Monday, October 1, 2012

Swarovski ATX/STX: A scope of two halves

A zoom with a view.

In the days before usable zoom eyepieces if you wanted to change the magnification of your scope you had to change the eyepiece, with most manufacturers typically offering a 20x, a 30x and a 40x. The early zooms were not very user-friendly items, having very narrow fields of view and lacking sharpness at anything much over minimum magnification. Things were much improved with the first zooms from Swarovski and Leica in the 1990s, but these were still a compromise in terms of field of view over a fixed lenses. In the late 2000s wide-angle zooms came on the market and delivered a viewing angle comparable with fixed eyepieces but also giving the valuable flexibility of a zoom, essentially the best of both worlds. Swarovski's 25-50x wide-angle zoom is a fine example of this, and now Swarovski only produce this and the older, but still outstanding, 20-60x zoom, having discontinued their fixed 20x, 30x and 45x earlier this year.

With the need for multiple eyepieces removed, their latest scopes have taken a different approach in having interchangeable objective lens modules that attach to the front of a combined eyepiece and prism module with a built-in zoom.

The new ATX 65mm and 85mm objective modules are similar to previous ATM 65mm and 80mm in that they have the same focal length and so the zoom has a range of 25-60x, regaining that extra 10x magnification at the top end missed by some ATM users with the 25-50x. The real feature that sets these new scopes apart from the competition is the addition of a 95mm version which has a longer focal length making it an outstanding and improbable-sounding 30-70x wide-angle zoom. There is a price to pay with the weight of this 95mm piece of glass compared to the other two models, but in spite of this huge lens it is only about the same weight as the old Leica 77mm Televid and is 200 grams lighter than the Nikon EDG 85.

Bright and colourful

The three top European birding optics firms (Leica, Zeiss and Swarovski) all take a slightly different approach to colour rendition, each favoured or criticised by different people. The previous generation of Swarovskis were sometimes said to have a slight cold blueish colour bias, where as Zeiss scopes to some eyes seem to have a warm yellow bias. The new Swarovskis (like the current Leicas) have a very pleasingly neutral image with no hint of a preference in in any direction which is relaxing on the eye and removes any doubt about weather you are seeing a true representation.

The light transmission is class-leading.   Not a lot more that can be said about that really, it simply is. All the modules are as bright as you could wish for their size. Well done the Austrians.

The big selling point with these modular scopes from Swarovski's point of view is the ability to have two or all three objective modules and switch between them depending on what location or light conditions you are birding in. The lightweight 65mm module for travel and trekking, the 85mm for general use and the awe-inspiring 95mm for the ultimate light gathering and magnification. For me however the best feature on this scope is the zoom and focus rings being side-by-side. This is not a first in scope design, the well built but optically questionable Bushnell Discoverer had this feature, as does the Zeiss Photoscope, but everything seems to have come together with these practical and flexible scopes.

Throwing light on the dark art of digiscoping.

The new DCB II digiscoping adapter
As well as completely redesigning the scope from the ground up there is a new simplified range of camera adapters for compacts and SLRs. The new adapters work just as well with the “old” ATM/STM and the reincarnated ATS/STS scopes. There are two adapters, one for compact cameras and one for DSLRs. The compact adapter is an improved design of the DCB swing-over bracket, allowing users to quickly switch between viewing a taking pictures. The new APO DSLR adapter is the most user-friendly adapter of this type I've ever seen, allowing a DSLR or mirrorless system camera to be simply pushed over the eyepiece of the scopes without having to mess about with taking the eyepiece out.
Below is a video from Swarovski showing how the new DSLR APO adapter works.

Swarovski ATS
Back from the beyond.

As well as the addition of the new modular scopes the previous range has been brought back with a aluminium rather than magnesium body and a lower price tag. This is essentially the same ATS/STS HD scope as the one launched in 2002 with the addition of the modern “Swaroclean” water and grease repellent lens coating.

The ultimate all-rounder?

The Glandford shop's view
All of the features of the new ATX/STX scopes mentioned above combined with Swarovski's legendary after-sales service has really raised the bar as far as scope design goes, and the real surprise is that they have improved on the outstanding image quality of the previous generation. Swarovski haven't rendered their competition obsolete over night, as we know very well there is no one telescope or binocular that works for everyone, and so the offering from Leica, Zeiss, Kowa and others at the top of the range still offer a real and comparable alternative. What they have done is bring out a range of scopes that is not simply a repackaging of existing technology but a shining example genuine innovation.

Come and field test them for yourself at our Glandford shop over the excellent farmland views.

Cley Spy.

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