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High-end Scopes Review

For Bird Watcher's Digest, November, 2009

by Michael and Diane Porter

Ergonomics and Other Issues

These are issues that influenced our scoring of the high-end spotting scopes review (November, 2009).

Focus mechanisms

We encountered three differing types of focus mechanisms: dual focus knobs, single focus knobs, and barrel bands. The two best focusing solutions were Leica's low-profile dual focus knobs and Swarovski's wide barrel band.

Dual focus knobs let you focus more quickly using the fast focus knob and make slower, more precise adjustments using the fine focus knob. All of the dual focus mechanisms worked well.

The best design was Leica's, which sheltered both dual knobs in a sleek and ergonomic way. The shape of the design and the fully armored coating made it particularly comfortable to rest a hand on the Leica's scope body, with the fingers easily on the focus knobs, and keep the fingers of the other hand on the zoom mechanism, ready to zoom and focus. The Swarovski's barrel band design was equally comfortable.

Focus speed

Sometimes getting focused quickly determines whether or not you're going to get to see the bird. So we measured how quickly you can go through the scope's focus range.

The fastest way to change focus is to drag a finger across the focus knob. The finger-swipe test numbers in the chart represent how many finger-swipes it took to go through the whole focus range. We used Michael's hand to do the test, using the same technique on each scope. If you have longer fingers or a better swiping technique, your results might be different. Michael's hand fits a medium size glove.

Tops were the Kowa and Vortex, with 3 swipes. Next best was the Swarovski, with 4 swipes. The single focus knobs weren't as fast, but single knobs need to go slower in order to preserve the ability to fine focus.

The Nikon EDG would have won with a swipe score of 2, but our judges found it to be too fast and too stiff, making it difficult to fine focus. They complained a lot when trying to zero in on a resolution chart.

Sighting mechanisms

You should be able to aim the scope quickly, so that you don't miss the bird. We found the most effective sights to be the removable peep sights on the Swarovski and the Vortex Razor. Next best was the Brunton's somewhat shorter (and non removable) peep sight. The other scopes had only raised sighting lines on the side of the prism housing or on the sunshade.

Inexplicably, the Nikon EDG had no sight at all. And in a hard-to-fathom blunder, Leica's sighting mechanism was unusable on an angled scope.

Considering the importance of aiming, it's hard to understand why the best brains in scope making haven't come up with a better solution. Here's a modest proposal, which we offer to the scope-making industry.


A scope that is well balanced is neither front-heavy nor back-heavy. The best scopes have their center of gravity right above the point where they mount on the tripod. The Swarovski had the most perfect balance of all. Two others with excellent balance were Leica and the 88mm Kowa.

A tripod-base foot

Some scopes had a tripod foot shaped to fit directly into a standard Manfrotto quick-release tripod head, negating the need for a separate quick-release plate. This means one less connection to come loose or worry about. Scopes with this useful feature are the Kowa Prominars, Leica, and Swarovski.

Copyright 2010 by Michael and Diane Porter.

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