I have long admired Swift Optical for its great products and its responsiveness to its customers. In May 2005 I met the company CEO, Allison Swift, in Cape May, New Jersey where I had a chance to briefly audition HHS Audubon 8.5x44 (roof prism) and the new UltraLite. (The UltraLite will be reviewed in another article.) After using these samples for about a half hour on a back bay boat tour I was favorably impressed by both models and was pleased to obtain samples for a more critical test. The HHS is the latest incarnation of a series of binoculars which have carried the "Audubon" designation. The Audubon line has always been well received by birders and critics, with each new version offering significant improvements over its predecessors. (As with the UltraLite, Swift offers an Audubon poro prism model which was reviewed by my colleague, Steve Ingraham, a few years ago.) The “HHS” designation in the model name is for Humphrey Hathaway (Hop) Swift, the late President of the company. The 8.5x44 Audubon was the last project that Hop worked on before his death. After Hop's death, the company was taken over by his daughter, Allison, and moved from Boston to San Jose, CA.
Comfort, Focus, Handling: At 23.4 ounces, the HHS Audubons are one of the lightest full-sized binoculars on the market. They are very well balanced from front to rear, and very comfortable to use, even with one hand. People with small hands should love them. Following the current trend, Swift has incorporated thumb rests in the HHS. I generally do not like thumb rests, but these get good marks. Most thumb rests force the user to keep his or her hands in a single position, but the thumb rests on the HHS are well positioned and Swift has, thankfully, adopted a minimalist approach, using small indentations which I found to be comfortable for a variety of hand positions.
The focus knob is large and well placed. My index fingers fell quite comfortably on the knob without stretching. The diopter adjustment is incorporated into the focus knob. To adjust the diopter you raise the top of the focus knob and rotate it. Pushing it down locks it in place. I like this design because the diopter adjustment stays where you put it. Diopter adjustments located on one of the binocular barrels tend to migrate out of adjustment unless they have some sort of locking mechanism. With the focus knob turning two full rotations I found the HHS to be slower-focusing than I have come to expect from top binoculars these days. I say "these days" because I remember when all binoculars were like this. I urge the Swift company (and all binocular manufacturers) to adopt a single turn as the standard, and hope that the next iteration of the Audubons will address this shortcoming.
The rubber armoring has a slight texture which I found to be very comfortable. I especially appreciate that it doesn't seem to hold on to flour, or potato chip crumbs. (Yes, I often eat while wearing my binoculars.) Swift has thoughtfully extended the armor to cover the strap lugs, which keeps them from chafing your hands.
Eye Relief, Field of View: The HHS has solid twist up and down eyecups, which provide 19mm eye relief when fully retracted. While wearing eyeglasses I was able to easily see the entire field. The field of view is 336 at 1,000 yards, which is quite acceptable, but I would love to see a wider field in future incarnations of this model.
Resolution and Image Quality: The HHS shows less chromatic aberration than I have seen in other roof prism binoculars in this price range. There is some (barely discernable) color fringing in the center of the field, which becomes more significant at the edges -- as one would expect. I hasten to point out the HHS has less color fringing than I have found on two other much more expensive binoculars. Chromatic aberration is a type of distortion that is inherent in most lenses. It is a failure to bring all the wavelengths of light to a common focus. Most of us, especially eyeglass wearers, train ourselves not to see it, but chromatic aberration is especially evident when looking at high contrast targets, like a crow against a clear bright sky. In a binocular which suffered from chromatic aberration, you would see a reddish purple or greenish blue halo at the edges of the target. Binoculars differ in the amount of chromatic aberration, but most suffer from it to some degree. The only affordable binocular to seriously address this issue is the Zeiss Victory FL, which incorporates the mineral, flourite, into its objective lenses.
The field of the HHS is very flat. Straight lines stay straight until the edges of the field at which point there is a small amount of curvature.
The image appears to be very bright and compares favorably with several more expensive binoculars like the Nikon LX L and the Swarovski EL. Contrast is very good, and color rendition appears to be slightly warm.
I was, quite frankly, astonished by the HHS Audubon’s resolution. The center of the field is outstanding. In the center of the field, the Audubons out-performed several more expensive binoculars and came close to two of the most expensive “alpha” glasses that I have tested. The Audubons had no trouble resolving the finest details of an Osprey at 200 feet, or the details in a flock of Western Sandpipers at about the same distance.
Conclusions: When I was testing the HHS, I kept forgetting that they can be purchased for about $400 on the internet. Because they are so good, I used much more expensive binoculars (the Nikon LX, the Swarovski EL, and the Leica Ultravid) as references, rather than other binoculars in the middle price range. No, the HHS cannot beat the $1,200 plus "Alpha" glasses, but they faired honorably in the comparison, and I actually prefer them to two binoculars (which I will not name) selling for $800-$900. The Swift HHS Audubon 8.5x44 is one of the best values available. The only way to beat their performance in the middle price range is with Swift's poro prism cousin, or the Nikon Superior E -- also a poro prism. The 8.5 magnification is a good compromise between 8 and 10 power, and the 44 mm objective lens offers an imperceptible amount of additional light gathering ability over the standard 42 mm objectives. The HHS and the Swarovski EL are the only binoculars I know of which offer 8.5 magnification. The additional magnification shows an extra bit of detail and provides a slight advantage during the last few minutes of sunlight, without making the image as susceptible to hand motion as 10 power. The HHS is light, comfortable, well designed, and provides an outstanding image. They fittingly honor the memory of Hop Swift, for whom they were named.