Mid-priced Binocular Roundup
If you are a bird watcher with between $300 and $800 to spend on a new pair of binoculars, what can you get?
This is the question for a birder ready for something beyond entry level binoculars or discount-store offerings who can't afford or doesn't choose to spend close to $2,000 for top-echelon binoculars. To answer this question we evaluated 56 midpriced binoculars from 18 different manufacturers. All have suggested retail prices of at least $300, and all can be found (at the time of this writing) at street prices less than $800.
How We Evaluated Them
We numbered and tagged the binoculars and set them up on tables that overlooked an outdoor scene. There were bird feeders, meadow, pond, trees, butterflies, and birdsa great variety of natural subjects to observe. For more controlled lab-type comparisons, we pinned to a wall an Edmonds Optics Resolution Power test chart that incorporates multiple examples of the standard USAF 1951 Resolution Test Pattern in red, blue, yellow, and black. The chart is large enough to let you see copies of the same test pattern at the center and at the edges of the field of view.
We constructed a beanbag rest 24 feet in front of the chart so that any two binoculars could be set up side by side and compared under identical distance and lighting conditions. A beanbag rest was mounted on a heavy Gitzo tripod that stood on a stone floor. The tripod's crank let us raise and lower the beanbag rest to match each tester's height. After aiming and focusing, we could easily move from one pair of binoculars to another and compare two perfectly still, steady images.
A team of 13 other Iowa birders was invited to rate the binoculars for optical quality, fit, and feel, plus other ergonomic details such as the focus knob, eyecups, and diopter adjustment mechanism. We deliberately omitted price information on the form the testers filled out while evaluating the binoculars. Our intent was to rank the binoculars according to their quality without regard to their cost. We also researched warranties, an important issue when investing in binoculars. Here are the elements tested for and included on the chart.
The binoculars were compared for resolution, brightness, contrast, color fidelity, detail in shadowed areas, and freedom from chromatic aberration. Each tester rated the binoculars' optical quality on a scale of 5 (best score among the midpriced binoculars) to 1 (worst). Top-end reference binoculars were also available for comparisonZeiss FL 8x 42 and10x42, a Swarovski EL 8.5x42, and a Leica Ultravid 8x42.
A word of caution on interpreting the optical quality numbers. The combined scores are rated to the tenth of a point, but the spread is tight, with most of the binoculars scoring within one point of each other. It's wise to not regard the scores as absolutes. Every score on the chart is composed of the ratings of multiple testers, each of whom doubtless brought his or her own preferences and particularities to the test. This doesn't mean subjective comparisons are meaningless. But there is a tendency, when seeing something reduced to a number such as 4.3, to put undue credence in its specificity. Among the standouts for optical quality were the Leica Ultravid Compacts, amazingly sharp, clear binoculars (see review of Leica Ultravid Compacts). The Vortex Razor 8x42 shared the highest optical score with them.
Ergonomics (Fit and Feel)
Fit and feel are necessarily an individual matter, made up of the size, weight, shape, and balance of the binoculars, the texture of the armoring, and a host of details. People respond favorably or unfavorably to indentations for thumbs; to the size, location, and style of the lugs to which the strap attaches; and to the general tightness or looseness of knobs and hinges. Most people seem to like tethered lens covers, but some don't like lens covers dangling down from the binoculars. One of our testers, whose hands are particularly large, scorned the compacts, preferring the way that fullsized binoculars fit his grip. Another tester said that high-quality binoculars that worked with her glasses and would fit in her small purse were "to die for."
A great advance in binocular ergonomics was the use of rubber or synthetic materials to cover and protect the surface. Armoring quiets bumps, secures one's grip, and makes binoculars much more hand friendly. Although virtually all the binoculars in our study incorporate pleasant armoring, the Swift 8.5x44 Audubon (Model 828) got an especially high score for fit and feel. It's pleasant to the touch, it's nonslip, and it accomplishes its tactile effect without any ridges. Quite elegantjust a subtle texture does the job.