Manfrotto 055XPROB + 496RC2 head - £185/$220
The heaviest combination in the group, albeit by only 100g, the aluminium Manfrotto is rugged and robust. The three-section legs have clip-locks that are ultra-firm when closed yet enable practically zero friction adjustment when released. There's very little flexing even at the maximum operating height of 187cm, very similar to the Giottos MTL9361B + MH1311-652 head.
With four leg angles to choose from, each leg can be raised to horizontal if required, courtesy of a simple push-button release. But this versatility isn't matched by the pivoting centre column arrangement where, unlike the Benro FlexPod A-297EX, Giottos MTL9361B and Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH, there's only 90, rather than 180 degrees of rotation.
Another minus is that the centre column can only be used in vertical or horizontal positions, not at angles in between. To raise the column high enough to enable pivoting, there's a push-button release built into the bottom of the column. The trade-off is that there's no weight hook under the centre column, but a small hook is moulded into the tripod collar.
The 496RC2 ball head has an adjustable friction damper, although there's no panning lock. Even so, it's a particularly solid, high-quality head that's a great match for the tripod.