Wildlife enthusiast? Aspiring bird nerd? Want to scope out a line on that yonder ridge? We purchased 12 of the most popular binoculars on the market and put them through the paces. We made sure our selections covered every price range, from novice friendly to, "This costs more than my car." So whether you just want to be able to check out some birds on your next day hike, or are a full-time ecological scientist, our testing results can lead you to the perfect pair of bins.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated February 2018
We've been keeping a close watch over the binocular market and have not seen any compelling new releases. We'll continue to do so and update this review the minute anything new and exciting comes out.
We have now split the review into two sections. The first section focuses on the binoculars that the average person would consider. The second section looks at the very high-end models that are geared towards professionals and very dedicated wildlife enthusiasts. If you're looking for one of those models, you can skip down to our high-end shootout section.
Best Overall Binoculars
Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Vortex has a reputation for building optics that perform better than their price would suggest, and the Viper HD 8X42 is no exception. When you first look through these bins you may mistake them for one of the $1000+ models. Their clarity is exceptional, the focus knob supple, and the 5.1 foot close focus range lets you check out the bugs at your feet as well as the distant birds. The only real drawback is the relatively narrow field of view, but this was only noticeable when looking at landscapes. For wildlife viewing we never found the field of view limiting.
Very clear and bright
Easy to adjust
On the expensive side
Relatively narrow field of view
Read review: Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Best for Budget-Minded
Vortex Diamondback 8x28
Our Best Buy award goes to the Vortex DiamondBack 8x28. The Best Buy award is all about a price-to-feature ratio. With an MSRP of $124.99, Vortex has had to make compromises on the DiamondBack line. You won't find ED glass or a locking diopter. The hinges and adjustments are stiff out of the box. There is a "made in China" sticker compared to the molded "made in Japan" label on the Viper. All of these things make for a sub $200 pair in contrast to the $600 price for the Viper. That is not to say that Vortex as a manufacturer doesn't know how to design and make good optics, which is evident in the Diamondback. Earning good scores across the board, the clarity was good for non-ED glass and the brightness scored well for having a smaller objective lens and a lower cost coating. When we looked at all the scores in all the categories and compared them to the manufacturer's MSRP, you could really see the value in the Vortex Diamondback 8x28. We think this is the highest performance you can get for this price.
Great construction quality
Don't work well in low light conditions
Read review: Vortex DiamondBack 8x28
Top Pick Award for Birding and Wildlife Viewing
Swarovski EL 8.5x42
Our Top Pick for birding and wildlife viewing is the Swarovski EL 8.5x42. We didn't give the Swarovski EL our Editors' Choice Award because of the high price tag, but it is the best pair of binoculars we've ever tested. One tester made the comment "If I was going on a once in a lifetime trip to Africa or South America specifically to see something, I would spend the money on the Swarovski." The Swarovski EL line has all the top features like multi-coated surfaces and ED glass along with quality construction. The Swarovski EL, with an open center bridge and rubber coated barrels, are comfortable to hold and use all day. The clarity and brightness of the image is unparalleled. That is why the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 earn our Top Pick Award for the best birding and wildlife viewing pair.
Incredible clarity and brightness
Awesome construction quality
Read review: Swarovski EL 8.5x42
Top Pick Award for Travel and Hiking
Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR
Our Top Pick for travel and hiking goes to the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR. Not only is the Leica the most compact pair in our test, the Leica also scored high for optical quality. At 4.4 x 2.4 inches and only 9.4 oz, it would be hard not to find space for this pair in your pack. Though Leica doesn't specify if the BCR uses ED glass, the optical quality is definitely top notch, scoring well in the clarity category. The Leica BCR does use multi-coated surfaces on all lenses, and even with a small 25mm objective lens it is one of the top scorers in the brightness category. Combine that with the good construction quality and you a have fine compact model. This is the pair you want with you when size and weight matters.
Small and compact
Lightest binoculars we tested
Short field of view
Read review: Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR
Analysis and Test Results: Reasonably Priced Binoculars
In this section we focus on the binoculars that would work best for most people. Most of them fall into the $100-$500 price range, and are great for the majority of birders and wildlife enthusiasts out there. If birding is more of a lifestyle than a hobby for you, and you're willing to spend $2000+ to get the best pair of binoculars possible, check out our high-end shootout section below.
We are defining clarity as the amount of detail one is able to see through the lenses. This was tested by using the following ISO 12233 chart. The chart was downloaded and printed on a piece of 11x17 paper at 1200 dpi resolution. We also recruited a couple bird models from a local arts and crafts store (Garry the Goldfinch and Barry the Bluebird) and observed those models through each pair of binoculars.
Each product's clarity score was based on detailed observations, in varying conditions, to critically compare and rate performance. Factors that can influence clarity are objective lens size, lens material, lens coatings, and optical alignment. A larger objective lens allows more detail into the system, this has to do with the airy pattern and airy disc. ED or high density glass corrects aberrations. This is important because a larger diameter objective lens can create more aberration issues. The coating on a lens has almost as much to do with clarity and brightness as the lenses themselves. A good coating can reduce the amount of scattered light down to a quarter of a percent per a surface. Scattered light is lost or misaligned information. You can have the best lens and coatings, but if all the elements aren't lined up and centered your image will come out distorted. With a minimum of 6 elements and some models having up to 20 elements, plus the two barrels, getting everything aligned can be very difficult. Fortunately our brains are good at compensating for small misalignments. However, misalignments can add to eye strain.
Earning a score of 9 out of 10 in our clarity testing, the best of the reasonably priced binoculars was the Vortex Viper HD 8x42. Both of these top models allowed us to clearly make out the 10 zone on our ISO 12233 chart, and to make out all of the plumage markings on our bird models.
The Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42 and the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR both earned a score of 8 out of 10 in our clarity testing. These models allowed us to see zones 8 and 9 were clearly on the chart with just a little defocusing around the last millimeter or two near the edges. All five of these top pairs include multi-coated lenses, ED or HD glass, and excellent craftsmanship, which is what allows them all to be so clear.
Evaluating brightness was a somewhat subjective process and we individually polled each tester. So for our scoring we relied primarily on human judgement and opinion. Many factors help to determine how bright a pair of binoculars will be: the size of the objective lens, the glass material, the coatings used and on what surfaces these coatings are used, and the magnification.
The top models in the brightness category where the Nikon Monarch 5 8x56, and the Celestron SkyMaster DX 9x63. The Nikon Monarch 5 and Celestron SkyMaster both have large diameter objective lenses that allow for more light to enter the system. This makes them both good for low light viewing conditions. The Nikon Monarch 5 features ED glass and have fully multi-coated lenses, which helps to reduce the scattering of light inside the system. The Celestron SkyMaster use a double porro prism (the only pro prism pair in our test) which is more efficient at transferring light than a roof prism.
Two other models also excelled in our brightness testing, though they didn't shine quite as brightly as our top scorers. The Vortex Viper HD 8x42, and the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR both provided bright images in our testing, even when conditions were overcast. We were surprised at how well the relatively small Leica performed in this regard, clearly the company's high end glass is able to make up some lack of objective lens size.
There is an old adage that goes "the best pair of binoculars is the one you use." If yours aren't comfortable to hold, carry, or look through then you aren't going to use them. Things like rubberized coatings on the barrels, indentations for your hands and thumbs, an open bridge, comfortable interpupillary distance, padded straps, adjustable eyecups, weight, size, and eye relief can all affect how comfortable a pair will be. All of these measurement are very subjective and will differ between individuals. For instance, not everyone's eyes are set the same distance apart, so everyone will be most comfortable with a slightly different interpupillary distance. The amount of eye relief can be a big concern for someone with glasses and of little concern to others.
Overall the products in this test were judged by various users and the top in our rankings are the Vortex Viper HD 8x42, the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42, and the Celestron SkyMaster 9x63. The Celestron SkyMaster8 with the classic porro prism design and rubber coated barrels, was really comfortable to hold (though it is large and heavy). The other four were just pleasant to use, all having rubber coatings and comfortable straps that adjusted easily. Absent from this list was any of the compact models. Some testers with larger hands just have a hard time with the compact models, finding them less comfortable. So keep in mind that if you are in the market for a compact pair that you will sacrifice a bit in comfort.
Back in the clarity section we talked about how alignment can affect the detail you see through a pair of binoculars. Some alignment issues can be hard to diagnose. Small alignment issues can only show up with specially calibrated equipment. One can look at the overall construction quality and hope that if they follow tight tolerances on the rest of the production then optics should follow suit. Quality construction also lends to a longer life for well taken care of products. We judged each pair based on any alignment issue we could visually see, how smooth the hinges for adjusting the interpupillary distance were, we noted if anything was loose or coming apart, and we also took note of our biggest pet peeve: how well the lens caps fit. There is nothing like losing a lens cap to frustrate you on a trip.
The top three scorers in construction quality are the Vortex Viper HD 8x42, the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42, and the Leica BCR 10x25. These four manufacturers are all known for making quality products and you can feel how well these are put together when you hold them.
Ease of Adjustment
The ability to quickly and accurately focus on an object can be the difference between seeing that rare bird and hearing about it. Can you maintain accurate focus or will you accidently offset the diopter, giving you a blurry image? For the ease of adjustment category we looked at the following items: how quickly one can focus from one spectrum to the other, how easy it is to focus on an object to get the most detail, and how easy it was to adjust the diopter and did the diopter lock. We also evaluated the interpupillary distance adjustment. Except for the locking diopter, the criteria was a subjective and based solely on several testers' opinions.
The only pairs with a locking diopter are the Leica Ultravid BCR and the Vortex Viper. The top pairs in this group with the smoothest adjustments and easiest focus were the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 and the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42. With all of these models even novices were able to follow birds in flight and keep them in focus without much issue. This is an attachment to their smooth focus knobs.
Field of View
How much of the landscape can you see at 1000 yards? That's a good generalization of field of view. Field of view is important because a wider field of view can make it easier to find that bird or deer in the forest. The field of view vs. magnification is a heavily discussed issue on birding and hunting forums. Generally speaking, with increased magnification you get a decrease in field of view. The consensus is that if you want a wider field of view if you will be using your binoculars in a heavily forested area. If you are in an open area, you will want increased magnification. For this reason we broke out the 10x and 9x models from the 8x models when comparing the field of view. All pairs were ranked according to manufacturer's specifications.
The top pair in the 10x range was the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42 with a field of view of 351 feet at 1000 yards. The top pair for the 8x were the Zeiss Terra Ed 8x32 with 404 feet at 1000 yards.
Close Focus Range
Why are close focus range and field of view important? Just like the objective lens and magnification affect how big and bright the object you are viewing appears, field of view and close focus range affect how much you get to see. Where field of view covers how wide of an area you can clearly see, close focus range covers the amount of depth that you can clearly see. This can be important for trying to keep a bird that is in some close brush in focus or for wanting to inspect insects or flowers a little closer. Magnification does affect the close focusing ability, with higher magnifications having a longer close focus range (less range). All models were judged on the manufacturer's specifications.
The top pair in the 10x range was the Vanguard Endeavor ED II 10x42 which can focus down to 6.5 feet. In the 8x range, the Zeiss Terra earned the top score, able to focus down to 4.9 feet.
Performance Comparison: High-End Shootout
In this section we examine the three top-of-the-line models that we tested: the Swarovski EL, the Leica Noctivid, and the Zeiss Victory HT. These models are meant for the most serious birders and wildlife enthusiasts, and will likely become a family heirloom that will be passed down through the generations.
Since Swarovski does not make 8x magnification binoculars in the EL line, we used the 10x42 versions of all three models for our high-end shootout testing. This ensured they would be directly comparable.
All three of these binos have superb optical quality, and all three earned perfect scores in our clarity in brightness testing. If we really split hairs, we would say that the Swarovski bins are just slightly brighter than the other two, and possibly just a tad clearer as well. However, we're talking about differences of maybe a percentage point or less, the kind of differences you can notice in our very controlled, side-by-side tests, no the kind of difference you'll notice when you throw your bins up to your eyes because you think you might have spotted a Kirtland's warbler. Bottom line, if you're willing to spend $2500+ on a pair of binos, you're going to get top notch optics regardless of the brand you choose.
Ease of Adjustment
All of these models offer easy adjustment, but there are a few areas where one is slightly better than the others.
All three of these models have supple focus knobs that allow for quick and predictable focusing. While each knob feels slightly different, within a few minutes of using each they felt completely intuitive. You won't have to worry about annoying focus slips with any of these models.
Here we have to give an edge to Zeiss. These bins use a small and stiff knob that is seperate from the main focus knob in order to adjust the diopter. The knob is supple enough that you can easily adjust the diopter, yet stiff enough that you won't accidentally adjust it on the fly.
In contrast, both the Swarovski and Leica models require you to pull back on the focus knob until it actually moves and you hear a click. Then you can use the focus knob to adjust the diopter. Once you're done you can push the focus knob back into its original position and you're good to go. While this mechanism works great on both models, there is the slight chance that you could pull the focus knob back in a fit of excitement and then completely miss that Swainson's hawk flying by. This is by no means a common occurrence, but it is possible.
We loved the eye cups on the Swarovski and Zeiss models. Both use threaded eye cup that twist in and out and have very conspicuous stopping points, so you can be sure both eye cups are set on the same depth. The Lecia bins also use threaded eye cups, but the stopping points aren't as solid and we often had trouble getting both cups et to the same depth. This was particularly annoying when sharing the bins amongst multiple testers with different eye cup preferences, as it took much more finagling to get the eye cups to an acceptable and even setting.
Field of View
Here the Leica bins have a slight edge. When comparing the 10x magnification models, Leica provides a 376 foot wide field of view at 1000 yards. The Swarovski bins are second with a 336 foot field of view, and Zeiss comes in last at 330 feet. If you opt for an 8x magnification model the Leica and Zeiss field of views increase to 443 and 408 feet, respectively. Swarovski does not make 8x bins, but the 8.5x version provides a field of view of 399 feet.
Here it's the little things that count. The Swarovski bins are the only of the three that put thumb indents at the bottom of the barrels, and it makes a world of difference. The Swarovskis just feel so much better in hand than the other models. The slightly narrower base of the Zeiss barrels made for a more comfortable hold than the Leics bins, but neither held a candle to the Swarovskis.
Close Focus Range
Here again Swarovski comes out on top with a close focus of 4.9 feet. I stand at 5'8", so functionally that means anything in front of my feet, be it a butterfly or another interesting insect, will be in focus. The Zeiss and Leica models are no slouches, both with a close focus of 6.2 feet, but the difference is very noticeable if you like to look at little critters.
All three of these models are superbly built with rugged rubber coatings and nitrogen filled barrels, thus all three earned perfect scores in this metric.
Just remember the best pair of binoculars are the ones you use. If they are comfortable and work for what you want them too, then they are the right pair of binoculars. If you are thinking about upgrading your current pair, please consider donating your old pair. The Birders' Exchange supports bird watching programs and research in South America. You can always give your old pair to them. If you are still on the look out for the best contender, consider reading over our Buying Advice for assistance in determining the best pair for your needs.
— Michael Payne
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.