A comparison of mid priced binoculars for stalking
I thought it might be useful if I shared my thoughts with those currently in the market for mid priced binoculars for stalking. Be warned, this is a fairly lengthy review but I’ve sectioned it so you can scroll down to what perhaps might interest you (or not!). I am no expert and have only written down the things here that mattered to me.
I’ve attempted to offer down to earth observations based upon a very recent experience in the field with an array of mid priced binoculars which were kindly loaned to me on trial from a supplier that I’ve been a good customer of for many years for my camera lenses and spotting scopes and where I’ve spent a lot over the years (hence have a lot of trust built up otherwise this test would not have been possible). I know that there’ve been loads of threads on binoculars but this one attempts to be a little different having regard to what is currently on the market and having tried each in turn in real world conditions. My long suffering wife insists that I sell off some of my collection before adding any more to it, so I had some explaining to do when organising this binocular marathon!
Most recommendations from seasoned stalkers seem to be firmly in the camp suggesting saving the pennies for premium glass. Whilst I share much empathy towards that, many of us that don’t have nor can justify the expenditure for premium priced binoculars, maybe after spending a significant sum already on rifles, scopes and reloading gear.
That leaves a choice between a good used pair (which tend to get snapped up very quickly when they do appear) and new mid-priced bins (let’s forget entry level as a vast majority of budget optics simply don’t cut it in the field).
This leaves something of a minefield which is twofold: Firstly, new ranges claiming ever better performance come out every year from a myriad of manufacturers, leaving the casual window shopper spinning in confusion. Secondly, most of the time even when some mid to high level bino’s come onto the used market, it’s often hard to try what might be at the other end of the country!
That leaves forums like this and on line reviews. I, for one, do not trust many on line reviews, as you just never know what agendas are behind such reviews, unless they are accompanied by rigorous objective tests and even then, such reviews will not tell you how those binoculars might handle in your hands and whether they’ll be suited to your eyes.
I have attempted to cut through a little of that confusion and done a lot of legwork in advance, hopefully listing what many may have had on their “interest list” themselves. I’ve looked at lens construction, coating quality, prism type etc and short listed those which meet fairly basic criteria for good light transmission, decent lens coatings, reasonable field of view, reasonable size and weight and included some with additional benefits such as shock proofing and water proofing.
Right from the off, I’m not offering rigorous objective or scientific testing, just my own observations based upon having to make a decision where to spend my own hard-earned. Make of this what you will. I have no connection whatsoever with any of the manufacturers of anything mentioned in this write up and am not going to name the emporium kind enough to loan me the trial pairs as I want this to remain impartial. Caveat Emptor applies as always and I would strongly recommend anyone on the market trying before they buy. In fact it’s essential to avoid disappointment.
I’ll cut to the chase and list all of those which were in contention:
1. Hawke Frontier ED 8 x 42.....................................£239
2. Kowa BD 10 x 25 DCF............................................£22 0
3. Kowa BD-XD 8 x42............................................... .£370
4. Nikon Monarch 7, 10 x 42.......................................£370
5. Minox BV 8 x 44................................................ .....£275
6. Steiner Skyhawk 3.0 8x42....................................£265
7. Steiner Safari Ultrasharp 8 x 30.............................£124
8. Vanguard Endeavour ED 8 x 42..............................£219
Starting in order:
1. Hawke: Reasonable build quality (in fact they were rather good) let down by so-so optical quality with chromatic aberration evident and slight softening at the edges. I didn't especially like the focus. Overall, not a patch on Hawke’s truly excellent mid priced spotting scopes. Not really that bad at the price, but didn't waste time going further, especially since come time to trade up to premium glass, these’ll be worthless due partly to the massive range that Hawke put out every year in endless updates and brand image. Hawke unfortunately seem to suffer from many scopes and binoculars only fetching a fraction of new cost once you've taken them out of the shop. Had these offered something that lifted them above the crowd, it might have been different, but they didn't, in my opinion anyway.
2. Kowa BD10 x 25 DCF: Nice and compact, reasonably well made but really for £220, I’d have expected better, much better in fact. The Hawk felt more premium even if they weren’t. Optically, the Kowa scored very low with me, with unimpressive contrast, chromatic aberration and edge aberrations, milky edge detail and even some greying of the image due I think to some internal reflections. Just not very good and certainly no better than many bins at half the price or less. I felt a little let down by this as Kowa of old were known for quality gun sights (military big guns) plus made excellent camera lenses. They’re now apparently made in China and none the better for it if these were anything to go by. Could it have been a duff pair? Maybe.
3. Kowa BD-XD 8 x 42: These were more like it but also considerably more expensive. Reasonable weight, very nice build quality with smooth focus and handled nicely. Not an open bridge design but comfortable in the hands. Kowa claim “stunning image quality” from their XD lenses. Good central sharpness and good edge definition. Some chromatic aberration noted though and whilst focussing at distant objects, they just couldn't quite manage the resolving power of the best optics I tried from this bunch. Nice colour rendition though and no obvious serious flaws. I would have recommended these had there not been considerably better on offer at £100 less (read on).
4. Nikon Monarch 7: From the off, these felt really nicely made, and were surprisingly light and compact for a 10 x 42. Again, not an open bridge design but felt very comfortable and of all bins on test, came most readily to the eye without any “faffing” around trying to get ocular centres and eye relief right. Impressive on first glance, but slightly fiddly I found to get precise focus, and when pointed to a branch silhouetted against an overcast sky, somewhat surprisingly for these new and supposedly improved bins (over the “5’s”) there was the tell tale tinge of chromatic aberrations evident which made them lose out to the Minox and Steiners on test. Image edge sharpness was very good compared to most on test though and they were nice and bright with good colour saturation and reasonably good detail resolution across the image. Field of view was pretty good too. Perhaps picking up a pair of now discounted Monarch 5’s might be money better spent? (I’ve seem comparable 5’s go for £220 new).
5. Minox BV 8 x 44. I’d heard some good things about these so really wanted to like them, and they really didn't disappoint. Optically, I’d say these were up there with the best in this group, and handled really nicely too. They feel quite substantial even though there’s not a lot between them and the Steiners or Vanguards. They are an open bridge design and fold up nice and compact for their size and come with some rubber objective covers held on with rubber-rings over the objectives with hinged individual caps which would undoubtedly eventually come off in the field, something to be aware of. They were the next most comfortable to bring up to the eye after the Nikons, and rewarded straight away with a bright, crisp image which had surprisingly good resolving power and low chromatic aberrations (less so than the Nikons on test) and with a decent field of view. I kept coming back to these as a sort of bench-mark against which the others were later judged, and that I think is a positive outcome. For the money, they were really quite exceptional. Edge sharpness was good and on an overcast day they rendered surprising detail from the shadows into distant woodland.
6. Steiner Skyhawk 3.0. These felt the best made of the lot. Attention to detail was evident everywhere. Fully armoured, waterproof, fog proof, fast focus (very smooth) control with click-stop dioptre adjustment (a nice touch meaning it can’t be accidentally knocked off), a very sensible rubber objective cover that won’t readily come off in the field, ocular eye cups and adjustable eye pieces ...the list goes on. They didn't come up as nicely to the eye as the Minox nor the Nikon and took some fiddling before I could get the ocular centres comfortable. This was a function of the eye cups which annoyingly need to be rotated to a specific location to suit each person before you’ll find a comfy and fast fit. They do, however, fold down out of the way, a must for glasses wearers.
Optically stunning for the money and easily the best in this group and, surprisingly I thought, by some large margin. Unbelievably good detail and contrast with almost negligible chromatic aberrations. Pointed towards gloomy woodlands, they were the only bins on test which not only penetrated the gloom but brought shaded objects into sharp relief. This is especially important for my usage since most of my stalking is in woodland. Tested against moderate 50 to 100 yard distances where my own eyesight simply couldn't pick detail out in the gloom of the overcast conditions against dense woodland, and much further than that to 300 yards these were a revelation and I could clearly see some distance into the woods. They were the best at pulling off this optical trick and when things started to darken down generally, they remained sharp and bright. My only gripe with the optics was that they suffered poor edge coma, where a fuzzy fringe was evident at the extremes which took on a yellowish tinge on the peripheral vision. However, I have looked through way more expensive optics which shared similar poor coma performance and take this as a compromise well worth putting up with for the central definition and indeed the 90 % of the image which was amazingly sharp.
7. Steiner Safari Ultrasharp: These were another pair of bins that I truly wanted to like as I've heard so many positive comments about them from fellow stalkers, and from reading on-line reviews. I was left very disappointed. They did not have the build quality of the pricier Skyhawk bins, and whilst the least expensive, certainly felt like it and performed like it. Optical quality was very poor, on a par with or worse perhaps than the entry level Kowas but without the redeeming central sharpness. I couldn't get a sharp image in overcast conditions at just about any range with these at all and some 30 yr old Pentax mini bino's I use as a back-up comprehensively wiped the floor with them. Perhaps they were a duff sample, who knows? They were immediately put to one side and I wasted no more time on them.
8. Vanguard Endeavour ED: I included these on the list as I have previous experience of Vanguard and have come to consider them as a really solid budget to mid priced performing brand. Chinese owned and now using Japanese quality optics in really well made Magnesium alloy bodies. Don’t let the Chinese origins put you off. I think that these are a smarter buy than Bushnells or Hawkes of equivalent money. I've had a pair of their Platinum Sieries MDT 8 x 32s for several years now (just up for sale!) and they have performed really well. These ED models use improved glass for ultra low chromatic aberration, and a nice bridge design making them feel more compact than their size suggests. These, the Nikons, Minox and Steiner Skyhawks are all much of a muchness on size and weight. Optically, I compared the EDs against my old Vanguard Platinum Series (themselves something of a bargain and a hidden gem when I bought them 4 years ago) and they were better. Not significantly, but subtly. At £100 more and a few years down the line I would have expected as much. In fact, they were easily on a par with the Nikon Monarch 7s although not quite as bright an image as the best on test here. I have found that some optics (Nightforce for one) don’t appear to be the brightest on test during an average sunny or partly cloudy day come into their own later on when they seem to retain detail and resolution beyond what others manage as the light drops. The Vanguards fall into this category. They were still reasonably bright and very crisp with no really notable aberrations and retained their sharpness across the full image, something that some more expensive optics failed to do here, and for that alone, they impressed. You could have whacked £200 or £300 per pair more on these and most people wouldn't even blink as they stand up very well to bins in the £300 to £500 category.
Summary and conclusions
The testing threw up a few surprises, not least of all the mediocre performance of entry level Kowas, the Hawkes failing to live up to the hype for me anyway (marketing?) and more especially just how much performance there is available from a few stand-out models. Now to put this in perspective, a few premium pairs were used as a benchmark and the only notable improvement, optically, over the best on test here, was that they retained their edge to edge sharpness without the same degree of edge coma, and without any evident central aberrations. You get what you pay for but it does appear that as glass quality improves on mid priced optics, the gap is slowly closing to the premium brands. This then boils down to the choices we each make. We can either buy the best for a lifetime of use (in which case save up and buy premium) or buy bino’s that’ll give little away on central sharpness and resolution and retain a good degree of brightness with decent light transmission and perhaps sacrifice a few features and the ultimate build of the premium brands. The best here do have BAK4 prisms and very high quality prism and lens coatings so do have impressive light transmission.
This is obviously a very subjective thing but my pick of the bunch was the Steiner Skyhawk 3.0 8x42 bino’s (closely followed by the Minox BV 8x44s). I bought the Steiners. They simply represented the best bang for the buck, seem to have the best resolution and low light performance, have the best list of features and whilst not optically perfect are as near as you’re ever going to get at or near the treble the price. In fact, I have never used a pair of binoculars much under a three figure price tag that really better them and that’s as much a surprise to me as likely to anyone reading this.
· Steiner Skyhawk 3.0 8x42;
· Minox BV 8 x 44;
· Vanguard Endeavour ED 8 x 42
For the money, any of the above would make for a decent pair of stalking bins. All have adequate low light performance, clarity, and build quality that would be up to the rigours of being bashed around in the field. The Kowa BD-XD 8 x 42s weren't bad and almost on a par with the Nikons but I felt that the Nikons had the edge on them in terms of build and were lighter. The Nikons didn't seem to me to be much of an improvement on the Monarch 5’s which can be had considerably cheaper now, so I didn't recommend those for that reason alone.
The more expensive Kowas, like the Nikons, simply failed to outperform the top three listed above and again, were more expensive.
Worst: A draw between the Kowa BD10 x 25 and the Steiner Safaris....my advice would be to save your hard earned and avoid these. They simply don’t have the optical quality.
I'm sure that there will be many who disagree with what I have written in part, but we all have different eyes, opinions on what matters. The surprisingly poor performance of the entry level Kowas AND that of the Steiner Safaris was reported back to the very kind donor for this mini review in case they were a duff sample.
There are others that could have made it onto this list such as the latest Bushnell HDs but opinions seemed split on those from other reviews so I only chose what I ended up wanting on my personal wish-list.
I hope that my sharing these thoughts might prove useful to one or two of you on the look- out for some decent mid priced bins and well done to anyone who managed to trawl through the above without nodding off!