Then and now
What our latest optics test revealed about a quarter century of binoculars and birdwatching
Published: October 22, 2010
|Cape May Bird Observatory Sales Manager Brian Moscatello had already done the grunt work, rifling the display case, emptying boxes, and organizing binoculars by manufacturer and magnification. He, Louise Zemaitis, and I figured we could run the whole lot of them through our indoor test in a single day. |
In many respects, this most recent trial was like that first optics test conducted by CMBO back in 1984. Published in Living Bird Quarterly (now Living Bird), it proved to be the granddaddy of the tests that Cornell conducts today. Twenty-nine testers participated in the inaugural shootout — quite a party! This time, it was only we three.
In the original, the field consisted of 17 models — all the binoculars that optics manufacturers considered birder-worthy when Ronald Reagan was president. This time, 60 instruments waited to be tested.
And while the field was large, it was also incomplete. Twenty-six years after that seminal test, the market is now fairly flooded with binoculars built specifically with birdwatching in mind. It is a testi- mony not only to the growing appeal of North America’s second most popular outdoor activity but to manufacturers’ attentiveness to that burgeoning market.
Glass has come a long way since that first test. How far and which models were on top were the questions we would be addressing today.
While Brian ran off another hundred or so test forms, I tried to decide which end of the scale to make my point of departure: Should I look at the premium stuff first or last? I’ve learned over the course of half a dozen tests that there is a bias either way. If you assess the $2,000-plus class first, you invariably score the entry-level models down. Conversely, if you start with binoculars in the $100 range and work up, your standards climb along with the performance and price.
In the end, I started low. I grabbed an Alpen Wings 8x32 and started running it through its paces — testing measurable qualities like resolution, field of view, close focus, depth of field, overall field quality, brightness, and color bias, and subjective considerations like weight (too heavy, too light), ergonomics, focus-wheel responsiveness, overall quality, and overall performance. To balance the ticket, split the bias, I encouraged Brian and Louise to start high and work down.
The qualities we were testing for really haven’t changed much since 1984. But our standards certainly have! What constituted close focus then would be called a design flaw today. On the other hand, one of the things we test for now is parallax — that is, image separation induced by the current obsession with super close focusing.
And we no longer test for internal fogging by placing binoculars in a refrigerator after soaking them under a lawn sprinkler for five minutes. There are two reasons for this.
First, most of the stuff on the market today is, at least nominally, waterproof. Manufacturers got the idea that birding is something done outdoors, and that sometimes it rains.
Second, the companies that loaned us their binoculars for that first test were too shocked to take umbrage or to assess punitive damages when we returned their waterlogged product.
But they recovered quickly.
What was then
I couldn’t help but marvel at the array: so many makes, so many fine models. On that first test, only half a dozen were suited for birding. The rest ranged from mediocre to junk — stuff sent to us because companies didn’t understand the birding market or its needs.
Take the Bausch & Lomb 7x50 Marine. Some genius in Marketing had heard that birders go offshore to watch birds — and they do! But they still need to focus, and the individual eyepiece-adjustment rings, combined with the gargantuan size, made the binocular about as nimble as a pipe fitter’s wrench.
Take the Leitz Trinovid 10x40, touted as one of the finest of the day, and overlook the dark image — today you can find $100 instruments that outshine the old Trilobite. The close focus, as determined by our test, was 19 feet!
In our most recent test, almost every glass focused down to at least 8 feet — perfect for birding.
While we are on the subject of focusing, the Trinovids were compromised not only by the range of focus (three full revolutions to go from near to far) but also by a pronounced stiffness. Users got blisters on their index fingers trying to turn the wheel.
The manager of the Leitz binocular division was furious that his expensive model scored well down in the pack. He called a meeting and, fuming, argued with the results. While I waited for his tirade to wind down, a well-dressed engineer from Germany seated behind me took notes.
If the “finest binocular on the planet” hadn’t won the competition, the manager said, then the test was flawed. I replied that his glass scored poorly because the focus wheel was too stiff to turn.
He insisted that that was what users demanded. “What users?” I asked.
“Hunters,” he replied. “They don’t want the binocular to shift focus when they are stalking game.”
“Well,” I pointed out, “birders do need to change focus, and if you want birders to buy your binocular, you might want to consider making wheels that spin.”
He countered by saying how ridiculous it was for me to assert that the Zeiss Dialyt 10x40 offered better resolution than the Leitz.
I reminded him that I wasn’t doing the asserting. It was the 29 people who tested the instruments side by side who were making that determination.
About this time, the well-dressed German behind me intoned: “Ve haff tests dat show ta same results now too, Aaron.”
I could have kissed him, and I hasten to point out that not all manufacturers looked askance at our results. Some took them to heart and benefited greatly. One was Humphrey H. Swift. Hop called to find out why his Swift Audubon 8.5x44 hadn’t done better. I told him. One year later, a new, greatly improved Swift Audubon hit the market. It was a glass that birders loved instantly and one that enjoyed about a 20-year dynasty.
Now becomes “Wow!”
It did take all day to run through the lineup — in fact, one day and a little bit. I’m sure you’d like to hear the results: learn which model was best in show, find out whether the binocular you bought outscored the one you almost purchased.
Sorry, not my objective here. The test was for us, to help us respond better to the people who trust us to know what we are talking about.
But a couple of general observations are worth noting and sharing.
First, the best stuff on the market has just gotten better. If you bought an alpha birding binocular a decade ago — a first-generation Swarovski EL, a Zeiss FL, a Leica Ultravid — you simply are not going to believe how much better great has become.
You aren’t going to believe the price either, but, well, premium binoculars are expensive for only one day. After that, every look is free! And I never met a person who bought a premium binocular who regretted it.
But the test’s real take-home message is how good the models at the low end of the price scale have gotten. There is stuff in the $100-$300 range that beats the pants off all the items we tested in 1984. The 60 instruments in our recent test are anything but a random sampling, but not a one failed to meet birding specs and hardly one was not worth the price.
Binoculars have come a long way in a quarter century. They’ve come to a place where birdwatchers are able to find commendable, birder-worthy instruments to fit any budget.
Twenty-six years ago, manufacturers were struggling to get it right. Now it’s difficult for consumers to go wrong.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.