Best Binoculars for Birding and Hiking of 2018

When selecting a pair of binoculars  we find the two most important features to be clarity and brightness. It is in these two areas that we find that different products really distinguish themselves.
Starting to wonder what kinds of spring avian migrants you're hearing singing from the trees? Need to scope a line on a faraway ridge? We bought 14 of the most popular binoculars available and tested them side-by-side for more than 150 hours. All binoculars are very similar in design, appearance, and function, but they vary widely in terms of performance and price. Unless you're an optical expert, that makes finding the right pair a confusing task. That's why we've done the research for you, finding the best pairs of bins in every price range. Whether you just want an inexpensive way to get to know the birds you keep seeing in your backyard or while you walk the dog, or you're looking for a top-of-the-line model for a once in a lifetime safari vacation, we can help you find the perfect pair.

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Test Results and Ratings

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Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:
Michael Payne
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Sunday
May 20, 2018

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Updated May 2018
This spring we took the Celestron Nature DX 8x42 and the Athlon Midas 8x42 on some adventures to see how they stacked up against the competition. We were very impressed with the optical quality of the Celestron Nature given its very low price, which earned it one of our Best Buy Awards. We were also impressed with the Athlon Midas and feel it would be a good choice if your binocular budget is $300, but it didn't stand out enough in any aspect to earn an award.


Best for Most People That Want Quality Optics


Vortex Viper HD 8x42


Editors' Choice Award

$489.00
at Amazon
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Waterproof/Fogproof: Yes | Close Focus: 5.1ft

Very clear and bright
Easy to adjust
Comfortable
On the expensive side
Relatively narrow field of view
For those that are looking to make an investment in a quality pair of optics, we've found that the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 offers the best balance of performance and price. These bins offer 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 $2000. These bins are also comfortable in hand, have a nice supple focus knob, boast a 5.1 foot close focus range, and are somewhat on the lighter side for a full-sized pair optics.

The Viper HD has two downsides, one minor and one major. The minor one is the field of view, which is slightly narrower than other comparable models. However, we never found the field of view limiting in day-to-day use. The major one is the price. Listing for $650 (though often selling in the $500 range), these bins certainly aren't cheap. However, if you're looking for high end optical quality without the multi-thousand dollar price tags of premium models, we think the Viper HD is the best midpoint.

Read review: Vortex Viper HD 8x42

Best Buy for Beginning Birders


Celestron Nature DX 8x42


Best Buy Award

$111.86
at Amazon
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Waterproof/Fogproof: Yes | Close Focus: 6.5ft

Inexpensive
Good Clarity and brightness
Average construction quality
Mediocre low-light performance
Sticker shock is common when looking for your first pair of bins. If you're timid about spending multiple hundreds of dollars on a new hobby, the Celestron Nature DX 8x42 is the perfect choice. The image quality of these binoculars, which list for just $140 and often sell for less, 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 of a lower quality, so lowlight situations will yield slightly dim images. However, the large 42mm objective lenses do help in these situations, making these binoculars 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 bins to anyone looking for their first pair on a budget.

Best Buy: Travel and Hiking


Vortex Diamondback 8x28


Best Buy Award

$189.00
at Amazon
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Waterproof/Fogproof: Yes | Close Focus: 13.1ft

Great clarity
Comfortable
Lightweight
Don't work well in low light conditions
Whether you're looking for an inexpensive first pair of binoculars, or want a good, secondary, compact pair that won't break the bank, the Vortex DiamondBack 8x28 will serve you well. These relatively small bins tip the scales at just 15 ounces, yet are able to provide enough brightness and clarity to identify small birds on a bright day. Top that off with high quality construction and a smooth focus knob and you've got an excellent pair of budget bins.

The biggest drawback of the DiamondBack 8x28 are the 28mm objective lenses. While the glass is good enough to produce surprisingly bright daytime images, the sheer lack of lens size means that dusk, dawn, and other lowlight viewing situations will dampen the image. This isn't a big deal for large subjects (like deer, or lions if you're lucky) but small birds can quickly start looking more like silhouettes. Also, the close focus range of 13.1 feet means you won't be able to get nearby butterflies in focus. Overall these things feel like small tradeoffs for a sub-$200 price point and sub-pound weight.

Read review: Vortex DiamondBack 8x28

Top Pick: Best of the Best at a Premium Price


Swarovski EL 8.5x42


Top Pick Award

$2,599.00
at Amazon
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Waterproof/Fogproof: Yes | Close Focus: 4.9ft

Incredible clarity and brightness
Extremely comfortable
Awesome construction quality
Prohibitively expensive
If you're looking for the absolute best optical quality on the market in a pair of bins likely to become a family heirloom, the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 is the best choice. These binoculars outdid the other premium models in our testing, offering both better image quality and superior comfort. What really 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 really makes you feel like you're sitting just a few feet away from that Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

The EL really only has one downside, and it's a big one: price. Listing for $2,888 these bins cost as much as a used car and are really 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 bins will certainly elevate your experience.

Read review: Swarovski EL 8.5x42

Top Pick Award for Travel and Hiking


Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR


Top Pick Award

$749.00
at Amazon
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Waterproof/Fogproof: Yes | Close Focus: 10.3ft

Small and compact
Lightest binoculars we tested
Short field of view
The Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR is the perfect pair of bins 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 light weight of 9.4 oz, these bins 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 bins is the price. A list price of $750 is pretty hefty. 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 of binoculars. 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

select up to 5 products
Score Product Price Our Take
99
$2,888
Top Pick Award
The best bins in our testing, and our first recommendation for those that are willing to shell out the money for a pair of high-end optics
95
$2,400
Top notch optics that just aren't quite as comfortable as the Swarovskis
93
$2,700
Amazing optics that lack a few of the touches of other high-end models
89
$649
Editors' Choice Award
Gets close to the quality of multi-thousand dollar high end bins at a much lower price
87
$500
A great pair of bins, but not the best at its price point
82
$749
Top Pick Award
The perfect choice for backpacking bird nerds that want good optical quality in a lightweight package
78
$500
Solid construction and decent optics, but not as bright or clear as other similarly priced models
77
$350
A good mid-priced option, but not a particular standout
73
$440
Decent all-around, but not a particularly good value per dollar
72
$140
Best Buy Award
The most budget friendly option we've found that offers a good introduction to birdwatching
70
$189
Best Buy Award
A good low cost and portable option, though you do sacrifice quite a bit of brightness
67
$439
Good field of view, but the distinct lack of brightness is a huge drawback
64
$750
Superior brightness in a very hefty package, good for low light and stargazing but not for long walks
62
$230
Impressive brightness for low light and stargazing, but too big and heavy to be carried along on a hike

Analysis and Test Results: Reasonably Priced Binoculars


In this section we focus on the binoculars that would work best for most people. Most of them fall into the $100-$500 price range, and are great for the majority of birders and wildlife enthusiasts out there. If birding is more of a lifestyle than a hobby for you, and you're willing to spend $2000+ to get the best pair of binoculars possible, check out our high-end shootout section below.


Value


Binocular prices vary wildly, so it's best to set a budget before you start shopping. The chart above compares how all of our models performed in our tests to their list prices (hover over each dot to see the product name) in order to help you best spend that budget. As you can see top end models like the Swarovski EL offer the best performance, but at borderline astronomical prices. The Vortex Viper HD, while certainly not cheap, performed within a respectable distance of the top end models at a much lower price. On the other end of the spectrum, models like the Vortex Diamondback and the Celestron Nature DX are able to keep the price quite low while still putting up fairly good performance scores.

Clarity


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.

This is an example of the ISO 12233 chart that we used to test the clarity between all 12 pairs in our test group. This chart is a standard for measuring resolution of electronic still imaging cameras  but we downloaded and printed a copy to use to compare our view 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.


Earning a score of 9 out of 10 in our clarity testing, the best of the reasonably priced binoculars was 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.

Both the Eagle Optics Ranger ED and the Vortex Viper offer great clarity  but we;d give a slight edge to the Eagle Optics Ranger ED.
Both the Eagle Optics Ranger ED and the Vortex Viper offer great clarity, but we;d give a slight edge to the Eagle Optics Ranger ED.

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.

The 10x magnification pairs in our test. From L to R: Celestron SkyMaster (9x)  Vanguard Endeavor  Nikon Monarch 7  Eagle Optics Shrike  Leica BCR.
The 10x magnification pairs in our test. From L to R: Celestron SkyMaster (9x), Vanguard Endeavor, Nikon Monarch 7, Eagle Optics Shrike, Leica BCR.

Both of our Best Buy winners, the Vortex Diamondback 8x28 and the Celestra Nature DX 8x42 earned a 7 out of 10 for their clarity performance. While they do sacrifice a bit of the sharpness or the top models, and do get some blurring around the edges, they were still able to produce clear images that allowed us to pick out the subtle features of small birds.

Here you can see the difference in brightness and clarity between the Editors' Choice Vortex Viper HD ($500-$650)  the Best Buy Celestron Nature DX ($140) and the mid-range Athlon Midas ($350).
Here you can see the difference in brightness and clarity between the Editors' Choice Vortex Viper HD ($500-$650), the Best Buy Celestron Nature DX ($140) and the mid-range Athlon Midas ($350).

Brightness


Evaluating brightness was a somewhat subjective process and we individually polled each tester. So for our scoring we relied primarily on human judgment 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 models in the brightness category where 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 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.

These are the two largest binoculars in our test  but due to the large objective lens sizes  they are also the brightest and best for low light situations. The Celestron SkyMaster DX 9x63 and Nikon Monarch 5 8x56
These are the two largest binoculars in our test, but due to the large objective lens sizes, they are also the brightest and best for low light situations. The Celestron SkyMaster DX 9x63 and Nikon Monarch 5 8x56

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 is able to make up some lack of objective lens size.

Here again both of our Best Buy winners impressed, earning scores of 7 out of 10 for brightness. Both the Vortex Diamondback 8x28 and the Celestra Nature DX 8x42 produced exceptionally bright images when we used them midday in good light. Both models did struggle a bit in low-light situations however. Many early morning birds lacked some color and look more like silhouettes until the sun got a bit higher.

Small grooves for your thumbs  like those seen on the Vanguard Endeavor ED 2 here  can make a world of difference when it comes to comfort.
Small grooves for your thumbs, like those seen on the Vanguard Endeavor ED 2 here, can make a world of difference when it comes to comfort.

Comfort


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 in our rankings are 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.

The porro prism design has barrels offset from the eyepiece. This makes the binocular larger  heavier  easy to hold  and it has more possible failure points  but it is less expensive to produce than a roof prism binocular.
The porro prism design has barrels offset from the eyepiece. This makes the binocular larger, heavier, easy to hold, and it has more possible failure points, but it is less expensive to produce than a roof prism binocular.

Construction Quality


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 three scorers in construction quality are 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 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 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 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 an attachment 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 with 404 feet at 1000 yards.

The Athlon Midas has teh widest field of view of all the models we tested at 426 feet at 1000 yards.
The Athlon Midas has teh widest field of view of all the models we tested at 426 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 Zeiss Terra earned the top score, able to focus down to 4.9 feet.

The compact REI XR 8x25 has the best close focus range in our test at 3.3 feet.
The compact REI XR 8x25 has the best close focus range in our test at 3.3 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.

Note
Since Swarovski does not make 8x magnification binoculars in the EL line, we used the 10x42 versions of all three models for our high-end shootout testing. This ensured they would be directly comparable.


Clarity/Brightness


All three of these binos have superb optical quality, and all three earned perfect scores in our clarity in brightness testing. If we really split hairs, we would say that the Swarovski bins are just slightly brighter than the other two, and possibly just a tad clearer as well. However, we're talking about differences of maybe a percentage point or less, the kind of differences you can notice in our very controlled, side-by-side tests, no the kind of difference you'll notice when you throw your bins up to your eyes because you think you might have spotted a Kirtland's warbler. Bottom line, if you're willing to spend $2500+ on a pair of binos, you're going to get top notch optics regardless of the brand you choose.


Ease of Adjustment


All of these models offer easy adjustment, but there are a few areas where one is slightly better than the others.

Focus


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.

Diopter


Here we have to give an edge to Zeiss. These bins use a small and stiff knob that is seperate from the main focus knob in order 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.

The Zeiss' diopter adjustment is our favorite of the three high-end models.
The Zeiss' diopter adjustment is our favorite of the three high-end models.

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 the slight chance that you could pull the focus knob back in a fit of excitement and then completely miss that Swainson's hawk flying by. This is by no means a common occurrence, but it is possible.

Eye Cups


We loved the eye cups on the Swarovski and Zeiss models. Both use threaded eye cup that twist in and out and have very conspicuous stopping points, so you can be sure both eye cups are set on the same depth. The Lecia bins also use threaded eye cups, but the stopping points aren't as solid and we often had trouble getting both cups et to the same depth. This was particularly annoying when sharing the bins amongst multiple testers with different eye cup preferences, as it took much more finagling to get the eye cups to an acceptable and even setting.

It can be a bit difficult to get the Leica's eye cups even.
It can be a bit difficult to get the Leica's eye cups even.

Field of View


Here the Leica bins have a slight edge. When comparing the 10x magnification models, Leica provides a 376 foot wide field of view at 1000 yards. The Swarovski bins 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 bins, but the 8.5x version provides a field of view of 399 feet.

Leica offers the widest field of view of the high end models we tested.
Leica offers the widest field of view of the high end models we tested.

Comfort


Here it's the little things that count. The Swarovski bins 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 just 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 Leics bins, but neither held a candle to the Swarovskis.

you can't beat the way the Swarovski EL feels in your hand.
you can't beat the way the Swarovski EL feels in your hand.

Close Focus Range


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.

Construction Quality


All three of these models are superbly built with rugged rubber coatings and nitrogen filled barrels, thus all three earned perfect scores in this metric.

Conclusion


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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