Swarovski 8.5x42 EL Swarovision
The State of the Art Re-Defined
In the early 1980s I went along as my father’s schlepper for an appointment to photograph Aaron Copland. My dad was a photographer who gained a lot of attention for his portraits of people in the arts, and I occasionally came along as his assistant, especially when he was photographing someone I wanted to meet. I have always loved Copland’s music, and meeting him was a special occasion for me. As my father worked I took a few minutes to eyeball Copland’s record collection to see where a serious composer takes his solace. I was a little surprised to see an “Emerson, Lake and Palmer” album and even more so by Copland’s mediocre stereo system. How could a person whose entire life centered on music settle for such unconvincing sound reproduction? As an inveterate hi-fi tinkerer my dad would gladly have mortgaged the house or sold the family car for state-of-the-art sound reproduction. When it comes to birding optics I am very much like him.
I cannot understand how a person who invests great energy, passion, and money in watching birds can settle for less than the best available optics. I am baffled by the many seasoned birders who still proudly sport their 1970s or 1980s vintage Leica Trinovids or Zeiss 10x40s. I owned and loved both of those models and traded up when the state of the art advanced. Sentiment and frugality may have their place, but technology and engineering keep advancing and life is short. I have trained myself to keep my mouth shut in the presence of antique-toting birders. I have stopped telling them that their trusty Trinovids preceeded the invention of phase coating. That the images they see have poor contrast and color saturation. I have stopped telling them that the lifetime warranty on their bins is an expression of manufacturing quality and pride -- not an eleventh commandment to use their bins for life. I love watching birds. I love my binoculars. I am a faithful and constant companion. But when there is a significant advance I am quick to seek solace in the arms of a new optical companion. To those who balk at the cost of today’s best binoculars, I say that they are cheap in comparison to the pleasure they provide. If you spend $2,500 on binoculars every eight or ten years you are getting off cheap. Fishermen, photographers, hunters, backpackers, sailors, even chess players, happily spend far more on their pursuits than most bird watchers spend on optics.
Have you figured out, gentle reader, that I am leading up to something? That there is a new binocular out there that you will absolutely want?
Rather than keep you in suspense I will cut right to the quick. Swarovski has replaced their ten year old ELs with a model that sets a new standard for birding optics. The now venerable Swarovski ELs, which were introduced in 1999, were, at their introduction, game-changing binoculars. They were as bright as the Nikon Venturer. They worked well with and without eyeglasses and they were comfortable for people with either large or small hands. They had great resolution, very good color saturation and contrast, and provided a satisfying image that set a new standard for other makers to aim for. My one serious complaint with the first iteration of the ELs was that they focused much too slowly. Ignoring the advice of their own advisory team from Cape May Bird Observatory and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Swarovski engineers geared the focus wheel to turn two and a half times. Changing the focus from near to distant birds was irritatingly slow and was the primary reason I traded my ELs. Swarovski later fixed the focus and introduced a newer version that focused much faster. The ELs also suffered from a small amount of chromatic aberration in the center of the field which produced some edge distortion when looking at high contrast targets like soaring hawks and water fowl. Although the Leica Ultravids and the Zeiss Victory FLs surpassed the Swarovski ELs in several ways, the ELs have remained a strong choice among alpha class binoculars. But eleven years is a long time to stay at the head of the class, and a top manufacturer cannot rest on its laurels.
Two weeks ago I received a loaner pair of the new Swarovski 8.5x42 EL Swarovision binoculars which replace the ELs. Although the Swarovision bins look a lot like their predecessors this is a completely new binocular from the inside out. The Swarovision bins incorporate HD (low dispersion glass) objectives. They have added two field flattener lenses and feature a four element objective lens. They have improved the lens coatings for increased brightness. They have also used a magnesium body and a thinner, grippier rubber armor. The Swarovisions provide 20mm of eye relief, a 7.6 degree angle of view (400 feet at 1,000 yards). And they focus from infinity down to 4 ½ feet (for me).
What do all these changes mean for the birder? A lot! The image is the best I have seen. Brightness seems about equal to Leica Ultravids and Zeiss Victory FLs. The HD glass completely eliminates chromatic aberration and provides better color saturation and contrast than the ELs and other alpha-class bins. The addition of field flattener lenses eliminates curvature of the field which exists in almost all lenses to some degree. Since curvature of the field was never a problem in Swarovskis bins I would not have thought that this aspect of the EL’s image could be improved until I looked through the new model. I was blown away by the natural, satisfying, beautiful image. The only binocular I have used whose flatness of field rivals that of the Swarovision is the Nikon Superior E (now out of production). Swarovski has also re-engineered the gearing of the focus knob. Although the knob turns two and a half times (like the original ELs) the focus is quite fast and precise. These bins will focus five diopters past infinity which most of us will never need so most users will not start from hyper-infinity. In use it takes just one turn to cover normal birding distances from 8 feet to infinity and slightly more than an additional half turn from eight feet down to the closest focusing distance which, for me, was 4 ½ feet. Yes, the Swarovision bins are also great for butterflies and dragonflies.
Swarovski has also increased the angle of view to 7.6 degrees (400 feet at 1,000 yards) from 7.4 degrees (390 feet) in the ELs. That they have done it without causing any image blackout or other distortion is incredible.
Although the ELs worked extremely well for eyeglass wearers, the new Swarovisions are even better. They offer slightly more eye relief and an intermediate stop on the twist up eyecups. They should be comfortable for all face shapes and interpupilary distances, and will even fit fairly young children.
Although the Swarovisions include three additional lens elements, they are actually lighter (by 1oz.) than the ELs. The new rubber armor is more comfortable and provides a stickier grip than the armor used on the ELs.
Negatives? Just one. Frankly, I don’t like the new neck strap. It attaches to the bins with two buttons which go through two slits in the strap very much like cufflinks. The part that goes around your neck includes a system that allows you to quickly adjust the length but which leaves the ends dangling and in the way. The strap, like the one used on the ELs is very comfortable except for the dangling tabs. Please, if anyone at Swarovski is listening, go back to the old strap.
My binocular inventory includes Swarovski ELs, Leica Ultravids, Zeiss Victory FLs, Nikon Superior Es, and Nikon Premiers among others. In several days of birding and comparing the Swarovisions with the other bins in my closet, my wife and I have been battling over who gets to use the Swarovision bins. The Swarovisions have re-set the bar. So sell a few pints of blood. Take a second on your house. Teach your kids a lesson about independence by invading their college fund. Do whatever it takes and go get a pair. And, oh yes…if you are married to a birder, you will need two pairs.