Spotting scopes are a little like residential plumbing. When they work, you hardly notice their service. It’s when something goes wrong – a leaking pipe or a grainy image – that you start to question their utility.
This year’s collection of spotting scopes is a mostly serviceable class. There are no heart-stopping gee-whiz scopes in the mix but, with only a few exceptions, there are few leaky pipes. We had eight scopes in this year’s test, and the field was evenly divided between super-sized 80mm and larger scopes (based on the size of the objective lens) and those mid-sized and compact spotters that sport 65mm and smaller objective lenses.
What’s interesting about this year’s crop of spotters is the niche-filling presence of very affordable optics, decent spotters that cost under $600. Some of these, like Athlon’s Argos HD ($369) represent a howling bargain, and should be considered by any hunter on a budget. Others, like Maven’s new straight-barrel 65mm CS.1A, are fairly priced for their useful size and adequate image.
Because spotting scopes are expensive to make, and because the market is smaller than it is for binoculars and riflescopes, we tend to see robust numbers of spotters about every other year. It’s interesting to note that none of the leading European brands—Swarovski, Leica, or Zeiss—has a new spotter for the year. That’s allowed what I’d call the second tier of optics brands—Leupold, SIG, and Maven—to really shine in this year’s test. Here’s our take on the mix of submissions, ranked in order of their overall score.
For the rest of our Optics Test Reviews, click the links here:
- The 13 Best New Precision Riflescopes Put to the Test
- The 17 Best New Versatile Riflescopes Put to the Test
- The 9 Best New Hunting Binoculars Put to the Test
1. Editor’s Choice: SIG Sauer Oscar8 27-55×80
SIG Sauer Oscar8: 27-55×80 • $1,499 SIG Sauer
Tight, bright, and stout as a beer keg, SIG’s new full-sized spotter features excellent optics in a hard-wearing package that does almost everything very well. The Oscar8 was runner-up in our low-light test and turned in a good resolution score, thanks to its combination of high-transmission and extra-low dispersion glass and excellent coatings.
We loved the tight, responsive controls, from the removable angled eyepiece to the rubberized center-barrel focus, and the sunshade seemed to glide as though mounted on ball-bearing tracks. The durable rubber armor over the aluminum body is grippy without being tacky, and the coyote-tan finish looks “torch,” as the kids would say, especially with the classy black accents.
We also liked the graceful bend of the 45-degree angled body, as well as the clever rotating collet that locks in the removable eyepiece. Our guess is that additional eyepieces, including one with a mil-based reticle for use as a shooting-range spotter, isn’t far in the future for Sig’s flagship spotting scope platform. The tripod mount is graceful and very strong, and the band that allows users to rotate the barrel is more robust than many other full-size spotters. The magnification range, from 27X to 55X, is curious, but by keeping the power below 60X, the image stays relatively bright compared with peers that have higher magnification.
We recommend that SIG add an aiming slot to more quickly acquire distant targets, and we noticed some smudging on internal lenses. But those are minor demerits for an otherwise excellent full-sized spotter that delivers an image on par with higher-priced European optics. We expect the durability of the Oscar8 to provide years of steady service. All told, this was the standout optic in this year’s spotting scope category, and a worthy recipient of our Editor’s Choice award.
2. Great Buy: Athlon Argos HD 20-60×85
Athlon Argos HD: 20-60×85 • $369 Athlon Optics
Prior to this year’s optics test, if you had told me I could buy a honking-big 85mm spotting scope, with a decent image and first-rate controls in a good-looking package, for way under $400, I would have spit my teeth.
Well, I’d be wearing dentures as I told you that such a unicorn exists. It’s Athlon’s excellent 85mm Argos HD that features a non-removeable 20-60X eyepiece with a tight magnification ring, a 45-degree angled body with center-barrel focus, and a tasty three-position eyecup.
None of the test-team members can figure out how Athlon can sell such a well-appointed scope for such little money, but that’s not for us to solve. Instead, we noted the responsive controls, the decent image, the smoothly retracting sunshade, and its excellent low-light performance. The Argos won our low-light test and finished in the top third in resolution testing, despite the fact that it doesn’t contain ED glass.
The quality of glass is probably the most underwhelming part of this scope, and helps explain its price. The image is dark and grainy at higher magnifications, and at lower powers the periphery is noticeably less sharp than the center of the image. While the lenses are adequately coated, we noted some scratches and marring in the interior of the tube, which produced noticeable optical flaring. But as long as you don’t expect the Argos to deliver an image on par with high-end spotters (most of which cost three to four times the price of the Athlon), this scope should give you satisfying performance for a number of purposes.
What is truly remarkable is that Athlon is able to bring such a well-appointed spotting scope to the market for the price of a mid-level binocular. For that outrageous value, the Argos HD wins this year’s Great Buy award.
3. Leupold SX-4 ProGuide HD 15-45×65
Leupold SX-4 ProGuide HD: 15-45×65 • $799 Leupold
With tack-sharp controls and a shapely design that begs to be slipped into the side pocket of a mountain-hunter’s daypack, this mid-sized spotter is a worthy backcountry optic that can double as a durable shooting-range companion. In fact, the ProGuide’s durability was one of its highest-scoring attributes, thanks to its tight focus, positive eyecups, and hard-wearing “shadow gray” armor that covers the magnesium body (it’s also available in 85mm configurations, and with both straight and angled eyepieces).
We noted the lustrously coated lenses and positivity of the power ring on the non-removable eyepiece, as well as the silky-smooth sunshade. Now for the elements that weren’t quite up to snuff. The image is decent, but a bit dim and fuzzy at higher magnifications, evidence of standard glass, rather than the higher extra-low dispersion class of glass used in premium optics. The ProGuide scored in the very middle of the field in resolution and low-light assessments. The tripod foot is also a bit forward of the balance point of the spotter, which is a minor quibble.
In sum, the new Leupold spotter is a hard-wearing utility player that should give you years of service. And if something goes wrong, it’s backed by Leupold’s excellent warranty. That combination earned it very high Price/Value consideration, and runner-up status for our Great Buy honors.
Read Next: 3 Great Reasons to Own a Spotting Scope
4. Maven CS.1A 15-45×65
Rarely have I wanted to fall in love with an optic as much as I have with Maven’s new compact spotting scope. First, the CS.1A fills a nearly vacant niche between a mega-sized 15×56 binocular and a full-sized spotter, which generally begins its magnification at 20X and sports an 80mm lens. Second, it’s from Maven, a direct-to-consumer company that has nailed the cool factor with styling and brand vibe.
There’s a lot to requite my love. The center-barrel focus is tight and precise. The straight eyepiece is extremely packable, the armor is grippy, and the stylish hues of black, gray, and orange give it a sharp, distinctive appearance.
If only the image was on par with the fetching style. For a 65mm scope, the image is not bad, and the CS.1A beat the same-sized Bushnell in our low-light test. But the image, surprising because it is delivered by a higher-end ED glass, is a bit dark at higher magnifications and shows a slight halo around the periphery at lower magnifications. If you tune the image to mid-range magnifications, though, the Maven shows its trademark combination of brightness and acuity.
If you’re looking for a cast-iron (actually, magnesium/polymer) optic that is purpose-built for backcountry hunters, and can be used with or without a tripod, this is an excellent option. It’s also priced right for the combination of portability and acceptable optical horsepower it delivers.
5. Hawke Endurance ED 25-75×85
Hawke Endurance ED: 25-75×85 • $699 Hawke Optics
This is a right-down-the-middle 85mm spotting scope that will give you a few years of excellent utility while you save up to buy a top-of-the-line spotter. If that sounds downbeat, it’s not intentional. This very good angled-eyepiece scope does everything pretty well, even if it’s not from one of the celebrated European brands.
For starters, the Endurance ED scored in the middle of the pack in both resolution and low-light testing. It delivers an entirely adequate image and sports excellent lens coatings. Its size, configuration, and versatility makes it a good choice for a deck scope, a shooting-range spotter, or as a tripod-mounted scope for scouting.
If we have a gripe, it’s with the two-speed fingertip focus, which seemed to take a week to go from close to infinity. The locking collar on the removable eyepiece also hitched a few times, nearly causing us to unscrew the eyepiece as we were zooming through the magnification range.
The focus takes its time getting to its destination, but it’s a nice ride. The textured coarse-focus was tight and precise, and the fine focus glides smoothly. The magnification ring, however, didn’t have the same tight tolerances; the locking ring freely spins at the lowest power.
Still, the Endurance HD is a very serviceable full-sized spotter that can be considered as an adequate and priced-right step on the ladder to optical nirvana.
6. Celestron Hummingbird 9-27×56
Celestron Hummingbird: 9-27×56 • $229 Celestron
We did not expect to like this wee “micro” spotter. With a configuration more similar to a riflescope than a spotting scope, and weighing just 20 ounces, we expected performance in proportion to its underwhelming size. We were wrong. This little engine that could produced a good image and punched above its heft in both low-light and resolution testing.
That’s not to say it is going to return an image that a 65mm or 85mm scope does, but if you consider this as a good intermediate between a binocular and a full-size spotter, you’ll be happy with the Hummingbird.
We questioned the durability of the Celestron, but what was undeniable was its utility both on and off a tripod. If you’re looking for a spotter to throw into a daypack or pickup console to give you a bit more reach than a binocular, a 45-degree angled optic is a good choice.
There are some shortcomings. The center-barrel focus is hard to use with a close-fitting tripod because your fingers can’t get beneath the scope’s low-slung barrel. And the glass is only fair. But for a lightweight, extremely portable little spotter with surprisingly tight and responsive controls, this “micro” submission from Celestron is a good choice.
Read Next: Top Spotting Scopes Put to the Test
7. Bushnell Nitro 15-45×65
First, what we liked about this mid-sized spotter: its trim size and compact straight-barrel design make it highly useful for backpack hunters or for use on a shooting bench; its controls are tight and precise; and we like its stylish gray-and-crimson armor. We also like its excellent eyecups.
Now, for what we didn’t: its image was foggy and we noticed some flaring, possibly from the significant internal marring and grease in the gears.
Our subjective assessment of the image was confirmed by the Nitro’s low resolution score, and the 65mm scope was the first to wink out in our low-light test. However, there’s more to a spotting scope than pure observation. At just shy of 3 pounds, the Bushnell is light, its 12-inch length is extremely packable, its magnesium chassis and tacky rubber armor are durable, and the straight, non-removable eyepiece makes target acquisition a cinch.
We also liked the responsive 2-speed fingertip focus and positive 3-position eyecup. We simply expected the image to be better, especially considering the Nitro carries Bushnell’s excellent ED Prime glass.
8. Konus Konuspot-100 20-60×100
Konus Konuspot-100: 20-60×100 • $349 Konus
Before I describe the image that this gargantuan spotter produces, I should tell you that I nearly dropped the 100mm optic almost every time I handled it off the tripod. The finish is slick as grease.
Most of the blame is mine for having clumsy hands, but part goes to Konus for making such a forward-heavy optic, owing to its huge objective lens. We haven’t tested many 100mm spotters in the past, but that big lens provides a very valuable attribute—it gathers a crazy amount of light. The Konuspot placed third in our low-light test, despite the fact that the quality of glass isn’t great. There’s simply so much of it that it allows great quantities of light to reach the eye. Proof of the underwhelming quality of the glass is found in the periphery of the image, which is fuzzy and slightly distorted.
Other workings of the Konus demonstrated similar deficiencies in craftsmanship that may limit its utility in the field. The rubber ring that keeps the sharp edge of the ocular lens from biting the brow came off somewhere during our low-light testing. The fingertip focus is vague and spongy. The magnification dial is gritty. And we discovered just as this issue went online that the model was being discontinued.
While those are damning indictments, there are some bright spots. Konus ships this spotter with a very good smartphone adapter that allows the spotter to pull double duty as a telephoto lens. And the low-light attributes and sheer size of the Konuspot make this a very serviceable scope for the deck of a cabin or mounted on a tripod behind a plate-glass window.