Bresser Condor 8x42

Factfile:
RRP: £149.99
Eye relief: 17.1mm
Field of view: 118m@1,000m
Close focus: 2m
Weight: 696g
Size: 156mm x 133mm
Supplied with: Removable rainguard and objective lens covers, fabric case, neoprene strap

Verdict
For less than £150, these are really a very impressive pair of binoculars all-round. Optically very good, with an unfussy, well-built feel that makes them a pleasure to use for long periods. If you don’t want to break the bank, they should be one of the first options you look at.

Bresser Condor 8x42 on test

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Bresser is a brand with a long and venerable history in birdwatching, but we’ve seen relatively little of them in recent years. A number of new binocular ranges have been released by them, though, so I took a look at the Condors, whose pricing ought to make them highly attractive to beginners, or the budget-conscious.

They straight away score well for looks and design, with plenty of solid rubber armouring, but a well-balanced feel that makes them feel rather less than their quoted weight of 696g.

They’re neat and straightforward, and perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay the design is that you really don’t think about it when you’re using them – you can start using them straight from the box without having to think about anything else.

The eyecups twist up and down and offer four click-stopped positions, with a maximum of 17.1mm eye relief, meaning there should be something to suit all needs. The eyecups themselves are hard plastic, but were comfortable in extended use.

I liked the focus wheel, which is a good finger-and-a-half wide, and well ridged for extra grip, even when wearing gloves.

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It moves very smoothly, if rather stiffly, and takes one-and-a-third anti-clockwise turns to move from close focus to infinity. Precise focus was simple enough to find, and because of that slight stiffness, very tiny tweaks were easy to make too.

The dioptre setting is on the right barrel, and while it’s not calibrated or lockable in any way, it’s easy to set and stays in place well while you’re out in the field.

Optically, there’s very little to criticise. The image is sharp, with only a little fall-off towards the edges, and relatively bright too, although in really low light conditions you do perhaps notice the absence of ED glass.

Nevertheless, for most birders, and most situations, they do the job more than adequately, and it wasn’t as though they made birding at dawn or dusk a chore or even impossible. Field of view is 118m@1,000m, and that sharpness close to the edges means that it never feels restrictive.

The colour of the image is natural and true to life, and try as I might while birding through several days of blazing summer sun, I struggled to find much in the way of colour-fringing.

Against very strong light, or while swinging the bins round quickly to follow a moving bird, it is there, but it was never enough to be distracting, and certainly considerably less than you might expect from binoculars of this price.

Close focus, at 2m, is really pretty good without being anything exceptional, but again it will be more than enough for most needs – certainly, I found it fine while doing a bit of dragonfly-watching, as the birds drowsed out of sight in the midday heat.

There’s a decent, stretchy neoprene strap (again, rather better than you’d usually expect to find on binoculars at this price), along with a snugly-fitting rainguard, removable objective lens covers, and a good (and really rather stylish-looking) fabric case, with its own strap. I rarely, I have to admit, use a case a great deal, but this one is hard to fault.

Hawke Frontier ED X 8x42

  • Eye relief: 18mm
  • Field of view: 142m@1000m
  • Close focus: 2m
  • Weight: 692g
  • Size: 140 x 120x 57mm
  • RRP: £389
  • Supplied with: Rainguard, removable tethered objective lens covers, neoprene strap, hard carrying case with strap
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By Matt Merritt

My admiration for Hawke’s Frontier range of binoculars has been stated on these pages more
than once, so I was delighted to get a good look at the new Frontier ED X 8x42s and see how they compared with previous models. The first thing to say is that they look and feel good. They’re relatively compact for 8x42s, and well balanced, with their 692g weight feeling even less in the hand.

There’s sturdy hard rubber armouring that feels as though it would stand up to a lot of wear and tear, and the eyecups are extremely comfortable, twisting up and down to three distinct positions.

The focus wheel is very well designed and made, too. It’s around 1.25 fingers wide, and pretty well ridged – I found it easy to grip even when wearing mittens or gloves during our late February cold snap. It takes around 1.5 anti-clockwise turns (actually slightly less than stated) from close focus to infinity, and turns extremely smoothly and with moderate stiffness. Focusing is precise but easy, thanks to that impressive wheel.

Close focus is quoted as 2m by Hawke, and that felt spot-on. You can find better, but not much better, on an 8x42, and it’s good enough to make these good binoculars for the all-round naturalist.

The dioptre mechanism is a twist-ring on the right barrel, and sets easily. It’s not lockable or calibrated, but it stayed in place perfectly throughout several days of birding.

So what about the image? The original Frontiers set something of a new standard for sub-£400 binoculars, so they have a lot to live up to. Well, ED glass, and multi-coated optics certainly do their job here, as it’s very bright, and superbly sharp, with very little fall-off in quality at the edge of the image. Contrast is excellent, too.

Colour feels extremely natural and true to life, with perhaps the merest hint of a warm tone, and try as I might, I struggled to find any colour fringing, even on snow-covered branches viewed against bright winter sun. That’s an indication of just how far binoculars have come in the last decade or so.

Field of view is a more than respectable 142m@1000m, but again it says something about just how much optics have improved that what’s really impressive is that sharpness right to the edges – you’re now starting to see the same sort of ‘walk in’ views from cheaper bins as you do on the most expensive ones.

The hard case supplied is very good, with room for the excellent neoprene strap and a cleaning cloth, and it has its own strap.

Other accessories are a good rainguard, and removable tethered objective lens covers. I tend not to use the latter, but if they’re your thing, then these are a good example.

As with the original Frontiers, if you try these for any length of time before looking at the price, you’re in for a surprise. At £389, they compare favourably with any of their obvious competitors, and you can do the maths yourself as to how many you could buy for the same money as just one of the ‘big boys’.

So try them. Hawke have already made an excellent name for themselves. Now they’re ready to take it to the next level.

Hawke Frontier ED X 8x42 verdict

Brilliant optics, a common sense design that puts user-friendliness first, some good accessories, and a price tag that doesn’t bring a tear to the eye. If you’re looking for great binoculars for under £500, then you really need to give these a long, hard look.

Avian EVO 8x42 HR-ED

  • Eye relief: 19mm
  • Field of view: 7.0°/122m@1,000m
  • Close focus: c3m
  • Weight: 700g
  • Size: 146x130x53mm
  • RRP: £449
  • Warranty: 10 years
  • Supplied with: case; strap; tethered, removable objective covers; rainguard
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Ace Optics are based in Bath – you may well have noticed their ads. The Avian brand is theirs, and the EVO HR-EDs are their top-end products. There are two of them – an 8x42 and a 10x42. The prices are reasonable, but just how good are they? I spent some time with the 8x to find out.

This is an open-bridge binocular with no thumb indents. It feels good in the hands, with my two smallest fingers on each hand slotting into the open-bridge, leaving my first and middle fingers free to focus. Focus precision is very good, with a 1.5 finger-wide wheel moving smoothly against a nice amount of resistance. There is quite a lot of focus wheel travel – two full turns anti-clockwise towards infinity, but for regular birding you won’t need to move it more than about half a turn.

Dioptre adjustment is via a pull-up wheel. I found it a bit ‘plasticy’ but it does the job. The rubber-coated eyecups twist up and down with one intermediate position. I used them fully up and they stayed in place. At 700g it is not a heavy binocular, and certainly didn’t feel overweight in the field. Overall, build quality is good, and the EVO HR-ED is rubber-armoured and waterproof, with water-repellent lens coating.

The image is crisp, clean, very sharp and very bright, showing good Fieldfare speckling detail on an Ash tree loaded with winter thrushes – and that was through the car windscreen! I did see some edge softness when I scanned, but on a settled view there was perhaps just a smidgeon, which, in real world use you’re unlikely to notice. Colour-fringing seems well managed, with no sign of it on Rooks and gulls against a clear, fading January sky – the ED glass seems to be doing its job.

The EVO coped well with extraneous light, and performed very well against the light. Low light performance was good, with the glass pulling detail out of close shadows 10 minutes after sunset on an overcast day. There is much that is very good about this binocular. But there are things that could be a bit better. The field of view is narrower than some, but you get used to a binocular, and I didn’t find it a problem. At three metres, the quoted close-focus is unremarkable, but for me, three metres is a lie! I measured it at just under 2.4 metres, still not remarkable, but better.

I liked the snug, leather-look case, but sometimes struggled with the rainguard – it was too hard to get off, and stopped me clinching a probable flyover Goosander, which would have been new for #My200BirdYear. But the EVO did help me boost the list – I saw
a local Scaup with them, not bad for Cambridgeshire.

Avian EVO 8x42 HR-ED Verdict

The blurb says “unbeatable value without compromising performance” and it’s not a bad description. If you don’t need more close-focus, and are OK with the field of view, then the optical performance, and handling, are hard to criticise at this price. The EVO 8x42 HR-ED is a very good binocular.

Swarovski CL Companion 8x30

They may be small in size, but they’re big on performance

By Matt Merritt

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Compact binoculars too often get overlooked, but if you do a lot of your birding as part of another pastime – hiking, dog-walking, climbing, cycling or boating, say – or perhaps if you’re a bird photographer who needs something lightweight to offset all those heavy lenses, they’re an option well worth considering. 

And if you are thinking about buying such binoculars as your main pair, then it makes sense to look at what’s available at the top end of the market. Swarovski’s CL Companions come in two sizes, 8x30 and 10x30 – I put the former to the test.

Binocular design

They’re a pleasure to hold, with the textured rubber armouring giving a firm grip, and at just 490g, they’re very easy to hold steady with one hand while the other grasps a walking pole, a dog lead, a camera or whatever.

The eyecups offer a maximum of 16mm eye relief, and twist up and down. There’s no obvious intermediate position, but in practice they did stay in place halfway down. I did struggle a little with the dioptre – to set it, you need to push in the centre of the focus wheel. Once set, though, it stays in place very well.

The focus wheel itself is just over a finger wide, and deeply ridged, making it easy to use while wearing gloves. It turns moderately stiffly and perfectly smoothly, taking just over one-and-a-half clockwise turns from close focus to infinity.

Close focus, at around 3m, isn’t particularly noteworthy, which is a drawback if you want something for watching dragonflies, butterflies, etc. The image produced is bright and very natural in colour, with a field of view of 132m@1,000m – it’s sharp pretty much right to the edge, so there’s no ‘tunnel vision’ feeling.

They performed well in low light situations, too, impressively for compact binoculars. Against direct sunlight, there was just a hint of colour fringing at times, but always when following a moving bird, and this disappears if you take a moment to get your eye position correct.

They come with removable tethered objective lens covers – I usually end up taking these off, but these were excellent, with no ‘bounce up’ obscuring the lens at a crucial moment.

There’s a good rainguard, too, but the strap is good rather than great – I’d replace it with Swarovski’s neoprene strap if I were using these long-term. They have the same attachment system as the ELs, so that’s easily done.

Your CL Companions come with one of three accessory packages – Wild Nature, Northern Lights, and Urban Jungle (which was the one we tried). Basically each involves an excellent, roomy fabric carrying case, with a strap – again ours was good, but the straps in the other packages look more like the sort of thing you’d want if you were carrying these round all day.

Swarovski binocular verdict:

If you need something small and light, these are terrific birdwatching bins – I never missed my ELs while testing them. If your birding is combined with other activities, they’re well worth looking at – £980 isn’t cheap, but the quality is superb.

Swarovski binocular factfile:

  • Eye relief: 16mm
  • Field of view: 132m@1000m
  • Close focus: 3m
  • Weight: 490g
  • Size: 127 x 118 x 55mm
  • RRP: £980
  • Supplied with: Rainguard, removable tethered objective lens covers, strap, carrying case with strap

Kite Bonelli 2.0 8x42 binocular

Review by David Chandler

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Previously, I’ve reviewed Kite’s Caiman, an entry-level binocular, and the Lynx, a mid-range model. From reptile to mammal to bird, the Bonelli carries the name of an eagle and is the top end offering from this Belgian brand. There are two in the range – an 8x42 and a 10x42. I played with the 8x42.

The Bonelli 2.0 is chunky and robust with slightly ‘squared-off’ barrels and shallow thumb indents. It’s gas-filled and waterproof and feels like it could take some abuse. 

The aluminium-magnesium chassis is wrapped in rubber armour, and the Bonelli feels well-made. The armour could have done with a bit more glue in a couple of areas but this wasn’t a major issue.

The 8x42 weighs 820g – not light but comparable to a number of other top-end 8x42s, and with its wide strap, I didn’t find it too heavy. The dioptre adjuster is a large, grooved metal ring that doesn’t lock, but is stiff enough to hold its position. 

The calibration dot is a bit hard to see – a minor thing, but something that could be improved. The twist-up eyecups work well, have two intermediate positions and can be easily removed for cleaning or, if you have to, replacement.

The focusing wheel is one and a half fingers wide and moves very smoothly against just a little resistance. There’s a bit over two revolutions of movement (clockwise to infinity) but a quarter of a turn covers most real world birding. I found the focusing a joy to use – its action and precision were excellent – a stand-out feature of this binocular.

Focusing is a pleasure, and the focused image is very, very good, picking out the yellow legs on a twisting fly-by Marsh Harrier 150 metres away. The view is crisp, punchy and very easy on the eyes – the kind of image that makes prolonged viewing a doddle. Sharpness is excellent – there is a little edge softness but you are unlikely to notice. Brightness was very good.

To test low-light performance I waited for sunset on an almost completely overcast afternoon, with the River Cam behind me, Starlings and corvids on a stubble field in front of me, and the moan of the A14 to my left. 

The sun set and the Bonelli performed, pulling colours out of the autumn landscape and revealing detail on the closer, dark riverbank. Nine minutes later a Moorhen was on the move 25 metres away. 

With the Bonelli I could see that it was mainly brown and slate-grey and not black. Another 11 minutes passed and I could still pick out some landscape colours, though focusing was trickier, and some riverbank detail, though less than before. I was very impressed, but even the Bonelli couldn’t conjure up the hoped-for Barn Owl, unfortunately!

Kite’s flagship binocular performed excellently against the light, and coped well with side-lighting – internal reflections seemed very well controlled. Its field of view is comparable to most top-end competition and its quoted close-focus (1.55m) is excellent, but for me, it was actually around 1.8m, which is still very respectable. Sometimes, however, I did see some colour-fringing – not around flying corvids or Cormorants as I might expect, but around Coot on the water for example. Adjusting my eye position improved things, but I would rather not have to.

Kite Bonelli verdict

There are very few top-end binoculars at this price-point. The Bonelli seems built to last, handles well and has great focusing. 

Its glass, mostly, delivers a high quality, relaxing view with excellent low light performance. It’s definitely worth a look. If you’re thinking of buying just make sure any colour fringing isn’t an issue for you.

Kite Bonelli factfile

Eye relief: 18.5mm
Field of view: 132m@1000m
Close focus: 1.55m
Weight: 820g
Size: 156x110-127mm
RRP: £999
Warranty: 30 years
Supplied with: strap; rainguard; tethered, removable objective covers; case; lens cloth.

Swarovski CL Pocket Mountain 8x25B

Taken from Bird Watching's Autumn 2017 issue...

Swarovski CL Pocket Mountain 8X25 factfile

Exit Pupil Diameter: 3.1mm
Eye Relief: 17mm
Field of View: 357/ 1000yrds or 119m/1000m
Close Focus 8.2ft or 2.5m
Weight: 345g
RRP £600
Warranty: 10 Years
Accessories; strap, case with strap and rain cover.


By Tom Bailey (photographer)

Birding is something I do when the opportunity arises as my work takes me all over Britain.

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For years now, I’ve used Zeiss 8x20 binoculars when in the mountains, which is pretty much every week).

They suit my requirements and have been a loyal companion. But the opportunity to try out the new Swarovski 8x25 was one too good to miss.

As soon as I saw them though I had an issue; that of size. They’re just too big for my kind of usage. Imagine taking a male Sparrowhawk out with you in the hills for 15 years, then having that bird swapped overnight for a female (a third bigger); you get where I’m going. I’d been looking forward to this test for a while and it came as a blow when they toppled out of the box.

Optically, yes, these fellas are bright, even to the edge of the field of view. The image is crisp, but as the eye moves towards the edges, there is just the slightest dropping off in sharpness, it’s not much, but it’s there.

Also, there is the smallest amount of colour fringing towards the outer limits of the view. But, remember, these are 8x25 binoculars.

Bearing that in mind, they performed to an insanely high degree. Picture the scene; a lake bathed in sunshine, under a bank side Willow a Heron stands poised. From 50m, I watched the action unfold, the lenses coping fantastically with the subject being in deep shadow on a bright day, focussed through a curtain of Willow leaves. Fish after fish were caught and swallowed, all seen in great detail. So, for what they are size wise, they perform fantastically well.

To operate, however, I found them to be clumsy. I’m up in the mountains of Torridon, hanging on to some insanely narrow ridge when a Golden Eagle puts in an appearance. Out come the bins, off goes the Eagle as I fiddle with opening both barrels to the correct amount.

Alas, I get a very crisp view of the bird as it soars ever further away. The eyecups can be up or down, or any other setting, yet they don’t lock in the latter positions. Trial and error has found this system to be reliable, adjusting the eyecups to a mid-position, folding them away then using them over the next day, continuously putting them in and out of their pouch resulted in little movement, despite them not being ‘clicked’ into position.

The focussing wheel proved troublesome. Only a small amount stands proud of the binocular housing, making contact with a finger a subtle affair. I wear gloves in the mountains and this often makes focusing much trickier than it should be. I’ve taken to focusing with my thumb from underneath. In reality, the close focus proved to be 2m as opposed to the stated 2.5m, so useful for dragonflies.

The thin rope strap is great – it’s comfortable and stylish. The case could do with being a little larger, that way you would be able to put the binoculars away in the position they are used in, speeding up the process of ‘getting on’ to that Eagle. With a belt loop fitting it can be attached to a rucksack, or the case has a detachable strap so they can be carried independently. The case comes with a rain cover.

The temperature range in which these binoculars operate is encouraging; down to -25c. Often in the British mountains I’m out in wind chill temperatures of around this figure, so it is good to know they would perform.

Verdict

Everything you would expect from Swarovski, optically great (for their size), the build quality is excellent, you know they are going to last for a long time. Handling is a different matter, although once adjusted they perform fine. The main reason I’ll not be taking them into the mountains very often is their weight, a tad on the heavy side.

Kite Caiman 8x42

(Review from Bird Watching September 2017)

£249

Exit pupil diameter: 5.25mm
Eye relief: 17mm
Field of view: 132m@1000m degrees.
Close-focus: 1.5m
Approx dimensions (h x max. w): 146x128mm
Weight: 699g
RRP: £249
Warranty: 15 years

Supplied accessories: case with strap, neoprene strap, rainguard, tethered objective covers, lens cloth.

Web: kiteoptics.com


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By David Chandler

A Caiman is a neotropical alligator. There are six in the range with the biggest weighing over 1000kg. It’s also an entry-level binocular from Kite, weighing under 700g and with an RRP of £249. There are two in the Kite range – an 8x42 and a 10x42. I reviewed the 8x42.

In the hand

The Caiman is a well-made binocular with a look and feel that wouldn’t be out of place on a more expensive product. The design is quite simple, with no ‘let me tell you where to put your thumb’ indents, and tasteful branding. I found it quite chunky in the hands – and I liked that. It didn’t feel heavy, the focusing wheel is well-positioned, and the eyecups are comfortable. The chassis is aluminium, and the Caiman is rubber-armoured, and waterproof. 

A knurled ring on the right eyepiece adjusts the dioptre. Once set, it’s unlikely to move, but could be just a bit stiffer. The rubber-covered eyecups twist up and down, with a good, reassuring action, and one intermediate position. At 17mm, eye-relief is pretty good and should be enough for glasses wearers. Note that the 10x have a little less eye-relief (15mm). Unlike some binoculars, the Caiman’s eyecups are made of aluminium and are easily removed for cleaning, or even replacement.

Looking through

Sunset was approaching and hares were up and about. I wanted to test the Caiman’s low-light abilities, so carried on using them after sunset. The image was still good 20 minutes later. I kept going. 

With sunset more than half an hour behind me, I could still see some colour, shades of green, on a distant tree, and an impressive level of detail in the hedge. The Caiman’s low light performance hadn’t disappointed. Don’t forget, this is an entry-level binocular. Its reptilian namesakes do well in low light, too.

The Caiman’s deliver a gentle, natural view. Sharpness is good but don’t expect the punch and pin-sharp quality of a much more expensive bit of kit. Brightness is good and this low-cost binocular coped well against the light. I sometimes saw a bit of colour fringing but overall it seemed pretty well corrected. Field of view is very good – there’s no hint of claustrophobia – and close-focus is better – Kite say 1.5m, I say 1.6m.

The 1.5 finger-wide focusing wheel moves smoothly, with moderate resistance through 1.5 revolutions, anti-clockwise towards infinity. But for most birding less than 0.25 turn is needed, which isn’t much. 

I found the focusing took some getting used to – I had to hunt for best focus sometimes – a gentle touch was required. So don’t rush this binocular – take your time to get the best out of it.

Verdict

It’s nicely made, with good sharpness and brightness, and very good field of view, close-focus and low-light performance. But be gentle with the focusing.

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