For more than seven years, we've tested 36 of the best binocular sets for looking off into the distance. Highlighting 15 of the market's most deserving in this review, we take a gander at top models for birding, backpacking, and bushwacking. With hundreds of different options that might all look the same, we cut through the confusion by testing all products hands-on and side-by-side. Our testers have used them to explore wildlife refuges in Oregon, helped guide wilderness tours with each pair, and brought them along on many wilderness hikes. After our rigorous testing, we offer the best recommendations that will have you seeing fine details from afar.
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|Pros||Incredible clarity, brightness, comfort, and construction quality||Excellent brightness, great clarity, comfortable||Excellent field of view||Excellent clarity and brightness, great construction quality, quite comfortable||Excellent clarity and brightness, great construction quality|
|Cons||Prohibitively expensive||Slightly heavy for backpacking||Much darker than expected, not very comfortable||Very expensive||Very expensive, not quite as comfortable as other high-end models|
|Bottom Line||One of the best all-around models that we tested, but they also carry a high price tag||An excellent balance of price and all-around performance with particularly impressive brightness||Unfortunately these portable bins don't live up to their price tag||High-end bins that are nearly as good as the Swarovskis, but not quite||High-end binoculars that live up to their pedigree, but have some downsides compared to other top of the line models|
|Rating Categories||Swarovski EL 8.5x42||Vortex Diamondback...||Zeiss Terra ED 8x32||Zeiss Victory HT 10x42||Leica Noctivid 10x42|
|Ease of Adjustment (15%)|
|Construction Quality (15%)|
|Close Focus Range (7.5%)|
|Field of View (7.5%)|
|Specs||Swarovski EL 8.5x42||Vortex Diamondback...||Zeiss Terra ED 8x32||Zeiss Victory HT 10x42||Leica Noctivid 10x42|
|Multi - Coating||FMC||FMC||FMC||FMC||FMC|
|Field of View (at 1000 yards)||399 ft||393 ft||404 ft||330 ft||337 ft|
|Close Focus||4.9 ft||5.0 ft||5.3 ft||6.2 ft||6.2 ft|
|Eye Relief||20 mm||17 mm||16.9 mm||16 mm||19 mm|
|Size (Length x Width)||6.3 x 4.8 in||5.7 x 5.1 in||4.9 x 4.6 in||6.3 x 5.0 in||5.9 x 2.7 in|
|Weight||29.5 oz||21.8 oz||18.0 oz||28.4 oz||30.3 oz|
Best Binocular 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 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. 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 of 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 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 better image quality and superior comfort. Its ability to maintain perfect clarity across the entire image 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 Bang for the Buck
Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42
We've been very impressed with Vortex's HD glass, and the Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42 is perhaps the best use of it to date. These binos manage to offer clarity and brightness that rivals models that cost orders of magnitude more while remaining in a reasonably palatable price range. The brightness is what really impressed us. We were treated to bright images with vivid colors throughout testing, even as the sun began to go down and the shadows got long. Top that off with a user-friendly focus knob and thumb indents that make for a very comfortable grip, and you've got a fantastic pair of bins.
It's hard to find much wrong with this model. Like all full-sized bins, they are a bit heavy for backpacking, and they fall just short of field-leading image quality, but you'll have to pay much more for that. Overall, these bins offer one of the best values we've ever seen and will likely serve almost anyone well.
Read review: Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42
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 fascinating 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 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.
Read review: Celestron Nature DX 8x42
Best Value on a Compact Model
Vortex Diamondback HD 8x28
If you're looking for an affordable 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. In most situations, the lenses still gather plenty of light- just don't expect any miracles on an overcast predawn morning.
Read review: Vortex DiamondBack HD 8x28
Best for Travel and Hiking
Leica Ultravid BR 10x25
The Leica Ultravid BR 10x25 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 lighter weight 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 Ultravid BR 10x25
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.Our testing of binoculars is divided across seven rating metrics:
- Clarity tests (25% of overall score weighting)
- Brightness tests (20% weighting)
- Ease of Adjustment tests (15% weighting)
- Construction Quality tests (15% weighting)
- Comfort tests (10% weighting)
- Close Focus Range tests (7.5% weighting)
- Field of View tests (7.5% weighting)
For more than seven years, we've researched over 200 pairs of binoculars and selected 36 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 could better understand exactly how the optics compare.
Overall, our test fleet of binoculars was subjected to 105 individual tests to rate their performance. We put the most weight on the Clarity score, corresponding to 25% of each binocular's overall score. This was tested using an ISO 12233 chart and by placing model birds on a tree to compare the same bird side-by-side in identical lighting scenarios. Brightness was another metric of great importance. By taking photos through each binocular and comparing them side by side, we can compare these metrics objectively.
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. It 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 wear around your neck comfortably.
- 50+mm — These tend to be large, heavy, and borderline burdensome. This lens size is 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 larger lenses gather more light and illuminate more stars.
Analysis and Test Results
In our review, we try to focus on the models that would work best for most people. After spending countless hours using these binoculars, taking diligent notes on performance, our tally of scores helps to give a clear picture of each model's performance. Binos that score well across all metrics are granted awards, and some models receive accolades for performing well in specialized areas.
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.
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. Still, the Vortex Viper offers roughly 80% of the performance for about a quarter of the price. We also believe that the Vortex Diamondback HD 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 various lighting conditions, allowing us to see zone 10 on our ISO chart clearly. It also maintained good clarity to the edge of the image, making for an immersive viewing experience.
Earning solid scores in our clarity tests were both the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42 and the Leica Ultravid BR 10x25. 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, the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42 and the Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42 also performed well 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 provided 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 was 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 could still 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, but we noticed significant differences in brightness between models with the same objective lens size.
Vortex Optics dominated this category, with both the Viper HD 8x42 and the Diamondback HD 8x42 topping our scoresheet just behind the super expensive premium models. The former is slightly brighter than the latter, but both provided impressive color and detail in all of our low light tests. If you're looking to do some bird watching very early in the morning, very late in the afternoon, or in a place often shrouded in fog and clouds, these are great choices.
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 Ultravid BR 10x25 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.
The Nikon Monarch 5 performed well above its price point in our brightness testing. These impressed during dusky, early mornings when the light was at a premium. 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. While it's not quite as bright as some 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 could still 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.
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 (except for the locking diopter).
The only pairs with a locking diopter are the Leica Ultravid BR 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 ability 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 scores well.
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.
There is an adage that goes "the best pair of binoculars is the one you use." If you have a pair that aren't comfortable to hold, carry, or look through, chances are you're not going to use them. There are many 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 that 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.
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 pairs in the 10x range were the Zeiss Victory HT 10x42 and
Leica Noctivid 10x42, which can focus down to 6.2 feet. In the 8x range, the Swarovski EL and Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42 took the cake, focusing down to 4.9 and 5 feet, respectively. The Zeiss Terra ED 8x32 also performs respectably at 5.3 feet. If you're particularly concerned about close focus range, we suggest one of these models.
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 features on a distant ridge, you'll probably appreciate a wider field of view. Suppose you're using binoculars to watch wildlife, which will generally be within a couple of hundred feet of you. In that case, you likely won't notice the difference between a 300 foot and 450-foot field of view because the difference will be negligible at shorter distances.
Opting for a higher magnification means an automatic sacrifice in the field of view, so we considered magnification when scoring the field of view.
The top pair with 10x magnification was the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 10x42 with a field of view of 362 feet at 1000 yards. The top pairs with 8x magnification were the Athlon Midas G2 8x42 UHD and the Celestron TrailSeeker ED 8x42, both sporting an impressive field of view of 426 feet at 1000 yards.
Performance Comparison: High-End Shootout
This section examines 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 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 Swarovski EL's crystal lenses 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 during the 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 the 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 quick and predictable focusing. Though each knob feels slightly different, they felt completely intuitive within a few minutes of using each. You won't have to worry about annoying focus slips with any of these.
Here we have to give an edge to Zeiss. To adjust the diopter, they use a small and stiff knob separate from the main focus knob. The knob is supple enough to adjust the diopter easily, 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 event is not 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 issue 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 feet, 8 inches, 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, with a close focus of 6.2 feet, but the difference is noticeable if you like to look at little critters.
At their best, binoculars can open up whole new worlds of exploration and allow a greater appreciation of the fascinating ecology that surrounds us every day. At their worst, binoculars can make far away things look even cloudier than they do with the naked eye. We hope our meticulous testing results and real-world lessons help you find a pair that will provide the former experience rather than the latter.
— Max Mutter
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