Binoculars on a Budget

How optics that sell for around $500 stack up against the big boys.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Look at it this way: You will actually use your rifle for only a few seconds of any hunt, but if you have a brain in your head, you'll spend hours and hours glassing with your binoculars. They are as important as your rifle or bow.

Until very recently, hunters had two options when it came time to buy glassware: They could either get el cheapo horrors or bankrupt themselves for glasses of optical and mechanical splendor assembled by folks named Lothar and Hans. Not anymore. Hunters can now opt for glasses that cost $500 or less and are as good as anything you could get at any price a few years ago.

The difference between the glasses reviewed here and the ones that cost $750 to $1,000 or more is partly optical and partly mechanical. The image you get from a $500 glass is not quite as good as the one you get from a $1,000 glass, and the less expensive instruments are not built to survive 100 years of constant, brutal use, as are their costlier cousins.

I compared these five to two topflight binoculars: one that has served me splendidly for two decades, and a brand-new example. The lesser-priced models held up extremely well; their images were so bright and sharp as to be nearly indistinguishable from those of their premium-priced counterparts. (Note that all are rubber-armored, waterproof, roof-prism glasses that come with straps and cases.)

The Test
The best way to test binoculars is to take them hunting for 10 years and see how they hold up. Since I didn't have time for that, I did the following: To see if a glass was "waterproof," I dropped it in a bucket of warm water and watched for bubbles. If it bubbles, it's leaking. Then I stuck it in the freezer overnight, took it out, and let it thaw. If there's condensation on the interior of the lenses, it's leaked.

For brightness and resolution (sharpness) I set up a target at 80 yards (deer hunting distance). It's brown paper with fine green scoring lines that are impossible to see with the naked eye. I've found that only a binocular with good brightness and resolution will allow me to read those lines. With the target placed in the shade (bright light forces your eye to focus more sharply and makes binoculars seem better than they are), I examined it at two-hour intervals from noon until dark.

It's not the most scientific of tests, but I've found that glasses that do well here do well in the field, and vice versa.

1. Nikon Monarch 10x42 Waterproof (631-547-4200; www.nikon.com)
Nikon makes a wide range of binoculars, all of them at least good, and some of them superlative. These are plain-vanilla glasses that are, nonetheless, a great value.

Weight: 26 ounces
Field of view at 1,000 yards: 314 feet
Close focus to: 19.7 feet
Price: $299
Best Feature: The price-how do they do it?
Worst Feature: There are no lens caps for the front end.

2. Browning 10x42 (800-333-3288; www.browning.com)
Browning was in the optics business in the 1970s, and now they're back with a line of binoculars (and riflescopes) made by Bushnell.

Weight: 29 ounces
Field of view at 1,000 yards: 315 feet
Close focus to: 6 feet
Price: $463
Best Feature: The glass is bright and sharp, and the checkering on the case offers a very good grip.
Worst Feature: This is a strange complaint. Considering it's a new brand, I was hoping for something that would set these glasses apart from the herd.

3. Bushnell Legend 8x32 (800-423-3537; www.bushnell.com)
This is a handy glass of modest s

ize and price. It's an excellent value, available in a camo version if you simply must. Weight: 24 ounces
Field of view at 1,000 yards: 396 feet
Close focus to: 4 feet
Price: $377
Best Feature: It has Bushnell's Rainguard lens coatiing, which will not fog up or bead up no matter how foul the weather, which leads us to:
Worst Feature: Bushnell has not seen fit to provide rubber guards to protect either the ocular or the objective lenses.

4. Leupold Wind River Katmai 8x32 (503-526-1400; www.leupold.com)
In the past, I haven't been crazy about some of Leupold's binoculars, but this comparatively new model is a good 'un.

Weight: 18.9 ounces
Field of view at 1,000 yards: 330 feet
Close focus to: 5 feet
Price: $420
Best Feature: The Katmai has full-size optics-but it's only 4 inches tall! It's also very sharp and very bright and comes with a rain guard for the ocular lenses.
Worst Feature: I wish there were attached caps for the objective lenses to keep rain out.

5. Minox 8x32 Aspheric (www.minox.com)
Minox is primarily known for its tiny spy camera, but it has been making binoculars for a number of years, and they are very good ones. This is the second generation, equipped with aspheric lenses. The term refers to a lens that does all sorts of good things for a binocular but is expensive to manufacture, and that's why this example costs somewhat more than the other glasses here.

Weight: 21.8 ounces
Field of view at 1,000 yards: 400 feet
Close focus to: 41/2 feet
Price: $559
Best Feature: It possesses great optical quality: sharpness and brightness to a fare-thee-well.
Worst Feature: At the risk of being tiresome, rain gets on the objective lens as well as the oculars. How about giving them caps too?