Curious about those singing summer nester you keep hearing in the trees? Trying to scout out some new routes from afar? We purchased 16 of the best binoculars on the market then brought them birding, backpacking, and bushwacking, all to find the perfect pair for your next outing. Binoculars can be somewhat confusing with 100's of nearly identical looking models only differentiated by arcane specifications and vague claims of crystal clear images. We're here to cut through the confusion with our side-by-side testing results. Whether you're an aspiring bird nerd, prepping for a once in a lifetime safari, or want to be able to take a closer look at the cool things you see along the trail, we can guide you to the right pair of bins.
Best Binoculars for Birding and Hiking of 2018
In anticipation of summer days we added two new 8x42 models to the review, the Nikon Monarch 5 and the Vortex Diamondback. We think both of these bins are great, but the Monarch 5 provides a slightly more crisp image and is our new top pick for those with a $300 binocular budget.
Best for Most People That Want Quality Optics
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 bins 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 $2000. These bins 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: 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 the premium models, we think the Viper HD is the best midpoint.
Read review: Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Best Buy: $300 Budget
Nikon Monarch 5 8x42
Many people will tell you that $300 is the magic number when it comes to binoculars, and there is some truth to this. $300 is the price range where you first start seeing truly good lowlight performance. If you're willing to spend this much on a pair of bins, we highly recommend the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42. These bins 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 suboptimal lighting conditions. So if your birding hobby grows into an obsession that finds you setting the alarm for 3:30am just to catch a glance at a migrating Grosbeak, these binoculars will be able to keep up with you.
The only weak points of the 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 with your bins. 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 of bins you'll find at this price point.
Best Buy: $150 Budget
Celestron Nature DX 8x42
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 a 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 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
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 can 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
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 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. Listing for $2,888 these bins 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 bins will undoubtedly elevate your experience.
Read review: Swarovski EL 8.5x42
Top Pick Award for Travel and Hiking
Leica 10x25 Ultravid BCR
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
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 bins 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 a larger size and weight. It's important to know what numbers you should be looking for in a pair of bins, 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, 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 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 combinations for casual use are 8x28 for longer hikes and 8x42 for car trips or casual strolls. Pros tend to favor 10x42 for optimal performance.
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.
Good glass is expensive, making binoculars one product where you tend to get better performance the more you pay. That isn't to say the trend is linear, however. For example, we think the Swarovski EL are the best bins you can buy, but you might have to sign away your firstborn in order to afford them. On the other hand, the Editors' Choice winning Vortex Viper gets close to the performance level of the Swarovskis, but at a fraction of the price. The Nikon Monarch 5 and Celestron Nature DX also tend to punch above their weight class, offering great values for those with $300 and $150 budgets, respectively.
We are defining clarity as the amount of detail one can 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.
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.
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 nine9 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 that both modles list for less than $300. While these model 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.
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.
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.
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 bins performed impressively during dusky, early mornings when light was at a premium. In our opinion these are the least expensive bins that still offer exceptional low light performance.
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 looked more like silhouettes until the sun got a bit higher.
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 binoculars 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 makes the bins 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.
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 cared for 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 three manufacturers are all known for making quality products, and you can feel how well these are put together when you hold them.
That isn't to say that any of the bins we tested were poorly constructed. We didn't find any bargain basement bins that could make the cut for inclusion in our review, so all have a dcent base level of construction quality. Sure, minor things like the more plasticky rubber coating of the Celestron Nature DX or the stiff hinge of the Ahtlon Midas makes them feel a bit less engineered than other models, they can still certainly stand up to some rigorous use.
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 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 evry time.
Field of View
Field of view is measured as the width of the image you see through a pair of bins when looking at something 1000 yards away. So bins with a 380 foot field of view will show you a 380 foot wide image when looking at a ridge 1000 yards away.
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 looking for bins to scope 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 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 bins can clearly focus on something. This is a less important consideration as even the worst bins 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.
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.
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.
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. These bins 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 the 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 eye cups are set on the same depth. The Lecia bins 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 the bins amongst 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 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.
In Hand 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 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.
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.
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.
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 lookout for the best contender, consider reading over our Buying Advice.
— Michael Payne