Vortex Razor 85mm HD

  • Solid, and reassuringly well made
  • Nice eyepiece – lots of room for adjustment for all users
  • HD glass pays off with a bright, natural image
  • Little fall-off in quality of image, even at higher magnifications
  • Spot-on focussing to get the best out of that HD glass


Vortex have long been a reliably high-quality presence in the optics market, with a particularly fine binocular range, so it was always going to be very interesting to see how the new Razor HD scope stacked up against some of the big boys. It currently comes in one model – angled, 85mm objective lens, with a 20x/60x zoom eyepiece – and right from first sight it’s a heavyweight contender. There’s also a 30x wide angle eyepiece available, by the way. In terms of looks, it’s rather reminiscent of Kowa’s TSN scopes, no bad thing if you want to create a good first impression. That means it’s relatively compact, but solidly put together, with plenty of rubber armour.

So, how does it perform in the field? Well, at anything up to about 30x, it’s sharp and very bright, with a very natural colour. There’s very little loss of clarity at the edge of the image, which means that you get full value for the field of view. Plus point number one for the ultra-high definition glass. The real pleasure, though, is that as you bump the magnification up, there’s nothing like the fall-off in quality of image that you can sometimes see with zoom eyepieces. A milkiness at the edge of the image becomes a little more apparent, and inevitably the field of view is reduced, but you’re certainly not left straining to resolve your target. The HD glass scores again.

All well and good in bright sunlight, but what about more testing conditions? Well, the HD glass completes an impressive hat-trick here, ensuring that the brightness I talked about earlier is apparent even while peering down woodland rides at dusk, or scanning distant duck flocks on a grey, drizzly morning.

Which brings me on to focussing. There’s plenty of (relatively stiff) movement in the main wheel (1.5 fingers wide), which takes around 1.75 clockwise turns from close focus to infinity, and in practice that means that focussing is very precise indeed. There’s a hard-to-define feeling you get with the focus on some optics that there’s something missing, some extra bit of punch you’re always searching for, but that’s never the case here. Look for it, and you’ll find it every time.

There’s also a slightly smaller fine focus wheel, and one of my only gripes might be that the two could be separated slightly, to make things easier when using gloves.

I liked the eyepiece, too. It twists up and down, but the action is stiff enough that it can easily be left at any position between fully out and fully in. That gives you plenty of scope (sorry!) for adjustment, particularly important when you’re seeking to maximise that field of view, and it’s comfortable in extended use. As you’d expect with a quality scope these days, there’s a rotating collar, sun visor, and it’s waterproof and fogproof.

It did feel a little heavy at times, but I’m never sure how relevant that is – carried on a strap, or a harness, you certainly wouldn’t notice. Having decided to carry a full-size scope around, I certainly wouldn’t quibble about a few grams here and there. In fact, one of the real pleasures of this scope was how quickly I started taking it for granted – the optics are excellent, and the fine build quality means that you don’t really notice how the effect is being achieved, you just get on with enjoying the view. It isn’t, of course, cheap, but the many advantages of ED/HD glass never are. What’s more important is that it performs exactly as you’d expect a scope in this price bracket to, so if you’re in the market for a top-end scope, this is definitely worthy of an extended try-out.

REVIEWED BY MATT MERRITT.


FACTFILE

  • Dimensions: 389mm long
  • Weight 1,863g
  • Close focus: 5m
  • Field of view: 20x 20m@1,000m, 60x 39m@1,000m
  • website: www.vortexoptics.com

Swarovski ATM 80 HD with 25-50x W zoom eyepiece

  • Pin-sharp images, even at high magnifications
  • Good natural colour, and sharp to the edges
  • View through zoom eyepiece still feels very wide
  • Lightweight for such a powerful scope
  • Perfect, and easy to use, for digiscoping


When I started birding in the 1970s, I cut my bird teeth with a pair of pre-war porro-prism bins formerly owned by my grandfather. We learnt our birds from first principles and the hard way. A scope was a thing of dreams, a piece of miraculous equipment wielded by the elite of the birdwatching fraternity – the badge of a master birder. Occasionally, my birding friend and I would ask to borrow a quick look through one of these beauties, as I recall, to see my first Broad-billed Sandpiper and Temminck’s Stint on the North Kent Marshes.

Times have changed, and now even fledgling birdwatchers come ready-equipped with a scope. And rightly so, because the difference a good scope can make to your enjoyment of birdwatching is immense. The quality of scopes has improved beyond belief, too. Indeed, it has reached the stage when we are speculating whether the scope has reached the limit, that ultimate stage where the (if you’ll excuse the expression) glass ceiling is reached and it is physically impossible to make them any better. If that time is approaching, it is not coming before some of the main players at the cutting edge of scope manufacturer have had more than a decent stab at improving the best.

And so we come to the latest incarnation of Swarovski’s rubber-armoured birding scope. I was luckily enough to be invited in mid-May, to join a group of birders, digiscopers, photographers and journalists to the steppes and mountains of Kazakhstan to test the new Swarovski scope, its brand-new wide-angle eyepiece and the company’s new design of digiscoping adapter.

The first thing that strikes you about this set-up, before you have even used it, is its weight - or lack of it! The body has been made with magnesium to keep it as light as possible and it shows. My shoulders never once complained. Despite that, the scope shares the comfortable, sturdy, well-built feel of its predecessor. And I am ashamed to admit that I foolishly allowed my model to crash to the ground twice - but with absolutely no ill-effects.

In line with the fact that the optical envelope has almost been pushed as far as it will go, the optics are superb. The image is bright, colour-true and crisp to the edge. There is drama and three-dimensionality in every view. Most striking of all was the performance of the zoom eyepiece. Let’s make this clear, I hate zooms. Or rather, I thought I hated zooms. I used to believe they give a nasty, tunnel vision image, and leave me just dying to see beyond the boundaries of the image. The new wide-angle zoom I used in Kazakhstan was astonishing, though. Throughout the trip, throughout the range of magnification, I never once thought of tunnels, never felt I was getting short-changed on field of view. Though I mostly used it a lower magnifications, when I turned the silky smooth zoom to higher mag, I wasn’t aware of losing quality and didn’t feel that extra enclosure of the expected tunnel. And the quality of resolution and brightness stood up very well to zooming. Digiscoping was a piece of cake, producing very bright, crisp, feather-perfect images with the minimal of effort.


It is a minor gripe, but when zooming the scope needs considerable refocusing. I don’t know if it is possible to get round this optically, but it made relocating distant birds I’d zoomed to slightly tricky. The helical focusing mechanism was of course very smooth and easy, so refocusing was hardly a chore.

In summary, a brilliant, lightweight scope of the highest standard. The wide-angle zoom was a revelation which could even convert a diehard fixed-mag eyepiece birder like me.

REVIEWED BY MIKE WEEDON.

Olivon T-84 EDO

  • Quality feel – well-built and rather stylish
  • Well-balanced, so extra weight no problem
  • Excellent at lower magnifications – sharp, bright and wide
  • Focussing is very precise
  • Zoom makes short work of some long-distance ID tests


Olivon are one of those optics brands that, over the years, have quietly built up a good reputation without any great fanfare. You frequently come across their binoculars and scopes being used out in the field, and their users have good things to say about them. So, the chance to try out their new, top-of-the-range ED scope was an opportunity not to be missed.

First impressions last, they say, and this is a scope that scrubs up well, with a look that manages to be both streamlined and robust. I tested it with a 20x-60x zoom eyepiece, as zooms seem to have massively outstripped fixed magnification eyepieces in popularity over recent years. I’ve talked before about my reservations about this, but it’s fair to say there are an increasing number of models out there that are tackling my preconceptions. I can add the T-84 EDO to that list. The image, at all magnifications, boasts a good natural colour and is impressively bright, the latter having been something that, in the past, zoom eyepieces sacrificed.

The other trade-off comes where field of view is concerned. It’s inevitably narrower on zoom eyepieces than on fixed, but here I never found it oppressively so, with the tunnel-effect that you sometimes find. That’s no doubt down to the ED glass, which helps ensure that the image is sharp right up to the edges. Even at the maximum magnification, 60x, this holds true. The eyepiece resolves to a sharp, crisp image, and although, as you’d expect, that falls off to a certain extent towards the top end of the magnification range, it’s really not a problem. Throughout a day of watching waders and wildfowl at some really considerable distances, it again and again came up trumps. There’s little or no chromatic aberration (or colour fringing), even against strong sunlight. In low light, too, the ED glass really comes into its own, cutting through the gloom in impressive fashion.


FACTFILE

  • Price: £1,099
  • Dimensions: 430mm x 100mm x 160mm
  • Close focus: 6m
  • Field of view: 20x: 34m@1000m 60x: 19m@1000m
  • Distributed by: Optical Hardware Ltd, Mount Osborne, Oakwell View, Barnsley S71 1HH, UK; tel: 01226 203 275
  • e-mail: info@opticalhardware.co.uk
  • website: www.opticalhardware.co.uk

Focusing is excellent. It can take a bit of finesse to find it exactly, but once you do, it’s satisfyingly spot-on, and the mechanism makes searching for it a doddle, rather than a chore. That’s because movement of the helical focus wheel (just over fingers wide) is moderately stiff, but very smooth, and it’s easily gripped, even in cold conditions. It takes around 1.75 anti-clockwise turns from close focus to infinity. Close focus was good, too – it’s increasingly important these days, when dragonflies and other insects come into the equation.

The eyepiece itself is excellent, with the rubber-covered twist-up, twist-down eyecup comfortable in extended use. Although there are only two set positions (fully out and fully down), in practice I found that it stayed in position well at any spot in between. There’s a rotating collar, and one of my few reservations was that the locking nut on it looked a little fragile. Otherwise, as I mentioned earlier, build quality is excellent, with reassuring rubber armour.

Weighed in the hand, it might feel a little on the heavy side, but in practice, I don’t think you’d notice, as it’s very well balanced. It came with a good stay-on case, and as you’d expect it’s waterproof and nitrogen-filled. By unscrewing the eyecup on the eyepiece, you can attach Olivon’s own universal camera adapter ring.

So, all things considered, the ED glass goes a long way towards allaying my reservations about zooms, providing good low-light performance, maintaining sharpness at all magnification levels, and making the most of the field of view. At £1,100, it’s not cheap, but that’s a price that compares very well with the big boys, making this a major contender if you’re looking for a quality, ED glass zoom. Try it for yourself.

REVIEWED BY MATT MERRITT

Kowa Prominar TSN-773

  • Compact and lighter than many in the same class
  • Bright, clear, fringe-free views
  • Efficient, precise focusing thanks to split wheel
  • Comfortable viewing through adjustable eyepiece
  • Excellent for no-frills digiscoping


When I reviewed Kowa’s new flagship TSN-883 scope a few months back, I frankly drooled over it. The 883 edged out my previous favourite scope (the now outdated Kowa TSN-823), both in looks and build and most importantly in absolute performance. Now I have my greedy eyes on the 883’s slightly smaller (also fluorite) stablemate, with a 77mm diameter objective lens – almost appearing as a direct challenge to Leica’s now-ageing APO-Televid 77. And I like what I have seen. Very much.

To all intents and purposes this scope is very like the new and lovely 883, only slightly smaller and lighter (in weight – which is a bit lighter than my usual 823 scope). Lengthwise, this compact beauty is only a centimetre or so longer than the classic TSN-613 of old. It has exactly the same textured metal green body as the 883 and houses the same eyepieces. Its balance is good, its weight is good, its feel is good. I even like the green coloration (unusual in a scope), but I would be very tempted to wrap it up in a protective padded case…

In fact, it shares all the features of the bigger brother, including the efficient, precise and smooth, centrally-placed split focus wheel (for both fast and fine focus) and the push-button lock mechanism which crucially stops the bayonet-fitted eyepiece from falling out. The large, comfortable eyepiece itself is a magnificent piece of equipment, delivering a choice of five twist-and-click soft-rubber eyecup settings to suit your eyes’ needs, and also delivering a first-class image. The image is bright and clear and as close to fringe-free as any scope I have tested, with sharp resolution (pretty much to the edges) and a pleasing, realistic depth of field and good field of view. Beware, though, potential purchasers of the zoom eyepiece, the field of view is inevitably much reduced with this variable lens. I measured the minimum close-focus distance as an impressive 4.5m. While testing the scope, I tried digiscoping with it. The eyecup was a perfect fit for my compact camera’s lens, and it took excellent photos without the need for an adapter.

It is very hard to find fault with this scope – it does what it should very well. If I were being very picky, in side-by-side tests with my existing 823, the 773’s image (unsurprisingly) lacked the brightness of the larger model, and the image is very slightly on the yellow side of absolute neutrality. Make no mistake, though (he says drifting back into positivity, because it is hard not to…) the 773 is bright, pushing the 823 close and making mincemeat of some lesser models. The only slight reservation I have is the question of who this model is aimed at. It is not massively different in size (or indeed performance) from the triumphant 883, yet doesn’t quite deliver all the startling brightness of the big brother. That said, it is lighter in weight and it is less expensive, so if you want a brilliant scope which almost delivers the best a scope can, but is a little less heavy and smaller, this could be the one for you. This is a superb scope, delivering a bright, high-quality image, in a compact package.

REVIEWED BY MIKE WEEDON


Celestron Regal 80F-ED

  • Solid, non-nonsense design – good build quality
  • Bright, sharp and, for a zoom, pretty wide image
  • Even at high magnifications, little reduction in quality
  • Focusing is very precise
  • Excellent quality at a very price


One of the major trends in the optics market recently has been the wider availability of ED glass at affordable prices. Where binoculars are concerned, that’s meant that it’s now possible to guarantee yourself a high-quality image in even the worst conditions for as little as £300, while you can pay £1,500 or more for a top-of-the-range model and the higher build quality and long-term reassurance that brings. Now birders are starting to be presented with a similarly wide choice in spotting scopes.

First impressions are excellent. The Celestron Regal’s a smart looking, solid piece of kit, with a chunky feel and some good rubber armour that suggests it would withstand all sorts of wear and tear. It’s waterproof, too, and comes with a soft carrying case. Celestron’s literature describes the 20x/60x zoom eyepiece supplied with the scope as ‘wide angle’. A bold claim, in some ways, as the ‘wide angle’ tag usually only gets applied to fixed eyepieces, but in fact this one quickly impressed. At the lowest magnification, the image feels really wide, and even blown up to the maximum magnification (the specification shows the field of view as having been halved between those two extremes), you don’t get the ‘tunnel effect’ that sometimes makes using a zoom hard work. This, presumably, is down to the ED glass. Because there’s little deterioration in the quality of the image even right at the edges, you don’t feel as hemmed in as might once have been the case.

As you might expect, then, the image is bright, with a good, very natural colour. This applied even in low light, one of the times when ED glass really comes into its own, and it also serves to get rid of chromatic aberration. Try as I might, this was almost impossible to find – very impressive indeed. It resolves very well, even at the highest magnification, all of which brings us on to the focussing.

In many ways, it’s really excellent, being very precise. You’re helped in finding that little bit extra by the presence of a fine focus wheel. I did have a couple of reservations, though. One was that the two focus wheels (placed at top right) are just a little too close to each other. If you were using the scope while wearing gloves, for example, you might find this a little frustrating. We’re talking a matter of millimetres, but I’d like to see the divider between the two widened just a little bit. Secondly, you pay a price for that precision, with the wheel taking almost five clockwise turns from close focus to infinity.

The focus wheel on my test model also travelled rather stiffly, and lumpily, but this seems to be something of a one-off – other specimens of the same model travel smoothly and only moderately stiffly. There’s always potential for individual binoculars or scopes, from any manufacturer, to have minor faults, so it’s a reminder to test the actual scope you take home when you buy.

Going back to the eyepiece, it twists up and down to two positions, but I found it was also possible to get it to stay in place at any point in between. Whichever you choose, it’s comfortable to use, even after several hours of use.Also supplied is a ring adapter, allowing you to use the scope for digiscoping with a compact camera, or with DSLRs. Given how excellent the scope is optically, I’d be surprised if you don’t, and this makes it that bit easier. I’d have no hesitation in recommending this scope to any birder looking for ED glass, and all the advantages it brings, at an affordable price. It’s an excellent all-rounder.

REVIEWED BY MATT MERRITT


FACTFILE

  • Dimensions: 432mm long (without eyepiece)
  • Weight 2,041g
  • Close focus: 6m
  • Field of view: 20x 37m@1,000m; 60x 19m@1,000m
  • Distributed by: David Hinds Ltd, Unit B, Chiltern Industrial Estate, Grovebury Road, Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire LU7 4TU, Tel: 01525 852 696
  • website: www.celestron.co.uk

Avian Multiview 80 with 20-60x eyepiece

  • Bargain price – scope and eyepiece for under £300
  • Excellent build quality
  • Sharp, bright image, even at high magnification
  • Precise, easy focussing
  • Versatile, innovative design


This 80mm scope retails at just £269, including a 20-60x zoom eyepiece. If it’s any good, that makes this package a bit of a bargain. ‘Avian’ is the brand name of Ace Optics, a Bath-based retailer. Avian binoculars have been around for about a decade and have been very favourably reviewed. This Taiwanese-made scope is the first to bear the Avian name and it’s a scope with a difference – the eyepiece can be moved through 90 degrees from straight through viewing to vertical and can be locked in any position along the way. The idea is that this increases the scope’s versatility – making it easier for people of different heights to share the scope, for example.

The Avian’s build quality impressed me – it seemed to be a solid, well-made scope, especially when you consider its price. It has more moving parts than the average scope, but all of them worked well. The objective lens is set back about 2.5cm into the scope’s body, which provides a lot of protection to the big front lens. There’s a pull-out lens hood and a rotating collar for mounting the scope on a tripod. The collar isn’t click-stopped, but isn’t too loose and works well enough.

The eyepiece attaches via a screw-in collar and has a smooth and pleasantly heavy zoom movement. The view feels narrow, but actually compares reasonably well with other zoom eyepieces – and there’s a 30x eyepiece on the way which could provide a very different experience. The view it provides may surprise you – remember that you can pay this much just for an eyepiece! At low magnifications, central sharpness, brightness and contrast are very good. As you pump up the magnification the scope continues to perform well. At the highest magnifications, the image isn’t as crisp, is noticeably duller and careful focussing is required, but this is to be expected and in good conditions I was impressed with what this eyepiece could do, delivering a functional image even at 60x. Focussing precision is good and I found no major colour fringing. There is a slight blue colour cast, but it didn’t bother me.

What of that variable eyepiece? You might think the movement would be sloppy and poorly engineered, but think again. The mechanics are good and it really does give you a more versatile bit of kit. For me, there was too little eye relief at low magnifications and some careful eye positioning was required. At 20x there was noticeable softness at the edges of the view too, but this seemed less of an issue at higher magnifications.This scope is big and heavy, but that isn’t an issue for everyone. It’s not nitrogen-filled or waterproof (it’s described as ‘shower resistant’), and the metal body can get very cold, but a stay-on case is available which solves these ‘problems’.

If there’s a MkII, some click-stops in the twist-up eyecup, a bit more eye relief and a wider focussing wheel would be good additions. To nit-pick, the quoted close-focus seemed a little ambitious: for me it was more like 9 or 10 metres; and the screw-on objective cover is fiddly to get on and off. But don’t forget – this is a scope that costs less than £300 – at this price its performance is commendable.

REVIEWED BY DAVID CHANDLER.


FACTFILE

  • RRP: £269 including the zoom lens.
  • Close focus: 7.5m
  • Length: 46cm (with eyepiece straight)
  • Weight: 1,795g
  • Field of view: 2 degrees at 20x (35m at 1,000m), 1 degree at 60x (17.5m at 1,000m)
  • Warranty: Fully guaranteed for 1 year.
  • Also supplied: Metal case with foam insert. Objective and eyepiece lens covers.
  • Sold by: Ace Optics, 16 Green Street, Bath, BA1 2JZ. Tel: 01225 466364. Fax: 01225 469761.www.acecameras.co.uk