A good set of binoculars is a vital piece of kit for any outdoorsman; whether a hunter or fisherman and will even be useful to backpackers as an aid to navigation or just to observe wildlife out of casual interest. Not to mention the obvious tactical and law enforcement uses of a good set of binoculars.
It didn’t take long after the development of the telescope in the 17th Century for people to start experimenting, effectively strapping two telescopes together to provide binocular vision. Through a telescope or ‘spyglass’ you have very limited depth perception, making it hard to judge range and limited field of view. Binoculars give you a 3D image unlike a telescope and are generally produced in a size which is easily man portable.
There are exceptions to that general rule’ such as large ships glasses on and some of the larger binoculars used for star gazing but binoculars are generally manufactured to the requirements of field sport and outdoorsmen.
Choosing the best binoculars isn’t strait forward though, there are so many on the market and on the surface most will seem very similar, so how do you choose? First you need to understand the basic features of a set of binoculars and that starts with the numbers that are stamped on it.
Just as with rifle scopes, binoculars are described with two numbers for example these 10x42 Vortex Diamondbacks.
The ‘10’ is the magnification and the ‘42’ is the size of each objective lens just as it is with a rifle scope. Depending on the use you have for your binoculars and the weight you are willing to carry there will be plenty of choices for you and with so many excellent optics makers with exceptional pedigree as well as more recent comers to the industry all producing excellent products there is no better time to buy a quality set of binoculars than now.
Starting with a basic understanding of those two key numbers which describe your binoculars there are a few other features you need to understand which will help you choose the set of binoculars that is right for you.
Table of Contents
- Binocular Features - How to Choose Binocular?
- Binoculars vs Monocular
- Best Binocular Brands
- Top 14 Best Binoculars on the Market Today
- 1 Best for the Money - Vortex Optics Diamondback Binoculars
- 2 Bushnell Legend Ultra HD Roof Prism Binocular
- 3 Nikon Prostaff 3S 10x42 Waterproof/Fogproof Binoculars
- 4 Hawke Endurance ED Binoculars
- 5 Zeiss 10x42 Conquest HD Binocular
- 6 Steiner M2080 20x80 Military Binocular
- 7 Nikon 7576 MONARCH 5 8x42 Binocular
- 8 Steiner 210 MM1050 Military-Marine 10x50 Tactical Binocular
- 9 Best For Birding - Leica Ultravid 10x50 HD Plus Binoculars
- 10 Best For Hunting - Swarovski 10x50 EL Binocular
- Compact Binoculars - A Lighter Weight Alternative.
- Night Vision Binoculars
- Setting Up Your Binoculars
- Final Verdict
Binocular Features - How to Choose Binocular?
Higher magnification scopes will have smaller fields of view so for general hunting, fishing and outdoors use a balance is a required between sufficient magnification to identify and spot game or fish rising and the weight that higher magnification can add.
Binoculars are available up to fifteen or even twenty times magnification but these are excessive and probably more useful for star gazing or possibly bird watching in conjunction with a stable rest or even a tripod to give you the kind of stable platform that would allow a good clear image with such a high magnification optic.
You will see very soon that through any high powered optic without a stable rest your slightest movement will make it hard to retain a good sight picture or centre in on what you want to be watching.
For hunting and general outdoor use I would recommend a level of magnification of between seven and ten power.
The size of your objective lenses is going to be the single biggest thing that affects the size and weight of your binoculars. The size directly affects the light gathering ability of your binoculars and the bigger the objective the better and clearer the image will be.
Larger objectives also allow you to stretch your observations and scouting for game or wildlife until a little after sunset as the larger lenses will gather the remaining available light.
Roof-Prism vs Porro-Prism
Without an arrangement of prisms inside a set of binoculars using keplerian optics, all modern binoculars operate on this principle, the image would be upside down. To produce compact binoculars prisms are used to turn the image up the right way. Earlier binoculars used erecting lenses but these meant that the binoculars were overly large and too unwieldy to be carried. Previously to keplerian optics being used in binoculars Galilean binoculars didn’t have any need for prisms or erector lenses as their convex objective lenses and concave eyepiece lenses already produce an upright image but they had very poor field of view and low magnification.
There are two options for your prisms; porro prisms named after their inventor Ignazzio Porro, an Italian Optician and patented in 1854
This style of prism demands that the objective lenses are off set slightly from the eyepieces, this does mean that porro prism binoculars can be quite short and compact and that they offer excellent depth perception and field of view because of their wide set objectives. More and more though roof prisms binoculars are dominating the market.
Roof prisms are not a new development and were first used in binoculars in the 1870’s, the design was later refined and patented in 1905 by Carl Zeiss.
Porro prism designs did dominate the market until the 60’s though and that was probably down to the expense of producing roof prism designs due to the tighter tolerances required at manufacturing to ensure all lenses are properly aligned and in position. Roof prism binoculars can be narrower and lighter than equivalent porro prism designs but they don’t transmit as well as the porro prisms.
A typical set of roof prism binoculars, you will notice strait away that the objective and eye piece are directly in line, unlike in the porro-prism variety and the binocular takes a typical 'H' shape rather than the 'M' shape of the porro prism models
Obviously binoculars have lenses and as we are looking at some of the best binocualrs on the market it the moment is goes without saying that they all have properly coated lenses to ensure good light transmission and the best possible picture, but what are these coatings?
Binoculars typically have between ten and sixteen glass surfaces in them, if each of these reflects a small percentage of the light that reaches it by the time it reaches your eye the image you see might be quite dim or hazy. To reduce this and give you the best and brightest image possible manufacturers coat their lenses to make sure the most light possible is transmitted to your eye.
Modern coatings can reduce reflected light to around 0.25% or even less, you should be looking for well coated lenses in the binoculars you select, they really od make a difference; so much so that a small binocular with well coated optics might produce a brighter and clearer picture than binoculars with a much larger objective lens but no coatings.
The focus adjustment of your binoculars will generally be a central wheel which can be adjusted with the finger tips while still holding the binoculars steady with both hands. It is useful if this is knurled, some even have ‘wings’ making them even easier to adjust so that they can be adjusted with gloved hands in cold conditions.
Being able to make fine adjustments to the focus is important especially for hunting or wildlife observation when you may need to look for very small features in low light conditions to determine if the deer you are looking at is a buck or a doe so you know if it is in season or not.
Most modern binoculars feature some sort of plastic or rubber armour, older models were often just made of metal which offered no shock absorbance or protection if they were dropped. Modern rubberized armour is an important consideration especially if you are going to be fighting your way through undergrowth, crawling along the ground and generally treating your equipment roughly. This armour might be the difference between maintaining your binoculars in a useable condition or having them fail on you when you really need them.
Some armour even floats and may save your binoculars from being lost in the field for example in a river crossing. It goes without saying that as well as providing some shock resistance and protection for the fragile optics that your binoculars should be waterproof, any water which gets into the body of the binoculars will quickly fog up the lenses and ruin your view. Water absolutely must be kept out of the binoculars and proper waterproofing is essential to ensure this.
As well as proper waterproofing the sealed portion of the binoculars should be fog proof to ensure that changes in temperature do not cause condensation to form on the glass lenses inside the binoculars or on the objective or eye pieces.
Now that you understand the key features of a set of binoculars maybe it’s worth asking the question; why binoculars and not a monocular?
Binoculars vs Monocular
Carrying half the weight of a decent set of binoculars in the form of a monocular might seem a sensible thing to do but if you think back to the history of binoculars they came as a development of the telescope and for a few very good reasons.
They give you a 3D image, their wide set objective lenses give you a better field of view and the necessary depth perception to better judge range. Binoculars are simply much more functional and useful in practical applications whether that’s hunting, fishing or general wildlife watching.
Another factor worth considering is that fact that squinting through a monocular for any length of time can be very tiring and fatiguing on your eye so choose a set of binoculars over a monocular, you won’t regret the decision.
Best Binocular Brands
Now that you have settled on getting binoculars instead of a monocular and understand some of the features you need to look out for you can make your choice of binocular. The very best brands are some of the oldest too, and have in actual fact played a major part in the development of binoculars.
Zeiss optics were established in 1846 in Jena, Germany and were instrumental in refining and patenting some of the prism technology for binoculars and still produce binoculars today, they make some of the very best optics on the planet and none of their binoculars or rifle scopes will ever let you down.
Between their establishment in 1914 and 1986 the Leica company was known as Leitz after their founder Ernst Leitz, best known for their cameras they were also instrumental in the development of prism and lens technology and produce some fantastic binoculars.
Many of the big names in rifle scopes also produce fantastic binoculars and you can’t go wrong with anything by Swarovski, Nikkon, Vortex or any of the other major manufacturers. Do beware of binoculars which superficially look like the higher end models but which are cheaply produced and which won’t benefit from the high quality glassware and high tech coatings, they won’t give you the same quality of image, light gathering ability, warranty or ruggedness that the big names and established brands can.
Top 14 Best Binoculars on the Market Today
Now that you have come to the point of making up your mind here are ten suggestions, there is a sample from across the whole range of binoculars here including the very highest end as well as cheaper alternatives for those on a budget but still in search of a decent product.
You will also see a few night vision capable binoculars here which might be useful to you if you hunt at night or want to spot quarry in the half light of morning while you are waiting for the sun to come up.
Here are the best binoculars on the market at the moment;
1 Best for the Money - Vortex Optics Diamondback Binoculars
Established in 2004 Vortex Optics have quickly become a leader in the optics field. Their diamondback range of binoculars offer you everything from compact 8 and 10x28 models to a massive 12x50 model. My preference for hunting, wildlife watching and general outdoors use is something mid-range in terms of magnification with large but not unwieldy objective lenses. The 10x42 or 10x50 models would be perfect.
They are comprehensively armoured against harsh environments and the rough treatment that an outdoorsman might subject them to. They offer a field of view of 362 feet at 1000 yards and can be focused down to just 6 feet, this short range focus is really useful for watching small birds and even for spotting deer and other game laid up tight in cover if you are hunting through thick woodland and scrub.
The knurled focus knob and scalloped armour gives a positive grip even in a gloved hand or in the wet and cold. These binoculars can be found for under $200 and represent absolutely excellent value for money especially given the fantastic quality offered by Vortex Optics.
2 Bushnell Legend Ultra HD Roof Prism Binocular
Bushnell have an excellent reputation and pedigree in the optics world, whether it’s rifle scope or binoculars, these legend ultras are comparable to the diamondback by vortex in terms of price and features and they have all the features you would expect of a binocular in the $200 price range.
They do have some interesting lens coatings though to get the most out of the high quality glass and lenses. The proprietary lens coatings on this model include ‘rainguard HD’ a moisture dispersing coating to keep any moisture from rain, snow, dew or your breath forming on the lenses. It causes the moisture to bead up quickly and prevents it from fracturing the light.
The ‘ultra wide band coating’ also reduces reflection and maximises light transmission. Just as with any quality optic this coating is applied to all the glass surfaces of the binocular, it’s easy to forget that there are actually many more lenses inside your binoculars than just those at the eye piece and objective.
Just as with other Bushnell products these binoculars come with a no questions asked lifetime warranty backing up the excellent quality with the confidence Bushnell have in their products.
3 Nikon Prostaff 3S 10x42 Waterproof/Fogproof Binoculars
At well under $200 this Nikkon Prostaff is an excellent deal made all the better by the extra cleaning products that come with it. As will all high quality binoculars the lenses are coated to ensure the best and brightest images and the prisms also benefit from silver alloy coatings for the best and brightest possible images.
This is an extremely light weight binocular which will be ideal for those hunters and outdoorsmen conscious of carrying unnecessary weight and trying to keep weight to a minimum in preparation for packing out plenty of meat after a challenging hunt. This set of binoculars won’t add any unnecessary weight while still maintaining fairly large objectives for light gathering and plenty of magnification for spotting.
4 Hawke Endurance ED Binoculars
These binoculars from Hawke are built to take a beating and have absolutely no unnecessary frills or weight. Built as a tool, it will do everything a hunter or general outdoorsman asks of it. Hawke were established in the UK but have maintained a headquarters in Indiana in the US since 2007 and produce a range of optics for the field sportsman. Their scopes are popular for all applications for use on air rifles to heavy magnum calibre rifles for large dangerous game.
Their reputation on both sides of the Atlantic is impeccable and these binoculars won’t let you down, in fact they are so light weight and compact that you will barely know you have them on you.
5 Zeiss 10x42 Conquest HD Binocular
Perhaps more than any other company, with the possible exception of Leica, Zeiss and their founder Carl Zeiss have been influential in the development of binoculars to where they are today. They are second to none in terms of quality, particularly in relation to their glass, lenses and coatings.
There really is no beating zeiss optics in general and these binocualrs are no exception offering fantastic low weight, although not quite as light as some of the comparable alternatives here, a compact design and great ergonomics this would be the binoculars I would choose from this list.
They are expensive when compared to some of the other options listed here but certainly aren’t more than a mid-range binocular in terms of price when you consider that some binoculars will cost several thousand dollars. This one is worth every penny though and once you have looked through a set of zeiss or Swarovski binoculars you will never want to go back to anything else. The images are so clear and crisp and really second to none.
6 Steiner M2080 20x80 Military Binocular
A really massive set of binoculars which would be suitable for all sorts of wildlife watching, nature observation or for long range observation from a military or hunting perspective. These are not light weight or easily mobile though and should be used in conjunction with some sort of rest if possible.
They do come with a tripod adapter so they can be mounted easily. The 20 times magnification and 80mm objective lenses make this perfect for observing for long periods of time at extreme range and even in low light conditions.
7 Nikon 7576 MONARCH 5 8x42 Binocular
The monarch models offered by Nikkon feature some upgraded features compared to the more budget friendly prostaff, ’extra-low dispersion glass’ and ‘dielectric high-reflective’ prism coatings add to the quality of the image through these binoculars.
Those high reflective coatings might seem a little odd though as we are spending so much time ensuring we are buying binoculars from a reputable manufacturer who has good quality non reflective coatings on their lenses.
The difference is that the prisms in binoculars are meant to reflect light to get the image turned up the right way for your eye; so non-reflective coatings on the glass and reflective coatings on the reflective surfaces of the internal prisms.
8 Steiner 210 MM1050 Military-Marine 10x50 Tactical Binocular
The only porro prism binoculars in this list, this style has really fallen out of vogue in recent years but this offering from steiner is a quality piece of kit and may appeal to those with a tactical or military need for their binoculars. It is more heavily armoured than your average binoculars for civilian use and would put up with just about any amount of abuse.
The porro prism design gives it a squat appearance and it is certainly shorter than most of the roof prism products featured here but it does weigh in a bit heavier at two and a quarter pounds.
9 Best For Birding - Leica Ultravid 10x50 HD Plus Binoculars
Along with Zeiss Leica are one of the oldest manufacturers of optical equipment in the world but are probably better known for their cameras than binoculars. Their binoculars are excellent though certainly up there with other high end manufacturers like Zeiss and Swarovski. The Ultravid is one of the best binoculars money can buy and Leica’s hundred years of experience with high quality optics has produced one of the brightest and clearest images you will find on the market.
The title of best for birding is a difficult one to award in this list of excellent products but the absolute premium quality of these binoculars and the unmatched quality of their glass and optics gives you the tool you need for observing birds in all their glory. Poorer quality optics won’t always show you all those subtle features that will help you identify what you are looking at or gather all the light needed to make out those small features like eye stripes and wing bars that will help you make a positive identification. These are not cheap though and may not be the best option for the amateur birder on a budget but they are the best.
10 Best For Hunting - Swarovski 10x50 EL Binocular
Swarovski are well known as one of the best makers of high quality optics in the world. They make a host of different binoculars but what separates this one from most others in this list is it’s built in lazer range finder. It is a pricey item but there really are very few that can truly compete with this one.
This model features ten times magnification and 42 millimetre objective lenses and the built in range finder makes this perfect for hunters. Any good hunter should be able to judge range fairly accurately with the naked eye and a bit of practice but sometimes a bit of help from modern technology really is a good idea.
Especially if you will be shooting at longer ranges or are using lower power cartridges which require fine adjustments for range. These binoculars from Swarovski provide that pin point accurate range finding that you need without having to carry an extra piece of equipment, coupled with the legendary quality of their glass this is the best, although not cheapest, option for hunters everywhere.
Compact Binoculars - A Lighter Weight Alternative.
All the binoculars here are fully featured and functional binoculars, most are also relatively light weight and compact compared to older binoculars but if all you want is the absolute minimum of weight and bulk there are smaller options.
These might be suitable for backpacking where you binoculars are primarily used as a navigational aid to look for landscape features and scout ahead or for some impromptu wildlife spotting rather than as an absolutely essential part of you hunting kit.
These lighter weight alternatives tend to have smaller objective lenses to ensure they are as compact as possible.
11 Leica Ultravid BR 10x25 Compact Binocular
Offering the same quality as the other Leica in this list the Ultravid compact does so in a tiny compact package. For the long distance traveller or backpacker who doesn’t want the extra weight or bulk of larger binoculars these will be perfect.
12 Zeiss Victory Pocket 8x25 Binocular
Not only does Zeiss have a well-deserved reputation for excellent optics, particularly the quality of their lenses, coating and prisms but in this particular product that have created a very innovative product that is perfect for light weight travellers and backpackers.
Not only is this binocular very compact but the hinge for adjusting the distance between the eyepieces is slightly off set allowing it to be folded completely for a smaller footprint in a pocket or pouch.
Night Vision Binoculars
Prior to military night vision technology reaching the civilian market and becoming more affordable and compact a hunters best approach to shooting at night was normally using high powered lamps. Modern night vision kit makes that unnecessary nowadays.
13 ATN BinoX-HD Smart Day & Night Smart HD Binocular
These binoculars don’t feature prisms as the more traditional ones do instead they project the image they see on a screen inside the binoculars. In actual fact they aren’t truly binoculars at all, despite resembling them. Instead of two parallel sets of lenses one of the objectives here is actually an infra-red illuminator to illuminate the field of view at night.
They can be used in the day as well and feature a whole raft of technology more at home normally in a fancy computer. They can be used to take pictures and record and have built in GPS and a range finder.
14 Pulsar Edge Gs Super Night Vision, 1+ 2.7x50 Binoculars
Another set of night vision binoculars, offering less magnification than the ATN equivalent but still a built in IR illuminator for true night vision, it doesn’t have quite the same features as the ATN but pulsar have an excellent reputation for quality and function.
Setting Up Your Binoculars
Now that you have a pair of binoculars you will need to get them set up to your exact requirements. That might involve setting the diopter to suit your eyes and making sure that you can carry them comfortably.
Before using your binoculars and getting the best results you will need to adjust the diopter to suit your eyes, this adjustment only needs to be made once. It will be made to the right barrel of your binoculars, the right eye piece will normally be the only one which adjusts at all, although you will find some binoculars on which both eye pieces can be adjusted.
On these models though that will be a feature to make them more comfortable to use by adjusting the eye piece to fit your eye rather than making any internal adjustment to the focus which is what the dioptre does.
First focus the binoculars as best you can on an object you can see in the middle distance, maybe something 30-50 meters away. Once it is focussed cover the objective lens of the left barrel with it’s lens cap or a piece of tape and using the dioptre only adjust the focus of the right barrel, looking at the same object, until it is perfectly clear.
Sometimes no adjustment will be necessary but generally people’s eyes are not perfectly identical and some differences between them will mean they focus slightly differently. This adjustment to the diopter compensates for that difference between your eyes and once set you shouldn’t need to adjust it again and can now do all your focusing with the central focus nob.
Video by Viper Optics on setting up your binoculars
As well as making sure the binoculars focus properly you may want to take some time to make sure your carry arrangements for your binoculars are comfortable. This will be especially important if you are hunting and will potentially be carrying your binoculars for long distances and through undergrowth. You will want a carry solution that doesn’t snag and is comfortable on your neck as well as making your binoculars easy to access.
Binoculars will normally come with a simple neck carry strap but these will quickly become tiresome and even light weight binoculars will chafe and be uncomfortable after a while. Not only will they be uncomfortable but they will also swing from side to side and out from your body as you move. This will be a real inconvenience as you move around out of doors and especially if you are hunting and moving around in the undergrowth. They will easily snag on undergrowth and bang into things potentially damaging them and generally getting in the way.
There are specialist carry straps and rigs that you can buy for your binoculars that will make carrying them much more comfortable, holding them tight against your chest so they don’t swing around but can still be accessed easily. There is a trick to making a very secure binocular strap with just a piece of paracord which I have used to carry my binoculars for ages.
This simple system basically forms two loops for your arms so you wear your binoculars almost like a backpack, except on your front. As the loops go around your arms there is no direct pressure on your neck and the thin paracord straps aren’t so bulky that they will be uncomfortable worn under a backpack or over other warm clothing. Not only will this hold your binoculars securely without them flopping or swinging around but when you lift them into position there will be a natural tension on the paracord straps which will add some stability to the binoculars which you wouldn’t get from a standard neck strap.
Binoculars are absolutely essential for any nature lover or hunter. For observing wildlife without the need or weight penalties of carrying large spotting scopes and for spotting, observing and stalking game binoculars are vital. There is also a safety element to using binoculars when hunting that must be considered.
We all know that we shouldn’t point a firearm at anything we don’t intend to shoot so using your scope for scanning for targets really isn’t appropriate in a hunting setting. It may be acceptable in a tactical or military context to use your scope for spotting and scanning but not so much for hunting. Until you have positively identified your quarry if you are to watch it through the scope you could find yourself pointing your loaded rifle at someone out backpacking or walking their dog rather than at a deer.
Consider the weight and function you need from your binoculars when you make your choice, don’t get something too heavy otherwise you will leave it at home and won’t have it when you need it. Do use a secure, strong and comfortable strap for your binoculars to protect your investment. Your binoculars might have cost a thousand dollars or more and jamming them into your pocket rather than hanging them around your neck or over your arms is asking to lose them.
If I was choosing a single binocular for general hunting and outdoor use and money was no object it would be the Zeiss Conquest, the Swarovski with its built in range finder is tempting from a hunting perspective but a simple range finder can be purchased for under $100 bringing the overall cost of the Zeiss and a rangefinder to over $2000 less than the Swarovski.
While the ultra-modern star wars-esque night vision binoculars are getting better and better every year they are heavy and don’t offer anywhere near the image quality of proper binoculars in their day time modes.
Additionally staring into the internal screens in day or night-time is very fatiguing on the eyes and can leave you with headaches and takes away your natural night vision at night time. They are useful at night but not a replacement for proper binoculars, a useful addition but not a stand alone solution. Some models do offer an added feature that might be useful to birders though and that is the ability to take pictures with them to record what you are seeing.
Any of the binoculars listed and described here though will be a good choice and there should be something here for most budgets. Even cheaper options are available at the click of button with a simple internet search but beware of binoculars not produced by a reputable optics brand. It’s not that there aren’t any good low budget options out there but there are plenty of products out there that will be sold as being manufactured to certain standards or with certain features that quite simple aren’t.
It’s simple to say that a set of binoculars have multi-coated lenses but the ‘multi-coated’ lenses of a cheaply manufactured copy and those of a reputable manufacturer will be worlds apart. So do think carefully before settling on a non-branded binocular and don’t fall foul of false marketing, if something seems too good for the price then it probably is!
Don’t lose them and don’t underestimate them either, your best binoculars are a great tool whether you are using them for hunting, bird watching as a navigational tool or to overlook a battle field. Don’t be without them.