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Reader Comments: Evaluating 25+ Binoculars in 2016

Last updated 2016-12-29 - Send Feedback
Related: binoculars, reader comment

Binoculars at B&H Photo:

Roy P does an extensive comparison with 2016-model binoculars

Roy P took the extraordinary step of ordering a very large assortment of binoculars about six years after I did my evaluations. His findings differ somewhat but here is the gist of it:

  • Eye relief of 20mm or more is preferred. Less than that might be acceptable if form factor is a priority.
  • Roy was/is not as sensitive to the depth of field issue as I (Lloyd) perceived it and he also differs on sharpness somewhat. With eyeglasses, a large exit pupil might degrade the performance (for example the Fujinon 7X50 has an exit pupil twice the area of his preferred Swarovski model). This could well degrade performance for eyeglass wears.
  • Features such as very fast focus adjustment are clearly in favor of roof prism binoculars. On the other hand, porro prism binoculars at medium and closer distances are all but unbeatable for depth of field, which reduce the need for refocusing if the subject is not changing much in distance.
  • Bottom line is that eyeglasses or not, intended usage and size/weight all mean that individual particulars come to bear heavily on the proper “best” binocular.

Roy wears eyeglasses, which may be a factor in binocular performance in various ways, including perceived sharpness, ability to position the eye properly (eyecups and such), etc. Also, his findings are based on binoculars many of which are improved models since the 2010 reviews on other pages here. While he does not find the Fujinon 7X50 binoculars as appealing as I did, this could be due to the very large exit pupil (with twice the area of the Swarovski 8X42), which possibly interacts negatively with eyeglasses. However, note that my favorite roof prism binocular from 5 years prior was the Swarovski EL 10X42 SwaroVision, which is consistent with his 2016 conclusions of preferring the Swarovski models.

 
Swarovski 8x25 pocket binocular

I tried some 25-30 different binoculars over the past 2-3 weeks, including Swarovski, Leica, Pentax, Nikon, etc., then finally settled on what made the best sense for me – this $819 Swarovski 8x25 pocket binocular. Optically, it comes very close to the Swarovski flagship 8.5x42 EL42, which I think is the best binocular I tested. Its performance in low light is also very impressive, very close to the EL42.

The single best binocular I liked best was the $2550 Swarovski EL42 (8.5 x 42). I continue to salivate about this for its sheer engineering, but in my case, as a photographer, it is too much bulk and weight to lug around, when my primary addiction is to photography, not bird watching.

This $2200 Swarovski 8x32 is almost as good as the Swarovski 8.5x42. The optics feels identical, and in several hours of low light comps, the 8.5x42 is only very marginally superior in low light (e.g., resolving the white numerals on a black mailbox about 300’ away, located in deep shadows, in near darkness, so dark that I could barely make out the outline of the mailbox with my bare eyes).

The Swarovski 8x25 comes surprisingly close to the EL42 and EL32.

The $2600 Leica Noctivid 8x42 is optically outstanding, probably just as good as the Swarovski EL42, but its eye relief is just a tad shorter than the EL42, enough to make it hard for me to see the entire field clearly.

This Steiner 8x44 Wildlife binocular felt every bit as good as the Swarovski, but the focus button was tight and slippery, making it much tougher to operate than the Swarovski, especially with gloved hands: The price is $2000, but B&H will give you a ~10% lower price if you click the “email me a better price” link.

I also tested several porro prism binoculars. The best I tested was this Steiner 7x50, which I found every bit as good as the Fujinon Polaris 7x50 optically. [diglloyd: not evaluated and Roy wears eyeglasses, but quite possibly true either way]. In addition, it is much smaller (8.1 x 5.5 x 2.9"), and at 1 kilo, 33% lighter, and much cheaper – the normal price is $440, and if you click the “email me a better price”, they’ll send you a $399 price. The eye relief is not specified, but it feels like 21mm. The Fujinon was too much eye relief with the foldable eyecup spacers folded down (23 mm), and too little when it was pulled out (about 17mm). That made it very binary, and totally unusable for me, anyway.

Another excellent porro prism was this Steiner 8x30, which quite compact and portable. This is only 4.6 x 6.8 x 2.4", and 508 grams. Again, they will email you a crazy price of only $199, which is fantastic for the optics it delivers. Only problem, its eye relief is not quite 20mm as advertised, but a tad less, maybe 18mm, even with the foldable ocular spacer folded down. That made it a little borderline for me to use, but it might work for others.

With both these, if you wear eye glasses, you should need no eye-specific adjustments. In my case, I simply kept both eyes at zero bias, and it worked just fine for me. So all I had to do was hold up the binoculars, and pretty much everything from about 100’ to infinity was in decent focus. The advertised claim is 65’ to infinity, but it’s a little soft until you get to around 90-100’.

So basically, you do nothing other than just hold it up, and you’re looking at everything ~100 feet to infinity “autofocused”. This aspect of a porro prism design has one huge benefit: it substantially eases the pain of the weight of the binocular. You can hold a binocular like this BY KEEPING YOUR ELBOWS DOWN, and against your chest. So your forearms are vertical, not horizontal with your elbows up in the air. That can easily support the weight of the binocular for an extended period of time. In this posture, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to focus, but the whole point of this posture is, you don’t need to focus, and you’re not focusing – you’re just looking through the glass.

So if you’re leveraging the ultra-DoF of the porro prism design, this method works fine, and both these binoculars give you very good performance for a very modest price. Problem is, these are very hard to use if you ever need to look at something close.

Now, here’s the new thing I learned: High quality roof prism binoculars give you the same kind of DoF, but from a distance of about 250’ to infinity. This is the part I had not understood previously! This has three major ramifications:

  • First, if you pick an object about ~250’ away, and another near-infinity, you can find a focus setting that brings both these into pretty good focus. At least, with all the Swarovski binoculars. So if I’m whale-watching or at a sports event, I can see pretty much everything in good focus, just as I would with a porro prism.
  • Second, within this DoF, there’s one plane of best focus in which things are razor sharp, and here, the roof prism is better than anything I could see with a porro prism. So I could very sharply focus on something and get subject isolation with a nice 3-D pop, whenever I need it. This is hugely helped by how easy it is to focus the roof prism binoculars, especially the Swarovskis.
  • Third, there are lot of times I want to see something that is less than 50 feet away. That is trivial with a roof prism, and a major PITA with porro prisms with individual eye focusing.

In other words, with the best roof prism binoculars, I can get almost everything I could get from a porro prism binocular, but also other benefits that a porro prism could not easily give me, such as a much sharper look at best focus, the ability to see objects much closer to me, the ability to instantly refocus with great ease, and the compact size and weight. Of course, it comes at a higher cost. [diglloyd: roof prism binoculars from Leica and Zeiss have improved greatly from 2010 to 2016, and this might be true. It also might be true that eyeglasses are a factor in optical performance since even a slight position error can interact badly with the exit pupil image.]

If I were a birder or hunter, I would get the Swarovski EL42, or the EL32 if I wanted a little more compact and lighter. But since I’m going to be constantly also lugging a camera, for me, the 8x25 gives me almost all of the advantages of the EL42 or EL32, but in a feather weight form factor.

Finally, one terrific cheapie that everyone should buy simply as a matter of principle, just because it’s so cheap, and punches way above its weight class:Pentax 8x25 A-Series AD WP Compact Binocular. For $87 with no tax and free shipping, this cheapie offers Nitrogen filling, weather sealing, and a 21mm eye relief. The optics are surprisingly good. This is a superb value for anyone on a tight budget.

... One caveat, as I discovered: for eyeglass wearers, there are many fine binoculars that are right on the borderline, and they might work very well or not at all for a specific individual. The Leica Noctivid 8x42 is brilliant, and optically seems as good as the Swarovski, if I took off my glasses and adjusted the oculars for an optimal eye distance. But with my eyeglasses on, the eye relief is about a mm too short. That is enough to make it uncomfortable and suboptimal to use for me. For someone else, it could work just fine.

People who don’t have to wear glasses have a much larger set of choices. People who do, really need to test a binocular to see if it works for them. A large eye relief (I’d recommend at least 20mm) listed in the specs is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition.

[Roy P continues his thoughts 10 days later]

I’ve got to add the Zeiss 8x42 Victory SF binoculars right up there with the Swarovsky 8.5x42 EL42. Depending on the use case, you could make either of these the #1 and the other the #2, but they are more like a #1a and #1b.

The Zeiss is slightly bigger in size, but slightly lighter, so it has a lower density. It handles very well – the specs says the weight is distributed more towards the occulars, so the binocular tends to lean towards the user instead of away from the user, and that indeed seems to be the case – it just feels a little more secure in the hands.

It has the same kind of very good focus from around 250’ to 1000+ feet, so you can look at anything in this range without having to focus, very much like a porro prism.

The big difference is, it has a whopping 446’ field of view at 1000 yards, and that is over 10% more than the EL42. And not only that, there is no fall off in the sharpness or curvature I can see towards the edges – it looks pretty darned flat. Very impressive, I think.

Brightness, contrast, clarity, and CA control all look identical between the Zeiss and the Swarovski, as well as the Leica Noctivid.

The 8.5x magnification in the Swarovski EL42 vs. 8.0x in the Zeiss makes things look marginally bigger, which perceptually feels even larger because of the smaller FoV. But once you realize you’re seeing a 10%+ larger area, the magnification in the Zeiss doesn’t look too mingy.

The eye relief in the Zeiss is 18mm, which is 2mm less than the Swarovski, so for some people who wear eyeglasses, that could be borderline.

The Zeiss also has a much shorter focus throw to go from near to infinity. The Swarovski takes almost an entire extra turn of the focusing ring. So the Zeiss allows a much quicker navigation up and down the Z axis, but the Swarovski allows greater control over the focusing within a zone of focus. Depending on the use case, some people will prefer one over the other. In my case, if this were a manual focusing lens, I would definitely prefer the Swarovski, since I’m not likely to be rapidly bouncing up and down a scene. But for a binocular, since I don’t have any one specific use case, I think I personally prefer the faster navigation the Zeiss offers.

Now, here’s the piece de resistance: the $1150-off sale is still on, so the price is still “only” $1700.

I had no use case to justify buying this binocular at $2850, nor the Swarovski EL 42 for $2550, or the Leica Noctivid for $2600, even with the 10% off deal I had. But for $1700, I am thinking hard about use cases for the Zeiss! I already have it from B&H, now it’s a matter of deciding to keep it or return it. I’ve already all the other full-size binoculars I had been evaluating.

BTW, there is one other Zeiss 8x42 Victory SF listed on the B&H site for $2850, not discounted, that seems identical to the above binocular, with the ONLY difference I can see being a T* in the title. I don’t know if this is a newer model (it has zero reviews) with improved coatings that reduce any residual longitudinal CA (there is no lateral CA I can detect). I definitely don’t have a use case for it – I think I can live without whatever further improvements this model might have!

...

I’ve decided to keep the Zeiss 8x42 Victory SF. The FoV is really incredible and IMHO, that makes it very unique and compelling.

Here’s a nice additional bit of nuance I just realized about the Zeiss and its oversized FoV, and I think that makes the Zeiss very unique. First, a bit of background:

A 50mm focal length camera lens represents “normal” view, and has an angle of view of about 47°. In binocular terms, for an 8x mag binocular, that is an angle of view of 47 ÷ 8 = 5.875°. So tan( 5.875° ) x 1000 yards x 3 ≈ 309 feet. Let’s call this a Normal or Natural FoV, or NFoV. So NFoV is about 309 feet at a distance of 1000 yards, and this represents our natural vision. Any area outside the NFoV falls into the domain of our peripheral vision.

Most 8x binoculars have a FoV that is in the 350-380’ range at 1000 yards. Even at this, the FoV exceeds the NFoV. That means most binoculars create a ring of peripheral vision around the NFoV, and the width of this annulus is more or less, depending on the optics of a given binocular. None of the binoculars can change the NFoV, they can only affect the width of the ring of peripheral vision around the NFoV.

My “Aha!” epiphany was that the larger the region of peripheral vision, the better our perception of what we see in our NFoV. It’s not that a binocular with larger FoV means we can see more with it, as I had assumed.

With a binocular, at the edge of the outer ring of peripheral vision, we have a very sharp cutoff, where the field goes totally dark. This dark boundary is a formidable and intimidating presence that puts pressure on our NFoV. So a wider ring of peripheral vision pushes out the dark edge beyond the peripheral view improves our perception of our NFoV, I believe.

To use a picture frame analogy, there’s a picture in the center, that is like our NFoV. You could put a black frame tightly around it. That would put a sharp and restrictive boundary to the picture, and will be a forceful presence the entire time we see the picture. But placing a non-distracting mat around the picture that pushes the black frame outwards by several inches improves our perception of the picture.

I think that’s what happens with binoculars. A larger FoV is really a larger ring of peripheral vison surrounding our NFoV, and that pushes out the black boundaries, and thereby improves what we see in our NFoV. We don’t really directly see what is in the peripheral vision ring, so it is the non-distracting gray mat around our picture.

This is an amazing decluttering mechanism. It’s like looking at a product (e.g., a Macbook) at an Apple store vs. the same product at Fry’s. At the Apple store, there is nothing surrounding the product, and it looks more impressive than at Fry’s, where you’re likely to see a lot of other stuff all around. Ditton for Leica store vs. a typical retail camera store.

I think this is where the Zeiss 8x42 Victory distinguishes itself, and this is what makes it very special. The 446’ FoV really frames the ~309’ NFoV very nicely, much better than anything else. The Swarovski EL42 has a FoV of 399’, and the Leica 8x42 Noctivid has a FoV of 406’, and those are very good too. But the FoV puts the Zeiss 8x42 Victory in a higher orbit of its own, if the 18mm eye relief works.

Fortunately, the eye relief in the Zeiss is just good enough for me. So even without the big sale at B&H, I would be seriously considering the Zeiss, but the price drop seals the deal for me.

If the 18mm eye relief is not enough, then the Leica 8x42 Noctivid (19mm eye relief) and Swarovski 8.5x42 EL42 (20mm eye relief) would be the next best alternatives. Between these two, I think the Swarovski gets the edge owing to both the slightly larger magnification of 8.5x, slightly larger eye relief, slightly better ergonomics, and although not very material, $50 lower price. All three come with “Limited lifetime warranty”.

I think the sale B&H has going right now is terrific – having spent so much time looking at these, a $1700 price for the Zeiss 8x42 is a no brainer for anyone who wants to acquire a high end full sized binocular. There are a lot of very good binoculars that are far cheaper and highly functional, but if you want the best of the best in a roof prism binocular today, I think this is it!

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John D writes:

FWIW, the Zeiss dealer in Mendocino "Out of this World" told me that the fine focus adjustment on the new series of Victory binoculars is easier to use than in the version that's currently on sale.

After they pointed this out I did notice how the focus on mine is very touchy compared to my friends Swarovski's. However I'm not sending them back.

Dan M writes:

The birders are raving about the Zeiss Victory 8X42 SF product, both in 10 and 8 power, but I just can’t imagine pulling the financial trigger on something with 18mm eye relief.

I agree—18mm is just not a comfortable viewing experience, and Roy P concurs:

18mm is a nonstarter for me. This Zeiss has the largest FoV amongst the binoculars I saw, 444 feet at 1000 yards. That is 10%+ more than the Swarovski EL 42, which is spec’ed at 399 feet.

The Pentax 8x43 Z-Series ZD ED Binocular was at the other end of the range, with a FoV of only 331 feet, which was a shame, because it’s otherwise very well built, at a great price.

Jon L writes:

Thank you for reviewing binoculars. It seems that you're concentrating on high-end non-stabilized optics. I rely on binoculars for coastal navigation and life became much easier once I invested in a high magnification binocular (14x42 Nikon) with optical stabilisation. Sure, it's very heavy and eats batteries, but it allows for certain identification of navigational marks at a distance, something that was always a challenge with the unstabilized 7x50 marine model I used previously.

A marine binocular must be able to tolerate some sea-spray and I guess that the resulting salt cover will affect optical quality. In terms of usefulness, this has never caused me to reach for my on-shore binocular (a Minolta) because the jittery image feels useless.

My binoculars are aging, however (all pre-2009), and I have noticed that Canon has now issued a whole range of stabilized units. I would like to see some independent review of these binoculars. Anything you can recommend?

DIGLLOYD: Please see my 2010 reviews: Canon 10X42L IS WP Image Stabilized and Canon 15X50 IS WP Image Stabilized. I have not reviewed any binoculars since then.

Binoculars at B&H Photo:

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