June 18, 2015
If you know what to look for, you can find an affordable binocular well fit to your needs.
At the ripe old age of 11, I was presented with a Tasco porro prism binocular. That binocular opened a distant world to me. I spotted more muley bucks, found more shed antlers and more accurately called my twin brother's bullet impacts when we plinked at long-ish distance with our single-shot Steven's Favorite .22 rifles. Since then, I've never been without a binocular close at hand.
Today, almost 30 years later, the quality of glass and lens coatings and the advancement in engineering in even budget binoculars is far superior to that in my first pair of field glasses.
Below is a roundup of several low- to medium-priced field glasses that will serve well in their intended sphere, but before you dive into the descriptions of each, it's important to know your needs. Whether your intended purpose is to more closely watch the winning putt from the grandstand at your favorite golf tournament, or to more precisely focus on a finch perched 20 feet away, or to spot a big whitetail skulking down a dark ravine at the thin edge of dusk, you need to know the various optical elements that affect a binocular's suitability for your chosen task.
Sports Watching and Casual Use
For watching sports or for casual use during bright daylight, you can get away with something smaller and less robust than an optic designed for big game hunting. Since you won't be using it at first and last light, it doesn't need to gather light as aggressively, so objective (front) lenses can be smaller. You won't likely need it to perform at temperature extremes and in rain and snow, so waterproofing is less critical. Assuming adequate optical quality in the lenses and good mechanics in the focus system, compact size and convenience are paramount.
When hunting, on the other hand, you'll want an optic that gathers light, which means it's got to have big, high-quality objective lenses that are fully multi-coated with cutting-edge finishes to reduce reflection and refraction as much as possible. Good lens coatings also bring out subtle color differences among subdued browns and earth colors, making it easier to pick a patch of deer hide out of a background made up of the various browns, tans and greens of deer habitat. Hunting binocular bodies must be extremely robust against the abuse you'll surely give it in the hunting field, and waterproofing is critical. Glass that minimizes distortion is also critical because you'll spend literally hours of each day looking through them, and without good, distortion-free glass, you'll experience horrible eyestrain and resulting headaches.
When birds — with all their nuances of color, shape, size and habitat — are on the menu, you'll want extraordinary clarity, which only comes with well-ground lenses made from quality glass, and minimal color fringing and light refraction, which comes via the coatings on the lens surfaces.
Birders value a fast-focus wheel that enables you to jump from a distant falcon to a nearby hummingbird with a quick turn of the knob. The ability to focus on very close objects is also important. Plenty of magnification assists in seeing the finer details of whatever avian is perched nearby, although too much power makes it hard to handhold a binocular steady. Durability is also vital because birders tend to work their field glasses hard.
Choosing the Right Binocular
Picking the bino most suited to your particular purposes — which, let's admit it, is most likely made up of percentages of all the above categories — is best done hands-on. The below list of candidates is merely to get the wheels turning; it's worth your while to make a pilgrimage to the nearest large sporting goods dealer and spend some time comparing binoculars side by side. Look for ergonomics that fit your hands well; for glass that doesn't make your eyes feel funny after several minutes of staring through it, and for trueness to color. Most such stores have an eye chart posted somewhere across the building. Take the time to see which binos help you read the small print most comfortably. Test for distortion by scanning along a horizontal line, watching for it to "bend" or appear to flow in a curve or ripple as it enters and passes out of the sides of your field of view.
Above all, take your time when searching for binoculars. If you choose the right pair, it will likely be the last you ever purchase, and you want to be happy with them.
Here, in alphabetical order, are several options worth checking out in a range of prices from below $100 to a little more than $500.
Bushnell Elite 8x42
With roots harking back to the days of Bausch & Lomb — an ancestor of the Elite line — this outstanding binocular is fairly light, holds its own in the comfort department and offers optical quality superior to its price tag. At 8x, it offers all the magnification you'll need inside of a quarter mile, and the 5.2 exit pupil ratio of the large 42mm objective lenses enables it to gather light admirably well.
Lenses are made of ED Prime glass and are full multi-coated, reducing refraction, color fringing and distortion beyond what most human eyes are capable of detecting. Mounted in a magnesium housing, purged and sealed against moisture and dust, and armored in rubber, this binocular is waterproof and very robust, combined with outstanding ergonomics. Twist-up eyecups enable the user to adjust for glasses. The diopter adjustment is center-mounted and locking.
The Elite 8x 42mm is a very versatile choice for hunters — it would be one of my personal top choices on this list for any type of use — and is light and just compact enough to carry day after day without fatigue. Included are a soft carry case and a neck strap.
- Price: $529.99
- Weight: 25.7 oz.
- Exit pupil: 5.2mm
- FOV: 330 ft. @ 1,000 yards
Bushnell Legend M-Series 10x42
With an open-bridge design connecting the dual magnesium barrels of the Legend M-Series, this binocular follows the extremely ergonomic design principles of much more expensive cutting-edge binoculars. Add ED Prime fully multi-coated glass with Bushnell's exceptional RainGuard HD and a dielectric prism coating designed to maximize color-true images and provide a touted 92-percent light transmission, coupled with mechanical advantages such as a locking eyepiece diopter, improved eyecups and so forth, and you've got honestly capable field glasses.
It's worth noting that while I tapped the 10x version for inclusion here, the M-Series is also available in an 8x magnification.
Waterproof and internally fogproof, the 10x Legend M-Series is a great choice for a hunter wanting the comfort of an open-bridge body, coupled with enough magnification to effectively glass and evaluate a pronghorn buck a half-mile across the plains or a bull elk atop a distant ridge. For a 10-power field glass, it's got an admirably wide field of view as well; advantageous while scanning wide expanses in search of deer or when trying to pick up a fast-moving animal. Included are a carrying case, objective lens covers and a neck strap.
- Price: $399.99
- Weight: 23.5 oz.
- Exit pupil: 4.2mm
- FOV: 340 ft. @ 1,000 yards
Bushnell Legend Ultra HD Compact 10x25
I'm not a big user of shirt-pocket-size binoculars because for honest big game hunting they just don't cut the Dijon, especially when light begins to fade. But I've used too many of Bushnell's outstanding Legend Ultra HD optics to discount this little 10x 25mm compact binocular.
Tiny size notwithstanding, it's waterproof and fogproof; it has twist-up eyecups adaptable for use with eyeglasses and is diopter-adjustable to enable the user to finesse the focus to perfection for his or her eyes. ED Prime lenses are fully multi-coated and finished with RainGuard HD to help them shed water like a duck.
As you can see by the exit pupil in the specs, this is not a low-light binocular, but for general use in bright conditions, where compact size and very light weight are desirable characteristics, the Legend Ultra HD Compact is very hard to beat.
- Price: $169.99
- Weight: 8.1 oz.
- Exit pupil: 2.5mm
- FOV: 285 ft. @ 1,000 yards
Bushnell Legend E-Series 8x42
As with the M-Series binoculars from Bushnell, the E-Series comes with abundant features at a very reasonable price. The E-Series 8x42 features lead-free glass in a durably constructed lightweight magnesium chassis, and it is waterproof and fog proof. It also features Bushnell's excellent RainGuard HD water-repellant lens coating, an incredibly useful addition, especially given the E-Series 8x42's competitive price point.
The E-Series has an ultra wide field of view (426 feet at 1,000 yards) and a close focus of 6.5 feet. Like all the binoculars in the Legend L- and M-Series, the E-Series binoculars are covered with Bushnell's exclusive Bulletproof 100 percent Money Back Guarantee. In addition to the 8x42, Bushnell also manufactures a 10x42 option in the E-Series line.
- Price: $179.99
- Weight: 22.4 oz.
- Exit pupil: 5.3mm
- FOV: 426 ft. @ 1,000 yards
Tasco Essentials 10x42
Like the inexpensive Tasco binocular of my youth, these field glasses will get the job done if you're on a budget and don't spend most of your hunt glaring through your bino. They're comfortable in the hands, offer a good exit pupil diameter for low-light performance, have fully coated lenses and offer twist-up eyecups and other such niceties. While their light transmission, color purity and distortion-free viewing may not be as excellent as higher priced sets of binoculars, they offer good utility for the price.
They're fairly robust, and are backed by Tasco's Limited Lifetime Warranty. For a loaner binocular, or for something to get your kids started, or for glass you just want to use hard and not worry about, they have a place. It's worth noting that they are not waterproof or fogproof, so keep that in mind.
- Price: $49.99
- Weight: 25 oz.
- Exit pupil: 4.2mm
- FOV: 369 ft. @ 1,000 yards
Weaver Kaspa 8x42
On the low end of the pricing stick at Weaver Optics, the Kaspa line is designed to maximize the bang for your buck; to offer features typically found on premium binoculars at a budget-bino price. Rubber armored for protection, this open-bridge field glass is a roof prism design with twist-adjustable eyecups, diopter adjustment and a very ergonomic feel.
Fully multi-coated lenses enhance clarity, minimize refraction and assist in color honesty. And while the Kaspa isn't as distortion-free as a binocular costing five times its price, it won't give you an instant headache like many economy binoculars.
While the 8x 42mm version is my pick for versatility, offering a relatively broad field of view, a forgiving, light-transferring exit pupil diameter, and quite light weight, it's worth noting that it can be had in several other 8x and 10x versions with various objective diameters.
- Price: $79.99
- Weight: 21 oz.
- Exit pupil: 5.2mm
- FOV: 325 ft. @ 1,000 yards
Weaver Grand Slam 8.5x45
With a sub-half-grand price tag, Weaver's Grand Slam binocular is arguably this roundup's best bet for all-around performance coupled with relative affordability. In the 8.5x 45mm version these very good field glasses transfer light admirably, offering an outstanding 5.3mm exit pupil diameter. Roof prism lenses are fully multi-coated for optimum light transmission and minimal refraction and color fringing, and while the body is of the classic center-bridge design rather than the open-bridge type becoming so popular today, it's still very comfortable in the hands.
Rubber armored for durability and ruggedness, the Grand Slam is internally nitrogen purged and is sealed aggressively to make it waterproof and fogproof. Extendable eyecups adjust for use with glasses, and a center diopter helps tune the two barrels to perfection for the end-users individual eyes. Whether glassing nesting geese on a North Dakota pothole pond, searching for a full-curl dall sheep in Alaska's Wrangell range, or picking a bedded whitetail buck out of thick CRP cover, this binocular will serve you well.
- Price: $492
- Weight: 24.7 oz.
- Exit pupil: 5.3mm
- FOV: 314 ft. @ 1,000 yards
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