In early February, I attended an event at Swarovski Optik headquarters in Innsbruck, Austria, along with several dozen other representatives of the world birding community and industry. It was an opportunity for Swarovski Optik to showcase their company and its culture, which came across as both exacting in its precision and genuine and thorough in its concern for its employees, customers, and the environment. It was also a chance for all of us to get to try out an intriguing new product, the BTX. What follows are my initial impressions of using the BTX over the course of a weekend’s birding.
In a nutshell, the BTX is a binocular module that attaches to Swarovski’s existing line of ATX/STX objectives. Instead of one eyepiece as in traditional scopes, you have two. There’s also a curved headrest and a small but very useful aiming mechanism. It is certainly striking to look at, as novel and yet familiar as a double-yolked egg or a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
So what’s it like using this thing? Is this a gimmick or a truly useful innovation?
My answer is that it is indeed a breakthrough and a likely game changer for many though not all scope users. If I regularly scoped from fixed locations for extended periods; e.g., a sea watch or a nest monitoring program, I would want one of these things yesterday. The ergonomic and visual benefits for such users are huge. But if I regularly had to carry a scope long distances and share it with multiple observers, I’d look at the BTX as a great addition to the ATX/STX system, but likely not my primary instrument.
First and foremost, being able to scope with both eyes open is a revelation. That’s partly because it relieves muscle strain that you may not even be conscious of until you no longer feel it. Once you’ve used the BTX, looking through a single ocular scope feels a bit like looking out an open door at the end of a long, dark hallway rather than through a big, wide window.
But it’s far more than simply a lack of squinting at play here, because that second eye, until now an obstacle to the scoping experience, becomes an active participant. So right off the bat, the image appears more three dimensional. Moreover, you’re at some level doubling your optical processing power, hitching two horses to your cart instead of just one. The resulting difference is dramatic, for me unexpectedly so.
Think about it: how many birders want to use a monocular? Very few. Binoculars offer a superior viewing experience in every respect except weight.
At one point when I could compare the BTX to a more traditional ATX ocular, I focussed on some spruce cones that were far enough away that 8X or 10X binoculars would not give me a really satisfying view. Through one eye and the ATX, I could see fine details of the scale arrangement and coloration. But using both eyes and the BTX dramatically increased the perceived detail and dimensionality of the view. I don’t pretend to understand all the physics and perceptual psychology involved here. But it was clear to me that the BTX offered an outstanding and immersive image.
Also, that forehead rest. It may sound kind of funny to say, but that thing is comfortable. So much so that it was possible to imagine dozing off while scanning. I can’t recall ever having that thought before, certainly.
OK, so what are the disadvantages? Clearly, the BTX is heavier, though not tremendously so, than comparable single ocular scopes. Swarovski is introducing some cool new tripod heads and rails that help deal with that weight very nicely, but all these things decrease portability and increase price tag.
There is also a small but significant downside to the superior, customizable ergonomics of the BTX—it’s not as easy and quick to share with other viewers as a single ocular scope. Just as with handheld binoculars, the interpupillary distance, diopter, and ideally that oh-so-comfortable forehead rest must be tweaked for each new viewer. Once they are, things are great, but it takes a bit of time.
Finally, here are a couple of things that I would mention that are neither inherently positive or negative, but may be of significance if you are considering a BTX. One, there’s no zoom. You’re fixed at 30X on the 65mm and 85mm objectives, or at 35X on the 95mm. You can however boost the magnification with a new 1.7X converter that Swarovski is introducing.
I wasn’t able to come to a conclusion about low light performance on the BTX (it’s obviously great in good light). On the one hand, you are splitting the light coming in through a single objective between two oculars. On the other, you’re getting two retinas and optic nerves stimulated by that light instead of just one. I’ll need more time at the eyepiece(s) to, um, resolve this question.
I’ve mentioned already how dimensional and absorbing the BTX image is. Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the depth of field, though I can’t exactly put my finger on how it’s different. There’s an effect there that I can only describe as cinematic. Generally, that means shallow depth of field, as in closeups or extreme telephoto shots that blur backgrounds and/or compress distances, but I’m not sure I have this correct.
In any event, there’s a difference, and mostly, I found this difference to be quite pleasant. But I’d love to try the BTX out scanning through a big flock of shorebirds, trying to pick out scarcer species. I know it would be way more comfortable and that I would get a beautiful view. My question is whether it would help me find more species or not.
I left the BTX event very impressed with this innovation and excited to see how the birding community takes to this new option. I have no doubt that many will find it compelling. The BTX should be reaching North American shores in time to be displayed at Spring birding festivals and events—come on out and see it for yourself.
I thank Swarovski Optik for inviting the ABA to participate in this event and for their commitment to optical excellence, innovation, and to the birding community. For more information on the BTX and other Swarovski products, check them out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
The American Birding Association received no compensation for its participation in this event and there was no guarantee given by us to cover any products shown. The ABA strives to maintain positive relationships throughout the birding industry and to make ABA members aware of interesting and useful offerings in birding products and services.
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