One of the interesting trends in sports optics is how riflescopes have increased in sales over the last few years, and therefore in influence and innovation inside optics companies. Only a decade ago, we saw far more binoculars every year than we did riflescopes. But the rise of specialized shooting pursuits—each of which require a very specific riflescope—has eclipsed other optics categories.
That’s one reason why we have only a single binocular category this year. In previous years, we’ve had so many submissions that we’ve kept super-size binoculars by themselves, and tested compact binoculars as a separate category. But this year, we grouped all nine binocular submissions together.
It’s not as messy as you might expect. We didn’t have any binos with 12- or 15-power, or any wee little hyper-compact 24mm binoculars. But submissions did deviate along the price and quality spectrums. On the upper end of the field, we tested the new Zeiss Victory SF32, a stunning 10×32 binocular that will take its place with other heirloom-quality optics from Leica and Swarovski. Vortex’s new Razor UHD also impressed our testers. But we had plenty of useful budget-priced optics, too, led by Bushnell’s $129 Engage X and Celestron’s fairly priced 10×42 TrailSeeker.
The rest of the field sort of huddled in the middle, showing decent optical chops and selling at a decent price. Two standouts include Tract’s 50mm Toric Ultra HD and Meopta’s MeoPro Air, an open-bridge 10×42 that does everything you expect of a binocular, for an even $1,000.
For the rest of our Optics Test Reviews, click the links here:
- The 13 Best New Precision Riflescopes Put to the Test
- The 17 Best New Versatile Riflescopes Put to the Test
- The 8 Best New Spotting Scopes Put to the Test
1. Editor’s Choice Award: Zeiss Victory SF 10×32
Courtesy of ZEISS
I confess to becoming bored with binoculars. Unlike riflescopes, with their rapidly evolving reticles and purpose-driven design to solve increasingly technical shooting problems, binoculars have been relatively resistant to innovation. It was a big deal when the open-bridge design came along, but that was a decade ago. Since then, improvements in glass and coatings have been incremental and, well, kind of boring.
Until now. With its remarkable Victory SF, Zeiss has managed to upend the staid world of binoculars and offer a product with three noticeable advantages. The first is its absurdly wide field of view, achieved by increasing the sizes of lenses and redesigning the optical prescription, or how all lenses and prisms work together. Most of its 10×32 peers, including the excellent Swarovski EL and Leica Trinovid, have fields of view between 110 and 120 meters wide when measured at 1,000 meters. The Victory SF brings a whopping 130 meters of view. It’s hard to measure that increased field of view without downrange yardage markers, but that amounts to a 15 percent increase in apparent field of view, which you’ll notice by the amount of landscape delivered by its bright, crisp lenses. One tester said that viewing through the Zeiss was “like looking through a picture window.” Another said the field of view was closer to an 8-power binocular instead of the 10X Victory Zeiss submitted for our test.
Another remarkable attribute of the new Zeiss, which will be available in 8×42, 10×42, and 8×32 configurations along with the 10×32, is its balance. The binocular weighs a trim 20.8 ounces, but it feels even lighter, largely because of its wonderful equilibrium. Ergonomically, my fingertips fall naturally right on the oversized center focus wheel, which means I don’t have to feel about for the controls as I do with many binoculars, and the rearward weight of the binocular tips slightly into my face.
Finally, SF in its name stands for “SmartFocus,” but it might stand for “SpeedFocus” given the rapidity of zooming from close focus to infinity in just 1.6 turns of the wheel.
Optically, the Victory SF brings the same best-in-class attributes as earlier Victory models. The guts are SCHOTT fluoride glass protected by Zeiss’s proprietary high-contrast and weatherproof coatings. The SF tied for tops in our resolution test and finished in the middle of the low-light test, a disappointing performance that owes to its relatively small 32mm objective lenses (most binos in the test have big, light-gathering 42mm and 50mm lenses). We also liked the very positive four-position eyecups and the locking diopter control, located conveniently on the center hinge.
On par with the stunning optics is its hefty price. When it hits the market later this fall, the Victory SF is expected to retail for around $2,300, which is in line with its peer group but seems pricey, even considering its revolutionary design and otherworldly performance.
2. Vortex Razor UHD 10×42
With this exceptionally bright and crisp binocular, Vortex has managed to elevate the performance of its Razor HD line to another level. The main asset that the new UHD model brings, compared to the Razor HD, is an enhanced class of glass that delivers better resolution and contrast. But our test team also raved about the elongated design of the Vortex, which makes hours-long glassing sessions comfortable.
The Razor UHD is a hefty number. At 32.2 ounces, it’s one of the heaviest 10×42 binoculars we’ve tested, but that weight tends to settle the image, reducing hand vibration, which can make images appear blurry. Testers also lauded the relatively thin, tapered three-position eyecups and the palm swells that seemed to fit most hands comfortably.
The Vortex took second in our low-light test, next only to the 50mm Tract, and it finished in the top three on the resolution range. Testers raved about its close focus—only 3.5 feet, a feature that butterfly viewers should love—along with its precise, positive focus control and locking diopter adjustment ring. Testers hailed the Vortex’s edge-to-edge clarity, its durability, and its “immersive” image that one tester said was “like looking at a 72-inch TV versus a 54-incher.”
At nearly $1,500, it’s an investment, but the price confirms that Vortex is fully ready to step into the super-premium class of binoculars.
3. Meopta MeoPro Air 10×42
We used to preface any review of a Meopta optic with some context, usually along the lines of “the best European optics brand nobody has heard of.” We can no longer say that, since the Czech company has anchored its reputation in the market as the maker of excellent optics that cost a fraction of super-premium European brands.
The new MeoPro Air is an excellent example of Meopta’s ability to produce affordable excellence. The design is what’s really new here, a double-hinge, open chassis construction that cuts down on weight and enables one-hand operation. The high definition and extra low dispersion glass and coatings are very good, but are similar to that found in Meopta’s MeoPro HD line of mid-priced binoculars.
The MeoPro Air was runner-up in our low-light test and also finished near the top of our optical resolution rankings, evidence of first-rate glass and construction. The test team also liked the hard-wearing magnesium-alloy chassis, the positive four-position eyecups, the precise focus, and the handy diopter control, located on the center hinge of the binocular. One recommendation: make this a locking control, in order that the right-barrel focus isn’t inadvertently bumped before deployment. Another tester recommended that the tripod adapter face inward, rather than out the front of the hinge.
We love the fully transferable lifetime warranty, in line with the protection offered by many premium optics brands. The MeoPro Air was a close second to the Bushnell Engage X in price/value consideration; most testers felt the $999 price was a bargain.
4. Tract Toric UHD 10×50
The only 50mm binocular, this light-hungry beast easily won our low-light test, and it performed very well on our resolution range, a test of optical clarity. A number of testers said that it was the perfect pickup or shooting-range bino, or one that they’d happily keep by the windowsill to use when viewing backyard wildlife and birds.
That should tell you a bit about its dimensions, but also its solid-state construction. The Toric UHD (that stands for ultra-high-definition construction, which includes premium coatings and the SCHOTT HT glass used in its build) weighs 32.6 ounces, making it a little stout for walk-about hunting. But testers praised its durability. “Feels extremely rugged and well-built,” said one.
All that heft helps stabilize the image, and the 5mm exit pupil created by the 10X magnification in the 50mm objective lenses is so easy on the eyes that a number of evaluators said they could glass all day with the Tracts.
It’s hard to find shortcomings of this optic. We loved the four-position eyecups and the tactile focus control. The only downbeats cited by the test team include the fact that it’s a bit derivative—we’ve seen this binocular before, only in different configurations—from this direct-to-consumer brand. One tester noticed a bluish cast to the image. And while some testers said this was the binocular they’d take for extended twilight glassing, others thought it was overpriced for their intended use: as a pickup binocular.
As for me, I consider this is a wonderful Western optic, where 10×42 binoculars often don’t provide quite enough brightness long after sunset.
Read Next: Top Rangefinding Binoculars Put to the Test
5. Styrka S5 10×42
There’s a trend in sports optics to add cosmetic touches to what amounts to a generic product in order to give it some character and distinction. Happily, Styrka hasn’t fallen for that ploy. What you see with the S5 is what you get, which is a middle-of-the-road, adequate binocular that may not wow you with either external bling or internal optical horsepower, but neither will it let you down.
Instead, this is one of a number of Asian-sourced optics that does a good job at the basics. It’s your standard 10×42, with utilitarian features like four-position eyecups, a somewhat spongy focus control, and right-barrel diopter control.
The build feels a bit plasticky, and testers questioned its durability, but Styrka offers an excellent lifetime, fully transferrable warranty in case something goes wrong. What’s more, the company invites buyers of its optics to send them in once a year for cleaning and tuning. Optically, the S5 finished in the middle of the pack in both low-light and resolution testing.
The Styrka ships with a vinyl case, harness, and cleaning cloth.
But at the end of the day, there’s nothing particularly unique or noteworthy here; just a solid optic for a decent price.
6. Celestron TrailSeekerED 10×42
Celestron has had its TrailSeeker binocular in its line of consumer-friendly optics for years. But the addition of ED (extra low-dispersion) glass and some cosmetic bling has elevated this latest generation of the model to the very middle of the pack.
The glass and coatings are surprisingly good for a full-sized binocular offered at this price, and the TrailSeeker ED seems durable enough to handle most physical insults that hunters and outdoors folk routinely deal to their binoculars. The tight 10×42 performed in the upper third of the field in low-light testing.
But there are also some shortcomings. The uncomfortably square eyecups move as sluggishly as a teenager on Monday morning and the balance is forward-heavy. Those deficiencies are compensated with a bino harness and premium vinyl case. The non-transferrable lifetime warranty is decent, but not quite in line with industry standards.
The price is pretty good for what I’d classify as the upper end of entry-level glass.
7. Great Buy Award: Bushnell Engage X 10×42
Possibly the most divisive binocular we’ve ever reviewed, half of the test panel lauded this as a priced-right, versatile entry-level optic. The other half trashed it as overpriced junk.
How do you make sense of that breadth of perspective? First, by understanding that one of the legendary brands of the category has produced an optic designed to capture market share, not the hearts of optics reviewers. This is designed to be a starter binocular, and to fly off the shelves of big-box retailers. With that in mind, let’s dispense with its shortcomings. It is flimsy. Its glass will give you a headache, especially if you plan to view distant objects around the edge of the image. And it simply isn’t up to par with Bushnell binoculars of the recent past.
But, it is extremely useful for most viewing purposes. It would be welcome in a Christmas stocking or as a gift to a new hunting buddy. It incorporates the proprietary coatings and construction that have made Bushnell a category leader over the years. And it is covered by a fully transferrable, lifetime warranty that will provide you a new binocular if this one breaks. All for $130, which one tester called “an incredible bargain.”
Because of the immense amount of value for that price, the Engage X is this year’s Great Buy award winner for binoculars.
The attributes of the Engage X are pretty pedestrian. It features a right-barrel diopter adjustment and an oversized focus wheel. Its four-position eyecups are adequate but not particularly noteworthy. Its focus is spongy. Its lenses are fully multi-coated, but its glass is pretty disappointing, especially for those of us who have grown up with Bushnell’s Legend and Elite product lines. The Engage X is a couple steps below those durable products, but if you’re looking for a binocular that will serve most functions, doesn’t cost a lot to obtain, and carries Bushnell’s full warrantee, it’s hard to go wrong with this very adequate entry-level optic.
8. Bushnell Forge 10×30
This is an in-between effort from Bushnell. Not quite compact enough to fit in a shirt pocket, the Forge also doesn’t have the optical horsepower of a full-sized binocular. Still, this semi-compact optic brings some very useful attributes to the close- and mid-range viewing for which it’s designed. For instance, it’s an excellent binocular to pack in a turkey vest or to use from a whitetail treestand, where you want to resolve details out to 100 yards, but don’t need the heft of a full-sized binocular for far-distant objects.
Let me first express a bias: compact binoculars such as the Forge should not be forced to deliver 10-times magnification. The better magnification for this class of optic is 7X or, at most, 8X. But the market demands 10X, so Bushnell, in its pursuit of market share, has delivered. But, as a sort of added-value concession, it’s provided an excellent binocular harness, cloth bag, and durable clamshell case, all of which help it justify its price.
The controls, the right-barrel diopter and the center-bridge focus among them, are undersized and will frustrate those of us with ham hands and pudgy fingers. But once you get the focus and interpupilary distance figured out, this is a very comfortable optic that delivers an image that’s both sharper and brighter than you might expect. In our low-light test, the 30mm Forge bested a number of binoculars with 42mm objective lenses.
We noted that if the threaded cap is removed from the front of the focus wheel, the textured turning dial comes right off, rendering the binocular inoperable. Note that there is no tripod adapter on this folding roof prism binocular, so there’s no reason to ever remove that cap. That’s a directive we had to give our testers more than once!
Also on the plus side, the Forge is enhanced with Bushnell’s excellent optical coatings and best-in-class warranty.
9. Celestron TrailSeeker 8×32
When it comes to evaluating the lower-middle of the pack of Asian-sourced optics on the market, it’s useful to consider first what they have in common. They probably came from the same one or two factories. They have the same glass and many of the same optical coatings. They will return the same fairly sharp image, though they may give you a headache after extended viewing sessions.
Once you accept the constants of same-factory sourcing, you can then differentiate optics based on their appearance, or their packaging, or their warranty. The Celestron TrailSeeker in 8×32 is pretty generic. Evaluators noted its disappointing glass, and it finished last in low-light testing. Even its warranty is disappointing. While its competitors offer fully transferrable lifetime warranties, the warranty for the TrailSeeker extends only as far as its original owner, which could be a problem considering its low durability scores.
Still, for an entry-level optic, this Celestron won’t disappoint, and it will serve as an adequate stepping stone for a hunter interested in getting a bit more optical performance out of their next binocular.