How to Choose a Pair of Binoculars
The top performers in our review are the Celestron Nature DX 12x56, the Gold Award winner; the Vanguard Spirit XF 1042, the Silver Award winner; and the Leupold BX-1 McKenzie, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a pair of binoculars to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 15 binoculars.
Binoculars are amazing tools that nearly everyone can get use out of, whether you're a birdwatcher, boater, hunter, traveler, stargazer, sport enthusiasts or any number of things. Binoculars bring you closer to the world around you, whether you're viewing from the stands, the trail or a boat.
Binoculars, however, are not a one-size-fits-all product. What appear to be minor differences can be the difference between enjoying an activity and being actively frustrated by it. While you read our reviews of the best binoculars, make sure you know what kind of binoculars are best for you and your favorite activities. For more information, check out our articles on binoculars.
Which Pair of Binoculars Is Right for You?
Chances are, when you're looking for the right binoculars, you have a specific activity or two in mind. You may be a sports junky who wants the best view at the stadium, an avid birdwatcher who needs a new pair of binoculars, or a hunter who prefers using both eyes instead of a scope. Many people make the mistake of assuming all binoculars are alike and any pair of binoculars will work for any given situation. In reality, binoculars are vastly different from one another, and the right pair for you depends on the activities you enjoy.
As all hunters know, dusk and dawn provide some of the best times to capture game in action. For this reason, the best binoculars for hunters provide sharp, bright images in low light settings. While you search for binoculars to use on the hunt, look for a pair with a large objective lens, as this captures what light is available and directs it to your eye. Objective lenses between 42 and 50 millimeters serve this need. Lower-powered binoculars, between 7x and 10x magnification, allow you to see a wide field of view, which is beneficial because you can see more of the field and maintain a steady image.
As with hunting binoculars, the best optics for birdwatching don't necessarily have high magnification. The wider field of view you get with low-powered binoculars lets you easily spot birds in flight and avoid shaky images. Many birders prefer 8x or 10x magnification for sharp, bright images with a wide field of view. Another element to consider when looking for the best birding binoculars is the ease of use. Birds are fast, and you don't want to waste time adjusting your binoculars to view them in detail. Make sure your birdwatching binoculars are easy to adjust so you can do so quickly.
If you want the best pair of traveling binoculars for when you're on the road, hiking or on vacation, make sure the binoculars are compact and rugged. Whether you're carrying them around your neck on the trail or stowing them away in your carry-on luggage, your traveling binoculars should be able to survive a bump or two along the road. Also look for lightweight binoculars that won't weigh down your luggage or cause a neck strap to dig into your skin.
If long-range landscape viewing is what you're after, make sure the binoculars are tripod adaptable. The biggest issue you'll run into when using 12x and higher-powered binoculars is image stability. The higher the magnification, the shakier the images appear when you use the binoculars by hand. Tripods become necessary for nighttime viewing or astronomy gazing, as even the steadiest hand can cause too much movement to capture the little light that is available.
Binoculars: What We Tested, What We Found
We had a group of test subjects use and examine every pair of binoculars we reviewed to determine the optical quality and overall usability of each eyepiece. We conducted a survey in which test subjects evaluated numerous specific optical qualities, allowing us to separate the best binoculars from the worst in terms of optical quality. We gave each pair of binoculars we reviewed a letter grade correlating with the optical experiences our test subjects had.
Our survey also addressed the ease of use of each pair of binoculars. Although all binoculars are designed with the same intent, not all have the same level of usability. You may find yourself struggling to adjust the focus on one pair of binoculars, the diopter on another and so on. Other considerations are the weight of a pair of binoculars and how comfortable it is to hold after using it for a while. We collected our survey results and based a letter grade on how easy each pair of binoculars was to use. It's important to note that, as with any type of survey, your actual experiences may differ.
During our evaluation process, we found most companies list the interpupillary distance, the distance between your two pupils, on their specifications pages to give you an idea of whether or not you can look through both eyepieces clearly and comfortably. This isn't something you have to worry too much about, as binocular manufacturers know that if most people can't look through their optics, they won't sell many binoculars. Unless you know you have a longer or shorter interpupillary distance than average, you'll generally be able to look through both eyepieces at the same time. None of our test subjects experienced any problems viewing objects due to interpupillary distances.
What Should You Look for in a Pair of Binoculars?
The specifics of a given pair of binoculars can vary greatly, depending on its primary purpose. However, there are a few common elements among binoculars that you should keep in mind before clicking the buy button. The most important factor to consider is the optical specifications and qualities of each pair you're interested in. Next, examine the design elements of the binoculars to make sure they are as durable or as portable as you need. Finally, make sure the company has enough support options available so you can contact it if you run into any issues or have any pressing questions.
Optics & Viewing
Binoculars always have two numbers listed somewhere in the name or at the top of the specs sheet, such as 10x42, 9x32 or 12x56. These numbers identify two important specifications – the first representing the power, or magnification, and the second being the size of the objective lens. So, a 10x42 pair of binoculars make images appear 10 times closer than what you can see with the naked eye, and the objective lenses, the lenses furthest away from your eyes, are 42 millimeters in diameter, capturing the incoming light and helping determine how bright images appear.
One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced binocular buyers make is assuming higher magnification makes a better pair of binoculars. The magnification you need depends on what you want to use the binoculars for. Low-powered binoculars, ranging from 6x to 10x magnification, are best for most outdoor activities, sporting events and situations in which you want to watch fast-paced action. Higher magnifications are best for long-range hunting, landscape viewing and stargazing.
Larger objective lenses don't necessarily make better binoculars either. If you plan on using binoculars in low light settings, such as hunting in the early morning, look for larger objective lenses, as they result in brighter images. If you plan on using binoculars primarily in well-lit areas, such as at sporting events, a smaller objective lens will work perfectly well.
The magnification and objective lenses form the basis of a number of other specifications, such as exit pupils, relative brightness and twilight factor. These three specifications are based on three different formulas involving the magnification and objective lens of the binoculars, and all of them are a relative method of determining how bright images appear as you use the optics. If you need to use binoculars in low light settings, such as for hunting in the early morning, look for a pair that has higher exit pupil, relative brightness and twilight factor specifications.
If you plan on using the binoculars to watch sporting games at the stadium or to keep track of agile wildlife, make sure your pair has a wide field of view. This number correlates to the viewing distance across the field at 1,000 meters. In other words, the higher your field of view, the more you can see in the binoculars from edge to edge. Higher fields of view are critical to keep track of where your favorite player is, where the ball is going, what the birds are doing and so on. If you don't plan on using binoculars to keep track of fast movement, such as for stargazing or landscape viewing, you don't need a particularly wide field of view. In general, the higher field of view you have, the lower the magnification, and vice versa.
Other optical factors to pay attention to are the types of reflective prisms the pair uses and whether or not the lenses are multicoated. First, look for binoculars that use BAK-4 prisms. BAK-4 is a type of glass that is used in most high-end binoculars these days because it creates bright, crisp and clear images. Also, make sure the lenses are multicoated, as this allows more light to pass through the lenses instead of reflecting off of them. This results in clearer, sharper images.
Design & Usability
The design of each pair of binoculars plays a major role in what types of activities it is best suited for. First, consider the weight of binoculars that catch your eye, as heavier optics can cause arm or hand fatigue in a surprisingly short time. Some binoculars are heavy enough to warrant the use of a tripod, which not only relieves your arms but also makes images very stable. If you want to use a tripod with your binoculars, make sure the optics are capable of being properly adapted and mounted to a tripod. Most binoculars are tripod adaptable, but not all.
Also look for a specification called eye relief. This design element tells you how far away your eyes need to be in order to see objects at the full viewing angle. In general, the higher the eye relief, or the further away your eye must be from the lenses, the lower your field of view will be.
While checking out different binoculars, you will notice the terms "roof prism" and "Porro prism" pop up. These two terms refer to the type of prism used to reflect light to your eye. Roof prisms are newer innovations that allow binoculars to use a straight barrel, which typically allows for a lighter overall design. Porro prisms have the distinctive zigzag shape, giving the binoculars a traditional look. It's arguable whether one prism design produces better optical quality or not. Lens and prism coatings are a better indicator of overall optical strengths and weaknesses.
If you want to use your binoculars out in the field when you are camping, hiking, hunting and so on, make sure certain design elements are present to protect them. All of the binoculars we reviewed have some type of rubber armor to protect the optics, but not all binoculars are waterproof or fogproof. These two design elements can save you from having to replace an otherwise perfect pair of binoculars. Water damage can cause permanent fuzziness, making the eyepiece worthless. If you plan on using your binoculars in wet conditions or where it may rain, make sure they have these two design elements. If you are looking for binoculars to use out on the open water, look for marine binoculars, which are waterproof and can often float. Also, look for binoculars that have lens caps to help protect the lenses when they are not in use.
Most of the binoculars we reviewed include twist-up eyecups, which means you can easily adjust how far away your eyes are from the optics. If you wear glasses, you can twist the eyecups down to their lowest position, as if you were getting ready to store them in their carrying bag, so you can wear your eyeglasses while using the binoculars. The twist-up eyecup design replaces the older method, which is to fold a rubber ring out of the way, taking a little more time. Twist-up eyecups are convenient and fast, so you don't have to deal with the hassle of folding rubber eyecups out of the way every time you use the binoculars.
Help & Support
While you look for the best pair of binoculars, make sure to check out the warranties for the ones you're interested in. Many companies offer a lifetime warranty that protects you against manufacturer defects but doesn't cover the damage of normal wear and tear. In case you have problems with the product, look for a manufacturer that offers numerous options to reach customer support. Most companies offer email and telephone support, so you can ask lengthy or detailed questions through email or speak to someone directly over the phone. Some companies even offer live chat support, which allows you both to type out long or complex questions and to get answers fast. Check to see if the company has a FAQs page on its website as well. These pages can be extremely helpful, especially if you need an immediate answer to a basic question.
Binoculars: Our Verdict & Recommendations
During our hunt for the best pair of binoculars, we found that the Celestron Nature DX 12x56, the Vanguard Spirit XF 1042and the Leupold BX-1 McKenzie are the three best on the market today. These three binoculars are well-rounded, durable and precise eyepieces that meet the needs of several activities.
The Celestron Nature DX 12x56 is designed for those who love the outdoors and want to be a bit closer to the nature around them. These binoculars work for most other situations as well because of their durable design, excellent optical quality and extensive support options. However, with 12x magnification, these binoculars aren't the best at capturing fast action, so birdwatching is difficult with them. On the other hand, viewing nature and larger wildlife with these binoculars will be an experience unlike any other.
The Vanguard Spirit XF 1042 is another pair of binoculars that lends itself well to the great outdoors. The optical quality of these binoculars is exquisite, and they are easy to handle. The binoculars have 10x magnification, which gives them a relatively wide field of view. This combination makes these binoculars great for birdwatching, as you'll be able to spot even the quickest birds with them. The binoculars are also waterproof and fogproof, so you can take them on hikes or camping trips and not worry about damaging them with a little water.
Finally, the Leupold BX-1 McKenzie is designed for tracking game while you hunt. This pair of binoculars has a respectable field of view, which allows you to spot or track animals out on the field without having to move it too much. The objective lens is 42 millimeters in diameter, which allows more light to enter the binoculars, even at dusk or dawn. The Leupold BX-1 McKenzie has a durable design, so you can take it to rugged places without worrying about permanently damaging the optics.