Optics field test: Specifications, reviews, and rankings of 11 top binoculars for birdwatching
We asked 20 experienced birders to field-test 11 top-of-the-line birding binoculars and tell us if they're worth the money
Published: April 24, 2009
"Buy the best binocular you can afford." We've all heard this advice.
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The more money you spend, the thinking goes, the better the glass your new binocs will contain. The better the glass, the better your views will be.
Plus, more money should also buy a binocular that feels good, is easy to wear around your neck, and functions well with or without eyeglasses.
But is it really true? And if it is, how much do we have to pay to get that good view and feel? Are the most expensive binocs worth the money? And how do they stack up against one another?
To find out, we contacted the manufacturers of 11 top-of-the-line binoculars and asked them to loan us a pair of their 8x42s, one of the most popular powers for birding. The models, listed on page 47, came with suggested retail prices ranging from $975 to $2,851.
Then we contacted our friends at the Riveredge Bird Club of southeastern Wisconsin and asked them if they would be willing to put the binocs to the test during a three-day field trip to the Badger State's North Woods.
Twenty experienced birders participated in the event, which yielded Trumpeter Swans, Rough-legged Hawks, Spruce Grouse, Gray Jays, Common Redpolls, and many more species the weekend of March 6-8.
Each participant tested three to five binoculars. We asked the birders to rate each model's overall image quality, overall feel, and eye friendliness. We also asked reviewers to tell us if the models they tested were upgrades over their own binocs, if the models they tested were worth the money, and if they'd buy them.
To help evaluate their responses, we also asked which binoculars our reviewers normally use and about how much they paid for them. Three participants told us they owned models that were part of the review, but almost half said they hadn't tried top bins previously. The median price our reviewers paid for their own binoculars was $500.
The results are summarized in the charts above and on the following pages. The North Woods birders gave the Zeiss Victory FL 8x42 the top overall score. "Very bright and clear right away," wrote Seth Cutright of West Bend. "Very good distance, and focus is sharp." Noel Cutright, Seth's dad, added, "Its overall image quality is superior."
The Victory FL scored a 5.0 on our image-quality measure, the only perfect mark of the survey. Five of the six birders who tested it said it was an upgrade over their current glass, but only one said it was worth its $2,000-plus price tag.
The Leica Ultravid HD 8x42 ranked second overall and garnered the most interest from potential buyers, despite its high street price ($2,345). Three of six testers said it was worth the money, and three of five said they'd buy it.
"Brightness and sharpness were fantastic," wrote Dennis Panicucci of Hartford. "Field of view was also surprisingly good."
Joan Sommer of Fredonia said she "loved" the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, which our reviewers rated third overall.
"All of them [the binoculars] were very nice, as they should be at this price point," she noted, "but this one is fabulous. I may purchase sooner rather than later."
The Nikon EDG 8x42 received high marks for its wide field of view (403 feet at 1,000 yards, second only to the Victory FL), but one tester complained that its 9.8-foot close focus wasn't very close.
The Pentax DCF ED 8x43, which sells for about $1,000, scored 4.5 overall, which was equal to the Nikon EDG and just below the other most expensive models. It was praised for its image quality and light weight (fourth lightest overall), although two birders said it was too small for their hands, and one said its focus wheel was stiff.
Several reviewers also commented on the remarkable three-foot close focus of the Brunton Epoch 8.5x43. "I really like the close focus," Panicucci said. "There are times when I'm looking at a brush pile or something like that up close, and my binocs can't do that."
The range of scores and comments from our testers reflect another piece of advice often given by optics experts: "Buy the binocular that's right for you."
In other words, a binocular that one person considers great may be too heavy for you, or too small for your hands, hard to use with your eyeglasses, or… you get the idea. So when it comes time for you to invest in a top-of-line binocular, the best advice is: Shop around.
Who's buying high-end binoculars these days? Eight of our 20 testers (40 percent) said today's economy would keep them from purchasing top-of-the-line binoculars.
But that also means that 60 percent of our panel would put down the cash despite today's economy if they found the perfect glass for them.
The question then becomes: What's your tipping point? If you've been birding with a $200 or $500 binocular for many years, what would it take to buy a (much) more expensive model?
What we tested
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We wanted each binocular to be reviewed by at least five people. So we divided the 20 trip participants into four groups of five birders and gave three groups three binoculars and one group two binoculars. Over the course of the weekend, birders from different groups also swapped binocs, so most of the models received six reviews.
We instructed our reviewers to rank the overall image quality of each binocular on a scale ranging from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). We asked them to consider brightness, sharpness, edge-to-edge clarity, field of view, depth of field, detail in shadowed areas, and freedom from color aberration when making their ranking. Numbers in the first green column show the reviewers' average response.
We also asked the reviewers to rank the overall feel of each binocular, using the same scale (1-5). We requested that testers assess size, shape, weight, balance, ease of focusing, and other usability features when making their ranking. Numbers in the second green column show the reviewers' average response.
Next, we instructed our reviewers to determine an overall score of eye friendliness, using the same scale (1-5). We asked them to judge eye relief, eyecup function, diopter function, and suitability with eyeglasses when making their ranking. Numbers in the third green column show the reviewers' average response. Numbers in the yellow column are averages of ratings in the three green columns.
Finally, we asked our testers three questions about their potential interest in each model: Is the binocular you tested an upgrade over your present binocular? Is the binocular you tested worth the money? Would you buy the binocular you tested? Numbers in the orange columns show how many people said yes to each question and how many people answered.
Note: Street prices were obtained from B&H Photo, Binoculars.com, Eagle Optics, and Optics4Birding.com. You may find the same models available for sale from other vendors at different prices.
|The editors thank reviewers Marilyn Bontly, Noel Cutright, Seth Cutright, Kathleen Gallick, Michael Goodman, Joan Grant, Bettie Harriman, Karen Johnson, Dennis Kaehny, Dennis Kuecherer, Steve Kupcho, Chester B. Martin, Jym Mooney, Mickey O'Connor, Dennis Panicucci, Donna Richards, Stan Rosenstiel, Tom Schaefer, Carl Schwartz, and Joan Sommer for their expertise and assistance.|
Riveredge Bird Club