Scope talk

Recently I've been considering upgrading my trusty scope, the ol' classic Swarovski AT80 HD. The scope is fantastic and has served me incredibly well over the past 9 or so years.

My first thoughts of upgrading came a couple years ago when I was out in Washington state birding with my friend Ryan Merrill. He had recently purchased the Kowa TSN-884 Prominar ED. One look through that scope and I was hooked....shocked really. I had looked through the newer Swarovski ATS80 HD and the classic Leica Televid 77mm and didn't see much/any improvement over my own Swaro. BUT this Kowa was different...amazingly bright and razor sharp from edge to edge, with such true color.

At that time I was about to begin PA school and was in no position to spend any large amount of money, so I didn't research things further.

Over the past few weeks I've begun researching the scope market to catch up on the latest models and reviews. There appear to be 3 top-rated high-end scopes that pique my interest. I'll write a very brief description of each below. Note that these are based on my online research and not on personal observations. Costs estimates are based on my research and include each model's corresponding zoom eyepiece.

Leica APO Televid 82mm:
Probably the best all-around scope available. Reportedly nearly as bright and sharp as the Kowa with a wider field-of-view through the zoom eyepiece (25-50x). It doesn't zoom up to 60x, which is a zoom level I actually use often, like when scrutinizing feather detail on shorebirds several yards away; so that's a slight detraction.
Cost: $4,000!!! Yeah, you read right. It may be the best of the bunch per the reviews, but by a tiny margin (thanks to the widened FOV). Indications are that it is not worth, for example, $1400 more than the Kowa...

Swarovski's ATM/STM-80 HD:
Swaro's newest version, I'm told this is optically pretty much the same as the ATS/STS line. The difference lies in the new eyepieces, which include a 25-50x zoom that, like the Leica, sports a very wide FOV. Disappointing is the continuing 80mm objective, which has less light-gathering capability than the 82mm Leica or the 88mm Kowa.
Cost: $3,400. Not as much as the Leica, but still a heckuva lot of money...and for a body that is supposedly not much of an improvement at all over the prior model. (If you own the ATS/STS model, perhaps the new eyepieces are compatible with your scope???)

Kowa 883/884 Prominar ED:
An 88mm objective lens delivers likely the brightest images out there with true edge-to-edge sharpness and color. The downside is the smaller FOV as compared to the Leica and Swarovski through the 20-60x zoom. Kowa's best scope ever, by far.
Side-by-side with my 9 yr-old Swaro, the Kowa 88mm provides a markedly superior image. This is not so obvious in bright midday conditions at 20x. But when you crank the zoom up to 40-60x, the difference is striking. The same difference is seen in fading evening light.
Cost: $2600. That's not chump change, but it's much closer to what I'd feel comfortable spending on a scope!

One would assume that the scopes with larger objectives (thus more light-gathering) would greatly aid with digiscoping since lack of light is a real problem with this photographic method (all other things being equal).

So, yes, IMO it would be worth the money to upgrade from my current scope. Given the scopes and prices to choose from, the Kowa 883 (angled) will likely be my choice. I think the Swaro and especially the Leica have out-priced themselves here, especially in the current U.S. economy.

Reviews generally place the Leica and Kowa very close to one another at the top with the Swaro a touch behind.

If anyone has any personal opinions, experiences or reviews, please do let us know.

- Nick


  1. Hey Nick,

    Just adding my .40 cents here I guess.
    I got the newer 60 mm ATS Swaro a few months ago. The eyepiece is 20x-60x, and as you said the 60x is incredibly helpful and proved it's worth when I was just in FL searching for the Bar-tailed Godwit that was down there. Also very good at South Beach, MA. I have read a few scope reviews lately and heard a number of items on Leica's line have showed problems, etc. You can put the new swaro. eyepiece on an ATS but I for one wouldn't recommend it. My Swarovski was not $3, 400, like the new one, but more like $2, 800. I was also recently able to check out the Prominar and think that Field of View is important in some circumstances, but you'd rather be able to ID that Sharp-tailed Sand than worry about field of view. The Kowa looks like a great choice, though I would take another look at the ATS.

    I have a few friends in Cape May that know at ton about optics.

    See ya in the field soon,

  2. Hey Alex,

    Thanks a lot for your thoughts and information. The ATS 80mm is a very nice scope, but it's really similar to what I have right now, which is the previous Swaro 80mm. It looks a lot different, but in my experience it performs very similarly, so it wouldn't make much sense for me to get the ATS. I actually know one well-known tour guide who actually prefers the older AT-80 HD to the ATS-80 HD. I've tested both side by side in the field a few times and thought the ATS was a touch better.

    I'm a bit surprised that Swaro hasn't advanced their technology enough to warrant an increase in objective lens size. They're losing a bit of ground in the brightness category as a result.

    I've owned Swaro bins and a scope for almost a decade now, and I couldn't be happier with their products. It is going to feel a bit weird purchasing another brand. Their customer service is top-notch, and their optics are nearly indestructible. Part of me worries if Kowa's scope will be as tough as my Swaro has been.

    Back to the Kowa, the FOV is only subpar when compared to the new Leica and Swaro 25-50x Wide Angle zoom eyepieces. It's essentially identical to the Swaro ATS and the older Leica 77mm. I can live with that.

    Like I mentioned in the original post, the Leica appears to be the best scope available. If the prices were identical, I'd probably go with that one. But at $1400 more than the Kowa, there's no way I can justify that large a price difference, based on the reviews.

    I hadn't heard of any issues with the Leica, but then again I don't know anybody who owns one!

    If/when I purchase a new scope, I doubt I can go wrong with any of the choices. They're all pretty awesome I'm sure.

  3. Alex,

    Thanks to your input I've been urged to do some more reading on these things.

    According to a few online posts, the new Swaro wide angle zoom eyepiece is compatible with my old Swaro AT80. I'm curious enough to run to the Fat Robin and try it out.

    OR, as you suggested, would the ATS80HD plus the new 25-50x eyepiece actually be the best option for me? That would add up to about $3000 total, which isn't much more than the Kowa.

    Thanks again for getting my wheels turning on this. I will seriously consider sticking with Swaro before I make any final decisions.

    The more I read, the more I think you really can't go wrong with any of these models.

  4. How about the Nikon EDG85 scope ?

    I'm currently testing the EDG65 with digital adapter for my Nikon D300s camera. So far so good and I have compared with the EDG85 against Kowa 883 and found out the EDG82 on 20-60x eyepiece is a bit wider than the Kowa 883 on the same zoom eyepiece too.

    What I like about the EDG is, the body is similar like telephoto lens and attaching the adapter for my camera and also eyepiece is easy. Then taking picture that start from 500-1750 mm at f5.6-f22 :)

  5. gli swarovski ora sono in offerta a circa 2.500 euro compreso il nuovo oculare 25-50W. non ho mai guardato attraverso il kowa ma in base ad alcune recensioni sembra essere leggermente superiore.

  6. For those of us who don't speak much Italian, the rough translation is:

    "The Swarovskis are now offered for some 2,500 euros including the new 25-50W eyepiece. I never looked through the Kowa but on the basis of some reviews seems to be slightly better."

  7. Thanks the Photokina fair an engineer Japanese of Kowa gave me, by the Italian distributor, an adapter to use "some) astronomical eyepieces with the Kowa 883. It is a demo. You can see some pictures in my recent review.
    Today the Kowa Europe manager told me that I can discuss about this "demo"adapter with my friends on the web. So I think that Kowa will put it (improved)into production I think this is a first step from Kowa about the demands of their customers. I hope that sooner they will satisfy also Highlander owners


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