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Swarovski ATX/STX Modular Spotting Scopes


Swarovski ATX-STX Scope Modules
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Review Highlights
  • Revolutionary modular design
  • Phenomenal optical performance
  • Huge field of view, great depth of field
  • Very short close focus distance
  • Marvelous digiscoping adaptors = great photography

When Swarovski re-designed their SLC and EL binoculars, we knew it wouldn’t be long before they overhauled their spotting scopes. Well, they’re here, and they go way beyond what we expected! These scopes are so innovative they instantly redefine what the term “spotting scope” means; they are more versatile than a scope has ever been before. The key concept is modular design. These scopes are comprised of separate ocular and objective modules which can then be mixed and matched. This replaces the body and eyepiece design favored by all other manufacturers. There are specific advantages to the modular approach. The biggest plus is that you can purchase more than one objective module for use in different circumstances. In effect, you no longer need to choose between a small, compact travel scope and a larger brighter main scope. You just purchase both objective modules and use the one that suits you for any given purpose. The ocular modules perform identically, so, even though we reviewed an angled version, you should know that anything we say of one is true about both.

The Ocular Modules

The ocular modules are designated ATX (angled) and STX (straight). Both are 25-60x zoom eyepieces when on the 65- and 85-mm objective modules; they are 30-70x on the 95-mm objective. To switch objective modules, you simply press a button that is recessed into the lower left side of the ocular module and twist the module counter-clockwise until it can be pulled free. Mounting the new module is the reverse of this: line up the module and twist it in a clockwise direction until it clicks, indicating it is locked – you don't need to press the button to mount a module. The zoom function is in a 1-inch wide twisting ring on the ocular module, located close to the junction with the objective module. This puts it right next to the helical focus ring on the objective module, to allow for one-handed operation of the two. A raised triangle in the rubber armoring of the zoom control ring lines up with indications of magnification that are actually on the objective module (25x, 30x etc). Both ocular modules are sealed and nitrogen-purged to be completely waterproof. Each features a twist-out eyecup to adjust to the viewer’s preference, and a tethered soft rubber ocular lens cap. The ocular modules have an intrinsic metal fitting that mates smoothly with the digiscoping adaptors. The ocular lens cap is tethered to the module with a bungee-like cord that is easily removed if you wish, but is otherwise there when you need it.

The Objective Modules

The objective modules come in 65-, 85- and 95-mm sizes. Like the ocular modules, all are fully sealed and nitrogen-purged. That means that assembling or disassembling the scopes in the field is more worry-free because blowing dust and grit can’t get into the internal portions of the optic. All focusing is achieved with a broad (more than 2 inches wide) helical focus ring. Due to the fact that the focus ring and zoom ring are mounted so close together, there is the possibility that you will confuse them. To prevent this, Swarovski put densely packed ridges on the focus ring and more widely separated ridges on the zoom ring so that there is an obvious tactile distinction between them so you know which one you’re on without actually. Each objective module has a tripod mounting foot, and a small knob on the ring that the foot is attached to allows for rotation of the objective barrel within the ring, like any normal scope. One nuance of these modules that we really liked was that when rotating the objective module in the ring, there are very nice, obvious detents for the vertical and the 45° and 90° positions on each side. This means that when you are through using it, returning the scope to exactly vertical is trivial, a nice little feature. One of the only things we found that we didn’t like about these scopes is that the tripod mounting foot does not have a hole for a stabilizing pin from the quick-release plate of most standard tripod heads. As a result, you must mount the scope on the plate using only the ¼-inch screw. What this means is that the scope can come loose on the plate during field use. And it does. All three objective sizes have fully functional, extendable lens hoods. One nice little wrinkle to these is that the objective lens cover attaches to the hood, regardless of whether it is extended or not (most lens caps only work when the hood is collapsed because they actually attach to the inner rim of the lens itself.

Optical Performance

Having summarized the traits of the individual modules, we can now get to the stuff that really matters: how well they work? We could save ourselves a lot of bother and simply say they work stupendously well, but you probably want details, don’t you? How do you put something like that into words? The scope is brilliant, the view is incredibly high-contrast, the details revealed are stunning. But until you see it, you can’t really even imagine it. We’ve been doing this kind of stuff for a long time, and this is easily one of the best we’ve ever played with. One of the things we routinely use scopes for here is a sea-watch. We take the scope to a place with a bit of height and a panoramic ocean view. Those conditions – when the view extends for miles straight out – require maximum clarity and resolution from the optics, and very few scopes actually deliver a satisfying performance when pushed that hard. The new Swarovski is one of only three scopes we’ve ever used this way to deliver really satisfying views. That’s saying a lot. The other way you might measure the performance of the scope that you can share is by photography. We’ll cover this in greater depth in the digiscoping section, but suffice it to say that digiscoping is where the maxim of “Garbage in – garbage out” really holds true. It takes great optics to deliver excellent pictures, and as you’ll see, the ATX/STX scopes do exactly that.

Physical Characteristics

The table below summarizes a few physical and optical properties of these scopes, specifically dealing with how the three objective modules differ from one another in these properties.

Characteristic 65-mm 85-mm 95-mm
Length 13.3 inches 14.6 inches 16.8 inches
Weight 3 lb., 12.2 oz. 4 lb., 8.1 oz. 5 lb., 0.3 oz.
Eye Relief 20 mm 20 mm 20 mm
Close Focus 6 feet, 5 inches 11 feet, 1 inch 14 feet, 11 inches
Field of View 124 feet 124 feet 104 feet

As might be expected, size and weight both increase with the larger objective lens sizes, as only stands to reason. Eye relief is a function of the ocular module, so it doesn’t vary as those are equivalent, but it’s worth noting that 20 mm is more than enough eye relief for any user. The eyecup extends with a counter-clockwise twist for users who do not wear glasses. The eyecup mechanism has nice resistance to it so it is fairly stable even in intermediate positions. The close focus statistic is interesting. Most people purchase a scope to provide better magnification and detail on things that are far away, which begs the question: why do we care about how close it focuses? The answer to that is: photography. All three of these objective modules are fantastic for photography, and being able to focus sharply on something closer in can deliver some startlingly beautiful images. Field of view is inversely proportional to magnification, so a higher magnification, in this case the 30x of the 95-mm objective versus the 25x on the other two, means that the 95 has a smaller field of view. That’s just how it is.

Focusing

Focus Zoom As with all Swarovski scopes that we know of, the ATX/STX scopes use a helical focusing ring on the objective module, rather than a dual or single focus knob elsewhere. Helical versus knob focus is something that a lot of folks feel strongly about, but we really don’t. As far as we’re concerned, the issues are: does it work, and can you easily get sharp, clear focus without a lot of fuss? The answers, with respect to the modular scopes are: yes and yes. The focusing ring turns quite smoothly and easily without shaking the scope to any major degree. Getting from the minimum close focus out to infinity takes 2.9 complete turns of the ring, which is quite a bit less than some of the smaller knobs used on other scopes. The focus is nicely ‘pitched’ which means that when you are zeroing in on that point of absolute crispness, you don’t just blow by it. In fact, you can ease right up to it with excellent precision. There’s actually a lot to like about this focus mechanism.

Digiscoping

Swarovski DCB2 Adaptor One place where the Swarovski modular scopes exceed all other scopes currently on the market is in terms of digiscoping. Swarovski went to great lengths to optimize their digiscoping adaptors for point-and-shoot (PAS) and DSLR cameras, and for the most part, they really did it right. At this point, no other scope manufacturer on the market has adaptors that work as well as these. And Swarovski took it a step farther. They created a DCA adaptor sleeve that fits over the ocular portions of their older AT (S and M class) scopes so that those scopes can be retrofitted to capitalize on the new adaptors (or a special version of them). For PAS cameras, there is the DCB II adaptor, while for full-sized and micro 4/3 DSLR cameras, they have the TLS-APO adaptor. For clarity, we will deal with these separately. (see it here).

Swarovski TLS-APO Adaptor The DCB II adaptor fits smoothly and easily over the sleeve of the ocular module and clamps into place with a broad black lever underneath the front end of the adaptor. A mounting bracket attaches to the camera by a 3/8-inch set-screw into the hole on the base of any standard PAS camera. The screw placement within the mounting bracket adjusts horizontally across the bracket and tightens at the same time you mount the camera on the adaptor stage, so you need to partially screw in the camera and then adjust horizontal centering before tightening the screw. Final horizontal adjustment occurs when you lock down the mounting bracket with a lever on the bottom of the adaptor. This lever also controls how you position the mounting bracket and attached camera in terms of how close or far away from the lens surface the camera needs to be positioned. Vertical centering of the entire stage assembly is adjusted with another set-screw that when loosened, allows the stage to slide up or down. Optimizing the positioning of all these adjustments is something you just master with experience, but once you do, the set-up is fairly easy, and it can generate some spectacular results. One nice feature of the adaptor is that there is a sliding release button on the left side that allows you to detach and swing the entire stage assembly up and out of the way so that the scope may still be used without the camera being in the way. The stage assembly even locks in place up on top, and only releases when the spring-loaded green lever on top is depressed. Another nice thing about the adaptor is that every single adjustment on it is easily hand-operated, with the exception of the 3/8-inch set-screw, and that one has a slot head that works nicely with a nickel or a quarter!

The TLS-APO adaptor works in a different way. The TLS-APO actually contains a 30-mm lens that the adaptor sleeve centers for you over the ocular lens. It mounts onto the DSLR or micro 4/3 camera of your choice with a T-adaptor specific to the type of camera. A hand set-screw on the side of the TLS-APO allows you to fix the camera in place in whatever orientation. This means that the camera and adaptor deploy in mere seconds. The TLS-APO is not an autofocusing lens however. It is perfectly tuned to the ATX/STX scopes, but you must focus with the scope’s focus knob. However, with practice, you can still get superb shots with this digiscoping combo. Take a look at our gallery of photography with the Swarovski ATX/STX digiscoping systems (here).

Peripherals

The only peripherals available for ATX/STX scopes that we haven’t previously discussed are the cases. Swarovski makes specific cases for each individual module (so there are 5 in all) that are designed to be view-through., meaning you can look through the scope while the case is on. In fact, the 65-mm model is so small when broken apart that it actually fits in the carrying case for the 50-mm Swarovision binocular. That’s how they brought it to show us, and we were completely fooled by it! This has obvious utility when you want to travel light.

Conclusions

Our final assessment of the Swarovski ATX/STX modular scopes is that they are some of the very highest quality spotting scopes available today. And if you are a digiscoping enthusiast, they are pretty much the only scopes you should consider. Inevitably, this leads to the question of cost. For simplicity’s sake, all costs of the scope modules and peripherals are in the table below.

Product Cost Case
ATX Ocular Module $2,369.00 $148.95
STX Ocular Module $2,369.00 $148.95
65-mm Objective Module $1,029.00 $158.95
85-mm Objective Module $1,719.00 $158.95
95-mm Objective Module $2,059.00 $158.95
DCB II Adaptor $419.00 N/A
TLS-APO DSLR Adaptor $549.00 N/A

This is the very high end of the spotting scope market. But if you want to talk about performance, this is also the very deep end of the market, and there is nothing else like these scopes to compare them to. We are already seeing a lot of these in the field, a trend that will only get stronger with time.

Buy Swarovski ATX/STX Modular Scopes


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