How much do you need to spend for bird-worthy optics?
I am really trying to be less judgmental, but I just can’t stand lousy optics! Since you can find bird-worthy optics in just about every price range, there is really no excuse to handicap yourself with binoculars that don’t do the job.
Two years ago "D" and "N" showed up for one of my Central Park bird walks wearing binoculars which they purchased in 1957. They were so dim that you could have been looking through a sheet of waxed paper. They didn't accommodate eyeglasses. In short, they were crap when they were new and they hadn't improved with age. It was mid-May when the Park was full of warblers. But "D" and "N" couldn’t see them because their binoculars were so dim and fuzzy. They took me aside, thanked me for my patience, and said they were going home because their aging eyes were just not good enough to bird anymore. "Please stay and try these," I suggested, and I handed them a pair of Zeiss Victory FLs--a magnificent binocular. Well they stayed and had what Audubon President, John Flicker, calls a "wow experience."
After our bird walk "D" and "N" went home, turned on their computer, ordered four pairs of Zeiss Victory FL binoculars–one for each of them and one each for their son and his wife. I was a bit surprised to see people leap from junk to state-of-the-art without even considering a mid-priced option. Upon reflection, I endorse their decision, because they have become dedicated birders and have started traveling to bird in exotic destinations. They have joined almost every walk I have led. They constantly thank me for helping them get back into birding. I didn't do it. The Zeiss Victorys did. Having great binoculars has helped them become fully engaged in a magnificent passtime. Binoculars are the most important tool in birding. A birder--no matter what level of experience--needs bird-worthy binoculars. You don't really need to break the bank, but you need optics that will provide you with bright, distortion-free image and a wide angle of view.
State-of-the-art alpha-class binoculars from Zeiss, Leica, or Nikon are the most enjoyable instruments to use, but don't feel too badly if you can't manage the cost. In fact, many of the technical innovations developed by these industry leaders have trickled (in somewhat diluted form) down to the lower price ranges. You can even buy acceptable bird-worthy binoculars for less than $100.
My friend and colleague, Greg, is very experienced birder, who bought a pair of Audubon Equinox HP 8x42 for about $250. He swears by them and says that he will never again spend more for binoculars.
So what do you get when you buy a state-of-the-art binocular? If you can get good optics for a lot less why pay close to $2,000? You get better glass which is made from rare earth elements. These expensive high diffraction index glasses do less damage to the light path and offer much less distortion–particularly at the edges of the field. They provide more accurate color rendition. You get better, more durable lens coatings which will provide a brighter image. You get a more sophisticated multi-element eyepiece which provides a wider field of view and minimal distortion. You get bigger prisms which provide a brighter, less distorted image. You also get a more durable, more rugged instrument.
Consider, gentle reader, that birding repairs the damage caused by playing in life's traffic. Since binoculars are the one essential birding tool, think of them as cheap therapy rather than an expensive luxury. Birding with great binoculars and a great companion will do more for your spirit and your body than many hours with a therapist or any quantity of blood pressure medication. So take the money you were saving for your kid’s college tuition and spend it on a pair of Zeiss Victory FLs, Leica Ultravid HDs, or Nikon Edg binoculars. Then blow the rest on a birding trip to some place you have always dreamed of going. Since your kids already know everything there is to know, they don’t need to go to Harvard. Two years of community college will be fine. Spending your children’s tuition money on birding and telling them that they have to go to a community college will build character in them and you. It will also give them something to talk to their shrink about. Your angst will disappear quickly because your alpha class binoculars will give you so much pleasure.
But heed this warning! If you get used to alpha-class binoculars, it will be very difficult to get accustomed to a lesser instrument. Charlie, a birding buddy of mine, has been using a pair of Swift Audubon 8.5x44 poro prism binoculars for several years. I have always liked Swift binoculars. The “Audubon” model is a model that has been regarded by most knowledgeable birders as a "best buy." They have been dubbed by some as “a poor man’s Swarovski.” Charlie's Swifts are well used, and he has the bug for a new pair and recently asked to borrow my Leica Ultravids. After five minutes, he yelled “Oh Crap! How am I ever gonna look through anything else.”
I know that you will not all run out and take mortgages to finance new binoculars, so let's consider some lower priced alternatives. There is good news here. You can really do extremely well by spending $250 - $550. In this price range, I highly recommend the Audubon Equinox HP 8x42, the Vortex Viper 8x42, the Leupold Katmai 6x32 or 8x32, as well as several models from Pentax. These binoculars are almost as bright as their higher priced cousins. They are surprisingly sharp and distortion-free in the center of the field. They are also light weight and comfortable to use.
Taking another step down in price to under $150, I like the Audubon Raptor 8x42, and the Leupold Wind River Yosemite 6x32. The Leupold Yosemite is a great family binocular. They are small enough for children to use comfortably and the interpupilary distance can be adjusted to be quite comfortable for a child. This is the only really good binocular I can think of which is designed with children in mind. (Oh yes -- they work for adults too.)
At the bottom of the price pyramid, I love the Nikon Action 7x35. Although the Action is heavy and clunky looking, it offers a bright image which is surprisingly sharp in the center of the field. What I like best about these bins is the panoramic field of view which makes it easy to find birds and easy to keep them in your binocular field when they are on the wing.
So--yes Virginia, you can buy bird-worthy binoculars to fit your budget, so watch this blog for detailed reviews of binoculars in future postings.