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The Age of Binoculars

Are birding binos reaching the pinnacle of evolution?

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Several die-hard binocular reviewers (including author Ken Rosenberg at the far left) do their final testing the morning after the first snowfall of autumn. Photo by Tim Gallagher

It's been five years since we last published a comprehensive review of binoculars for birders, and in that time the number of models available in all price ranges has more than doubled. So it should not have surprised us when our request for sample products from the major optics manufacturers drew such a whopping response. Nearly 80 pairs of binoculars arrived at the Lab of Ornithology this past summer, with a combined value of well over $50,000 and a total weight of more than 100 pounds. This proliferation of binoculars, in every size, shape, and style, made us think of the so-called "Age of Dinosaurs," when these strange reptilian beasts occupied nearly every niche imaginable, only to face a mass extinction that reduced their diversity to only the hardiest forms. Only time will tell whether the current “Age of Binoculars,” spurred on by the tremendous growth in birding and the willingness of more birders to splurge for quality optics, will crash like the dinosaurs in the face of over-diversification and stiff competition. For now, the flood of optics is both good news and bad news for a birder in the market for a new pair of bins.

The bad news is that the number of choices can be dizzying, and distinguishing between similar models is increasingly difficult. But the good news is that competition for your hard-earned dollars has resulted in higher and higher quality in binoculars, and many features that were rarely offered only five years ago have now become standard.

Among the encouraging trends we’ve noticed is that optics manufacturers are continuing to improve the quality of their glass and their lens coatings, creating products that provide unbelievable images. Today’s mid-priced binoculars in many cases seem better than the top-of-the-line models of a decade ago. The vast majority of models we reviewed are lightweight, ergonomic roof-prism binoculars that—according to their manufacturers—are fully waterproof. Seventy-seven percent of the models we tested have a minimum close focus under 10 feet. And a majority of the models offer turn-and-lock eyecups and excellent eye relief, so that eyeglass wearers should never again have to settle for anything less than a perfect view.

The Five-Step Plan

Even with all the complexity and subtlety in the binocular market, choosing the right pair for you still involves a rather simple, straightforward process.

Step 1. Decide how much you can afford to spend. There’s no point in lusting over optics you can’t afford. On the other hand, remember that if you buy inexpensive binoculars that don’t hold up, you may be purchasing another pair soon. An investment in quality binoculars today may last you a lifetime and will definitely enhance your enjoyment of birding.

Step 2. Decide whether you want 10x or 8x (or 7x) binoculars. People’s preference in magnification is highly subjective and depends in part on the kind of birding you do. Many tour leaders and instructors recommend using lower magnification binoculars, because they usually have a wider field of view, which allows you to find birds faster and more easily, especially in dense forests. And, in direct comparisons, the 8x models often provide a noticeably brighter image than the corresponding 10x models—although, by a quirk of design, 10x binoculars usually weigh slightly less. But higher magnification can make a big difference in discerning the field marks of distant birds, especially when you’re hawk watching, scanning flocks of shorebirds, or looking out over the ocean. My personal bias leans toward 10x binoculars for all kinds of birding. I’ve been using 10x and even 15x binoculars since I was a kid. I find that the greater magnification compensates for my poor eyesight, and I love seeing the fine detail on a close sparrow or warbler as much as making out the scapular pattern on a distant peep. Your budget could influence your choice. In general, it’s more difficult to manufacture an inexpensive yet decent quality 10x, so if you’re spending less than $500, you’ll get higher quality for your money in the lower magnification models.

Step 3. Decide what other features are most important to you. To many birders, a wide field of view is essential for finding birds quickly. To others, depth of field or quickness of focusing might be more important. If you combine birding with stalking butterflies or dragonflies, a close focus distance (under 6 feet) is critical. If you bird while backpacking, weight and compactness might be your first considerations. Many of our reviewers favored the lighter, more ergonomic models, although some birders prefer a heavier, more “solid” feel. Two of my Sapsucker teammates from the World Series of Birding, for example, insist on carrying the heaviest (by far) binoculars in this review, because to them nothing surpasses their bright image. To me, the bottom line is always image quality—nothing can compensate for an image that is not sharp and clear. As you use the accompanying table in this review, you might find that binoculars with the features you care most about do not necessarily rate highest in terms of overall quality.

Step 4. If you wear eyeglasses (or share your bins with a spouse or child who does), pay special attention to the “eyeglass friendliness” column in our table. Our reviewers rated the degree of “tunnel vision” (due to poor eye relief) as well as the sturdiness and ease of use of the retracting eyecups. In general, turn-and-lock eyecups are far better than the older rubber eyecups (which tend to crack from frequent folding), but the long-term durability of the turning cups may be a problem too. Some manufacturers don’t make much of an effort in this regard, but these days you should have little trouble finding a “friendly” pair of binoculars in almost any price range.

Step 5. After you’ve narrowed your search to a few likely candidates (good luck!), there’s no substitute for testing binoculars with your own eyes and hands. One thing I’ve learned in conducting these reviews is that no two birders hold or look through binoculars exactly the same way. The size of your hands, the shape of your face, how far apart your eyes are, how you focus, all help shape your personal preference. If possible, find a store that will allow you to test many models side by side before laying down your money. This is especially important if, like me, you bird with eyeglasses.

Sifting Through the Pack

One advantage to conducting a binocular review at the Lab of Ornithology is the ready availability of volunteer testers among our staff and friends, who range in experience from beginners to ace members of our big-day team, the Sapsuckers. In the end, 40 reviewers donated their time and their strong opinions. Each participant compared at least 10 models, and each model was tested by at least 10 reviewers. Five of us die-hards looked at every single pair. Some features were easy to measure precisely, such as weight, close-focus distance, and field of view. I measured the width of the visible field at a relatively close distance (15 feet), rather than using the “feet at 1,000 yards” reported by most manufacturers. I reasoned that the time when the field of view is most critical is when a bird pops up at close range.

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Many of the tests took place indoors in the Lab's second-story lunch room, which overlooks Sapsucker Woods Pond. Photo by Ken Rosenberg

Other features—image brightness, depth of field, and ergonomics—are more difficult to measure and can vary greatly from person to person. Here’s where I relied on the subjective opinions of the reviewers, asking them to rate three important aspects of each pair on a scale from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). First was overall image quality, taking into account brightness, sharpness, edge-to-edge clarity, and any color aberrations or other problems. Second was overall feel—ergonomic design, balance, ease of focusing, and other usability features. Finally, I asked each reviewer with eyeglasses to rate the “eyeglass friendliness” of each model, considering the degree of tunnel vision due to poor eye relief and the usefulness and durability of the retracting eyecups. In the accompanying table, we present the average of all reviewers’ ratings for each model.

To derive an overall quality rating for each model, I converted the range of values for close focus and field of view into a similar 1 to 5 rating. For example, any model that focused to less than 7 feet scored a “5” (excellent), whereas models focusing only to 15 feet or more scored a “1” (poor). Next, I totaled all the scores for each model, counting the score for image quality twice because of its overriding importance. Among the 78 binoculars we tested, the overall quality rating ranged from 12.6 to 29.4 out of a possible 30. Finally, within each broad price category, I used the overall quality ratings to rank each model from best to worst. This all might sound complicated, but the results are pretty straightforward and represent the subjective preferences of a wide range of reviewers.

Budget Bins

For the first time, birders on a tight budget have some real choices for decent binoculars. In past reviews, testing the economy models gave us such eye strain, we kept a bottle of ibuprofen handy, but this time only a few of the cheapest compacts were truly awful to look through. Leading the economy group in overall quality was the Nikon 7x35 Action, a basic Porro prism model with an exceptionally wide field of view. Close behind was the Eagle Optics 7x32 Denali, a small, lightweight roof prism that certainly seems worth its very low price. Rounding out the top five economy models were the Audubon 8x42 Raptor, the two Bushnell Nature View models, and the Opticron 8x42 Imagic (all except the Raptor are a Porro-prism design). All of these models offer a very passable image, especially in the center of the field, and all work fairly well with eyeglasses. The Bushnell 10x42s offer the best choice for a truly inexpensive 10x binocular. The several compact models, along with the larger 8x42 Triumphs, are not recommended for birding and are especially useless if you wear glasses.

Affordable Quality

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in this review was the high quality and usability found among binoculars in the $200 to $500 range. Top-rated among the 27 models in this category was the Leupold Wind River 6x32 Katmai, which has a bright clear image, compact and eyeglass-friendly design, wide field of view, and an exceptionally close focus. Although their low power will limit the usefulness of these binoculars for many types of birding, they are excellent for butterfly watching and would be great to keep by the window for close-up viewing of your backyard feeder birds. Unfortunately, the similar 8x32 model (at least the pair we tested) would not focus as crisply and had a flimsier overall feel. Close behind the tiny Leupolds was the Nikon Monarch 8x42, clearly the top-rated of any mid-priced, full-power birding binoculars. These lightweight, waterproof, and very comfortable binoculars focus down to 6 feet (they were given the name “Monarch” to attract butterfly watchers) and offer an image and feel that surpasses many models costing two or three times more. Only in a direct comparison with the top-priced binoculars could our reviewers discern the narrower, slightly duller image, which was not quite sharp at the edges. But with a street price well under $300, the Monarchs are a steal.

Several other 8x42 models present some nice choices in this very affordable price range. The Opticron BGA Imagic, Leupold Wind River Pinnacle, and Celestron Noble all offer an image comparable with the Monarchs, but their overall feel did not impress reviewers quite as much. The Eagle Optics Ranger PC, which ruled the mid-priced market for years, doesn’t have quite as crisp an image and shows slightly greater distortion at the edge of the field. All of these models focus to about 6 feet or closer and work very well with eyeglasses. The Monarch 10x42 is the only 10x model among the top-10 rated mid-priced binoculars; these are also the most lightweight of any 10-power we tested. Comparable to the Monarchs in terms of image quality is Leupold’s Wind River 10x50 Olympic, but a narrower field of view and a close-focus distance of only 10 feet contributed to their lower overall ranking. Other decent 10x binoculars in this price range are Celestron’s Regal LS 10x42 and 10x50 and Noble 10x50 models (interestingly, the less expensive Nobles ranked higher, especially in terms of feel and eyeglass-friendliness), as well as the Eagle Optics 10x42 Ranger PC. Again, the Rangers are not quite up to the competition in terms of image quality, but they have a nice lightweight feel and offer a wide field of view and excellent close focus.

Finally, worth mentioning in the $200 to $500 price range are several compact binoculars that can put high-quality optics in your shirt pocket. Top-ranked among the compacts was the Nikon 8x20 Premier LX, a tiny waterproof roof prism binocular with a sharp image and excellent close focus. Our testers complained about their awkward feel, however, and especially about having to focus with the pinky or ring finger. By comparison, the Bushnell 7x26 Custom Compacts, with nearly comparable image and a much more user-friendly design, are still perhaps the best compact binoculars available for birding. Also in this mix are the miniature Zeiss 8x20 Victory and the slightly pricier Swarovski 8x20 B; both provide a sharp image but suffer from an awkward feel and focusing mechanism. Most reviewers felt that these miniature binoculars were too small for serious birding.

In the $500 to $1,000 category, we were hoping to see some exceptional quality at prices that a wide range of birders could still afford. In general, though, the 14 models in this group did not rate any higher than the top-ranked, less expensive models. Once again, Nikon led the field with the 8x32 HG DCF, which received an overall quality rating comparable with many top-of-the-line binoculars. Although they offer a wider field of view and slightly closer focus, these Nikons were not noticeably better than the inexpensive Monarchs in terms of image quality or overall feel. The only other model in this category worth mentioning is the Zeiss 8x30 B T* Conquest, which some reviewers felt offers the brightest, sharpest image of any binocular under $1,000. These are extremely lightweight and nitrogen-filled, but they do not focus particularly closely and don’t have the solid, rugged feel of other roof prism binoculars. It’s worth noting that Zeiss offers the Conquest in a 10x, 12x, and even a 15x45, and they all weigh less than 20 ounces each.

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A group of schoolchildren looked through the binoculars one afternoon and rated them from their unique perspective. Photo by Kenneth V. Rosenberg

Neck and Neck at the Top

Frequently as our dedicated and discerning binocular-testers sorted through the morass of glass, a loud “WOW!” would rise above the din. This signaled that someone had picked up one of the top-of-the-line offerings from Leica, Swarovski, or Zeiss. The stiff competition between these manufacturers has resulted in a superb set of choice models that not only provide almost unbelievable optical quality but are simply a joy to hold and use. It’s safe to say that no clear winner emerged at the top of this heap, and I urge would-be buyers of $1,000-plus binoculars to “test drive” your selections before taking out a second mortgage on the house or sending your kids to work in the mines. Each company boasts its own proprietary glass, coatings, and body designs, so these new models differ more from each other than do the “standard” roof prisms in the less expensive categories. All, however, offer the highest quality edge-to-edge image possible in a fully waterproof, nitrogen-purged, and eyeglass-friendly body, and they come with a lifetime warranty.

It’s fair to say that Swarovski has set the pace for this burst of innovations by paying close attention to the needs and criticisms of serious birders. Swarovski’s EL series was the first to sport a combination of lightweight magnesium-alloy body, wonderfully ergonomic features, twist-and-lock eyecups, and the highest-quality optics. Zeiss and Leica have now followed with their own versions, offering a lightweight, ergonomic design and a superb image, bucking their previous trends towards heavier and bulkier binoculars. Although your choice will undoubtedly come down to personal preference (or brand loyalty), a close look at the ratings in our table will reveal some subtle differences that might tip the balance toward one model or another.

In terms of pure image quality, six models received “perfect scores” from our reviewers, indicating an absolutely flawless, bright, and crisp-from-edge-to-edge image. Of these, the Zeiss 8x42 FL T* scored the highest for overall quality of any binocular tested, combining its exquisite image with perfect eye relief, a relatively wide field of view, and excellent close focus. The similar Zeiss 10x42 was the only 10x model in our test to receive this highest image rating. Some reviewers were critical of the ergonomics of these Zeiss models, however, labeling them as “forward-heavy,” “not comfortable,” “too knobby,” and even “flimsy.” Rounding out the “perfect-image” club were Leica’s 7x42 and 8x42 Ultravids and Swarovski’s 8.5x42 EL. These ELs received the highest scores of any binocular for all three subjective categories, with especially high marks for overall feel. Typical comments were “very ergonomic,” “nice feel,” “well balanced,” and “wow!” (Personally, I’d like to have a pair of these surgically implanted in my palms.) The Ultravids represent a leaner, meaner version of the rather bulky Leica Trinovids, with an even brighter, crisper image in direct comparison. Although the new Leicas won instant fans among our testers, others were less than enamored with their overall feel, and these Leicas don’t focus as closely as the other top models.

Both the Leica Ultravid and Swarovski EL 10x42 models ranked only slightly behind their 8x42 counterparts, primarily due to a slightly less bright (but still superb) image and a correspondingly narrower field of view. Again the ELs won out in terms of ergonomics, but they unfortunately do not offer quite enough eye relief to avoid slight tunnel vision with eyeglasses. The new Swarovski 8x32 and 10x32 EL models represent an even further innovation in lightweight, ergonomic design. The slight loss in image brightness is compensated for by a wider field of view and an even closer focusing distance than the larger ELs—in fact, the 10x32s offer the widest field of any 10x roof prism binocular we’ve seen. In addition, I found the small ELs to be especially easy and fast to use with one hand, for example, when I was carrying a scope. Unfortunately, I don’t get a full field of view from the 10x32s with my eyeglasses on.

Leica did not send us their brand new 8x32 or 10x32 mid-sized models, which are even more lightweight than the ELs and undoubtedly will give Swarovski another run for their money. The older Trinovid 8x32s—which led the mid-sized category in our last review—still ranked fourth in terms of overall quality. Finally, worth mentioning because of its exquisite image is Swarovski’s honking big 10x50 SLC—still probably the brightest 10x on the market. At least a few top birders I know insist on carrying these, in spite of their excessive weight, relatively narrow field of view, and poor close focus. I’d love to see these in an EL version.

Three additional manufacturers have vied for a share of the top-of-the-line binocular market, and two of these should be commended for their efforts. Nikon, which now leads in all of our less-expensive categories, sent us a prototype of their brand new 8x42 Premier LX, a reworked, more lightweight version of their acclaimed Venturer. Although the image offered by these new Nikons is excellent, it didn’t quite match the top-ranked models (one reviewer noted slight color-fringing), and some reviewers did not care for their heavier and bulkier feel (ironic, because the Nikon Venturer set the standard for usability five years ago). But a lower suggested retail price than most other top models may make these binoculars quite attractive. The newest player in the fine optics game is Brunton, which offers the 8.5x43 and 10x43 Epoch XS models. These have some nice features, such as eyecups that lock in multiple positions and unheard of close-focusing distances (though at these distances you need to use one eye), and they are very cool looking. But our reviewers were disappointed by their optical quality, and several of them cited visible color fringing and the relatively narrow field of view on both models.

Ken’s Parting Thoughts

So, if your birding has evolved to new levels, but this new age of binoculars is passing you by, I offer the following thoughts and personal recommendations. First, if you think your old binoculars are still just fine, you may want to think again. The improvements in image quality and usability really do make a difference, both in your ability to identify birds and in your enjoyment of birding. Look through a new pair and see for yourself. Second, if you’re in the market for new optics, I recommend spending as much money as you can afford. Even beginners and kids will benefit from higher quality binoculars, and the investment in durability or a lifetime warranty might save you money in the long run. Finally, if you buy some new binoculars, I ask you to consider the fate of your old optics. As birding and bird-conservation efforts flourish worldwide, ornithologists and birding guides throughout Latin America and the Caribbean often lack the means to purchase the basic tools of their trade. Fortunately, at least two programs have been set up to deliver donated used binoculars to these very deserving and grateful people, and I urge you to support these efforts. For more information, check out the American Birding Association’s Birders’ Exchange at www.americanbirding.org/bex and Optics for the Tropics at www.opticsforthetropics.org.

Kenneth V. Rosenberg is director of the Conservation Science program at the Lab of Ornithology and co-captain of the Sapsuckers, the Lab’s World Series of Birding team.

Category rank
Based on quality index scores for price-range category

Price
Manufacturer's suggested retail price

Quality index
Sum of scores for image quality (times two), overall feel, eyeglass friendliness, close focus, and field of view. Possible range from 6.0 to 30.0

Field of view
Measured at a distance of 15 feet

Close focus score

  • 1 = more than 15 feet
  • 2 = 12–15 feet
  • 3 = 10–12 feet
  • 4 = 7–10 feet
  • 5 = less than 7 feet

Field of view score

  • 1 = less than 20 inches
  • 2 = 20–22 inches
  • 3 = 22.5–24 inches
  • 4 = 24.5–27 inches
  • 5 = more than 27 inches

Image quality, overall feel, eyeglass friendliness
Average of 10 or more reviewers' ratings, from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent)

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For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Tim Gallagher, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-2443. email: twg3@cornell.edu

 
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