Product review: High-end spotting scopes
A team of 25 birdwatchers rank 16 of the best spotting scopes money can buy
Published: August 20, 2010
|A spotting scope can be your most prized possession. It allows you to find birds at much greater distances than binoculars can, and perched atop a stable tripod, it lets you study plumage and behavior for as long as your heart desires (or until your subject flies away). |
But getting to the point of being a happy scope owner can be challenging. Surf the web and you’ll find hundreds of models from a few dozen manufacturers. And you’ll have to ask yourself a number of questions. Do you want an angled or straight scope? Special glass? How much does length and weight matter? Will you use your scope for viewing the night sky as well as birds? And, perhaps most important, how much can you afford?
To help you sort through the options, we asked manufacturers of the best spotting scopes on the market to loan us models that met the following criteria:
Full-size. Manufacturers typically sell scopes in mid- and full-size models. Mid-size scopes have objective lenses that measure 60-65mm in diameter, and most full-size models measure 80mm or higher. We chose to test full-size models. Be aware that when you buy a bigger scope, its weight, length, and price tag are also bigger.
Angled. Whether you want a straight or angled scope is a matter of personal preference. We went with angled scopes because they’re easier for people of different heights to use. The one exception was the Leupold Kenai scope. The manufacturer makes an angled version but didn’t have one to loan us at the time of our test, so we used the straight scope.
Special glass. Most scopes are available, at a higher price, with lenses made of special glass. They come with labels such as HD (high definition), ED (extra-low dispersion), FL (fluoride ions), or FC (fluorite crystals). All of the models we tested have such glass.
Zoom eyepieces. An eyepiece that lets you zoom in and out on a subject relieves you of having to carry two or three single-power eyepieces. Most of the scopes in our test had 20-60x or 25-50x eyepieces.
High-priced. The best scopes for birders often carry manufacturers’ suggested retail prices of $1,000 or above. Dealers charge less, of course, and of the 16 scopes that met our criteria, we found them priced from $519 to $3,995. They are listed below.
We asked our friends at two Milwaukee-area nature centers to help.
Fifteen birdwatchers evaluated the scopes on June 17 at the Urban
Ecology Center, and nine other birders and I put the scopes to the test
at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center on June 28. We asked them to judge
the image quality, user- and eye-friendliness, and overall design of
each scope. Summaries of their rankings are in the charts at right and below.
Click to enlarge
Thirteen of our reviewers are scope-owners,
and 12 are not, which appears to be a fairly representative sample of
scope ownership in the birding community.
After we tallied the results of the tests, the Swarovski ATM 80 HD and Kowa TSN-883 Prominar led the pack.
Ost, one of the field testers at Schlitz, said the Swarovski was his
favorite. Its focusing ring, known as a barrel band, encircles the body
of the scope. “Initially I didn’t like the single ring to focus because
it was so large,” he said. “But it allows both fine and coarse focus and
is close enough to the tripod center not to be a problem.”
Vargo, who tested scopes at the Urban Ecology Center, called the
Swarovski’s optical quality “unbelievable” and noted, “I’ve never used a
scope that had a seamless transition as I was zooming in and out as
Carl Schwartz, who owns a Kowa scope and calls himself a
“Kowa fan,” gave the model we tested high marks for being “compact,
well-designed, easy to use, good field of view, and lightweight.”
also asked reviewers to predict how they would rate each scope before
looking through it. After the results were tallied, we found that
testers rated the Kowa, Vixen, and Vortex scopes higher than they had
predicted. It just goes to show that it’s best not to judge a scope,
like a book, before you try it.
Overall, our reviewers were not
as keen on the two Tele Vue models, which are manufactured primarily
with astronomers in mind. Past reviewers of birding optics, including
one who wrote for our February 2004 issue, have noted the excellent
views that astronomical telescopes, including Tele Vues, can offer
birders. In fact, many of our testers were wowed by the scopes’ clear,
bright images. The tradeoff is in usability — size, weight, and a lack
of maneuverability that our reviewers say is critical.
addition to learning what our reviewers liked as a group, we also found
that for scopes — like cars, homes, or TVs — no two people will want the
same thing. A few people gave excellent scores to all of the scopes we
tested. It proves, once again, that there’s no substitute for shopping
What we tested
Click to enlarge
Urban Ecology Center members tested scopes outside the center on a path overlooking a high-school sports field. Schlitz Audubon Nature Center members gathered on a deck in the woods next to a clearing. The weather on both days was warm and sunny, so the conditions during both tests were comparable.
First, we had our reviewers judge brightness, sharpness, edge-to-edge clarity, field of view, depth of field, detail in shadowed areas, and freedom from color aberration for each model. Evaluators were instructed to take each quality into consideration to rank image quality on a scale ranging from 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor). Numbers in the first green column show the average response.
Next we asked reviewers to assess the size, shape, aiming, ease of focusing, and other usability features to rank user-friendliness on the same scale (5-1). Numbers in the second green column show the average response.
Third, reviewers scored each scope’s eye relief, eyecups, and suitability with eyeglasses to determine overall eye-friendliness. Numbers in the third green column show the reviewers’ average response.
Finally, we instructed testers to judge the appearance, tactile appeal, and color of the scopes. Numbers in the fourth green column show the reviewers’ average response.
Numbers in the yellow column at far right are the averages of the ratings in the four green columns.
Notes: We did not ask our reviewers to carry the scopes or evaluate them based on weight. But a scope’s weight is important when you have a long hike ahead of you, so don’t overlook it when you’re shopping.
Street prices were obtained from Adorama, Binoculars.com, Eagle Optics, Optics4Birding.com, and Telescopes.com. You may find the same models available for sale from other vendors at different prices.
|Here are more comments from reviewers, photos of the scopes, and links to manufacturer websites:|
Brunton Eterna 80 Angled ED
"Good range, easy to use, reasonable cost."
"Eye cup easy to use. Fine focus works well. I felt the lens did not make the image as bright or as sharp as others."
"Beautiful, clear image. Easy to move and focus."
"Love the comfort of the eyepiece."
Bushnell Elite ED 80
"Looks good and adjustments function well."
"Very clear, I could read words on a sign at 20 power. That was nice. But it was hard to focus on the same sign and words once zoomed in."
"Very easy to use and functional for my budget, but image not quite as sharp and eye relief is somewhat poor."
Celestron Regal 80 F-ED
"I really like that the fine and rough focus are on the same knob."
"Eye cups are easy to use, but I found with this scope it is less easy to adjust the lens."
"The zoom lens is easy to use. However, the two little focus feels are hard to figure out in order to get a sharp image."
Celestron Regal 100 F-ED
"Smooth focus, wide lens, and good viewing field."
"I really like the range of telephoto and the large eye piece. The scope has poor optics however, both low and high power. I couldn't get a sharp view and eye relief with glasses is also poor."
Kowa TSN-883 Prominar
"Compact, well-designed, easy to use, good field of view, light weight, and easy to pack."
"I could see very clearly, even the seeds on a dandelion! I loved it!"
"Great focus and depth of field. Also a clear focus when zoomed in. Good colors and good view in shade and sun. Good edge to edge clarity and wide field of view."
Leica APO-Televid 82
"Clean image and easy to use. Great scope, but not better than some of the less expensive scopes."
"I really like that it is possible to very finely focus the image, but I dislike the price! The adjustments on the eye piece are jerky."
Leupold Kenai 80 HD
"High quality of zoom, but eyeglass use is not superior and focus is a little difficult to turn."
"I really like that it is small, but it does not have a sharp focus when zoomed in, and it is hard to focus. It has a small field of view as well."
Nikon Fieldscope EDG 85
"Superb image, unbelievable, but the scope is hard to focus, the eye piece is uncomfortable, eye relief is poor, and I don't like that the lens cup is attached to the eye piece."
"It has superior clarity, and the lens caps come on and off easily."
"The large focus wheel is hard to turn and takes your whole hand instead of a finger."
"Very friendly focus, very good zoom, and I like that the lens covers are attached. It might be a little heavy and large for me though, and definitely very expensive."
Pentax PF-80 ED-A
"Clear! Ease of use! Great value! As good as some of the more expensive models."
"Smooth telephoto operation, but marginal eye relief with glasses on — good without."
"Image quality is excellent, but zoom ring and eye cup ring are rather stiff. Field of view is also rather limited."
Swarovski ATM 80 HD
"I could see everything, even bugs and screws on a sign. Amazing."
"Unbelievable optical quality. I've never used a scope that had a seamless transition as I was zooming in and out as this one did. There isn't much I disliked about it except eye piece comfort. I just can't justify paying so much, but I would love to own it."
"I really like the size. Initially I didn't like the single ring to focus being so large, but it allows both fine and coarse focus and is close enough to the tripod center not to be a problem."
Swift Sport Optics NightHawk 82 ED
"I really like the design and that it is easy to use, but the image is not quite as bright as the others."
"I really like the price and weight, but the focus and zoom are not easy to use."
"Very sharp image at low focus, but focus knob has an unpleasant feel and high zoom is not as clear."
"Excellent optics, but a little complicated for birding."
"I really like the image quality, but do not find the design (all the screws exposed) appealing. However, the image is superior which is the main concern."
"Spectacular image. A little bulky though, and eye cup came off easily."
"The barrel moves against your eye when focusing and it is too difficult to make adjustments."
"Unbelievable quality image, if you can get a bird to stay still. A little bulky and the reverse image is confusing. Not good for a quick look. I wouldn't take it in the field."
"Clear image and good picture, but too complicated for me and heavy."
Vixen Geoma II ED 82-A
"I really like the compact size and the simple design features are easy to use. However, I could not get a sharp image."
"Focus takes too long to get sharp and it has a small field of view. Not really sharp even when zoomed in."
"Works very well and has sharp focus and color, but I do not like the cost."
Vortex Razor HD 85
"Perfect combination of optical quality and ease of use. There's nothing I don't like about this scope."
"Wide angle is great. Fine focus is suspect."
"I liked the clear view, that it's easy to focus, and its field of view."
Zeiss Victory DiaScope 85 T* FL
"I liked everything about it. Did not disappoint."
"Excellent clarity and ease of adjustments."
"Wonderful optics, but use with eyeglasses is a little awkward and the focus knob felt funny to me."
"Excellent images, zoomed or far away."
The editors thank our friends at Eagle Optics for generously loaning us eight Vortex STX tripods and heads to mount the scopes on.
And we thank reviewers Anne Bales, Jon Bales, Marilyn Bontly, Ethan Bott, Dennis Casper, Jean Casper, Suzy Clarkson Holstein, Seth Cutright, David Fenner, Ronald Gutschow, Judith Huf, Terry Knudsen, Lenore Lee, Thomas Nelson, Mitchell Ost, Sonny Ost, Don Quintenz, Bill Rumpf, Carl Schwartz, Carol Thomas, Barbara Todd, Carolyn Vargo, Tim Vargo, and Victor Vargo for their expertise and assistance.
Urban Ecology Center
The Urban Ecology Center, an environmental-education organization in Milwaukee, offers outdoor programs and resources for schools, families, adults, teens, and youth groups.
Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, located north of Milwaukee, connects people with nature and inspires them to become responsible stewards of the natural world.