Before I start here, I have to admit that until fairly recently I had very mixed feelings about spotters as small as the ones I tested for this article. In some ways, I still have mixed feelings about them, but the introduction of miniature Vortex Recon spotters definitely made me perk up and pay attention. Minox MD50 is also comparatively new to the scene, although it takes up the price range previously occupied by Kowa’s 50mm spotter that appears to have been discontinued.
Before these models from Vortex and Minox showed up, selecting a compact spotter was a pretty straightforward affair: if you wanted the best one available, you had to pony up the cash for Nikon’s smallest Fieldscope. If $700 was beyond your budget, then either Leupold’s $400 Gold Ring spotter or the now defunct 50mm Kowa was the way to go. In the lower price bracket were (and still are) a myriad of cheap Chinese spotters like Burris Landmark. Those are, and I am being generous here, a bit of a hit and miss. The only other 50mm spotter I can think of is Kruger Lynx 7-25×50 which retails for ~$1000. It was not immediately available to me, and it is appreciably bulkier than the spotters I am looking at in this case (it does look interesting and may be worth testing in the future).
Here is the spec table for the spotters I compared for this article:
Recon R/T Tactical
|Field of View, ft@1000yards||215||280||157@13x||136 – 89||160 – 100|
|Eye Relief, mm||16||19.5||12.9@13x||17.5 – 17.1||15 – 11|
|Close Focus, ft||12||12||9.8||13.5||16.4|
All of these have straight eyepieces, although Nikon and Minox are also available with angled eyepieces. The Fieldscope is the only one that has a detachable eyepiece. However, there are not all that many options for it: aside from the 13-30x variable that comes with the spotter, I have seen a fixed magnification eyepiece that works out to be 27x. I did not have it on hand this time around, but I have played with it in the past. It provides for a very nice image, but 27×50 configuration does not appeal to me all that much unless paired with a low magnification eyepiece. The exit pupil is simply too small for anything but middle-of-the-day use. I think that a longer eyerelief eyepiece with magnification somewhere below 20x would make a killing if it was available (I have seen a 20x eyepiece mentioned on Nikon’s website, but never ran into it live and never heard of anyone using it).
Looking at the numbers in the table, several things stand out. One is that the 10×50 Vortex Recon is an odd duck in this group: the magnification is too low for a meaningful apples-to-apples comparison. However, it is still worthwhile to look at it from the standpoint of usability vs magnification. 10×50 Recon also has the longest eyerelief, by a solid margin.
The two Vortex spotters clearly have the widest fields of view. Even the 15×50 model has much larger FOV than the other spotters here when set onto the same magnification. In all fairness though, it is to be expected for fixed power eyepieces. I suspect that fixed power versions of the other spotters would also have much wider FOVs.
It is also worth noting that the 15×50 Vortex and Minox have twist-up eyecups, while the other three spotters have fold-down rubber eyecups. Which you prefer comes down to personal preference. I can live with either if it is reasonably well-executed, but generally prefer twist-up designs. With Vortex offerings, Recon Mountain model comes with a twist-up eyecup, while the Recon Tactical comes with a reticle and rubber eyecup. I ended up looking at the 10×50 Tactical and 15×50 Mountain versions.
Size-wise, Vortex Recon spotters are clearly the more compact pieces, with Minox being similarly short, but much heavier. Leupold and Nikon are both quite a bit longer and a touch lighter than the Minox. Still, Vortex Recon look quite svelte in this group.
One other thing worth noting is that the 10×50 Vortex Recon Tactical I had was the only scope that came with a ranging reticle.
Here is a picture that gives you an idea of the comparative size of the spotters (they happen to be sitting on the roof of my car in the heart of Malibu hills where I did a lot of the testing):
From left to right: Leupold Gold Ring 15-30×50, Minox MD50 16-30×50, Vortex Recon Mountain 15×50, Vortex Recon Tactical 10×50 and Nikon Fieldscopes 13-30×50.
Note that Leupold and Nikon utilize porro prisms (hence the characteristic dogleg shape), while the other three are roof prism designs.
The means of focusing the image vary across the board, with Nikon having the most conventional layout of the bunch: it has a small focusing knob sticking forward out of the prism housing. Leupold also has a small knob, albeit of a different shape, on the side of the prism housing (it is adorned with the Leupold logo in the picture above). Focusing the Minox is accomplished via a large dial (that is the ribbed rubber ring) around the midsection of the spotter’s body, while both Vortex Recon models have wide rubber dials right in front of the eyecups. Vortex Recon spotters equipped with a reticle also provide the means for focusing that reticle (a narrow dial between the eyecup and the focus adjustment ring). The Recon models with the reticle have a rubber eyecup, that folds down for use with glasses or with a doubler. The rubber used for the eyecup on the Vortex is notably stiffer than that used for Nikon and Leupold that have soft rubber eyecups. I suppose that with the longer eyerelief of the Vortex, a rather stiff rubber eyepiece is a necessity.
The allure of small spotters like these is primarily linked to their small size and weight, with the implication that you will take one of these with you when you are packing light. With that in mind, I set out to see how well these work without a tripod. First I attempted to determine if any of these are useful handheld. In this regard, the 10×50 version of Vortex Recon is clearly easier to use than the other spotters in this group owing to its lower magnification. Between the rest of them, ease of use offhand largely comes down to how you prefer to hold them. The way I use them, the only one that kinda worked for me was the Minox, although the 15×50 Vortex came close and would have been right up there if it wasn’t for a particular quirk. That quirk is the feel and weight of the focusing knob.
In order to use a high magnification monocular or a small spotter handheld, I usually try to grab a hold of it with one hand near the objective and press it against my eyesocket. That gives me a little extra stability, and if I can lean against a wall or a tree trunk, it becomes very manageable for anything but lengthy observation. Once I find an adequately stable position, I use the other hand to operate the focusing knob. Since, this is a somewhat fragile arrangement to start with, a heavy focusing knob tends to impede my ability to hold still. Another thing that really does not work for this type of a hold is a rubber eyecup. It does not allow me to make firm contact between the eyepiece and my eyesocket while maintaining proper eyerelief.
The 10×50 Recon has sufficiently low magnification, where it was usable despite the rather stiff focusing knob and the rubber eyepiece. Still, operating the focusing knob was a bit difficult due to the stiffness and due to that large flat carry clip getting in the way. After some use, the focusing knob did get smoother although not much lighter, and, thankfully, the clip is removable and reconfigurable. However, I wish that it was mounted lower on the spotter body as it is quite handy for carrying the spotter with you. In the picture below, you can see the clip overlaying the focusing knob. I found that uncomfortable except in one particular configuration (more on that later). Also, the Recon scopes come with a carry strap (see picture below). For the life of me, I could not figure out why it is located in that exact spot, rather than a little further down on the body of the spotter. On the other hand, there really isn’t all that much space on these very compact monoculars, and the strap does not get in the way all that much. In actual use, I found myself not using the strap, so I took it off completely for a lot of the handheld testing I did. Vortex does provide a long single point strap as an alternative.
While the 10×50 Recon gets away with a moderately stiff focusing knob due to lower magnification, the 15×50 model is a lot more susceptible to vibration so it was a bigger problem there. I did find the retractable eyecup on the 15×50 model to be very good and with a lighter focusing knob, the combination would have been superb. Unfortunately, Vortex Recon spotters that have a reticle (which I liked) are only available with a folding rubber eyecup, so you have to pick what is more important to you: twist-up eyecups or a ranging reticle. One other thing to note before I move on is that all this whining I do about a stiff focusing knob is, in many ways, due to how light the Recon spotters are. Were they heavier, they would be less susceptible to accidental disturbances, but that would defeat some of the purpose behind getting a compact spotter.
Ultimately, at 15x, the Minox was by far the easiest spotter to use handheld. I suspect it was greatly helped by its extra heft, which adds stability. However, the focus ring was well weighted and the twist-up eyecup helped stability.
Both Leupold and Nikon would do well offhand if it was not for those soft rubber eyecups. I just could not maintain proper eyerelief with those in handheld use. Nikon did have an exceptionally smooth focusing knob that often came in handy.
Once the time came to mount these on a tripod, the various handling quirks became less important, although the quality of the focusing mechanism continued playing a large role. Nikon was easiest to use on a tripod, edging out Leupold and Minox ever so slightly. Both Vortex spotters, were very easy to set-up with both a conventional and quick-detachable tripod mounts available, but they are so light, that a stiff focusing knob really got in the way. Still, once I developed some familiarity with them, I was able to use them without too much difficulty. The quick detach tripod mount that came with the Recon spotters, while handy, was not as steady as a more conventional tripod attachment. It worked well with the 10×50 Recon, but turned out to be less than optimal with the 15×50.
Since they were mounted on tripods, I spent some time going through different magnifications on the three spotters with variable eyepieces: Minox, Leupold and Nikon. Generally, Leupold had the longest eyerelief across the board and was fairly easy to use. Minox did better than I expected, and while I was wearing contacts did not give me any trouble. When wearing glasses, Leupold was clearly easier to use at high magnification. Nikon…. well, I have tested a few Nikon Fieldscopes over the years and I always come up with the same conclusion: awesome spotter with infuriatingly crappy zoom eyepiece. The little Fieldscope was very hard to use at any magnification while I was wearing glasses and even when wearing contacts, it got challenging at higher magnifications. Another little quirk with the Fieldscope eyepiece is that it comes with a plastic cap that fits inside the rubber eyecup. As I was testing the spotter, I had to fold the rubber eyecup down a number of times. After a little while it got so loose, that the plastic cap would no longer stay put and would fall out at the slightest provocation. If I were to buy this spotter, I would have to come up with some sort of an alternative arrangement to keep the eyepiece protected. Conversely, Leupold that also has a fold down rubber eyecup comes with an eyepiece cap that fits very snugly on top of the folded eyecup. That seems to be a better arrangement.
Both of the Vortex scopes have plenty of eyerelief for use with or without glasses. Since these came with fixed magnification eyepieces, I experimenting using both of them with a doubler. If you intend to do that, I suggest you stick with a 10x Recon. Boosting it to 20x with a doubler was surprisingly useable.
Ultimately, spotters, even tiny ones like these, are there to let you see things far away; hence, once I got a reasonable grip on the best way to use them from an ergonomics standpoint, I spent a lot of time looking through them both at resolution charts and at natural targets.
As far as image quality goes, Nikon stomps all over the competition fairly convincingly. I did comparisons in the following way:
1) Compare all scopes at 15x (aside from the 10×50 Vortex, obviously). Note that Minox is listed as a 16-30 variable, while the spotter itself is actually marked 15-30x. I did not bother to check actual magnification and assumed that this is close enough. Here is a snapshot of Minox’ magnification ring:
2) Compare all scopes at 20x (aside from the 15×50 Vortex, obviously). For 20x test, I used the 10×50 Vortex with a doubler.
3) Compare all scopes at 30x. Naturally, that excluded the 10×50 Vortex, but gave me a chance to look at the 15×50 one with a doubler.
4) Based on the results from steps above, look at variable magnification scopes at intermediary magnification ranges.
I did all of the above in varying lighting conditions and at the end did some specific flare testing.
Nikon had negligible flare and clearly showed the most detail whichever magnification we were looking at. However, it had the biggest edge at 30x.
At 15x, the Vortex and Minox actually got kinda close to the Nikon, but at 30x there was little doubt that the Nikon was better. The one knock on the Fieldscope is that the field of view is fairly narrow, similar to the Leupold. All of the variable magnification spotters, have a wide black ring around the image at low magnifications which gradually disappears as you increase magnification. Fixed power Recon spotters, conversely, have no trace of that effect and the image looks a lot more relaxed simply because you do not see the black circumference around it. For prolonged observation, I found looking through the 15×50 Vortex easier than through the other scopes here at 15x.
Here is an overall optical performance matrix for each magnification with “1”indicating highest performance and “5” lowest. These are my subjective evaluations, so the number only make sense in the context of this article.
|Nikon Fieldscope 13-30×50||1||1||1||1||1||1|
|Minox MD 16-30×50||3||2||2||2||2.5||3|
|Leupold Gold Ring 15-30×50||4||2||3||3||2.5||3|
|Vortex Recon Mountain 15×50||2||1||NA||NA||NA||NA|
|Vortex Recon 15×50 with 2x doubler||NA||NA||NA||NA||5||5|
|Vortex Recon 10×50 with 2x doubler||NA||NA||4.5||4||NA||NA|
The little Vortex spotters did not do all that well with the doubler with 15×50 being particularly useless when boosted. 10×50 with a doubler, while not great was actually serviceable and occasionally useful. I suspect that if Vortex were to look a little bit into improving the performance of the doubler it could be even more viable. Even as is, I think it is useful. There is an interesting tradeoff in the works here. With the variable eyepiece spotters here, the image at 20x is clearly better. However, the downside is the tunnel-like effect at low magnifications. With the 10×50 Recon, I get a wide and relaxed view at low magnifications (where I am likely to spend the most time), but sacrifice some of the image quality at high magnification once I add the doubler. I suppose it comes down to individual preference. The doubler is small and light and can be carried separately. Here is a picture of the 15×50 Recon with the doubler on top of it.
The one downside of the wide field of view of the little Vortex spotters is the increased susceptibility to flare. That is not uncommon for wide field of view designs and in this group, both Recons had the most sensitivity to bright light sources just outside the field of view. Veiling flare, interestingly, was not very prominent on any of these spotters, with Leupold being a little worse than the others.
Geometric aberrations were adequately well controlled across the board. Besides, for spotters in this price range, my official position on geometric aberrations is as follows: “if it does not jump out at me, I do not care very much”. Chromatic aberration was virtually non-existent in the Nikon and hard to find in both of the Vortex spotters. Minox and Leupold showed some CA, especially at higher magnificaiton, but for the money I am not going to complain too much.
Nikon and Leupold had somewhat deeper depth of field than the Minox, with the Vortex having the shallowest DOF of the bunch (at the same magnification, naturally).
With all this out of the way, here are some conclusions in no particular order.
Nikon Fieldscope 13-50×50
If you are after the most optical quality (or do not have a larger spotter for range and/or long distance use), the little Fieldscope is still your best bet, provided you can live with the limitations of its eyepiece. If Nikon offered a couple of different fixed power eyepieces for it with at least one being 15x or so, I would have owned one of these by now. Alternatively, they could redesign the zoom eyepiece, but that does not look very likely. Still, image quality is better than you would imaging looking at how tiny the thing is and the focusing knob is both light and precise. When used as a traditional spotting scope, in this size range, this is the one to beat.
Would I buy this one? As is, probably not, but that is largely because I own a slightly larger (65mm) spotter, so my needs from a compact spotter are different. However, if Nikon were to rework the eyepieces…
Minox MD50 16-30×50
This is easily the champ in the “bang for the buck” contest. Form factor-wise, it looks like a scaled down full-size spotter with a proper “foot” for a tripod mount. It has a very solid feel, owing to it being short and moderately heavy. It is easily the heaviest spotter in this group. Eyepiece cover is somewhat unusual: it is a threaded metal cap that fits over the whole eyepiece providing a lot of protection in case I were to just throw the spotter into the backpack. Here are a couple of snapshots with the cover on and off.
Optically, the spotter is very good for what it costs. It is a bit cheaper than the Leupold and outperforms it in most ways, while being more compact: FOV is wider, low light performance is better and overall image quality is better from 15x up to 22x or so. At higher magnifications, eyerelief gets a little short and Leupold is easier to use. However, the FOV advantage carries over across all magnifications. The focus ring is on the body of the spotter and the large diameter offers a fair amount of adjustment precision. I do not have any particular preferences on how the focusing mechanism is implemented as long as it is executed well. This one is quite good.
Finally, would I buy one of these? I am actually thinking about it. It is sufficiently inexpensive to be worth looking at. While I am unlikely to drop the cash on the Nikon, this one is much easier to swing and it does most things I need in a compact spotter quite well. I probably would have liked it even more if the magnification range was 12-24x or thereabouts. Over the years, I found exit pupil of 2mm is about as small as I am willing to go under most circumstances, so 24x top magnification is just right for me with a 50mm objective lens. On the other hand, having a little less magnification on the low end would help both handheld use and low light performance.
Leupold Gold Ring 15-30×50
This a pretty decent spotter in its own right, although I feel it is a bit behind the competition. Eye relief is pretty long and the scope has good depth of field. However, FOV is fairly narrow and the cheaper Minox is better optically. On the plus side, the way the focusing knob is set-up makes it easy to keep the scope undisturbed and it gets high marks for ease of use. Bottom line is that this is a perfectly decent spotter that could use a bit of a refresh.
Would I buy one? Not when I get the Minox for $100 less.
Vortex Recon 10×50 and 15×50
When I first wanted to look at these, I thought that the 15×50 model looked far more interesting. After spending some time with them, I found the 10×50 more to my liking. 10×50 was a lot easier to use handheld and performed well in low light. On top of that, in a pinch, it offered fairly decent performance with a doubler. As pure spotters go, these are somewhat limiting. Truthfully, they should be in a category of their own: somewhere between a small monocular and a mid-size spotter. Neither one of these is going to replace a mid-size spotter any time soon, and I do not think they were ever intended to do so. What they do best though is pack very respectable optical performance into an unusually compact and lightweight package. Additionally, I think the 10×50 is best viewed as a basis for modular system, rather than as a standalone product. It offers a number of different carry options, additional mounting accessories, different attachment points for the clip and a doubler. In my case, I already had a doubler, so for me it was a no-brainer. For example, after all that complaining I did earlier about ergonomic compromises, I did find a way to use the Recon that fits me so well, that I think I will actually buy one. What I did was the following: I took the strap completely off and repositioned the clip to the right hand side of the spotter body, where the handstrap was originally. On the left side of the spotter, I attached the quick-detachable tripod mount. I like to support the spotter with my right hand and use the left hand for operating the focusing knob. With this setup, I can comfortably operate the focusing knob handheld, while maintaining the capability of quickly attaching the spotter to a tripod. Here are a couple of pictures of the set-up I ended up with.
This is the side of the scope where the tripod mount goes:
And here is the view where the tripod mount is rotated alongside the spotter body for handheld use:
With the 15×50 configuration, I found that I gravitate toward using the tripod a lot more thant I do with the 10×50 version. Well, the way I see it, if I am going ot have it sitting on the tripod all the time, I might as well go for a proper small spotter, like the cheaper Minox or the higher performing Nikon. On top of that, the 15×50 version is much less useable with a doubler which further limits my options.
The best I can tell, the Recon spotters are essentially single barrel versions of the Viper binoculars Vortex has: 10×50 Recon is simple one half of a 10×50 Viper binocular. Given a choice, I would have liked to see the 15x Recon based on the 15×56 Kaibab binocular instead. I think that would give it a significant boost in optical quality and a larger objective bell diameter to help with boosted use. On top of that, even wit ha 56mm objective lens, it would still be comfortably smaller than the more traditional 50mm compact spotters.
Bottom line, would I buy a Recon spotter? Yes on the 10×50. No on the 15×50.