Kowa 77mm Spotting Scope Comparison and Review

Kowa_TSN-773

Kowa TSN-773 77mm Spotting Scope

How did we come to comparing the Kowa 77mm spotting scope against the rest of the high end 65mm spotters? Well, about a year ago I made the mistake of looking through my buddies Swarovski ATS 65mm spotter.  You know, the one with the 25-50x wide angle eyepiece?  So that pretty much ruined my love affair with the Vortex Razor 65mm (although a great scope for the price it falls a little short in comparison to these higher end scopes).  Hosting an optics demo at the NW Mountain Challenge last summer only made things worse.  I was able to compare my Vortex Razor to the Swarovski ATS and ATX spotting scopes.  I will say that the 85mm Razor did well in this line up, but my 65mm was not near as crisp, and when you zoomed in, it got considerably darker.  

Up until about 4 weeks ago, my plan was to go with the Swarovski ATS 65mm spotting scope with the 25-50x wide angle lens.  After using one on a wolf hunt last year, it was very high on my very short list of options.  I really liked the Swaro ATX as well, but like most of you, the extra weight and extra cost was not worth the benefit of having one eyepiece and multiple objectives. Especially since I am only going to be able to afford one!  

Why Kowa?

Outside of the new ultralight spotter, I had no knowledge of Kowa, nor had I ever even seen one.  But I started doing some research.  What I found was that there isn’t a whole lot known about Kowa in the hunting industry. The vast majority of hunters are adamant that their Swaro or Leica glass is simply the best. There is very little written at all on Kowa spotting scopes.  So I switched to the birding community as they are usually the experts when it comes to high quality glass.  Review after review named the Kowa TSN-880 series to be the best spotting scope you could buy.  And the Kowa TSN-770 series was always right up there too. I had no idea that Kowa had such a high reputation for its glass.  

Here are the Kowa spotting scopes we decided to carry.

The Kowa TSN-880 is the flagship scope for Kowa. It uses an 88mm Fluorite Crystal objective lens. This ultra low dispersion material eliminates color blur and is superior to typical optic glass.

The Kowa TSN-770 series uses a 77mm XD lens that has similar attributes to the Fluorite Crystal used in the 880. Both use the Prominar rated eyepiece that uses 2 XD lenses.  This is not a common practice, even in high end optics.

A new Ultralight hunting spotting scope!?! The TSN-553 TSN-554

We heard some rumors of Kowa having a Fluorite Crystal 55mm spotter in the works. A TSN-553 angled or the TSN-554 straight spotting scope. This should be an outstanding light weight spotting scope (frankly something we have wished the optics industry would make for a long time, a high end, lightweight spotting scope). With a 15-45x XD eyepiece and an expected weight under 2lbs, we cant wait. Look for more info in our insider’s newsletter in the next couple months.  We’ll be getting one in our hands as soon as we possibly can!

After hearing such good reviews, we decided to get the TSN-773 angled 77mm scope, so we could compare side by side to some of the other spotting scopes we use. The first thing I noticed was that the scope shipped the very next day.  And being located in CA meant it was only a couple days shipping. That is great for our customers as we will be able to drop ship spotting scopes straight from Kowa, and have them arrive very quickly!

When I pulled the scope out of the box I was impressed with its smaller size. I was thinking that a 77mm spotter would be HUGE, but it wasn’t too much bigger than the Swaro ATX 65mm we have in the shop.  As usual, one of the first things we do is put it on the scale.  Right at 59oz. For comparison here are the weights of some other 65mm angled scopes. Also note that i am using the premium eyepiece on both the ATS (25-50x wide angle) and the Kowa (25-60x wide angle). They both have lighter eyepieces, but most buyers are going to go with the better wide angle zooms.

Pretty easy to see by the above chart that the Kowa TSN-773’s weight is very close most of its 65mm competitors. However the weight of the Swaro ATS is quite a difference and makes it an attractive option.

I also made a chart to compare the street prices of each of the scopes.

 

Again, the Kowa is VERY competitive when it comes to price. Especially considering it is a 77mm spotter vs the 65mm class. 

77mm vs 65mm

I do want to explain that we know a 77mm spotter is generally going to out perform a 65mm spotter. So why are we putting the Kowa 77mm vs the rest of the 65mm spotters?  Simple, cost and size. The Kowa is generally about the same size and actually costs less than the most other spotting scopes in this field. And when making a purchase, we feel that the 77mm Kowa is absolutely relevant and an attractive option. Heck, I bought one.

Head to head comparisons

Vortex Razor 65mm VS Kowa TSN-773 77mm

Obviously this is not a fair comparison, but I did want to show what you would get for the extra $1000.  

Focus. When focusing the Vortex I would usually overshoot and then have to come back to correct. Since making focus changes on the vortex was not as smooth as the Kowa, I would have to make a change, then wait for the image to stabilize, then correct.  On the Kowa I was able to focus without much interruption to the image, due to the coarse and fine focus knobs. The Kowa’s dual focus was VERY smooth, and had ample fine adjustment.

Zoom. The zoom on the Razor is very stiff and focusing at full zoom is difficult, again due to the barrel focus and stability issues when making changes. Also, even with the new Vortex wide angle lens, compared to the Kowa’s I felt like I was looking through a tunnel, and at full zoom the image was considerably dimmer on the Vortex.  This is in part due to the smaller objective lens, but it was probably the most notable performance difference optically.  I would say that the higher quality glass also played a roll here. This is where you see the most benefit in the upgraded glass. It’s also the most important aspect when glassing early mornings, and into the late evenings. 

Clarity. The image itself was good on the Razor, esp the center of the image. The sweet spot seemed to diminish the closer you got to the edges. On the Kowa, the image was consistently amazing from edge to edge. Comparing the clarity of the two spotters, the difference was very noticeable and the clear winner here was the Kowa.

Colors. The contrast in colors was much more apparent on the Kowa.  It also was clear that the more light coming in to the 77mm lens was helping me see into shadowed areas. I think the clarity of the Kowa also made it easier to see specific changes in color between objects in the field of view.

Eye relief. Pretty much even.

Price. If you are in the market for a fine $1200 spotting scope, the Vortex is hands down the best choice.  If you are like me however, looking to take that next step up, there is a remarkable difference in performance when you go to that next level.

kowa 773

Swaro ATX 65mm Vs Kowa TSN-773

This is where things got really hard for me.  Optically I could tell the difference between the Razor and the Kowa.  That was not always the case with the ATX and the 773.

Brightness. Very much the same. Even at the top end of zoom. Give this one to the smaller ATX.

Color. I did notice that the Kowa did have more vivid browns. When looking through brush i was able to pick up more colors in the Kowa then i could in the ATX.

Focus. The barrel focus on the ATX is much easier to adjust than the barrel focus on the Razor. However I still liked the fine/course focus on the Kowa. I will say that having the zoom right next to the focus on the ATX was very nice.  Having both at your fingertips was a welcome change once you get used to it.

I did find that the Kowa seemed to have a larger depth of focus. When i would look at a hillside slanting away from me, more of the hillside was in focus in the Kowa then in the Swaro.

Clarity. I could see no differences in image quality except for slight halo looking into bright snowy areas around the edge of the ATX that was not apparent on the Kowa.

Price. IF you are looking to carry multiple sized scope, this makes a lot of sense. Otherwise, its tough to justify the ATX over the ATS.

Swaro ATS 65mm Vs Kowa TSN-773

For me this was the real question. Is the extra 9 oz worth carrying? Or should i spend the extra $300 and go with the Swaro?

Image quality. Pretty damn close. Honestly I could not see a real difference here. Maybe the ATS at full zoom was a bit better, but again it is maxed out at 50x vs the Kowa at 60x. The ATS did have a wider field of view but I had to look twice to notice it.

Brightness. Even across the zoom range for both. However, again, the top end of the Swaro was only 50x and the Kowa was 60x. So the edge here goes to the Kowa.

Color. As with the ATX, I could see more shades of brown in the 773.

Focus. Now, maybe i am just used to the dual focus from using the Razor for a couple year’s but it seemed noticeably easier to get on focus with the Kowa.

Low light. Unfortunately the one area where the Kowa should have really been better, I did not have the opportunity to test head to head. But when using the Kowa in the predawn hours, it was amazing how little change there was in brightness when fully zoomed in, even in early light.

Summary

After having used the Kowa for a few weeks and being able to compare it to the other spotters in our shop, I feel pretty good about my decision to go with the Kowa.  Here are my likes and dislikes.

Dislikes

  • There is no armor coating on the Kowa like you will find on the Vortex or the Swaro’s. It is a magnesium alloy case, and feels like an aluminum-ish finish. For me, this isn’t a big deal because I never, ever, take my spotter anywhere without the carrying case.
  • The eyepiece lens cover tends to want to fall off all the time. I’ll have to dummy cord it.

Likes

  • The build quality is VERY good. The eyepiece fits with zero slop and a satisfying click when locking. The focus knobs feel very precise. The feel of this scope is very high quality.
  • 77mm. Lets tons of light in, and the XD glass eyepiece lets you see all of it.
  • Brightness. There is very little change in brightness when you zoom in even in low light.
  • Size. For a 77mm spotter, it is on the small side.
  • Price. Lowest cost of the high end glass, but you wouldn’t know that from its performance.

For me, at the end of the day, the glass was so close to the Swaro that it was almost a draw. But having the benefit of a 77mm Obj, 10x more zoom, and an extra $300 in my pocket made me go with the Kowa TSN 773 over the Swaro ATS 65mm.

And as it turns out, the Phone Skope from my Vortex Razor fit perfectly on the Kowa. Sounds like fate to me.