“Optics” are an integral part of a birder’s life. Binoculars and (for many) spotting scopes are without a doubt the most important pieces of equipment we use … essential for almost every birding excursion or outing we make. And the more birding we do, the more important “quality” equipment becomes. We all want optics that are durable, weather-resistant, comfortable to use and, above all else, provide a bright & sharp image for our enjoyment.
I’ve owned and used several pairs of binoculars during my ~20 years of birding … starting with my father’s old Tasco tanks, which he used mostly for the occasional moose hunting trip. I bought my own first pair in university, when my birding hobby got serious, and moved up to a “mid-range” pair a few years later. I purchased my first scope in 2003 – a quality, second-hand one that had been only used a few times and was going for a “steal”. Those optics saw me through a lot of wonderful experiences – beautiful birds, rare sightings, and travel to some very cool places.
But last winter, I found myself needing to replace both my binoculars and my trusty scope. What better time for an upgrade to top-of-the-line equipment?!?! After a little research (reading reviews, chatting with a lot of birders in my network), it didn’t take long to decide that Kowa was the way to go. Kowa scopes are consistently rated at or near the top of the market for image and performance, and their new high-end line of binoculars were getting great reviews (although they hadn’t become popular in North American markets yet, so I knew very few birders who had them!). After talking with some of the lovely people at their North American offices, Kowa very generously offered to provide me with the gear I needed at a price I could appreciate. As a guide and tour leader, many birders from all over the world would enjoy an opportunity to try out, and likely be impressed by, their equipment every year.
I was like a kid on Christmas morning when the package arrived last March … and first impressions were everything I knew they would be. The sleek shape and elegant casing on both the scope and binoculars were a treat to look at, and the feel when I first picked them up were a real joy. These optics were made for my hands 😉 They had arrived just in the nick of time … I was leaving for a birding trip to Honduras the very next day, and the brand new Genesis 10.5×44 binoculars were going to get their first real test in that tropical paradise (I left the scope home for that adventure, but it has traveled everywhere with me since).
I’ve been using my Kowa gear for well over a year now, so it’s time to tell you what I think. And, overall, I think it’s great! My new scope is a Kowa TSN-883 Prominar … an 88mm spotting scope that is often ranked the best in market by professional reviewers. I opted for the angled version – a switch from my old straight scope I loved so much – mostly because of the flexibility it offers when birding with groups, as I almost always do. Angled scopes can be set up a lower level and still be accessible to people of most heights, and many birders insist that angled scopes are in general more comfortable and result in less neck strain when using it for long periods of time. It did take me a while to get used to the new perspective, but I have to say it’s been a positive change overall. That being said, the TSN scopes are available in both angled and straight models, and it’s really a matter of preference.
Despite the large objective size (88mm), the scope itself is relatively compact and light – making it easier than my previous model for both carrying and traveling. Without the eyepiece, it measures just 13.5 inches and was even able to fit in my carry-on satchel or camera bag when taking a flight (Note that Kowa also makes Prominar models in 77mm and compact 55mm sizes if travel and transport outweigh your need for a large objective). The TSN-883 has a magnesium alloy casing – making it lighter but reportedly just as strong as other brands in its class. The green finish on the casing is quite nice, although the lack of a rubber coating may leave it a little vulnerable to the elements. For added protection, I opted for a Kowa fitted scope cover which does a nice job of shielding the entire scope without making it impractical to use and has a very useful carrying strap. Of course, the scope itself is nitrogen purged and waterproof – like any optics at this end of the market should be.
All scopes in the Kowa Prominar line have one important thing in common – the objective lens is made of pure fluorite crystal, the standard in optical quality, and has a blend of Kowa’s special coatings to enhance both image and resilience. The result is a wonderful viewing experience – very bright, sharp and excellent colour resolution. Compared to my old scope, and most others that I’ve tried, the brightness of image really stands out when using my TSN-883 — and that matters! I’ve been able to use this scope at dusk and dawn, when many other scopes would have been all but useless. Brightness is also important when looking out over the dark waters of the ocean or on a grey foggy day (things we do a lot in Newfoundland). Birds and details appear very sharp in the scope, and focusing is fast and easy using the dual focusing wheel. Depth of field has been deep (wide?) enough that honing in on a subject isn’t impossible, but narrow enough that foreground and/or background are not too distracting. That sounds simple enough, but not every piece of optics can claim that “sweet spot” in the field of focusing. Notably, the image stays bright and sharp to the very edges of the image – something that can be annoying with lower quality lenses.
I love the flexibility of zoom lenses, so I opted for the Kowa 20-60x eyepiece when choosing my gear. The ability to scan an area and look for birds at low magnification but zoom in on a distant target when necessary is a very useful thing – especially when you’re like me and spend a lot of time watching seabirds and shorebirds. Like the scope body, Kowa eyepieces are also nitrogen purged and waterproof – an important feature considering it is one part of the system that is always exposed to the weather when in use. The eyepiece connects easily to the body, but has a push-button release mechanism that keeps it safely in place until you actually “want” it to come off. Zooming occurs smoothly with a twist of the eyepiece, meaning its easier to stay on a target (even a moving one) when doing so. The image of course loses a little brightness at high magnifications, but less than I was used to with my old scope and zoom eyepiece … and sharpness remains surprisingly good even at 60x. I haven’t for a moment regretted my choice of eyepiece – but for those interested, there are several other options including a 30x wide angle and 25x long eye-relief models.
* Don’t just take my word for it … Many of my tour guests over the past year have commented on the clear, sharp and bright views they enjoyed while using my scope; including experienced birders who own or have used other top brands. Sometimes, it was as much a conversation piece as it was a piece of equipment 😉
As much as I use and enjoy my scope, it should come as no surprise that I (along with most birders) use my binoculars far more often. Binoculars are the essential, if not diagnostic, trademark of a birder — the one piece of equipment that makes us recognizable in the outdoors world, and allows us to enjoy our sport to its fullest. I “need” a quality pair of binoculars, and my new Kowa Genesis XD 10.5×44 did not disappoint.
The key feature of the Genesis XD binoculars is that they use the same extra low dispersion glass as the Prominar scopes, resulting in a very sharp, bright and colour-correct image. The improved viewing compared to my old binoculars was amazing – and easily compared to my experiences looking through similar high-end binoculars belonging to friends and colleagues (including Swarovski and Zeiss). I chose to go with the 10.5×44 model since I was already using 10x binoculars, and prefer the higher magnification for the amount of seawtaching I tend to do. That being said, many birders prefer 8x models for various reasons (wider field of view, less visible shake, etc.) and the Genesis 8.5×44 are equally well reviewed.
Another notable feature of these binoculars is the 44mm objective lenses (vs 42mm in most similar models). The difference may seem minimal, but is actually quite significant – the additional light produces a brighter image that really adds to the overall viewing experience and makes the binoculars usable in slightly dimmer situations (dawn, dusk and foul weather) than they might otherwise be. Interestingly, the objective lenses are threaded to allow the use of 46mm filters – not something that birders tend to do, but could very useful for those who (also?) use their binoculars for viewing the night sky. Combined with the larger magnification and objective size, I imagine these are ideal binoculars for people who dabble in both birding and stargazing.
The one down-side of the increased magnification and objective lenses is that it results in a somewhat larger, heavier pair of binoculars – in fact, they are notably heavier than most similar models. To be honest, I knew this before choosing them and was expecting it to be an issue (if minor), but have to admit that it has not. Even though I still use a traditional neckstrap, I have not noticed any neck strain from long period of use (note that I use an off-brand, cushioned strap that I have loved for years, and have not actually tried the Kowa strap that came with the binoculars). They do feel a bit heavy after holding them up for long periods, but they are so well shaped and comfortable to hold that the weight becomes an after-thought. All that beings said, the additional weight might be consideration for those who prefer lightweight optics, have strength/endurance issues with their arms, or tend to experience some shaking when using binoculars (I don’t like to say it, but especially “older” birders). Like the Kowa scopes and most high-end brands, the binoculars themselves are nitrogen purged and fully water/fog-proof for use in the real world.
Focusing with these binoculars is impressively smooth and comfortable – the central focusing wheel is large, well textured for gripping your finger, and adjusts both quickly and easily. Fine adjustments are easily made, but at the same time I don’t find it “too” sensitive – which can sometimes lead to frustration as you try to get the focus just right. As a birder with interests in broader aspects of nature, I often use my binoculars to look at wildflowers, butterflies and other things during my explorations — things that are sometimes relatively close. I have been very impressed with the “close focus” of these binoculars – coming in at well under 6ft (5.5ft in the specs) and as good as any binoculars I’ve used. In my opinion, this is a very important (and often under-rated) feature that helps set the best binoculars apart from others. If you’ve never enjoyed a colourful spring warbler at full frame in your binoculars, you’re missing out!
The Genesis binoculars have sturdy twist-up eye cups, which I have found to be very useful and stay in place when I’ve set them (an issue I have had with other pairs, when I would sometimes raise them to my eyes and discover one eye cup in the wrong position – occasionally making me miss a flitting bird!). The diopter (used for individually focusing each eye) also has a locking system that prevent it from changing unexpectedly – an issue I have also had with many other pairs. The reported eye relief on this model is 16mm – just on the verge of what most manufacturers/users would consider to be “long eye relief”. This makes them quite comfortable to use with the eye cups fully extended (which I prefer to block out peripheral light), and should be fine for users wearing eyeglasses (something I’ll learn more about over the next few months as I have just started wearing my first pair).
Kowa has also put a lot of thought and effort into the field of “digiscoping” (i.e. using their high-end scopes in combination with digital cameras and phones for photography and/or video). I hope to experiment with this more in the future!
Finally, a quick comment on customer service with Kowa – which I’ve had opportunity to experience twice since receiving my new optics. Although they have no Canadian offices (a slight inconvenience for us Canadian customers), folks working at their North American offices in California were quick to answer my questions and help in any way. After realizing a small piece (diopter ring) on my new binoculars arrived broken, they expedited a replacement piece to me that arrived within a few days. I also had a very unfortunate incident with my scope, causing the mount to break (due to a significant impact, and not due to any defect or shortfall in the scope itself). The service department at Kowa took care of it quickly, receiving and returning the perfectly repaired scope in excellent time (considering it had to go all the way to California). They have been wonderful to deal with when I need to (although I always hope I don’t!).