Gear Review: Pulsar XQ50 Thermal Imaging Scope

Several mammalwatchers have recently expressed an interest in buying a thermal imaging scope and I had promised to post a review of the scope I bought in March. This is below. But – if you know as little as I did about this a few months ago – I think it might helpful to start with some general and (perhaps overly) basic information about choosing and using a thermal scope.

Thermal Imaging vs Night Vision

Night vision equipment and thermal imaging equipment are different.

Night vision lets you “see in the dark” by amplifying any available light: it doesn’t work in complete darkness but, with a little star light, can generate a pretty bright view of a night time scene.

Thermal imaging, however, will work in the pitch dark, as it relies on the infrared radiation (heat) that every object – living or not – emits. In fact the view through a scope in the pitch dark is the same as the view on a sunny day because visible light doesn’t come into it.

People talk about thermal cameras and thermal scopes. These are, essentially, the same thing.

Both night vision and thermal imaging allow you to observe animals without disturbing them with a spotlight. You will probably find the view through night vision equipment more natural and authentic than the artificial view through a thermal scope. But you are much more likely to find an animal in the first place with a thermal scope (see below).

Thermal scopes are not cheap. Although you can pick up a first generation scope for a few hundred dollars my understanding is that these are next to useless for finding much smaller than a Buffalo that you are in danger of tripping over.  The price doubles – more or less – as you go up a generation and you are probably going to end up paying $2000 or more for a decent scope. I have a third generation scope. Fourth generation is the best currently available for sale.

And that is about the limit of my understanding.

Thermal Scopes: Pros and Cons

The Pros

I have not used night vision equipment in twenty years to cannot say much about how effective the latest gear is, but I think – for a mammal watcher – a thermal scope must surely be the way to go. There are two reasons. First, thermal scopes will work in the pitch dark, which can be useful inside a bat cave for example. Night vision won’t. Second, and this is more important, thermal scopes don’t just help you to see an animal, it helps you to find them: living things are usually hotter than the environment around them so that temperature differential means they often stand out very clearly – literally like a shining light – when you are scanning with a scope.  Much more clearly than they would if you were using binoculars or night vision equipment. And this is true both during the day and the night.

I have been using a scope for the past six months now. I bought one originally to take to Sierra Leone to look for Pygmy Hippos. It worked. And if it wasn’t for the scope I am pretty sure we would never have seen a Pygmy Hippo: they are extremely wary of people and when we eventually put a spotlight on the animal we had been observing it bolted immediately.

I also used it extensively in the Amazon, both day and night. It proved extremely useful at finding quite a few nocturnal mammals, including a variety of rodents large and small, some of which – like this Black-tailed Hairy Dwarf Porcupine: an animal that was high up, partially obscured, very well camouflaged and seemed to be avoiding the light. Even when I knew exactly where it was, it took a good 10 minutes to spot using a spotlight and binoculars!

Black-tailed Hairy Dwarf Porcupine, Coendou melanurus

It was also very useful for finding monkeys and squirrels, especially in the early morning before the trees got too hot (more on this later). It was instrumental in finding Satere Marmosets, Black Uakaris and more. When you start using a thermal scope you realise just how much stuff you cruise straight past that is sitting quietly in a tree watching you.

It also worked very well in the deserts around Joshua Tree when I was looking for small mammals in May: perhaps the most effective type of environment for using thermal scopes (though getting the small mammals to stop moving once you put a light on them is a whole other story). It was also useful in the forest of Thailand and Taiwan, where I found many creatures from roosting bats to sleeping macaques.

Oh, and when you have a thermal scope you get pushed to the front of the trail, canoe, car: it is like an upgrade to Business Class.

The Cons

Although thermal scopes are great at alerting you to an animals presence, especially before the day gets too hot, they also take some getting used to and can be frustrating. Here are a few things to be aware of.

Getting a view through a thermal scope isn’t satisfying (for me at least). When you look through a scope you are seeing a very artificial view of the world … like looking at a film negative, if anyone remembers what they look like. Here’s a video of a scope being used by fox shooters (which I make no apology for as these are evil Australian foxes, though I am not sure how the shooters could be so certain they were shooting at a fox in the first place given it was 350 metres away…). Anyway, the upshot is that if you are anything like me, you are going to want to see the animal in a spotlight too even though observing larger species through the scope (like Pygmy Hippos) is quite satisfying. Well any view of a Pygmy Hippo is satisfying in my opinion. Which leads me to…

Thermal scopes are great for alerting you to an animal’s presence. But the animals can still be very hard to find.  The view through a scope is essentially two dimensional and you have no sense of depth or distance. This is not much of a problem out in the open but as soon as you are looking at a dense patch of forest it gets very confusing. Is that blob of light in a tree you are looking at a squirrel 10 metres away, or a Clouded Leopard 250 metres  away.  Yes … (eventually) … its a squirrel. So I find myself trying to memorise a pattern of branches that I can use to guide my spotlight to the blob of heat I can see through the scope. This requires practice, a good deal of talking out aloud, and a better spatial memory than I have.

Background temperatures matter. The scope picks up all infrared energy and generates some sort of image that is based – I think – on the average heat of things in view.  So looking at an iceberg one day might register the same colour/brightness as looking at a Sahara sand dune the next. At least I think this is how it works. Of course if you put a chunk of ice on the dune, or a heap of blazing sand on the iceberg, you would very quickly see the intruder. What this means is that the scope is most effective when you are looking for warm animals in cooler conditions and is much less effective in environments where the background temps are very close to body temperatures. That said, my scope at least is pretty sensitive to fairly small temperature differences: early morning in the Amazon for example it was pretty obvious whether I was looking at a rock or a mammal, even though both were showing “hot” compared to the trees. By midday this was much harder. I am getting better at differentiating the living from the hot and inanimate, but it is still a learning curve

You are going to study a lot of rocks, wasp nests, sleeping birds... These all give off heat and I lost track of the number of ants nests that excited me in Brazil, or the number of sleeping birds I have waded through thorn bushes to track down in the past few months. I am surprised birders haven’t got into these scopes yet.

Give your eyes a rest: even with the brightness turned down as low as it goes it is hard to look through the scope for longer than 30 seconds or so without losing all night vision for several minutes. So I generally scan with mine in half minute blocks and swap eyes or take breaks between.

The Pulsar XQ50 Qantum Thermal Scope

I did a bit of research before I bought my scope. I decided to look for a Third Generation Scope. These are expensive but by no means the most expensive: in mammal watching currency a fourth generation scope was around the cost of a cruise to Antarctica….  After talking to Richard Webb who had just bought one, I focused on the Pulsar brand.

Quite unusually, Pulsar scopes were cheaper in Europe than they are in the USA. Not sure if this is because of currency fluctuations, import duties or price fixing. But they are not the sort of thing you would be able to import through the mail, as there are some quite strict rules about exporting technology which has many more sinister uses than mammalwatching.

I haven’t directly used any other scopes to compare mine too, but – as you can see from my experiences so far – I have been pleased with the successes I have had.

The two main elements of a scope that determine the quality (and price) are its resolution (the number of pixels) and the refresh rate (which governs how smooth the image will be).  The image quality through the Pulsar is clearer than I expected: it is easy for example to ID a Colugo from 50 metres away or a Pygmy Hippo from 100 metres away. And the refresh rate is smooth, though every minute or so the image will freeze for a second or two before refreshing again.

Another factor that impacts the price is the size of the objective lens and the scope’s zoom. This scope has a 50mm lens and a four x digital zoom. If I was to buy a scope tomorrow I wouldn’t pay any attention to the zoom and would go for a smaller (and cheaper) objective lens. I almost always use the scope to locate – rather than watch and ID – a mammal, so I’d prefer a wider field of view than I get with the 50mm lens.  Closer focussing would be useful too, which I assume the smaller lenses might benefit from. If you are within 10 feet of a mouse in a bush, for example, you cannot focus in to see where exactly it is, which can be frustrating. So close… so far. For the same reasons I almost never use the zoom: it seems to lose in quality what it gains in magnification. Though I suspect the zoom is much more useful for a hunter who will want to make sure that the fox they are about to shoot isn’t next door’s cat.

The one benefit that comes with a larger lens is an increase in the scope’s range. This is seriously impressive with the Puslar XQ50. I guess the range depends on the relative temperature difference of what you are looking at and the surrounding environment, but in Sierra Leone for example I could pick up the heat signature from an oil drum with a fire inside at least a mile away. Smaller mammals, such as squirrels and mice, are easily visible from 100 metres away in warm conditions.

It takes less than two seconds to turn the scope on and start using it (important when you hear that rustle in the bushes and need to spring into action). It uses four  AA batteries that last an impressive 7  hours or so. Though they seldom last that long when I am out in the field because the unit has a habit of accidentally turning on (the on/off switch is just a push button). I have taken to undoing the battery compartment every time I put it down.

And, though I haven’t tried it, it should be quite straight forward to connect the output to a video recorder. The very latest models have this video ability built in and give you wifi connection to record video straight to your smartphone.

Finally, it is pretty robust. I don’t think I have dropped it properly yet but that day will come soon… walking in the dark, along a trail, with a scope pressed to my eye, a spotlight in my pocket, and a camera around my neck is a recipe for accidents.

Perhaps the biggest frustration I have had was actually buying one. The Internet is full of suppliers who advertise these things and claim they are in stock… except they aren’t available for weeks when you actually place your order.

In short, thermal scopes – despite some limitations and the expense – are the single biggest mammal watching breakthrough that I can think of in my lifetime. Other – maybe – than mammalwatching.com !

If you are interested in buying a scope please send me a message as I might be able to get a discount for you.

Jon

25 Comments
  1. Michael Kessler 3 months ago

    Thanks a lot for this Jon! Please keep me informed on a possible order with some discount!
    Michael

  2. Profile photo of Vladimir Dinets
    Vladimir Dinets 3 months ago

    I wonder if there are people reading this who are NOT interested in the discount 🙂

  3. paul carter 3 months ago

    Hi Jon
    Thanks for the review and having used yours briefly I remain very interested in getting one or something similar. Here is some of my research:
    This website seems to show only some of the current pulsar models: http://pulsarnv.com/pulsar_thermalmonoculars.html
    and this one explains some of the model differentiation: http://www.pulsar-nv.com/products/thermal-imaging-scopes/
    where “thermal imaging cameras with 30Hz and 50 HZ are marked with head letters H and X, e.g. Quantum HD or Quantum XQ respectively”.
    The XQ replaces the XD models. The S variants of the XDs seem to have video and external power supply.
    As you said the 50 seemed too strong so maybe the 38 model is ideal and if only working in forest the 19 might be adequate.

    XQ38 =$3700 or GBP-2200
    https://www.thenightvisionoptics.com/product/pulsar-quantum-xq38-thermal-imaging-monocular-pl77332/
    https://www.tester.co.uk/pulsar-quantum-xq38-thermal-camera-night-vision-thermal-monoculars

    A cheaper option is the Pulsar Quantum Lite XQ30V Thermal Scope (50Hz) – GBP1300 / Euro-1500
    This is an upgraded version of Pulsar’s Quantum Lite XQ23V thermal camera scope … the Quantum Lite XQ30V is a scope only – it does not have image or video capturing capabilities. I assume it is also Gen 3 and just cheaper (and lighter) because of the lack of video.
    https://www.tester.co.uk/pulsar-quantum-lite-xq30v-50hz-thermal-monoculars
    https://www.all4shooters.com/en/Hunting/articles/Yukon-Advanced-Optics-Worldwide-Quantum-Lite-XQV-thermal-monocular/
    In the US it is $2400 – http://usaoptics.net/pl77338.html
    At this point I am leaning towards the XQ30V as I don’t need the video function.

    This website shows a good variety of other brands but most of them cannot be exported without permission from the US:
    https://www.thenightvisionoptics.com/catalogue/thermal-imagers/order/7/

    Cheers, Paul

  4. Curtis Hart 3 months ago

    I would be interested in hearing about a discount. The Pulsar Quantum Lite XQ30V Thermal Scope sounds pretty good.

  5. Lennart Verheuvel 3 months ago

    I am going to keep an eye on this thread. The XQ30V sounds pretty good, I would be interested to hear how it would perform in dense tropical rainforest or how it would perform in general. What you are describing sounds wonderful though, and the thermal scope feels almost like cheating :). Perhaps I’ll buy one myself next year if people are positive about it.

    • Profile photo of Jon Hall Author
      Jon Hall 3 months ago

      In fact Fiona Reid nicknamed it the “cHeat Scope” 🙂

  6. Lajos Nemeth-Boka 2 months ago

    Hi! I am using thermals for years and no way to live without it. I have the Pulsar HD50S. I remember that took me years to see Harvestert Mouse in the wild, and than with the thermal I did find maybe 50 at first night. To find snow leopard with a thermal might take some minutes. With a scope it took us a week.

  7. Murray Lord 2 months ago

    Can you find frogs and lizards with these, or is there insufficient difference in temperature?

    • Profile photo of Jon Hall Author
      Jon Hall 2 months ago

      Hi Murray, I haven’t seen many with it – I think because they are generally at ambient temperature. But I saw a snake swimming across a river (I guess because it hadn’t been in the water for long)

    • Cole 2 months ago

      Murray,

      The Helion can detect differences in temperature on a level that you or I would never even notice – a fraction of a degree. Personally, I’ve seen snakes, alligators, geckos. You should have no trouble detecting anything cold-blooded as long as you have line-of-sight and they are not underwater. That said, since their temperature can vary you may have mixed results in regards to clarity.

  8. Vladimir Dinets 2 months ago

    I ordered Pulsar Quantum XQ23V. It costs only US$1600+ and has video capabilities but only 800 m range; my plan is to convince Jon to join me on all trips where longer distances are important.

  9. paul carter 2 months ago

    Hi Jon. Thanks for the note on the discount but I had already ordered one in Aus as I go to Perth in 3 weeks – I got the Pulsar Quantum Lite XQ30V for Aus$1900 (about US$1500). I will post my impressions in about 6 weeks after my SW Aus trip. Paul

  10. Tim Bawden 2 months ago

    A camera is much more practical than a scope… scope you are pretty much static and cant walk around without seriously risking falling down a hole or off a cliff … camera you can waddle around scanning which seems to work better for small stuff. Cameras are a jump up on price though over what the scopes seem to be. Probably depends on use case and budget! also when doing the scanning it seems to work well when someone is thermalling lower combined with spotlighting higher – but again depends on use case

    • Profile photo of Cole Justice
      Cole Justice 2 months ago

      Tim,

      You might be misinterpreting – the thermal monocular Jon is talking about here is a 17-ounce, portable, 9.2 inch device you can use with one hand.

  11. Rohan Clarke 2 months ago

    Nice review. Worth adding a few comments to this. I’ve used a thermal scope (briefly) and now routinely use two different thermal cameras that are handheld and another that is vehicle mounted. I’ve been using this sort of kit extensively for two years. Essentially as a mammal watcher what you want is a ‘thermal scanner’. That is, some capacity to scan the environment for thermal signatures that are noticeably warmer than the background environment. Scopes do this (like the one Jon has reviewed) but so too do thermal cameras. Thermal cameras also (obviously) give you the capacity to take a photo of the thermal output, but mammal watchers really don’t need this as the images they produce are typically white hot ‘blobs’ in a darker (cooler) background rather than an image of a recognisable mammal.
    Scopes have to be held to the eye. It means that generally, you cant walk with a scope rather you have to stop, stand still and scan the environment, then lower the device and move on. Scopes can also therefore not be used if you are driving a car! By contrast with a thermal camera and a live feed on an inbuilt screen (much the same as most smaller digi cams, phone cameras etc) you can walk along with some confidence swinging the camera back and forth across the environment whilst watching the screen for hot objects of interest. With practice I can now walk along forestry foot tracks with just the camera as my vision, scanning the veg and surrounds for endotherms and also passing the camera across the track occasionally so I can see where I am going. This also applies to quiet drives on forestry tracks/dirt tracks with the camera resting on the window…The other alternative for walking at night is to use a low wattage headlamp angled down at your feet alongside the camera and that way you can still move in stealth mode and pick up logs etc that need to be stepped over from your peripheral vision without putting off light-shy fauna.
    Jon also mentions the challenge of actually viewing the beast once detected with the thermal scanner. This is easy if your unit has a laser pointer attached as then it is just a matter of centring the object on the screen and using the laser pointer to find the animal.
    Based on the above, whilst recognising that you can get a nice discount here, I wouldn’t recommend a scope, rather I would strongly recommend a thermal camera with a live feed to a small inbuilt screen as the starting point. Resolution and refresh rate are still important, camera specs are irrelevant and an inbuilt (1 milliwatt is fine) laser pointer is gold. The handheld unit I currently use is an InfRec thermo gear G100EX but there will be others on the market with similar or better specs too.

    You can see my Australian mammal photographs here if you are wondering what my field experience is like…. http://www.pbase.com/wildlifeimages/australian_mammals

    • Profile photo of Cole Justice
      Cole Justice 2 months ago

      Hey, Rohan,

      I want to to let you know that while the monoculars Jon is talking about do need to be help up to your eye, they also can be streamed to your phone, allowing you to scan without having to focus on the small screen in the eyepiece. That allows you to use it while driving, boating et cetera.

      You are also able to take photos and video using the device at a quality that might surprise you.

      • Profile photo of Cole Justice
        Cole Justice 2 months ago

        Here’s an example of what you’ll see through the Helion XP units: http://pulsarnv.com/images/Helion-Whitetail.PNG

        These are White-tailed Deer as seen from about 20 yards. This is a screenshot of a video, so the actual image on the device would be a bit clearer.

        • Rohan Clarke 2 months ago

          Hi Cole,
          I don’t doubt that it is good for finding mammals but if I had the choice between a unit that is all in one (a thermal scanner, a live feed to an inbuilt screen and a laser pointer vs a scope where I need to send the feed to standalone screen such as my phone then I would get the former)….indeed I have had that choice and I now own three different thermal cameras in preference to a thermal scope!

          My thermal cameras also have a video output so if you wanted to send it to an even bigger screen you could. I’ve also stood shoulder to shoulder with somebody using a scope whilst I had a thermal camera and it was immediately obvious that I was a) more mobile and b) achieving higher success largely because this mobility allowed me to pick up small mammals that might be obscured by vegetation on one line of sight but visible if you scanned that same vegetation whilst moving past it.

          • Profile photo of Jon Hall Author
            Jon Hall 2 months ago

            hi Rohan. What’s the range of your camera? I wonder if the scopes have an advantage over longer distances?

          • Rohan Clarke 2 months ago

            Hi Jon, Wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that you can comfortably pick out cattle (and recognize they are cattle in an Australian context) to at least 800 m on a cool night. smaller critters are obviously over much shorter distances. I think we are getting mouse sized mammals easily out to at least 20 m, beyond that it is often that line of sight through vegetation is hampered rather than it being a resolution issue. That being said you wouldn’t expect to see a house mouse at 40 m with the handhelds I am using given they may only show up as a just a pixel or two.

  12. Charles Foley 2 months ago

    I knew I shouldn’t have opened this thread – its a fast way to bankruptcy. Tim, what sort of thermal camera have you used? The price range for these cameras is very large, and, being new to the terminology, its quite hard to figure out what features you really need. I do like the idea of being able to walk (or presumably drive) while scanning, and I’m assuming they are less likely to temporarily blind you in one eye.

  13. paul carter 2 months ago

    Further to Cole Justice’s post on output:
    The product description at https://perthnightvision.com on the Pulsar Quantum Lite XQ30V includes:
    Video output: “All Quantum models are equipped with an analog video output to enable connection of external recording equipment or transmitting image to the display”.
    I have ordered the XQ30V and will need to look into options on cables for AV ouput to a Samsung phone or an alternative cheap monitor (to avoid phone battery issues).

    • paul carter 4 days ago

      Further to my earlier posts I have been very happy with my XQ30V which I got from Jon Davies at perthnightvision.com in Perth, Aus (I had great service from him). I would not have got the two phascogales in SW Aus without it. My main concern was whether the magnification would be enough. It was and I never needed to go up to the two higher magnifications. However I was mostly in forests or woodland and cruising back roads. So no regrets so far. The only issue is the night blindness one gets after peering through the scope too long. It is also technically possible to cruise remote country roads at 10 kph with one eye in the scope pointed towards 1am and spare eye on the road but naturally that is not advised. I am looking at some external monitor options at the moment.

  14. Hi, inspired by Jons article Ive obtained a Pulsat. Ill be using it, in the Kyrgyzstan mountains within few weeks. I was adviced years ago to use such devise, however not able to find it anywhere. The advisor were an US General which knew its advantages from military use. Anyway…in few weeks Ill be able to tell, but imo its exactly what I have wished for years. Ive many sightings of Snow Leopard in the Kyrgyz mountains during the years, but Im quite sure this devise will change the “game” drastically! Ill let you know 🙂 Thanks for a great blog/site

    • Profile photo of Jon Hall Author
      Jon Hall 2 months ago

      Great Michael – looking forward to hearing how you get on with Snow Leopards! If it is anything like as cold as it was when we were there on that great adventure they will certainly stand out! cheers

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