This spring when I was looking forward to some birding competitions in both PA and NY, I approached Swarovski to see if they would let us test our their optics under real world conditions – 24-hour bird-a-thons. Swarovski sent along both the straight and angled eyepiece, and the 65mm and 85mm objective lenses. I was really excited to play with them because this was my first experience with the swappable objective and eyepiece modules, a very cool concept that allows you to choose your own combo of angled or straight eyepiece, with any of the 3 sizes of objective lenses. The way that the two pieces connect means that they are very easy to pack into a small space, especially the small 65mm eyepiece. The modules use the standard push and twist to connect that you would be familiar with from connecting lenses to SLR cameras and feel snug and solid once they are together. You can fit the 65mm and either of the eyepieces into about the same space as a full-size binocular, excellent for travel. It also means that you can purchase two different objective lenses, or have both the angled and straight eyepiece depending on where you are birding. The straight eyepieces are perfect for hawk- or seabird-watching, while the angled is great for all purpose birding, especially if you are sharing it with others.
Impression: Now on to actually using the gear. My experiences with the new scopes were really nothing that should come as a surprise…this is Swarovski that we are talking about. Fantastic optics, fantastic design, nice to look through and look at. The armored exterior is a stark contrast to my Zeiss Diascope which I feel the need to keep covered in a case to protect the less durable coating. I know you can buy a case for the Swarovski but there really isn’t any need. One thing that took a bit to get used to was having the focus and zoom rings right next to each other. Once you get the hang of it, it is pretty natural feeling to be able to do all of your adjustments with one hand. I had a lot of opportunity to share the scopes with birding companions while at the Biggest Week in American Birding and everyone seemed quick to catch on even if they had never used a similar scope. Another difference where I prefer the Swarovski to my Zeiss is that you don’t need a connector plate that joins the scope to the tripod. The connector comes ready to fit in most tripod heads while with my Zeiss I am constantly tightening the connector plate to the scope so that it doesn’t pivot unintentionally.
Comparison: I had a chance to do some side by side comparison with the Swarovski ATS/STS HD (the older model scope which most birders have likely looked through at one time or another). The differences were very noticeable, especially with the increased field of view (although the new wide angle 25-50x eyepiece for the ATS/STS is comparable to the new modular scopes FOV). The newer scopes seemed much sharper and the field of view was noticeably wider which comes in handy in just about all birding situations.
Compared to many other scopes, a major difference is the location of the focus ring. Swarovski is one of the few scopes that places the focus ring around the body of the scope and there are strong opinions among birders on which is best. I prefer my knobs perched on top of my scope and not around it, but had no troubling switching back and forth. One thing newer scopes are doing is making the eyepiece much larger. I started out on some of the early Kowa scopes and they had skinny eyepieces which are nowhere near as comfortable to look through as newer scopes include the new Swaros.
Overall, I really enjoyed using the Swarovski scopes; it was everything you would expect from top of the line gear. The innovative modular approach is really cool for traveling since even the largest combos are very packable, but the system quickly gets really expensive if you want to take advantage of swapping out the eyepieces and objective modules for different situations. As always with optics, I recommend that you try them out in person to make sure you find them comfortable and easy to use.
I want to thank Swarovski Optik for allowing us to borrow these optics to test out in the field. All opinions expressed in the review are mine and were not influenced by the generosity of Swarovski.