There are a lot of spotting scopes in the market. I mean, a lot! So, to find the best spotting scope under X amount of dollars takes a lot of time and effort.
This review should release you from much of that time and relieve you of much of that effort. I’ve looked at the more established and popular brands and evaluated them mostly based on the information available (which sometimes isn’t much) on the manufacturers’ websites.
I’ve eliminated virtually all of the “off brands” mostly due to the difficulty in finding reliable information or even a company website in some cases.
- 1 SVBONY Is an Anomaly
- 2 Rating Spotting Scopes vs Rating Binoculars
- 3 Eyepieces and Tripods
- 4 Spotting Scope Price Points
- 5 My Limiting Factors
- 6 The Best Spotting Scope under $300
- 7 The Best Spotting Scope under $400
- 8 The Best Spotting Scope under $500
- 9 The Best Spotting Scope under $1000
- 10 Spotting Scopes over $1000
SVBONY Is an Anomaly
One exception to that “rule” is the maker with the unpronounceable name of SVBONY. According to their site, the name is really an acronym for Saturn, Venus, Birding, Optics, Nature, Youth.
Why? Who knows? I’m guessing even current employees and owners don’t even know.
I’m including them because they do have a website, do offer many models, and do seem to know what they’re doing. As you’ll soon see though, many of those models will be quickly eliminated from the best spotting scope under $X competition.
Rating Spotting Scopes vs Rating Binoculars
There are lots of binoculars in the market too, but information about them is more readily provided by manufacturers. (Why and why not for spotting scopes? I dunno.) And there are actually fewer variables to consider with binos.
With spotting scopes, to determine the best spotting scope under $X, you try to take into consideration all the specs and features of binoculars, and then you have to think about straight vs angled, which eyepiece to use, and which tripod to get. You’re more than likely going to want a tripod because most of these devices are big and heavy.
Eyepieces and Tripods
Many of the less expensive spotting scopes include a tabletop tripod in the package. I’m not sure why manufacturers think this is necessary. Sure, it’s nice, but what good is it if you’re out in the field hunting or bird watching?
Speaking of bird watching, you ornithologists will probably want a spotting scope with at least a 60 millimeter objective lens. And if you’re digging into digiscoping, look for one with at least an 85 millimeter objective because you’ll need more light passing through the scope to get the best picture.
Magnification; that is, the power of the eyepiece lens, is sometimes changeable. And sometimes the eyepiece isn’t automatically included in the price of the spotting scope, though this is usually for the really, really expensive models where a couple hundred dollars isn’t going to matter to such buyers.
Spotting Scope Price Points
It’s partly due to scanty information, but it’s harder to see (compared to binoculars) where the cut-offs are when you look at price vs features. I’m using the following pricing levels and feature sets, but you must realize that there are many exceptions to this plan.
|If you want…||Spend at least…||Look for…|
|Fully Multi-Coated glass||$200||Best spotting scope under $300|
|BaK4 prisms||$300||Best spotting scope under $400|
|ED glass||$400||Best spotting scope under $500|
|All the special coatings||$500||Best spotting scope under $1000|
|Best of everything||$1000||Whatever you like|
While the chart above seems to say you have to spend at least $200 on your new spotting scope, there are a few important exceptions to this “rule”. There are a few scopes in the $180 range that are worth considering.
On the other hand, I find it virtually impossible to recommend anything under about $125. Scopes in that price range may look like they have the specs and features you need, but the build quality just isn’t going to be there. I’m afraid you’d soon be disappointed in their performance.
Most of the scopes at this low end come from SVBONY which is why I said earlier that most of their models (eight here) would be eliminated from consideration.
My Limiting Factors
I started examining spotting scopes with a list of over 160 models – much more than that if you consider similar models where the only difference is straight vs angled eyepieces. I had to do some major culling before I could even start looking at the details. So, I decided – somewhat arbitrarily – to only consider angled scopes with objective lenses measuring between 60 and 85 millimeters. I figured that should cover most prospective buyers.
I won’t get into the angled vs straight discussion here because there are good arguments on both sides. It really comes down to how you’ll be using your scope and who else, if anyone, will share it with you. That said, there are more angled models available in the market than straight models, so that might tell you something.
Even with those limiting factors in place, there were still about two dozen manufacturers that made my “short” list. They didn’t all have a model that made the final cut.
Speaking of which, it’s now time to take a look at the best spotting scope under $X, where X equals $300, $400, $500, and $1000. Consider this a 2023 update to my earlier review.
One last word of caution before getting into the specific models: The prices (which are “street”, not MSRP) I see today may not be the prices you see when you’re reading this. Some models may have even “jumped” from one price category to another over time. So don’t assume; check the pricing (and availability) of each model you’re interested in to make sure it’s one you can afford.
The Best Spotting Scope under $300
As I mentioned briefly above, there are some spotting scopes under $200 that some of you might consider. These are the Celestron Ultima 18-55×65, the Bushnell Trophy Xtreme 20-60×65, and the SVBONY SV41 MAK.
The Celestron and the Bushnell apparently both have fully multi-coated glass, BaK4 prisms, and a nitrogen purged tube (making them waterproof and fogproof). It can only be the overall build quality that suffers compared to pricier models with the same features.
Based on available info, these two are nearly identical. The Bushnell comes with a tabletop tripod, so if that’s important to you, pick that one over the Celestron.
The SVBONY is a mini Maksutov style device. I won’t get into the differences between a Mak and other types here. Just know that it looks shorter and fatter than your typical spotting scope.
When it comes to the best spotting scope under $300 but over $200, there are still half a dozen models in the running. There are three in the 60mm range and three with 80mm objectives.
The best spotting scope under $300 of the 60mm models is the Barska Blackhawk ED 20-60×60. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, it does have BaK4 prisms. It also boasts ED glass for the lens which should more than make up for other possible shortcomings.
The best 80mm spotting scope under $300 is the Celestron Ultima 20-60×80. For the price you’ll pay for each of these, they by far give you the most for your money.
Other scopes in the running were the Alpen Kodiak 20-60×60, Barska Spotter-Pro 20-60×60, SVBONY SV46 20-60×80, and the GoSky Horizon 20-60×80. All of these have very similar specs and features. It really mostly came down to the price, especially when compared to the original MSRP.
The Best Spotting Scope under $400
In the under $400 range for ~60mm scopes, the nod goes to the Vanguard Endeavor HD 15-45×65. What helped boost this scope above the others is ED glass and phase coated prism. You can see my full review from some time ago here.
The best spotting scope under $400 with an 80mm objective lens is the SVBONY SV406P because it comes with ED glass for extra clarity. SVBONY is that anomalous company I mentioned above. This scope just goes to prove my point.
Other worthy scopes I considered in this category are the Bushnell Prime 20-60×65, Celestron TrailSeeker 16-48×65, Hawke Nature-Trek 16-48×65, Hawke Nature-Trek 20-60×80, and Barska Level Spotter 20-60×80.
The Best Spotting Scope under $500
When you get to this price range, you pretty much expect that the device has all the standard coatings and the best glass. The problem is that some manufacturers get extra stingy in giving out the details of their products at this point.
So, I’m not even going to recommend a 60mm scope in this range. I’m going to suggest that you go back up to the under $400 category and pick one of those instead.
There are four manufacturers I considered in this range for 60mm scopes: Leupold, Nikon, Vortex, and Opticron. All are good names, but only Opticron tells you most of what you want to know about their scope. The problem with Opticron is that they’re a British company who doesn’t offer everything on Amazon. Of course, that’s not truly a problem in and of itself, but I’m only considering Amazon products here. (It was another way to narrow things down. If I were to recommend a scope in this group, it would be the Opticron MM3 16-48×60 Travelscope.)
The one scope I will suggest you look at in this range is the big brother to one of the above. It’s the Vanguard Endeavor HD 20-60×82 spotting scope. It has all the same features as its little brother, like ED glass and phase coating on the prisms.
The Best Spotting Scope under $1000
If you have the money to spend over $500 on a spotting scope, you probably aren’t even reading this review. But in case you are, I’m going to give you a big caveat here. Obviously, I haven’t personally tested and compared these spotting scopes. I’m simply relying on what manufacturers and those who have been able to test them have said. At this price point, every single one of these spotting scopes had better include every advantage possible…plus the proverbial kitchen sink. If they don’t, shame on them. (And we’re not even looking at those about $1000 yet!)
What I’m going to do here is recommend what others have tested and recommended elsewhere. You really can’t go wrong with any scope that costs between $500 and $1000. The differences from one to the next are so slight that only the most discerning (read, picky) will notice.
All that said, I suggest two scopes that you might want to check out in more detail – the Vortex Diamondback HD 20-60×85 and the Celestron Regal M2 20-60×80. I reviewed the Vortex earlier here. (Note that Vortex has changed the size of the objective lens slightly.)
Many other manufacturers have a presence in this space – Hawke, Bushnell, Maven, Athlon, Pentax, Leupold, Nikon, Opticron…even SVBONY. I encourage you to research them if the Vortex or Celestron choices don’t suit you, but I think one or both of them will.
Spotting Scopes over $1000
But we’re not done yet! I have a list of 53 models with an MSRP of $1000 or more. Kowa and Swarovski are the heaviest hitters. (I’m really not sure who buys these things or why they do.) The most expensive is the Swarovski ST Vista 30×95.
You read that right. It costs almost as much as my car and maybe more than yours. (No offense intended.)
Leupold has 9 models in this range. Vortex has 5, Opticron 3, Kowa 8, Meopta 3, Zeiss 3, and Swarovski 7. Lesser amounts come from Pentax, Athlon, Maven, Celestron, Bushnell, Minox, Nikon, SIG Sauer, NightForce, and Leica. So obviously someone thinks there’s money to be made in this market segment.
Keep in mind that, as I mentioned earlier, there are many more options than the 160 or so I looked at for this review. There are dozens of models from those off-brand distributors. There are more from “on-brand” makers that I simply didn’t include.
And then there are all the straight eyepiece models I purposely didn’t tell you about here.
I hope that by narrowing your options in this review I was able to push you down just a few paths so you can zero in on the spotting scope that is just right for you.