It is not uncommon for optics buyers to be both confused and daunted by binocular specifications. “Don’t you just pick them up and look through them?” Well, yes, you do exactly that whenever possible — after you have set them up for yourself by making three different adjustments (more on that below). For birdwatchers, it is important to gain a basic understanding of how to operate binoculars because, while most binoculars work for most people, some might not work for you. For years, I used binoculars that made birding a struggle, and when I see novice birders having a hard time in the field, I feel their pain and want to help!
It is easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when the opportunity to test-drive the optics in person is limited due to the pandemic, combined with the fact that more than 60 brands and over 1,000 binocular models are on the market. While many are essentially clones of the same optics with slightly different exteriors, others from well-known companies have unique features.
And then there are all the technical specifications. What the heck are eye relief, interpupillary distance (IPD), field of view, twist-out eyecups versus fold-down? Do I want 8x, 10x, 12x? I wear eyeglasses, do I need certain features? I found a binocular online for $20, will it work for birding? (The answer is decidedly “no.”) Are the differences between $300, $1,000, and $3,000 binoculars real? (Yes.) Should I get a spotting scope? Optics dealers such as the Cape May Bird Observatory are ready to handle all these features and questions. As you might expect, there are real differences in those price ranges, just as you’d find for bicycles, cars, golf clubs, and everything else.
The binocular that is best for you depends on how you intend to use it. For travel, hiking, or other casual use, the best choice may be a compact. Hunters need large objectives for dawn and dusk performance. An astronomer wants even larger objectives to gather boatloads of photons (i.e., light); often, they need higher magnification, too, and a tripod to mount a huge 15×70 binocular. Birders want something that lets them follow fast-moving, small birds, often early in the morning or at dusk, and a close focus, too.
Those three adjustments I mentioned earlier? First, twist the eyecups up if you don’t wear eyeglasses or down if you do wear them; this eliminates vignetting and lets you see the full field of view. Second, move the hinge of the binocular to adjust the interpupillary distance (the distance between the centers of your pupils), so you see one circular image. And third, to get a sharp image in both eyes, look at an object through the left eyepiece and adjust the focus wheel until it is sharp. Then look at the same object through the right eyepiece and adjust the diopter ring, which is next to the eyecup, until the image is sharp. Then, you’ll be good to go.
Try before you buy
We live in a golden age of optics, so you are sure to find many models available that will suit you just fine. And while I can’t cover every brand and model here, I will discuss how to choose the best binoculars for birding and offer a roundup of popular and widely available brands and models at different price points. Binoculars are the main focus, and I’ll touch on spotting scopes, too.
The older “traditional” binocular style is called a Porro prism. In these, the front (objective) lenses are farther apart than the oculars (eye lenses). In roof prisms, the barrels are straight. Both kinds work well, but roof prisms are more popular today.
Whenever possible, “try before you buy.” This advice is increasingly hard to follow. At FeatherEdgeOptics.org, we often field questions from birders who live a half-day’s drive from any place where they can test optics in person. The local backyard bird shop may have a small selection; support them if you find something that works for you. For many birders, hunting and fishing stores may be the only game in town, and often there are only a few models available.
The most common and easily corrected problems people have with binoculars are the IPD range and/or the eye relief. So we’ll start with those factors because they’re important to know before you choose a binocular, especially if you cannot try them first.
Multi-lens magnifying optics “project” the final image as a circle above the surface of the eyepiece. That circular image is called the exit pupil. The distance this image “floats” above the glass is the eye relief. In binoculars, it is usually 10 mm or more. If you don’t wear glasses, or wear contacts, eye relief isn’t critical. If you DO wear eyeglasses, buy a binocular with at least 15 mm of eye relief! And more eye relief such as 17-20 mm is even better. Adjustable eyecups are a must. They may be either fold-down rubber eyecups (entry-level) or twist-up and down; as you go up in price, they’ll add intermediate positions, meaning at least one firm click-stop or detents between “up” and “down.”
Next, know your interpupillary distance, or IPD. A typical binocular’s IPD range is 58-73 mm. The mean IPD for all adults is about 63 mm but can vary from 50 to nearly 80 mm. If you do not know your IPD but can tell an optics salesperson a binocular that works for you and whether you close it to the minimum IPD, they can steer you away from a few models that may not fit you.
New optics buyers wonder what power (magnification) and which objective size (32 mm or 42 mm) they should buy. There is no right or wrong answer; your choice depends on what is most important to you. If you mostly look at distant birds over the ocean or at a hawk watch with distant or high raptors, then a 10x may be the best bet. Backyard and woodland birders usually prefer 8x. If you have a noticeable handshake, consider 7x or even 6x.
People usually choose a 32 mm objective over a 42 mm because they weigh less and have a wider field of view. Smaller lenses mean smaller prisms, a smaller chassis, and an overall lighter package. “Field of view” means the width of the image you see when looking through the binoculars. It is measured either in degrees (with you in the center of the circle) or in feet at 1,000 yards. A wide field of view makes it easier to get on the bird and to follow fast-moving objects in flight.
You might think a smaller 32-mm lens, like a small window, would provide a lesser view of the world than a 42-mm binocular. Counterintuitively, binoculars don’t work that way, and a given brand’s 8×32 usually has a wider field of view (FOV) than its 8×42. As expected, lower magnifications give wider fields of view. So, the standard binocular configurations from the widest FOV to the narrowest would be 8×32, 8×42, 10×32, 10×42.
Understanding the relationship between magnification, objective lens size, and brightness is an easy one. Recall the exit pupil, the circular image that projects onto your eye. The bigger it is, the brighter the image. The diameter of the exit pupil for any binocular is the objective diameter divided by magnification. An 8×32 has a 4-mm exit pupil (32 ÷ 8 = 4). A 6×30 has a 5-mm exit pupil. For an 8×42, it’s 5.25 mm. In a 7×42, it’s 6 mm. If you are a fair-weather birder, a small light objective will suffice. If you chase woodcocks, owls, and nightjars, stick to a 42.
In summary, the standard for most birders is an 8×42 because of a better-than- average field of view and a bright image in low light. If you are in the hawk-or-sea-watching group, a 10x may be a better tool. If your wrists ache from lifting 42 mm binoculars all day, we suggest an 8×32. If you can afford it, say yes to ED or HD glass. The terms mean the same — extra-low dispersion or high-definition glass.
No matter what binocular you choose, check for brightness, color fidelity, field quality (how much of the FOV is sharp), and resolution. It is relatively easy to find optics you like, but the final decision often is based on ergonomics: how a binocular fits your hand and eyes, which focus knob you prefer, and so forth. But to know that, you must hold them in your hands, up to your eyes. And to do that, may I suggest a field trip to Cape May? What lucky birders you are!
Best binoculars for birding
At New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory and FeatherEdgeOptics.org, we carry about a fifth of the 60-odd brands of optics and 10 percent of the models. Lest you think we are not a serious optics store, that means we have about 100 binoculars from which to choose! We feel that carrying many more would make your choice more difficult. We recognize there are many fine optics not included in our catalog, and no disparagement is intended by their absence.
The list below shows the minimum advertised price (MAP) for 8×42 and 10×42 unless noted otherwise. Although not strictly enforced, MAPs are established and recommended by optics manufacturers to stabilize pricing and discourage undercutting in the retail market. That is, consumers will find prices are roughly the same from any retailer. For info on where the binoculars in this roundup are manufactured, scroll to the end of this article.
Best buys under $200
It costs less to make a good-quality Porro prism binocular than the same quality in a roof prism. Hence, there are several nice Porros in this entry-level range. Both the Kowa YF series ($100) and similar Opticron Savanna ($139-$149) offer 6×30 and 8×30 models with a 50 mm minimum IPD, twist-up eyecups, and wide-wheel focusing. They are our top choices for children or budget-minded adults with a narrow IPD. The Celestron Ultima 8×32 ($99.99) and Opticron Adventurer T WP ($115 for the 6.5×32 or 8×32) are other compact Porro prism choices.
The Vortex Crossfire HD ($139.99-$149.99) is a nice entry-level roof prism. The upgrade to HD glass made the Crossfire an even greater value. The 58-mm minimum IPD may not work for some, but it’s a great option if your IPD is average. The Opticron Oregon 4 ($165-$179) series are well-built optics with a modern close focus, ample eye relief, and nice handling.
Celestron’s popular entry-level binocular, the Nature DX ED ($177.95-$188.95) now offers ED objectives for improved optical performance. Vortex Diamondback HD 8×32 ($189.99) provides a wide field, 5-foot close focus, upgraded HD lenses, and a build quality more typical of mid-level binoculars. These include a magnesium alloy chassis, HD glass, and more durable eyecup assemblies.
Best buys between $200-$599
Long dominated by the perennial bestselling Nikon Monarch 5 ED ($279.95-$299.95) and Monarch 7 ED ($479.95-$499.95), this is a crowded market segment. At just a little more than the entry-level prices, the Vortex Diamondback HD ($219.99-$229.99) is a hard-to-pass-up bargain. Opticron’s Explorer WA ED-R Series ($289-$299) offers a light, compact chassis with wide FOVs. The Celestron TrailSeeker ED ($314.95-$325.95) and Regal ED ($349.95-$359.95) are Celestron’s best birding glasses.
The Maven C.1 models (8×42, 10×42, 12×42, $325-$375) are positioned at price points between the Nikon Monarch 5 and 7. We were favorably impressed with the build and clarity of this series.
Check the price and availability of the Maven C.1 on Amazon.
With compact bodies, wide FOVs, smooth focusing, and four-position eyecups, the Kowa BD II XD Series is a worthy contender. There are five models, from the 6.5×32 to a 10×42 ($399-$449). Zeiss sells the Terra ED (8×32 to 10×42, $399.99-$499.99) — a German-designed binocular at a mass-produced price.
Among our best-selling Vortex binoculars, the Viper HD ($489.99-$499.9) offers crisp optics in a sturdy waterproof chassis. The company’s VIP warranty just adds to the allure.
Best buys between $600-$1,099
This range encompasses models nearly equal to the top tier. Though it is not currently in our catalog, we received a review pair of Fujinon Hyper-Clarity HC (8×42 & 10×42, $799.99-$849.99) and found these to be an attractive, well-built binocular with three-position eyecups and metal diopter ring and focus knob. It exudes quality and provides fine colors, crisp resolution, and wide FOVs. The flagship bins from Maven, the B.1 models (8×42, 10×42, $900-$950), are priced and built to compete against anything up to $1,000. The Zeiss Conquest HD series ($999.99) includes four models great for birders. Silky-smooth focusing, comfortable eyecups, and a bright, crisp image are hallmarks.
Check the price and availability of the Maven B.1 on Amazon.
The Vortex Razor HD ($979.99-$999.99) and Nikon Monarch HG ($979.95-$999.95) offer slim barrels, pop-up locking diopters, and four-step eyecups in a lightweight body. The Leica Trinovid HD series ($999) has a very wide FOV, lots of eyepiece click stops, and extremely close focus.
Best buys between $1,100-$1,999
Vortex is never satisfied, and its Razor UHD ($1,449.99-$1,499.99) is its entry into pinnacle optics. With a 420-foot FOV and 56-76 mm IPD range, they fit most viewers, and the image is superb. At 2 pounds, they are not for everyone. A chief competitor here is Kowa’s Genesis 44 XD Prominar, which has a larger 44-mm objective and offers an extra half-power of magnification ($1,299 for 8.5×44, $1,399 for 10.5×44).
Check the price and availability of the Kowa Genesis 44 XD Prominar on Amazon.
Best of the best: $2,000 to $3,000+
Users continually push companies to make improvements, and competition makes those improvements flow down-market. While one can find affordably priced binoculars for birding, the European optics triumvirate — Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss — are the leaders in innovation and are always at the head of the pack.
Swarovski pioneered the first double bridge, and its EL series enjoyed cult status for a decade and a half. The EL 8.5×42 and 10×42 ($2,169, $2,199) are still superb choices. In 2019, Swarovski announced a successor. The NL Pure series launched in fall 2020 with 8×42, 10×42, and 12×42 models, joined by the 8×32 and 10×32 models this spring. The NL Pure ($2,499-$3,099) immerses you in the view. Generous eye relief and multi-step eyecups provide the full field of view with or without eyeglasses. Actual and apparent FOVs set new class limits. The constricted barrel is easy to hold, even one-handed. An unexpected optional accessory is the FRP forehead rest, which adds stability to the view, especially when glassing with one hand; it’s great for the 12×42.
Zeiss’s Victory SF Series (8×32 for $2,249.99 to 10×42 for $2,749.99) is also a delicious handful, with design features such as ergo-balance and Smart Focus (SF), shifting the notion of tracking street-level swallows from an effort in futility into the realm of possibility.
Leica has two high-end lines. The Ultravid HD+ series (8×32 for $2,099 to 10×42 for $2,299) is the last to provide a premium 7×42. All are compact and among the most durable binoculars available. With Schott HT glass, its flagship Noctivids ($2,749-$2,849) offer bright, sharp, wide-field views and deserve consideration among the best of the best.
Where they’re made
Below is a run-down on where the binoculars featured in this buyers guide are made. It’s worth noting that for some brands and models, the manufacturing country is not always the same as the country of origin.
Binoculars from Swarovski come from Austria, and the ones from Leica and Zeiss come from Germany. However, the Zeiss Terra ED is manufactured in China.
China is the country of origin for the Celestron Ultima, Kowa BDII XD, Nikon Monarch 7 ED, Vortex Diamondback HD, and all Opticron models. The Celestron Nature DX ED is manufactured in China, but the country of origin is the United States.
The following models hail from Japan: Fujinon Hyper-Clarity HC, Kowa Genesis, Kowa YF, Nikon Monarch HG, Vortex Razor, and Vortex Razor UHD. Japan is the country of origin for the Nikon Monarch 5 ED and Maven B.1, but China manufactures the Monarch 5, and the B.1. is assembled in the U.S.
The U.S. is the country of origin for the Celestron Regal ED, Celestron Trailseeker ED, and Vortex Viper HD, but the two Celestrons are manufactured in Taiwan, and the Viper HD in Japan. And the Maven C.1 comes from the Philippines.
Do I need a spotting scope?
Binoculars are the main tool for birding, but some identifications cannot be made without higher magnification. Again, so many choices! Angled or straight, small objective or large, fixed power or zoom, ED or not ED? Consider scope size and its tripod together. Do not skimp! Putting a great scope on a cheap tripod will frustrate you while it lasts. If you plan to walk a few hundred feet to an overlook, weight doesn’t matter. If you plan to hike a mile and a half to a mountain hawk watch with elevation gain or trudge miles on a beach, then weight matters, and a 65 mm or even a 50 mm “travel scope” might be perfect for you. Remember, an unwieldy scope left in a closet is of no value.
Over the years, angled scopes have become so popular among birders that straight scopes are special-order only. Scopes come with a zoom eyepiece by default, and even entry-level scopes offer eyepieces that are functional through the lower two-thirds of the range. If you are serious about 60x, go ED/HD. So, you’ve decided on an HD angled scope with a zoom eyepiece; join the happy throng!
This article was first published in the July/August 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.