The Best Binoculars for Birding and Hiking
What are the best binoculars? We took 11 different models through rigorous testing in the outdoors to find out. We went birding at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, used them on the Pacific Coast, loaned them to a guide at WanderLust Tours in Bend, OR, and had friends take them on hikes in the Eastern Sierra. All to find out the strengths, weaknesses, and overall likability of those 11 models as well as more generally what makes a good pair of binos. Each pair was evaluated on brightness, clarity, close focus range, field of view, ease of adjustment, comfort, and construction quality. As with all decisions in life, compromises have to be made in certain areas to enhance performance in others. No one pair is perfect, but read on to find out what pair will be right for you.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Binoculars
Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Best for Budget-Minded
Vortex Diamondback 8x28
Top Pick Award for Birding and Wildlife Viewing
Swarovski EL 8.5x42
Top Pick Award for Travel and Hiking
Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR
Analysis and Test Results
First thing's first, let's determine what the names of each pair will tell you. Each pair of binos will usually have a number like 8x42 in it's name. The first number represents the magnification provided by that pair. In this case, 8x. Magnification is how much larger an object appears through the binoculars than with the naked eye. The larger the magnification, then the larger the image you see and vice versa. The second number is the diameter of the objective lens in millimeters (42mm). The size of the objective lens determines the amount of detail and light that enters the system. The larger the objective lens, the more detail and light. Larger objective lenses and higher magnification also tend to mean heavier and bigger products.
Don't see the exact pair you want included in our review? Most companies have several different models with different levels of magnification and different objective lens sizes in each line, such as the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 and the Vortex Viper HD 10x42. With similar bodies and construction quality, the only differences between the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 and the 10x42 are specifications like field of view, magnification, and close focus range. So if you read about a pair you like in our review, you can always shop around for the comparable model with a different magnification or objective lens size.
Types for Specific Uses
There are many possible intended uses for binoculars, from hunting, birding, and general wildlife viewing to concert viewing or scoping out planets and stars at night. Each intended use will do best with a specific type, which we discuss in further detail in our Buying Advice Article where we also have a glossary of technical terms and explain in detail how these magnifiers work.
Most general purpose models work well for wildlife viewing, but there are a couple of different types that are more ideal for certain intended use than others. Here we talk about just a couple of these types with examples from the tested products in our review.
If you plan to go backpacking, on a bike touring trip, or travel internationally with your pair of binos, having something small and lightweight will be an advantage. We tested a few pairs of compact binoculars, including the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR and Vortex Diamondback 8x28. When the weight and size goes down, the price goes up significantly to keep similar viewing quality. Smaller models can also be harder to hold and adjust and people with larger hands and faces might find them more uncomfortable.
Low Light Viewing
On the opposite end of the spectrum of compact are the models best suited to low light viewing. These pairs will be brighter, and thus have larger objective lens sizes which increases the overall size of the whole product. Often times models best suited for astronomy viewing are large and heavy and also tripod compatible so that you can keep them still enough to see the details on planets. The two best pairs that we tested for low light conditions are the Nikon Monarch 5 8x56 and the Celestron SkyMaster DX 9x63.
Criteria for Evaluation
Our evaluation was based on seven metrics. Those seven metrics were weighted with clarity and brightness carrying the most weight. Clarity is felt to be the most important factor because the whole purpose of a pair of binoculars is to bring detail to distant objects. You can have a bright pair, but without clarity, you won't be able to make out any detail.
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.
Instead of purchasing an MTF type application and evaluating photos taken through the binoculars and comparing those results with a reference photo, we subjectively judged them based upon several tester's opinions. 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.
The top four pairs (two two-way ties) in the clarity category are the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 and the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 where on the ISO 12233 chart the 10 zone was clear and crisp and you could make out the lines, and the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42 and the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR where zones 8 and 9 were clear on the chart with just a little defocusing around the last millimeter or two near the edges. The clarity of the Vortex Viper fades in clarity around the edge slightly more than the Swarovski, but overall both presented an exceptionally clear image. All four 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 three in the brightness category where the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, 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 Swarovski EL and the Nikon Monarch 5 both feature 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.
The darkest pair that we tested was the Eagle Optics Shrike 10x42. The Eagle Shrike lacks coatings on the prisms, which we suspect allows too much scattering of light.
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 measurements 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 four in our rankings are the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, Vortex Viper HD 8x42, Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42, and Celestron SkyMaster 9x63. The Celestron SkyMaster with the classic porro prism design and rubber coated barrels, was really comfortable to hold (though it is large and heavy). The other three 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 four scorers in construction quality are Swarovski EL 8.5x42, Vortex Viper HD 8x42, 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 three pairs in this group with the smoothest adjustments and easiest focus were the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, Vortex Viper HD 8x42 and the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42.
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 and the Swarovski 8.5x42 with 404 and 399 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 Swarovski and Zeiss tied as top scorers. Both are able to focus down to 4.9 feet.
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
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