Bushnell 10x42 E, L & M

Review by David Chandler

Bushnell has a higher profile on the other side of the Atlantic than it does here. Their binocular range is extensive and includes the Legend E, L and M series. Each of these is available as an 8x42 or 10x42. I took delivery of a box of three – a 10x42 Legend E, L and M, to compare them to each other. They all have some features in common, and some differences – which are reflected in the price. Could I see much difference between them? Is it worth the extra outlay to get the M?

The E is the entry-level option, with an RRP of £310. The most expensive is the M, at £495, and in between is the L, at £375. All have a magnesium chassis and water-repellent lens-coating, are made with lead-free glass, and have fully multi-coated optics. So what are the differences?

E, L or M?

The E and the L are a similar size and weight (635g and 638g respectively). The M is noticeably longer and heavier, at 722g. Unlike the other two, the M is an open-bridge design. There are optical differences, too. The L and the M include some ED glass – the E doesn’t. The M also has di-electric prism coating – this should get a bit more light through the binocular – so the image should be brighter.

Handling and mechanics

All handle well. The L has shallow thumb indents on the underside, lacking on the E, and smoother ‘grip-panels’ on the sides. The open-bridge M has slightly deeper thumb indents than the L, and is still pretty light for a 10x42 – it’s well balanced, too. They are all waterproof, and build quality is good. The L and M have a locking dioptre ring – the E doesn’t. That need not be an issue but mine moved too easily and I wasn’t convinced it adjusted like it should.

The twist-up eyecups have two intermediate positions on the E and L, but only one on the M. The action on the L was looser than on the others but I don’t think it would be an issue. Eye-relief varies – becoming more and more generous as the price increases. All should have enough for glasses wearers, but try it out to make sure.

Focusing is very similar on the E and L. The wheel is 1.5 fingers deep, moves anti-clockwise towards infinity, reasonably smoothly and moderately stiffly, with between 1.5 and 1.75 turns. It’s different on the M. It’s a bigger wheel – two fingers deep – which moves very smoothly, with more resistance, perhaps a little too much. There is the same number of turns, but in the opposite direction.

Optical performance

You’d expect any optical differences to be most obvious in poor light, but that wasn’t my experience. My ‘beyond sunset’ test took place in early March until 45 minutes after sunset, by which time it was pretty dark. All did OK, even at the end, though there may have been some minor differences. 

But I could see some difference in good light. To cut to the chase, the M is the best. It’s the most expensive, with the best spec, so you’d expect it to be and it is. The E is perfectly functional, but suffered from colour fringing more than the others. The view through the L is easier on the eye than the E, but the M is the best. Sharpness is good on the E, but better on the L and the M. 

Brightness was good on all three, with, in good light, the M a tad brighter than the others. There was no obvious colour cast on any, but colour fringing was more of an issue on the
E than the L, and better again on the M. I had to search a bit for best focus at distance on the E, and perhaps slightly so with the M, but not the L. All have the same field of view, an impressive 6.5 degrees, and in theory, all have the same close-focus of 1.9m, but don’t believe everything you read!

I measured the L at a bit under 1.9m, the M at 1.99m, but close-focus on the E approached 2.5m, much less respectable. So, if close-focus is important to you – check it out.

Verdict

The price difference between the E and the L isn’t massive – so go for the L or, if the extra bulk, weight and price of the M isn’t a deal-breaker, that’s the one I’d recommend.

E: A good view, but with a bit of colour fringing. No ED glass. ‘Traditional’ roof-prism design, lightweight. Dioptre doesn’t lock and not sure it worked that well. Close-focus not as good as quoted. Two intermediate eye-cup positions, less eye-relief than the others. £310.

L: A better view than the E, with less colour fringing. ED glass.  ‘Traditional’ roof-prism design, lightweight. Locking dioptre. Two intermediate eye-cup positions. More eye-relief than E, less than M. £375.

M: The best view of the bunch. ED glass and di-electric prism coating. Open-bridge design, bigger and heavier, but still reasonably light. Locking dioptre. One intermediate eye-cup position. More eye-relief than the others. Bigger focusing wheel which focuses in the opposite direction. £495.

This review was first published in the May 2016 issue of Bird Watching magazine.

Helios Mistral WP6 8X42

Factfile:
Helios Mistral WP6 8x42
Field of view (@1000 m): 129m
Close focus: 2m
Eye relief: 17.5mm
Dimensions: 140mm x 105mm x 58mm
Weight: 682g
RRP: £109.95

Ratings:
Optics 4
Handling 4
Price 4
Overall 4

Review by Matt Merritt

Every few months, a colleague from one of our sister magazines will ask for some recommendations for binoculars to buy as a present for a relative who’s just got into birdwatching. Typically, they want to spend around £100, maybe £150 at a stretch.

In recent years, finding suitable models to tell them about has become easier, as binoculars at the budget end of the market have become more and more impressive.

Helios’s new Mistral WP6 bins landed on my desk just a few minutes after one of those conversations with a co-worker. So, can I whole-heartedly endorse them?

The closed-bridge design is unremarkable, but they feel solid and robust in the hand, with plenty of rubber armouring, and well placed thumb indents to make them easier to grip.

They’re light, at 682g, and well-balanced enough to be easy to handle. The eyecups are comfortable, offering 17.5mm of eye relief, and twist up and down to three positions, with the intermediate one very secure in extended use.

The dioptre adjustment, on the right barrel, isn’t click-stopped, but it takes some effort to move, so there’s little chance of it inadvertently slipping out of place.

The focus wheel is a little more than one finger wide, and well textured for extra grip – even while wearing thick gloves on a couple of chilly mornings, it was easy to use.

So far, so user-friendly. The image produced is what makes or breaks any pair of bins, though, and there’s very little here to complain about. The colour feels very natural, and contrast is good, while the 42mm objective lenses gather plenty of light – only in really low light did I miss the extra punch that ED glass offers (there’s an ED version available, for £155).

The image is sharp and clean, with relatively little fall-off in that towards its edges, and the field of view (129m@1000m) feels more expansive than the figures suggest. Chromatic aberration was hard to find – only when tracking birds against bright low sun was it really noticeable.

Focusing is precise

The focus wheel turns slowly if rather stiffly, taking just over two anti-clockwise turns from close focus to infinity, and focusing is precise yet easy to find. And while the close focus limit of 2m is surpassed by some bins, it’s more than adequate for most needs and would have been considered absolutely outstanding a short time ago.

The strap provided is adequate, although you might want to replace it with a wider one, and there’s a fabric case, a rainguard that removed easily and quickly, and removable tethered objective lens covers.

For £110, they cover all the bases that any beginner birder could want, offering excellent all-round optical performance and a design and build that should cope with most eventualities. Next time a colleague asks me for some sub-£150 recommendations, they’ll figure highly on the shortlist.

This review was first published in the January 2016 issue of Bird Watching magazine.

Swarovski EL FieldPRO 8.5x42 

Factfile:

Field of view (@1000m): 133m
Close focus: 1.5m
Eye relief: 20mm
Dimensions: 160mm x 131mm x 61mm
Weight: 835g
RRP: £2,000

Ratings (out of 5)

Optics 3.5
Handling 3.5
Price 4
Overall 4

Review by Matt Merritt

Swarovski’s EL binoculars were revamped to great effect only a few years back, so the launch of the FieldPro package represents more of a fine-tuning of an already outstanding product, rather than a reinvention of any kind. So what’s new, exactly? In terms of optics, the image is still very bright and very sharp right to the edges, giving a ‘walk-in’ feel that brings a wide panorama into precise focus.

The cutaway design is the same, but the rubber armour has a more ‘grippy’ feel, and the focus wheel, which takes 2.5 clockwise turns from close focus (1.5m) to infinity, is easier to grip and move (very smoothly). The dioptre setting is precise and stays in place well.

Binocular extras

The extras are where things have changed. The objective lens covers have a new attachment, which keeps them secure but stops them flapping about, and can be removed easily and replaced with lugs to stop the hinge getting damaged. 

The neoprene ‘comfort’ strap now has circular rather than flat cords at the end, making moving the rainguard much easier, and these attach quickly and simply using a twist mechanism. This enables you to switch rapidly and easily to accessories such as a floating strap (seawatchers might like this), a harness or a bino-guard in the field. Finally, the length of the strap itself can be adjusted and then secured instantly using two twist controls.

Focus wheels and attachments

The focus wheel feels easier to grip, especially through gloves, thanks to more pronounced and harder ridges. The pullout dioptre adjuster is easy to set, and locks in place, preventing accidental movement in the field. The new attachments make the strap easier to fit or swap for other accessories such as a harness, while the length of the strap can be altered very quickly by twisting the discs on the end of the neoprene section.

Verdict

A subtle but effective evolution of outstanding binoculars – the optics are the same, but the design even more user-friendly.  

This review was first published in the June 2016 issue of Bird Watching magazine.

Leica Ultravid 8x32 HD Plus

Factfile:

Field of view: 135m@1,000m
Close focus: 2.1m (manufacturer’s figure)
Weight: 535g
Dimensions: 116mm x 116mm x 56mm
Eye relief: 13.3mm
RRP: £1,650
 

Ratings (out of 5):

Optics 4.5
Handling 4.5
Price 4
Overall 4.5

Review by Matt Merritt

Leica Ultravid 8x32 HD Plus

Leica Ultravid 8x32 HD Plus

MORE and more, I find myself wanting smaller, lighter bins I can carry at all times, to fit a bit of birding in anywhere.

Leica’s Ultravid HD Plus 8x32s are a refinement of what was already an exceptional model. Outwardly, little has changed. Very compact and light (just 560g), they have a closed bridge, and solid, easy to grip armouring. The comfortable eyecups click up and down to four positions, and stay in place well, a little too well at times. 

The focus wheel is a finger-and-a-half wide, well ridged, and takes just more than a full clockwise turn from close focus (less than 2m, for me) to infinity, moving very smoothly and moderately stiffly. The dioptre is set by pulling out the wheel, and is calibrated and locks in place well. 

Bright and natural binoculars

The image produced is very sharp and well contrasted right to the edges, making the most of the 135m@1,000m field of view, and it’s bright and natural too. In really dim light, perhaps you’d miss your 8x42s but, generally, it coped well with dawn, dusk and bad weather.

Colour-fringing was negligible, but setting the bins up does need care. They’re so compact that you need to take time to get the interpupillary distance and your eye position right to avoid flaring or chromatic aberration. Once you have, a fairly stiff hinge keeps things in place well. The rainguard fits easily, and the neoprene strap makes even lighter of your burden.

If you’re looking to downsize optically, you have to consider these – they do the job optically, and they’re also a pleasure to use. 

This review was first published in the April 2017 issue of Bird Watching magazine

Zeiss Victory SF

Factfile:

Magnification: 8x
Field of view: (m@1000m) 148
Close focus: 1.5m
Weight: 780g
RRP: £ 2,129.99 (inc VAT)

Ratings (out of 5)

Optics 4.5
Handling 4.5
Price 4
Overall 4.5

Review by Mike Weedon

Back in the early 2000s, I was invited along with former BW editor David Cromack and the Birdfair legend Tim Appleton to visit Zeiss in Germany.

The company were after input on making its top range binoculars better. Partly as a result of our input (I like to think), the FL binoculars were developed, which later were called the Victory FLs. I have been birding with these bins for more than a decade. In fact, they are always with me. They’ve had the rubber armouring replaced, the eyecups swapped, but these workhorses are still delivering the goods. I feel naked and vulnerable without them. I forget I am wearing them and don’t think before using them, they are part of my birdwatching nature.

So, how do the Victory SFs compare with binoculars which are second-nature to me? Firstly, let me point out that this testing session is the third time I have had a good go with the SFs. A few years ago, I went to the initial launch event in Germany, Austria and Hungary and was using them all the time then. Again, last spring, I was in Poland with Zeiss, birding with these binoculars (and sneakily hoping I’d be lent a loan pair to take home). 

Each time, I have put aside my FLs for the SFs,
I have found myself immediately forgetting my old friends. In many ways, they are similar binoculars, but just a bit (a noticeable bit at that) better!

Like other brands of top modern binoculars, Zeiss have opted for an open bridge design, which looks stylish and feels natural and very comfortable. There are no unnecessary dimples to guide the thumb, just grippy, lightly textured rubber. 

They are not at all heavy, and with the excellent Zeiss strap, sitting so nicely on the chest I occasionally forgot I was wearing them and had to do a sneaky feel with my hand to make sure they were still there. They are a breeze to use, sitting well in the hand, so the thumb rests naturally on the generous two-finger rubber focus wheel. This wheel moves as smoothly as silk and takes you from about 1.5m close focus to infinity. Focusing is easy and precise, getting the bird in focus in an instant.

Zeiss Victory SF binoculars In the field

With my trusty FL pair, I am used to the easy, relaxing, sharp and natural image Zeiss bins can deliver. And I have never grumbled about brightness, especially as my pair are 7x42s. But with the SFs you get all of the natural look, but notably brighter (these are bright bins!), even crisper and seemingly even sharper. But resolution has got so good on the best binoculars, that this these slight differences areextremely hard to detect.

They excel in field of view, which adds to the natural feel, in the field. In fact, they are not far off my Fls in field of view, even though they are 8x bins not 7x. I like this, as I love a nice open field, but the effect is wasted if the image is not sharp all the way across. Luckily, edge-to-edge sharpness is excellent with the SFs. 

I come back again to that word ‘natural’, which is about as big a compliment as you can give to the image of a pair of binoculars.

The binoculars come with an excellent, elasticated strap, fine case, and the usual rainguards etc.

Zeiss Victory SF binoculars verdict

Choosing between the best of the best brands of binoculars has never been easy. These days, it is harder than ever, but the Zeiss SF is as good a pair of binoculars as I’ve had the pleasure of using. If you are in the market for a top-range binocular, put these on your short list.

This binocular test was first published in the March 2017 issue Bird Watching magazine.

Bushnell Equinox Z 4x50

Factfile:

Magnification: 4x
Viewing range: 750m
Weight: 794g
Battery type: AA (four)
RRP: £439
Contact: bushnell.com

Ratings (out of 5)

Optics 3.5
Handling 4
Price 3.5
Overall 4

Review by Matt Merritt

Night vision might not be a priority for many birders – after all, how many nocturnal species does the UK have – but for anyone into more general wildlife watching it’s going to be a must at some stage, and once you try it, you realise it has rather more birding use than you might think.

These bi-oculars (one objective aperture provides a single optical path, while the other houses an infra-red illuminator) offer some intriguing possibilities to complement your traditional binoculars.

The infra-red illuminator helps illuminate your target, and you can adjust the illumination brightness quickly and easily, while the digital sensor is immune to bright light damage and has an unlimited lifetime. You can also adjust the sensor brightness, too, depending on how much ambient infra-red light you’re getting from the moon and stars. Once your eyes get used to things, and using the fine focus wheel between the barrels, you start to get a fair amount of detail even in pitch black – there’s a coarse digital zoom, too.

Using an SD card, you can take individual photos and videos, and the results can be pretty impressive, providing you’ve got a stable base.

After starting out testing it on Muntjacs and rats (!), I sought out night birds. A local Starling roost, for example, revealed its true dimensions under the infra-red sensor, and I got some idea of just how active Pochards are by night.

Design and build are generally good. You can alter the distance between the eyepieces with a simple control wheel, and the body is well contoured and rubberised for extra grip – it’s described as weather-resistant, but with electronics involved, I wouldn’t want to test that too much. They’re surprisingly light, though you might want to tripod-mount them at times for extra stability. All the control buttons are well placed on top of the bi-oculars, and I found them easy to use without taking my eyes off my target.

Not cheap, but if you’d like to give your wildlife-watching another dimension, they’re worth a good look, especially if you can use them from a hide or other stable vantage point.

This review was first published in the February 2017 issue of Bird Watching magazine.

Canon IS II 10x30 & IS III 12x30

Price: £480 and 3700

Review by Matt Merritt

This Canon binocular review was first published in Bird Watching's December 2015 issue

canonbinocular

IMAGE-STABILISED binoculars have been around a long time, and there are birders who swear by them.

Canon have updated their range, and I put the IS II 10x30s and the IS III 12x30s to the test on a couple of inland stretches of water, as well as from the passenger seat of a friend’s car. That’s when they come into their own – the image-stabiliser button on top of the bins is easily accessible, and does its job well, eliminating much of the pitching and swaying that you’d expect when birding in such situations.

The image is sharp and pretty bright, too, right up close to the edges, contrast is good, colour natural, and the field of view far from claustrophobic.

But, and it’s quite a big but, there are downsides. It’s hard to adjust the bins to suit your eyes, for example, with the eyepieces offering less flexibility than a typical pair of birding bins. And, although both are reasonably compact, and not heavy (600g and 660g), they’re not as well balanced as many bins, meaning that some of the time the IS is merely cancelling out movement you wouldn’t get with other bins anyway.

Still, if you do a lot of birding by boat, in particular, these are an invaluable addition to the rucksack – try them and you might well be converted.

This Canon binocular review was first published in Bird Watching's December 2015 issue

Hawke FRONTIER ED 8x42

Review by Matt Merritt

hawkebinocular

This Hawke binocular review was first published in Bird Watching magazine's December 2015 issue

IT’S really not overstating the case to say that Hawke’s Frontier EDs, when they appeared a few years ago, revolutionised the budget end of the binocular market.

With their extra-low dispersal glass, they set something of a new standard for the quality of optics you could expect for under £300, and have consequently been popular ever since. So, can this closed-hinge version of the original open-hinge Frontiers (which are actually 8x43), compete with its predecessor?

The first thing to say is that, despite the lack of cutaways, they’re actually noticeably lighter than those 8x43s (and you don’t exactly have to drag those round with you, either). They’re compact, too, fitting very snugly in the hand, with sturdy rubber armour. They feel thoroughly well balanced.

Other design features include Hawke’s usual chunky (1.5 finger wide), well-ridged focus wheel, for extra grip in cold weather or with gloves.

It moves smoothly and moderately stiffly, taking around 1.7 anti-clockwise turns from close focus to infinity, and it was easy to find and maintain focus.

The dioptre ring, on the right barrel, is uncalibrated, but sets easily and stays in place without any problem.

The eyecups are covered in soft rubber, and twist up and down to three positions, and are comfortable to use, offering a maximum of 18mm of eye relief, while the removable objective lens covers are tethered to the chassis by means of little tabs – in extended use, they held on to the covers very firmly, without letting them ‘bounce’ up to obscure your view at a crucial moment. I’ve not always been a big fan of such things in the past, but if they’re done well, like here, I could easily be persuaded.

But what of the optics? Brightness, sharpness to the edges and a verytrue-to-life colour were the hallmarks of the original Frontier EDs, and that’s all present and correct here, too.

You feel like you’re getting the full benefit of the 142m@1000m field of view, with very little falling off of quality at the edge of the image, and it was extremely difficult to find any colour-fringing, even against strong sunlight – it only became noticeable once or twice when following a bird in flight.

Close focus is around 2m, which while not being exceptional these days, is more than enough to meet the needs of most birders.

You get some good accessories for your £250, too. As well as the aforementioned tethered objective lens covers, there’s a good rainguard, a wide neoprene strap, and an excellent leather carrying case.

Hawke FRONTIER ED 8x42 Verdict:

If you just can’t get on with open-hinge designs, or if you want a little less weight and size, or if you just want to save £100, these are a great alternative to Hawke’s 8x43 Frontier EDs – they’re also as good as, if not better than, anything else out there in the sub-£300 bracket at the moment. Excellent all-round binoculars for anyone out there wanting to take the next step up from their beginner pair.

Factfile:

Field of view (@1000 m): 142m
Close focus: 2m
Eye relief: 18mm
Dimensions: 144mm x 135mm x 58mm
Weight: 680g
RRP: £249.99
Warranty: 10-year

This Hawke binocular review was firdst published in Bird Watching magazine's December 2015 issue

Leica Ultravid HD-PLUS 8x32

Price: £1,50

Review by DAVID CHANDLER

This Leica binocular review was originally published in Bird Watching magazine in November 2015

Back in 2008, I reviewed the Ultravid 8x32 HD. My conclusion was that it was a very fine binocular. Now I’m looking at the Ultravid HD Plus. To split these close-relatives, look for the Red HD on the ‘plus’ version. But what does the ‘plus’ mean? Plus what?

Pictured: Leica Ultravid HD-Plus 8X32

Pictured: Leica Ultravid HD-Plus 8X32

Externally, little has changed. But optically, some things have and it’s mostly about light transmission. The prisms are now made of Schott high-transmission glass – with the claim that ‘the smallest detail can be identified even in late twilight’. There are new coatings, too, which ‘increases both the brightness of the image and the contrast while maintaining accurate colours’.

So what are they like to look through? In short, very, very good. The view is natural, with excellent sharpness and very good brightness and contrast. At 7.7 degrees it’s pretty wide, too, a little narrower than its competitors, but only a tad. By today’s standards, the close-focus, quoted at 2.2m, is not exceptional, but in practice is fine for everything bar up-very-close insect watching. The Ultravid gave me some great views of a hovering Migrant Hawker which was reasonably close, and actually, when I measured, I could focus the Ultravid down to about 2.05m.

Can the smallest detail be identified in late twilight? At sunset with about 60% cloud cover this little binocular was picking out foliage colour on distant trees and pulling detail out of closer shadows. Fifteen minutes later it was doing the same thing, only less so. By 30 minutes after sunset, there was no sign of any real detail in the shadows, but I could still see a hint of colour on the distant foliage. All in all, no complaints on this front.

To get critical, there is perhaps just a little edge softness, but nothing that distracts. There were some occasional reflections, and I did detect a bit of colour fringing a few times – making sure your eyes are lined up properly with the binocular helps with this. I don’t want to overstate any of these – they are minor and I had my reviewer’s head on.

In the hand, this binocular has a great feel. The design is simple and elegant and not over-adorned with branding – just the classic red dot. I like the fact that, unlike its bigger siblings (the 42 mm Ultravids), there are no ridges to tell you where to put your thumbs. The build quality is very good. It is waterproof, with hydrophobic coating on the outer lens surfaces, a magnesium chassis, a titanium axle and rubber armouring. This is a very compact, lightweight binocular – it suits me, but some may find it too small.

The two-finger wide focussing wheel is ridged, nicely grippy, and delivers very good focusing precision. It moves very smoothly against moderate resistance with a bit less than one and a quarter turns, clockwise, to infinity. To adjust the dioptre you pull up the top half of the focussing wheel, twist, and then push it down to lock – and you can see your setting through a window.

The eye-cups twist up and down with one intermediate position. I found them too stiff, but you are unlikely to be constantly changing their position so it’s not really a problem. The 13.3mm of eye-relief may not be enough if you wear glasses when you use binoculars, and the rainguard was too tight a fit for my liking!

Leica Ultravid HD-Plus 8X32 binocular review verdict:

This Ultravid HD Plus is a classy, top-end, mid-size binocular, with, to my eye, a retro look. Optically, there’s little to fault and for me, its size and simple ergonomics make it a pleasure to handle. One final point – the other big brands have models in the same niche, with similar specs, but the Leica has the lowest RRP, which, believe it or not, is £310 less than its predecessor.

Leica Ultravid HD-Plus 8X32 binocular factfile:

Field of view (@1000 m): 135m (7.7 degrees)
Close focus: 2.2m
Eye relief: 13.3mm
Dimensions: 117 x 55 x 119mm
Weight: 560g
RRP: £1,350
Warranty: 10 years
Accessories: Contoured neoprene strap, rainguard; lens cloth, tethered removable objective covers, cordura case.

Contact: 0207 629 1351, web: leica-sportoptics.co.uk

This Leica binocular review was originally published in Bird Watching magazine in November 2015

Visionary Fieldtracker 8x42 EmeralD

  • Open bridge makes them very comfortable
  • Bright, sharp image
  • ED glass eliminates most colour fringing
  • Good, wide ‘sweet spot’
  • Under £300 – great value

You’re probably sick of hearing us say that advances in optical technology and binocular design have started to have a major impact at the budget end of the market.

It’s absolutely true, though. Features such as ED glass, which start off as the exclusive preserve of the pricier models, quickly become common and then even standard right through the ranges. The delay between that first unveiling and general adoption has grown shorter and shorter, too, so the trickle-down effect is even more pronounced.

Visionary’s ED model in their new Fieldtracker range is a handsome-looking binocular, with an open-bridge design that makes it extremely comfortable in the hand. It feels good, too, with green rubber armour that’s reassuringly solid yet compact and lightweight, something that could be said about this model more generally.

That impression of excellent build quality extends to the eyepieces, which are rubberised, nicely moulded, and twist up and down to three different positions.

The same applies to the focus wheel, which is around 1.25 fingers wide, and with prominent enough ridges to make getting a grip easy even with the coldest fingers.

It moves beautifully smoothly, too, taking almost two anti-clockwise turns from close focus to infinity, with a little above average resistance. Best of all, it’s quick and easy to find exactly the right position.

The dioptre adjustment, a ridged twist-ring on the right barrel, is fine. It’s not calibrated, but it refuses to move accidentally when in use in the field, which is pretty much all that I ask.


So, they look good, feel good, but how do they perform optically? Well, initially, I had one or two concerns about a slight halo around the outside of the image, but this soon disappeared, so I suspect it had more to do with my eye position than the binoculars themselves. With that sorted, I was able to get on with enjoying that ED glass, which produces a bright, sharp image with excellent contrast. It tested them in all sorts of conditions, including some very murky evenings with drizzle and hail, and they came through very impressively (the lenses clean very easily, too).

There’s perhaps a very slight warm, yellowish cast, but basically the view you get is very natural. Colour fringing, too, was notable by its absence, no matter how hard I looked for it in a variety of different situations. As with pretty much any binoculars, you can find it if you really try, but I think you’d struggle to notice anything while you’re actually watching birds.

Field of view was slightly enigmatic. On the one hand, it doesn’t feel quite as wide or ‘walk-in’ as one or two other 8x42 EDs out there. On the other, sharpness to the edge of the image is really excellent, and that large ‘sweet spot’ means that you get full value for what FOV there is. In short, it feels more than wide enough for everyday birdwatching.

Close focus is somewhere between 1.5 and 2m (or was for me), which along with their lack of bulk makes these an excellent option for more general wildlife watching.

That brings me to the price. At £280, these represent a real bargain, meaning not only that a relative beginner can sample the pleasures of ED glass without breaking the bank, but also that these are potentially a good second pair for someone who already has a more expensive pair of bins. Their all-round solidity and effectiveness makes them perfect for stashing in a rucksack, for example, when out hiking, or in the glove compartment, for a bit of birding on the daily commute.

The accessories include objective lens covers, a slightly flimsy-looking but actually very useable rainguard, a fabric case, and a decent neoprene strap.

In conclusion, it’s hard to fault these for value. The optics are excellent, they’re nicely put together, and above all they’re easy and very enjoyable to use. Give them some serious thought if you’re in the market for some ED glass.

Visionary Inara 7.5x36

  • Unusual size is ideal for birdwatching
  • Bright, sharp image, even in low light
  • Impressively sharp, even to the edges
  • More than respectable field of view
  • All for under £200 – excellent value for money

This is another Chinese-made binocular, with a price tag that many people could afford. Visionary are relatively new to the British birding scene. There are just two Inaras in the range, a 7.5x36 and a 9x36, and these are among Visionary’s more expensive models. Both of the Inaras have an unusual spec – I like that, and 7.5x36 strikes me as a pretty good combination for bird watching. Dropping the magnification slightly and increasing the objective size a bit, compared to an 8x32, results in a 4.8 mm exit pupil, rather than the 4 mm that an 8x32 delivers. 0.8 mm may not sound much, but it means that the exit pupil is about 44% bigger, so all things being equal, this binocular has the potential to get a lot more light to your eye, with still enough magnification to do the job.

The Inara is very light – weighing a mere 565 g, compact, and waterproof. It sat well in my hands and my fingers had no problem finding the focussing. Image sharpness is very good, and objects stayed in focus well when I moved them from the centre to the edge of the view. It wasn’t always easy to find the point of best focus though – I didn’t always get it first time. I found the focus reasonably light and smooth, but it gave its best with a gentle touch. Over 1.75 turns of the focus wheel are possible, anti-clockwise towards infinity, but about 0.5 of a turn was beyond ‘very distant’, and therefore unlikely to be used much – at least by me and my eyes.

The field of view is a very respectable 7.7 degrees, and close focus according to the website is around two metres. For me, it was better than this – I measured it at around 1.75m. The image is plenty bright enough and these little Inaras worked pretty well as the light faded, even an hour after sunset. I did find a yellow colour cast, but don’t think it is a major issue. I found a bit of colour fringing on the edge of roof tiles and around a chimney and an aerial, but it wasn’t too bad (I’m a reviewer, I have to look for it – I recommend you don’t!). My only other comment with regard to the image is that I sometimes saw a soft ring around the edge of the image.


FACTFILE

  • Price: £169.99
  • Dimensions: (length x width x height): 133x106x56mm
  • Weight: 565g
  • Close focus: Around 2m
  • Field of view: 7.7 degrees. 134m @1000m
  • Distributed by: Optical Hardware Ltd. Mount Osborne, Oakwell View, Barnsley, S71 1HH. T: 01226 203275
  • e-mail: info@opticalhardware.co.uk
  • website: www.opticalhardware.co.uk

Dioptre adjustment is via a simple twist ring beneath the right eyepiece, which is stiff enough to stay in place once set. The eyecups twist up and down and have one intermediate position as well as fully up or fully down. Their mechanics are fine, though one of them did seem to sit a tad higher than the other. This caused no problems at all in use, but does beg quality control questions.

The Inara 7.5x36 is a small, lightweight binocular with a good specification. The package includes removeable, tethered objective covers, a rainguard that wasn’t too hard to get on and off, a webbing strap that was perfectly adequate for the job and a soft case. And all for less than £200. As always, if you think they might be right for you, check them out yourself and see what you think.

REVIEWED BY DAVID CHANDLER.

 

Viking ED 8x42

  • Impressive edge to edge sharpness
  • ED glass lights up the dawn and dusk landscape
  • Excellent close focus makes for great versatility
  • Compact and lightweight, despite the high-quality glass
  • Easy and pleasurable to handle

Any optics watcher will have noticed that more and more binoculars are coming onto the market with low dispersion glass and an ‘open bridge’ design. The high prices of top-end binoculars won’t have escaped their attention either. Viking Optical’s Chinese-made ED models, an 8x42 and a 10x42, are the top of their range. These are described by Viking as ‘premium quality, affordable price’ and ‘a binocular of the highest standard’. They have ED glass, for ‘brighter, sharper images, free of colour aberration’, an ergonomic open bridge, and a price tag with just three digits. The ED42s are supplied with a wide neoprene strap, a hard zip-up case, and a rainguard.

I spent some time with the 8x42s and my initial impressions were very favourable, in terms of image quality, build quality and ergonomics. This binocular looks the business, and is very nice to handle. The open bridge worked well for me – two or three fingers found the gap quite naturally with the other hand ready for focussing. For a 42 mm binocular, this is a pretty compact tool. It is fully waterproof and has a magnesium alloy body, and at 710 g is not a heavy binocular.

The view is wide and colours are natural, with a slight yellow colour cast, but nothing problematic. Sharpness is very good, and impressive edge to edge, with a hint of softness around the periphery. The image is bright and the EDs did well in low light, even an hour after a June sunset. The close-focus is quoted as 1.5 metres – I managed perhaps a little under 1.8 metres, but I was impressed. I did see a bit of colour fringing, but nothing to get worked up about and there wasn’t a problem when I watched Swifts against an off-white cloud.


FACTFILE

  • Price: £559
  • Dimensions: (height x width) 136x129mm
  • Weight: 710g
  • Close focus: 1.5m
  • Field of view: 7.8 degrees. 137m @1000m
  • Distributed by: Viking Optical Ltd. Blyth Road, Halesworth, Suffolk, IP19 8EN Tel: 01986 875315
  • website: www.vikingoptical.co.uk

There were times when I struggled to find the best focus, though this may improve with practice, and times when I felt like I had to turn the focus wheel a lot to focus. It has about 1.75 turns in it, turning reasonably smoothly and quite stiffly, anti-clockwise towards infinity. I did find it tricky to find the best dioptre position, and holding in the button while adjusting the dioptre was a bit awkward. This is something that you don’t do often of course, and once it is set, it locks in place and there is no danger of it being accidentally moved.

The eyecups twist up and down with a light action and have three set positions. I found the rainguard a bit fiddly to use – I prefer a sloppier fit – and found that using it sometimes inadvertently lowered an eyecup. For me, the central hinge was a little too loose too, though this could be tightened and may be different on a different sample. Perhaps some of these things could be looked at if there is a Mk. II in the future.

For less than £600 you get an ED binocular that is really nice to handle, not too heavy and not too big. It provides a bright, sharp, wide-angle view with good colours and a decent close-focus. If their spec and price fits your needs check them out.

REVIEWED BY DAVID CHANDLER.

Swarovski EL 8.5x42

  • Extraordinary brightness – they really cut through any murk
  • Sharp right to the very edges – big field of view
  • Very precise focusing, and easy to find, too
  • Excellent eye relief for glasses wearers
  • In extended use, supremely comfortable

It’s fair to say they’re among the most eagerly-awaited optics we can remember. So, are Swarovski’s new Swarovision EL’s the best binoculars ever?

Well, at first sight, they don’t look too different from the original ELs, which appeared 10 years ago. The elegant cutaway design, much imitated since, is still there, along with the familiar dark green rubber armouring. But what about what’s inside? The optics are what has had many a birder giddy with anticipation, and right from the first sight, the wait appears to have been worth it. The first thing that hit me was how wide the field of view felt. In part that’s because, at 133m@1,000m, it actually is (!), but it’s also a consequence of the new field-flattener lenses, which work to keep the image sharp right up to the edges. There really is negligible distortion, and in practice that has two important effects. For a start, obviously, it means you get full value for that field of view. For another, it means extended periods of watching are much more relaxing for the eyes – there’s less need to keep adjusting eye position slightly.

Brightness is exceptional, too. The ELs are quite capable of making use of the first glimmers of dawn. The glass and the Swarovision coatings used mean that even in the lowest of lights, these binoculars cut through the murk to pick out an incredible amount of detail. They shrug off rain pretty well, and it was easy to get the lenses clean.

Colour is satisfyingly natural, with contrast also very impressive, all adding up to a very vivid, ‘walk-in’ feel to the image, and chromatic aberration (colour fringing) was very difficult to find even viewing against the brightest light. I did feel that depth of field was fairly shallow, but that was never a problem, because the focusing system itself is such a pleasure to use.

The focus wheel is a generous finger-and-a-half wide, which along with the ridged finish makes it easy to use while wearing gloves. Travel is smooth and, initially at least, reasonably stiff, making it easy to avoid accidental movement, and focussing is extremely precise. It takes a little over two anti-clockwise turns from close focus to infinity. And talking of close focus, it’s claimed as an impressive 1.5m, but in practice I found that probably a little bit conservative. The dioptre adjustment is calibrated and, because of the pull-out mechanism used, impossible to dislodge accidentally.

The rubber-covered eyecups twist up and down into three different positions, and proved very comfortable in extended use. I had one or two concerns about how well they’d stay in position, but there was no problem. They’ve been designed with the intention of improving things for wearers of spectacles, and those glasses-wearers I tested them on found the extra levels of adjustment a great help.

You might expect, with all that high-quality glass being used, that there’d be a penalty in terms of weight and size, but the magnesium body keeps the former more than manageable, and they’re impressively compact and well-balanced. Everything about the design, down to the well-placed thumb indents, makes them a pleasure to use for long periods. The rainguard and objective lens covers both attached securely while remaining quickly removable, and the neoprene strap was comfortable, easily attached and easily adjusted.

This does all come at a price. To start with, at least, you’re looking at £1,745 for a pair. Depending on the type of birder you are, you might decide that the optical advances made here aren’t what you need. As with any of the high-end binoculars produced in recent years, though, you’d be buying in the knowledge that you’ll probably never need another pair of bins, should you so choose, because the ELs appear equal to absolutely every challenge put in front of them.

REVIEWED BY MATT MERRITT.


FACTFILE

  • Price: £1,745
  • Dimensions: Length: 160mm, Width: 122mm, Height: 61mm
  • Weight: 795g
  • Close focus: 1.5m
  • Field of view: 133m@1000m

Steiner Skyhawk Pro 8x42

  • Good wide feel to the image
  • Impressively natural colour at all times
  • Plenty of punch in low-light situations
  • Smooth, precise focus mechanism
  • Almost unbelievable close focus – great for bugs

The original version of the Skyhawk made a name for itself by providing good quality optics at an affordable price. So can the new, improved Skyhawk Pro build on that good work…

Well, the field of view, 122m @ 1,000m, compares very well with most binoculars in the same size and price range. Importantly, it feels wide too, excellent for extended scanning of a wide area. The image is more than bright enough, with the colour generally appearing very natural (there was maybe a slight ‘icy’ feel). The optics did very well in low light, too. There’s a little softness at the edge of the image, but generally you get very full value for that wide view I was talking about earlier.

The literature that came with them claimed impressive contrast due to their new ‘eco glass’, and they fully lived up to that. They resolve well at all distances, although perhaps at extreme ranges I found myself searching for slightly more punch. Try as I might, I struggled to find any colour fringing, even against a strong light.

The focusing action is smooth and precise – I rarely found myself having to work hard at getting the image right. The focus wheel is smooth, and one finger wide. It offers just enough resistance for my liking, and takes 1.5 anti-clockwise turns from close focus to infinity. The close focus is absolutely outstanding – the quoted figure is 2m, but I comfortably got down to very near 1m, probably the best I’ve come across. I wasn’t keen on the eyepieces, although the silicon covering makes them very comfortable. The fold-out flaps to eliminate side light work well enough, but you’d have to fold them down if you were a spectacle-wearer. Although the eyepieces twist up and down to four positions, some of those positions felt a little indistinct, and in trying to move them the silicon covers moved a little too easily. Not a major gripe, and no doubt easily solved in the long term.


FACTFILE

  • Price: £399.99 inc. VAT
  • Dimensions: 151mm x 125mm x 61mm
  • Weight: 725g
  • Close focus: 2m
  • Field of view: 122m@1,000m
  • Warranty 10 years
  • Also supplied Carry case, strap, rainguard, tethered objective covers
  • Distributed by: Distributed by Intro 2020 Ltd Priors Way, Maidenhead, Berkshire. SL6 2HP, Tel: 01628 674411

They feel great in the hand, solid but slim and well-balanced. The rubber armouring is excellent, and the thumb indents well placed for comfort of use. The dioptre adjustment, on the left barrel, is not calibrated but was easy to set correctly, and stayed in place well under extended use. There’s a very comfortable neoprene strap, which fits incredibly quickly and easily thanks to a simple ‘ClicLoc’ device. The carrying case and rainguard are good quality. The tethered objective covers stay out of the way, and although I’d probably remove them in the long run, they did their job well.

My only real worry was about those eyepieces, but I wouldn’t let that distract me from the fact that these are an optically very impressive pair of binoculars for well under £500. They did well in all conditions, and that superb close focus performance is well worth taking note of if dragonflies, moths, butterflies and insects are your thing too. They feel good, too – robust but very, very pleasant to use on a long birdwatching expedition. A well-judged refinement, rather than a reinvention.

REVIEWED BY MATT MERRITT

Sightron SIII LR 8x42

  • Very solidly built
  • Easy on the eye, natural image
  • Excellent precise focusing
  • Close focus caters for all needs
  • Excellent accessories

Sightron is another optics brand coming from an American hunting background, and perhaps the particular requirements of that market have had a lot to do with the design.

So, they’re chunky, very solidly put-together binoculars, and feel quite large. They’re probably a bit on the heavy side compared to many other 8x42s, too, but their open bridge design and good balance means that it’s not really a problem, and they really feel good in the hand.

I’m also always dubious about how much you notice a bit of extra weight in the field provided you use a decent strap, and there’s an excellent one provided here, which more than takes the strain.

Extensive rubber armouring means you need have no fears about them taking a knock or two, and the build quality is good across the board. Hunters, it would seem, need their optics to be able to stand up to some rough handling.

Optically, I could find little to fault and much to praise, with good natural colour in a bright, sharp image that loses very little towards the edges. There was a bit of colour fringing against strong sunlight, but it really was very little, and you have to go looking for it (not something most birders do in the field).

Field of view is impressive, too – there are wider 8x42s out there, but you wouldn’t be in the least disappointed by these.


Factfile

  • Exit pupil diameter: 5.25mm
  • Eye relief: 18.4mm
  • Field of view: 131m @ 1,000m
  • Close focus: 2.5m
  • Dimensions: 166 x 145 x 65 mm
  • Weight: 893g
  • Price: £463
  • Contact: AIM Field Sports, 144 Grange Lane, Winsford, Cheshire CW7 2QX, tel: 01606 860 678; email: sales@aimfieldsports.com

Focusing is very precise, and although I found myself having to adjust it a lot (perhaps indicating a shallow depth of field), it was always easy to find. The focus wheel (ridged, and almost two fingers wide, making it easy to use when wearing gloves) travels smoothly and not too stiffly, taking 1.5 anti-clockwise turns from close focus to infinity. Close focus is 2m-2.5m, I reckon, more than adequate for most needs.

The dioptre adjustment, a pull-out ring on the right barrel, is easy to set and most importantly stays put, but I did have one or two gripes about some other aspects of the design.

The eyecups twist up and down, and effectively have only two positions, but there’s plenty of eye relief offered and, initially, I had no problems. After a few hours of use, though, I did find them a bit of a strain, perhaps because the edges of the eyecups aren’t as rounded as they could be.

That’s very much a personal factor, though – the shape of your face and eye sockets makes a huge difference, so it’s a good example of why you always need to try a pair of binoculars yourself.

The other small criticism is the way the barrels flare out around the strap lugs – I found it made the binoculars slightly more awkward to handle.

The accessories are excellent – rainguard, a similarly styled one-piece objective lens cover, and a really good case – roomy and made of padded fabric.

While they don’t fit into the ‘budget’ category, they’ve recently come down in price to a very appealing £463, making them real contenders if you’re looking for a good all-round pair of binoculars capable of standing up to everyday use. Try them for yourself.

Opticron Trailfinder 3 WP 8x42

  • Great light-gathering qualities
  • Natural colour, good sweet spot
  • Excellent in low light
  • Fine build quality makes for comfort
  • Genuinely budget price - £130


FACTFILE

  • Eye relief: 21mm
  • Field of view: 125m@1,000m
  • Close focus: 1.5m
  • Dimensions: 140mm x 128mm
  • Weight: 742g
  • Price: £129
  • Contact: Opticron, Unit 21, Titan Court, Laporte Way, Luton, Bedfordshire, LU4 8EF, UK, tel: 01582 726 522 (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm).

Compact binoculars

As well as the 8x42 and 10x42 models, there are also compact 8x25 and 10x25 bins in the new Trailfinder range.

Looking at the 8x25s alongside their bigger brothers, I was impressed that they largely replicated their performance. OK, so the field of view comes down to 119m@1,000m, but they still produced a bright image, for this size of binocular, and the focusing and sharpness were excellent.

Eye relief is still good (16mm), and the eyecups twist up and down to four positions, while close focus felt more like 1m than the quoted 1.5m. If you’re in the market for some bins to slip into your coat pocket for casual birding, these are well worth a look.

A sticker on these compact, solid, smart (they come in black or green) binoculars announces that they’re recommended by The Urban Birder, which raised the intriguing possibility of having to argue the toss about their merits with our own David Lindo. So, is our star columnist right?

Well, they’re an upgrade of the Trailfinder IIs, and they make an excellent first impression, showing off good light-gathering qualities and producing a bright, sharp image. It takes you a moment or two to remember that you’re not looking through ED glass.

The colour of the image looks pretty natural too – maybe just a shade on the yellowish, warm side? There’s a certain amount of milkiness around the edge of the image, too, but really not enough to put you off – we’re talking about a good sweet spot here.

What was really impressive was how well they coped with different light. Early-morning expeditions in unseasonal August drizzle were no problem, while they did well when viewing against really strong light, too, with only a little colour fringing showing up. In fairly average light, it was barely noticeable.

The field of view felt good, too, even with that little bit of fall-off towards the edges – scanning flocks and following scurrying waders never felt difficult.

The focusing was satisfyingly precise, too, with the focus wheel (ridged, and just a little over one finger wide) travelling very smoothly and just a bit stiffly, taking exactly one anti-clockwise turn from close focus to infinity. Close focus is excellent, too, pulling in to around 1.5m. The rest of the build quality matches that of the focus system. The twist-up eyecups offered plenty of eye relief when fully out (there are two positions, although I did try them around halfway and they stayed in place well), and they’re nicely rounded on the edges to make them comfortable in extended use.

The dioptre adjustment, on the right barrel, twists stiffly into place and won’t be budged accidentally, and I liked the feel of them in my hands – easy to grip and well-balanced, and certainly not heavy. The rainguard was functional, as was the strap, and there’s a soft case included too.

All in all, they look and perform like a much more expensive pair of binoculars (they’re priced at £129), making them a great buy for first-timers or anyone looking to move up a little from their entry-level bins, or for birders looking for a second pair to keep to hand in the kitchen. That’s a reflection of how optical technology has filtered down to the ‘budget’ end of the market in recent years, but it’s also down to Opticron’s long record of producing user-friendly, reliable, high-performing binoculars.

Opticron Aurora 8x42 BGA

  • 42s that handle like 32s! Very lightweight
  • Simple, unfussy design makes for great comfort
  • Sharp, bright image, even in low light
  • No sign of any chromatic aberration
  • Very generous eye relief

Opticron’s binocular range has something to suit most pockets, from models costing less than £100, to their top end offerings – the Auroras. There are two Auroras – an 8x42 and a 10x42, both with an RRP of £739. I tested the 8x42. At this price you should expect a lot of binocular…

For a 42mm binocular, this is a wonderfully lightweight product. At 654g their weight is more like that of an 8x32, and they’re not that much bigger than some 8x32s either. The alloy body is covered in lightly-stippled rubber, nitrogen-filled and waterproof to five metres. The design is simple and unfussy – their size, shape and weight, the armouring and the rubber-covered eyecups all play a part in making a binocular that I found easy and comfortable to handle.

The view is good too – sharp and bright. It’s a bit behind some top-end optics but still pretty impressive. There is a little edge softness and a slight yellow colour cast but nothing problematic. Contrast was good and they performed well in low light. Chromatic aberration (or colour-fringing) seems very well corrected. I looked, but couldn’t really find any during the time I had them on test. Close-focus is good too, with the quoted 1.8m being pretty accurate for my middle-aged eyes.

At 20mm, eye-relief is generous and should work well for those who need to wear glasses when they’re looking through binoculars. Strap attachment is through simple lugs, and the binoculars hang nicely flat against the body. The one finger wide focus wheel moves smoothly, with moderate resistance. The eyecups twist up and down and have four positions. They worked well for me, providing a comfortable view without any searching for the best viewing position.


FACTFILE

  • Dimensions: (height x width x depth): 140x126x55mm approx
  • Weight: 654g
  • Close focus: 1.8m
  • Field of view: 7.2 degrees. 126m at 1,000m
  • Warranty: 30 years
  • Also included: Soft leather case, rainguard, neoprene strap; tethered objective covers
  • Distributed by: Opticron, PO Box 370, Luton, Bedfordshire, LU4 8YR. Tel: 01582 726522. Fax: 01582 723559
  • e-mail: sales@opticron.co.uk
  • website: www.opticron.co.uk

There were some less positive aspects. The dioptre adjusts via a click-stopped ring under the right eyepiece. I found this very stiff and difficult to adjust. One of the eyecups on the review sample was a bit stiff, but this did seem to improve with use. Focussing works in the opposite direction to most – anti-clockwise to go towards infinity. This doesn’t really matter and, with time, you get used to it. There’s a lot of focus movement too – over two turns of the wheel are possible, though most of the time you won’t need to move it more than about 90 degrees. The strap lugs are positioned a bit too low for my liking – they sometimes got in the way of my hands. When I first looked through these binoculars, the view felt a little ‘tunnelled’. I’m not sure why - the reality is that at 7.2°, the field of view is pretty good. With use, this wasn’t a major issue. And, as is so often the case, the rainguard was far too tight a fit, but you can get a different one.

If you want a good quality, really lightweight, compact 42mm binocular try these. They are good to handle and perform well optically. If you don’t want them in black, you can opt for green, or black and gunmetal instead! I did think they were a bit pricey though.

REVIEWED BY DAVID CHANDLER