Mid-priced Scopes Roundup
What are the best scopes for birding on a budget?
With the economic downturn, and with the price of top-end spotting scopes heading north of $3,000, many birders are looking for something that fits a modest budget. This article reports our testing of 12 scopes priced under $900. They fall into three major groups, based on objective lens size: five subcompact 50mm scopes; four compacts of 60 to 70mm; and three full-sized 80mm scopes.
How We Tested
We mounted the scopes outdoors on tripods, at a midrange distance of 75 feet from the target. The target was a standard USAF 1951 Resolution Test Pattern composed of a series of progressively tinier groups of lines, each with an identifying number for quantifying the results. We set all the zoom eyepieces to 30x magnification, for a fair comparison. We also measured resolution at 60x where appropriate. We tested at various times of day and under various lighting conditions. This was easy, since we live in the Midwest, where it's said, "If you don't like the weather, just wait an hour."
We set up a high-end reference scope, a Zeiss Diascope 20-60x80, that tested at the top in previous reviews. As we took resolution readings on a scope, we could check back with the Zeiss to make sure we were looking at the limits of the test scope, not the limits of our eyesight. The results of the 30x and 60x resolution tests appear in the chart on pages 56 - 57, mapped so that the Zeiss reference scope would score 5.
Group Test Day
We invited local birders for a test day. They rated the scopes on image quality, focus knob, and ergonomics and made detailed comments on each scope. Their scores are averaged in the accompanying chart, and many of their comments appear in the individual reviews.
Subcompact scopes with 50mm objective lenses
Nikon Fieldscope ED50
30x resolution score: 4.4; Overall score: 4.42
Not only was the tiny Nikon Fieldscope the winner in the 50mm subcompact category, it also rated 4.42 overall, besting even the fullsize scopes. Its 30x resolution score was a 4.4, with the 80mm Alpen coming in close behind at 4.3. Small scopes like this one fill a need. Although full-sized scopes can deliver a bright 60x image, they sometimes get left at home becauseof their size and weight.
"This is a gem!" wrote one of our testers of the ED50. Weighing just 20.1 oz. including the eyepiece, it was the lightest, shortest scope in our trials. Paired with a carbon fiber tripod like the Gitzo 1550 Traveler, and the small Gitzo G2180 fluid head, it makes a complete outfit weighing under 4.5 pounds that when disassembled would slip into a handbag or briefcase and go anywhere in the world with you. Diane took an identical outfit to Guatemala last summer and carried it around full-time for days, easily and gleefully trekking up the sides of volcanoes with it.
Our judges found the 50mm Fieldscope astonishingly sharp, bright, and free from chromatic aberration. It also afforded the best close focus (9.8 ft.) and the second widest field of view of any scope in the survey. The single focus knob is smooth, accurate, and nicely geareda pleasure to use. The scope's tripod mount does not allow it to rotate, but that may not be much of an issue with such a tiny scope.
It comes with a 13-30x zoom eyepiece, a good match for a 50mm scope. The stated eye relief is only 12.9mm but we wondered about that since it seemed to work OK even with Michael's aviator-style glasses. Several judges remarked that they would have preferred a twist-up rather than fold-down rubber eyecup. The Fieldscope includes the Nikon Vue-Thru case, eyepiece travel pouch, and adjustable carry straps. Nikon's 25-Year Limited Warranty covers manufacturer's defects and is not transferrable. The scope also carries Nikon's No Fault repair and replacement policy: the company will repair or service the scopeeven accidental damage caused by the userfor $10 plus return shipping and handling.
Kudos to Nikon for creating a top-quality scope small enough to fit in a cargo pocket.
Leupold Golden Ring 15-30x50 Kit
30x resolution score: 3.6; Overall score: 3.45
The only straight-through scope in our survey, the Leupold did well. It placed second among the 50mm gang, bested only by the costlierNikon Fieldscope. This is a sharp little scope. The testers praised its brightness and contrast. However, our judges found the focus knob stiff and hard to turn and complained that it was hard to focus without disturbing the image. They also noted that the focus knob is on the right side, where it can be accessed only by the right hand. The scope is available in straight-through version only. The kit includes a tabletop tripod, a special adapter that lets it mount on a tripod, a quick-detaching shoulder strap, padded belt case, and hardside carrying case. The price shown on the chart is for the complete kit. Without the extras, the scope alone costs about $100 less. Leupold's Full Lifetime Guarantee covers manufacturer's defects and damage incurred in the normal use of the product. The warranty is transferable, and no warranty card is required.
Bushnell Legend Ultra-HD 12-36x50
30x resolution score: 3.2; Overall score: 3.41
In 2009 Bushnell introduced its new Legend Ultra-HD scopes, which improve on and replace the previous Bushnell Legend scopes. For this test Bushnell sent us preproduction samples of both the 50mm and 80mm scopes.
The 50mm is a sturdy, thickly armored little scope. It has the widest field of view of all the scopes in the test, two focus knobs with a nice light feel, and 19mm of eye relief. Resolution was not bad, but not as good as the Nikon or Leupold. The Legend Ultra-HDs have fluorite glass (ED Prime Extra-Low Dispersion) which helps keep chromaticaberration to a minimum and boosts resolution.
The Legend Ultra-HDs feature Bushnell's Rainguard® HD water repellent lens coating. Applied to the exterior of the objective lens and eyepiece, the Rainguard coating makes raindrops bead up into small, tight droplets, reducing light scatter and improving clarity and brightness.
The 12-36x zoom eyepiece comes with the scope and is not interchangeable. It has a smooth twist-up eyecup. The scope turns to the side by means of a rotating tripod mounting ring. The 50mm scope includes a compact tripod and a soft case with molded insert. It's also available in a straight-through model, for about $20 less. The warranty covers manufacturer's defects only and is not transferable.
Yukon Firefall 12-36x50 KIT
30x resolution score: 3.0; Overall score: 3.22
At $80, Yukon's 50mm Firefall scope kit was the least expensive entrant in our survey, but it held its own! On the resolution tests it edged out the Minox, which costs more than four times as much. The judges penalized the Firefall somewhat because it doesn't have a rotating tripod mount. However, they found its focus knob superb, bested in the subcompact category only by the Nikon 50ED. They also praised its good eye relief and hand-friendly rubberized skin. The little Yukon has remarkable build quality for such an inexpensive scope.
The 50mm Firefall comes in an angled version only. It has a builtin 12-36x zoom eyepiece and includes a tabletop tripod and nylon case. It carries the manufacturer's limited lifetime warranty.
Minox MD 50 W
30x resolution score: 2.9; Overall score: 2.90
At a mere 21.7 oz., the Minox 50 W is a trim and tiny scope. The eyepiece twists up neatly, with indents. It comes with a built-in 16-30x zoom eyepiece, and it includes a nylon ever-ready case and a tethered objective lens cover. A tripod attachment collar allows the scope to rotate to the side.
A major flaw in the Minox is the focusing ring that circles the lens barrel. It's stiff and hard to turnso stiff that some of the judges said they could hardly focus because the turning effort disturbed the image. It also got the lowest image score, 2.9, of any scope in the test.
This Minox is available in both angled and straight versions. Five year, non-transferable warranty covers manufacturer's defects in materials or workmanship.