suggestion (July, 2016)
My preference is the Zeiss Victory line of optics, but the very high end versions of Leica and Swarovski are just as good. They all have their small differences. I look for a razor sharp image with the highest light transmission, and a wide field of view, and that has long been synonymous with Zeiss high end binos.
ZEISS Victory SF 8x42, ZEISS Victory HT 10x42, ZEISS Victory FL 10x42 T* are in my opinion the very best birding binoculars out there. You can hardly tell the diffrence, but the SF top the Victory line (also in price). It is exceptionally bright, and can easily be used for owl watching. It is also very sharp, with good contrast, has a close focus, neutral colors, a wide field of view, and a superb feel in hand. Compared to Leica it has more neutral and not so saturated colors. I also like the feel in hand compared to Swarovski, and the big wheel is perfect for focusing also with gloves on. In Short, the best of the best!
Note that the new SF 8x42 has an amazing field of view and unrivaled ergonomics so if you got the money this is the one for you. However the much older and cheaper FL series has an 8x32 model with almost as wide a field of view and is 230 gram lighter.
ZEISS Conquest HD 8x32 is the best midrange binocular in the 500-1000 USD range. If you do not want to pay a fortune for a pair of good binos then this half price (of the high end binos) glass could just be the thing for you. I might just replace my old Leitz Trinovid 8x40 B for this one!
Note! I would stay away from the colorful Zeiss Terra version (Lifestyle optics). More than one person has complained of the bad image quality. Sad that Zeiss thought they needed to do a cheapo = crapo version.
NIKON 8X30 MONARCH 7 M711 is my preferred bino below 500 USD. It has a super field of view, comfortable to hold and a nice large, smooth focusing ring.
Finally Allaboutbirds.org has done a very comprehensive test of 2013 years binoculars, and it re-affirms what I have preached for years about Zeiss leading the pack. Binocular Review - top picks.pdf and the Binocular Review - complete list.pdf
Look at the best binoculars
to see what you can get if money doesn't matter. Then you make the choice of what
to accept for the money you do have (or even better save up to the ones you really
Leica Ultravid, Zeiss FL, Swarovski EL, Nikon, etc., verses middle priced binoculars will continue to be a hot topic. Note however that Nikon makes really lousy binoculars as well as high end versions, so you cannot go by name alone.
Brands like Kowa and Opticron et al are making very affordable and high quality optics that would satisfy most of us that think 2000 USD is too much for a pair of binoculars. But you do best in comparing them with the above top versions and by all means run them against the cheapest ones to see what quality you are ready to settle with.
Image Stabilized binoculars
It becomes very difficult to keep the image steady when using a high powered binocular over 10x. The image will blur unless you use some type of image stabilization. Some people put their binos on a stick, often called the Finn-Stick after the inception of finish birders mounting their binos on a sawed off hockey stick. Others tether it to a tripod or monopod. But there are built in image stabilization as well. This is very useful when seabirding for obvious reasons.
Newcon Optik have an entirely mechanical image stabilized binocular that doesn't need batteries.
Even though it has individual eyepiece focusing it is worth investigating as a
low cost ($599) alternative to Zeiss 20x60 that is also supposed to use mechanical stabilization.
However the leaders in image stabilized binoculars use a gyroscopic image stabilization that requires batteries. This is a big drawback as you can easily drain the batteries in a couple of hours, and if you didn't bring backup batteries you have an awfully heavy, blurry, and fairly dark image binos that weigh down your neck.
These binoculars are also not quite up to par when it comes to high-end optics, but
the ingenious stabilization that is enabled by the push of a button has its niche.
It is a fabulous pair of binos to have at sea! They keep the bird image steady
on the rocky boat, and you can follow the bird easily on a high magnification
(e.g., 12x or 15x).
Canon 12x36 IS III (2015) with up to 9 hours of battery life will keep this model as the unchallanged IS version. I am very much tempted to get these as they have doubled battery life, and slightly increased the field of view to the version II.
Monoculars & Mini binoculars
They are around 300g in weight and can be a good compromise for those who use it less often, but still wants something with them that is small, light-weight and not so expensive.
The Mini options are usually a bit on the dark side if you do not go with a high end brand. Be sure to have wide enough field of view and not too high magnification, try them out!
I lean towards a OPTICRON 8X42 BGA WP MONO as it has a wide diameter lens, relative large field of view, and the price is about right. It is also easy to carry with you, so it will fit in any hiking bag pocket.
What to look for when buying a pair of binos?
People are different, and have contradictory impressions. That's why we will always discuss things like 8x vs. 10x magnifications. I personally find 10x binoculars to bring the subject closer, and thus render it clearer, and in more detail. I also use spottingscopes only about 10% of the time when out birding.
But many people find that an 8x is easier to hold steady, has better features, and that there isn't such a significant difference by increasing the magnification. This doesn't necessary have to hold true but I have eyeglasses, and many of the people I meet who claim 8x are their educated choice have perfect, unimproved vision.
for those far away birds. But if you have a hard time keeping the image steady,
don't see much of a difference, or always carry with you a spottingscope the 7x/8x would do even better.
Finally the smaller the field of view the harder it is to keep the image steady. Not sure how that works, but I cannot use a 10x25, and the 10x32 is also not working too well for me. But the 10x42 is usually fine.
Field of view:
A wide field of view is very important. The ultimate binocular should have over 400feet at a 1000yds, but this is hard to come by for anything but a low powered 7x or 8x. If you go up in magnification to a 10x then you should at least have 330feet/1000yds. You may go around this limitation with certain Porro prism binos, but note that the edge sharpness can take a toll. Usually this is not such a bad thing since the wide field of view is to detect or keep track of birds, and perfect edge sharpness isn't therefore of highest importance.
brightness, and contrast:
Look for a bright image and of outstanding contrast (Zeiss Victory FL
are exceptional, especially the 7,8,10x42).
you easily get the image in focus? Some binos focus very quickly (Zeiss 10x42
Victory FL), and some force you to turn the focus wheel a lot to go from far to
near focus in which time you might have lost sight of the bird (e.g. first generation Swarovski 10x42
It is important that you can focus close to a bird (3 meter/9 feet is fine).
32oz(900g) and above is a pain around the
neck, and can cause injury! Look at low weight options around 21-28oz(600-800grams).
You can relieve some of the weight by replacing the neck strap with one that
uses a shoulder harness like S4Gear Lockdown to carry the weight (especially for 600g and up). Personally I draw the line at 620g or 22 Oz.
Note that small binoculars can more easily be brought with you on non birding trips, and birds can show up on the most unlikely places such as on city walks, a bicycle ride home from work, etc.
Armoring, and Waterproofing:
feel in the hand is important. Rubber coating is great in cold weather, and will
also protect against dings, and drops. Quality roof prism binos are almost always water, and fog proof. But you can still have great use for non-proofed binos. The key is to learn how to protect them against fogging up, and use rain guards!
One trick against fogging in cold weather is to keep the binos in the trunk of your car, or lower the heat in the car so that they wont fog when stepping out into the cold air. There are also anti-fogging liquids that can be wiped on the eyepieces. Nikon anti fog wipes have been recommended for not leaving a residue on the ocular, and one wipe will last at least a week.
For eyeglass wearers it is important to make sure you can get a full field of view without having to take off you glasses. There are still new binoculars being made with insufficient eye-relief, so make sure you test it carefully. 16mm down to 14mm is usually good enough eye relief.
Roof vs. Porro prism:
prism binos usually have a great close focus (3m/10feet), are fog/water proof,
and have an acceptable field of view (130m/390feet for 8x, 110m/330feet for 10x).
Porro prism binos are often less expensive, have a great image, and a wide field
of view, but can be rendered useless in rainy, humid conditions.