The Best Binoculars for Birding and Hiking
Best for Most People
Vortex Viper HD 8x42
For those that are looking to invest in a quality pair of optics, we've found that the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 offers the best balance of performance and price. These provide high-quality glass that created some of the brightest and clearest images we came across in our testing. In fact, the only models that bested the Viper HD in our image quality testing were those that cost more than two thousand dollars. These are also comfortable in hand, have a nice supple focus knob, boast a 6.5-foot close focus range, and are somewhat on the lighter side for a full-sized pair optics.
The Viper HD has one major downside: the high price. These certainly aren't cheap. However, if you're looking for high-end optical quality without the multi-thousand dollar price tags of the premium models, we think the Viper HD is the best midpoint.
Read review: Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Best Bang for The Buck
Nikon Monarch 5 8x42
The Nikon Monarch 5 is the price range where you first start seeing truly good lowlight performance. If you're willing to spend this much, we highly recommend them. These offer the best clarity we've seen in this price range. They also offer a nice, smooth focus knob that lets even beginners lock in a clear image quickly and easily. The cherry on top is the brightness, which allows for 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 field of view and close focus range, both of which are slightly on the wrong side average. The 330-foot-at-1000-yards field of view is relatively narrow, but we honestly didn't notice that narrowness except when doing side-by-side comparisons with models that offer wider fields of view. The close focus range of 7.8 feet is also slightly long, meaning 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'll find at this price point.
Best for Birders on a Budget
Celestron Nature DX 8x42
Sticker shock is common when looking for your first pair of binoculars. If you're timid about spending multiple hundreds of dollars on a new hobby, the Celestron Nature DX 8x42 is a perfect choice. The image quality of this model is by far the best we've seen in this price range. 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 beginner-friendly trend. We also enjoyed that the 6.5ft focus range let us get a good look at any nearby butterflies or other interesting insects, a big plus for days when the birds just aren't singing.
The low price does necessitate some drawbacks. The rubber coating of the Nature DX 8x42 feels of a lower quality than higher priced models and the hinges likewise feel slightly less sturdy. The glass is also lower quality, so lowlight situations will yield slightly dim images. However, the large 42mm objective lenses do help in these situations, making these perform a bit better in low light than the compact models often found in this price range. Overall these complaints are minor, and we would wholeheartedly recommend these to anyone looking for their first pair on a budget.
Best Value for Travel and Hiking
Vortex Diamondback HD 8x28
If you're looking for a lightweight, compact, and quality option on the cheap, it's hard to do better than the Vortex DiamondBack HD 8x28. Weighing a feathery 14 ounces, yet providing good optical clarity, these binoculars offer 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 only real downside of the DiamondBack HD 8x28 is the relative lack of brightness, which is really a sacrifice you must make 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 those overcast dawn starts.
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 outdid the other premium models in our testing, offering both better image quality and superior comfort. What sets the EL apart is the ability to maintain perfect clarity across the entirety of the image, whereas most models present some blurring at the edges. This creates an incredibly immersive image that makes you feel like you're sitting just a few feet away from that Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
The EL only has one downside, 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 or wildlife watcher that wants the absolute best, or you're embarking on a once in a lifetime safari, these will undoubtedly elevate your experience.
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 almost impossibly lightweight of 9.4 oz, these still offered great clarity and exceptional brightness in our testing. The smaller barrels and smaller focus knobs may be less comfortable to hold and use for those with larger hands, but overall we were pleased with the comfort of the Ultravid.
The main downside to these is the price. Plus, you can get brighter optics for less (like the Viper HD) if you're willing to deal with the weight of a full-sized pair. But, 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 in 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 multiple 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 for OutdoorGearLab's bino review since 2017 and has tested over 50 different models.
For this review, we researched more than 200 pairs of binoculars 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, in conditions ranging from bright, sunny plains to dark, shady forests. We also painstakingly took side-by-side photos through most of our binoculars, so our readers could get a better idea of exactly how the optics measure up.
Related: How We Tested Binoculars
What do All These 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 mean more light makes it to your eyes, resulting in a brighter image, but 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, handshake 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 a smaller size and lighter weight, they are good for long 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 unwieldy, 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, 8x42for general wildlife viewing, and 10x42 for more experienced wildlife observers that can handle the extra magnification without any handshake. 9x63 is also popular amongst stargazers, as 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
In binoculars, image quality is largely dependent on the quality of glass used, and good glass is expensive. Therefore, you tend to get better performance the more you pay. However, that trend definitely isn't linear. For example, we think the absurdly expensive Swarovski EL is the best model on the market, but the Vortex Viper offers about 80% of the performance at about a quarter of the price. We also feel that the Nikon Monarch 5 and Celestron Nature DX offer better performance than their prices suggest, making both great options for those shopping on a budget.
We are defining clarity as the amount of detail one can see through the lenses. This was tested 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 that you can see what we see.
Earning top marks for clarity testing, the best of the reasonably priced models is theVortex Viper HD 8x42. This model 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.
Of the more accessible, non-premium models we tested, the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 offered the best clarity. It treated us to consistently crystal clear images in a variety of different lighting conditions and allowed 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 quite an immersive viewing experience.
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.
Notably, both the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42 and the Vortex Diamondback 8x42 also earned scores of 8 out of 10 in our clarity testing. This is impressive considering their price. While these models both have slightly more edge blurring than the top-scoring products, they generally provide a super crisp, immersive image, allowing us to easily pick out all the minute, defining features of our bird models.
The Celestron Nature DX 8x42 punched well above its price class in our clarity testing, particularly in bright light situations, they produced a very crisp image with rich detail and only very slight blurring around the edges of the image. Things did get a bit less crisp in low-light situations, but we were still able to see identifying features on smaller birds 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 looked, and whether subjects were starting to look like silhouettes. In general, the large the objective lens the brighter an image will be, but we found some large differences in brightness between models with the same size objective lenses.
The top model in the brightness category was 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 Nikon Monarch 5 features 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.
Two other models also excelled in our brightness testing, though they didn't shine quite as brightly as our top scorers. The Vortex Viper HD 8x42, and the Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR both 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 can make up for some lack of objective lens size.
The Nikon Monarch 5 performed well above its price point in our brightness testing, earning an 8 out of 10. These performed impressively during dusky, early mornings when light was at a premium. These are the least expensive option that still offer exceptional low light performance.
The surprisingly inexpensive Celestron Nature DX 10x42 was also a good performer in this metric, 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 can certainly hold its own. Though birds and other animals did get a bit dim looking at dawn and dusk, we were still able to make out some colors.
While they are much less bright than all of the full-sized models we tested, we were impressed at how much light the small lenses of the Vortex DiamondBack HD 8x28 gathered. Sure, many birds became silhouetted in early morning and late afternoon 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 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.
The good news is we really didn't run into any models that were uncomfortable to hold. No matter what model you buy you'll likely be able to use them for hours on end without any nagging discomforts. However, small touches like the nice thumb indents on the Vortex Viper make them feel a bit more ergonomic and comfortable. Likewise, the tacky rubber coating of the Nikon Monarch models lends a solid feeling grip whether you're fondling the barrels like you're double-fisting beer cans, or using a dainty fingertip grip as if you're sipping tea at a fancy party.
For the most part, all of the models were tested fell into the good to great range when it came to construction quality. We didn't run across any models that felt poorly made — all felt like they would stand the test of time barring any traumatic drops or lens scratches.
That said, we certainly did feel like the hinges and moving parts felt a bit sturdier on some models 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. However, the differences are minor enough that we wouldn't consider construction quality alone a reason 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 and hearing about it. Can you maintain accurate focus or will you accidentally 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 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 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 were able to 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. The Celestron DX NAture 8x42 also earned an 8 out of 10 due to a friendly focus knob that let us lock in on a clear image quickly and efficiently every time.
Field of View
The field of view is measured as the width of the image you see when looking at something 1000 yards away. So models with a 380-foot field of view will 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 only really notice a difference when looking far into the distance. 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 hundred feet of you, you probably won't be able to notice the difference between a 300 foot and 450-foot field of view, as the difference will be negligible at that distance.
Opting for a higher magnification means an automatic sacrifice in the field of view, so we took magnification into consideration when scoring field of view.
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 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 a less important consideration 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, a closer focus range lets you 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.
Swarovski does not make 8x magnification bino in their EL line, opting instead for 8.5x magnification. Therefore, for all of our image comparisons, we used the 10x versions of all the models to keep things consistent.
All of these high-end models have top-notch glass that is able to let lots of light in and render clear images, thus they all earned perfect scores in these metrics. However, if we really split some hairs, there are some relatively minor differences. 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 of these models have supple focus knobs that allow for quick and predictable focusing. While 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 models.
Here we have to give an edge to Zeiss. They use a small and stiff knob that is 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 on the fly.
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. Once you're done, you can push the focus knob back into its original position, and 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 common 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 aren't as 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, as 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 are 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 views increase to 443 and 408 feet, respectively. Swarovski does not make 8x models, but the 8.5x version provides a field of view of 399 feet.
In Hand Comfort
Here it's the little things that count. The Swarovskis are the only 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. I stand at 5'8", so functionally that means anything in front of my 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 very 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 some of the confusion that can surround these optics and helped you find the perfect pair for your next hike, birding trip, or African safari.
— Max Mutter