Most bird-watching experts recommend binoculars with 8x magnification. While some birders prefer 10x magnification for more detail, 10x binoculars are heavier and can be harder to hold steady for longer periods of time. Binoculars with 8x magnification also have a wider field of view than those with more magnification, which makes it easier to pick out birds in trees or dense vegetation. Overall, most experts say 8x magnification is a good compromise between magnification and weight.
The editors of Bird Watcher's Digest recommend spending at least $100 on a pair of binoculars, but their bottom line is: "Buy the best optics you can afford." Cheap birding binoculars may seem fine in the store, but once you get out in the field you'll notice distinct differences in optical quality. As Bird Watcher's Digest argues, more expensive binoculars have "better lens coatings, thick rubber armoring, and come with a manufacturer's warranty of several years." The improved optics make it easier to spot and identify birds, they say.
If you don't have much to spend, reviews point to the Pentax DCF NV 8x36 (*Est. $200). These binoculars have fully multi-coated lenses and a polycarbonate body with a rubber cover that is waterproof and fogproof. The 16 mm eye relief is good for those who wear glasses (most experts recommend at least 14 to 16 mm eye relief for those users), and the binoculars have a 342-foot field of view and 4.5 mm exit pupil. The Pentax DCF binoculars are covered by a one-year warranty.
Outside magazine gives the Pentax DCF NV 8x36 a Killer Value award, saying they are a great choice for beginner bird-watchers. The durable exterior survives more than one drop, and the binoculars are comfortable to carry, though, at 22.6 ounces, they're a bit on the heavy side. "Their 16mm eye relief allowed for comfortable, strain-free viewing with or without glasses, and the multicoated lenses and phase-coated, super-reflective prisms provided great image contrast," Ryan Krogh writes. Outdoor Life magazine also gives the Pentax DCF NV 10x36 version a Great Buy award. Editors say it offers excellent resolution and a durable build, but they were disappointed to see some "purple color-fringing around the periphery of the image."
For a little more money, the Eagle Optics Ranger SRT 8x32 is another good choice for bird-watchers. Backed by a lifetime warranty, the Eagle Optics binoculars have a 393-foot field of view and 16 mm eye relief. They weigh less than the Pentax DCF NV 8x36 (19.2 ounces), but they also have a slightly smaller objective lens. The eyecups can be adjusted to one of several positions and the body is waterproof and fogproof.
The Eagle Optics Ranger SRT 8x32 is the second-best pair of binoculars in Birder's World magazine's test of eight models. It earns a rating of 4.1 out of 5. Testers appreciate the 3-foot close focus, and one tester notes that the binoculars focus quickly and have sharp images.
User reviews are also positive. At EagleOptics.com, more than 15 reviewers give the Ranger SRT 8x32 binoculars a 5-star rating. Images are sharp and bright, according to reviews, and the binoculars are comfortable in the hand. The relatively lightweight design also impresses users. "The Rangers aren't too heavy in the field and the clarity of image runs circles around any other binocs I've used, even the 10 power ones," one owner writes. There is one complaint that the glue on the eyecups dissolved after several years of use.
In addition to outstanding precision and durability, the best birding binoculars provide the brightest, clearest images. They're also so comfortable that you never have to think about the binoculars, you're only aware of the image. As Ken Rosenberg, a birding expert at Cornell Lab, says, they're "simply a joy to hold and use." He notes that three companies make the best high-end binoculars: Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss.
Each of these manufacturers earns their fair share of recommendations, but reviews say it's hard to beat the Zeiss Victory T* FL 8x42 (*Est. $1,950) for serious birders. The binoculars have a wide 405-foot field of view and 5.25 mm exit pupil. The 16 mm eye relief will help reduce eyestrain for those with glasses. The binoculars are waterproof and fogproof, and weigh 26.6 ounces. The Zeiss Victory 8x42 binoculars are covered by a lifetime warranty. The FL designation stands for the fluorite prism glass designed to enhance light transmission and color accuracy, superior to the Bak-4 glass generally used in high-quality binoculars.
In a test of eight high-end 8x42 binoculars at the hunting website 24HourCampfire.com, almost all reviewers choose the Zeiss model as the best. The Zeiss Victory T* FL 8x42 also top the list in a comparative test at Birder's World magazine, where they score a rating of 4.9 out of 5. They are also the only binoculars to receive a perfect score for image quality; one tester writes that their "overall image quality is superior." Even though every reviewer raves about the Zeiss Victory's outstanding optics, it's hard to overlook the price tag. At nearly $2,000, the binoculars are a considerable investment even for serious bird-watchers. Although they love the binoculars, none of Birder's World magazine's testers said they would actually purchase them due to the high cost.
Another pair of binoculars that is often mentioned for serious bird-watchers is the Leica Ultravid HD 8x42. At 27.9 ounces, these binoculars are slightly heavier than the Zeiss Victory T* FL 8x42, but they have a 389-foot field of view and 5.2 mm exit pupil. Users with glasses will be pleased with the 15.5 mm eye relief, and the binoculars include removable eyepieces designed specifically for eyeglass wearers.
In Birder's World magazine's optics test, the Leica Ultravid HD 8x42 are a close second to the Zeiss Victory binoculars, scoring a rating of 4.8 to the Zeiss Victory's 4.9. According to the magazine's testers, the Leica Ultravid HD binoculars produce bright and crisp images, and all of the testers are happy with the wide field of view. Interestingly, even though the Zeiss binoculars score slightly higher, more testers say they would buy the slightly more expensive Leica Ultravid HD binoculars for themselves. Three of six testers say the Leicas are worth the money, while only one of five testers say the same for the Zeiss binoculars.
A relatively new line of high-end binoculars from Nikon, the EDG line, also impresses reviewers, but not quite at the level of the Leica or Zeiss binoculars. The Nikon EDG 8x42 has a very large 442-foot field of view, and the 19.3 mm eye relief is significantly longer than other binoculars in this price range. The exit pupil measures 5.3 mm, and the binoculars' weight (27.7 ounces) is similar to that of other high-end birding binoculars.
The Nikon EDG 8x42 doesn't score as highly in Birder's World magazine's tests -- it finishes fourth out of 11, with an overall score of 4.5 out of 5. Testers are impressed with the field of view, but the close focus could be better. As a result, only one of six testers says they would buy the Nikon EDG 8x42 to replace their current binoculars. The birding experts at Birdwatching.com also like the Nikon EDG series, saying it offers excellent eye relief and a "phenomenal" field of view. Overall, they call it a "stunningly sharp binocular."