Desperately Seeking Binos

by Ken Rosenberg

In search of the best and the brightest binoculars for birding

Click here to view the binocular comparison table
Master optical reviewer Ken Rosenberg poses with a few of the many worthy binoculars sent to us by eager manufacturers.

If you’re in the market for new binoculars these days, chances are you’re confused by the bewildering array of makes and models available in nearly every price range. Indeed, when we set out to conduct this binocular review–our first in more than three years–we were unprepared for the onslaught of optics that arrived at the Lab of Ornithology. We ended up with 61 pairs, and some manufacturers didn’t even respond to our request for test products. This proliferation of new models reflects the stiff competition in the top-of-the-line markets as well as the budget categories, brought about by several savvy companies entering this formerly stagnant field and by the tremendous boom in recreational birding during the past decade.

To help sort through this morass of glass, I gathered together 10 certified Lab of Ornithology bird-heads, ranging in ability from novice and casual birders to three members of the Sapsuckers, the Lab’s do-or-die World Series of Birding team. Reviewing optics is largely a subjective exercise, and our panel included some of the most opinionated birders I know. I myself bring certain biases to this review, which I will shamelessly share. I’ve been birding for roughly 40 years, and for more than half this time I’ve worn eyeglasses. As a professional ornithologist and fanatical birder, I’ve always demanded the highest-quality optics. For many years, I suffered the tunnel-vision image inflicted by binoculars that were poorly designed for the seeing-impaired. It’s also no secret that a certain Austrian optical instruments manufacturer captured my attention during our 1995 review. The company, Swarovski Optik, has since become sponsor of the Sapsuckers, bestowing upon us the best binoculars and scopes it produces. I must admit that I entered this review wondering if anything out there could beat my Swarovski 10x50 SLCs.

How to choose binoculars: What’s your bottom line?

When you’re shopping for binoculars, it’s important to consider the kinds of birding you enjoy most as well as the cash resources you’re willing to expend. For most people, price is an important limiting factor and, as with most high-tech toys, price largely sets the limits on quality and other features. For example, less-expensive binoculars are rarely very durable or waterproof, and some of them produce such a poor image they’ll cause severe eyestrain if you look through them too long. With virtually all of the models we tested, price was an excellent predictor of overall quality, as assessed by our reviewers. But one of the refreshing surprises for us was the array of decent binoculars in the mid- and low-priced categories, which shows that manufacturers are finally rising to the challenge of producing good birding optics at an affordable price.

In general, however, I recommend spending as much as you can afford on binoculars. Consider the following points: (1) It’s a myth that beginning birders (or older children) should start with inexpensive binoculars. Using high-quality optics right away will enhance your enjoyment and speed up your ability to learn more about birds. This could make the difference between someone becoming a lifelong birder or a confirmed nonbirder who gets an instant migraine headache at the sight of binoculars; (2) Dropping a mint on binos may not be a bad investment–most top-of-the line models are practically indestructible, come with lifetime warranties, and may be the only binoculars you’ll ever need to buy.

A variety of certified Lab bird-heads, ranging from beginning birders to professional ornithologists, took part in our latest binocular evaluations. The binocular features chart reflects their combined optical wisdom.

Other factors to consider, in addition to price, include magnification, weight, overall image quality, field of view, and minimum close-focus distance. Most of these factors present tradeoffs–that is, making improvements in one factor usually entails making sacrifices in another. For example, if you demand high-quality lenses and a wide field of view, the binoculars you buy will most likely be very heavy. Conversely, if you go for a lightweight compact or even midsized model, you’ll generally get a narrower and dimmer image, particularly when viewing in low light.

Surprisingly, no relationship appears to exist between the field of view and the minimum close-focus distance of a given binocular, although remarkably few models are designed with both features in mind. Also, for almost any given binocular design, the 7x or 8x models almost always have a wider field of view, brighter image, and closer focus distance than the comparable 10x models. It is no longer true, however, that 10x binoculars must always be heavier than models with less magnification. Among many top-of-the-line brands, the loss of field or brightness in 10x binoculars is barely discernible and is probably compensated for by the greater detail and resolution that the increased magnification provides.

In the mid- and high-priced categories, our reviewers preferred roof-prism over Porro-prism binoculars, even when the Porro-prism binoculars weighed less. In case you’re not sure which design is which, Porro-prism binoculars are easy to distinguish because their ocular (eyepiece) lenses are much closer together than their objective (front) lenses. (These are the common binoculars you’ve seen everywhere since you were a kid.) With roof-prism binoculars, the eyepieces are directly in line with the objective lenses. Porro-prism binoculars tend to cost less than comparable roof-prism binoculars, but they’re usually heavier, bulkier, and less resistant to water. Just to confuse the issue, there’s a third binocular category: the reverse-Porro-prism, in which the standard Porro-prism design is inverted, placing the objective lenses closer together than the eyepieces. This is a common design in compact binoculars.

Our reviewers also tended to favor 10x models over comparable lower-magnification models. One of our binocular testers (a crazed Sapsucker team member) declared that 10x magnification was a must, the only other consideration being to get the widest possible field of view. For others, a comfortable feel and moderate weight were all-important. My own bias (and you’ve heard this before) is also toward higher power. As a teenager, I inherited a pair of World War II—vintage Zeiss 15x50s (why don’t they make those anymore?), and I’ve been hooked on high-power binoculars ever since. The extra detail I can pick out on everything from the eagle-shaped speck high overhead to the antwren rummaging in the rainforest canopy to the sparrow popping up in the bushes 20 feet away far outweighs the slight reduction in brightness or field of view.

On the other hand, my brother, who is a professional bird-tour leader and is as blind as I am, prefers 7x binoculars, so I begrudgingly acknowledge that other opinions exist. Note also that I don’t recommend buying low-budget 10x binoculars. It’s far easier for a manufacturer to produce a decent inexpensive 7x binocular than a 10x model, and any optical flaws in a low-cost instrument will only be magnified by the increased power. With budget binoculars, getting the maximum quality (acceptable image and field of view) usually requires going with 7x or 8x at the most.

To choose the best binoculars for your needs, there’s absolutely no substitute for testing a variety of models yourself. As I watched our reviewers frolic in the piles of optics, I was struck by the amazing diversity in their hand sizes, face shapes, and gripping styles–all contributing to a wide range of subjective ratings. For some reviewers, even the highest-priced models just didn’t fit right. People who had a narrow interpupillary distance (the space between the pupils of their eyes), for example, found that the barrels of some models could not be moved close enough together to produce a single image. Or the focus wheel was placed awkwardly for their fingers, or the thumb grips were in the wrong place.

Another reason to test binoculars in a store is to evaluate the quality control–sometimes a great deal of variation exists in the quality of individual binoculars, especially in the low-priced models. It’s not that unusual for an inexpensive binocular to be out of alignment right out of the box. This means that you should avoid ordering binoculars sight unseen from catalogs or magazines unless you know exactly what you want beforehand and the company you deal with has an acceptable policy for returning or exchanging substandard merchandise.

Additional tips for bespectacled birders (or complaints about rubber eyecups)

If, like me, you no longer dare to venture afield without wearing eyeglasses, choosing binoculars entails some special challenges. If you bird with eyeglasses, pay special attention to the eyeglass ratings in our table. Also, it is doubly important for you to test before you buy. Even the brightest, sharpest optics may provide a dismal, tunnel-vision view for you. The good news is that nearly all binoculars are more eyeglass-friendly now than they were even five years ago. Some manufacturers seem to pay more attention to eye relief and eyecup design than others, however, making me wonder if the engineers at some companies wear glasses and others do not. For example, although fold-down rubber eyecups are now standard issue, some manufacturers apparently don’t expect them to be used. Some of the rubber cups were too stiff to fold back easily (Zeiss Night Owls), while others were too pliable and difficult to keep symmetrical (Swift Ultra Lites). And with many binoculars, the rain guard won’t fit if the eyecups are rolled down. In a few cases, the eyecups simply wouldn’t stay down and kept rudely popping up in my face. In addition, some eyecups were so deep that when I folded them down there was too much eye relief, making it impossible to form an image without the edges blacking out. Finally, if you need to switch frequently between the up and down positions (for example, to accommodate a non-eyeglass-wearing spouse), fold-down eyecups are a real pain–even during our review some of these eyecups showed signs of cracking.

Several optical manufacturers (such as Leica, Pentax, and Fujinon) solved the problem by designing eyecups that pop easily up and down instead of folding. Most eyeglass wearers find these eyecups far superior to the fold-down type, but non-eyeglass-wearers complain that they sometimes snap down unexpectedly. A further innovation is the turn-and-lock eyecups used by Swarovski and also by Nikon in their new roof-prism binoculars. These are fantastic. Not only do they stay where you want them, but you can adjust them to get exactly the right eye relief for your glasses. For example, when I tested the Swarovski 10x42s, I turned the cups slightly back from the fully lowered position to avoid blackout on the edges. I even know some non-eyeglass wearers who turn their cups half-way down to get a wider field of view. My clear message to shoppers as well as manufacturers is to go for the turn-and-lock eyecups; you’ll never go back to the fold-down style.

Using the table

In the table on pages 32—33 [Click here to view table], we initially grouped the 61 models into price categories, ranging from the top guns, priced at $700 or more, to budget models, costing $200 or less. Two cautionary notes: (1) The manufacturers’ suggested retail prices are usually much higher than the actual prices you’ll find in stores or catalogs, and the allowable price markdowns vary greatly from company to company; (2) Some virtually identical binoculars are sold under more than one brand name, and their retail prices often differ significantly. For example, Swift Ultra Lite look-alikes appear under the Celestron name at Wild Birds Unlimited stores and again as Eagle Optics Voyagers. The Eagle Optics Ranger series binoculars are essentially the same models as Swift Eaglets and Celestron Regals. In the case of the models "manufactured" by Eagle Optics (many of which are actually built by Celestron), the prices reflect those of a discount retailer rather than more typical manufacturers’ suggested retail prices–which is great for binocular shoppers but makes it tricky for us to make direct comparisons based on price categories.

Each model listed in the table was weighed (with the strap on) on the same scale by Living Bird editor-in-chief Tim Gallagher, and I personally measured all minimum-close-focus distances and fields of view. To accomplish the latter, I stood 15 feet from a tape measure mounted on a wall at eye level and recorded the width of the visible field, both with my glasses on and without them. This measure, although undoubtedly correlated to the "feet at 1,000 yards" figure frequently cited, is, I hope, more relevant for birders–field of view is mostly a factor when a bird pops up quickly close to you or in dense vegetation.

I tried to capture as much of the subjective nature of this review as possible in the table. I asked each reviewer to provide four ratings for each model tested. The first three were rated on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being excellent and 5 being poor) and included "overall image," which took into account sharpness, brightness, center-to-edge focus, and other viewing qualities; "feel," which rated the ergonomics, weight, ease of focus, diopter adjustment, and other handling qualities; and "eyeglass friendliness" (if the reviewer was an eyeglass wearer), rating the degree of tunnel vision the particular binoculars caused, the quality of the eyecups, and so on. For the fourth measure, each reviewer ranked the models within each price category in terms of how likely he or she was to actually buy them. The numbers in the table are average ratings or ranks, based on the six to eight reviewers who tested each model. For example, in the midpriced category the 12 models were given ranks from 1 to 12, and the averages of these ranks ranged from 3.2 to 9.4.

Top guns

The competition is fierce in this top-of-the-line category. Only a decade ago, just one or two models dominated the entire market. Today, more than 20 binoculars vie for the attention of serious birders, offering superb optics, a wide range of designs and styles, and a host of innovative new features. If any of these bins ended up on your next birthday gift list, you couldn’t go wrong. But hey, for that kind of money you might as well be picky, and among our reviewers opinions were flying around like a covey of flushed quail. The ratings for feel and style were based largely on the personal preference of each reviewer, but several important distinctions came to light. With few differences in optical quality to worry about, your choice will probably depend more on factors such as weight, power, field of view, and close-focus distance. For the latter two factors, you may want to compare the various models in the table, to select the right combination to suit your needs.

In terms of pure image quality, the original Zeiss 7x42s still reign, along with all of the full- and "oversized" Swarovskis, Zeiss Night Owls, and the new Nikon Venturers. The view of even an ordinary male Mallard on Sapsucker Woods pond through any of these binoculars is simply breathtaking. The Leicas we tested, although similar in design to the Swarovskis, seemed slightly less bright and crisp than their counterparts, except for the midsized 8x32s. For close-focus capability, nothing beat the Bausch and Lomb Elites, although the Nikon Venturers were close. If you really do watch butterflies, or need to examine your toes at close range, the Elites are probably your best choice, even though their image quality is not quite equal to that of the others in this category. And for widest field of view, Zeiss far outdid its competitors with both the older 7x42 and the new 7x45 models.

If you’re after the absolutely highest quality 10x binoculars available, in my opinion it’s now a tossup between the Swarovski 10x50s and the Nikon Venturer 10x42s. When a Swarovski representative handed me a pair of the nearly 3-pound 10x50s last year at Cape May, my reaction was "no way would I ever carry these." Then, when a box arrived at my office and I focused on the chickadees and House Finches outside my window, I knew instantly that I could never go back to my lighter 10x42s. I can honestly say that after 40 years of birding, these binoculars give me the finest, crispest image I can imagine and definitely the widest 10x field of view available for eyeglass wearers. If you value your vertebrae, however, I still would not recommend carrying these behemoths around your neck. The comparable Leica 10x50s, although optically excellent, are not as well designed for use with eyeglasses and give me an unacceptable tunnel-vision image.

I eagerly reached for the much-acclaimed Nikon Venturers as soon as they arrived–and I was not disappointed. The image they provided was virtually identical to that of the Swarovskis, and the field of view was only slightly narrower. When I focused them down to 8 1/2 feet, I was truly impressed. These binoculars weigh 25 percent less than my Swarovskis, and they felt so good in my hands, I found myself reaching for the Nikons whenever I spotted a bird. Then one evening I went looking for Short-eared Owls in some nearby fields and scanned with the Nikons until nearly dark. About the time I could no longer make out a cornstalk against the snow, I reached for the Swarovskis and was amazed at their brightness. The 10x50s allowed me to scan for five full minutes longer than I could with the Nikons (but I still couldn’t find any owls). So under these extreme conditions, the Swarovskis did outperform the Nikons–and this could be critical if you’re trying to make out a Piping Plover on its nest on a New Jersey beach at 11:00 p.m. during the World Series of Birding. But I believe that Nikon has set a new standard by offering a superb image in a much friendlier package, and I hope that other manufacturers will take up the challenge and continue to develop better and better binoculars.

Across all of the full- and oversized models, these Nikon 10x42 Venturers were clearly the top choice among our reviewers. The combination of extra-crisp image, moderate weight, wonderful feel, turn-and-lock eyecups, and excellent close-focusing capability allows these binoculars to buck the recent trend toward ridiculously heavy optics. Our reviewers didn’t like the highly touted Nikon Superior E Porro prisms as much, however. The Swarovski 10x models ranked next in terms of overall ratings, followed by the old standby Zeiss 10x40s and 7x42s. In spite of their exceptionally bright and wide field of view, the Zeiss Night Owls did not achieve a high ranking; our reviewers were critical of their extreme weight, poor balance, and stiff rubber eyecups. Our advice to Zeiss is to simply modernize their tried-and-true models–as one reviewer stated: "Optically, the 7x42s are still top dog in my mind. I just wish they would make a more ergonomically designed housing and eliminate the external focus." At a suggested retail price of $800, these binoculars are a steal. Another disappointment was the Swarovski 8x56s, which weighed in at a neck-aching 46.5 ounces, had a narrow tunnel view, and, with a minimum close focus of 20 feet, seemed to represent a move in the wrong direction for a company that has otherwise paid close attention to the desires of birders.

When we separately considered the six midsized models, the Leica 8x32s were clear favorites, with a very sharp image and nice feel (a bit reminiscent of their predecessors, the beloved old Leitz Trinovids). The Swarovski 8x30s and 7x30s are optically similar to the Leicas, but their awkward design forces you to focus with your ring finger or pinky. Still, if you wear glasses, these Swarovski binoculars provide less of a tunnel-view image, and they have the superior turn-and-lock eyecups, making them a better choice.

All in all, these midsized models offer superb optical quality at about half the size and weight of their larger counterparts, and they may represent the perfect compromise if a wide, bright field is not your most important consideration.

Mid- and Low-priced choices

Okay, enough talk about all those binoculars that you can’t really afford. If you’re looking for good binoculars at very reasonable prices, there is finally a range of solid options. Although no single model stood out in the mid-priced category, our reviewers were impressed with the Fujinon and Kowa binoculars, as well as the Swift Eaglets and Celestron Regals. All of these offer roof-prism design and very good image quality. The Fujinons have snapping eyecups and an overall feel like the highest-priced models. I personally liked the Celestron Regal 10x50s best–although they’re not quite up to the optical quality of the top guns, their wide field of view, short minimum close focus (about 8 feet), fully sealed and waterproof body, and sleek, lightweight feel were impressive. These binoculars are also marketed as Eagle Optics Rangers, and they’re a phenomenal bargain at one-third the price of my Swarovskis. Swift Ultra Lites, which not long ago ruled the midpriced market, no longer rate as highly as these other models in terms of image quality or feel.

In the $200 to $400 range, the Ranger 7x36s by Eagle Optics were clearly the first choice of our reviewers. These binoculars are waterproof, provide a sharp image, and their price is unbeatable, making them probably the best buy of the entire lot. The other Eagle Optics models we tested were also superior to anything else in this category. Somewhat disappointing were the Zeiss 8x30s, which did not live up to the company’s fine reputation and standards but are still a decent choice within this price range. Both Optolyth samples we tested were badly out of alignment, contributing to their low rankings and making us wonder about quality control. The image provided by the Pentax 10x50s seemed darker than that of other 10x50s, plus they were poorly balanced and couldn’t focus closer than about 18 feet.

Budget bargains and compacts

In the under $200 category, the Eagle Optics Ranger 8x32 was the top choice, followed by the Eagle Optics Voyager 8x42 and the two Nikon models. These all offer an acceptable image for general birding and are a vast improvement over the majority of budget models we’ve tested in the past. The Nikon Naturalist IV gave the best view with my eyeglasses on and an incredibly wide field without glasses. At the bottom of the list, the Celestron Enduros elicited visible pain on the faces of the reviewers–I wouldn’t wish these on any beginning birder.

All but one of the compact models we tested fell in the budget price range. The one exception, Bausch and Lomb’s 7x26 Custom Compact, is still the only compact model I’d recommend for birding. I’m always amazed when I look through these. Their sharp, bright image and surprisingly wide field of view (even with glasses on) are roughly equal to those of the company’s much larger and pricier 8x42 Elites. Our reviewers’ second choice was split between the Nikon Diplomat 8x23s and Eagle Optics Voyager 8x25s, which both performed much better than the remaining compacts. If you like compacts and don’t wear glasses, the Voyagers are certainly the best buy in their price range; in fact, in terms of image quality and feel, these surpassed many of the low- and even mid-priced models. They also may be a perfect choice for kids.

The final word

I applaud the many optical manufacturers who provided such a wide range of binoculars in every size, shape, and price range. I know there are quite a few other models out there that we didn’t test, but we’ll try to cover many of them in future "Critics’ Corner" columns. My final words of advice to binocular shoppers are these: (1) Determine your spending limit, then narrow your choices by selecting the power, weight, and specification ranges that best fit your needs; (2) Test as many models as possible to find the ones that work best for you; (3) Go for the highest optical quality you can afford–in the long run, all other factors will be secondary; (4) If you’re shopping for budget binoculars, don’t peek through the $1,000 models on the next shelf–you may have to go to the bank for a loan; and (5) No matter what you buy, get out there and find some good birds.

  Eagle Optics will donate 5% to the Lab when you buy from their online store through this link.