October 3, 2022

The jury is still out on when binoculars were first invented — some experts will tell you it was in the 16th century, when Hans Lippershey of Holland combined two telescopic tubes to observe far-off objects with more clarity, while others will claim it wasn’t until 1823 when Austrian optician and inventor Johann Friedrich Voigtländer invented binos for practical use.

However you slice it, for (at least) hundreds of years, humans have been using the magnifying power of binoculars to examine far-away objects and animals, for both work and pleasure. Simple in their execution, complex in their design, binoculars are a welcome addition to any outdoor kit, and will elevate the experience of birders, hikers and campers alike.

What to look for in a pair of binoculars

Magnification x Diameter

All binoculars, whether top-of-the-line or budget-friendly, are described by two numbers: an example is 8×42. These numbers represent magnification and diameter, two key attributes of any bino. The first number represents magnification, or how many times the subject is being enlarged. The second number denotes the diameter of the objective lens — the lens at the wider end of the tube — in millimeters.

Most everyday binoculars have a diameter of 42; anything larger than that will be too big and bulky for most people to want to carry around all day, and anything smaller than 30mm will lack the brightness needed for low-light conditions. If you’re comparing two pairs of binoculars of equal value, the pair with the higher magnification number will have a sharper and brighter image.

Field of View

Put simply, the field of view is what you can see through the circular frame of your binoculars. The wider the field of view, the easier it is to find and track objects. Many manufacturers describe the field of view as the diameter of the field you can see from a distance of 1,000 yards.

Comfort

With seemingly endless options on the market, it’s important to pick a pair of binoculars that feel good in your hands. Your ideal pair should be light enough that you’ll want to hike for hours on end with them, but also have enough brightness and clarity to be of use during your outings. You should be able to reach the focus knob for on-the-go adjustments, and the grip should feel comfortable in your hands.

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Many enthusiasts use binoculars: hunters, hikers, birders and boaters. Make sure you do your research and find which pair works for your chosen hobby.

Waterproofing

Any binocular that costs more than a couple hundred bucks should be waterproof and nitrogen purged, to minimize fogging in humid or wet environments. In most models intended for outdoor use, this is par for the course, but it’s always helpful to double-check product descriptions, just in case.

How We Tested

Our testers tried out the binoculars on this list in Big Bear, CA, taking in both the mountainous scenery and the wildlife. The models were judged based on weight, ergonomics, clarity and brightness and durability. Each tester spent time trying out each model, with a consensus reached at the end of the testing period. Our testers tried the binos in both full light and low-light conditions, and at close-range as well as long-distance viewing.

Nikon Monarch M5 8×42

  • Weight: 22.2 ounces
  • Magnification and Diameter: 8x magnification power, 42 mm objective
  • Waterproof: Yes

    Nikon knows a thing or two about cameras, so it was no surprise to me, or our testers, that the Monarch M5 quickly became each of our favorites. Although Nikon’s glass is almost three times less than Vortex’s top-of-the-food chain binoculars, the clarity and brightness of both binos were right on par. The Monarch M5 was also the easiest to adjust to each of our face shapes, and the focus dial was simple, easily reachable and responsive to the slightest touch.

      Vortex Razor HD 8×42

      • Weight: 24.2 ounces
      • Magnification and Diameter: 8x magnification power, 42 mm objective
      • Waterproof: Yes

        If you’re interested in the best of the best and price isn’t an issue, Vortex’s binoculars are a solid bet for any budding birder, hiker or general outdoor enthusiast. The HD Optical System delivered the sharpest images of the bunch, and our testers were impressed with the brightness and clarity at both close-up and long-distance viewing.

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        The most notable pro in Vortex’s corner has to be the ergonomic design of the binoculars — the thumb notch and Rubber Armor non-slip grip coating made it easy to hold and adjust on the fly, and the magnesium chassis cut weight and increases strength. The Razor HD is built to withstand challenging environments, and is waterproof, fog proof and dust-and-debris proof. The ArmorTek coating protects exterior lenses from scratches, oil and dirt, making it easy to throw these binos in your bag, in a pinch.

        Although they’re a hair heavier than the Nikons, the construction and slim profile of the Razor HD felt lighter by multiple ounces than its competitor and delivered a premium viewing experience in a relatively light package.

          Tasco Essentials 8×42 Binocular

          • Weight: 10.22 ounces
          • Magnification and Diameter: 8x magnification power, 42 mm objective
          • Waterproof: Water and weather-resistant

            At just under $60, Tasco’s Essentials are a compelling combo of an approachable price point and just enough features to get started viewing the great outdoors. Tasco integrated both a center focus wheel for smooth and precise adjustment and an adjustable diopter — which allows for single-eye focusing to calibrate the binos — to give the user full focusing control. The twist-up eyecups can be used both with glasses and without, and the 8×42 configuration is ideal for multi-use adventures, including birding, travel and general observation.

              Nocs Provisions Standard Issue Waterproof Binoculars

              • Weight: 11.85 ounces
              • Magnification and Diameter: 8x magnification power, 42 mm objective (also available in 10×42)
              • Waterproof: Waterproof + fogproof

                Avid campers and bino novices alike will appreciate Nocs Provisions’ take on the classic binocular. At just under $100, the Standard Issue is an easy “Add to Cart”, and provides optical clarity in a fun, compact package. Most binoculars are available in varying shades of grey and black, but Nocs decided to punch things up with 8 bright colorways, which infuse a bit of whimsy into the viewing experience (and make them easy to find if they migrate to the bottom of your pack). Our testers found the Nocs to be good in concept, less in execution. The glass didn’t provide the clarity or brightness of other, more technical lenses, and the lack of precise adjustment left them wanting more. If you’re looking for a beginning pair of binoculars that will work for your kids as well as your friends, the Nocs is a safe bet. But if you’re looking to impress the full-time birder in your life, stick to the Nikon or Vortex.

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                  Maven B1.2 8×42

                  • Weight: 26.8 ounces
                  • Magnification and Diameter: 8x magnification power, 42 mm objective
                  • Waterproof: Waterproof + fogproof

                    Maven’s glassing equipment is prized by hunters, but its binoculars hold broad appeal: the B1.2 is a burly, capable option for experts and beginners alike. The ruggedness of the binos is accompanied by undeniable extra weight and cost, though: at 26.8 ounces, the B1.2 is twice as heavy as Tasco’s Essentials binoculars, and 19 times more expensive.

                    Our testers liked Maven’s upgrades to its flagship bino, which include extra-low dispersion ED glass, fully multi-coated lenses and the larger, wider Schmidt-Pechan prism than its predecessor, but didn’t love the bulkiness or heft when compared to other models. The B1.2 is part of Maven’s elite line of optics, and after trying them out, our testers agreed that while the Maven’s clarity and brightness are notable, these binoculars are best left to the experts, rather than beginners.

                      Zeiss Victory SF 8×42 Binoculars

                      • Weight: 27.5 ounces
                      • Magnification and Diameter: 8x magnification power, 42 mm objective
                      • Waterproof: Waterproof + fogproof

                        Luxury, thy name is Zeiss. If you’ve decided birding is your passion, your life’s work, you’ll find yourself seriously considering dropping three grand on a pair of binoculars that offer unparalleled performance. The Victory SFs are lightweight, have an excellent handfeel and have a whopping 444ft field of view.

                        Zeiss achieved 92 percent light transmission by using the Ultra-FL Concept, which contains several Schott fluoride glasses that Zeiss says provide absolute color fidelity, brightness, clarity and the finest resolution of details, even in the harshest conditions and most challenging environments. That and the large field of view, combined with moderate magnification, make it possible to make long observations with a steady, crisp image. Zeiss calls the Victory SF its best all-purpose binoculars ever built, and with a 170-year history, that’s nothing to scoff at.