Best Binoculars of 2020
Best for Most People
Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Offering what we believe to be the best balance of performance and price, the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 is the best choice for those that are looking to invest in a quality pair of optics. Their high-quality glass created some of the brightest and clearest images we came across in our testing. In fact, the only models that we found to be better than the Viper HD in our image quality testing retail above a couple of thousand dollars. They also boast a 6.5-foot close focus range and are comfortable in hand, with a nice supple focus knob and an overall weight that's on the lighter side for a full-sized pair optics.
The Viper HD has one major downside: a high price. They certainly aren't cheap. However, if you're looking for high-end optical quality without spending a couple of thousand dollars on the premium models, we think the Viper HD is the best choice.
Read review: Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Best Bang for The Buck
Nikon Monarch 5 8x42
The Nikon Monarch 5 is in the price range where you first start to see truly good low light performance. If you're willing to make the investment, we highly recommend them. They offer the best clarity we've seen compared to similarly priced competitors. They also offer a nice, smooth focus knob that ensures even beginners can quickly and easily lock in a clear image. The cherry on top is the brightness, which results in a good image, even in sub-optimal lighting conditions. So if your birding hobby grows into an obsession that finds you setting the alarm for 3:30 am just to catch a glance at a migrating Grosbeak, these puppies will be able to keep up with you.
The only weak points of the Nikon Monarch 5 are the close focus range and narrow field of view, both of which are a little on the wrong side average. The field of view is relatively narrow at 330-foot-at-1000-yards, but we honestly only noticed the narrowness when doing side-by-side comparisons with other models. The close focus range of 7.8 feet is also slightly long, which means you'll have to backpedal a bit if you come across a cool bug and want to take a look at it. If you want a wider field of view or closer focus range, the Vortex Diamondback 8x42 is a worthy replacement, but overall we think the Nikon Monarch 5 is the best pair you can find at this price point.
Best for Birders on a Budget
Celestron Nature DX 8x42
When shopping for your first pair of binoculars, sticker shock is common. If spending several hundred dollars on a new hobby makes you nervous, the Celestron Nature DX 8x42 is a perfect choice. In this price range, the image quality is by far the best we've seen. In fact, it rivals models that cost more than twice as much in that regard. The supple focus knobs and easy eyecup adjustments continue the list of beginner-friendly features. We enjoyed the 6.5ft focus range because it let us get a good look at any nearby butterflies or interesting insects, a big plus for days when the birds just aren't singing.
The low price does entail some drawbacks. The rubber coating of the Nature DX 8x42 feels lower quality than higher-priced models, and the hinges likewise feel slightly less sturdy. The glass is also of lower quality, so low light situations yield slightly dim images. However, the large 42mm objective lenses help in these situations, meaning they perform a bit better in low light than the compact models often found in this price range. Overall, these complaints were minor, and we would wholeheartedly recommend these to anyone looking for a pair on a budget.
Best Deal for Travel and Hiking
Vortex Diamondback HD 8x28
If you're looking for a cheap option that is lightweight, compact, and of good quality, it's hard to do better than the Vortex DiamondBack HD 8x28. Weighing in at a svelte 14 ounces, these still provide good optical clarity and an exceptional performance-to-weight ratio. Combine that with sturdy construction, a surprisingly comfortable grip, and a relatively low price, and you have the perfect option for backpacking birders on a budget.
The lack of brightness is the only real downside of the DiamondBack HD 8x28, which is a sacrifice you have to accept if you want the small size and weight of 28mm objective lenses. The lenses still gather plenty of light in most situations — just don't expect any miracles on an overcast predawn morning.
Read review: Vortex DiamondBack HD 8x28
Best of the Best at a Premium Price
Swarovski EL 8.5x42
If you're looking for the absolute best optical quality on the market in a pair of binoculars likely to become a family heirloom, the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 is the best choice. This model surpassed the other premium models in our testing, offering both better image quality and superior comfort. Its ability to maintain perfect clarity across the entirety of the image is what sets the EL apart, whereas most models leave some blurring at the edges. This creates an incredibly immersive image that made us feel like we were sitting just a few feet away from our avian subjects.
There's just one downside of the EL, and it's a big one: price. These cost as much as a used car and are more of an investment than a purchase. However, if you're a serious birder who wants the best of the best or you're embarking on a once in a lifetime safari, these will undoubtedly take your experience to the next level.
Read review: Swarovski EL 8.5x42
Best for Travel and Hiking
Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR
The Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR is the perfect pair for a backpacking bird nerd that wants to check some more species off their life list while not being weighed down. Despite a small 25mm objective lens and an impressively lightweight of 9.4 oz, these still offered great clarity and exceptional brightness in our testing. For those with larger hands, the smaller barrels and smaller focus knobs may be less comfortable to hold and use, but overall we were pleased with the Ultravid's comfort.
Again, the primary drawback of this pair is the price. If you're willing to deal with the weight of a full-sized pair, such as the Viper HD, you can get brighter optics for less. However, if you want quality optics in the most portable package possible and are willing to pay for it, the Leica 10x25 Ultravid is the cream of the crop.
Read review: Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR
Why You Should Trust Us
Author Max Mutter has spent countless hours peering through binoculars, starting with a childhood fascination with bird watching and culminating in a career as a field biologist for the likes of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and several non-profit conservation organizations. Max's professional and academic fieldwork has brought him to four continents, and his research at Oxford University into the impacts of natural gas extraction on avian populations was recently published. Max has been leveraging his binocular knowledge and expertise as both a tester and writer in GearLab's bino review since 2017, and he's now tested over 50 different models.
For this review, we researched more than 200 pairs before selecting 30 of the best to run through our rigorous, side-by-side testing process. We've spent over 400 hours (and counting) in the field with these binoculars. The conditions ranged from sunny plains to dark, shady forests. We also took painstaking side-by-side photos through most of our binoculars, so our readers can get a better idea of exactly how the optics compare.
Related: How We Tested Binoculars
What Do All The Numbers Mean?
Binoculars are generally described with two numbers, separated by an x, such as 8x42. The first number refers to the magnification, or how many times larger the lenses will make something appear. The second number refers to the diameter of the objective lens (the big lenses at the front) in millimeters. Larger objective lenses can let more light make it to your eyes, resulting in a brighter image. However, it also means the model will be larger and heavier. It's important to know what numbers you should be looking for in a model, so we broke down the ideal uses for all magnifications and objective lens sizes below.Magnification
- 8x — The standard magnification. Brings images close enough to see clearly but not so close that shaky hands are an issue.
- 10x — Those with steady hands or lots of experience tend to like the extra power, but hand shake can be an issue for some.
- 12x — Most will need to brace their elbows to avoid a shaky image at this magnification; it is generally reserved for specialty uses, like scanning the horizon from the bridge of an ocean liner.
Objective Lens Size
- 28mm — Considered compact, these lenses sacrifice some brightness for their smaller size and lighter weight. They're good for longer hikes and maybe even backpacking.
- 42mm — Considered full-sized, these lenses are big enough to provide bright images even in low light but small enough to comfortably wear around your neck.
- 50+mm — These tend to be large, heavy, and borderline burdensome. They're generally reserved for extreme low-light situations like stargazing.
The most popular bino magnification/size combos are 8x28 for times when weight is an issue, 8x42 for general wildlife viewing, and 10x42 for more experienced wildlife observers that can handle the extra magnification without introducing too much shakiness. Among stargazers, 9x63 is also popular because the much larger lenses gather more light and can illuminate more stars.
Analysis and Test Results: Reasonably Priced Binoculars
In this section, we focus on the models that would work best for most people. If birding is more of a lifestyle than a hobby for you, and you're willing to spend the big bucks to get the best pair possible, see our high-end shootout section below.
Related: Buying Advice for Binoculars
For binoculars, image quality is largely dependent on the quality of glass used, and good glass is expensive. Therefore, if you pay more, you tend to get better performance. However, that trend definitely is not linear. For example, we think the absurdly expensive Swarovski EL is the best model on the market, but for about a quarter of the price, the Vortex Viper offers roughly 80% of the performance. We also believe that the Nikon Monarch 5 and Celestron Nature DX offer better performance than their prices suggest, which makes either a great choice for anyone shopping on a budget.
For this review, we define clarity as the amount of detail one can see through the lenses. We tested it by using the ISO 12233 chart. The chart was downloaded and printed on a piece of 11x17 paper at 1200 dpi resolution. We also recruited a couple of bird models (Garry the Goldfinch and Barry the Bluebird) and observed those models through each pair, taking side-by-side photos through the lenses so you can see what we saw.
Of the more accessible, non-premium models we tested, the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 offered the best clarity. We were treated to consistently crystal clear images in a variety of different lighting conditions, allowing us to clearly see zone 10 on our ISO chart. It also maintained good clarity all the way to the edge of the image, making for an immersive viewing experience.
Earning an 8 out of 10 in our clarity tests were both the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42 and the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR. These models allowed us to see zones 8 and 9 clearly on the chart with just a little defocusing near the last millimeter or two of the edges. They include multi-coated lenses, ED or HD glass, and excellent craftsmanship, which is probably what makes them so clear.
Notably, both the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42 and the Vortex Diamondback 8x42 also earned scores of 8 out of 10 in our clarity testing. Considering their modest costs, this is impressive. While these models both have slightly more edge blurring than the top-scoring products, for the most part, they provide a super crisp, immersive image that allowed us to easily pick out all the minute, defining features on birds.
The Celestron Nature DX 8x42 punched well above its price class in our clarity testing, particularly in bright light situations. The image they produced were very crisp with rich detail, and the blurring around the edges of the image was very slight. Things became a bit less crisp in low light situations, but we were still able to see identifying features on smaller birds during late dawn and early dusk.
Brighter images make for more vibrant colors, better details, and less eye strain. Our brightness testing involved comparing images from each pair, side-by-side, in mid-day bright light, overcast conditions, and early dawn/late dusk lighting. In each test, we paid attention to how bright each image looked upon first viewing, how faded or dull any colors appeared, and whether subjects were starting to look like silhouettes. In general, the larger the objective lens, the brighter an image seemed to be, but we noticed some large differences in brightness between models with the same objective lens size.
The Celestron SkyMaster DX 9x63 was the top model in the brightness category. Both it and the Nikon Monarch 5 have large diameter objective lenses that allow for more light to enter the system. Because of that, they are good for low light viewing conditions. The Nikon Monarch 5 features ED glass and has fully multi-coated lenses, which helps to reduce the scattering of light inside the system. The Celestron SkyMaster uses a double Porro prism (the only pro prism pair in our test), which is more efficient at transferring light than a roof prism.
Though they didn't shine quite as brightly as our top scorers, two other models also excelled in our brightness testing. Even during overcast conditions, both the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 and the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR provided bright images in our testing. We were surprised at how well the relatively small Leica performed in this regard. It seems this company's high-end glass can make up for some lack of objective lens size.
In our brightness testing, the Nikon Monarch 5 performed well above its price point, earning an 8 out of 10. During dusky, early mornings when the light was at a premium, these impressed. They are the least expensive option that still offers exceptional low-light performance.
Another good performer in this metric was the surprisingly inexpensive Celestron Nature DX 10x42, picking up a 7 out of 10. While it's not quite as bright as some of the more expensive 42mm models with higher quality glass, it certainly holds its own. Though birds and other animals did get a bit dim during dawn or dusk, we were still able to make out some colors.
Although they are much less bright than all of the full-sized models we tested, we were impressed by how much light the small lenses of the Vortex DiamondBack HD 8x28 gathered. Sure, many birds became silhouetted in the early morning and late evening lighting, but during the day, its images looked quite bright and vivid.
There is an adage that goes "the best pair of binoculars is the one you use." If you have a pair that isn't comfortable to hold, carry, or look through, chances are you're not going to use them. There's a lot of factors that affect how comfortable a pair will be, like rubberized coatings on the barrels, indentations for your hands and thumbs, an open bridge, comfortable interpupillary distance, padded straps, adjustable eyecups, and eye relief. 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. For someone with glasses, the amount of eye relief can be a big concern but can also be of little concern to others.
The good news is we really didn't run into any models that were uncomfortable to hold. You'll likely be able to use them for hours on end without any nagging discomfort no matter what model you buy. However, the Vortex Viper has subtle details like the thumb indents that make them feel a bit more ergonomic and comfortable. Similarly, the tacky rubber coating on the Nikon Monarch models allows for a solid feeling grip whether you're squeezing the barrels like your life depends on it or using a dainty fingertip grip as if you're sipping tea at a fancy party.
For the most part, when it came to construction quality, all of the models that we tested fell into the good to great range. We didn't run across any models that felt poorly made — they all felt like they would stand the test of time barring any traumatic drops or lens scratches.
That said, we certainly did notice the hinges and moving parts on some models felt a bit sturdier than others and that some rubber coatings were just a bit tackier and more durable. In general, this was a "You get what you pay for" situation, with the more expensive models feeling slightly better constructed than the lower-priced ones. We found the differences to be minor enough that we wouldn't consider construction quality as a reason by itself not to buy a less expensive pair, nor a reason to pony up for a pricier pair.
Ease of Adjustment
The ability to quickly and accurately focus on an object can be the difference between seeing that rare bird or hearing about it from a friend. Will you be able to maintain accurate focus or will you accidentally offset the diopter, resulting in a blurry image? We looked at the following items for the ease of adjustment category: 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, how easy it was to adjust the diopter, and whether or not the diopter locked. We also evaluated the interpupillary distance adjustment. The criteria were subjective and based solely on several testers' opinions (with the exception of the locking diopter).
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 could follow birds in flight and keep them in focus without much issue. This is attributable to their smooth focus knobs.
The Nikon Monarch 5 8x42 also provides a nice, supple focus knob, and its diopter adjustment is smooth enough to make easy adjustments but stiff enough that you won't inadvertently move it. Due to a friendly focus knob that lets us lock in on a clear image quickly and efficiently every time, the Celestron DX NAture 8x42 also earned an 8 out of 10.
Field of View
The field of view is measured as the width of the image you see when looking at something 1000 yards away. Models with a 380-foot field of view, for example, should show you a 380-foot wide image when looking at a ridge 1000 yards away.
The field of view is measured at a thousand-yard distance because you'll probably only notice a difference when looking at objects far away. So if you're scoping out lines on a distant ridge, you'll probably appreciate a wider field of view. If you're using binoculars to watch wildlife, which will generally be within a couple of hundred feet of you, it's likely you won't be able to notice the difference between a 300 foot and 450-foot field of view because the difference will be negligible at that distance.
Opting for a higher magnification means an automatic sacrifice in the field of view, so we considered magnification when scoring field of view.
The top pair with 10x magnification was the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42 with a field of view of 351 feet at 1000 yards. The top pair with 8x was the Vortex Diamondback 8x42 with 420 feet at 1000 yards.
Close Focus Range
Close focus refers to the closest distance at which a pair of binoculars can clearly focus on something. This is less important to consider as even the worst models have a close focus range of 15 feet, and the vast majority of things you'll be looking at will be farther away. However, a closer focus range does allow you to be a bit more curious. For instance, you can get an incredibly detailed look at a butterfly that landed in the bush right in front of you. About the best close focus range you can find is 4.5 feet, meaning most people would be able to focus on a bug that landed on their foot.
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.
All of these high-end models have top-notch glass that can let lots of light in and render clear images, thus they all earned perfect scores in these metrics. However, there are some relatively minor differences if we really split some hairs. In most tests, the crystal lenses of the Swarovski EL's were able to let in just a bit more light than the other two. We feel this generally results in a slightly crisper image as well. However, these differences are definitely slight at best, the kinds of things one would only notice in the kind of rigorous, side-by-side tests that we conduct. Bottom line, if you're willing to pay the high price for any of these premium optics, you're going to get an excellent view when you finally see that Kirtland's warbler.
All of these models offer easy adjustment, but there are a few areas where one is slightly better than the others.
All three models have supple focus knobs that allow for quick and predictable focusing. Though 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.
Here we have to give an edge to Zeiss. They use a small and stiff knob separate from the main focus knob 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 by mistake.
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. You can push the focus knob back into its original position once you're done, then you're good to go. While this mechanism works great on both models, there is a slight chance that you could pull the focus knob back in a fit of excitement and completely miss that Swainson's hawk flying by. This is by no means a likely occurrence, but it is possible.
We loved the eyecups on the Swarovski and Zeiss models. Both use threaded eyecups that twist in and out and have very conspicuous stopping points, so you can be sure both eyecups are set on the same depth. The Lecia's also use threaded eyecups, but the stopping points are less solid, and we often had trouble getting both cups set to the same depth. This was particularly annoying when sharing them with multiple testers with different eyecup preferences because it took much more finagling to get the eyecups to an acceptable and even setting.
Field of View at 1000 Yards
Here the Leica models have a slight edge. When comparing the 10x magnification models, Leica provides a 337-foot wide field of view at 1000 yards. The Swarovski comes 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 view increases to 443 and 408 feet, respectively. Swarovski does not make 8x models, but their 8.5x version provides a field of view of 399 feet.
In Hand Comfort
With hand comfort, it's the little things that count. The Swarovskis are the only pair of the three that put thumb indents at the bottom of the barrels, and it makes a world of difference. The Swarovskis 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 Leicas, but neither held a candle to the Swarovskis.
Here again, Swarovski comes out on top with a close focus of 4.9 feet. Our lead tester stands at 5'8", so functionally, that means anything in front of his 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 noticeable if you like to look at little critters.
A good pair of binoculars can open up a whole new world of exploration and serve as a conduit to deepen your connection with the natural world. We hope that our test results have cleared up the confusion that surrounds these optics and helped you find the perfect pair for your next hike, birding trip, or African safari.
— Max Mutter