordable swiss automatic, and the Orient Neo70s for that panda dial goodness.
Have another chronograph to suggest for this list? Let me know in the comments below.– Anthony
Last update on 2023-12-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API