The World's Best Binoculars
July 17, 2018
Top-end binoculars are guaranteed to increase your success while hunting.
Now, that's a pretty brash statement, but it's true. You'll find more game because an honest-to-goodness premium binocular provides more clarity, more color purity, more detail, more definition, and more contrast than less expensive field glasses. As a result, you'll pick out more hard-to-see hidden game. And as a side benefit, you'll often find bigger bucks, bulls, and rams, too, because those old monarchs are wizards at hiding and average binos just don't have the magical—if you'll allow me an indulgent pun—clarity that enables you to pick them out of their hidey-hole.
You'll also avoid eyestrain, which is second only to poor glass quality in its ability to prevent you from finding game. When your eyes are aching and burning a shaft of pain into the center of your brain, you quit glassing. If you're not glassing, you're probably not finding game. Happy eyes find lots more game.
Plus, you'll be better able to evaluate antler and horn size. Now, if your primary motivation is to put some good lean free-range organic meat in the freezer, that's of little import. However, if you've drawn a special tag in an area legendary for big animals, you'll want to be picky—and good glass will help you be picky from a distance. In other words, you won't waste nearly as much time, energy and boot rubber getting closer for a better look. If a buck is a shooter, you'll know it. If he's just below the cusp of your expectations, you'll be able to tell from a greater distance.
So where do you find one of these almost-magical binoculars?
Unfortunately but very candidly, none of these best-of-the-best are made in the U.S. And although Asian quality has become quite good indeed, you'll find none from there, either. You've got to go to the birthplace of legendary optics, which is Germanic Europe.
We Americans are frequently frustrated by the seeming inability of European sport optic manufacturers to keep up with current innovation and provide modern features on riflescopes. Because of the tidal wave of popularity on the long-range shooting scene U.S shooters are driving innovation at a delightful rate, and American riflescope companies such as Nightforce, Vortex, Leupold and Revic undoubtedly make the most cutting-edge, long-range-capable scopes available.
However, binoculars don't have the same modern-feature requirements as riflescopes. Light transmission, color purity and clarity are the focus (sorry—another horrible pun) just as they were 100 years ago, and the companies that form what I think of as the Big Three—Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss—absolutely rule when it comes to binoculars.
Each company has several tiers of quality, usually in a good, better, best lineup. All perform well, but to get better quality than anything produced in Asia, American, and whatnot you've got to go to the very top. And yep, they're ghastly expensive.
Suggested retail runs between two and three thousand, generally toward the upper end. And they are worth every shinny copper penny.
Which is best? Candidly, they are so equally fantastic that it really comes down to which you prefer. Pick the one that feels best in your hands and looks best to you, and that you ultimately just like the most.
In an obligatory CMA statement, I will cheerfully concede that you don't absolutely need one of these state-of-the-art binoculars to enjoy success in the field. Affordable binos that serve dutifully if not beautifully are plentiful. However, if you're a car freak with means, you drive the cream of the Lamborghini crop. If you're an optics freak, why wouldn't you want the best?
Thankfully, optic freaks have it better than car freaks: No matter how high your binocular aspirations range, you can save and buy one. Instead of costing 10 years of blue-collar wages like a top-shelf Ferrari, the crème de la crème of binoculars costs the same as two or three mortgage payments.
But I digress. Here, in alphabetical order, are the three binoculars that I consider the best in the world.
Founded in Wetzlar, Germany in 1914—just as the Great War kicked off—Leica quickly became world renown for its cameras. Savvy engineers eventually put the company's superb engineering abilities and world-class glass into sport optics, resulting in landmark innovations for decades. Today, absolutely nothing beats the quality of a Leica binocular.
Of the several available lines, the Noctivid—a name with undertones suggesting low-light performance—is the company's flagship optic. It's available in 8x42 and 10x42. Schott HT glass does indeed offer best-in-class light transmission, coupled with sterling color purity across the complete spectrum courtesy of a new coating applied via plasma deposition, plus minimal distortion and crispness that must be seen to be believed.
Large ocular lenses provide forgiving eye placement. Classic looks meld with futuristic styling, managing a appearance that carries Leica's legendary panache yet is extremely practical, incorporating the outstanding ergonomics of an open-bridge design that balances in the hands as if it was born in them.
Rubber armoring protects the high-strength magnesium housing and provides a non-slip grip even in rain-wet or sweaty hands. Needless to say, all glass surfaces are fully multi-coated; outside lens surfaces feature Leica's moisture- and dirt-repellant AquaDura coating. And of course the Noctivid is waterproof and extremely shock resistant, and is purged against fogging.
Noctivid 10x42 specifications
Light transmission: 92%
Weight: 30.3 oz.
Length: 5.9 in.
Field of view: 336 ft @ 1000 yards
Waterproof to: 5 meters
Of the three binoculars included here, the EL is certainly the oldest. That's meant as a compliment. I don't have empirical data, but my experience with professional big game guides around the world suggests that there are nearly as many Swarovski EL binoculars in the hands of professional guides as there are all other models of binocular combined. That should tell you something about the EL's quality and durability.
If memory serves, the EL was the first roof prism binocular to incorporate open-bridge construction, which is now considered the ultimate in binocular design ergonomics. It made for a lighter, stronger binocular that is more comfortable in the hand than the traditional closed-bridge design.
Although other manufacturers have caught up, when first introduced the EL offered visibly better light transmission than just about anything else. Plus—and even more importantly—it provides perfect, crisp focus without distortion right to the edges of the large field of view. High-tech coatings on special HD lenses give "maximum color fidelity", setting the EL apart from its older SLC sibling models.
Several iterations are available. An EL 8x32 is my go-to when archery hunting. Below we list specs for the 10x42 (enabling an apples-to-apples comparison between the models featured here), and it's almost certainly the best all-around version. However, if you really need low-light performance the EL 50 offers outstanding light-gathering characteristics, and for tripod-supported, all-day glassing for wild sheep or for the Southwest's elusive coues deer, the EL 12x50 is impossible to beat.
It goes without saying that the EL is waterproof, fully multicoated with the best space-age lens finishes available, and fog and shock resistant to an obscene degree.
Swarovski EL 10x42 specifications
Light transmission: 90%
Weight: 29.6 oz.
Length: 6.3 in.
Field of view: 336 ft @ 1000 yards
Waterproof to: 4 meters
Zeiss Victory SF
My introduction to the Victory SF came on a lonely ridgeline somewhere on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, watching blesbuck feed across a distant slope as dusk fell and turned to dark. One by one the various binoculars our group carried became inadequate until only the SF hanging around a hunting pal's neck enabled us to see the animals. At the time I considered myself something of an optics snob and was carrying a top-tier model myself, and the SF difference was somewhat shocking.
An hour later, in bona fide darkness, we tried again. Amazingly, we could still pick out vague animal outlines feeding across the mountainside.
The Victory SF made Zeiss the spear-point of binocular innovation and performance at the time. Only the finest materials available are used, and only the best engineering and craftsmanship are employed. Some 160 years of experience went into the making of the SF, and it shows.
Like the Noctivid and EL, the Victory SF features an open-bridge design and offers unsurpassed balance and feel in the hands. Schott Ultra-FL glass transmits massive quantities of light and provides distortion-free images. Color fringing and unwanted refractions simply don't exist in the SF courtesy of LotuTec coatings.
Not only is the SF the lightest of the three binoculars featured here, it's got the widest field of view, making it just a bit easier to find a fast-moving object or keep track of a big buck or bull drifting through thick timber.
An ultra-strong frame of magnesium enables the SF to shrug off abuse sustained during hard-core backcountry hunts. Rubber armoring helps too and provides a non-slip surface for glassing cold, rainy hours away.
Waterproof, shockproof, and fogproof? Need you ask? It's a Zeiss.
Zeiss Victory SF 10x42 specifications
Light transmission: 92%
Weight: 27.5 oz.
Length: 6.8 in.
Field of view: 360 ft @ 1000 yards
Waterproof to: 400 mbar