2014 Optics Test: OL Reviews and Ranks the Best New Scopes, Spotters, and Binoculars

This is the year of the riflescope. Optics companies have figured out that there’s just not much they can do … Continued

This is the year of the riflescope. Optics companies have figured out that there’s just not much they can do to improve a 10×42 binocular. Sure, they can add a laser rangefinder, or enhance the optical coatings or rubber armor. But when an open-hinge body or a softer eyecup passes for innovation, we have reached the latter days of progress.

But riflescopes continue to evolve as we shooters demand more from our gun-mounted optics. Reticle design, magnification range, and purpose-built controls are all trending toward filling certain narrow niches. It won’t be long before you’ll be demanding–and the market will be producing–a riflescope configured for the precise capabilities of the rifle on which you intend to mount it.

Some of these niche scopes are very good at addressing the specific shooting challenges for which they are intended: Leupold’s stunning VX-6–configured for F-Class competition, with a magnification that zooms from 7X to 42X–is a good example. Others are Weaver’s Kaspa, with a turkey-head reticle, Bushnell’s new first-focal-plane Elite Long Range Hunter, and the fine illuminated reticle in Meopta’s new low-magnification Meostar R2.

But the other noteworthy evolution of the riflescope is in the opposite direction–toward ever-wider utility–and the scopes that earned our highest scores this year are those that can be employed for any number of shooting situations. The best sign of progress: Many are raging bargains. These include the Vortex Diamondback ($420), Nikon’s Prostaff 5 ($400), and the Minox ZA5 ($619).

The binoculars that turned our heads wore similarly modest price tags. Over the last few years, optics prices have been far outpacing the cost of inflation, as ED glass, space-age coatings, and complicated mechanics have dominated the field. It was refreshing this year to see a return to attainable quality. Bushnell’s Excursion HD ($200), Nikon’s Monarch 5 ($329), Vanguard’s 8×32 Endeavor ($400), and even the porro-prism Pursuit ($90) are indications that you don’t have to pawn your rifle to buy a very good hunting binocular.

The other nod to value in this year’s crop of optics has nothing to do with the glass. It is the nearly universal extension of premium warranties. Not so long ago, a fully transferable no-fault warranty was a premium you could expect only of the highest-end brands. That’s no longer the case, as manufacturing processes and quality control have combined to increase the durability–and, ultimately, the value–of sporting optics.

The Complete Outdoor Life Optics Review

Rating Guide:

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Spotting Scopes

1. Editor’s Choice: Alpen Rainer EDHD 25-75X86

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Photo by Jeff Wilson

Alpen has built a solid reputation on value-priced optics. At nearly $1,500, it would be hard to argue that the Rainier spotter is a bargain play, but this full-size scope does offer a ton of performance for the price. The Rainier won both the low-light and resolution tests in the spotting scope category, and its aluminum-alloy body, dual-speed focus, and crisp extra-low-dispersion glass make this a great all-around hunting scope.

It must be noted that this year’s field of spotters was unusually thin. We tested two identical models (submitted by different brands) whose focus was controlled by imprecise belts instead of meshed gears, and a third that featured a fixed 27X eyepiece and murky glass. The very good Hawke Panorama ED gave the Alpen a run for its title, but in the end the team concluded that the workmanship, quality of glass, and durability of the Alpen were worthy of the Editor’s Choice award. We did not bestow a Great Buy award in the spotting scope category this year. $1,470; alpenoptics.com

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2. Hawke Panorama ED

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Photo by Rab Cummings

This short-barrel scope is handy for mobile hunters, but we were underwhelmed by its optical resolution. $1,460

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3. Oculus 20-60X85

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Photo by Rab Cummings

This fairly priced scope has disappointing glass, and the belt-driven focus mechanism is appalling. $450

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4. Optisan Eagle 20-60X85

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Photo by Rab Cummings

A clone of the Oculus; the focus and power-changing knobs were gritty and overly tight. $600

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5. Celestron Regal M2 27X80

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Photo by Rab Cummings

The fixed 27-power eyepiece is limiting, but we liked the controls on this optically disappointing scope. $650

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Mid-Size Binoculars

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Photo by Jeff Wilson

1. Editor’s Choice: Cabela’s Instinct Euro HD 8×32

You’ll recognize this binocular as the little sister of the Meopta Meostar line of remarkable full-size optics. It’s rebranded by Cabela’s, and the hand-filling 8×32 configuration might be the most useful iteration yet of this remarkable dynasty. The 8X bino is small enough to slip into a vest, but bright and powerful enough for any Western big-game hunt. The crisp edge-to-edge clarity wowed testers, and its balanced ergonomics and smart design charmed us. $800; cabelas.com

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2. Great Buy: Nikon Monarch 7 8x3O

The best compliment you can give a mid-size binocular is that it performs like a much more powerful optic. This pint-size Nikon has many attributes of a larger binocular: a big, bright eyebox; tacky, easy-to-grip armor; large, easy-turning focus and diopter knobs; and an image that is crisp, bright, and free of distracting color or flare. Every one of our testers felt that the “mini Monarch” was seriously underpriced. $380; nikonsportoptics.com

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3. Swarovski CL 8X32

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Photo by Rab Cummings

The beautiful image in this pocket optic is out of proportion to its size. A great travel bino. $800

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4. Steiner Nighthunter 8X30

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Photo by Rab Cummings

This fixed-focus rangefinding binocular has awkward ergonomics but good glass. $2,000

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5. Vanguard Endeavor ED2 8X32

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Photo by Rab Cummings

Too much bling for some testers. This optic has good controls and above-average glass. $400

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6. Oculus 7.0 Compact 10X25

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Photo by Rab Cummings

We detected uncoated lenses and spherical aberrations, but we loved the pocket configuration. $150

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7. Hawke Sapphire ED Compact 8X25

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Photo by Rab Cummings

Despite uncoated internal lenses, the bino has a decent image due to ED glass in the objective lens. $220

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Full Size Binos

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Photo by Jeff Wilson

1. Editor’s Choice: Zeiss Conquest HD 10X56

Zeiss’ conquest line of optics used to be in the “pretty-good-for-the-money” class. Now that the German company has introduced its Asian-sourced Terra line of budget glass, the Conquest line has been elevated both in quality and price.

The Conquest in this year’s test owes much of its success to its configuration–the giant 56mm objective lenses gather light like the NSA gathers data. The Zeiss easily won our low-light test, and it delivered a bright, crisp image.

The only real ding is its size. At nearly 3 pounds and 8 ½ inches long, it’s ponderous to carry. But it might just be the best pickup bino you can buy. $1,500; zeiss.com

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2. Great Buy: Bushnell Excursion HD 1Ox42

This is how a budget binocular should behave: tight, bright, and light on the wallet. The only fault we could find was the focus wheel–half the testers liked its ability to lock, the other half didn’t. But we achieved consensus on the crisp optics, which won the resolution portion of the test, and the rugged open-bridge design. “Grossly underpriced” is how one tester defended his insistence that this binocular win our Great Buy award. $200; bushnell.com

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3. Nikon Monarch 5 10X42

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Photo by Rab Cummings

A wonderful bargain in a serious hunting optic. Attributes: tacky armor and edge-to-edge clarity. $329

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4. Vanguard Endeavor ED2 8X42

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Photo by Rab Cummings

This open-bridge bino has crisp, bright optics and great eye relief, but it’s forward-heavy. $500

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5. Hawke Sapphire ED 10X43

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Photo by Rab Cummings

The open-bridge design and leatherette case are great touches. The optics? Not so great. $500

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6. Cabela’s Outfitter 8X42

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Photo by Rab Cummings

Optically disappointing–the barrels of our test model were slightly out of alignment. $250

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7. Pursuit X1 10X50

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Photo by Rab Cummings

This old-school porro prism is a great beginner optic, but the arbitrary focus might frustrate. $90

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8. Konus Emperor 8X42

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Photo by Rab Cummings

A big, well-balanced open-hinge bino; the image is slightly murky and eye-fatiguing. $155

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9. Optisan DH Pro-PC

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Photo by Rab Cummings

This lackluster bino feels plasticky and has noticeable edge distortion. $250

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10. Celestron Nature DX

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Photo by Rab Cummings

With 56mm lenses, this front-heavy binocular should have dominated our test. It did not. $210

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Scopes

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Photo by Jeff Wilson

1. Editor’s Choice: Nightforce SHV 4-14×56

This big, bright, overbuilt optic may be the most well-rounded riflescope we’ve ever tested. Its name–SHV stands for ShooterHunterVarminter–reflects this do-everything utility, but what’s most impressive is its price. Nightforce managed to produce a tight, durable, supremely useful scope for about 25 percent less than its next-lowest-priced model. It did this by omitting its patented clutch-driven ZeroStop adjustment and simplifying the controls and the hand-bedded lens system, which are the hallmarks of the bombproof NXS line. But with the SHV, you still get a tough scope with the most precise, consistently repeatable windage and elevation controls in this year’s test.

Its 30mm tube has ample mounting dimensions, and the illumination is subtle and precise. We tested the IHR (International Hunting Reticle) and found it to be clean and precise without obscuring small targets at longer ranges. In short, the SHV is built to
do everything, and it is priced to allow every shooter and hunter a chance to finally own a Nightforce. $975; nightforceoptics.com

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2. Great Buy: Nikon Prostaff 5 3.5-14x4O

There were flashier scopes in our test, but none of the 15 in this year’s field offer more value than this Nikon. The optics are excellent–the Prostaff won our resolution test and finished near the top of the low-light test, an impressive performance for a 40mm scope–and the controls are tight and precise. That would have been enough to contend for our Great Buy award, but Nikon also throws in a free elevation turret tuned to the ballistics of your favorite load so that you can dial to the precise yardage of your target and hold dead-on with the classic duplex reticle. $400; nikonsportoptics.com

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3. Burris Veracity 4-20X50

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Photo by Rab Cummings

Beautifully grippy controls and generous mounting dimensions in a great all-around hunting scope. $800

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4. Vortex Diamondback HD 4-16X32

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Photo by Rab Cummings

A solid, all-around, fairly priced hunting scope. We liked the positive controls and duplex reticle. $420

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5. Bushnell Elite Laks 3-12X44

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Photo by Rab Cummings

The complicated reticle disappeared in brush, but we loved the controls and massive elevation adjustment. $1,499

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6. Leupold VX-6 7-42X56

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Photo by Rab Cummings

Although a noteworthy technological accomplishment, the huge 6X magnification range has limited appeal. $2,000

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7. Leica ERI 3-12X50

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Photo by Rab Cummings

We liked the subtle illumination and the locking elevation turret, but the optical performance disappointed. $1,979

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8. Minox ZA5 3-15X42

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Photo by Rab Cummings

A versatile hunting scope; the ballistic reticle is useful and clean. We wish the optics were better. $619

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9. Steiner GS3 4-12X50

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Photo by Rab Cummings

We’re not sure we buy the “game-sensing” coatings on this otherwise very practical 30mm scope. $1,000

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10. Meopta Meostar R2 1-6X42

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Photo by Rab Cummings

With illumination on, this bright 1X-6X scope is perfect for ARs, dangerous-game rifles, and shotguns. $1,400

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11. Sightmark Ezekiel 3-30X56

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Photo by Rab Cummings

The 10-times power zoom is impressive, but the dark, murky optics are not. $400

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12. Hawke Endurance 30 IR SF 4-16X50

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Photo by Rab Cummings

The ballistic reticle references are difficult to see against brush, and the controls are imprecise. $340

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13. Konus Konuspro M30 2.5-10X52

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Photo by Rab Cummings

This forgettable optic features overbright illumination and dark, leaden optics. $390

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14. Weaver Kaspa Turkey Scope 1-4X24

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Photo by Rab Cummings

The reticle, calibrated to subtend the head of a gobbler, is the most interesting feature of this scope. $250

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15. Optisan CX6 1-6X24

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Photo by Rab Cummings

This low-mag scope is designed for ARs and 3-Gun competition, but its optics are dismal. $600

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How We Test

Because ours is an evaluation of sporting optics, we test them the way you use them, by measuring low-light clarity, by mounting them on rifles and tripods, and by carrying them around our necks. But we take our test a step further, measuring each product’s optical clarity using an Air Force resolution target. And then we live with these products, taking them into the field and testing their utility. Half of our score is derived from measured performance (low-light and resolution tests, and for riflescopes, the precision and repeatability of windage and elevation controls, and reticle visibility). And half is our panel’s subjective evaluation. The highest-scoring optics win our Editor’s Choice award; the products that represent the best value win our Great Buy award.