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Best Birding Binoculars

By: Lisa Maloney on June 07, 2017

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 takes second place in OutdoorGearLab.com's rankings for binoculars, right behind a model that retails for more than $2,500. 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 5.3 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 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 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" 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.

If you'd like a second choice, the Nikon Monarch 7 8x42 (Est. $460) 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 OutdoorGearLab.com 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.

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 go for the Nikon Monarch 7, which offers 420 feet at 1,000 yards, compared to the Vortex Viper's 347 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. But we feel the Vortex Viper still edges the Nikon Monarch out in all-around performance, with more eye relief, superior close-focusing, great image sharpness, and better user reviews of its durability.

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.

The best value binoculars

We're happy to report that the quality of binoculars in the $200 to $300 range has been steadily increasing over the years, and you can now get excellent, sharp images and good durability in this price range. One stellar example is the newly redesigned Vortex Diamondback 8x42 (Est. $230), which often retails at or under $200. Pay close attention when you shop for this one: The redesigned Diamondback was introduced in 2016 but retains the name of the older model, which is still available from some retailers.

The new Diamondback retains many of the features that drew praise for the older model, including its fully multicoated optics, dielectric-coated roof prism and 5.3 mm exit pupil that performs wonderfully in low light. But the new version also offers a notable step up in image quality. The 10x42 version draws compliments from Field and Stream for its image and build quality, and a series of seasoned birders working for Birdwatching.com say they love its comfortable handling and easy adjustments. Users say the weatherproof, gas-purged, rubberized housing feels significantly sturdier in their hand than anything else in this category.

The redesign brought a few other small, but notable changes, including an increased range of interpupillary distance, now 55 - 75 mm, and a weigh of just 21.8 ounces, almost 4 ounces lighter than the previous model. The field of view has decreased just slightly from 420 feet at 1,000 yards to 393 feet at 1,000 yards, but remains near the top of its class. The unlimited lifetime "Very Important Promise" warranty is another very attractive high point for users, as is Vortex's very responsive customer service.

Another wonderful inexpensive model is the Leupold BX-1 Yosemite 8x30 (Est. $200), 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. 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. If you want full-size binoculars or better low light performance in this price range, we refer you back to the newly redesigned Vortex Diamondback 8x42.

Durability is the biggest drawback to this model but, again, they do better than 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.

The best binoculars for hunting

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. $500), 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. $200), which are also available in 8x42 magnification.

Not only do these binoculars excel at image quality, field of view and resisting lens fog, they're also built 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 their expenses into the areas 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. At 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 they were 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.

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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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