The Best Binoculars of 2017
A return to traditional design and performance in a value-packed field of binoculars
Binoculars haven’t changed much in a hundred years. They remain, at their essence, portable parallel tubes that magnify and brighten distant objects. While electronics (in the form of integrated laser rangefinders) have made recent appearances in the category, evolution in the ecosystem of binoculars is slow.
Besides cosmetic changes—a fresh style of eyecup here or a new armor texture there—this year’s crop of binoculars is functionally identical. There isn’t a rangefinding bino in the bunch.
That’s not to say there’s nothing remarkable. We tested some of the finest binoculars in the 14-year history of our evaluation, and we uncovered some screaming deals. But performance boosts were achieved with advances in optical coatings and new types of glass that allow more light transmission.
So if you’re looking for a hunting tool that can shrink distance, extend daylight, and solve mysteries (is that a drop tine or a tree branch?), there’s a binocular for every type of hunter and every budget.
Measuring only 5 ½ inches long, this new Nikon delivers a lot of optical horsepower in a compact and lightweight package. And what an elegant package it is. The Monarch HG has a number of stylistic features that reminded us of the last premium Nikon binocular: the EDG. There’s the pebbled-rubber armor, the finely turned eyecups, and the Euro-style metal objective lens rings. The Monarch delivers an image on par with the premium furnishings. The “field-flattener” lenses widen the field of view and reduce peripheral distortion.
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If this japanese-made binocular looks European, that’s entirely intentional. It’s the first full-size bino from a new brand that hopes to marry European style and optical performance with retail prices achievable from the lower production costs of Asian partners. The Passion looks, feels, and performs like a higher-end European binocular. The machined aluminum eyecups are first-rate and the controls are tight and precise. The glass is excellent. The price is a bargain for an optic of this quality, especially considering the fully transferrable lifetime warranty.
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The latest product from this direct-to-consumer optics brand is a big 15X configured for open-country hunters. The B.4’s lightweight polymer chassis makes it lighter than it looks, and a mid-frame ridge offers great purchase for those who hand-hold the binocular. While our test model was in plain black and gray, buyers can dress this optic up in their choice of camo patterns and colors for an additional fee. The optics were a little disappointing, and testers gave demerits for the boxy, overlarge eyecups. But the price is fair for a big, albeit niche, bino.
Last year’s great buy award in the binocular category went to Tract’s freshman Toric. This year’s Tekoa has many of its predecessor’s award-winning attributes: bright glass, premium coatings, precise controls, sweet eyecups, and a best-in-class warranty. The Tekoa, though, is built on a polycarb chassis, so it’s light enough to carry on long, arduous hunts, but stiff enough to be durable. The handsome granite-gray bino finished near the top of this year’s value standings, our benchmark for Great Buy award recognition.
This mechanically elegant and supremely bright 10×42 is among the finest hunting optics we’ve ever tested, every bit as good as Editor’s Choice binoculars from previous years, including Zeiss’ Victory HT, Swarovski’s EL, and the Trinovid HD, also from Leica.
Inside the lustrous black chassis of the Noctivid is a ton of sophisticated optical technology, including high-transmission Schott glass and plasma-coated lenses. The fluid precision of the mechanical parts of the Leica—the positive, locking eyecups; the smooth and exacting focus wheel; and the locking center-dial diopter control—made this the favorite of the test team.
The crisp, high-contrast image produced by the bino is as sharp as its external appearance. The Noctivid won our resolution test and received the top score in the image-quality category. As one tester noted, “The image is more three-dimensional than I’m used to seeing through a binocular.”
At $2,700, the German-made Leica is pricey, but the quality of the build and the image it produces make this an investment-grade binocular, one that you will get years of enjoyment from before passing it on to the next delighted user.
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We expected this boxy, two-tone binocular from Cabela’s to cost so much more than its asking price of $190. Mechanically and stylistically, it seems like an optic that might compete with $1,000 offerings from European brands. We liked the Intensity’s crisp two-position eyecups and oversize focus wheel, front-hinge tripod adapter, fine balance and hand-gripping texture, and high-quality nylon carry case. By delivering all those features for under $200, the Cabela’s bino wins our Great Buy award.
Unfortunately, the glass inside the charming chassis isn’t award-worthy. The image, murky and fuzzy on the edges, is in line with the bino’s price. The Intensity finished near the bottom of our resolution and low-light tests, which drove down its overall score.
Its optical performance notwithstanding, we still felt there was enough value in this package to make this a very good deal, and a binocular we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a beginning hunter.
This light and bright binocular is built around extra-low-dispersion (ED) glass. We liked the image, especially the clear periphery, and we loved the aggressive open-hinge design that enables one-hand operation. Other nice touches are the oversize focus wheel, the center-hinge locking diopter control, and the lovely nylon carry case. But the focus wheel is spongy, and the eyecups felt flimsy and imprecise. Although the optics are solid, the Vanguard finished in the middle of the field in resolution and low-light performance.
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This is a supersized binocular suited to glassing distant targets for long periods of time. The double-hinge design creates a nice space for hands to hold it, but you will probably want to mount this 3-pound Leupold on a tripod. The mounting bracket is smartly located on the inside hinge of the Leupold (see Innovations, right). Hits: tight controls, the battleship-gray armor, the webby texture that wraps the aluminum-alloy chassis, and the first-rate carry case and neck strap. Misses: disappointing resolution and image quality.
Oculus packs a number of premium features in this compact, hand-filling 42mm binocular, including a tripod adapter, thumb detents on the underside of the barrels, a very precise clicking diopter control, and a cushioned nylon case. The optics, delivered through “ultra high-definition” glass inside the magnesium-alloy chassis, are solid, finishing in the middle of our full-size field. Our quibble is with the controls. The closed center hinge is so stiff it takes some serious work to spread the barrels, and the focus wheel is spongy.
A company better known for digital imaging has entered the sports optics business with this binocular. Some testers were put off by the “plastic-y” feel of the KF and the durability score—one of the lowest in the test—reflects that. The optics are disappointing for a company on the leading edge of lens technology; the Fujifilm trailed the field in resolution and low-light performance. On the other hand, we liked the price and the portability of the aluminum-alloy chassis. The clicking center-wheel diopter is a nice touch.
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Cabela’s has produced a little gem of a binocular that would be at home in a turkey vest or a treestand. It’s a true pocket optic, with double hinges that fold the bino into the size of a deck of cards but expand to offer good purchase for your hands and an image that seems large, thanks to premium HD glass. The eyecups are a little fussy, but that’s a small ding for a bargain optic.
Compact binoculars have a tough job. Their glass must be clear enough to transmit images through relatively small objective lenses, and their sized-down controls need to be tight and precise to work within the smaller frame. This Leupold gets those details right. The controls are nice, the image is bright and big for the compact platform, and we really liked the close focus. The Tioga got the highest durability score in the category, and it has a lifetime transferrable warranty should you need it.
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The little brother to the underwhelming 10×42 submitted in the full-size category, this 8×32 charmed the test team with its compactness and relatively better optics. Like on the full-size Fujifilm, the chassis of the mid-size KF feels flimsy, and the boxy style seems retro without the cool. On the upside, the testers liked the four-position eyecups and the overall balance of the open-bridge design. Very good image scores—including low-light brightness—elevated the KF’s ranking.
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This double-hinge pocket binocular would make a good travel optic, but it had enough shortcomings—uncoated lenses, dust in the interior, and a maddeningly tiny focus wheel—that the panel worried about its durability and overall suitability as a hunting tool. A few testers, though, noted the weight (10 ounces) and suggested that the Hawke is a good go-anywhere optic that could be pulled out when you need it. The price is right, but we’d probably opt for the 8X in this platform.
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|Full-Size Binoculars||Lecia Noctivid||Nikon Monarch HG||GPO Passion HD||Maven B.4||Cabela’s Intensity HD|
|Full-Size Binoculars||Tract Tekoa HD||Vanguard Endeavor ED IV||Leupold Santiam HD||Oculus Phaze||Fujifilm KF|
|Mid-Size Binoculars||Leupold Tioga HD||Cabela’s Intensity HD||Fujifilm KF||Hawke Vantage|
How We Test
Spend some time in a sporting goods store, and you’ll see how most hunters pick a binocular or riflescope. They roll the bino’s focus knob and click the scope’s turrets. They he the optic and assess its logo and finish. And then they glass a taxidermy deer on a far wall of the store.
That’s not much to go on, and a lousy assessment of an optic’s best asset: the glass inside its tubes. That’s where Out- door Life’s annual Optics Test can help. We rst measure the optical clarity of a bin- ocular or riflescope on a resolution range. Then our test team (for personnel, see p. 54) measures how late into the darkness the submissions can see a black-and-white target (we do this on three separate eve- nings and average the results). We then peer into the guts of the optic with ash- lights, assessing internal lens coatings and quality of construction. We shoot with the riflescopes to assess their reticles and turrets. We glass with binoculars. We rate products on repeatable measurements of optical and mechanical capability and on subjective assessments of performance. We also assign a value score to each optic; the product with the best value score wins our Great Buy award. The top overall score in each category gets our Editor’s Choice award.
Kahles 624I 6-24X56