The 19 Best Binoculars of 2018
Our test of the best new small-frame and midsize binos for hunters
We spent weeks with this field of hunting binoculars, using them the way you do: by strapping them to our chests and hiking all sorts of terrain. We also rated the optics on their ability to serve a hunter or shooter, which meant putting an emphasis on their durability, and versatility. Since optics are designed to help us see, we also scored image sharpness and cleanness on a standard resolution chart, and then tested their low-light visibility in the evenings. Here are the results.
The Best Small-Frame Binoculars
This gem of a short-range binocular conceals its significant optical horsepower and field-worthy balance behind a cloak of cool style. The CL Companion is handsome, with gray-on-graphite armor, modern lines, and an elegant case and strap system that would look right at home in a luxury resort cabin.
It’s also a workhorse. The Swarovski’s open-barrel design is quick to deploy, and it’s easily held and focused with a single hand, an important consideration for bowhunters, whose other hand is typically occupied with a bow. The infinitely adjustable eyecups stay put at any extension. The oversize focus knob is butter-smooth, precise, and easy to turn with a single finger, and the innovative push-to-turn center-dial diopter control is smart and compact. At just over a pound, the Companion is light and nimble.
The glass is very good and bright. It took second to Leica’s excellent 8×32 Trinovid in both resolution and low-light assessments. Testers noted its crisp edge-to-edge clarity and rich image.
Priced at more than $1,000, the Swarovski is not inexpensive, but its style, substance, and durability make it an investment that will pay dividends in many satisfying hunting seasons.
It’s hard to describe a $400 binocular as a bargain, but this 8×32 GPO actually is. Its premium extra-low-dispersion glass is a rarity at this price point, and its tight construction and precise handling make it a very useful and durable field optic. We liked its oversize focus wheel and compactness that enables one-hand operation. It tied with Swarovski’s Companion CL in low-light performance, and turned in a rich, contrasty image and the widest field of view in the compact binocular category.
The shortcomings of the GPO—the name stands for German Precision Optics, a bit of a misnomer since products are sourced from Asia—include a boxy, businesslike frame and some straying of the focus control. But the Passion’s solid construction, excellent glass, and no-questions warranty give it the value edge over optics that might cost less but won’t last as long.
Most parallel-hinge binoculars—two hinges aligned with each barrel of the bino—are little things, designed to fold into a package that could be slipped in a shirt pocket. Their undersize controls can be frustrating to deploy in the field, and their utility is usually as limited as their dimensions. Think teensy opera glasses, or plasticky travel binoculars.
This new optic from Bushnell has those two in-line hinges, but it’s 50 percent larger than most binoculars in the compact class, weighing just over 13 ounces. That’s a good thing, since size matters in glassing, and hand-filling heft is usually better than the alternative. Before getting into its attributes, a few complaints: The 10X magnification is better suited to larger-frame binoculars; the better magnification for this size is 8X. Second, the focus control is about 50 percent too small. And the 2-position eyecups are sloppy.
Mostly, though, the Forge is a solid freshman effort. The glass is very good, the close focus (5 feet) one of the best in the class, which makes the Bushnell a great choice for glassing up-close in addition to out-there. The coyote-brown finish is both handsome and grippy. And the handy size makes it easy to throw into a backpack, whether you’re out for the day or a longer trip. In sum, this would be a good archery or turkey optic for a hunter obsessed with weight and bulk.
This 10-ounce binocular is so light and flimsy-feeling that it might be dismissed as a toy. The image it produces—dark and flat, with some noticeable edge distortion—doesn’t help its stature as a field optic. What’s more, the very open double-hinge design almost makes the RD tough to hold with a single hand. But the Carson’s controls help salvage the binocular from the gimmick bin. The focus knob is tight and precise. The right-barrel diopter and 2-position eyecups glide into place as though they slide on polished rails.
We don’t know that we’d recommend this binocular to a sportsman or woman looking for a hard-wearing optic. But it’s serviceable, and at a price that is within reach of an awful lot of potential users.
The world has seen image stabilization in binoculars before now. A decade or so back, Canon brought us the first iteration of its IS binocular, which it continues to produce in several configurations. Nikon has an image-stabilized bino, and so does Zeiss, at the high end of the price range. All those brands developed the technology for their digital camera market, which is the origin of Fujifilm’s entry in the category: the Techno-Stabi.
As with cameras, the technology settles a moving image by counteracting motion with a sort of digital gyroscope, which feeds equal and opposite vertical and horizontal vibrations to the image so that it appears still, or at least less blurry. That’s measurable in photography. It’s a more difficult challenge in viewing, because there’s little baseline. Instead, image stabilization can make the image slightly darker and a bit less resolved because the gyroscope is always buzzing at its margins.
Maybe that’s why the Fujifilm scored near the bottom of both our low-light and resolution tests. The optic feels flimsy, and it emits a high-pitched whine when the stabilizer is turned on. You can use the binocular without the stabilization, but we actually measured an improvement in resolution when it was activated.
The bulbous body is awkward in hand, and the interpupilary distance of the distended eyepieces is hard to tune. We also questioned the Fujifilm’s durability. But for the latest iteration of a category of optics, it’s worth checking out the Techno-Stabi, especially if you’re viewing moving or erratic objects.
A compact powerhouse, this 10-power bino has decent glass inside a package that whispers “backcountry,” owing to its Sitka Subalpine camo treatment and small chassis. The Pro Guide HD comes with some great features, including a premium carry strap and nylon case. But at 17 ounces, it’s a handful, and the test team felt that the better magnification for the frame size is 8X (which Leupold makes in this model; the 10X version was submitted for our test).
Highlights included the very precise and positive pull-to-turn center-knob diopter adjustment and the oversized focus wheel. We also liked the 6-foot close-focus, which was one of the leaders in the small-frame class. Misses: the extremely shallow focal plane, indistinct positions of the 2-stage eyecups, and the BX-4’s significant weight. With the mid-barrel hinge, it’s hard to operate the Leupold with a single hand.
Still, the image is bright and crisp, with virtually no edge distortion and wonderful contrast in most light conditions. And the compact size would fit almost any hunting endeavor we could imagine.
You’ve seen this binocular before. The open-barrel twin-hinge design defined last year’s iteration of the Endeavor in the 10×42 configuration. Now the design is available in a small frame, which is so hand-filling and comfortable that you’ll want to carry it all day. The very good Hoya ED glass makes viewing almost as pleasurable as the handling of the Endeavor ED. Resolution and light-transmission performance were both good, and we loved the styling of the pebbly anthracite-gray finish.
Inside the works, we noticed some dust and smudging, which created some flaring from non-image-forming light, but our main complaint with the Vanguard were its controls. The focus knob is a little spongy, and we struggled to unlock and turn the right-barrel diopter ring. The 3-position eyecups are sloppy and indistinct.
If Vanguard tightens these controls, then we think the next iteration of the Endeavor ED could be a strong contender for our Great Buy award. It should get a close look by bowhunters who need a light, strong, and bright one-hand binocular.
The Best Midsize Binoculars
The price of this premium binocular puts it out of range for most folks, but the combination of world-leading optics and a fast, precise laser rangefinder softens the sticker shock for us.
This is a worthy addition to Leica’s venerable Geovid line. The biggest update is a faster, more powerful laser that reaches out to 3,000 yards (though in practical terms, 2,000 yards is a more realistic expectation) and works in concert with a ballistics calculator that contains profiles for 12 standard loads. Users also have the option of uploading custom ballistics through a micro-SD port. No matter the data source, the nearly instantaneous readout gives users a shooting solution based on holdover, click adjustment, or incline-adjusted range informed by the onboard environmental sensors, including temperature, barometric pressure, and angle.
All that computing horsepower doesn’t amount to much if you can’t see your target, but the Geovid’s image is at the head of its class. The Leica won our low-light test and turned in excellent resolution scores. Its field of view led the 10X field, and the Perger porro prism that gives the binocular its distinctive banana shape also gives it a very comfortable balance.
The two operational buttons, which control range and mode, are so close together that it takes some practice to get proficient with their use. And because the laser transmitter is located on the front of the hinge, in the spot where most binoculars have a tripod-mounting receiver, you need a separate accessory to mount the Geovid. That’s not a small consideration, since you’ll want to stabilize this optic for ranging out past about 1,000 yards.
The upstart company that brought us customizable optics—the ability to bling out a binocular—has introduced a dressed-down 8×42. You can’t mix and match your own furniture on the C.1. But what you get is a very good optic at about a third the price of Maven’s B.1. It sources the C.1 from the Philippines (the B.1 originates in Japan), and shaved both cost and weight with a polymer frame. The optics are bright and crisp, and the aluminum trim gives the C.1 a restrained but distinctive appearance.
This new entry in the premium (and highly competitive) European optics market has plenty going for it, including a very good image plus elegant and pleasing tactile touches. The barrels are covered with a leather-looking wrap that grabs the hand without feeling slick, and two thumb swells allow the hand to find and maintain balance so that the 2-pound binocular doesn’t feel that heavy.
Other tasty touches include textured knurling on the focus and right-barrel diopter control, a deluxe carrying strap, and a presentation box. In fact, the only element of the center-hinge Blaser that wasn’t spot-on was the 3-position eyecups, which adjust with a harsh grinding that’s out of character with the elegant responsiveness of the optic.
The focus is sharp. The image is picture-window wide and bright as a gem. The Primus scored near the top in both the resolution and low-light tests. Yes, the price is steep, but it’s not out of line with its peers. In all, the freshman effort is solid, and the Blaser is well-positioned to compete favorably with the rest of Europe’s varsity team, including Zeiss, Leica, and Swarovski.
The Burris was one of the surprises of this year’s optics test, turning in one of the best combinations of low-light and resolution scores in the mid-size bino field. Closer inspection of the effort was a bit disappointing, with noticeable edge distortion and a flat and washed-out image. (Consequently, you’ll see high empirical-testing scores but a middling “Image” score.)
Stylistically, this is a handsome optic. The coyote-tan armor is textured with a pleasing checkered pattern and topped with a flat-black cap that provides nice contrast, even if the cap is a bit too slick. The double-hinge design creates a great open bridge for one-hand operation.
Controls were solid, with welcome texturing on the focus wheel and right-barrel diopter wheel. We found the focus to be a bit spongy, but that’s a small ding on an otherwise high-performing binocular.
Bushnell’s new look offers a lot, which makes it easy to recommend. That includes the sharp-looking desert-brown armor of the Forge and the handsome contrasting black eyecups, hinge, and focus control. We also liked the oversized focus knob and the grabby finish on the textured chassis.
Maybe because our test sample was a prototype and not a finished production model, we had some difficulties with the functionality of the controls. Most notably, the center focus wheel was spongy and tended to stray, meaning that when we picked up the binocular after a period of inactivity, the focus wasn’t necessarily where we had left it. That’s a common (and admittedly small) problem with price-point binoculars, but we didn’t expect to see it on the Forge. We also noted that the eyecups were out of sync. On our sample, the right eyecup extended three clicks, the left only two. On the plus side, we very much liked the locking diopter control on the righthand barrel.
Optically, the Forge turned in decent resolution scores, but the low-light performance was at the lower end of the field of 10×42 submissions. While we like the open-hinge design and balance that enables one-hand operation, the entire binocular felt slightly flimsy.
This is one rotund optic, from the very round barrels to the extremely circular eyecups to the pregnant focus wheel. The test team was divided on the style; some liked the cylindrical flair, others thought the rounded profile hard to handle. For what it’s worth, the circular eyecups didn’t fit my face very well.
Other details were undisputed: the finely checkered chassis was overly slick, the tripod threads hard to reach behind the too-smooth and hard-to-remove cover, and the nicely textured focus wheel was a bit too tight and hard to turn.
Glass in the Krotos is good, with sharp edge detail and adequate resolution and good low-light performance. Other hits include the smart pull-to-turn center-wheel diopter control and the strong double-hinge design. We’re still not sure what the “dual ED glass” that Cabela’s advertises actually is, but this is a solid, durable optic that’s priced right. If not quite a square deal, at least we can say it’s a circular deal.
This lightweight (18-ounce) double-hinge, open-bridge binocular is easy on the neck, and at just under $200, it’s easy on the wallet, too. But it’s hard on the eyes. The Carson turned in one of the most disappointing resolution scores, and while it did better on our low-light test, we noticed significant edge distortion and some flaring, possibly owing to poorly coated internal lens surfaces.
Hits include the overlarge focus wheel, which turns easily and retains its focus. We also liked the easy-turning right-barrel diopter control and the grippy open barrels. The team had mixed perspectives on the RD’s light weight. Half felt that the weight indicated flimsy construction that could limit its durability; others felt like the weight reduction is an asset for pound-conscious backcountry hunters.
Given its optical quality scores, we’d recommend this as an adequate entry-level optic. Use it, abuse it, and we expect it will serve its owners well until they’re ready to step up to a higher-quality binocular.
One of the sharpest-looking binoculars in this year’s test, the Frontier is dressed with brushed-silver appointments that contrast nicely with the charcoal of the chassis and controls. Those controls are precise and positive, and testers noted that the focus dial does not stray, as is the case with most of the Hawke’s price-point peers. The team also appreciated the two-position eyecups, which have an aesthetically pleasing (and eye-fitting) taper.
The glass inside this tasty binocular is adequate, but not quite up to snuff with its exterior styling. The Frontier posted middling low-light scores and was in the middle of the pack in terms of resolution scoring. We noted some significant peripheral distortion but no flaring or color shift.
Priced at $350, the Frontier costs less than many Asian-sourced binoculars that aren’t nearly its equal in style or optical performance. In fact, many testers thought that the Frontier could command a couple hundred dollars more, a rare conclusion among the notoriously budget-minded testers.
If Leupold did two things with this otherwise sharp and solid binocular, the company would have a star on its hands. The first: tighten up the finicky and loose focus control. We had a hard time keeping the Santiam on target even when we were using it, and the focus tends to stray noticeably after a period of disuse. Second: make the price more in line with what this binocular represents, which is a very good, but not a premium, optic. We felt that the Santiam was priced several hundred dollars above its value.
While the Leupold scored in the upper half of the class on the resolution range and third from the top in the low-light test, testers reported eye fatigue after prolonged glassing sessions. That’s generally a symptom of either poor ergonomics or balance, and testers said they had to constantly fiddle with the focus control. Others said the square eyecups didn’t fit their eyes well. While we’re griping, we’d also like to see reference marks on the diopter control.
Some of the inflated pricing may be because the BX-5 Santiam is a little sibling to Leupold’s 15X Santiam, which as a niche optic can command a premium price. The 10×42 shares many attributes with its big brother: good glass and a very solid build. The gunmetal-gray of the chassis is handsome and the checkering is grippy. The double-hinge, open-barrel design is easy to hold and deploy.
A tale of two optics, the aggressive tactical styling of the Zulu5‘s exterior gave us hope for high-performance glass inside its angular exterior. Alas, the optics disappointed the team. The Zulu5 turned in the field’s lowest low-light score and below-average resolution scores. We recorded some edge distortion and poorly coated internal lens surfaces.
But that tactical exterior! The angular controls are distinctive and should appeal to would-be operators. The aggressive knobs actually serve a function: the center-hinge tripod adapter cover, often maddeningly hard to remove on other brands, is easy to turn on the open-barrel Sig. So is the focus wheel, which is unfortunately spongy and requires frequent tuning to keep the image in sharp focus. The deep texturing and square tubes are easy to hold and grip.
Priced under $300, the Sig is a decent value. Just know that you’re paying more for tactical styling than glass.
The latest binocular from this direct-to-consumer optics brand is built around Schott high-transmission glass, and the quality of the optics was confirmed on our resolution range. The Toric UHD turned in one of the best resolution scores in the field, and while its low-light performance was less impressive, it still finished in the top third of mid-sized submissions.
Tract’s attention to detail is evident in the smooth and precise workings of the controls, namely the right-barrel diopter, the focus knob, and the 3-position eyecups. Each control turns with enough resistance to keep it from straying, but each operates smoothly and without requiring an excess of effort.
We found a bit of edge distortion in the upper margin of the image, but overall, the Toric UHD delivers a sharp, bright, and contrasty image, and the binocular balances nicely in the hand. The exterior styling is a little dated, especially when compared with the more modern open-bridge design of many binoculars in this year’s test, and we’d like to see the focus wheel a couple millimeters larger, but those are puny criticisms for a very serviceable, priced-right binocular containing some of the best glass in the business.
Ever hefted a binocular and been surprised at its weight? We often get that tactile feedback with European-made optics; the weight is a function of the high lead content of the best-in-class glass. This 27-ounce Vanguard, made in China, has the same satisfying heft of a European binocular, probably owing to its Hoya ED glass, which is a step better than the glass used in most Chinese-sourced optics.
The glass is responsible for the Vanguard’s excellent showing in low-light evaluation. It turned in middling resolution scores and testers noted that the center of the image is much sharper than the periphery, a sign of inferior grinding. We also liked the pebbly texture, open-bridge design, locking diopter control, and rubber texture on the focus wheel. Less appealing were the squishy 3-position eyecups.
Note the price. At $300, this is a well-priced optic, especially considering the excellent glass in its handsome chassis.