Best Binoculars of 2017 for Birding and Hiking
Want to do some wildlife viewing? After researching nearly 100 binocular models we bought the 12 best and put them through 10 exacting tests over the course of more than 150 hours. After bird watching at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, scanning the Pacific coast, toting them on hikes in the Sierra, and consulting with an expert wildlife biologist who specializes in birds and avian research, we have discovered all of the strengths and weaknesses of these optics. Whether you want something for dedicated bird watching trips, something light that you can toss in your pack in case something interesting comes along, or something for lounging on the deck and staring at the stars, our testing results will guide you to the perfect pair of bins.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated May 2017
This 2017 update adds the Eagle Optics Ranger ED 8x42 to our testing, which delivered exceptional performance and earned it theour Editors' Choice award. These binoculars provide a near perfect balance of performance and value that will serve anyone well. If you want a lightweight pair we still recommend the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR, and the Vortex Diamondback 8x28 is still our top choice if you're on a budget.
Best Overall Binoculars
Eagle Optics Ranger ED 8x42
The Eagle Optics Ranger ED 8x42 is designed with bird watchers in mind, but you'll appreciate its superb clarity and impressive brightness whether you're admiring an evening grosbeak or trying to figure out if the trail continues over the next ridge. The clarity of these binos rivaled that of the incredibly expensive, crystal lensed Swarovski ELs. Apart from the high quality glass that lends these optics their stunning visual quality, the Ranger ED features a streamlined design with a rubber coating and comfortable grip, a sturdy and supple focus knob, and rugged, adjustable eyecups. Bottom line, these binos provide optical quality that rivals that of pairs that cost 4 figures at a price that is affordable to most.
Very Clear and bright
Easy to Adjust
Somewhat narrow field of view
Read full review: Eagle Optics Ranger ED 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 full 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. The Swarovski narrowly missed getting the Editors' Choice award primarily due to the large price tag, but it did earn our overall top score for performance. 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 full 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 full review: Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR
Vortex Viper HD 8x42
The Vortex Viper HD 8x42 was our Editors' Choice Award winner before the Eagle Optics Ranger ED came along. This pair did score top marks in all categories except for field of view, but the Eagle Optics did have slightly better clarity in our testing, and cost more than $100 less, making it a better choice in most situations. However, the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 is still a great pair of binoculars, and if you happen to find them on sale you should definitely snatch them up.
Very clear and bright
Easy to adjust
On the expensive side
Relatively narrow field of view
Read full review: Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Analysis and Test Results
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. 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.
The top pair in our clarity testing was the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, which earned a perfect 10 out of 10. The crystal lenses in these bins produce an astonishingly clear image regardless of lighting conditions. Closely following, both with scores of 9 out of 10, were the Eagle Optics Ranger ED 8x42 and the Vortex Viper HD 8x42. All three 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. However, the clarity of the Vortex Viper and the Eagle Optics Ranger ED fades around the edge slightly more than the Swarovski, but overall all of these models presented an exceptionally clear image.
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 four models in the brightness category where the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, 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.
Three other models also excelled in our brightness testing, though they didn't shine quite as brightly as our top scorers. The Eagle Optics Ranger ED 8x42, the Vortex Viper HD 8x42, and the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR all 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 five in our rankings are the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, the Eagle Optics Ranger ED 8x42, 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 five scorers in construction quality are theEagle Optics Ranger ED, the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, 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 three four pairs in this group with the smoothest adjustments and easiest focus were the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, the Eagle Optics Ranger ED 8x42 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 attestment 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 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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