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Best Birding Binoculars

By: Lisa Maloney on May 10, 2018

Clear images and field of view top the list of birding priorities

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 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. $500) (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 multicoated lenses, allow more light to enter the binoculars. Of course they're also fully waterproof and argon-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 wins an Editor's Choice award in Outdoor Gear Lab's rankings for binoculars, placing right behind a model that retails for more than $2,500. Reviewers with the Audubon Society praises these binoculars for their "super clarity and crispness," with reviewers from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology agreeing and adding that they're compact, comfortable to hold, and easy to dial into focus. Eye relief of 18 mm makes them very eyeglass friendly.

The Vortex Viper HD 8x42 has an exit pupil of 5.3 mm. 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 good at focusing on up-close objects (within 6.5 feet), so you can still use them to view songbirds that perch on nearby trees or for insects that flutter by. Previously, field of view was the only thing about these binoculars that wasn't outright exceptional, but they've been updated with a wider field of view -- 409 feet at 1,000 yards -- that is excellent.

The Vortex Viper's interpupillary distance (that is, the space between the eyepieces) has also been improved to 56 mm to 75 mm, which allows the Vortex Viper HD to accommodate most adult users. The fully rubberized exterior coating means 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" unconditional lifetime warranty 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. Even when you don't run them over, users say these binoculars are easily on par with brands that cost twice as much, and their durability makes them a favorite with hunters as well as birders.

If you'd like a second choice, the Nikon Monarch 7 8x42 ATB (Est. $480) is in hot competition with the Vortex Viper. The Nikon Monarch 7 a long-time favorite for birding experts everywhere, thanks to what the Audubon Society describes as "razor-sharp optics with excellent light-gathering capabilities that just feel good in your hand." The editors at Outdoor Gear Lab offer similar praise, giving the Monarch 7 high scores for clarity, build quality and comfortable operation.

The Monarch 7's features are quite similar to those offered by the Vortex Viper 8x42, including multilayer coatings, phase-correction-coated roof prisms, a waterproof/fogproof casing, and ED glass that allows more light to enter the binoculars. The Monarch 7's exit pupil measurement, a measure of its low-light performance, is the same as the Vortex Viper's: 5.3 mm -- and the Monarch's eye relief of 17.1 mm is just slightly less than the Vortex Viper's; still plenty for birders who wear eyeglasses.

Ultimately, which of the two binoculars you choose depends on your priorities. If having a wide field of view is the most important feature to you, the Nikon Monarch 7 just barely tops the Vortex Viper with 420 feet at 1,000 yards, compared to the Viper's 409 feet at 1,000 yards. The Monarch 7 is also a hair lighter, at 22.9 ounces compared to the Viper's 24.2 ounces, and both excel in low-light conditions.

With that said, we feel the Vortex Viper just edges the Nikon Monarch out in all-around performance, with slightly more eye relief, superior close-focusing (6.5 feet to the Monarch's 8.2 feet), great image sharpness, and better user reviews of its durability. Both binoculars are covered by a lifetime warranty, but the Vortex warranty draws more rave reviews, note comments from some international users who own the Nikon Monarch 7 are upset that being outside the US means they get a shorter warranty.

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. 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 5.3 mm 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 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.

If you want a wider field of view at about the same price point, the Athlon Optics Midas ED 8x42 (Est. $240) also excels for its price range, with ED glass, 17.2 mm eye relief and the same 5.3 mm exit pupil for excellent low-light performance; but the field of view is a whopping 426 feet at 1,000 feet, with a clear image from edge to edge.

Wirecutter names the Athlon Optics Midas ED their top pick for its great optics at an amazingly affordable price, and says they were durable enough to withstand their professional ornithologist tester's adventures in the Mexican rainforest and Californian desert. The image is clear from edge to edge, but if you're looking for close-focus binoculars, you'd do better with our best-reviewed Vortex Viper. Athlon advertises the Midas ED as having a close-focus range of 6.5 feet, but users say it's really more like 9.5 feet.

The Athlon Optics Midas's ED glass is a great find in this price range, greatly limiting chromatic aberration (the purple fringing you might sometimes see around black feathers), and Wirecutter praises it for its smooth-adjust focus dial. But users are more skeptical about that focus dial, with several reporting that it's too stiff, while others say it has noticeable play, and they hear a strange squelching sound coming from it.

It's possible that Athlon has a quality control problem; we found one user reporting that he tried four different pairs and each had a noticeable problem, like water spots on supposedly new eyepieces or a frame that folded in on itself when held on edge. But Athlon also offers a lifetime warranty with no receipt or registration required, so there's still potential here for a great buy at a mid-range price.

Also noteworthy in this price range, the Celestron TrailSeeker 8x42 (Est. $200) draws kudos from the Audubon Society for its very good clarity, brightness and contrast, along with good eye relief (17 mm) and solid focusing. Wirecutter also chooses it as a runner-up, praising its field of view: 426 feet at 1,000 yards, which is comparable with all the top models in this report. Close focus and exit pupil are also on par with the top models we've evaluated, at 6.5 feet and 5.3 mm respectively.

With that said, you do give some things up in exchange for the Celestron TrailSeeker's wonderfully accessible price. One is noticeable blurring at the edges of the field of view; the more expensive models in this report are generally crisp all the way to the edge. You may also see some chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in black-feathered birds, and durability isn't quite as good as the competition. Although this model is waterproof and nitrogen-purged, we also see reports of the focus wheel simply falling off.

And finally, although Celestron advertises a lifetime warranty, some elements of the warranty are only valid for a limited time, ranging from 30 days to two or five years, which would seem to invalidate the lifetime label. Users also aren't thrilled to find out that they have to pre-pay shipping for your binoculars to be serviced.

If you feel like splurging on an upgrade model that you should never have to replace, consider the Zeiss Conquest HD 8x42 (Est. $900), which draws praise from the Audubon Society for their "clear, bright image and true color rendition." The Cornell Lab for Ornithology also calls them out as one of the best binoculars in their price range.

A number of users express similar sentiments, comparing the Zeiss Conquest HD 8x42 head-to-head with Swarovski models -- which cost more than $2,000 and are generally considered as good as it gets -- and saying they just couldn't justify spending more when they were perfectly happy with the Zeiss Conquest. Aside from the crisp, clear image, this model's superpower is in its light-gathering ability. Although the exit pupil is "just" 5.3 mm -- the same as the other top models in our birding category -- users say that looking through these binoculars after dark makes it feel as if someone's turned on the light. They also do very well in mixed light and shadow or backlit conditions.

On the flip side, a few features draw mixed reviews. One is the eye caps, which some find reassuringly secure, while others say they tend to fall right off. The super-sensitive focusing wheel is a high point for most, with users saying they like being able to focus with just one finger -- but others say it's actually too sensitive for them. The eye relief, however, is excellent at 18 mm -- plenty of distance for eyeglass wearers.

And finally, we also see mixed reviews for the Zeiss Conquest HD's close-focus ability. Its specs list the close-focus range as an impressive 6.5 feet, but Audubon ranks it slightly lower than its cohorts in a similar price range, and our best-reviewed Vortex Viper HD 8x42 binoculars have the same close focus range at about half the price, along with a better field of view -- 409 feet at 1,000 yards, compared to the Zeiss Conquest's 384 feet at 1,000 yards.

Their Zeiss Conquest is nitrogen-purged and water-resistant, with a special lens coating so water will roll right off. They weigh 28 oz and come with a limited lifetime warranty. We didn't see much feedback on the warranty service, except that if your binoculars are sent all the way to Germany for repair, it may be a couple of months before you get them back.

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What every best Binoculars has:

  • A magnification of 8x to 10x.
  • A wide field of view.
  • An exit pupil of at least 2 mm for day use, 5 mm or more for low light.

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