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Head to Head Review: Best Spotting Scopes of 2013

Head to Head Review: Best Spotting Scopes of 2013

This test isn't all-inclusive. We attempted to obtain a sample from every known manufacturer. In the end, we were provided with more than $40,000 in optics for a comprehensive roundup that's never been attempted by another hunting or shooting publication.

To keep a level playing field, this test was designed to compare spotting scopes that featured 80mm or larger objectives and an angled eyepiece. A number of well-regarded brands were left ۬out for not meeting these requirements, which left us with the 14 contenders you will find discussed in this gallery.

For neutrality while performing this evaluation, we set out to provide the consumer with a measureable guide. A spotting scope can be a once-in-a-lifetime investment for many, so ۬making an informed decision before the point of sale is critical.

The specific features of each spotting scope such as country of origin, eyepiece magnification range, objective diameter, length, weight, exit pupil, eye relief, and field of view were not taken into consideration to determine the final score since each of these details can be subject to a user's preference. ۬Instead, we analyzed perceived qualities like color fringing, edge sharpness, usable magnification, and resolution, which can be more difficult for the consumer to quantify.

As we discovered, what you can afford does not necessarily meet the needs of quality or value you may seek. Therefore, this test included two respected optic resolution tests as a measurable and repeatable control. A MIL-STD optics resolution test chart (1951 USAF) and an industrial magnification range test were used as scientific controls in determining the quality of detail provided by each scope. Each of these tested the resolving power against groups of horizontal and vertical bars. The smallest bars the imager can discern is the limitation of its resolving power.

Rather than attempt to describe in infinitesimal detail each optic, we will introduce each with a brief synopsis ۬followed by our sincere appraisal. Here's the best spotting scopes of 2013.

Swarovski ATX

The ATX is less of a spotting scope and more of a spotting system. It's a modular unit that offers unprecedented flexibility, allowing the user to select from any combination of five different components: three objective and two eyepiece (EP) modules. The power-adjustment ring is directly behind the focus ring, making the ATX easy to control its zoom and focus with one hand all while using the same hand to steer the scope. Digiscoping users will appreciate this feature.

Swarovski may not be getting this one back. Though expensive, the configuration we tested was unanimously selected as the best spotting scope of the test.

The ATX/STX series breaks down brilliantly for easy transport and maximum utility. Eye relief is a bit tight but adequate for users with uncorrected and corrected vision alike. Each adjustment wheel is given the ideal amount of friction that doesn't transmit vibrations to the image when rotating. One improvement we could recommend would be for an additional fine focus ring. Incredibly, the ATX doesn't need vibration reduction technology to track a moving object as sharply as the Nikon EDG VR.

The rubber coating on the eyecup is comfortable, but the deep dish sacrifices 2mm of usable eye relief. When using at higher power, one drawback is that you have to come uncomfortably close to the ocular lens with your eye to eliminate scope shadow.

The Swaro has unparalleled depth of field and crazy sharpness. A slight color fringe can be detected at the outer 20 percent on high-contrast objects. Any evidence of curvature was undetectable.

One evaluator was startled at the brightness when observing objects beyond 800 yards under high magnification.

The Swarovski's combined ergonomics, expansive image quality, and field of view across any distance at any power is an industry achievement. If you plan on using the ATX/STX series, get ready for an amazing experience.

Price: $4,122

Leica APO-Televid 82

The  Leica APO-Televid 82 was designed for digiscoping. Tactile rubber armor and an impressive list of distinguishing features, which include a wide field of view and a precise dual focusing knob, make this a user-friendly scope.

The loose eyecup must have been an afterthought, and the APO-Televid 82 name sucks, but that's where the complaints stop. We Leica-this one a lot.

This optic makes a great first impression with its quality construction and brilliant image. Peering through its detachable eyepiece, there is plenty of room for your eyes to wander. In fact, the image quality will rival Swarovski with most users. One tester said it best: 'Leica clarity is high definition by definition. '

Dual focus knobs are intuitive and allow the user to quickly adjust fine focus without interrupting the image. All users indicated that the scope's power range was completely usable through its highest magnification of 50X. A slight blue color fringe occurs in the outer 10 percent on the highest powers, but that doesn't interfere with the image. Impressively, this spotting scope offered the sharpest resolution at one mile. It's slower to zoom than others, but as ranges get farther, the Leica separates itself from all but the Swarovski and Meopta. The Leica is a damn fine scope — an optical orgasm.

Price: $3,899

Brunton Icon

The Brunton Icon has been recently discontinued, but it is still readily available. It features polymer body construction, super-low dispersion glass elements, and fully-multicoated optics.

For what you get, the price probably killed the production of this model. Aesthetically, the overall appearance is almost as nice as the Leica, and layout of the controls is just as appealing. Focus control is great. In this case, a dual focus wheel — fine and fast — isn't needed. The four-position eyecup makes it easy to orient the eye quickly. Strangely, the extendable sunshade doesn't rotate like the other high-end optics, but it does offer the usual aiming sights.

We love the coloration, and the image quality is very clean at 25X. It's not the sharpest image, but you could definitely live with it. After 40X, edge blur occurs at the outer 20 percent, and a black ring surrounding the limited field of view gave us tunnel vision. There are noticeable issues when you near max power. There is some orange color fringing on light objects in the higher powers. Depth of field, however, is adequate. This optic is best for observing objects within 300 yards.

Price: $4,395

Leupold SX-2 Kenai

The Kenai spotting scope kit includes a hard-shell carrying case, a soft carry case, a lightweight adjustable tripod, and a fixed 30X EP.

We admit this package makes the Kenai a very tempting purchase. We wish other scopes offered this complete of a kit. That being said, you may be let down by the Kenai's image.

Though the resolution was acceptable at low to medium powers, objects immediately present magenta and ۬orange color fringing along the edges. The field of view is not great, but this distraction is addressed with the kit's extra 30X EP.

When going between 25X and 60X, the entire EP ring annoyingly moves with the power adjustment. For scopes priced less than [imo-slideshow gallery= 150],000, the Kenai is a substantial step up in sharpness and vivid color. However, the Kenai doesn't compete with scopes costing more. It failed to discern text on signage beyond 1,000 yards and couldn't accurately distinguish detail in moving targets. On static objects, the Kenai is functional on low to medium powers. Edge-to-edge sharpness was much better than expected between 300 and 1,000 yards. Observing anything using more than 40X sucks. The more you crank it up, the more annoying its limitations become.

Price: [imo-slideshow gallery= 150],249

Alpen Rainier

This scope features top-of-the-line BaK4 prisms and fully multi-coated lenses for high light transmission. An O-ring sealed and nitrogen-filled body offers waterproof and fogproof integrity. The 853 ED HD comes with a 20X to 60X EP. Though it's detachable, no other EPs are available.

You can't argue with Alpen's no-fault, no problem lifetime warranty. This spotter is virtually the same scope as the Bushnell Elite we tested and very similar to the Pentax. We like Bushnell's aesthetics better. With the Alpen, there's some gritty feel when adjusting the power ring, but the eyecup is nice with three tactile positions. Peering through the glass provided a bright and clear image that blurred toward the outer 30 percent with a bit of color fringing. Resolution seems crisper than Bushnell.

We recommend that Alpen incorporate a fine-tuning focus wheel and a less chintzy appearance on future models. The Rainier is not an heirloom-quality scope, but rather a no-frills optic with intuitive controls that is pleasant to use through the low power ranges. When compared to the Bushnell Elite, your purchase decision should come down to price. Cheapest wins.

Price: [imo-slideshow gallery= 150],824

Kowa TSN-883

The Kowa features a massive 88mm objective containing fully multi-coated lenses. This combination offers maximum light-gathering ability in a magnesium alloy body. Multiple interchangeable EPs are available, including a 20X to 60X and stunning, fixed 25X or 30X wide-angle EPs.

If we were testing this Kowa with the fixed 30X EP, it would have blown our mind, but this is still a phenomenal scope. It looks good and feels good. The controls are fast but stiff. The resulting image is stunning, with a 3D-like quality that's easy on the eye.

The TSN-883 displays perfect edge-to-edge sharpness and is arguably sharper than the Meopta to some of the evaluators. However, due to the impressive resolution, mirage on warm days wreaked havoc on perceived quality at long ranges. While hot days don't provide as pleasing of an image, it's still sharp. And that incredible resolution continues almost to the end of the eyepiece's power range before starting to blur at 58X.

Price: $3,050

Pentax PF-80ED

Pentax's PF-80ED is their top-of-the-line scope and is built on a Porro prism design. The low-dispersion glass elements are housed in a lightweight magnesium-alloy body cloaked in a soft-touch rubber.

The tactile texture over the very long body makes a solid first impression. In fact, aesthetics are excellent with exception given to the gold-bling brand and model labeling on the side of its neck.

We liked the simple, two-finger focus knob. When working the scope, you can't help but notice that the power ring is stiff. There is no slop in adjustment, however, and it stops immediately. Blue color aberrations appear in the very center of the image when looking at high contrast objects at any distance. In comparison to other scopes, the Pentax is not as bright. The image resolved sharply but seemed soft and cloudy due to this brightness reduction.

After lackluster performance at 100 to 300 yards, the Pentax surprised us by distinguishing objects and signage at one mile. It was a leap in high-power performance over the Leupold Kenai, but eye placement was more finicky. Sharpness is good until it's time to observe objects beyond 800 yards, and then the focus knob doesn't help. Above the observed 30X sweet spot, you don't gain anything in performance by increasing the power.

Price: [imo-slideshow gallery= 150],350

Bushnell Elite

Bushnell's Elite is regarded as the company's finest. It features Bushnell's RainGuard HD coating and is noticeably lightweight.

Bushnell's so-called 'peak in optical achievement ' presents a cheap out-of-the-box feel. You can't help but notice its plastic construction with a small amount of decorative metal trim.

This was one of the longest scopes tested, and we discovered that the EP interchanges with the Alpen's. The focus knob functions wonderfully, but the power adjustment knob maintains the Alpen's gritty feel.

Our perceived depth of field was adequate, but not great. One tester noted, 'The blue color fringing was unacceptable€¦ but not quite as bad as seen in the Vanguard. ' The overall image quality is better than expected at this price point, and the Bushnell offers good brightness even in low-light conditions. This scope lacks in the high end. The pleasing image tops out at 42X, and you start to chase focus while panning along the distant horizon. In the upper power ranges at distant objects beyond 300 yards, the outer 25 percent starts to blur.

The Elite is a simple, no-frills scope with straightforward controls. However, it's a spotting scope you'll eventually graduate from.

Price: [imo-slideshow gallery= 150],479

Zeiss Diascope 85 FL

A former Petersen's Hunting Editor's Choice award winner, the Victory Diascope is a proven, premium spotter. Various coatings work deep into the twilight hours. The Dual Speed Focus system is innovative and combines fine and coarse adjustments into one knob.

From national shooting competitions to the hunting fields, this model has endured our roughest handling and still performs with the best.

The dual-speed focus knob is amazing. If you turn the knob quickly, the system operates in a rapid course adjustment mode that allows you to react quickly to a dynamic environment. A slower use of the knob switches the system into fine mode that allows for crisp adjustment for the sharpest image. Once set, you don't have to constantly tweak the Zeiss.

The power ring is a bit stiff when compared to the other high-end spotters. The result is more vibrations transmitted into the image while adjusting for detail or tracking a moving object. If the Zeiss featured Nikon's VR system, this one might be a winner this year.

The scope has great edge resolution with minimal color fringing. Eye relief is a bit tight, but the overall optical experience remains awesome. The depth of field is expansive, providing the viewer with a 3D-like effect.

After 50X, the image becomes subject to mirage as well as brightness and clarity issues. We ran uncomfortably close to the edge of available focus adjustment while observing small objects at 800 yards and beyond on 50X. It was a bit unsettling to come this close to infinity focus under our mile observation test.

Though now surpassed by more recent advancements in optical technology, the Zeiss DiaScope still qualifies as a timeless spotter with heirloom quality.

Price: $3,333

Nikon EDG VR 85

The Nikon vibration-reduction (VR) system is the key takeaway with this Fieldscope. The VR system is based on the technology proven in NIKKOR VR lenses, which reduces blur due to movement during observation. This spotter has no equal in the world of digiscoping with DSLR cameras.

The Nikon EDG VR 85 proved to be the best spotting scope for clearly tracking moving objects at any distance. The field of view was more than satisfactory and bright. Edge sharpness was perfect.

We didn't like that Nikon doesn't offer more power markings on the EP. When comparing the optics at 40X, we had to guess where 40X was. Friction in working the controls was perfect, but when the VR feature was activated, gyro noise was somewhat annoying. That's the only tradeoff to running the VR system.

You get very fine and precise adjustments when working the well-thought-out controls. Eye relief was disappointing, however, as you must get intimate with the eyecup to avoid scope shadow.

For $6,000, the Nikon EDG VR 85 should be the best of everything. Unfortunately, not only is it a very heavy scope, nothing pops at short ranges as it did with the Swarovski, Meopta, and Leica. Even at distances beyond 300 yards, sharpness on the charts wasn't perfect. The Nikon was one of the few optics that present a usable image at max power at every distance. When you turn the VR feature on, not only does it dampen the vibrations from your body and wind, but it also locks the image up quicker when you stop panning. For what it gives up at short-range resolution, its faults were redeemed at long range. At distance, it proved to be one of the best scopes — when using VR, of course. If birdwatching were a career, this is the scope to have.

Price: $5,997

Vanguard Endeavor HD

The Endeavor HD uses a combination of multi-function coatings, ED glass, BaK4 prisms, and an 82mm objective lens. It's also equipped with fine and coarse focusing wheels. Rubber armor guards the lightweight magnesium body.

Considering that this is regarded as ۬Vanguard's top-of-the-line spotting scope, the Endeavor left us wanting. Aesthetically, the rubber armor seemed cheap and more like an aerosol can spray paint job. Crawling behind the Endeavor ۬revealed too short eye relief. Once looking through the ocular lens, testers noted the positive control of the EP's power ring with its tactile ribs. With the power set, working the dual focus knobs was easy and precise.

The scope provided a clear enough image on low powers. Unfortunately, green fringing encroaches nearly half the field, distracting high-contrast objects. 'Fringing is everywhere, ' said one tester. Image sharpness decreases in the outer 10 to 15 percent of this view.

Though not a bad image, it was unanimously agreed that the Bushnell Elite produced a better image in comparison. The Vanguard wasn't useful beyond 42X. Though it lacks crispness, its ability to focus at longer ranges on lower powers makes it an OK scope. Overall, you won't get burned for the money.

Price: $689

Opticron HR 80 GA ED

The Opticron HR ED is unaffected by environmental influences. Built on a lightweight magnesium alloy body and finished with durable soft-touch textured rubber armor, this scope is backed by a 30-year comprehensive guarantee.

The rubber armor is clean and provides a nice grip while manipulating the ۬simple adjustments on the focus knob and EP. The SDL v2 EP offers versatility ۬with other Opticron spotters, ۬but one has to decode the small markings to determine what the magnification setting is. In fact, during the 40X test, we had to guess where 40X was located. Looking through it, you see a decent field of view that sharpens nicely with a quick roll of the adjustment wheel. Brightness is acceptable. Red and green fringing appears on the edge of high-contrast ۬objects. Edge sharpness is good. Above 48X, resolution and field of view seem compromised. The wide field of view and clarity observed at low powers isn't sustained once you increase magnification through its max of 72X. The Opticron may lack in long-range clarity, but our testers felt it superior to many of the mid-priced scopes.

Price: [imo-slideshow gallery= 150],725

Leupold Gold Ring

The Gold Ring is a symbol of superb American quality. Its compact package is easy to balance and transport. A combination of various proprietary lens coatings enhance definition through twilight and protect against environmental factors.

Aesthetically, the Gold Ring offers great ergonomics and size. And due to the long eye relief, you will love the Gold Ring if you wear glasses. However, discerning spotters won't find the image quite as pleasing as other high-end scopes.

The focus knob drags too much, which results in being unable to focus at distant objects and pan simultaneously. Anytime you adjust the focus or power rings, you shake the image. If the scope is in a static position and the subject is stationary, you are fine.

Though light transmission is exceptional, color fringing exists throughout the entire image. Blue and purple color fringing can be observed in high-contrast situations where light and dark objects meet. This occurs to a lesser degree on objects beyond 300 yards.

The resolution is crisp between ۬25X and 50X. The field of view is nice, and there is no tunnel effect. Finding ۬a sharp focus is easy, and the result ۬is a high-definition image. After 50X, however, there are some noticeable ۬issues. Image exposure darkens gradually with increased power and becomes somewhat cloudy. Legible text on the ۬signage as well as the distinguishing ۬characteristics of wildlife can still be discerned out to 1,000 yards. This is a good scope in our opinion, but if you have the opportunity to compare it with others in this price point, you may not walk away all that impressed.

Price: gallery= 150,249

Meopta Meostar S2 82 HD

Multiple coatings are used to enhance light transmission and increase abrasion and weather resistance. Meopta's CentricDrive features an oversized focus wheel in the middle of the magnesium and aluminum body to improve ease of use. In addition to the 30 — 60X wide angle (WA) EP used in this test, Meopta also offers a 20 — 70X variable.

Using the 30 — 60X WA EP, the field €¨of view was incredible with virtually undetectable color fringing. This is a damn fine scope. The image is expansive. Controls are easy to manipulate but a bit stiff when fine-tuning.

The MeoStar offers a very sharp, crisp image with a hint of warm tint. In fact, this scope posted near-perfect scores during the two 100-yard resolution tests. Edge sharpness was excellent, but missed perfection due to curvature at the very edge of the field. Normally, a wide-angle EP gives up eye relief, but not with this one. Four-eyed observers rejoice.

Color fidelity was true and even better than the more expensive Nikon EDG. The friction in the adjustment wheel is perfect, and the MeoStar offers a perfect weight balance, which translates to minimal ۬image distortion when panning, focusing, or tracking moving objects.

At 46X, we observed reduced brightness, but sharpness remained excellent through 58X. It was no problem reading signage placed at one mile. In fact, it bested the Leica in this aspect of our comparison. The Meopta is an incredible optic. It's so good some of our testers almost preferred the Meopta to the mighty Swarovski. That says a lot.

Priced at gallery= 150,200 — less than Leupold's GR — the MeoStar earns our Best Buy Award for offering an image that rivals scopes costing twice as much.

Price: gallery= 150,200


The specific features of each spotting scope such as country of origin, eyepiece magnification range, objective diameter, length, weight, exit pupil, eye relief, and field of view were not taken into consideration to determine the final score since each of these details can be subject to a user's preference. ۬Instead, we analyzed perceived qualities like color fringing, edge sharpness, usable magnification, and resolution, which can be more difficult for the consumer to quantify.

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