The Best Binocular
It’s Whatever’s Best For You.
A binocular is one of the few items to justify stretching the budget. It will last for many years and bring countless hours of enjoyment. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t use one. Even things you see regularly and take for granted—a bee on a flower, a spider on a web—look more interesting through a binocular.
For many years it seemed a 7×35 was the most popular. Those numbers simply mean 7X magnification and a 35mm objective lens. Other terms come into play—exit pupil, relative brightness, center-focus, porro-prism. Zzzzzzzzz. I’m getting so sleepy…
Look, you know all that stuff. If not, there are plenty of articles available. Instead I want to share some thoughts on binocular selection from the perspective of someone who has used them for over half a century.
Current production models are the best ever. There has been continual innovation in optical glass, precision grinding and shaping of optical elements, better and longer-lasting moisture seals, lighter and stronger plastics and more sophisticated lens coatings.
Reading reviews and ratings is worthwhile but, ultimately, only your judgment counts. No one else can see what you see. No matter what anyone else says, if it doesn’t handle or feel right or if you’re not satisfied with the image it provides, you won’t enjoy using it.
Although an in-store comparison is better than nothing, it isn’t the final test. Make the most informed selection you can then give it a fair try for a few months. If you aren’t happy with it, figure out why, sell it and try again. Gather experience and soon you won’t be consulting experts. You’ll be the expert.
Conversely, if you like the binocular, don’t trade every time a “new and improved” version appears. True, some innovations really are game changers. Optical coatings introduced during WWII are an obvious example. Phase coating of roof prisms was a pretty big deal. Mostly though, improvements are marginal.
Dave bought his beloved Swarovski SLC 8×30 some 20 years ago,
and cannot begin to tell you how much game he’s seen through it.
When is a $1,000 binocular a “best buy?” When its image and construction quality
come oh-so-close to models costing twice as much. Such examples of value are
(left to right) the Meopta 10×42 HD and the Zeiss Conquest 8×42 HD.
My most-used, treasured binocular is a Swarovski 8×30 SLC I bought around 20 years ago. I’ve used it on hunting trips on three continents and for watching birds while having my morning coffee on the deck. I handle and focus it without conscious thought, and it fits like an old shoe. (Unfortunately for me, it is also Simone’s favorite, so when we hunt or birdwatch together, I have to find something else)
You get what you pay for. There are many choices, and competition is fierce. As a general rule, more money buys better image quality and durability. But the law of diminishing returns applies as well. A $500 binocular is not twice as good as a $250 binocular. It might have more accurate color transmission, tougher lens coatings, stronger construction and water resistance, but image resolution may be only marginally better.
Money is a slippery measuring tool, but as I write this, a $400 to $500 binocular will give a lifetime of enjoyment and hard service. At the $800 to $1,000 price point, binocular quality is so darn good it’s hard to justify spending more.
So why would anyone pay north of $2,000 for image quality hardly distinguishable from a $1,000 binocular? Well, some people do want that last increment of resolution, color clarity, low-light performance, the toughest possible construction and (ideally) uncompromising factory support. You really have to use a super high-end binocular a few months or years in all kinds of light and weather conditions to appreciate it.
For all-around use, an 8×40 up to an 8×43 is hard to beat. This top-line APO HG 8×43
from Minox is about as good as it gets. Can’t see the difference in the store?
Wait until you’re trying to spot a mule deer hidden in deep shadow, facing into the setting sun.
For an African hunt, Dave borrowed this 10x32FL from Zeiss. It proved to be the perfect tool.
Returning it after the hunt was a trauma from which he hasn’t fully recovered.
Set your time machine for a Saskatchewan farm in November 1962 and you
might see a youngstertrudging through the snow after whitetail. The
binocular and knife—both Christmas presents—werestill like new back
then, as was the Model 94. Today they and Dave show the signs of
many a hunting season, but they still work.
It’s funny to read forum arguments about which is “best.” To some people it seems desperately important to have the group accept their choice as the “best.” If ego gratification and bragging rights are your main goals, that’s just sad.
For all-around use, spend whatever funds you have budgeted on an 8×40 (or 8×42, no big difference) binocular. An 8×40 is like a bolt-action .30-06. It does a lot of things really well and most things well enough. Because this magnification/objective lens combination is so popular, the economics of scale in production and strong competition give you the most value for your money.
Features I find worthwhile are HD or ED optical glass, adjustable eyecups, long eye relief (since I wear eyeglasses), close focusing (for looking at birds and insects), reasonably rugged construction and water resistance.
And while it’s not a deal breaker, I like some kind of optical coating so rainwater beads up and runs off.
Having two binoculars allows you some specialization. I like a light, compact 8×30 or 8×33 tops for general use. Weighing around 16 to 18 ounces, they’re pleasant to carry, can be tucked away while stalking and give up little optical performance except in very low light.
For open country hunting (e.g. mule deer, antelope) by truck or by boat, I like a 10×40 or 10×42. They’re a bit bulkier and heavier and, for the casual user, a bit harder to keep steady. But if you use an improvised rest (us rifle shooters are used to that) you can take advantage of a bit more power.
By Dave Anderson
Meopta USA, Inc.
50 Davids Drive
Hauppauge, NY 11788
Minox USA Inc.
P.O. Box 123
Meriden, NH 03770
2 Slater Road
Cranston, RI 02920
Zeiss Sports Optics
711 Moorefield Park Dr. Building E
North Chesterfield, VA 23236
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