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Best of the Best
Binoculars Review

For Bird Watcher's Digest, May, 2012

by Michael and Diane Porter

The following review also appears in the May, 2012, Bird Watcher's Digest.

What and How We Tested

In our previous review, we tested 8x42 binoculars in the $200 to $600 price range. This time, we asked manufacturers to send us their high-end models, selling for $600 and up. Zeiss, Swarowski, and Leica now offer high-quality binoculars priced a notch below their top-end models, and we especially wanted a chance to compare them.

Team IowaIt's fun to test the best. A binocular that incorporates the pinnacle of human technology has a special ambience about it. Even if one of these babies is not in one's budget right now, it's likely to be in one's sights.

We received 12 binoculars. They split naturally into two groups: models priced $1500 and up; and another group priced around $1000. We tested and rated them on resolution, focus knob, eyecups, diopter adjustment, and fit and feel. We invited local birders for a test day to broaden our perspective. Their impressions were especially valuable for ergonomic issues. People come in all sizes, and many hands are needed when evaluating binoculars.

Testing Resolution

We quantified each binocular's ability to resolve fine detail, using an USAF-1951 optics resolution chart. We mounted binoculars side by side on a stable, vibration-free platform. We controlled the lighting conditions carefully. We tested each binocular multiple times. We compared each binocular to a reference binocular to confirm that what we were seeing was not influenced by eye fatigue or other temporary issues. We kept testing until we agreed upon a consistent relative score.

The binoculars in our survey showed similar resolution at 8x. However, when we magnified the images to 32x, using two stacked doublers, differences in resolution became clearer. Even then, the top five binoculars tied in their resolution scores, showing no consistent, repeatable differences over multiple trials. The Resolution Score column in the accompanying chart shows the binoculars' relative performances at 32x.

The lower scoring binoculars in our survey are not necessarily bad optically. However, they inevitably, and perhaps unfairly, suffer when being compared to the best optics in the world.

Focus Knobs

As one would expect of binoculars in this price range, all had great focus knobs, smooth, precise, and without slack or jerkiness. Some offered the advantage of being wide enough to fit two fingers. These might be more glove friendly in winter, and we gave them a bump in their focus knob scores. We also measured how many turns the full focus range took and included the results in the chart. However, because we consider focus speed to be a matter of personal preference, it did not affect the score.

Eyecups

All the binoculars had good twist-out eyecups to adjust for proper eye relief. Most had detents that help to hold a partial extension. Those few without detents got a lower score. On a few binoculars, the eyecups didn’t extend far enough for some of the judges if they were not wearing glasses. We did not reduce scores for this, but we noted it as a caveat in the individual reviews.

Diopter Adjustment Mechanisms

In the chart we note the diopter location. We deducted from binoculars lacking a diopter scale or lock. The Leicas scored the highest because of their large, easy-to-see dial on the focus knob, which made it tops for confirming the diopter setting at a glance.

Fit & Feel

Hand-friendly, grippy-textured armoring characterizes all of these binoculars. The Zeiss Victory got the top score because of overall ergonomic excellence and extra credit for how well the barrels fit the palm of the hand. The Leicas got dinged for the prominent thumb ridges that some judges complained about. We penalized binoculars whose strap lugs poked the hands.

The Chart

For each binocular, the chart shows the manufacturer’s specifications, the lock-to-lock focus knob measurement, the interpupillary distance range, the five individual scores from our tests, and an overall score. Except for the lock-to-lock measurement, the specs are from the manufacturers.
The highest possible score is 5. The overall score weights resolution more heavily than the other scores. Click on the chart below to enlarge.

Chart

Individual Reviews

We tested and evaluated twelve high-end binoculars for this review. They fell naturally into two groups: those costing over $1500 and those costing around $1000. We show each group separately on the chart, as it seems only fair. However, the scores allow you to compare any binocular to all the rest in the study.


Zeiss Victory FL T* 8x42
Resolution Score 5.0
Overall Score: 4.93

NOTE: The 8x42 Zeiss Victory FL has been discontinued by the manufacturer. However, its replacement, the Zeiss Victory HT, is very similar. Unusual for 10-power binoculars, it has excellent eye relief and works well with glasses.Zeiss Victory FL

The Zeiss Victory FL got the top overall score and tied for the top resolution score. With its wide field of view (405 feet) and outstanding optics, it creates a breathtaking experience of being immersed in the image.

Zeiss attributes the bright, clear image and its great contrast and color in part to the special FL glass containing fluoride ions. A thin lens design, employing air-spaced elements, contributes to the excellent resolution and the light weight. Of the top five scorers, the FL weighs the least, at 26.6 ounces.

It’s a comfortable and universal ergonomic design. The barrels curve outward, gracefully fitting the shape of the palm of the hand. Ridges run lengthwise, with no thumb indentations to restrict where you put your thumbs. You can grip wherever feels natural to you.

The smooth-turning focus knob is wide enough to turn with two fingers or with gloves. Its fast focus goes from lock to lock in just 1.1 turns. You can focus from 20 to 100 feet without lifting your finger from the knob. Close focus or infinity requires only one repositioning of your finger. The diopter adjustment mechanism, on the focus knob, has both scale and lock. The action is smooth and precise, with a detent at the center setting.

Twist-out eyecups provide four extension adjustments, with detents. Although Zeiss claims only 16mm of eye relief, the FLs worked great with all the judges’ glasses. The interpupillary distance of 54 to 74mm offers the narrowest setting in our survey, helpful for people with close-set eyes.
LotuTec® coatings on the exterior surfaces of the lenses repel water and dirt and allow easy cleaning.

Warranty: Zeiss limited lifetime transferable warranty.

Caveat: None.


Swarovski EL Swarovision 8.5x42
Resolution Score 5.0
Overall Score: 4.91

Swarovision ELA virtually perfect binocular, with faultless optical quality, the 42mm EL Swarovision is bright and stunningly sharp. Swarovski’s “field-flattener lenses” achieve a field of view that is perfectly flat from edge to edge. Fluoride ions in the lenses contribute to the Swarovision’s great contrast, resolution, and freedom from chromatic aberration.

The open-bridge design invites your fingers to wrap around one of the barrels and hold and focus the binocular with one hand. To accommodate thumbs and enhance the grip, the Swarovision has shallow indentations on the bottom.

This was the closest-focusing binocular (4.9 feet) in our survey. The focus knob takes 2-1/2 turns, lock to lock. However, the first whole turn is for closer than 9 feet. The next half turn takes you to 19 feet, and the last turn goes to infinity. You get fine focusing up close, where you need it most, without sacrificing too much speed at a distance.

An excellent diopter adjustment mechanism, under the focus knob, turns precisely, with detents. The numbered scale is easy to see, and you can still see enough of it even when the diopter is locked it to check your setting.

Beautifully engineered eyecups click to four discrete positions. The eye relief of 20mm is the longest of the top five. Swarovski’s Swaroclean coating on outer glass surfaces repels water and dirt and allows easy cleaning. Swarovski also includes a Snap Shot Adapter, a sophisticated ring that can link to a digital camera for digiscoping.

Warranty: For Swarovski optics purchased from an authorized North American dealer, Swarovski offers a limited lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects in the optical system. Other parts are warranted against manufacturing defects and workmanship for ten years after the date of purchase.

Caveat: A side effect of the flat field of view is that the image seems to roll slightly when panning from side to side. Although some of our judges noted this effect, none found it troubling.


Leica Ultravid HD 8x42
Resolution Score 5.0
Overall Score: 4.86

Leica Ultravid HDThe Leica Ultravid HD is as close to optical perfection as a binocular can get. It bestows a lucid and lovely view. Fluoride-containing lenses optimize color fidelity and resolution. The Ultravid tied for first place in our resolution tests.

Half an inch shorter than the Zeiss Victory and Swarovski EL, the Leica Utravid feels compact and solid. The twist-out eyecups work smoothly and have detents. Prominent ridges on the underside of the barrels are designed to offer secure thumb placement.

The doublewide focus knob can easily be operated by two fingers or with a glove. It turns precisely and with an ideal balance of ease and resistance. It’s relatively fast, 1.3 turns lock to lock, of which 20 feet to infinity is only about ¾ turn. The diopter adjustment mechanism got our top score. There is a large, clear scale that faces the user and lets you see your setting at all times.

The Ultravid HD employs Leica AquaDura™ hydrophobic lens coating, which repels water and dirt and makes cleaning easy.

Warranty: Leica has a limited lifetime warranty on materials and workmanship. In addition, a three-year Passport Protection Plan is for accidental damage not covered by the other warranty. The Passport warranty requires the owner to register within 30 days of purchase and is not transferable.

Caveat: Several of our judges remarked that the ridges on the underside of the barrels interfered with the way they preferred to hold the binocular.


Leica Trinovid 8x42
Resolution Score 5.0
Overall Score: 4.86

Leica Trinovid 42Leica’s new Trinovid tied on every score with its flagship Ultravid. We compared the two Leicas carefully for brightness, color saturation, clarity, and resolution. To keep ourselves honest, we masked off all the external clues. We mounted the binoculars side by side and tried to tell their images apart.

We couldn’t. After many tries, even magnified with two doublers, increasing the power to 32x, we could we not see a difference in the optical quality of the two.

The Trinovid has the same outstanding diopter adjustment mechanism, the same eyecups, and virtually the same shape. Both models have magnesium housing and are watertight to 16.5 feet.

There are some differences, though. The Trinovid has a narrower field of view (376 feet vs. 389 feet). Its minimum focus distance is greater (11.5 feet vs. 9.8 feet). It weighs about half an ounce more (28.6 vs. 27.9). The Trinovid’s strap lugs are bare metal rather than the more elegant black molded lugs on the Ultravid. And oh, the Leica red-dot logo is in a different place.

All told, the Trinovid seems like a bargain, with optical quality invisibly close to the Ultravid’s, but at a lower price. Both have the same warranty.

A best buy among the top five scorers!

Warranty: Leica has a limited lifetime warranty on materials and workmanship. In addition, a three-year Passport Protection Plan is for accidental damage not covered by the other warranty. The Passport warranty requires the owner to register within 30 days of purchase and is not transferable.

Caveat: Several of our judges remarked that the ridges on the underside of the barrels interfered with the way they preferred to hold the binocular.

The Leica Trinovid that we review here is the 8x42 model. For higher magnification (but narrower field of view, see the 10x42 model.)


Swarovski SLC HD 8x42
Resolution Score 5.0
Overall Score: 4.83

Swarovski SLCThe Swarovski SLC HD has the standard bridge design and is slightly shorter than the open-bridge Swarovision. Redesigned in 2010, the SLC now has HD glass and a magnesium housing, and it weighs just half an ounce more than the Swarovision.

Tying for first-place in our resolution tests, the SLC HD provides a bright, sharp image with outstanding contrast and color, which, along with its wide field of view (408 feet) contributes to the viewer’s experience of being magically transported into the scene.

It has an excellent focus knob, though it’s only wide enough for one finger. The diopter adjustment mechanism, under the focus knob, differs from the EL Swarovision in that you can’t see the setting when it’s locked.

The twist-out eyecup design resembles the Swarovision’s, but it has three rather than four possible positions.

Warranty: For Swarovski optics purchased from an authorized North American dealer, Swarovski offers a limited lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects in the optical system. Other parts are warranted against manufacturing defects and workmanship for ten years after the date of purchase.

Caveat: Some judges reported that corners of the armored bridge housing near the bottom of the focus knob poked their fingers.


Alpen Rainier HD ED 8x42
Resolution Score 4.6
Overall Score: 4.65

Alpen RainierAmong our second tier, the Alpen Rainier won the highest overall score. This open-bridge binocular has ergonomic engineering and high-definition, extra-low-dispersion glass.

On the underside of the barrels, the hollows that provide extra security for a person’s thumbs are wide and shallow enough not to interfere with how a person holds the binocular.

The Rainier focuses close (6.5 feet) and has great eye relief (18mm). The faultless diopter adjustment mechanism, located under the focus knob, locks and has an easy-to-read scale and detents.

Eyecups are a little different from most binoculars. When you twist out the eyecup to its maximum extension, it locks to prevent accidental collapse. To unlock the eyecup, you pull out slightly and twist clockwise. Easy once you know how.

Warranty: Alpen displays a remarkable message on its home page: “If you have any problem with your Alpen product for any reason, send it back and we will repair or replace it FREE … period.”

Caveat: Some users not wearing glasses find the eyecups do not extend far enough to let them brace the binocular against the face.


Zeiss Conquest HD 8x42
Resolution Score 4.7
Overall Score: 4.59

Zeiss Conquest HDThe new Zeiss Conquest HD earned the top resolution score in our second-tier. The Conquest HD gives birders the opportunity to enjoy a full-sized, German-manufactured, Zeiss binocular for under $1000.

It is more compact and a bit lighter weight than the Zeiss Victory FL. With 18mm of eye relief, it’s good with glasses. It has the same Zeiss LotuTec water-repellent coatings as the Victory FL.

A difference between the Conquest and the Victory FL is the diopter adjustment, which is on an eyepiece and has neither scale nor lock. The focus knob is excellent but is only wide enough for one finger.

A best buy!

Warranty: On the Conquest HD, in addition to a limited lifetime transferable warranty, Zeiss offers a 5-year no-fault policy. Under the no-fault policy, new Conquest HD binoculars which have been damaged during normal use will be repaired or replaced without service charge to the owner. The no-fault policy is for original owners and is not transferable, and it requires the owner to register with Zeiss within 60 days of purchase.

Caveat: Some users not wearing glasses find the eyecups do not extend far enough to let them brace the binocular against the face.

NOTE:

This review was done for the 8x42 model, since 8x42s were the focus of the review. However, the Conquest HD 10x42 is equally good.


Pentax DCF ED 8x43 
Resolution Score 3.5
Overall Score: 4.08

Pentax DCF EDPentax DCF ED has excellent optics, providing a bright, clear image. It’s lightweight and has excellent ergonomic qualities. The focus knob, one of the best, turns smoothly and precisely and is wide enough for two fingers or gloves.

The twist-up eyecups have detents and provide four steps of extension. Eye relief of 22mm is the longest in our survey and should work with any style of glasses. The diopter adjustment, on the right eyepiece, locks but has only a minimal scale.

Warranty: Pentax will repair or replace the binocular, even if damaged by fault, for $19.95, provided it was purchased in the US from an authorized Pentax dealer. Not transferable.

Caveats: Some of our judges without eyeglasses complained that the eyecups didn’t extend far enough. Some found that the strap lugs poked their hands.


Meopta MeoStar B1 8x42
Resolution Score 3.9
Overall Score: 4.03

Meopta MeostarLeast expensive our top-binocular survey, the Meopta Meostar had the second widest field of view (411 feet). It’s compact, only 5.5 inches long, and has a solid feel.

The strap lugs recess into the barrels, so they never interfere with the hands, and the thumb indentations are shallow and elicited no complaints.

Warranty: Meopta Sports Optics products are guaranteed to be free from defects in materials and workmanship for the life of the product.

Caveat: The diopter adjustment does not lock, and it’s positioned on the focus knob where it can easily be moved unintentionally.


Opticron Aurora BGA 8x42
Resolution Score 3.4
Overall Score: 3.97

Opticron AuroraThe Opticron Aurora had the widest field of view (413 feet) of any binocular in our study, and the second closest focus distance (5.9 feet), both characteristics that are good for close observation, such as watching birds at a feeding area.

It also was the lightest weight and tied for shortest length. One judge commented that she found it especially comfortable for her small hands.

Warranty: On manufacturer’s defects, labor and materials covered for 10 years; material costs only for the next 20 years.

Caveat: Some of our judges noted that the strap lugs poked their hands.


Vixen Artes 8x42
Resolution Score 3.2
Overall Score: 3.96

Vixen ArtesAs the only binocular with 45mm objective lenses, it’s not surprising that the Vixen Artes was the heaviest in our study. It has the open-bridge design.

The focus knob is wide enough to use with two fingers or with gloves. The diopter adjustment, which is under the focus knob, has detents and a clear, readable scale.

Warranty: Product lifetime warranty. There is a $25 inspection, handling, and shipping charge.

Caveat: Several of our judges found it heavy and the barrels too large to hold with one hand.


Opticron DBA Oasis 8x42
Resolution Score 3.0
Overall Score: 3.78

Opticron OasisThe Opticron Oasis feels rugged, even though it’s the second lightest binocular in our survey. It has exceptionally grippy armoring, with prominent, lengthwise ridges. There are no thumb indentations to restrict how you hold the binocular.

The interpupillary distance of 57 to 77mm offered the widest setting in our survey, helpful for people with widely spaced eyes.

Warranty: On manufacturer’s defects, labor and materials covered for 10 years; material costs only for the next 20 years.

Caveat: Some of our judges noted that the strap lugs poked their hands.

Conclusion

Let’s be honest. These top binoculars probably resolve better than most people’s eyes can see. That doesn’t stop us from wanting them. Although the subject transcends logic, here are some arguments to use on your spouse, significant other, or yourself when contemplating a purchase.

High-end binoculars hold their value better and will last longer than lesser glass. If you ever need to resell them, you will find their brand recognition will make for an easy sale at a good price. Their bulletproof construction makes them less likely to go out of alignment or fog up on you in a Costa Rican rain forest, ruining a long-planned trip.

Finally, it’s a waste of money to buy something that you don’t want. Assuming your kids won’t go without shoes, it’s better to get the binocular you really want. But don’t wait too long. Money is replaceable. Time is not


Team Iowa reviewed the best of the best binoculars

Team Iowa

Diane Porter, Megan Whiting, Michael Porter, Therese Cummiskey, Glenn Watt, Kathleen Tachet, Dave Streid, Candace Havely, Alan Cobb


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