While good budget models are available, binoculars can be quite an investment. As a result, comparative binocular reviews are extremely important for determining which binoculars are worth their price tag. We found a number of comprehensive and thorough binocular reviews in outdoor magazines. Outdoor Life magazine, in particular, has the best and most recent testing. Editors enlist the help of five expert testers to evaluate 23 pairs of binoculars. Not only are the binoculars ranked for optical quality, they also receive an overall rating and individual scores for image quality, value and design. The best binoculars receive an Editor's Choice award, while the top budget picks score Great Buy designations.
Birder's World magazine also conducts excellent comparative tests of binoculars, with a focus on those that excel for bird-watching. In the magazine's most recent review, 11 testers from a local bird club evaluate eight lightweight binoculars. Each pair of binoculars is evaluated by every tester and ratings are given on comfort, eye friendliness and optical quality. The binoculars are then rated on a five-point scale, making it easy to determine which binoculars perform the best.
We also found solid test-based reviews at publications like Outside, Bird Watcher's Digest and Field & Stream magazines. While the testing process varies with each magazine, more than one tester evaluates each pair of binoculars. Bird Watcher's Digest also rates the tested binoculars on a five-point scale; Outside and Field & Stream focus on text-based analysis. There is also a host of good information on binocular websites like AllBinos.com, Optics4Birds.com, BetterViewDesired.com and Birdwatching.com. These enthusiast sites have very detailed single-product reviews, but sometimes contain outdated information. ConsumerReports.org also tests binoculars, but its report is several years old and contains little analysis.
Binoculars are available in a staggering range of prices. Most reviews cover binoculars costing between $200 to nearly $2,000. When it comes to binoculars costing less than $200, we found user reviews like those posted at Amazon.com to be the best resource. Buzzillions.com and online retailers like Cabelas.com also have a good selection of user reviews for binoculars.
Binoculars are a product for which rigorous comparative reviews really matter. Specifications rarely tell the whole story, even for image quality, not to mention comfort and usability. For example, although some reviews use a specification called exit pupil as a guide to how bright the binocular image will be, the best binocular reviews note that optics quality matters much more. Exit pupil typically ranges from about 2 mm to 7 mm. Another specification, eye relief, is a major factor in eye comfort (especially for people who wear glasses), but testers in comparative reviews evaluate eye friendliness by actual usage, often rating a binocular higher or lower than the eye-relief specification would predict.
Eye relief (in millimeters) is simply the optimal distance between your eye and the near lens on the binoculars (called the ocular lens). Reviews recommend a minimum of 14 to 16 mm eye relief for people who wear glasses, to avoid tunnel vision -- a reduced image surrounded by black. (Eye relief can be as high as 20 mm.) But eye relief is important for overall eye comfort for all users. Reviewing binoculars at BetterViewDesired.com, Wayne Mones explains: "The closer your eye has to be to the eyepiece the more fatigue the glass will cause. Having your eye close to anything continually triggers the blink reflex." Many binoculars have adjustable twist-up eyecups that offer several settings from which to choose.