Monday, January 18, 2010

My hunt for new binoculars

In mid-December I posted the following question to several birding e-mail lists:

“I'm in the market for new binoculars. I've been reading info on various binocular specifications like magnification, objective lens diameter, field of view, etc. Just wondering what experienced birders prefer as far as these specs are concerned? What do you think are the ideal specifications for binoculars for birders?”

For the past two years I’ve been using a pair of 8x21 Eagle Optics “Energy” compact binoculars. They’re pretty good for the money ($40), but they have some limitations. I was using these lower-end binocs for a reason. In 2007 I tumbled down 15 stairs and broke my arm. There were complications that required surgery a year later. To make a long story short, I was a one-armed birder, so size and weight trumped all other specifications. I missed some field marks with these binocs, especially in low light (I'm an early morning birder). Had to chalk up a lot of birds as “unknown”. On the plus side, I learned out of necessity how to sneak up on birds to get really close. :-) Also, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on my one-armed binocs because I mistakenly thought I’d be using them for only a couple of months and then switch back to my “old” binoculars (Minolta 8x – 20x50 zoom binoculars…they are at least 20 years old and kinda heavy).

I’d gotten used to the light weight of the Eagle Optics and I’d become a one-handed birder by habit. But the lens coatings on the Eagle Optics were wearing off from years of hard use. The Minoltas seemed heavy, and I figured that maybe, just maybe, optics manufacturing had improved over the past 20+ years. Time for new binoculars!!

The following web site was useful for me as far as explaining binocular specs:

http://www.astronomics.com/main/category.asp/catalog_name/Christophers/category_name/LRC32PMPS8Q68J2GMHDC93NNE1/Page/1

This related site was also helpful:

http://www.betterviewdesired.com/The-Ideal-Birding-Binocular.php

And birdwatcher.com offered some VERY helpful advice. It convinced me to find a store with a decent selection of binocs, rather than buying sight unseen online, especially where it says “Make sure the binocular will spread wide enough...for your eyes”. I have a big head, and some binoculars don’t “fit” right. Here’s their advice:

“There's something tangible but hard to define in the way a binocular fits a person's hands. It's a good idea to try a binocular personally before buying. Make sure the binocular will spread wide enough or close in narrow enough for your eyes. Notice the way the eyecups fit against your eyes or glasses. See whether you like the way the focus knob turns. Feel how your thumbs fit the shape of the binocular's body. Do you like the texture of the binocular's covering? In short, does this binocular fit? Does it feel right for you?”

What did birders on the e-mail lists recommend? Basically, most of the respondents used 8x42 binoculars. I didn’t specifically ask for info on brands/models, but that didn’t stop people from offering advice. A fair number of people said they'd had good luck with Nikon's Monarch series. Several others highly recommended Swarovsky. The Nikon Monarchs were a heck of a lot closer to my price range (~$300) than the Swarovsky's ($2,000+).

Someone mentioned to me that they’d had a good experience trying out binoculars in the optics department at a Bass Pro Shops store. So I went to a Bass Pro Shop. Nice selection (including Zeiss, Leupold, and Swarovsky). Helpful staff. I was favoring the 8x42 Nikon Monarch before I got there, but I also checked out more expensive models. Not knowing in advance what I preferred, the guy who helped me basically told me that, unless I had REALLY high standards for optics, I wouldn't notice much difference between Nikons and the higher-priced European binocs (one of the Swarovsky’s was $2,995!). The Bass Pro Shop guy was right, at least as far as my less-than-discerning tastes go. Some day maybe I’ll work my way up to something like a Swarovsky...dream on. :-)

I got a pair of 8x42 Nikon Monarchs (I tried out a 10x42 pair and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference). And I can't believe how much BETTER they are than my 8x21 Eagle Optics compacts. Of course, since the Nikons cost 7.5 times as much as the $40 Eagles, you’d hope they’d be much better. :-)

Finally, I need to mention that I’m not recommending the 8x42 Nikon Monarchs as the ideal birding binocular for everyone. I’ve learned that selecting new binoculars is a very personal thing. What works for one person may not work for another, your mileage may vary, etc. But the Nikons suited me, and were within my price range.

I'm hoping that sharing my experience will be helpful to someone. And many thanks to those who took the time to respond to my question!

subjects: birds birding birdwatching binoculars

No comments:

Post a Comment