Field test: Lightweight eights
A team of experienced birdwatchers tells how eight mid-priced, lightweight 8x binoculars stack up
Published: December 28, 2009
|If you’re contemplating the purchase of new binoculars, you can be forgiven if you feel a tad overwhelmed.|
Just a quick search of the marketplace will turn up hundreds of models. From dozens of manufacturers. In a wide array of sizes, powers, and weights. And at prices ranging from $10 to $3,000.
No doubt, one of them is perfect for you, your eyes, and your pocketbook, but which one? How can you find it?
One of the most productive ways to start your search is by thinking hard about what’s most important to you. For a recent field-test, we sought out binoculars that met the following criteria:
8-power. Perhaps the most popular magnification for birding binocs. (The number before the “x” in a binocular’s name is its magnification power.)
Lightweight. We wanted binocs that are easy to hold and comfortable to wear around our neck, so we looked for models that weigh less than 22 ounces.
We know that many birders use 8x binoculars with objective lenses that are 42 millimeters in diameter. (The diameter of the objective lens is the number after the “x” in binocular names.) But few 8x42s weigh less than 22 ounces, so we chose models with 32- or 36-millimeter objective lenses.
Waterproof. Because you shouldn’t ever have to worry about an unexpected shower when there are birds to be seen.
Mid-priced. Perhaps most important, we looked for models with suggested retail prices from $150 to $500. Street prices are always lower, of course.
Eight models met our criteria. They’re listed in the chart. Each has a suggested retail price from $169 to $499 and weighs between 17 and 22 ounces.
To put them through their paces, we contacted our friends at the Riveredge Bird Club in southeastern Wisconsin, including a few of the same birders who tested the high-end binocs we featured in our June 2009 issue. Eleven club members agreed to be reviewers. Each tested every binocular. We asked our reviewers to rate each model’s overall image quality, overall feel, and eye friendliness. We also asked them to tell us if the models were upgrades over their own binocs, if they were worth the money, and if they’d buy them.
To help evaluate the responses, we also asked which binoculars our
field-testers normally use and about how much they paid for them. None
of our testers owned any of the models that were part of the review.
Their optics ranged from $2,000 Swarovskis to an off-brand model that
cost $75 to older hand-me-downs. The median price our reviewers paid
for their binoculars was $450.
Click to enlarge
Editor Chuck Hagner, Editorial
Associate Julie Kuczynski, and I also tested the optics. Our rankings
are included in the results summarized above and on the following pages.
testers gave the Nikon Monarch 8x36 ATB the top overall score. “Easy to
focus far to close quickly,” wrote Phyllis McKenzie of Cedarburg, one
of several reviewers who noted the Nikon’s quick focus wheel.
Schaefer of Hartford liked the Nikon and the Vixen Foresta HR 8x32 DCF
equally. He noted their sharp edge-to-edge clarity and bright image
The Eagle Optics Ranger SRT 8x32 ranked second
overall. Deanna Sommerfeld of Colgate liked its three-foot close focus,
and Ward Wickwire of Mequon praised its “fast, easy focus and image
The binoculars in our test were all about five
inches long — noticeably smaller than most birding glasses. Although
each was similar in size, Sommerfeld said they did not all work equally
well in her small hands. The Nikon Monarch fit her face and hands the
best, she said.
Schaefer, Joan Sommer of Fredonia, and others
said all eight binoculars were similar in overall quality. “There’s no
way in a blind test I could have told these binoculars apart,” added
Mark Kaehny of Butler. “They’re all good binoculars.”
these binoculars provide a nice viewing experience,” Sommer said,
adding that lesser-known manufacturers were producing “really good
quality at a great price.”
Seven of the binoculars in our test
were roof prisms, meaning the eyepiece and front lens line up in a
straight profile. Porro prism binocs have a dog-leg shape. “I find
overall that I tend to like porro over roof prism binoculars, but I did
really like a number of these [roof prisms],” Sommer said. Noel
Cutright, founder of the bird club and a past president of the
Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, called the Brunton Echo 8x32 the
“best buy” of the eight products. It tied for third in the overall
ranking. At the time of our test, retailers were offering it for $166,
one of the lowest street prices in our group.
Ten days later,
however, one retailer priced it at $139, and another advertised a sale
price of $123, proving the point that it pays to shop around.
Two articles about buying binoculars
• The Riveredge Bird Club helped us review 11 top-of-the-line binoculars in our June 2009 issue.
• Five birdwatchers with broad experience selling and looking through binoculars recommended 22 binoculars that cost less than $750 in our February 2006 issue.
What we tested
Click to enlarge
Riveredge Bird Club members tested binoculars on the deck of the beautiful Riveredge Nature Center in Newburg, Wisconsin. Birder’s World staffers conducted their test outside the magazine’s offices. Every reviewer evaluated every binocular.
First, we had our reviewers judge brightness, sharpness, edge-to-edge clarity, field of view, depth of field, detail in shadowed areas, and freedom from color aberration for each model. Evaluators were instructed to take all of the qualities into consideration to rank overall image quality on a scale ranging from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). Numbers in the first green column show the reviewers’ average response.
Next we asked reviewers to assess size, shape, weight, balance, ease of focusing, and other usability features to rank overall feel on the same scale (1-5). Numbers in the second green column show the reviewers’ average response.
Finally, we instructed reviewers to test eye relief, eyecups, diopter, and suitability with eyeglasses to determine an overall score of eye friendliness on the 1-5 scale. 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.
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 it worth the money? Would you buy it? 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 Binoculars.com, Eagle Optics, Optics4Birding.com, and Optics Planet. You may find the same models available for sale from other vendors at different prices.
|The editors thank reviewers Noel Cutright, Ginny Helland, James
Helland, Mark Kaehny, Dennis Kuecherer, Phylis McKenzie, Tom Schaefer,
Joan Sommer, Deanna Sommerfeld, Tracy Wickwire, and Ward Wickwire for
their expertise and assistance.|
Riveredge Bird Club