The Best Binoculars Review

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Our Top Pick for Boating, the Bushnell H2O is tested out in the field during a windy and stormy day.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett
What is the best performing pair of binoculars to meet your needs? Here at OutdoorGearLab we took this question out into the field with 11 different pairs to get at the core of this question through rigorous testing and use. What we found is that there is not one pair that will fit every niche perfectly, but there are a few that are pretty close. Read on to discover what pair you’ll want for your next adventure!

To learn how these things work and which type best suits your activity of choice, check out our Buying Advice article. You will find an in-depth description on the different designs as well as a glossary of terms that will allow you to become a pro in no time.

Read the full review below >

Review by: Stephanie Bennett November 20, 2013

Top Ranked Binoculars Displaying 1 - 5 of 11 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Nikon Monarch 3 8x42 ATB
Nikon Monarch 3 8x42 ATB
Read the Review
Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 ATB
Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 ATB
Read the Review
Bushnell NatureView 6x30
Bushnell NatureView 6x30
Read the Review
Bushnell H20 10x26
Bushnell H20 10x26
Read the Review
Canon 10x30 IS
Canon 10x30 IS
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Best Buy Award    Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $227 - $265
Compare at 2 sellers
$79
Compare at 1 sellers
$84
Compare at 1 sellers
$61
Compare at 1 sellers
$483
Compare at 1 sellers
Overall Score 
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83
Editors' Rating
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User Rating Be the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate it
Pros Crisp and clear image, compact and easy to use, works well in low light situationsLightweight, compact, easy to focus and adjust, images are crisp and clearClear and crisp image, protective casing, comfortable fit, lightweightLightweight, protective casing, waterproof, easy to hold when wetImage Stabilization feature, crisp clear image, easy to focus
Cons Higher price than other modelsEasy to lose lens caps, image is shaky at timesPoor design for adjusting fit and focus, sticky focus knobEasy to lose lens caps, objects appear fuzzy around the edge, image washes out in the sunExpensive, needs batteries, does not fit different face sizes comfortably
Best Uses Wildlife viewing, bird watching, and backpacking / hikingHiking / Backpacking, wildlife viewing, birding, hunting, concert / sports eventWildlife viewing, hunting, hiking, birdingBoating, backpackingWildlife viewing, bird watching, hunting
Date Reviewed Nov 10, 2013Nov 10, 2013Nov 10, 2013Nov 10, 2013Nov 10, 2013
Weighted Scores Nikon Monarch 3 8x42 ATB Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 ATB Bushnell NatureView 6x30 Bushnell H20 10x26 Canon 10x30 IS
Magnification - 20%
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8
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Clarity - 50%
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Ease Of Adjustment - 10%
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Durability - 10%
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Portability - 10%
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Product Specs Nikon Monarch 3 8x42 ATB Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 ATB Bushnell NatureView 6x30 Bushnell H20 10x26 Canon 10x30 IS
Focusing System Central Focus Central Focus Central Focus Central Focus Central Focus
Magnification 8x 8x 6x 8x 10x
Field of View 330 ft / 1000 yds 429 ft / 1000 yds 419 ft / 1000 yds 285 ft / 1000 yds n/a
Close Focus 9.8 ft 8.2 ft 9 ft 8.5 ft 13.8 ft
Eye Relief .95 in .4 in .79 in .6 in 14.5 mm
Exit Pupil 5.25 3.13 5 2.6 3
Prism Roof Roof Porro Prism porro prism Porro Prism
Waterproof/Fogproof? yes yes yes yes yes
Size (length x width) 6.1 x 5.1 in 4.1 x 4.5 in 4.8 x 4.7 8.5 in x 4 in x 11in 5 x 5.9 in
Weight 24.9 oz 9.9 oz 17.3 oz 13.6 oz 22 oz

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products
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Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 ATB
$85
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87
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Nikon Prostaff 7 10x42
$240
100
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80
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Bushnell H20 10x26
$95
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84
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Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10x25
$274
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81
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Canon 10x30 IS
$550
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Bushnell Legacy 8x42
$126
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80
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Olympus Trooper 10x50 DPS
$80
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Vanguard Endeavor ED
$350
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Celestron Cavalry 15x70
$160
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Bushnell NatureView 6x30
$140
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84
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Selecting the Right Product
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The models in our test. From (T to B): Bushnell Legacy, Nikon ProStaff, Vanguard Endeavor ED, Bushnell NatureView, Bushnell H20, Bushnell Powerview Compact, and Nikon Trailbazer.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett
Binoculars may help you see your objective better, but choosing the right pair for your specific use can be a rather misty process. They come in all shapes, sizes, and magnification powers; which makes it incredibly difficult to wade through the extensive variety on the market. We review which type work best for different applications in detail at the end of our Buying Advice article, please refer to this to help you work through what model will best suit your needs. For starters, consider the following questions:

1. What is your intended use for these fun magnifiers?
a. Hunting
b. Wildlife / Bird Watching
c. Boating / Sailing
d. Concert Viewing
e. Hiking
f. Star Gazing
g. Just ‘cause

2. When and where will you use these things?
a. Just day light
b. Mostly at concerts or sporting events
c. Any lighting condition
d. Only at night

3. How important is weight and compact size to you?
a. Very! I need these to be portable and fit in my backpack.
b. Kind of… I’m okay with sacrificing a little weight for improved vision.
c. Don’t Care! I just want the best of the best.

By answering these three simple questions, you are able to funnel your final decision into a few different pairs.

Types of Binoculars
The first way binoculars are defined is either by their shape; Porro-Prism vs. Roof Prism, OR, by their end use; marine, wildlife, star gazing, concert viewing, and hiking.

Then each pair will be named with two numbers: the magnifying power x size of the optical lens. For example, if you see the Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 ATB in the store, you can quickly identify three things:
  • The magnification capability is 8 times what you see with the naked eye.
  • The optical lens is 25 mm, which means that it will be a smaller and more compact set.
  • The exit pupil score is 3.13 (25 / 8), meaning they will work in both broad daylight and cloudy weather.

So, if you are looking for a lightweight & compact pair that can be used in different lighting conditions and for different activities, while sacrificing a just little bit of clarity, then this could be the model for you. But, if you want something with a stronger power or that will work in the dark to look at stars, you need to look elsewhere. If this seems confusing, we break this down further for you, define all those complicated words, and also help guide you through this descision process in more detail in our Byung Advice.

Criteria for Evaluation
Our evaluation was based on quite a few different metrics, with the most important being clear vision, followed closely by magnification. The whole point of purchasing and using binoculars in the first place is to not only magnify an object, but to clearly see the object through the barrels. This metric is incredibly important if you are using yours to avoid hazards out on the water or trying to correctly identify a bird by its eye color while perched in a shady tree. The second most important factor is magnification, which incidentally also effects the shape, size, and weight. Other key factors we measured were ease of adjustment, durability, and portability.

Clarity
Clarity is in the eye of the beholder, and in the case of reviewing binoculars, this is quite literal. During our testing period, we used each pair in different light conditions to see if deformities exist in the lens and structure that impact the clarity of the image, and to compare the performance of different models side-by-side. Two of the most telling testing dates were out on the slopes of Mount Baker on a cloudy day and at the Whistler Bike Park in the blinding sun.

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One of two key testing locations: Table Mountain on the shoulders of Mount Baker, WA. A grey day allowed models with a high exit pupil score to shine in a low-light situation.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett

During our Mount Baker test there was no direct sunlight, and the test models had to perform in a low light setting. This simple test day allowed those models with a high exit pupil score to shine, such as the Nikon Monarch 8x42, Nikon Prostaff 7 10x42, Bushnell Legacy 8x42, Vanguard Endeavor ED, and the Bushnell NatureView 6x30. Most of the viewing for the day was on stationary objects, such as Douglas Fir trees dotting the slope a half mile in the distance, or the lone visitor poking around the lake basin below.

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One of two key testing locations; The Whistler Bike Park not only showcased talented mountain bikers, but the ability for certain models to perform in direct sunlight.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett

The second key test was on a bright sunny day at the Whistler Bike Park. We chose this testing location for two specific reasons: It was ridiculously sunny and there were people consistently moving through the bike park at high speeds. This test allowed us to not only score performance in bright light, but also to score the ability to remain focused on moving objects. As surprising as this might sound, sunlight can result in poor visibility of an object by how the light refracts in the various mirrors and lenses inside. This shows up as either white spots, items losing their color and seeming to be washed out, or fuzziness around the outside of the field of view. A few of the models that fell victim to the bright sun were the Vanguard Endeavor ED, Bushnell H20, and Nikon Prostaff 7.

Clarity and ease of adjustment go hand-in-hand when fully assessing the clarity. As mentioned above, we chose to hold a test in the Whistler Bike Park to also test how easily each pair stays focused on an object that is moving quickly and erratically. Some pairs required constant adjustment, but others held a crisp and clear view of mountain bikers careening down the trails, hitting jumps, and banking turns at over 20mph. This type of movement is similar to watching wildlife that moves quickly, or following a bird as it flies from the branch the second you have it in sight. Some of the products we tested that blew us away were the Nikon Monarch 8x42, Nikon Prostaff 7 10x42, Bushnell NatureView, Bushnell Legacy 8x42, and the Canon 10x30 IS. Each of these models were able to follow bikers through the park while they weaved in and out of different lighting and zipped by quickly.

We also took a hard look at the field of vision when rating clarity, which is important to hunters and boaters as they survey the landscape for a 6-point buck or a distant channel marker. The wider the field of view, the easier it is to view an entire landscape versus honing in on a specific area. Models that shined in this arena were the Nikon Trailblazer 8x25, Bushnell Nature View 6x30 and the Bushnell Legacy 8x42. All three pairs have a field of view range in excess of 400 ft / 1000 yards, which means that at a distance of 1000 yards, your width of view is over 40 feet. For activities such as hunting where you need a wide field of view, 344 ft / 1000 yards is the minimum field of view recommended.

Magnification
Magnification is one of the main reasons why someone purchases binoculars in the first place; to allow a far off image to appear closer. Most of the models we tested had a magnifying power of 8x or 10x, but there were a few on the fringes. The lowest power model we tested was the Bushnell NatureView at 6x, and the highest was the long-range viewing Celestron Cavalry 15x70.

One thing to remember when choosing a pair is just because it has a high magnification, does not mean that you will be able to clearly see what you want. Sometimes on models with higher magnification powers (usually 10x and up) objects end up looking shaky. Your hands tremor slightly while holding them, and this motion is amplified through the magnification. In our experience, 8x can be the sweet spot: it provides ample magnification while disguising the shakiness of hand holding. We noticed this in the exceptionally clear vision of the Editor's Choice winner, the Nikon Monarch 8x42.

Ease of Adjustment
You hear a bird song in a nearby tree, and just as you bring the tiny songbird into focus, it flies off to another tree. You try to follow it, but your binoculars quickly go out of focus and you’re struggling to adjust. All you see is a tiny blob in a far off tree, and you can’t tell if it’s a pine cone or your feathered friend. You can extrapolate this simple story to any other experience out in the wild, and it illustrates the importance of being able to quickly and easily adjust your pair.

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The size of the Nikon ProStaff allows it to be adjusted with one hand.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett

Another good assessment of adjustability is the ability to hand off your pair to your companion, who may need to change the fit for a different interpupilary distance or adjust the diopter knob quickly to see exactly what you are excitedly talking about. Sticky knobs or products that are not intuitive to use can cause frustration. While conducting these tests, our review models were handled by people of all shapes, sizes, and experience levels to ensure that our assessment of adjustability was uniform across all hand sizes, face sizes, and levels of familiarity with this type of equipment. What we found was quite surprising; the pair that worked the best for everyone was the Nikon Trailblazer. You’ll find in our scoring that this pair scored just a little higher than average in each category, which is why it is our Best Buy award winner. However, what was equally surprising was that some were incredibly difficult to adjust, even for the most experienced users. Non-intuitive design and construction complicated users' abilities to use the equipment effectively. In this specific case, the Bushnell NatureView, which is an otherwise high scoring model, stood out for its less-than-desirable adjustment design. On this pair, the focus knob is in the same spot as the knob thats adjusts to the shape of the face. This causes constant problems and frustration. One thing we noted with most of the Bushnell products was that their focus knobs were incredibly sticky, resulting in taking more time than others to find the perfect focus setting.

Durability
If you are like us, you lose things often, including your car keys. So, when given a pair that come with lens caps that are not attached, it is guaranteed that they will be lost within 2 minutes after taking them out of the box. Protecting the lenses is a top priority, and either not providing lens caps, or not providing a way to attach them is an automatic deduction against durability in our book.

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The attached lens caps on the objective lenses of the Vanguard Endeavor ED. Having attached caps increase the durability by protecting the lenses.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett

Other factors we considered when assessing durability was waterproofness, surviving a fall of five feet onto a rock, the thickness of the outer coating on the barrels, and if the lens was recessed from the outer edge. The most durable model we tested was also the one that works best for boaters and sailors, since durability is paramount in those situations, the Bushnell H20.

Portability
Portability is only important if you plan on packing yours to walk a certain distance away from your car. For example, if you plan on using them to go on a hiking or hunting trip, you will want them to be small, lightweight, and compact. In order to fully compare portability, we took each pair on day and overnight trips into the North Cascades, and scored based on how easy they were to pack, how heavy they were, and on the overall bulk of the case.

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The compact and portable Trailblazer fits easily into one hand.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett


The outliers in the portability category are the Nikon Trailblazer and the Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10x25. If weight and size are not an issue at all, and you prefer to have clearest vision available, then the Nikon Monarch, Nikon Prostaff 7, Olympus Trooper 10x50 DPS, Canon 10x30 IS and Bushnell NatureView will be right up your alley.

Editor’s Choice Award: Nikon Monarch 3 8x42
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Our Editors Choice, the Nikon Monarch 8 x 42, is tested while following a Gray Jay through the Northwest Canopy.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett
Whether scouting for Moose in the Bridger Mountains of Montana or identifying sparrows in the backyard, the Nikon Monarch 3 8x42 is the ultimate pair for any birder, hunter, wildlife watcher, sailor, or hiker. Nikon took care in designing a pair that is incredibly easy to adjust to any face size and is intuitive for both a beginner birder to an advanced hunter. Through combining a magnification power of 8 and an optical lens size of 42 mm, this model is still powerful enough to see far away objects clearly while avoiding the shakiness you may encounter in models with a higher magnifying power. Also, with an exit pupil score of 5.25, these were able to perform in multiple lighting conditions; direct sunlight of the Whistler bike park, a cloudy afternoon in Washington, and waning light as the sun set in Montana.

Best Buy Award: Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 ATB
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John showing off how small and compact the Trailblazer is, while still packing a powerful viewing punch in any lighting condition.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett
Weighing just below 10 ounces, the Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 ATB can fit into your palm and not hurt your wallet all at the same time. The Trailblazer matched, or beat out, other models we tested, and scored higher then average in all of our testing criteria while holding the top prize in the portability category. If you are looking to purchase your first pair and do not want to empty your wallet, the Nikon Trailblazer 8x25 will definitely fit the bill. Its small size and lightweight also makes this the perfect pair for backpackers or hikers who plan to pack their magnifiers with them. It is an all-around quality product.

Top Pick Award for Boating: Bushnell H20 10x26
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Our Top Pick for Boating, the Bushnell H2O is tested out in the field during a windy and stormy day.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett
With a thick, indestructible, plastic ribbed casing, the Bushnell H20 10x26 is perfect for the high seas or the backyard kiddy pool. At 13.6 ounces, this compact and lightweight model held up while sailing on the Pacific Ocean. Combining clear vision and a high magnifying power, as well as trustworthy durability and waterproofness, this pair fit our needs for the day while being passed around to different people scouting dolphins and identifying markers.

Top Pick Award for Hunting: Nikon Prostaff 7 10x42
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Using the conveniently camouflaged Nikon Prostaff 7 during a hunting excursion in the San Juans. Its portable size and high magnification with limited shakiness makes this an excellent pair for hunting.
Credit: Stephanie Bennett
If the camouflaged barrels don’t give it away, then the stellar field of view coupled with a crisp clear image will – the Nikon Prostaff 7 10x42 is designed for a hunter. A portable size and weight, the Prostaff 7 traveled through the mountains of the North Cascades and on a three day hunting trip into the San Juan Islands of Washington, never disappointing during any of its tests. It even assisted on one testers first kill of the season!

Stephanie Bennett
Buying Advice
How we Test
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 How to Select Binoculars

by Stephanie Bennett
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