The Best Binoculars Review

Though we found useful reviews in various review sites magazines, the binocular reviews we found in birding publications and Web sites include the most rigorous tests. By far, the best review we found is a  study conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For this comprehensive binocular test, a team of 40 birdwatching experts rates and ranks 78 current binoculars (in four price ranges) for image quality, depth-of-field, ergonomics, and eyeglass-friendliness (usability by people who wear eyeglasses). Each binocular was not only tested by at least ten reviewers but also examined by a core team of five experts.

 

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)

 

Of the over three dozen binocular reviews we rated and analyzed, none are as comprehensive and rigorous as the Cornell review, but we did find some additional very good — though smaller in scope — binocular comparisons. For Outdoor Life, a smaller team tested 17 binoculars but left out the tests of color accuracy.

Editors at the best binoculars don’t test for color either. The review does test resolution as daylight dwindles — a situation important for both birding and hunting binoculars. A comprehensive Bird Watcher’s review used a team of 15 birdwatchers to test 99 binoculars in a range of environments, but binoculars aren’t clearly rated or ranked. We also studied reviews of astronomy binoculars and boating binoculars. Models which combine a binocular with a digital camera are covered in our separate report on digital-camera binoculars.

Binoculars are available in a staggering range of prices. Most reviews cover binoculars in between about $55 to nearly $2,000. When it comes to binoculars costing $50 or less, we found the user reviews posted at Amazon.com to be the best resource. In this price range, durability is far from assured. For example, while many users are quite satisfied with the Bushnell Falcon 10×50 binoculars, especially for their low price (*est. $30), several Amazon.com contributors report that they suddenly disintegrated.

On the other end of the spectrum, many reviews (including those at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) say that for most people, the performance difference between $200 to $500 binoculars and $500 to $1,000 binoculars doesn’t justify the big price jump. For instance, we found excellent reviews for the Leupold Golden Ring series of binoculars (*est. $900 to $1,000) and Nikon Premier LX series (*est. $850 to $900), but most reviews say the Nikon Monarch 8×42 binoculars (*est. $290) are nearly as good — and certainly come much closer in performance than the $500 price difference would suggest. While the most demanding birders may consider the ultra-luxe Zeiss Victory FL T* 8×42 (*est. $1,500), reviews say most people will be very satisfied with binoculars in the $200 to $500 price range.

Binoculars are a product for which rigorous comparative reviews matter. Specifications rarely tell the whole story, even for image quality, not to mention comfort and usability. For example, although some reviews use a specification called “exit pupil” as a guide to how bright the binocular image will be, the best binocular reviews note that optics quality matters much more. Another specification, eye relief, is a major factor in eye comfort, especially for people who wear glasses, but testers in comparative reviews evaluate “eyeglass-friendliness” by actual usage, often rating a binocular higher or lower than the eye-relief specification would predict.

Since you can’t rely on specifications alone for selecting binoculars in the price range and size you’d like, hands-on tests, such as those cited in our All Reviews chart, are the best way to gauge binocular quality. For our the best binoculars Fast Answers , we’ve included the best general-use binoculars. There is a myriad of specific-use categories out there for binoculars, from giant astronomy binoculars to marine binoculars, hunting optics and birding binoculars. Those types of binoculars are covered further below in our Full Story section.

> Binoculars prices

Types of binoculars and terms you should know

When shopping for binoculars, the magnification and aperture numbers tell you how much detail you’ll be able to see and roughly how large the binoculars will be. For binoculars described as “8×42,” for example, the “8” is the magnification (or power). This means the binoculars make an object look eight times closer than through the naked eye. The number “42” means that the lens furthest from your eyes – called the objective lens (also called aperture or front end) – is 42mm. The size of the objective lens determines the bulkiness of the binoculars. A larger objective lens lets in more light, so theoretically, binoculars with larger objective lenses are better in low light.

The price range you choose usually determines the type of binocular you buy. Expensive, top-quality binoculars are usually H-shaped, roof-prism binoculars — which are compact and usually dustproof, waterproof and fog proof. (Fogproofing makes the binoculars usable even in very cold weather when most binoculars would fog internally.) Less expensive models are usually W-shaped Porro-prism binoculars (not waterproof or fogproof) or reverse Porro-prism compact binoculars.

Compact binoculars (which are handy for concerts, hiking or general use) have objective lenses 30mm or smaller. They’re lightweight and convenient but usually provide less detail and brightness. Mid-size binoculars of 32mm to 35mm, are often more comfortable to hold than full-size binoculars but offer a dimmer view. Full-size binoculars, with objective lenses of about 42mm to 50mm, usually offer the brightest image. You’ll see some giant binoculars that are even larger. These are often used for star-gazing (though 10×50 is also a good size for astronomy binoculars) and are best used with a tripod.

For general use, experts usually recommend 8×42 binoculars, especially if you don’t want to pay more than about $500. You can see more detail with 10X magnification, but unfortunately, any flaws in the optics or design of the binoculars are also magnified. For hunting binoculars or birding binoculars used across big open fields, or for watching ocean birds, it could be worth buying top-quality 10×50 binoculars that cost more. If you want to watch close objects, such as birds at feeders or butterflies, you’ll want binoculars that can focus especially close — a growing trend in binocular technology.

For beginning birdwatchers, experts recommend 7×35 binoculars because their wide field-of-view makes it easier to get the targets in view — something that takes practice. “Field-of-view” is a measurement (in feet) of the diameter of the image you’ll see 1,000 feet away. A wider field of view means you’ll see more of a landscape or sports field without shifting your gaze.

Eye relief (in millimeters) is another specification you’ll find in descriptions of binoculars. It’s simply the optimal distance between your eye and the near lens on the binoculars (called the ocular lens.) Reviews recommend a minimum of 14mm eye relief for people who wear glasses, to avoid “tunnel vision” — a reduced image surrounded by black. But eye relief is important for overall eye comfort for all users. Reviewing binoculars at BetterViewDesired.com,

Wayne Mones explains that “the closer your eye has to be to the eyepiece the more fatigue the glass will cause. Having your eye close to anything continually triggers the blink reflex.” The best binoculars have adjustable eye relief, with twist-up eyecups that offer several settings from which to choose.

The best binoculars have fully multi-coated (FMC) lenses. This means that each internal lens has more than one layer of antireflective coating on both sides of all the lenses. Less desirable “multi-coated” (MC) lenses have coatings on only some sides. (“Fully coated” lenses are even less desirable.) These lens coatings are designed to let more light through the binocular for a brighter image, as well as to correct for color distortions.

Best full-size binoculars ($200 to $500)

Experts say the biggest jump in overall quality is from the least expensive binoculars (under $200) to the “sweet spot” price range of $200 to $500. In a 2005 review for Birder’s World, Pete Dunn compared a $1,000 model with several binoculars priced just over $300, concluding that “almost every single binocular retailing for over $300 out-resolved the image offered by the high-priced entry….” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology review also notes that the best binoculars in this price range offer image quality and viewing comfort very close to that of binoculars priced at $1,000 and above.

The waterproof, fog proof and rubber-armored Nikon Monarch 8×42 ATB binoculars (*est. $290) get the best reviews in this price range. Six expert reviews recommend these full-size, lightweight, 21.3-ounce roof-prism binoculars for birding, hunting (with camouflage coating available) and for butterfly watching (since they can focus as close as 8.2 feet). The Cornell Lab review calls the Nikon Monarch binoculars “lightweight, waterproof, and very comfortable,” with “an image and feel that surpasses many models costing two or three times more.” The optics are precision-aligned, with phase-coated Bak-4 roof prisms (the best type) and fully multicoated lenses.

Reviews say the 330-foot field of view is quite good, and the 19mm eye relief and twist-up eyecups make them a good choice for eyeglass wearers.

The Binoculars.org review gives the Nikon binoculars the highest rating for value. Pete Dunn, in his 2005 review of binoculars for Birder’s World magazine, says “There are others in this price range that are comparable, but for some reason, after an hour of testing and comparing, this is the glass buyers walk up to the counter with.”

We found few complaints about these binoculars, but more than one review complains about the lack of caps for the objective lens and that the ocular lens caps are cumbersome to use. Cornell Lab’s review says the image can be a little soft in the corners, but that the Nikon binoculars are still an excellent value. They have a tripod socket (handy for low-light use) and carry a 25-year warranty for manufacturers’ defects, plus a “no-fault” warranty, which means that Nikon will repair accidental damage for a flat fee of $10.

The 10X version of these binoculars, the Nikon Monarch ATB 10×42 binoculars (*est. $300) are ranked higher at the Cornell Lab review than any other 10X binoculars in this price range. Though the eye relief is only 15.5mm, they’re very light for 10×42 binoculars (21.1 ounces). The main drawback for the increased magnification is a slight loss of brightness and image quality.

They’re not as bright as the Monarch 8×42 binoculars, and the Cornell Lab review rates their image quality a bit lower. A review at Optics4Birding Reports some chromatic aberration (color separation) when viewing high-contrast objects in bright light, but the same review finds the focusing very smooth and easy and calls the Monarch 10×42 binoculars an excellent value. In a Field and Stream review of hunting binoculars, Dave Hurteau says the Nikon Monarch 10×42 binoculars offer “very good optics at a very low price.”

Although reviews say the Nikon Monarch 8×42 is the best full-size binoculars in this price range, we found good reviews for several other binoculars. Cornell Lab’s Ken Rosenberg compares the roof-prism Swift Ultra-Lite 8×42 binoculars (*est. $250) to the very similar Nikon Monarch 8×42 , saying “the Ultra Lites provided a slightly crisper, more contrasty, and brighter image than the Monarchs, and they brought out more of the colors on a drake Mallard in evening light.” The Swift binoculars could also focus down to 5’4″, closer than the Monarch binoculars. However, at 25 ounces, the Swift binoculars weigh almost four ounces more than the Nikon binoculars. For all-day use, small weight differences can make a big difference in fatigue.

The Leupold Wind River Pinnacle 8×42 binoculars (*est. $375) focus as close as 6.6 feet, but that’s their main advantage over the Nikon Monarch 8×42 binoculars, which cost nearly a hundred dollars less. Also, despite eye relief of 17.8mm, the Leupold Wind River Pinnacles get mixed reviews from eyeglass wearers. The Cornell Lab review gives them the highest “eyeglass-friendliness” rating, but several other reviews warn that they’re not comfortable for anyone who wears glasses. If you wear glasses and are considering these, it would be a good idea to try them out first.

The Cornell Lab recommends the Celestron Noble 8×42 binoculars (*est. $270) ranking them just under the Leupold Wind River Pinnacle binoculars, but also far under the Nikon Monarch that costs just $20 more. The only reason to prefer them to the Nikon Monarch binoculars might be that the Celestron Noble’s 341-foot field of view is a bit wider and that they focus down to 6’1″. All the Celestron Noble binoculars offer a lifetime, non-transferable warranty. Like the Nikon binoculars, they also add accident protection ($25 per repair, including return shipping).

Mid-size binoculars, $200 to $500

While an objective lens size of 42mm has a lot of light-gathering power, it does increase the size and weight of the binoculars. Mid-size binoculars with a 32mm aperture have a dimmer image (especially in low light), but they are lighter and more compact. For all-day birding or hunting use, 8×32 or 6×32 binoculars may be a better choice simply because of their comfort.

The compact, lightweight Leupold Wind River Katmai 6×32 binoculars (*est. $330) weigh just 18.2 ounces and fold down to a compact 4.5 inches wide. They focus down to 4.9 feet, nearly twice as close as the Nikon Monarch 8×42 binoculars, and the Katmai binoculars’ 425-foot field of view is nearly a hundred feet wider. This makes it easier to track moving objects like birds or a quarterback rushing down the field. Unlike the Nikon Monarch binoculars, they come with excellent caps for the objective lenses, plus a rain guard for the ocular lenses (the ones closest to the eye.) The Cornell Lab review ranks these 6X binoculars just above the Nikon Monarch 8×42 binoculars for image quality (even though they use Bak-7 prism glass), close focus and field-of-view. An in-depth review at Optics4Birding finds their optics good, albeit with “the tendency for straight lines to bow inward at the edges of the field” and a very slight yellowish color bias.

Cornell Labs and Bird Watcher’s Digest note that the Katmai binoculars are not very comfortable for people with small hands, and despite their 16.6mm eye relief, eyeglass wearers don’t find them very comfortable. While Leupold also makes 8×32 binoculars in the Katmai series (*est. $330), the Cornell review finds their focus not as sharp, also noting that they feel flimsy in comparison with the Katmai 6×32 binoculars. All the Leupold Wind River Katmai binoculars carry a lifetime, non-transferable warranty, but without any accident protection.

Like the Wind River Katmai binoculars, the less expensive Celestron Noble 8×32 binoculars (*est. $225) are easy to carry because of their compact size and light 19-ounce weight, though their 393-foot field of view is narrower. They have fully multicoated lenses, Bak-4 prism glass, and are waterproof, fog proof and rubber armored. The Cornell Lab review ranks them below the binoculars discussed above, but Celestron binoculars still make the top ten and cost less than most. In a large comparative review for Bird Watcher’s Digest, Diane Porter says that both the Celestron Noble 8×32 and the larger 10×32 (est. $270) binoculars “were an absolute joy to pick up and use — I had to fight with my testers to return them.” As with all 32mm-aperture binoculars, the Celeston binoculars are dimmer than larger 42mm-aperture binoculars, but they are good for daytime use.

The Celestron Noble 8×32 binoculars offer 19mm eye relief with twist-up eyecups, and while some reviews say they’re good for eyeglass wearers, the Cornell Lab review rates them quite a bit lower for “eyeglass-friendliness” than the Nikon Monarch or Wind River Katmai. If you do wear glasses, it’s a good idea to try them for yourself first (or buy from a store with a good return policy). Overall, the more expensive Wind River Katmai 6×32 has better image quality, but the Celestron binoculars are a good value.
Best compact binoculars

Compact binoculars with an aperture of less than 30mm are ideal for hiking and backpacking, as well as for concerts, operas and for children (since the small size fits children’s faces better). Ken Rosenberg, in the Cornell Lab review, warns against compact binoculars for birding, saying they’re too dim and show too little detail. However, even bird watchers may want compact binoculars as a second pair, so as to have binoculars always handy. For hunting binoculars, a 2003 Outdoor Life review finds compact binoculars quite usable. The Outdoor Life tests show that some compact binoculars can be usable a full 40 minutes after sundown. A 2005 Field & Stream review recommends 6X binoculars — a magnification often used for compact binoculars — for still hunting in big woods.

The Pentax Papilio 6.5×21 (*est. $130) compact binoculars are recommended in more reviews than any others, even though they’re not waterproof and carry only a one-year warranty. They have a 393-foot field of view, good eye relief, and weigh only 10.2 ounces. The Papilio binoculars, which are a top pick at Outdoor Life magazine, are noteworthy for their ability to focus as close as 18 inches. In an in-depth review at Better View Desired.com, Wayne Mones says that the Pentax binocular focus so closely that you can use them as a field microscope. The author’s field tests also show that the Papilio binoculars are also quite acceptable for birding: “They do not show the detail and brightness that I expect from birding binoculars with larger objective lenses, but I was surprised to find the image to be quite acceptable. Color fringing is a bit better than average, and there is little edge distortion.” He also recommends the Papilio binoculars for travel sightseeing.

The Cornell Lab review recommends the Bushnell Custom Compact 7×26 binoculars (*est. $245), which testers rate especially high for overall feel. They have a field of view of 363 feet and a minimum focus of 7 feet. At 12 ounces, they weigh a bit more than the Pentax Papilio binoculars, but are still comfortable to carry. Like the Papilio binoculars, they’re not waterproof, but the Bushnell binoculars do carry a lifetime, non-transferable warranty.

Hikers, campers, and hunters might look for waterproof compact binoculars. Reviews at Backpacker.com and Outdoor Life recommend the Zeiss Victory B T* Compact 8×20 binoculars (*est. $380), which weigh only 7.9 ounces. The review at Outdoor Life finds the image “amazingly sharp, with excellent color fidelity and� amazingly bright.” (Note that although these are Zeiss Victory binoculars, they don’t have the fluorite glass used in the latest Zeiss Victory binoculars, which don’t yet come in a compact size.) In the Cornell Lab review, the Zeiss 8×20 binoculars rank in the number 11 spot overall (very good for compact binoculars), just under the Leupold Wind River Katmai 8×32 binoculars, which are compact enough for backpacking but weigh three times as much.

A 2003 review of the Zeiss 8×20 binoculars at Backpacking.com praises their optics but notes that “the protective rubber coating began peeling after just a couple of days of jostling in my pack.” Some of the Cornell Lab testers also criticized the Zeiss 8×20 binoculars, finding them awkward to handle. The same was true for the Nikon Premier LX L 8×20 (*est. $400), which testers said had great image quality but poor ergonomics.

If you have unsteady hands or environments, consider the Canon 8×25 IS binoculars (*est. $250). The “IS” stands for “image-stabilized,” meaning the binoculars show a steady view even if you’re bouncing over rough terrain, or have trouble holding binoculars because of hand shake. They’re also the only binoculars recommended in the buying guide at Opera News. At 17.3 ounces (without battery) the Canon 8×25 IS are light for image-stabilized binoculars, but heavier than other compact models. The 13.5mm eye relief is borderline for eyeglass-wearers, but a review at Outdoor Photographer recommends them as “a good choice for most nature, wildlife and sports viewing applications.”

The Canon 8×25 IS binoculars aren’t waterproof or rubber armored, and they carry only a 3-year warranty, but users say they’re more fun to use than most binoculars and that the image-stabilization feature works well. Canon also makes these in a 10×30 size (*est. $350), and despite just 14.5mm of eye relief, reviews say they are comfortable for eyeglass-wearers. The larger Canon IS binoculars have a narrower 315-foot field of view and can focus only as close as 18.8 feet. Nikon, Fujinon, and Bushnell also make image-stabilized binoculars, but they’re mostly heavier and more expensive, with no better eye relief.

Bushnell Legend binoculars have one special advantage often praised in reviews of hunting binoculars — a special RainGuard coating that makes rain and snow sheet off the outer lenses; reviews say they’re usable in the pouring rain. The waterproof, fog proof roof-prism Bushnell Legend 8×42 (*est. $230) get some good reviews, though it’s easy to confuse them with a less expensive, lower-quality Porro-prism Bushnell Legend binocular (shaped like a W) that are also available. A Field & Stream review of hunting binoculars praises the roof-prism Bushnell Legend as “a rugged performer with solid optics.” However, the Cornell Lab review, based on very rigorous testing, ranks them quite a bit lower than the binoculars discussed above. In fact, they’re ranked in the bottom half of the binoculars tested there in this price range, and the Bushnell Legend binoculars get a low rating for eyeglass-friendliness.

For kids, compact binoculars are usually the best choice. They’re not only lighter and easier to hold steady, but the distance between the lenses can be adjusted to fit a child’s face. Pete Dunn, in his review for Birder’s World, recommends the Nikon Naturalist (*est. $50) as a good starting binocular for kids. It has a 351-foot field of view, focuses as close as 10 feet, and has “a commendable image for the price.” The Cornell Lab review remarks that in general, they found Nikon the best brand for less expensive binoculars.

We found few reviews for inexpensive compact binoculars, but users at Amazon.com and Epinions.com recommend the Nikon Travelite 9×25 binoculars (*est. $70), which weigh just under 9 ounces. The Travelite 8×25 binoculars (*est. $90) have better eye relief than the 9×25 Nikon Travelite. Both Travelite binoculars focus closer than 10 feet, use multicoated Bak-4 glass, and carry the excellent Nikon warranty (25 years plus $10 “no-fault” service), but have a narrow 294-foot field of view.

For “the least expensive decent binoculars,” birding-binocular experts Michael and Diane Palmer at Binoculars.com recommend the Eagle Optics Triumph 8×25 binoculars (*est. $70), though the Cornell Lab review rates their image quality only 1.9 out of 5, almost as low as the lowest-ranked economy binoculars reviewed (the Celestron Traveler 8×26, *est. $25).
Budget binoculars (under $200)

When it comes to full-size budget binoculars, the Porro-prism Nikon Action series is most often recommended in reviews. There are two separate (and easily confused) series of Nikon Action binoculars. The Nikon Action EX Extreme ATB series, which uses Nikon’s eco-friendly glass without lead or arsenic, and the less expensive Nikon Action series. While the binoculars in both series are rubber-armored and use multicoated lenses and Bak-4 prism glass, only the Nikon Action EX Extreme ATB binoculars are waterproof and fog proof — the ATB stands for “all-terrain binoculars.” Though slightly heavier, the Nikon Action EX Extreme ATB binoculars are better for eyeglass wearers, though not as eyeglass-friendly as the Nikon Monarch binoculars discussed above (which cost over twice as much).

For beginning bird watchers, reviews especially recommend the Nikon Action EX Extreme ATB 7×35 binoculars (*est. $130), which are the top-ranked budget binoculars in the tests at Cornell Lab. The less expensive Nikon Action 7×35 binoculars (*est. $55) aren’t waterproof and fog proof, and they are not tested at the Cornell Lab — but they are recommended in other reviews. Pete Dunn, reviewing binoculars for Birder’s World, says of the Nikon Action 7×35, “The field of view (451 feet) is panoramic. The tradeoff is considerable edge distortion, but this is a good beginner’s glass. The biggest problem beginners face is not identifying the bird but finding it. This glass won’t hold them back.” Both Nikon Action binoculars have a tripod socket and share the same 25-year warranty (with $10 no-fault protection). Unfortunately, neither can focus closer than 16.4 feet, a big handicap for watching birds at a bird feeder.

For closeup views like that, the Minolta Activa 7×35 WP FP binoculars (*est. $140) are a better bet. They focus as close as 9.8 feet, have the eye relief of 19mm, weigh a bit less than either Nikon Action 7×35 binoculars, and are otherwise comparable. The Minolta binoculars are waterproof and rubber armored, with fully multi-coated lenses, Bak-4 prism glass, and a wide 489-foot field of view. None of the big comparative reviews we found include them, perhaps because they’re an older model, and the reviews usually concentrate on the latest offerings. We found mostly positive reviews of other Minolta Activa binoculars at Outdoor Photographer, Backpacker.com, and other publications, with a dissenting view at Binoculars.org, where Andrew Marshall concedes that the Minolta Activa binoculars are good but not excellent.

For higher 10X magnification, the Nikon Action 10×50 binoculars (*est. $80) and waterproof/fogproof Nikon Action EX Extreme ATB 10×50 (*est. $180) also get good reviews, even though 10X binoculars are usually not recommended in this price range. The Nikon Action 10×50 EX Extreme binoculars are an Outdoor Life “Great Buy,” not only for the wide field-of-view, but also depth-of-field, which makes focusing easier. Testers there find the cheaper Nikon Action 10×50 heavy (33.8 ounces), but praise their low-light performance, important both for hunting binoculars and for birdwatching. They’re also recommended for astronomy, where their ability to focus only as close as 23 feet doesn’t matter. A 2005 review in Astronomy magazine disagrees with the Outdoor Life criticism of the ergonomics, saying “the binoculars have a sculpted quality that makes holding them easy.” This review also praises the optics as exceptional, saying that “Aberrations are well-corrected, as evidenced by a sharp, flat field of view & good image contrast.”

Also at 10X, for more money but closer focus & less weight, the Cornell Lab review recommends the Bushnell NatureView 10×42 binoculars (*est. $120) as “the best choice for a truly inexpensive 10X binocular,” though the study didn’t test the more expensive Nikon Action EX Extreme in this size. Like the Nikon Action EX, the NatureView 10×42 are porro-prism binoculars with fully multicoated Bak-4 lenses, but the NatureView binoculars have a closer minimum focus of 12 feet, and weigh only 26.6 ounces. However, eye relief is only 15mm, and the Cornell review rates them rather low for eyeglass wearers. The 315-foot field of view is also narrower than the 342 feet offered by the Nikon Action 10×50 binoculars.

Better for eyeglass-wearers and costing about $30 less than the NatureView, the Orion Scenix 10×50 binoculars (*est. $90) get top rating in the 2005 Astronomy Magazine review of inexpensive binoculars, even above the Nikon Action 10×50. The Orion Scenix 10×50 binoculars have a lot of eye relief (22mm), and the review praises them for excellent brightness and contrast, as well as smooth focusing. Editors add, “Distortion and field curvature is evident around the outer 25 percent of the field of distance, which is less than most in this price range.”

If you don’t wear glasses, you might consider the Eagle Optics Denali 7×32 (*est. $90), a midsize roof-prism binocular that Cornell Lab ranks closely behind the Nikon Action EX Extreme ATB 7×35 binoculars. They’re lighter (21.4 ounces) and more compact than the Nikon binoculars and focus as close as 12 feet, but they offer a narrower 357-foot field of view. Despite 20mm eye relief, the Cornell Lab review doesn’t rate them well for eyeglass-friendliness, but they do rate well for “overall feel.” Unfortunately, we didn’t find any other reviews that include them.

According to reviews, $50 is about the minimum you should spend for decent binoculars. We found a few comments for binoculars costing less, and these might be fine for occasional use. The Astronomy magazine review recommends the Celestron 10×50 binoculars (*est. $40) as a rock-bottom choice for astronomy binoculars: “Despite the low price, images are more than adequate for someone just starting out. Admittedly, contrast is lower, and astigmatism is greater than in some other models. However, providing beginning observers fully coated optics for under $40 is a great manufacturing accomplishment.”

A few cheap binoculars get some decent comments from owners posting to Amazon.com. None are waterproof or fogproof, and the prism glass is usually Bak-7 rather than Bak-4. They have eye relief that’s below the 14mm minimum, so eyeglass-wearers may experience some “tunnel vision” that loses part of the field of view.

With a tripod adapter and Bak-4 prisms, the Bushnell NatureView 8×40 binoculars (*est. $40) get a lower average rating of 4 stars among Amazon.com users, based on eight reviews, but one user does mention they work well with glasses (even though eye relief is the only 12mm). The NatureView 8×40 binoculars offer a 330-foot field and focus as close as 14 feet. Some users complain about small parts falling off, or worse, the barrels becoming misaligned — something reviews can cause headaches and extreme eye fatigue. These binoculars cost only slightly less than the much higher-rated Nikon Action binoculars.

Amazon.com users like the cheap Bushnell PowerView 12×25 binoculars (*est. $20) for their 12X magnification, the way they fold compactly, and their 11.3-ounce weight. The Bushnell 8×21 binoculars (*est. $14) focus only as close as 21 feet, but have a 378-foot field of view, much better than the 240-foot field of view of the more expensive PowerView 12×25 binoculars, and they weigh even less at 7 ounces. The Powerview 8×21 binoculars don’t have the best durability, optics or eyeglass-friendliness, but they might be better than no binoculars at all.

High-end hunting binoculars

Reviews say binoculars in the $200 to $500 are best for most uses. Over that, you’re in the realm of luxury enthusiast binoculars. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found many excellent reviews for binoculars in the $900 to $1,500 price range.

Though not reviewed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, outdoorsmen might consider the Bushnell Elite 8×43 binoculars (*est. $950), which won the Field & Stream 2005 “Best of the Best” award. The review praises these binoculars partly for their Bushnell RainGuard coating, which makes water sheet away from the lenses so the binoculars are usable even in wet weather. Eye relief is fine at 19.5mm, and eyecups twist up. The Leupold Golden Ring 8×42 binoculars (*est. $950) are also included in Field & Stream’s “Best of the Best” list for 2005, although none of the testing or fieldwork is documented, and the binoculars aren’t rated or ranked in this review.

For higher-powered hunting binoculars with the great performance in low light, the 2005 Outdoor Life review recommends the Steiner Predator 10×50 binoculars (*est. $800). Images were clear for as long as 45 minutes past sundown. Steiner claims that the individual “CAT” high-contrast lens coating helps hunters “distinguish game against leafy backgrounds by filtering out green light.” However, one of the testers notes that in hunting season, there usually isn’t that much green foliage, so the testers reached no consensus about the coating. The Steiner Predator binoculars weren’t included in any of the big comparative reviews we found.

Luxury birding binoculars

In addition to outstanding precision and durability, the best birding binoculars provide the brightest, clearest images. They’re also so comfortable that you never have to think about the binoculars, you’re only aware of the image. As Cornell Lab’s Ken Rosenberg says, they’re “simply a joy to hold and use.” He notes that three companies make the best high-end binoculars: Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss.

A clear consensus among current reviews ranks the Zeiss Victory FL T* 8×42 (*est. $1,500), as the very best birding binoculars, & they are specially rated at Cornell Lab: “When one of our survey experts looked through the new Zeiss Victory FL, he told it was as if the binoculars weren’t there at all, but that he had been magically transported up close to what he was looking at.” In an in-depth review at BetterViewDesired.com, Wayne Mones calls them “the finest all-around birding binocular in the world today.” Field of view for the Zeiss binoculars is 405 feet, and close focus is 6.6 feet. The ‘FL’ stands for the fluorite prism glass designed to enhance light transmission and color accuracy, superior to the Bak-4 glass usually used in high-quality binoculars. The Zeiss Victory T* FL series includes binoculars in five sizes ranging from the lighter-weight 7×42 (*est. $1,310) to the 10×42 (*est. $1,550), but the 8×42 binoculars the favorite in reviews. All have a transferable lifetime warranty, making Zeiss binoculars not only a good long-term investment for personal use, but they have higher resale value than most binoculars.

Comparing the Swarovski EL binoculars to the Zeiss Victory FL T* binoculars, reviews usually say the Zeiss come out ahead. A comparative review at BetterViewDesired notes that the Zeiss 8×42 binoculars had a sharper resolution, especially in low-light conditions. Many other reviews agree that the Zeiss Victory binoculars are brighter and focus faster, with a better warranty. However, the Swarovski EL binoculars are easy to hold and focus with one hand, and the Cornell Lab review says their depth of field makes them a little easier to focus than the Zeiss T* FL. Indeed, testers at the Cornell Lab give the highest ratings on all the subjective factors – including “overall feel” – to the Swarovski EL 8.5×43 binoculars (*est. $1,500). A review at Optics4Birding notes, however, that the Swarovski EL binoculars are not as comfortable for people with large hands.

Leica Ultravid BR 7×42 binoculars (*est. $1,600) rank in third place at the Cornell Lab review, sharing the Zeiss Victory’s perfect score for image quality, but ranking lower for close focus (11 feet) and eyeglass-friendliness. Overall, the Leica Ultravid binoculars get good reviews from other sources, including a “Best of the Best” award at Field & Stream, but they’re top-rated a bit less often than the Swarovski EL binoculars, and much less often than the Zeiss Victory FL binoculars. The Leica Ultravid binoculars have no tripod socket.

At the lower end of this price range, both the Nikon Premier LX L binoculars and Brunton Epoch binoculars are challenging the top three brands. Reviews say both series are not only good for eyeglass wearers but focus very smoothly as well. Reviews give the Nikon Premier LX L series higher marks for image quality but praise the Brunton Epoch binoculars for their innovative variable speed focus. For expeditions and other travel, the Brunton Epoch binoculars also offer an outstanding warranty, with quick replacement or loaner binoculars shipped anywhere in the world. The Nikon Premier LX L binoculars are priced slightly higher than the Brunton Epoch binoculars, but they get more uniformly positive reviews, especially when it comes to image quality. The Cornell Lab review rates Nikon’s image quality higher than that of the Brunton Epoch binoculars but not as high as Zeiss, Swarovski or Leica.

The Nikon Premier LX L 8×42 binoculars (*est. $1,200) are the unanimous 2005 Editor’s Choice for full-size binoculars at Outdoor Life, which praises their “very clean, classic design.” Birding binocular experts Michael and Diane Palmer at Binoculars.com report that “At our binocular trials [published in Bird Watcher’s Digest], our judges wanted to try the new Nikon over and over again.” The Nikon Premier LX L 8×42 binoculars carry a lifetime warranty (with $10 no-fault repair) and have nice lens caps but no tripod socket.

Better View Desired.com says the Nikon Premier LX L binoculars also meet the “you don’t know they’re there” criterion for top-notch binoculars, finding the balance and overall feel comparable to that of the more expensive Zeiss Victory FL. The review finds the Nikon Premier LX L binoculars easy to use with one hand and praises their color accuracy and smooth, fast focus. In addition to the 8×42 size, Nikon Premier LX L binoculars come in 10×42 (*est. $1,300) and 10×32 (*est. $900) sizes. Obviously, if your budget for binoculars is over $1,000, you’ll want to test drive all of these binoculars for yourself, since overall comfort is entirely subjective.

Important Features: Binoculars

Experts say you should look for the following when purchasing binoculars:

  • A magnification of 7X or 8X is usually best for common use. Binoculars with a magnification of 10X or more can be difficult to maintain and may require a tripod and shoulder harness.
  • 32mm and 42mm dia binoculars are the most familiar. Compact binoculars fall into the 20mm to 30mm range, midsize about 32mm. Full-size 40mm to 42mm binoculars are used for birding and hunting; 50mm and above are most often used for boating and astronomy. A larger diameter makes for a massive binocular.
  • The wider the field of view spec, the more you’ll see. Binocular reviews recommend a minimum field of view of 300 feet. Beginning bird viewers need an especially wide field of view, which makes it easier to track birds in flight.

Experts suggest an exit pupil of 2mm to 4mm for day use, 5mm to 6mm for lowering light and at least 6.5mm for night use, although this depends partly on wherewith well your own eyes adjust to dimmer light. The exit follower is just the ratio of the aperture to the magnification, & it is only a rough guide to the image brightness in different conditions since optical property can affect light more.

Don’t settle for less than completely coated lenses at the very lowest prices; multicoated lenses (MC) are enough, while fully multicoated lenses (FMC) are best, meaning that all lenses are multicoated on both sides. These coatings improve brightness, contrast, & color accuracy.

Look for a center focus knob with the flexible diopter. The diopter control adapts the focus to accommodate to real differences between your eyes so that one central focusing knob tests the focus once the diopter modification is made. Individual focus is too slow and awkward except possibly for astronomy binoculars, while auto-focus & fixed-focus binoculars aren’t sharp enough.

Especially if you wear glasses, watch for an eye relief of at least 14mm, as well as adaptable twist-up eyecups. Eye relief relates to how far back from the eyepiece your eyes can be and still see the whole field of view. Short eye relief could mean that you’ll only see the center part of the image if you wear glasses, and short eye relief is less comfortable even if you don’t wear glasses. Twist-up eyecups are better than fold-down eyecups.

Consider a tripod socket. Some binoculars lack this point.

Experts also say that roof-prism binoculars are more compact, while Porro-prism prints are cheaper but usually not waterproof or fogproof. Even if you don’t intend to use binoculars in wet weather, you’ll want fog proof binoculars if you require to use them in cold weather, to prevent internal fogging.

The lightweight of compact binoculars (8 to 16 ounces) is important for portability, but mid-sized binoculars have the greater light-gathering ability and a wider field of view. That’s why it’s important to think how you’ll use your binoculars. If you plan on mostly daytime outside use, compact binoculars are easier to carry. If you want to be able to see well at dawn & night, or in cloudy or inclement weather, mid-sized & full-sized binoculars may ultimately be a better choice, even though they are heavier.

The Best Binoculars Review

The Best Binoculars Review
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