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On the hunt for the best binoculars

Jul. 23, 2010 - 12:29PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 23, 2010 - 12:29PM  |  
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Looking through cheap binoculars can be like drinking cheap wine: It may get the job done, but it's rarely satisfying.

But stepping up a level or two in quality can greatly improve your outdoor experience. Hunters, in particular, value performance in those waning moments of light when the ability to accurately field-judge an animal can mean the difference between filling a tag and going home empty-handed.

Knowing this, manufacturers design special lens coatings. For example, Steiner's Predator C5 coatings are designed to block the colors of haze and foliage and enhance browns, reds and other wildlife colors.

The test

We assembled a diverse panel of demanding outdoor enthusiasts to lay hands and eyes on six binoculars most people can afford, ranging in price from $230 to $799, to assess their performance, look and feel. All binoculars evaluated were roof-prism design, with 10-power magnification and 42-millimeter fully multicoated objective lenses — desirable in a quality binocular.

This size of binocular is too big to fit in a shirt pocket but not too heavy to carry to a stand or a location where you'll spend some time glassing for game.

Panel members rated the binoculars from A to F, with a C-grade reflecting average, expected performance. The following areas were evaluated:

• Amenities such as carrying straps, cases and lens covers.

• Tactile comfort and balance in the hands, ergonomic design, ease and speed of focal adjustments, eye relief and eye cups.

• Daylight image sharpness across the entire field of view and contrast in ample light conditions.

• Low-light image, with readings taken every five minutes in the 30 minutes that followed sunset, typically the end of legal shooting time in most hunting situations. We pre-positioned three items at a pine forest wood line 225 yards distant, including a 3-D deer target with only one antler, a blaze orange hat and a wild turkey decoy. Ratings are based on which binocular maintained the sharpest image the latest into twilight.

• Perceived value based on performance, features and selling price.

One key attribute we couldn't test was durability. We suggest that you personally handle binoculars you're considering buying and closely evaluate warranties.

The testers

Our review panel consisted of Jeff Groh, a senior agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a lifelong outdoorsman and Western states hunting expert; Army Lt. Col. Jack Haefner, an engineer by profession and avid hunter; retired Maj. Herman Harke, a former Army Special Forces officer and competitive benchrest distance shooter; Virginia Conservation Police Officer Frank Spuchesi, a game warden and seasoned hunter who spends considerable time using binoculars on the job; and the author. Ë

The hardware

Prices are as advertised by retailers such as Cabela's or Bass Pro Shops at the time of the June test.

1. Bushnell Legend HD Ultra

Specs: RainGuard HD permanent water-repellant coating; 22.5 ounces; FOV at 1,000 yards is 340 feet; includes binocular harness (usually a $20-plus accessory with most binoculars); waterproof; locking diopter; rubber armoring with soft touch grips; black or realtree AP finish; limited lifetime warranty for defects in materials and workmanship for the lifetime of the original owner and full refund of purchase price within a year if dissatisfied.

Price: $299

Added features: A

Comfort and ergonomic design: B+

Daylight image: A-

Low-light image: B-

Value: B+

Comments: "Bushnell is often considered lower end, but looking through these, I was thinking, ‘Holy crap! These are good.'" Solid low-light performance. Clear images, but one reviewer perceived slightest blurring at the image edges. Support harness is a superb extra and a value plus. Ribbed sides make for easy handling.

2. Leupold Mojave

Specs: Cold mirror coated prisms; 23 ounces; FOV at 1,000 yards is 267 feet; twist-up eyecups; waterproof; rubber armoring in black or mossy oak treestand finish; locking diopter; warranted free of defects in materials and workmanship for as long as original owner owns them.

Price: $440

Added features: C

Comfort and ergonomic design: C+

Daylight image: B

Low-light image: B+

Value: B

Comments: Good edge-to-edge clarity. Very bright. Objective lens covers not attached and likely to get lost. Diopter adjustment position challenging, but serves to keep adjustment fixed to desired position.

3. Vortex Diamondback

Specs: Phase-correction prism coating; 24.4 ounces; waterproof and argon filled; FOV at 1,000 yards is 345 feet; rubber armor in dark green; multiposition eyecups; unlimited lifetime warranty with free repair or replacement for any reason.

Price: $230

Added features: C+

Comfort and ergonomic design: B

Daylight image: C

Low-light image: C+

Value: B-

Comments: Acceptable daylight clarity. Easy focus with sharp center, but two reviewers thought it seemed to blur rapidly. Focus wheel had some slight noise, smoothness issues. Knurled sides make for easy gripping. Low price and warranty help make it a value purchase option.

4. Nikon Monarch ATB

Specs: Dielectric high-reflective multilayer prism coating; 21.5 ounces; FOV at 1,000 yards is 288 feet; rubber armor coating in dark green or realtree all-purpose green HD; multisetting click-stop eye cups; waterproof, sealed and nitrogen filled; 25-year limited warranty and no-fault repair/replacement policy.

Price: $320

Added features: B-

Comfort and ergonomic design: B

Daylight image: B+

Low-light image: A-

Value: A-

Comments: Crisp, clean functionality. Excellent clarity all the way until dark. Easy and precise to focus, but narrow focus range. Lightest of the group and actually feel lighter than they are. Seems like a good buy. Excellent warranty with a proven brand.

5. Alpen Apex

Specs: HR metallic and PXA phase coated prisms; weighs 22 ounces; field of view at 1,000 yards is 315 feet; waterproof, sealed and nitrogen filled; pull-up, twist-lock eyecups; rubber armoring in green or mossy oak finish; lifetime warranty against manufacturing and workmanship defects.

Price: $299

Added features: B

Comfort and ergonomic design: B+

Daylight image: B

Low-light image: C+

Value: B

Reviewer comments: Good size and fit. Very nice daylight clarity. Ribbed design with finger grooves made handling easy. Smooth focusing. A nice product for the cost.

6. Steiner Predator C5

Specs: Silver mirror coatings with selected dielectric coating applications to prism phase-corrected optics; 26.6 ounces; waterproof and nitrogen pressurized; rigid polycarbonate, shockproof chassis; rain guards for ocular eyepiece; FOV at 1,000 yards is 315 feet; mil spec; 30-year limited warranty.

Price: $799

Added features: A-

Comfort and ergonomic design: C+

Daylight image: C+

Low-light image: A-

Value: C+

Comments: Good focus wheel ergonomics. Precise in daylight and extreme low light. Unremarkable neck strap for cost. Sturdy feel. Heaviest item reviewed, but the only mil-spec tested product. Finger grooves assisted with handling. Proven brand. A quality binocular, but expected given the price.

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