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.