If you want a pair of binoculars for travel or that'll fit easily into your purse or shirt pocket, the Zeiss Victory Compact 8x20 (Est. $670) (also available in 10x25) offer the sort of clear, sharp image you'd expect from full-size binoculars -- yet they're just 4 inches across when fully unfolded and weigh just under 8 ounces. They're also great for children or adults with close-set eyes, because you can partially fold them to accommodate the distance between your eyes.
These binoculars draw high praise from Diane Porter of Birdwatching.com for their outstanding optics, sharp views and exceptional field of view for this category (354 feet at 1,000 yards). They can also close-focus to within less than 10 feet, which makes them handy -- if not quite optimal -- for spotting insects or birds that are close by. T. Edward Nickens with the National Audubon Society loves them for their superb glass and smart ergonomics.
The Victory Compact's eye relief of 13.5 mm is enough to accommodate most users wearing eyeglasses or sunglasses, and the off-center location of the folding/focus mechanism is more comfortable for most users than a central zoom. The Victory Compact also has adjustable diopter -- another good find in this size.
Users are generally surprised by how well the Zeiss Victory Compact performs in low-light situations, thanks to its high-quality optics and a proprietary multi-layer coating on the lenses. However, with an exit pupil of just 2.5mm, they're not ideal for low light. (No compact binoculars are; full-size binoculars will always perform better in reduced light conditions.)
Users say the Zeiss Victory Compact's robust, shockproof rubber armor feels comfortable in your hand, and they're fully waterproof and nitrogen-purged to prevent lens fogging. The biggest complaint we found about them is that, for binoculars this expensive, users want a better neck strap than the "string" Zeiss usually includes.
If price is your bottom line, the best cheap compact binoculars we found are the Nikon ProStaff 8x25 (Est. $130) (also available in 10x25 and 12x25). Finding the best value in this price range is a balancing act between features, durability and performance. The ProStaff nails two out of three with a great range of features, including an impressive 330-ft field of view at 1,000 yards, multicoated optics, plus waterproof rubber armor and a nitrogen-purged interior that do a great job of fighting fog, even in a full rain.
Users say that the ProStaff delivers crisp, clear images; the 15.5 mm eye relief and twist-out eyepieces offer plenty of space to accommodate eyeglasses. With that said, these aren't the most durable binoculars out there -- users say a slight jolt can knock them out of alignment -- and, although the 3.1mm exit pupil performs exceptionally well during the day, it isn't adequate to provide truly bright images in low light conditions. The 12.5-ounce weight is easy to manage, although we found a few comments that these binoculars are a little too large to fit in some pockets.
That might sound like a whole lot of negatives, but the truth is that the Nikon Prostaff binoculars are an excellent value; you just have to be very careful with them. If you do treat them carefully, you can get crystal-clear images worthy of much more expensive binoculars at a fraction of the price.
For dedicated birdwatchers, the Pentax U-Series Papilio II 8.5x21 (Est. $150) give the best of both worlds, offering plenty of magnification to watch far-off birds but also letting you focus to within 9.24 inches -- not feet, but inches -- without losing your field of view. It essentially acts as both binoculars and a long-range microscope, while still being small and light enough (about 10.5 ounces) to drop into your pocket and forget about it until an interesting bird or insect flies by. Papilio is Latin for "butterfly," and the most common reviewer comment of all is that these binoculars can focus narrowly enough to count the feathery scales on a butterfly's wings.
Users say the Papilio II's optics are exceptional for the price, with fully multi-coated lenses, smooth focusing and aspherical lens elements that help ensure edge-to-edge sharpness. The well-designed, rubberized body feels good in your hand. That said, you give up a few points to get that amazing near- and far-focus ability; the exit pupil of just better than 2 mm is only at its best during daytime use, and the field of view -- 287.1 feet at 1,000 yards -- is adequate for a compact binocular but not great. Unless you wear eyeglasses very close to your eyes, the 9.5 mm eye relief might not be adequate for use with glasses. That doesn't mean you can't use the Papilio II, but you'll be losing some field of view. Still, the Pentax Papilio II is unmatched in its versatility for viewing subjects both far off and nearby.
Although any of the models we just reviewed would be great for children, both the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommend the midsize Opticron Oregon 4 LE WP 8x32 (Est. $135) as the best choice for kids. They say it's an excellent value that's sized perfectly for smaller hands, with a wide focus wheel that's easy for youngsters to handle.
That said, the optics performance from these binoculars is fully grown up. Users say the images are stunningly clear, crisp and bright right out to the edge of the remarkably wide field of view (423 feet at 1,000 yards), and an exit pupil of 4 mm performs pretty well in low light conditions. The Opticron Oregon has enough heft (17.5 ounces) that they feel steady and stable in your hand, while still being light enough for a child to carry. Eye relief of 15 mm is more than enough to accommodate eyeglasses, and the twist-adjust eyepieces move in or out as needed.
Overall, these binoculars offer an exceptional value for the price, and they're waterproof and nitrogen-purged to resist fogging; the included rain guard, neck strap and rubber objective lens covers just increase its value. If you want similar optics for yourself, the Opticron Oregon 4 LE WP is also available in full-size 8x42, 10x42 and even 10x50 models.