Friday, March 3, 2017

Birding in Stereo: The New BTX from Swarovski

Friday, March 3, 2017
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The new BTX from Swarovski offers binocular vision through a spotting scope.
There is a clash of Titans at the top of the sport optics field among three European optics manufacturers—Swarovski, Zeiss, and Leica—vying to be the brand that you choose when purchasing a high-end binocular or spotting scope. Your average serious birder interested in using the best optics available could select a model from any of these three companies and be deliriously happy. In the rarified air of these highest, high-end optics, the differences in the optical quality from one to another is probably beyond what the human eye can perceive. It comes down to what feels good to you personally—in the hand, to your eyes, and around your neck. I own and use optics from all three companies and have enjoyed years of amazing optics performance from them.

When one of these manufacturers develops a new product that they feel is important, or even game-changing, they sometimes organize a tour or event to help launch the new product in a big way. That's how I found myself on an airplane bound for Innsbruck, Austria, just a few hours after returning home to Ohio from the Space Coast Birding Festival in Florida. I'd been invited, along with a bevy of other journalists, optics retailers, opinion leaders, and marketing professionals, to attend the unveiling of a new, top-secret product from Swarovski Optik.

I won't keep you in suspense—like they did us. The new product is called the BTX, and it's a modular binocular unit that fits onto the existing ATX/STX line of Swarovski spotting scopes. This means that if you already own a Swarovski ATX/STX  spotting scope, you can purchase the BTX unit and dynamically change how you use your scope. You simply remove the existing single eyepiece section and replace it with the BTX, rotating it and snapping it in place exactly as you would the eyepiece.

Let me explain in my typically non-techy way what is special about the BTX (which stands for Binocular Telescope. ATX and STX stand for Angled and Straight Telescope, respectively.)

The BTX offers incredible, stereoscopic viewing by combining a binocular vision/two-eyed image with the magnification power of a spotting scope. The image gathered by the objective lens of the scope is split into two images in the front end of the BTX and delivered, in stereo, to your eyes. This is something you probably have to experience to understand fully. And I'm sure you'll get a chance at one of the birding festivals later on in 2017 where Swarovski is certain to have the BTX on display.
The BTX can mount on any of the three ATX/STX objective lens bodies.

Like any binocular, the BTX has multiple adjustments that must be made for optimal, customized, individual use. These are:
  • the inter-pupillary distance (the barrels adjust in or out like binocs to match the distance between your eyes)
  • the eye relief for those who wear glasses (adjusted by rolling eyecups up or down)
  • the diopter (to correct for differences in visual acuity between your two eyes; adjusted on the right eyepiece)
  • and the forehead rest
The what?

Yes, the forehead rest. The BTX comes with a forehead rest that makes the viewing experience more stable and somehow more relaxing.

The optics inside the BTX are a product of meticulous engineering and rigorous testing, as we've come to expect from Swarovski. I don't pretend to understand the physics behind how the BTX functions optically, but I can tell you that watching birds in stereo is magical.

I noticed much greater plumage detail on distant ducks, despite the mostly gray and drizzly conditions in which we were birding. Birds seemed to pop out of their surroundings because the stereo view added dimension and a shallower depth of field, which made the focus seem much sharper.

Standing on the shore of Lake Constance, in Austria, scanning through rafts of ducks and loitering flocks of gulls, I felt my eyes and brain practically sighing as they relaxed.  Stepping to use a standard spotting scope next to me, I immediately felt the strain of closing one eye and forcing my open eye to do all the work. This may seem weird, but it was my natural reaction.
The BTX test group at Lake Constance.

Sharing a BTX with another birder or birders is a slight challenge because there's no one-size-fits-all setting for the various adjustments. In fact making those adjustments takes time, so any birder in a hurry or overcome by impatience to get a quick, focused look will likely experience some frustration.

The ultimate use for the BTX might be for birders/ornithologists spending long periods of time scanning shorebird flocks, or doing a sea watch, or a hawk watch, or monitoring an active nest. I believe a bird artist would seriously love field sketching while looking through a BTX. It is this type of extended use that can wear out the eyes and brain. In my few days of using one, the more relaxed stereo view provided by the BTX virtually eliminates this fatigue problem.

A variety of accessories are available with the BTX. A sliding shoe-mount balance rail permits a user to position a scope with a BTX for better balance, preventing its weightier back end from obeying the Law of Gravity at inopportune times. A Gimbal-style tripod head makes for smooth panning in all directions. A 1.7x magnifying extender makes the BTX into an even more powerful optical weapon. And a stay-on case protects your BTX from weather, dings, and other damage.

I can attest personally to the durability of the BTX: The one I was using fell off the tripod mount as I hefted the unit onto my shoulder. It crashed hard onto a cement parking lot, followed immediately by my scream of utter horror. Three of the engineers who helped to develop the BTX saw this happen and rushed to help. Other than a small scratch on the unprotected side armoring, the unit was completely fine. Unlike yours truly. They were pleased to witness this independent demonstration of the BTX's durability. I was light-headed with relief.

Like any top-of-the-line product, the BTX isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. It's a large unit, and, mounted on the ATX 95, it's a bit on the heavy side. With all of the adjustments necessary to "personalize" one's BTX experience, it may not be as easy to use in group settings, such as on guided birding outings. And the price tag, at $2,689 (MAP, or minimum advertised price) means that there probably won't be a BTX in every birder's arsenal. But this type of quality and innovation comes at a price, as Swarovski has previously demonstrated with its successful EL line of binoculars and the ATX/STX scopes. Additional details and specifications on the BTX can be found here on the Swarovski website.

BTX side view.
BTX showing Stay-on Case and Gimbal head.


These considerations aside, the BTX is a great leap forward, optically. It reminds me of the first time I saw true high-definition television—there was a palpable sense of "NOW I get it!" And then a sense of "I can never go back to the old way of watching again!"

If the BTX sounds like YOUR cup of tea, you'll have to cool your jets until early May 2017, when the first units are scheduled to be available for sale in North America.

My thanks to Swarovski for inviting me to have a sneak peek at the BTX.


























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