WHO'S BETTER, WHO'S BEST?
A SHORT REVIEW OF THE NEW LEICA 82mm
by Ian McKerchar
Think two and a half thousand pounds. Think a really nice holiday somewhere exotic. A half decent motorcar from the auctions. Think of all the home improvements that money could provide, though I'd personally rather not! Think the very top of the range all singing all dancing computer with enough change for a posh slap-up meal afterwards. In fact think of all the things you could do with two and a half grand. Now think about spending it on a telescope. Would you? Could you?
I look at it this way, if you're like me; birding's a bit more than just a hobby and you're out doing it every day, then surely you deserve the best for your hard working eyes? Then again, if you're like me and really can't afford that two and half grand, is it really worth it?
I've owned a Swarovski ATS80 HD for several years now and have always been impressed and more than happy with it's performance. Yes, I'm fully aware that telescope technology is allegedly 'moving on' all the time but I've always been an advocate of 'just how much better can these things get? Probably not much!' So when I had the opportunity to review a friend's brand new two day old Leica APO 82 against my trusty old steed I jumped at it. Just how well would my worldly wise, battered, bruised and still Middle Eastern desert encrusted Swarovski stand up to the potential new king of the hill?
Well, firstly the new Leica is not exactly £2500 but can be purchased for a couple of hundred quid below that, which puts it firmly in the range of the other big two scopes, the new Swarovski ATM80HD and the Kowa TSN-883. I haven't included in there the Zeiss Diascope 85 T* FL, a 'scope you should really field test yourself but for which, when I gave it a through going over prior to my intended purchase, I just couldn't get along with and didn't rate. Clearly as always, much of any decision concerning scope choice is down to each individual, your personal requirements, preferences and perceptions of their performance. Here's mine...
Above: Here's the beauty, shrouded in it's protective case. Simply do not waste your money on this case! It has such a multitude of straps, bits and bobs that I found they regularly got in the way and indeed my initial surprise (nay, joy!) of finding the image though it to be clearly much poorer than my old Swarovski was merely due to one of the many straps cutting across the objective lens! Sure they keep it nice and clean but they also hold water, keep moisture next to the scope body, make the sun shade awkward to pull out, make it very difficult to rotate the scope body (a feature I regularly use on my own 'scope) and cover what is a rather gonad tingling attractive piece of design. The scope body is already substantially rubber armoured and the whole unit is waterproof to a depth of five metres, do you really need more? Do you have a protective case for your car or your expensive watch? Thought not. Pointless and more to the point, expensive.
Above: The Leica APO 82 in all it's naked beauty and perhaps as it should be. A vision in black, it certainly looks the part, resplendent in it's remarkably thick rubber armour, smooth but for a 'grippy' patterning around the focus wheels and the underside of the rear body and finished with a distinctive jewel like red Leica badge. Like many of the best things in life it looks understated, simplistic in design, seems very well constructed and is extremely desirable. It is a well proportioned 'scope too although as with all today's monster eyepiece scopes is somewhat tail heavy. It was also very slightly, though noticeably, heavier than my own Swarovski ATS80HD, apparently by only a couple of hundred grams though. If weight really were that much of an issue one could always carry a couple less Mars bars, buy a lighter jacket, bin the field guide (you really shouldn't carry one anyway!), get your hair cut or perhaps chop of a finger or two, preferably not the ones you need for focussing your 'scope though!
Above: I have always been used to a single large centre focussing wheel on my previous two telescopes (Swarovski ATS80HD and Nikon Fieldscope III 60ED) and have always wondered why I would ever need anything else. Leica had adopted the two focusing wheel approach in their previous APO telescope (that heavy lump of a shiny silver metal thing, optically superb but ergonomically anything but!) and have carried it over to their new flagship model. The larger wheel at the rear is for 'coarse' and swift focusing and the smaller wheel nearer the front for 'fine tuning'. I have to admit that, despite my best efforts not to like Leica's approach to focusing their telescopes, not only did the wheels falls naturally and very comfortably to hand but more importantly it worked perfectly. All too often, particularly at higher magnifications, I am often found hunting for perfect focus with my Swarovski. A little too much one way, then back too far the other, nudge, nudge, sometimes never just perfect. With this Leica though I found the larger (coarse) focus wheel to be enough for most of my requirements and similarly with my Swarovski was all I used most of the time but when I found I just needed to tweak the focus a little, to bring a subject into perfect clarity, I merely needed the slightest nudge on the second wheel of the Leica and all became instantly and magnificently clear.
Above: The diminutive size of the Leica belies it's light guzzling 82mm objective lens which looks even larger thanks to the thick ring of black rubber armour encasing the precious Apochromatically correct glass. In fact, that stellar priced piece of objective glass is protected from scratches, dirt or your grubby little fingers by an optically neutral front lens glass. Smart huh! It is further protected still by an almost magical sounding water and dust repellent AquaDuraTM-coating. Wow! Of course there's a retractable sun/rain hood there too although it didn't really extend far enough out for my liking and there was something supposed to be an optical sight built in to the hood which was frankly both pointless and useless at the same time, though obviously I'm really nit-picking there!
Above: Incredibly, in overall length the new Leica is even shorter than my own 'stumpy' Swarovski ATS80HD! Just how do they do that? I won't bore you with the exotic and doubtless expensive materials utilised in the construction of the bodies of these optics needless to say that if you set fire to either of them they'll burn fiercely and explode in a flash of intense white should you then throw water on them! Best not to set fire to them then really.
Optically though and let's face it, that's what really matters, does the new Leica warrant me to instantly condemn my old Swarovski to EBay? In all reality, yes it probably should! It's not that my Swarovski is a bad scope, far from it. It's magnificent in almost every aspect and without ever having looked through the Leica I'd be happy with it for the rest of my days but having now looked through the black beauty, hmmm. The Leica is patently brighter and sharper than my own scope at every comparable magnification. We're not talking a massive amount here but enough, enough to make it noticeable, enough perhaps to be important. Edges were sharper throughout the magnification range but were especially impressive when whacked up to 50x where the Leica held it's nerve and performed seemingly as well as it did at 25x and whilst the Swarovski made an excellent fist of it, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, edge clarity and overall brightness fell off slightly as the magnification increased into the upper end. The colours in the Leica were always fresh and bright, perfectly life-like where the Swarovski looked ever so slightly 'cloudy', especially at high magnifications as colours and sharpness became less vivid. Across the length of a 100 metre field I could see the edge to every Hawthorn leaf at 50x in the Leica so sharp it were as though they were right in front of me but I'm sorry to say by comparison, the Swarovski, whilst still perfectly acceptable, just couldn't compete. I also found the depth of field in the Leica to be superior to the Swarovski and not surprisingly the new 20-50x zoom of the Leica had a significantly larger field of view than my 20-60x zoom but these latter quibbles atleast should have been sorted with Swarovski's new 25-50x zoom.
Swarovski have of course brought out a new ATM model, which I haven't looked through yet and perhaps some of these differences have been addressed in it to close the gap? There is also the major consideration of the Kowa TSN-883 if one were to be really seriously considering purchasing a new top-end 'scope. It is a 'scope which is both shorter in length than both the Leica and Swarovski and lighter than he former too boot yet packs an astonishing 88mm pure fluorite crystal Prominar objective lens. And just how much light does that mother of all objective glass consume for your greedy observations. More than the front windows on your house! I have only looked through a couple of the new Kowas up to this point and was obviously impressed with the units but how they match up to either the Swarovski or Leica would require a side by side comparison which was not possible at the time so the jury as yet, is out on which is the true king of the hill.
Above: Size matters! I always thought the 20-60x zoom eyepiece of my Swarovski was big but clearly one doesn't want to get caught in the showers next to the Leica's massive 25-50x member. Eyepiece envy? I should say so! Perhaps the new 25-50x eyepiece recently brought out by Swarovski will address the undeniably ever so slight but all so important extra performance of the Leica but we shall have to see. I particularly liked the subtle but significant features of the Leica eyepiece's rubber eyecup being 'clickable' to three different points in it's range and more so the fact that it was flush with the width of the actual body of the eyepiece. The eyecup of my Swarovski is very slightly wider than the body which means I have to unscrew and remove the eyecup to attach my digiscoping adaptor, something not necessary with the Leica. Small points perhaps but significant in the overall scheme of things.
Below: The Leica's digiscoping set up compete with Leica adaptor and Panasonic Lumix LS3 camera. A snug fit and sturdy set up capable of taking excellent images. The camera is apparently basically the same as Leica's own 'de lux 4' which costs double the price of the Lumix!
So, would I change my 'scope in favour of Leica's new flagship model? Of course not. I really couldn't justify the expense and to be fair to my old and trusty Swarovski, the differences are so small that give me a few days and I'll have forgotten what the image through that Leica looked like. Hopefully...
Many thanks to Simon Warford for very kindly bringing his new pride and joy to my home for me to review and also for ruining my previous perception that 'scopes couldn't get much better!' Surely Leica would like to sponsor my website? Leica, you out there...
Ian McKerchar, May 2010