Good optics -- that is, binoculars or a spotting scope -- are essential for the dedicated birdwatcher. They let you get a close-up view of the spectacular creatures you're watching without disturbing them, and can make all the difference between "only" hearing a birdsong and actually getting a positive visual ID on the creature producing it.
Usually, 7x or 8x magnification is plenty for birding binoculars. That gives you enough magnification to see birds clearly and, if you're lucky, observe their natural behavior for a while. Some birders opt for a 10x magnification, but only if they have unusually steady hands; the normal vibration of most peoples' hands makes a 10x magnified image look shaky. Many birders also like having greater eye relief -- that is, the ability to hold the binoculars away from their eyes without reducing their field of view -- and eye cups that extend or retract to accommodate eyeglasses or deep eye sockets.
With all those priorities in mind, the best binoculars we found for dedicated birders are the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 (Est. $590) (the 10x42 power is also popular). The HD stands for high-density, extra-low dispersion glass which, along with dielectric-coated roof prisms and fully multi-coated lenses, allow more light to enter the binoculars. Of course they're also fully waterproof and nitrogen-purged to reduce lens fog.
Users say this configuration creates the sort of clear, crisp and well-contrasted image that you'd usually expect from a binocular in the $2,000 price range, and the Vortex Viper earns an Editor's Choice award from OutdoorGearLab.com for its exceptional value on the dollar. The Cornell Lab for Ornithology also praises these binoculars for their crisp images, adding that they're compact, comfortable to hold, and easy to dial into focus. Eye relief of 20 mm makes them very eyeglass friendly.
The Vortex Viper HD 8x42 has an exit pupil of 5.3mm; this, combined with the light-gathering features just mentioned, means you can use them at any time of day, including dawn, dusk and in overcast or foggy conditions. They're also unusually good at focusing on up-close objects (within about 5 feet), so you can still use them to view songbirds that perch on nearby trees or for insects that flutter by. The field of view -- 347 feet at 1,000 yards -- is the only thing about these binoculars that isn't outright exceptional, but it's still good enough to keep a bird in flight within view
An interpupillary distance (that is, the space between the eyepieces) of 59 mm to 75 mm allows the Vortex Viper HD to accommodate most adult users. The fully rubberized exterior coating mean these binoculars are durable -- one user reports falling down on rocks with them, several times, and having no problem -- and customers say that Vortex's lifetime "Very Important Promise" guarantee is stellar. One man even ran his binoculars over with a truck by mistake and Vortex quickly rebuilt them for him at no charge, no questions asked.
Walking down to the next rung in the price ladder, the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42 (Est. $300) offer excellent performance at a mid-range price. The Cornell Lab for Ornithology calls out the Nikon Monarch 5 as one of the best binoculars in its price range, with a great overall feel, superior clarity of image, and high-quality ED glass that helps the binoculars gather more light for a bright image. Users also praise the Monarch 5 for its crisp image and fast, easy focusing, as well as its excellent performance in low-light and foggy conditions, thanks to an exit pupil of 5.25mm and fully multi-coated lenses and dielectric prism coatings that draw in even more light.
But wait, there's more: The Monarch 5 is also waterproof and fogproof, with a close focus range of 7.8 feet (not quite as good as the Vortex Viper, but still better than most competitors) and a decent field of view: 330 feet at 1,000 yards. Rubber armor makes these binoculars easy to hold and more resistant to drops. They're also easy for eyeglass users, with a long eye relief of 19.5 mm and eyepieces that lock into three different adjustment positions. However, the lens covers draw mixed reviews from users for slipping off too easily. The Monarch 5 comes with a lifetime warranty on non-electric components, and is also available in 12x42 and 10x42 magnifications.
In terms of pure value on the dollar, nothing beats the midsize Leupold BX-1 Yosemite 8x30 (Est. $110), which draws a nod from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for being good for smaller birders. These binoculars provide a bright, clear image -- often markedly better than more expensive models in the store -- and focus in easily, even at long distances. They're also fully waterproof and nitrogen-purged, with rubberized armor, fully multicoated lenses and a limited lifetime guarantee -- an unheard of combination for binoculars that frequently sell for less than $150.
You can also get the BX-1 Yosemite in 10x30 power or 6x30, although 8x30 is the sweet spot for most people. The field of view for 8x30 -- 388.5 feet at 1,000 yards -- is also excellent; in fact, it's the best we saw in the category.
These midsize binoculars are also great for hunters with small hands or faces (the interpupillary distance is 50mm to 70mm), but often parents who bought these for their teenagers end up liking them so much that they buy a pair for themselves, too. An exit pupil of about 3.7 mm means these binoculars are at their best in bright light, but still perform decently in limited light conditions. (An exit pupil of 5 mm or more is the ideal for truly low light.)
Durability is the biggest drawback to this model but, again, they far exceed what you might expect in this price range; Lawrence Pyne with Field and Stream calls them out for enduring torture tests with nothing but surface scratches. Also, the rubber lens caps -- a weak point for many binoculars -- actually stay put and are tethered so you don't have to worry about dropping them on the ground. All in all, the most likely thing to go wrong on these binoculars seems to be the twist-up eye cups, which sometimes fail to lock in place.
When it comes to binoculars, hunters and birders have many of the same priorities: High clarity and a wide field of view are tops, as are fog-free lenses that'll let you view wildlife in any weather conditions. Our best-reviewed birding binoculars, the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 (Est. $590), are excellent hunting binoculars as well. But if you want binoculars that will really stand up to the extreme abuse hunting gear usually receives, we recommend the Bushnell Legend L Series Ultra HD 10x42 (Est. $210), which is also available in 8x42 magnification.
Not only do these binoculars excel at image quality, field of view and resisting lens fog, they're also build to endure rough treatment and affordable enough that if you do destroy them -- which takes a lot of work -- it won't be the end of the world.
That low price point is a case of Bushnell putting most of their expenses into the area where they matter most: ED (extra low-dispersion) glass and a custom ultra-wide-band lens coating to improve light transmission, and a high-quality porro prism that, although it makes the binoculars bigger and heavier, doesn't have to be coated to provide a good image. The Bushnell Legend L Series' anti-fog technology works well even in extreme conditions, and the field of view -- 340 feet at 1,000 -- and low-light performance are both good. (The Bushnell L Series has an exit pupil of 4.2 mm.)
Although we're naming these as the best hunting binoculars, they also perform very well for birders and draw a recommendation from the Audubon Society. At about 23.5 ounces, they're light enough to tote around without a problem, and users say the Rain Guard water-repellent lens coating works very well.
That said, it's these binoculars' ability to stand up to prolonged abuse that really makes them shine for hunters. Users report having them out in freezing moisture and dropping them off cliffs without a problem. In one notable case it took a 50-foot drop from a tree (in a semi-hard case) to slightly misalign the tubes on a Bushnell Legend L Series, although it was still usable. If you do manage to damage or destroy a pair of Bushnell Legends, owners say Bushnell is usually good about honoring its no-questions-asked lifetime guarantee.
Those who've purchased the Bushnell Legend series before point out that, in order to keep the price point down, Bushnell has stopped selling two much-loved accessories as a package with these binoculars. However, you can buy both accessories -- the semi-hard case and a great chest harness that keeps the binoculars right in front of you -- separately. Other than that, the biggest complaint we found about these binoculars is that the eye covers and lens covers don't stay put.