Vortex Razor HD 20-60×85 Spotting Scope

 

Vortex Razor HD 20-60×85 Spotting Scope

 

Disclaimer: I do not do a whole lot of spotting scope reviews, so this write-up ended up containing a fair bit more general considerations on what I look for and consider important in a spotter than I originally intended.  All those meandering asides tend to break up the flow of the review, but I think they provide an important background to how I make my conclusions.

 
Short version:

If you want a truly world-class spotting scope without shelling out $3k for Kowa/Ziess/Leica/Swaro this is the way to go.  This spotter is absolutely superb in every way I can think of. I compared it against Leica 77mm spotter with 20-60x eyepiece and found that Razor HD delivers superior image under challenging lighting conditions (aided by its larger objective lens). Under more normal lighting conditions, you would be hard pressed to find the difference between the images of the two spotters, except Razor HDs eyepiece is a touch more forgiving for eye position (which could be due to a larger objective lens), and Leica has slightly better contrast at 20x to 25x.  Resolution was very similar until about 35x or so, at which point Razor HD started outresolving the smaller objective Leica.  Spotting scopes exist to allow you to see fine detail at long distances.  There is very little that you can see with “alpha” spotters that you would not be able to with the Razor HD.

 

Long version:

I first saw this spotter a bit over a year ago at SHOT Show 2009 in Orlando.  I thought it was absolutely superb and when I learned how much it cost (immediately after picking up my jaw off the floor) I decided it is definitely worth spending some time with.  Unfortunately, I do not own any high end spotters, so I could not in good faith tell Vortex that I can put together a meaningful review (somewhat shamelessly, I still asked them to send me a loaner unit as soon as it is available).  However, all was not lost! It took me a year to collect enough blackmail material to badger a friend of mine into loaning me his Leica spotter to compare to the Razor HD.

All jokes aside, I had a hard time determining what would be a truly meaningful comparison for the Razor HD.  On one hand, I feel it is designed to compete against the likes of Kowa Prominar, Zeiss Diascope et al.  On the other hand, these spotters are twice the price of the Vortex.  I could still probably arrange a comparison of the Razor HD against the newest top end spotters from Kowa/Zeiss/Swarovski or Leica.  If I were to do that, I would likely find that Razor HD is almost as good, but not quite.  Then I would be hard at work trying to verbalize if the price difference is worth the performance difference.

If I were to simply find spotters in the same general price and size range as Razor HD, like Nikon’s 82mm Fieldscope with zoom eyepiece and non-HD 80mm Optolyth, it would be a walk in the park for the Razor HD (yes, I fully expect to start receiving hate mail from Nikon Fieldscope fans, especially since I do not have a Fieldscope on hand to compare; however, I have seen several 82mm Fieldscopes in action and I am fairly confident of my assessment) .

Hence, I was a little stuck.  Then I decided to approach this from a different angle and came up with the following problem statement: imagine that you have a budget of ~$2000 to spend on a long distance observation kit (spotter, eyepieces and tripod).  What are your options? What would you end up getting?

Here is how my reasoning went:

  • Long distance implies high magnification, so large objective lens is important.  I figured I want an objective lens of at least 75mm for this.  To me, high magnification is anything above 40x or so.  In my part of the world, it is very rare to find an environment where 60x magnification is useable, but it does happen.
  • I am pretty sensitive to chromatic aberration, so the scope must have some sort of low dispersion glass/APO construction. I recall reviewing a pair of collapsible Optolyth spotters that I really liked, except the darn CA was ruining my viewing experience (that is the price I end up paying for looking at a lot of glass: I have trained myself to look for image flaws, and now I pick them up automatically).
  • As much as I like fixed magnification eyepieces, most people these days use zoom eyepieces, so that was a must.  You can always get an additional fixed magnification eyepiece at a later point (which I highly recommend).
  • This is not going to be a compact spotter and you need a good tripod to support it, especially if you want to use it standing.  I typically use a lightweight Velbon tripod which works fine with my 65mm Pentax spotter and with my camera, but it is not sturdy enough for 80+mm spotters sitting 6ft off the floor.  After some looking around I decided that I have to allocate somewhere between $200 and $300 for a reasonable tripod.  I ended up getting a used Swarovski tripod (rebadged Manfrotto) in that price range. That left me with ~$1750 budget for the spotter itself.

In case of a tighter budget, I would simply suggest going for a Pentax PF80ED with SMC zoom, but for $2k you can do better.  Nikon’s 82mm Fieldscope is a nice spotter body, but the zoom eyepiece, in my opinon, needs work (serious work), so that’s off the table.  Non-HD Optolyth has too much chromatic aberration for my purposes and HD/APO Optolyth is above my price limit.

That leaves me with the following options: 75mm Meopta APO spotter, 85mm Vortex Razor HD or look for a used scope from one of the “alpha” makers.  The best time to get a used “alpha” is immediately after they introduce their latest and greatest models.  At those times there is often a fair number of well maintained spotters on the market for sale by people upgrading to the new stuff.  With that in mind, I headed off to Ebay, Gunbroker and “For Sale” forums all over the web to figure out what kind of a price you can get on a used spotter.  It appears that if you choose wisely you can get a nice piece right around my target price range.

That is how I came up with the idea of comparing 77mm Leica with the 85mm Razor HD.  I have seen these used Leica spotters going for somewhere between $1600 and $2200.  Leica now has a new 82mm APO spotter… for $4000, and I could not easily get my hands on one.  Similarly, I do not have an easy access to Meopta S75APO spotter, although I really should review it someday.  It does not quite get the recognition it deserves based on brief look at it some time ago.

Now that I am done with this lengthy introduction, it is time to get started with the details, but not before I mention one other often overlooked tidbit: sample variation.  No two optical instruments are exactly alike.  However, most of them are fairly similar to each other.  Occasionally, you get unusually good or unusually bad samples.  I do not have the means to inspect multiple samples, so I assume that whatever I am reviewing is a “typical” specimen which may not always be accurate.  I have seen several Razor HD spotters on a couple of occasions, but only inside the convention center.

Generally, in terms of optical performance, I see more variation with binoculars and spotters than with riflescopes. That is likely due to several factors:

  • Angular size of the eyepiece in the field of view of the eye: the more you see around the scope the more difficult it is to notice small optical variations.
  • Construction: I see more variation in devices that utilize prisms than in “lens only” instruments.  Even then, different prism types seem to have different alignment tolerances.
  • Magnification: the higher the magnification the harder it is to be consistent
  • F/#: faster optical systems are harder to do well (basically, short instruments with large objective lenses are difficult to design and correct)
  • Objective lens size: larger objective lenses are often harder to make consistently.

Here are some basic specs:

 

Vortex Razor HD 85mm

w/20-60x eyepiece

Leica Televid 77mm

w/20-60x eyepiece

Kowa Prominar TSN-773 77mm  w/20-60x eyepiece

 

Kowa Prominar TSN-883 88mm
w/20-60x eyepiece

 

 

Zeiss Diascope FL 85mm
w/ 20-60 eyepiece

 

Weight, lbs (body only)

4.1 (with eyepiece)

3.3

 2.9

3.35

3.2

Length, in

15.3 (with eyepiece)

15.3 (body only)

 12.5 (body only)

13.5 (body only)

13.6 (body only)

Field of View, ft@1000yards

117 – 60

102 – 60

 115.2 – 54.9

115.2 – 54.9

129 – 60

Eye Relief, mm

20 – 18

18

 17 – 16.5

17 – 16.5

18

Price

$1600

 

no longer produced:

$1600 – $2200 used

 

 $2370

$2900

$3150

Physical Appearance, Design and Mechanical Quality

There has been a lot of speculation on the internet about who manufactures Razor HD for Vortex.  I do not have any special insight into that, but it is either built by Kowa or by a company that is trying to mimic Kowa.  If you remove the badges, you could easily mistake it for a Kowa Prominar.  I like the way Kowa spotters look, so it is not a bad thing.

Here is sideview of the spotter:

side view

 

Focusing is accomplished via a dual focuser: coarse and fine.  Both wheels seem to be well calibrated and it took me no time at all to adjust to using them.  Razor HD is only available in angled configuration, but there is a small tube-like viewfinder attached to the body to get initial target alignment.  The eyepiece is fairly beefy, but not unusually so.  Zoom ring was a little lighter than I like, but it was repeatable and precise, so I am not going to complain about it.  I am going to complain about the finger-cramp-inducing objective lens cap.  It is a rubber piece that fits into the objective housing VERY snugly.  Whereas on other spotters you take off the objective lens cover, on the Razor HD you rather pry it off (preferably with pliers, but you can use your hands too).  I am sure it protects the optics very nicely, and repeated attempts to put it on and pry it off amount to a fair bit of exercise.  Still, it annoyed the hell out of me.  The way I use a spotter usually implies switching back and forth between shooting and spotting or between glassing with binoculars and investigating in more detail with a spotter.  I like to keep the objective lens of the spotter covered as much as I can in order to shield the glass from wind, dust and debri.  With my Pentax spotter, I can comfortably place and remove the objective lens cover without disturbing spotter aim.  With the Razor HD, that was not very feasible.

The scope does include a retractable sunshade, which made a difference in some lighting conditions, but not too much of it.

Compared to the Leica, Razor HD looks short and squat.  It is easily three inches shorter despite having a larger objective lens.  Weight-wise, it is equivalent to the competition and is about what you’d expect for a spotter of this size.  Ultimately, all of the 80mm and thereabouts scopes are pretty hefty and would not be my top choice for lugging out into the boonies on a long backpacking trip.

pic1

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Optical Performance

Spotters are all about image quality.  Without that, nothing else matters.  I used the Razor HD for some time in a number of different capacities: distant observations (it is remarkable what you can see in the hills of Malibu when noone knows you are there), looking at bullet holes at the range, bullet tracing, and some impromptu bird watching.  Naturally, in between all of that I also peered at a bunch of resolution charts, Macbeth charts, and so on.

Razor HD is an exceptionally nice spotter and easily competitive with the best out there.  Now, latest and greatest $3k spotters are, I think, still better, but by very little.  I mostly compared the Vortex to the aforementioned 77mm  Leica, but I also peered through several other spotters I chanced on at the range.

As far as resolution goes, Razor HD was fully equal to the Leica at lower magnifications and handily better at higher magnifications.  In terms of contrast, Leica was a touch better at low magnifications (20x to 25x), but as magnification increased, things evened out.  Color was pretty accurate with both scopes, but Leica had slightly higher color saturation making the image “pop” a little more.  In the Razor HD colors looked very natural to me, but slightly muted next to the Leica.  Chromatic aberration was present in both scopes, but quite mild.  Distortion was very mild as well.  There is always some mild distortion near the edges of the field of view, but both of these scopes had rather large sweetspots.

Low light performance was, as you’d expect, quite good.  There, 85mm objective really helped.  Interestingly, low light performance is not something I see mentioned much in spotting scopes discussions.  I think it is automatically assumed that these high magnification devices are mostly suitable for daylight.  While that is partially true, quite a few spotters work adequately in low light.  For example the Razor HD has a 4.25mm exit pupil at 20x which, while less than optimal, is still quite serviceable.  I often wonder what most people prefer: a bit less on the low end for low light, or a bit more on the high end for more detail?  Personally, I would rather have a little more on low end.  For example, for my purposes, a 16-48×85 configuration is probably more practical than 20-60×85.  Interestingly, I see a slight trend with higher end spotters to use 16-48x eyepieces with 60-65mm spotters and 20-60x with 80-85mm spotters.  With less expensive models, I still run into 20-60x configurations routinely used with 65mm bodies.

With that short body and gaping objective bell, I was worried about off-axis stray light effecting the image, but that proved not to be a problem.  Overall, in terms of various image artefacts like ghosting, flare, stray light, etc, Razor HD performed very similarly to the Leica (which is just another way of saying it was excellent).  Similarly, chromatic aberration was very well controlled, although I could induce the spotter into exhibiting a little.  Unlike the 88mm Kowa Prominar, Razor HD does not use pure fluorite objectives.  Instead it uses some sort ED glass.  However, the quality of CA control is impressive.  Still, I can’t help but think that in an attempt to make the spotter as short as possible, the designers left some performance on the table.  I could be wrong, but I suspect that it they made the scope body 10-15% longer, they could truly make the performance on par with the “alphas”.  Ultimately, there is always a compromise between compactness and performance, and I do not know where the sweetspot is.

In actual use, there were very few moments when I wanted more performance.  When trying to do some bullet tracing, I wished for better depth of field, where Razor HD was decent, but not spectacular.  Most of the time I was limited by the environmental conditions rather than by image quality of the spotter.

During my low light and flare testing I did not chance on any particularly strong artefacts.  Veiling flare (rather unusually for a large objective lens device) was barely there.  Off axis light seemed to be very well dampened.  Once again, it was almost as good as the Leica in that regard, which I found somewhat surprising.  I thought that the longer and slimmer Leica would have a decided edge in stray light control.

A lot of the testing that I do, I conduct at the beach near the Ventura pier.  There are always some birds there, and on the day when I was looking at the Razor HD, there was an unusually large number of pelicans pursuing what must have been a sizeable school of fish.  The birds were somewhere between 150 and 200 yards away from me and I spent a solid hour watching them dive after the fish, fly about and sit on the surface of the water resting (or digesting).  As the sun was getting lower, I finally saw the pelicans pack up and leave, and despite the worsening light conditions, I was able to see them with great clarity much later than they could see the fish they were after.  Since the birds were there for quite some time I got to really work out the focusing knobs and the zoom rings on both Vortex and Leica spotters.  In terms of the quality of the mechanical controls, the two spotters were equally easy to use.  In terms of image quality, in some situations Leica had an edge and in others, Vortex did.  All in all, the results were fairly predictable: Leica’s greater depth of field and more saturated color made observing the whole event easier.  On the other hand when I really wanted to zoom in on a particular bird and see the feathers or watch the splashes the bird made when going after a fish, Vortex had the edge.  I could use higher magnification with greater ease and the resolution was quite outstanding.   However, I had to work the focus wheel more with the Razor HD to keep the moving birds in focus.

Bottom line is that the Razor HD is truly a world class spotter.  88mm Kowa Prominar certainly outresolves it albeit not by much.  Top end spotters from Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski might outresolve it slightly and have slightly better contrast.  However, those spotters are twice more expensive and perform very marginally better.  I am not aware of any spotting scope close to the price of the Razor HD that offers comparable performance.  I suspect that the few minor complaints I have (somewhat shallow depth of field, and slightly lower contrast) could be fixed with a mild redesign (longer scope body, but that is a marketing decision since you give up on compactness), but even as-is, it is an impressive design.

Lastly, I’d like to note that the Razor is available with a fixed 30x eyepiece with and without a reticle.  I have only had a brief look at it and thought it was quite good.  No thorough testing though.

 

 Posted by at 11:43 pm