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Over the past decade, our optics experts have tested more than 36 of the best binocular sets. Our current review assesses 16 of the top models on the market. Whether you're looking at a new pair for birding, to scout a new route while backpacking, or simply to gaze off into the distance, our hands-on testing cuts through product confusion by examining all of these binoculars side-by-side. Our testers have used these binoculars while exploring wildlife refuges, guiding wilderness tours, and on countless day hikes through wilderness areas in Oregon. This in-depth review offers expert recommendations to help you see the fine details of each pair of binoculars.
Make sure you're well-equipped for wherever your next adventure takes you. Our list of the best hiking gear should help. If your new binoculars are going with you on overnights off the beaten path, take a look at our comparative review of the best-rated hiking boots or consider investing in a top-notch backpack to carry whatever gear you need to get you there.
Editor's Note: We updated our binocular review on May 1, 2023, to ensure our lineup is current.
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 for multiple thousands, not hundreds of dollars. They also boast a 6.3-foot close focus range and are comfortable in hand, with a supple focus knob and an overall weight that's on the lighter side for a full-sized pair of optics.
The Viper HD has a downside: a higher price. They certainly aren't cheap compared to more budget-friendly options. However, if you're looking for high-end optical quality without spending a couple of thousand dollars on a more premium pair, we think the Viper HD is the best, most approachable choice.
If you're seeking the absolute best optical quality on the market in a pair of binoculars that is likely to become a family heirloom, then the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 is your 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 and brightness 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.
Premium performance comes at a fairly hefty cost. The Swarovski EL costs nearly as much as a used car and is more of an investment than a purchase. However, if you're a serious birder who wants the absolute best or you're embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime safari, these will undoubtedly take your experience to another level.
The Nikon Monarch M5 8x42 is a great pair of binoculars offering brightness and clarity comparable to binoculars that cost considerably more. It provides a clearer viewing experience than its two closest and most comparable 8x42 competitors, with less edge blurring, and outpaces that same competition with regard to brightness. In all of our testing, we found the Monarch M5s offered the highest level of clarity and brightness before having to nearly double one's budget for a more premium model of binoculars.
While the Monarch M5 is a pretty exceptional pair of binoculars, and a great value for that exceptional performance, there are a few things our team thought could be better. At a similar price point, there are other models that we tested that were slightly more ergonomic or easier to hold. Other comparable models also offered a greater field of view and a marginal improvement in the close focus range. The differences aren't so significant as to impact your experience, and our team can confidently say this is one of the best pairs of binos in this mid-tier price range.
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 budget-conscious price range, the image quality is the best we've seen. In fact, it rivals models that cost more than twice as much. The supple focus knobs and easy eyecup adjustments continue the list of beginner-friendly features. We enjoyed the 7.8-foot focus range because it let us get a good look at nearby butterflies and fascinating insects, so long as they didn't get too close, a big plus for days when the birds just aren't singing.
The low price does entail some drawbacks. The rubber coating of the Nature DX 8x42 feels lower quality than higher-priced models, and the hinges likewise feel slightly less sturdy. The glass is also of lower quality, so low-light situations yield slightly dim images. However, the large 42mm objective lenses help in these situations, meaning they perform a bit better in low light than the compact models often found in this price range. Overall, these complaints were minor, and we would wholeheartedly recommend these to anyone searching for a pair on a budget.
If you're hoping 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 14 ounces, these still provide good optical clarity and an exceptional performance-to-weight ratio. Combine that with sturdy construction, a comfortable grip that seems to be inherent in Vortex products, 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.
Since 2013, we've researched hundreds of pairs of binoculars and selected dozens of the best to run through our rigorous, side-by-side testing process. We've spent hundreds if not thousands of 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.
Our testing of binoculars is divided into six metrics:
Clarity tests (45% of overall score weighting)
Brightness tests (25% weighting)
Comfort tests (10% weighting)
Field of View tests (10% weighting)
Ease of Adjustment tests (5% weighting)
Close Focus Range tests (5% weighting)
Overall, our test fleet of binoculars was subjected to numerous testing procedures to rate their performance. We put the most weight on the clarity score, corresponding to 45% of each binocular's overall score. This was tested using an ISO 12233 chart (a standardized chart used to test digital still-imagery cameras) 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.
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. Jessica Riconscente, our primary tester, is an avid birder and has clocked countless hours designing test procedures, measuring, and collecting data, and brings a vast knowledge of industrial technology and heavy machinery, as well as critical problem-solving and technical analysis skills to our testing of products.
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 binoculars 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.
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 shaky hands can be an issue for some.
12x — Most will need to brace their elbows to avoid a shaky image at this magnification, as 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. See our How to Choose Binoculars article for more details on how to pick the perfect pair for your needs.
Analysis and Test Results
To help you find the right pair of binoculars, we focused on the models that fit into practical tiers for most people. After spending countless hours using these binoculars and 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 below 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 very 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 Nikon Monarch M5 and Celestron Nature DX offer better performance than their prices suggest, which makes either of them 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 and used an International Organization for Standardization chart specific to measuring optical clarity. For more on that, see our How We Tested Binoculars article.
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.
Price doesn't always dictate performance, but in the case of binoculars, the relationship is almost linear. The most expensive pairs offered the greatest clarity and a truly immersive experience that is only available to those with a multi-thousand-dollar budget. Those premium models that offered near-perfect clarity were the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, Leica Noctivi 10x42, and the Zeiss Victory SF 10x42.
Of the more accessibly-priced models we tested, the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 offered the best clarity, without entering the multi-thousand-dollar price range. 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.
Notably, the Nikon Monarch M5 8x42 and the Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42 also performed well in our clarity testing, which is impressive considering their more modest price tags. 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 of the defining features of birds.
The Celestron Nature DX 8x42 punched well above its price class in our clarity testing, particularly in bright light situations. They produced a crisp image rich with detail and only showed slight blurring around the edges. 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. To test brightness, we compared 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 some models with the same objective lens size.
Two of the higher-end models dominated brightness, just as they did clarity. However, in a surprising upset, the Zeiss Victory SF trailed the performance of the Swarovski and the Leica, as well as a handful of other models with a more approachable price.
Vortex Optics cleaned up the 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 will be doing 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.
The Nikon Monarch M5 performed well above its price point in our brightness testing. These impressed during early mornings when light transmission is difficult. They are the least expensive option that still offers exceptional low-light performance that our team tested.
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.
Another surprise for our test team was the Nikon Aculon A211, which performed as well as models that were twice as expensive, although this was likely due to the clunky size of the porro-prism design, a massive tradeoff in size for performance.
There is an adage that goes "the best pair of binoculars is the one you use." If you have a pair of binoculars that are comfortable to hold, carry, or look through, chances are you're actually going to use them. In our tests, we found the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 to be the most comfortable of the lot.
There are many factors that affect how comfortable they are, like rubberized coatings on the barrels, indentations for your hands and thumbs, an open bridge, comfortable interpupillary distance, padded straps, adjustable eyecups, and sufficient eye relief. All of these measurements are very subjective and will differ between individuals. For instance, everyone's eyes are not the same distance apart, so not everyone will be comfortable with the same 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 completely 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.
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 ability to quickly and accurately focus on an object can be the difference between seeing that rare bird, spotting that bull elk, or hearing about it from a friend with better optics. Will you be able to maintain accurate focus, or will you accidentally offset the diopter, resulting in a blurry image? For the ease of adjustment metric, we assessed 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, ease of adjusting 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). In all, the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 took home the prize with a perfect 10 in this metric, the highest rating we can give.
The Nikon Monarch M5 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.
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 allows 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. The best close focus range you can find is around 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 SF 10x42 and the Leica Noctivid 10x42, and offer a focus down to 6.2 feet in the 10x range. 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.
At their best, binoculars can open up whole new opportunities to explore 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.
GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.