Optics Test '09

The old optics axiom, "You get what you pay for," is today only partly true. While some of the very best glass still commands, and justifies, high prices, we're happy to report that the 2009 Optics Test proves you can have a choice of good quality glass for relatively little money. In each category--full-size binos, compacts and spotting scopes--manufacturers have managed to offer consumers well-made products at moderate price points, and overall the quality of this year's class is noticeably better than that of prior years. Even optics made in China and the Philippines, previously dismissed as crude knockoffs, are starting to close the quality gap that has existed between them and products made in the U.S. and Japan. In the full-size binocular category, more than half of the entries are priced between $175 and $250. Of course, you do have to be selective. Some of the items are a steal, while others wouldn't be a bargain at half the price. That's why our test has become the industry standard for objective judging, and a necessary guide for your next optics purchase.
Full-Size Binoculars Alpen Teton 10x50 Overall Rating: 3 stars Though Alpen is better known for entry-level optics, this higher-end bino won the low-light test, thanks to high magnification and large objective lenses. Its resolution disappointed, and while we liked the tight eyecups and diopter knob, testers noted eye fatigue and some image ghosting. The Teton weighs a little over 30 ounces, so invest in a good harness system to carry it comfortably. ($635; alpenoutdoor.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 4th Image: B Design: B Price/Value: B
Bushnell Excursion 10x42 Overall Rating: 3 stars A steal at this price, the Excursion has some thoughtful features, including the locking center-focus wheel and weight-shedding open-bridge design. Optically, it boasts bright glass and sharp contrast, thanks to Bushnell's multi-coatings, but we noted some edge distortion and average low-light performance. The snap tether-strap attachments bothered the entire test team, but members universally raved about the soft thumb grips and locking eyecups. ($250; bushnell.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 11th Image: B Design: B Price/Value: A
Cabela's Alpha Extreme 8x42 Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars Like nearly half the full-size binos in the test, this offering aims for that sweet spot: a moderately priced glass with adequate optics in a durable package. The image is decently bright and clear, and the bino turned in a very respectable low-light score. But it lost points for sloppy eyecups, and the focus control wasn't as responsive as in other binos tested. Optical​ly, it produced some edge distortion. ($240; cabelas.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 12th Image: B Design: C+ Price/Value: B
Kowa Genesis 8x33 Overall Rating: 3 stars With a remarkably bright and crisp image for a 33mm, this mid-size binocular impressed the test team with its locking diopter ring, "man-sized" eyecups and solid hand feel. The white-stenciled ring inside the objective ring tended to amplify internal reflection and produce non-image-forming light, also called veiling flare. The Kowa's low-light performance was a little disappointing, but this is a nicely balanced, lively feeling binocular. ($1,160; kowa-usa.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 14th Image: B+ Design: B+ Price/Value: B
Leica Ultravid HD 8x32 Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars The new Ultravid features extra-high-dispersion glass. It easily topped our design category by squeezing so much light and clarity into such a trim package. It didn't fare as well in our optical-quality test, largely due to low power and small objective lenses. We wanted more glass for the price, but all agreed that it's brilliant for the full spectrum of big-game hunting. ($2,095; en.leica-camera.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 7th Image: A+ Design: A+ Price/Value: B
Meopta Meostar 8x32 Overall Rating: 3 stars One of the smallest entries in the full-size category, these compact glasses would be at home in the Eastern woods or a tree stand. They deliver a bright, crisp, contrasty image and responsive focusing. The diopter knob's location on the focus wheel aids in one-hand operation. Some testers dinged the small eyecups, which didn't lock in place. The 10-year warranty is a nice feature. ($799; meopta.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 13th Image: B Design: B Price/Value: C+
Minox APO HG 10x43 Overall Rating: 3 stars If you consider everything you get with this bino--wooden presentation case, deluxe leather carry case and a great warranty--you can almost justify the high price. But the image, while good, doesn't quite match that of other high-priced models tested. The Minox performed admirably in the low-light test but turned in only an average resolution score. Testers liked the close focus, edge-to-edge clarity, locking diopter knob, positive eyecup positions and responsive focus. ($1,549; minox.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 6th Image: B+ Design: B Price/Value: C
Nikon Monarch X Dielectric 10.5x45 Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars The large objective and high magnification of the reinvented Monarch give it more light transmission and a greater twilight factor than other optics in its class, but also make the bino a bit more difficult to hold steady and comfortably. The open-bridge design and polymer body help shed some weight. It performed admirably in the low-light test and turned in an excellent resolution score. ($599; nikonsportoptics.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 2nd Image: B+ Design: B Price/Value: B+
Pentax DCF NV 10x36 Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Given the bright, crisp optics (especially when you consider the small objective) and tight, solid build of this binocular, we expected the price to be twice as high. We noticed some purple color-fringing around the periphery of the image, and the amenities are pretty thin, but you get a top-notch, lightweight glass at a very accessible price point. The DCF scored in the middle of the low-light field, and performed brilliantly on our resolution range. ($229; pentaxsportoptics.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 5th Image: B+ Design: B+ Price/Value: A
Vanguard Spirit 10x42 Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars This optic lacked clarity, contrast and brightness. While all lenses appear to be fully multi-coated, the binocular showed significant image ghosting, and dark-colored objects appeared milky-white on their edges, a sign of poor glass quality. It was in the middle of the low-light test pack, but its light weight, ergonomics and non-transferable lifetime warranty found favor with testers. ($199; vanguardusa.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 10th Image: C Design: C+ Price/Value: C+
Vortex Diamondback 10x42 Overall Rating: 3 stars The test team was split on the optical quality of this binocular, one half praising its contrast and sharpness, the other complaining about flaring. Overall, the Diamondback performed well on the resolution range and was one of the top low-light performers. The binocular has good eye relief--16mm--for a 10X optic, and the tacky rubber finish feels great. But the eyecups are sloppy, and the focus knob drifts and makes a strange clicking noise when turned, probably a result of crude casting. If you can overlook those factors, you'll be happy with the image quality of this bino. ($230; vortexoptics.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 3rd Image: B Design: C+ Price/Value: B+
Yukon Frontier 10x42 Overall Rating: 3 stars This binocular impressed the entire test team with its bright image, crisp resolution and better-than-average contrast, especially when they considered the moderate price. Some team members noted peripheral distortion and significant flaring of the image, particularly in the right barrel, and questioned whether the optic was fully multi-coated. Others commented that the focus knob is spongy. Despite some crude fit-and-finish problems, the optical quality of the Frontier is quite good, especially at this accessible price point. ($219; yukonopticsusa.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 8th Image: B Design: B Price/Value: A
Zeiss Victory RF 10x45 T* Overall Rating: 4 stars This is quite possibly the last binocular you'll need to buy. But optics of this quality don't come cheap, hence the $3,000 price. This handful from Zeiss features best-in-class glass combined with a fast, accurate range finder. The Victory turned in the crispest resolution in the test (by far) and was runner-up in low-light testing. The range finder, housed in the right barrel, incorporates Zeiss's Ballistics Information System, which allows shooters to customize holdover at any distance out to 1,200 yards, based on the trajectory of their load. The weight is more than 2 pounds, so you'll need a stout harness to haul around this fine optical instrument. ($2,995; zeiss.com/sports) Report Card Optical Quality: 1st Image: A+ Design: A+ Price/Value: B
Zen-Ray ZRS 10x42 Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars One of a crop of moderately priced optics originating in Asia, this binocular is housed in a durable magnesium chassis and features a locking diopter adjustment and fall-away objective lens caps. Its resolution was adequate and it scored in the middle of the pack in the low-light test. The armor on the diopter knob peeled off and the crudely finished focus wheel ground against the right barrel. Internally, team members noted significant flaring from non-image-forming light and poor contrast. And while the metal body is tough, it's also heavy. ($175; zen-ray.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 9th Image: C Design: C Price/Value: C+
Compact Optics Leica Ultravid BR 8x20 Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Compact binoculars simply don't get any better than this. The tiny, gem-bright Ultravid BR 8x20 folds to the size of a cigarette pack but has plenty of optical reach for bowhunters and close-range hunters. Thoughtful features include a button-activated diopter lock integral to the focus knob on the center hinge. The bino disappointed in the low-light test and its resolution score was underwhelming, but if you have $700 to spend on a pocket bino, this sharp, bright offering is a durable, useful glass. ($699; en.leica-camera.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 3rd
Image: A Design: A Price/Value: B+
Yukon Rambler 8x25 Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars If you want a small, lightweight bino to slip into a turkey vest or bowhunting kit, this 10-ounce pocket optic from Yukon is a great deal. But if you intend to do any long-range or low-light glassing, you might end up frustrated; the image was dim and distorted, and the workmanship wasn't great. But note the price. ($70; yukonopticsusa.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 2nd
Image: C Design: B Price/Value: B
Zeiss PRF 8x26 T* Overall Rating: 4 stars The optics on this monocular/laser range finder are so good that we opened the field, previously limited to compact binoculars, to all optics with objective lenses smaller than 30mm. This device easily bested the category's two binoculars in resolution and the low-light test. Credit Zeiss's bright, clear glass and glare-reducing coatings, but also the unit's intuitive, fast and accurate range finder, which utilizes Zeiss's Ballistics Information System. Paired with a top-notch spotting scope, this 11-ounce optic is ideal when weight and portability are considerations and cost is not. ($795; zeiss.com/sports) Report Card Optical Quality: 1st
Image: B+ Design: A Price/Value: B
Spotting Scopes Alpen 20-60x62 Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars This light, nimble scope has some nice features, including side focus that minimizes image vibration, a rotating mounting collar, a removable eyepiece, a lifetime warranty and a tabletop tripod. But all the amenities in the world don't make up for sub-par glass. The scope logged the worst low-light performance in the category, and team members noted a dim, murky image and tiny, eye-fatiguing exit pupil when the scope was cranked up to higher powers. Still, for an entry-level spotting scope that's at home in a backpack or on a shooting bench, this adequate Alpen costs a fraction of what higher-end scopes cost. ($192; alpenoutdoor.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 5th Image: C+ Design: B Price/Value: B
Brunton Eterna 18-38x50 Overall Rating: 3 stars If you're in the market for a compact scope for an alpine goat or sheep hunt, consider this very bright, very crisp entry from Brunton. The scope also comes in an 80mm tube with a 20-60X eyepiece, but the 21⁄2-pound 50mm is the more useful configuration. It held up in the low-light test with much larger scopes, and testers praised its tack-sharp image and good resolution, functions of its ED (Extra-Low Dispersion) glass. We noted some peripheral image degradation, minor color flaring and a small, eye-fatiguing exit pupil at 38X, but it's priced right for a handy, portable pack scope. ($770; brunton.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 4th Image: B+ Design: B Price/Value: B
Celestron Ultima 65ED 16-48x65 Overall Rating: 2 stars Celestron is better known as a purveyor of backyard telescopes for amateur astronomers, but this field scope has plenty of hunter-friendly features, including excellent low-dispersion glass and a bombproof metal housing. However, the fine focus on the model we tested was broken, the locking collar on the eyepiece had a tendency to work loose after prolonged use, and at nearly 5 pounds, this is one heavy unit. If you can overlook these various structural problems, you'll be rewarded with glass that is crisp and bright, and that enabled the scope to turn in a great low-light score. ($499; celestron.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 7th Image: B Design: C Price/Value: C+
Leica APO-Televid 82 25-50x83 Overall Rating: 4 stars This spectacular spotting scope from Leica left test team members wondering which precious possession they could liquidate to afford it. It won the low-light test by a landslide and recorded the highest resolution in the category. Its picture-window image is bright, clear and crisp, and renders stunning contrast. The Televid is easy and fun to look through, even for long stretches at 50X. It's hefty at 41⁄2 pounds, but I wouldn't hesitate to pack the weight in return for its ability to resolve details at long distances. At almost $4,000, this magnificent scope is, in fact, priced fairly. ($3,995; en.leica-camera.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 1st Image: A+ Design: A Price/Value: B+
Minox MD62W 40x62 Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars This compact scope has wonderfully crisp, bright glass, but we felt the unit was handicapped by its 40X eyepiece. The 20-45X zoom would be a better choice. Our unit also came with a remote-controlled 5-megapixel digital camera that mates to the scope's body. Costing an additional $300, the camera is a nice feature, especially for hunters or guides who want to capture the image of an animal to show off back at camp. Structurally, the 21⁄2 -pound Minox had some problems, including sloppy fit-and-finish and a boxy chassis. Some members complained of the narrow field of view and eye-fatiguing exit pupil. ($700; $999 with camera; minox.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 8th Image: C+ Design: B Price/Value: B
Nikon Fieldscope ED 20-60x85 Overall Rating: 3 stars Nikon has fitted its redesigned field scope with its brilliant ED glass, one reason this scope--at 5 1⁄2 pounds--was the heftiest in the field. The scope delivers stunning clarity, but the image, while extremely sharp and bright, is hampered by an eye box that focuses the image only in the very center of the eyepiece. The forward-heavy scope shakes on even a stout tripod. Specific power increments on the eyepiece, a more generous exit pupil and better balance would earn this scope full points. The glass on this Nikon is every bit as good as its price indicates. ($3,300; nikonsportoptics.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 2nd Image: B+ Design: B Price/Value: C
Vortex Razor 85mm HD 20-60x85 Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars This tight, shapely entry from Vortex was heaped with praise for its value. It competed well against European scopes costing twice as much, and features supremely bright, high-contrast glass. The scope lost points for a few fit-and-finish problems, including loose focus and power-changing knobs. But the Razor won kudos for its generous eye relief and large, comfortable eye box, an important feature for users who plan to spend a lot of time glassing. The scope has crisp edge-to-edge clarity and fine resolution across its 20-60X power range. ($1,599; vortexoptics.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 3rd Image: A Design: B+ Price/Value: B
Yukon Firefall 15-45x60 Overall Rating: 3 stars The price on this marvelous little scope is so low, we thought initially there must be some catch. Not only do you get a light, bright optic, but the package includes a locking hard case, a soft case, a window mount and a tabletop tripod. This is a great buy for a beginner hunter or for anyone who needs a backup spotting scope. It's also a good shooting-range optic. We worry about the durability of this 1⁄2-pound scope, and we did note some color-fringing, sub-par contrast and crude fit-and-finish. But this is a smokin' deal for a scope you wouldn't feel ashamed to leave behind as a guide tip. ($99; yukonopticsusa.com) Report Card Optical Quality: 6th Image: B Design: B Price/Value: A+

This year's Optics Test features a range of accessible glass with an eye for value.