This year we put more scopes and binoculars than ever (27 total) into the hands of more testers than ever, including myself; gun writer and F&S contributing editor Richard Mann; and University of Rochester optics professor Jim Zavislan and four of his hunting buddies and fellow optics nuts: Jeff Arndt, Joel Hoose, Marty Lasher, and Tim O’Connor. The result is our biggest, most exhaustive optics test to date.
There were some clear trends: For binoculars, it was value. Never before have so many mid- to low-priced models competed so closely with the top-shelf stuff. After days of testing, we narrowed the field down to the top 10 in each category and picked the best performers and can’t-miss bargains for both. Here’s how it all shook out. —D.H.
→ We evaluated each binocular in the following seven categories: Resolution Zavislan: set up a 1951 USAF Resolution Test Chart, as well as several color artifact tests. From 100 yards away, testers recorded values corresponding to detail resolved and color shift perceived. Image Quality: Testers judged each model’s image for ease of use, feeling of immersion, clarity, and visual artifacts, including apparent stray light and field curvature. Low-Light Performance: Zavislan took an objective measurement of light transmission, which factors out differences in exit pupil. Build & Ergonomics: He also measured stray light and field of view, and the team judged overall feel in the hand, as well as the quality, feel, and functionality of the casing, focus wheel, eyepieces, diopter adjustment, and lens covers. Weather Resistance: We submersed each binocular in a 5-gallon bucket for 10 minutes, then froze them for an hour, then brought them into the hot sun, rating the effects on image and functionality at three stages during the process. Handling: The lighter and more compact the binocular (relative to its purpose), the better the score. Value: Performance divided by price. We scored each binocular on a 1 to 10 scale for every category and then weighted the results, prioritizing optical performance and weather resistance, for a total possible score of 100. —D.H.
1. BEST OF THE TEST: Nikon Monarch HG
Score: 89.6 • $1,000 Ralph Smith
|10×42||5.7×5.2×2″||24 oz||17mm eye relief||4.2mm exit pupil||362′ FOV @ 1,000 yd.|
The new Monarch HG gave its top German-made competitor a close run for best overall optical quality, and most of the testers, when asked which binocular they’d choose for everyday hunting, clutched these Nikons the closest. With Field Flattener lenses that minimize distortion at the edges, the Monarch HG puts serious optical performance into a lightweight, handy package that’s highly versatile and feels ready for action. It has all the right features, including a locking diopter, a smooth and precise focus wheel, and lens covers that actually stay put. The exposed-metal objective rings and pebble-rubber armor also supply a cool retro vibe that we appreciated. All told, the HG hits the sweet spot for hunters who want a high-quality binocular to cover all their needs, and do it at a fair price.
Score: 88.3 • $2,700 Ralph Smith
|10×42||5.9×4.9×2.3″||30.3 oz||19mm eye relief||4.2mm exit pupil||376′ FOV|
When you bring this binocular to your eyes, the world looks like a better place. They’re that good. With perfect scores in build and ergonomics, resolution, and image quality, the Noctivid is what you get when you combine German glass, precision engineering, and few, if any, limits on production costs. All the moving parts—eyecups, focus wheel, and locking center-dial diopter control—are smooth and positive. The plasma-coated Schott glass delivers a stunning picture with eye-popping detail. At $2,700, the Noctivid got low marks for value. But surprisingly, the binocular also fell down on weather resistance, showing condensation inside the right barrel that lingered for days. Leica says that this is highly unusual and would be covered under warranty, but still, we had to ding it.
Score: 88 • $1,199 Ralph Smith
|8×56||7.8×8.3×2.7″||38.5 oz||Eye relief n/a||7mm exit pupil||441′ FOV|
The only porro-prism binocular in this year’s test, the ShadowQuest is made to perform a very specific task: to help you methodically pick apart the landscape and find distant critters at the very edges of daylight. And it does a heck of a job of it. This was the only binocular to notch a perfect score for low-light performance, and it also finished near the top in resolution. What’s more, no amount of soaking, freezing, or thawing significantly obscured the image. It has individual-eyepiece focusing, so you can’t refocus quickly, but that’s not what the ShadowQuest is made for. You get yourself a good vantage point, you set the focus (which will then be sharp from 20 yards to infinity), and then you start searching this binocular’s huge field of view to spot animals you might well miss with other models.
4. BEST VALUE: Bushnell Engage
Score 86.5 • $350 Ralph Smith
|8×42||5.5×5.2×2.2″||23.5 oz||19mm eye relief||5.3mm exit pupil||426′ FOV|
How does a $350 binocular finish a whisker behind three models averaging more than three times the cost? Simple. Value counts in our scoring system, and there is no better value in 2017 than the Bushnell Engage. Yes, the overall image quality is a step down from the other top models, but its resolution score rivaled the Nikon’s. One of the smallest and lightest models in the test, the Engage feels great in the hand. Aside from a bit of backlash in the focus wheel, the construction and mechanics are solid and smooth. Low-light performance was a little lacking, but in keeping with Bushnell’s reputation for toughness, the Engage hardly missed a beat in our brutal weather test. Bottom line: It’s a good, tough optic you can count on in any weather, for a fraction of the price.
Score: 86.5 • $1,000 Ralph Smith
|10×42||6.1×5.1×2.2″||29.6 oz||17mm eye relief||4.2mm exit pupil||336′ FOV|
The Bushnell may be the better value—but price aside, the Passion HD is the better binocular. The optics are noticeably superior, the build quality and mechanics more refined, and it did just as well in the worst conditions. You need to shell out more, but for German engineering, $1K is still a nice price.
6. Tract Tekoa
Score: 85.9 • $464 Ralph Smith
|10×42||5.7×5.1×2.2″||24 oz||16mm eye relief||4.2mm exit pupil||314′ FOV|
Another standout bargain. Testers loved the size and feel of the Tekoa, which had the highest image-quality scores of any model under $1K. Although low-light performance was a tad lacking, this binocular was, along with the Steiner, the only model to score a 10 in weather resistance.
7. Maven C.1
Score: 85.5 • $375 Ralph Smith
|10×42||5.7x5x2″||24.5 oz||16mm eye relief||4.2mm exit pupil||314′ FOV|
If you’re on a budget and your main priority is to make out fine detail—say to count antler points—the C.1 is your huckleberry. For resolution, it scored second only to the Leica, which is impressive at this price. Most other marks were middle of the road, but the C.1 notched a perfect score for handling.
Score: 85.1 • $455 Ralph Smith
|8×42||5.8x5x2″||23.2 oz||19.5mm eye relief||5.3mm exit pupil||330′ FOV|
Notice that less than 1 point separates the Burris from the Maven and the Tract—and the prices are also very close. Take your pick. Of the three, the Signature HD had the best build and ergonomics score, dominating the stray-light test, and it, too, sailed through our weather test.
9. Vortex Fury HD
Score: 79.7 • $1,600 Ralph Smith
|10×42||5.7×5.9×2.2″||31.8 oz.||16mm eye relief||4.2mm exit pupil||314′ FOV|
In our apples-to-apples comparison, this rangefinding binocular is the orange. Our test prioritizes optical performance, which is compromised when you add a rangefinder. Still, it didn’t lag far behind, and it offers the tremendous practical advantage of a rangefinder that gave quick, consistent readings.
10. Leupold BX-5 Santiam HD
Score: 79.3 • $1,819–1,884 Leupold
|15×56||8.2×6.1×2.6″||45 oz.||18mm eye relief||3.73mm exit pupil||231′ FOV|
These big, powerful glasses are made for long sessions of gazing at faraway critters. Overall, the Santiam‘s image was clear and bright, but the binocular fell down a little in resolution and ergonomics. Testers found it stiff and a little hard to get into. That said, it aced our weather test.