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Binoculars Buying Guide: What Do You Need and What Should You Pay?

Don't strain your sights — or your budget! A good pair of binoculars can cost you less than $100.
Published
TK

Oh, to have the eyes of a hawk, able to spot a mouse a half-mile away. Of course, being more clever than hawks, ever-adapting human beings invented binoculars, which give us even better long-distance sight. Whether your passion is watching birds, hunting, boating, or even studying the stars, a good pair of binoculars can bring these objects of interest up close and personal.

And although the notion of specialized optical equipment may make you see "$$$," we're here to bring you the best deals and discounts on binoculars around. But if you're a novice outdoorsman looking for a deal on a pair of binoculars, you should first know what it is exactly you're buying. Here are some basics.

How to Read the Numbers

The specifications for each pair of binoculars is represented by two numbers, such as 8x32mm. "8x" is the magnification, and "32mm" indicates the size in millimeters of the large lenses opposite the eyepieces. Magnification is, of course, the size of the image in the binoculars relative to what you would see with the naked eye. If with a naked eye that tree you see in the distance appears to be 10-feet tall, through 8x binoculars it would appear 80-feet tall.

The size of the large front lenses matter because they gather light and help determine how bright and sharp the image is that you see. In broad daylight, small front lenses such as 32mm work fine, but in dim light you may want to opt for larger lenses such as 42mm.

Another important number that usually appears on binoculars is the field of view, which expresses the width of your field of view at a specific distance: i.e. 124 meters at 1,000 meters. This means the binoculars show a 124-meter-width view at a distance of 1,000 meters. FOV might also be expressed as a percentage, such as 50 degrees. If you're trying to track, say, a turkey through brush, you'll want a relatively wide field of view so you aren't required to constantly move your binoculars. But if you're watching a bird in a tree, using a smaller FOV offers greater precision. Do note that too wide a field of view can result in distortion at the edges of your binoculars.

The Merits of Top-End Specs

Many people are seduced by power in binoculars, thinking a pair of 20x50mm must be a better deal than a similarly priced 8x32mm. However, this is not necessarily the case; the higher the magnification, the smaller the field of view. Also, think practically: binoculars can become heavy in your hand very quickly. It's hard for the human arm to hold binoculars rock-steady, and a small field of view will accentuate every tremble. For most purposes, binoculars with 7x to 10x magnification and a front lens of 30mm to 42mm provide good image viewing at a reasonable price.

When selecting binoculars you must also be aware of the size of the exit pupil — small circles of light centered in the lenses when the binoculars are held at arm's length. These holes represent the size of the image delivered to your eye. If these openings are larger than your pupils, you won't benefit from the additional size. In this case, a really large front lens won't give you a crisper image.

You'll always pay more for zoom binoculars that can zoom from 7x to 20x magnification. However, all the moving parts tend to make them less reliable than fixed-lens types. Image stabilized binoculars will also cost more than their non-image stabilized counterparts because they automatically compensate for any hand trembling.

Binocular Basics

  • Focus Knob: This adjustment piece should move smoothly throughout its range without binding or running too freely. Once in place the focus knob should have enough resistance to remain in position even when the binoculars are jostled.

  • Adjustable Eyepiece: Binoculars have one adjustable eyepiece that allows those who wear glasses to use the binoculars without their spectacles. This diopter adjustment is made by screwing said eyepiece in or out. This adjustment should occur smoothly, but not freely. Some higher-end binoculars have a lock that holds the eyepiece setting in place.

  • Ergonomics: Are the binoculars comfortable to hold? To test them out, try holding them to your eyes for several minutes — not just a couple of seconds. Do they afford a solid grip? Can you reach the focus knob without strain? Do they fit your hands well?

  • Spreading Mechanism: The distance between peoples' eyes vary and, therefore, so does the distance of their pupils. So, a pair of binoculars must offer adjustments to suit wider or narrower brows. The hinge on which binoculars spread should be smooth enough that you can make subtle adjustments, yet stiff enough to hold the desired position.

  • Coatings: Different lens coatings can reduce glare and increase the amount of light gathered, thereby improving your field of view.

The Best Binocular Deals

Now that you know what to look for, we've focused in on some ideal models for a variety of hobbies and purposes. Additionally, we've included current pricing information to help guide your purchase.

General Purpose: The Steiner 280 8x30mm G Military Marine Binoculars ($209.99 with free shipping, a low by $40) are compact, lightweight (18 oz.), coated in durable rubber, have a 390-foot field of vision at 1,000 yards, and come with a 10-year warranty.

Bird Watching: The top-rated birding binoculars can run you several thousands of dollars, but if you're not ready to invest a fortune you can try these Nikon Action 7238 8x40mm Binoculars ($129 with $9.89 s&h, a low by $1). You won't get all the bells and whistles, but they have multi-coated prisms and a wide 430-foot field of view at 1,000 yards.

Hunting: The Binoculars.com Hunting Binoculars of the Year in 2011 are the Steiner Predator Extreme Series 10x42mm Binoculars ($379.99 with free shipping, a low by $20). This pair features optics that enhance red and brown colors and that reduce shades of blue and green to make wildlife stand out in a woodland setting.

If you can't shell out that kind of dough, instead check out the more reasonably-priced Barska 8x32mm Waterproof Hunting Binoculars ($69.99 with free shipping). These are very lightweight and boast a rubber armor coating that enhances your grip and protects the mechanisms from drops and wear and tear.

Astronomy: For the beginning astronomy buff, this relatively cheap option can bring the stars and planets close enough to fire your imagination. The Konus Konusvue Giant 20x80mm Astronomical Binoculars ($89.39 with free shipping, a low by $11) are meant to be used with a tripod, and have fully coated optics. Their 80mm front lenses will pull in a huge amount of light, making your viewing of the night sky crisp.

Marine: Much like stargazers, mariners tend to also use their binoculars in low light conditions, and these Bushnell 7x50mm Marine Binoculars ($116.95 with free shipping, a low by $11) are well equipped: they're fully waterproof, resistant to salt water corrosion, and will even float.

As you can see above, there are binoculars for every budget. Much like eyeglasses, some folks can find a budget pair that works just fine, while others aren't satisfied with anything less than the best. Fortunately, in each price range there are binoculars bargains to be had. Sign up for an email alert to keep an eye on the best deals as we see them.

Note that this feature has been updated since it was originally published last year.
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Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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1 comment
stevekk
What about HD binoculars?
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