Favourite binoculars 2020
You live, you learn. Few binoculars keep impressing me over the years. Then there is the seduction of new models and the technological progress they seem to bring. I constantly evolve the lens selection I use for my work, because it is necessary, and my binocular selection, because I need to know...
The priorities which affect the choice of a model change with experience, mood, and my work. The Leica Ultravid 8x32HD+ is such a beautiful, tiny glass and my everyday companion, but for long days of chasing wildlife it is not the best glass.
Anyway, these are my personal favourites at the moment:
1. Swarovski SLC 8x42
If I could only keep one binocular, it would be the SLC.
This came as a big surprise, as I was not too enthusiastic about the sample I had in 2015. I got the SLC as an accident almost, as I had ordered a demo of the previous model, the SLC HD, but that was a mistake in the description, and the SLC WB arrived...
The SLC has truly unique properties, and the view just makes me sing - deeply threedimensional, bright, glowing, friendly, inviting. The most immersive view in 8x42s. Flare performance in bright backlight is poor though.
Compared with my favourite Ultravids, aberration control (except field curvature) is even better, making this a very clean and easy view. Apparent field of view is a bit wider, too. There is a stronger colour bias than in the Ultravids, a yellow green one, but very cleverly implemented to extremely boost perceived contrast and brightness. Leica colours are a bit nicer, but their view is necessarily less glowing, quite a bit darker.
You can´t have it all.
Unlike the Ultravids, this is a glass I can finally recommend to anyone, hunters, birders, spectacle wearers...
2. Leica Ultravid 7x42 HD Plus
Ironically, I no longer own this glass, but want to buy one again - as the Noctivid 8x42 has lost the Leica magic and is no substitute for the UV 7x42. The view is a revelation. The contrast, the colours, the ease of view. Everything just a league above most 8x42s.
This glass has two issues - minimum focusing distance of 3.3 meters and some peripheral flare. The Nikon EDG solves these problems successfully, but does not have the excellent threedimensionality of the Ultravid, so it boils down to what is really more important - 3D and Leica magic vs. the totally clean transparency of the Nikon.
What a beautiful image from a beautiful glass. I may also have another look at the UV 8x42, which is even smaller and has a better minimum focus distance, although it cannot quite match the 7x42s overall performance.
3. Leica Ultravid 8x32 HD Plus
This is a glass that wows me everytime I use it. Superb performance in an incredibly tiny package. If another glass has as much contrast, as great colours and as fine 3D high fidelity as this dwarf it must be a great one.
Fell in love with this powerful glass when reviewing it in 2015. I finally gave up resisting and bought my own one in spring 2018. As obviously the best bin is the one you have with you, the little Leica is easily one of the best of the whole lot. It fits in any pocket - a pocket glass on steroids really - and nicely into my midsized hands. And all at 535 grams. I use it daily - almost. And, thanks to my wife, I now have a custom made leather pouch for it that makes using this glass even faster and more comfortable. More on that another time.
For a while this was even my reference glass for contrast, and it still surprises me how well it holds up even against the Nikon EDG. But I also struggle with this glass a bit, its ease of view naturally cannot match a 7 or 8x42. The Leica is unforgiving both for eye relief distance and interpupillary distance. One reason is it is very tightly baffled, for good flare suppression, but that decreases ease of view quite a bit (the Swaro SV 8x32 does it the other way round - no baffling, great ease of view, but oh, the flare...). The baffling clearly introduces artificial vignetting and makes the view nervous by torturing the light rays. The Leica is very contrasty, with darkest blacks and with the most lovely, saturated colours over the whole spectrum - also the deep blues of shadows which I miss in some other glasses. Leica beauty. Build quality and industrial design are top notch.
A special feature is the close up performance, this glass as well as the Noctivid are just superb in extreme close ups, testimony to Leica´s impeccable collimation.
Leica claims an eye relief of 13.3mm, but I measured a solid 15mm. But I would advise any spectacle wearers against buying this glass, it will surely vignette and be very difficult to use, although two of my family member wear spectacles and they and the rest of my pack all love this glass - maybe because this is what I carry when on a vacation or a sunday walk.
Having shortly used the new Swaro CL 8x30 - ease of view is probably better, but the CL does not have the superb macro capabilities and flare suppression of the Leica. And it is probably bigger than the Leica.
3D high fidelity of this tiny glass just blows away the Noctivid and Nikon EDG. Quite shocking. Blessed be the curved field.
When my friend J. wanted to complement his 35 year old Dialyt 8x56 with something smaller he ordered both the EDG 8x42 and the Leica UV 8x32 and we tested them one afternoon against my bins. This was a good opportunity to test sample variation and we were happy to see that both samples of either type were undistinguishable optically, with slight mechanical variations.
He kept the Leica.
4. Zeiss Victory Pocket 8x25
I don´t own this glass yet but bought one for a friend and it really blew me away, so I will depart from my usual methodology - I did not compare it to any competitor and only played around with it for an hour!
Congrats to Zeiss! This is a truly great glass and that´s really self-evident. I could hardly believe what I saw - the contrast, the brightness, the colour intensity of the images. Ease of view felt incredible for a 25mm exit pupil even in the subdued indoor light. Mechanically fine, too. 290g. Ergonomy due to the asymmetric one hinge design is way better than in the competitors from Leica and Swarovski with their two hinge designs.
The only drawback I saw was the strong flaring in backlight, but a shielding hand can help with that most of the time. Also, if you need to focus with your left hand, the asymmetric design is not for you.
Price-performance ratio is superb (EUR 575, and we had just missed another EUR 50 cashback from Zeiss...)
This is the glass which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who is short of money but wants premium quality. Or just wants a really small glass.
Honorable mention: Swarovski Habicht 8x30 (2009)
I have to admit I mostly use the Leica 8x32 instead of the Habicht these days, due to better flare supression, better close up performance and the much smaller size.
The view can be totally state-of-the-art transparent (Gijs van Ginkel measured a transmission of 96%). On axis, contrast is reference. But the 8x30 is plagued by a strong tendency for crescent flares and ghosting (much less so for veiling glare though) due to non sufficient internal baffling. It´s a shame that Swarovski does not improve on this, although their marketing slogan for the Habicht line is: "a fond tradition"/"conscious of tradition". The 10x40 Habicht is said to be more resistant to flare, and might be a better choice.
The 8x30 Habicht is the glass which, even in its much inferior version from 1961, sparked my interest in binoculars. So yes, I am still very fond of this Austrian jewel although it is a glass for specialists. Most others would probably be happier with a Zeiss 8x25 or a 8x32 roof.
Honorable mention: Zeiss Victory FL 7x42
The brightest, sharpest, probably contrastiest, with widest field of view, amost absent chromatic aberration, and the most threedimensional image in any roof prism I used. Ease of view is not great, probably also due to strong aberrations towards the edge of the field. I doubt the 8x42 HT is significantliy brighter. I love the mechanics, too - really a wonderful Zeiss worthy industrial design, compact, and perfect in my hands. The plastic shell feels warm and velvety. Hinge friction and focuser are as good as it gets.
Main issue is that beyond the central 50% of the field the image gets soft due to increasing aberrations, especially astigmatism. The much more conservatively designed Leica Ultravid 7x42 behaves better in that respect - refocusing, you can even get the edges reasonably sharp, which is not possible with the Zeiss. The Victory´s spectacular specifications seem to be a bit of an overstretch from the optical design point of view (same with the Zeiss 8x42 SF). So ease of view in the Victory is far inferior to the more modest Leica 7x42 and that was the reason why I finally sold the Victory. Same happened with the otherwise fabulous Zeiss 8x42 HT - the Leica competitor had a much easier view. Why the Zeiss Victories behave like that I don´t know - maybe it´s in the eye piece design, maybe it´s in the aberrations - or is it just me? It is a telling fact though that the Dialyt 7x42 is still very much sought after especially due to legendary ease of view. I also suspect that the massive Zeiss quality control problems already started with the Victory FLs and that there are a lot of lemon FLs and even more HTs on the used market.
And then, the colour reproduction. Coatings are high intensity purple and a bit of blue - see above - suggest the image should be on the yellowgreen side (some - like Roger Vine - say bluegreen). Anyway colours still puzzle me, I feel just a bit paranoid about them, but it might be the main factor is actually the high brightness which necessarily decreases colour saturation. It is hard to compare with the much darker Leica Ultravid. Although I miss some magenta/red in the Zeiss, I even more miss the "shadow blues", like leaves in the shade reflecting a blue sky. Which sparkle in the Leica and are just a bit of a colder green in the Zeiss. Then again, comparing to the extremely bright 8x30 Habicht, I think well maybe I am just wrong. But then I take a Leica and a deep breath enjoying the colours...
Would be interesting to compare the Zeiss colour reproduction with Swarovskis latest SLC glasses which seem to feature a similar, although less intense colour spectrum of the coatings. Basically it is about boosting perceived contrast with a slight green tinge, which is good for hunting purposes, but not for nature observation.
I am glad to say that I recently played around with a good sample of the SF8x42 MK2, which seems much improved to its predecessor, especially in colour reproduction.