The Allure of Power! - published November 1992, updated 2007

Picks
Worthy Contenders
Pans
Added Value!
Individual Evaluations
Living Bird Feather Resolution Test
Charts:
General Comparison
Optical Ratings
Handling

This comprises the slightly edited individual product commentary and comparison chart sections of the original Better View Desired Allure of Power full-sized ten power binocular print review written by BVD founder, Stephen Ingraham, in 1992.

Most of the binoculars in this review have been discontinued since the article's original publication. Some models continue to be made in updated and improved versions such as the Bushnell Elite, the Leica and Zeiss high end roof prisms, the Swift Ultralites, and the Pentax PCF. Since the updating that has been done to these has often addressed the comments and criticisms in the review below, take the review's comments and prices with a grain of salt. While the specific binocular models may be outdated, the comments on high power observing are still valid.

Here's the original review, with updated product information:

There is an automatic and all but unconscious assumption that happens every time I see someone in the field with a pair of 10x40 Zeiss: "Ah, a serious birder!" It's not that I don't know better. I've met enough serious birders to know that you can't judge a birder by his or her optics . . . a single field trip with any avid group will teach you that . . . but still, there is something about those 10x40s. Partially, of course, it is simple recognition of the investment involved. No one spends upwards of $1000 for the Zeiss glasses (or the Bausch and Lomb Elites, or the Leica Ultras, or even the new Swarovski 10x40s) who isn't committed to birding as a way of life. Even the relatively inexpensive 10x40 Bausch and Lomb Customs mark a birder as a certain sort: steady handed; intently focused; experienced enough to know that he or she wants something more than the average 8 power glass; generally the type who goes boldly after the far and wee (or deep and dark) id when all about him (or her) are hedging their bets, reaching for their field guides, and bemoaning the distance and the light.

With a tripod or other steady rest, you soon realize that the combination of high magnification and large objectives found in the best 10x full size binoculars delivers an unequalled amount of detail to the eye. When dealing with birds, the large image size is particularly addicting, yielding a psychological advantage that is sometimes out of proportion to the actual gain in resolution. The bird is bigger, so we think we see more detail even if we don't! Off the tripod, some of the big glasses are noticeably harder to hold steady, but for some birders added detail gained in shaky glimpses is more rewarding than a steadier but more distant view. And, of course, some of the 10x glasses are so well balanced, so finely tuned in weight and "holdability," that, in some hands at least, they provide about as steady a view as anything you could carry.

The 10 power glass is often recommended for "distance" birding, where the environment prevents a close approach to the birds: birding waterfowl comes immediately to mind, especially if you bird the National Wildlife Refuge System much. Many NWRs not only have large expanses of water (the ducks and waders are always on the far side), they also have dikes, ditches, and "No Foot Access" signs to keep you just beyond the limit of conjecture. While a 10x compact (10x25s) would be of questionable benefit at such a distance, 10 power glasses with larger objectives (40mm and larger) can provide the extra edge for those far ids.

And, of course, if the high power glasses are well designed for birding, there is no reason they can't be used close-in too. You have the best of both worlds . . . the reach when you need it, and a good all-around view when you don't (often including a true bird in the hand view).

10 power glasses do, of course, have some drawbacks. All of them have a narrower field of view than equivalent glasses of lower power, which can make it hard to keep an active bird in view for any length of time. Worse, to my mind, many of the high power glasses have a very shallow depth of field . . . when focused on a bird, the area in front of and behind the bird "fuzzes out" very quickly. This makes observation of a group of birds very difficult, and limits your ability to follow motion even more than the narrow field of view. At close range (15-20 feet), the worst of the 10 power glasses seem to have difficulty getting the whole thickness of the bird in focus at the same time . . . in a head-on view, if the beak is sharp, the tail seems just slightly fuzzy, and vice-versa. (See the depth of field figures in the "Optical" comparison chart in this issue.) Many of the 10 power glasses also compromise on close-focus distance. Perhaps the manufacturers, not knowing much about birders, assume that anyone who is carrying all that power is only going after far targets, or perhaps they think we are willing to carry two pair!

Obviously, some manufactures have taken the needs of birders into account in the design of their glasses. For quite some time the 10x birding field had been dominated by expensive roof prism models . . . the Zeisses, Bausch and Lombs, and Leicas. Those of us who don't have that kind of money to spend were left with very few choices . . . a glass or two in the Mirador line, the Swift Condor (which somehow never caught on) and the Bausch and Lomb Custom. There were always other glasses out there that had much to offer, but they were very hard to find. The situation is rapidly changing. Swarovski now has a competitor in the high price roof prism group (though, due to high retail demand for the product, I was not able to get a sample for this test). Optolyth, Nikon, and Aus Jena each offer less expensive roof prism alternatives; see New and Improved for info on the Optolyths and Swarovskis, the Nikons are included in the test. Swift recently introduced the 10x50 Audubon, based on the design of their highly successful 8.5x44 glass, and their Ultralite line includes a 10x42 glass that earned a "best buy" in this issue. Optolyth has a bird-worthy 10x40 glass in their porroprism Alpin series, as does Swarovski in their traditional line. Celestron, known in the birding community mostly for their C-90 spotting scope, has a strong showing in their Ultima 10x42 and a simply stunning birding glass in the new 9.5x44 ED. Their 10x50 Ultimas just miss being excellent birding glasses, due to their limited close focus. For those on an even more limited budget (or those who do, in fact, want a 10 power glasses as a "second" binoculars, for only those distant occasions), several lines (Pentax and Nikon are represented here) offer inexpensive 10x50s that do an amazingly good job, considering price, of meeting a birder's needs.

So, if you are steady handed, intently focused, experienced enough to know what you want, and just slightly bolder than the average birder, go ahead . . . give in to the allure of power! With the current crop of 10x full sized binoculars, you are bound to find something satisfying!

Picks
Certainly when something new in birding binoculars comes along, those of us who are always looking for a "better view" are tempted to run right out and see what all the fuss is about. "P" coating on roof prisms was in line to be this years sensation, but Celestron has topped even that by introducing the first binoculars with ED glass objectives. If you are into photography at all, you know that ED glass, and it's close cousin HD, have been creeping down the telephoto and zoom lens lines from the top, and have now reached even "affordable" optics. (Fluorite, which has similar effects in optical design, is not a glass at all, and is still safely confined to the upper reaches of the price range.) ED (extra density, low dispersion) glass has the benefit of bringing all colors of light into focus closer to the same point. All lenses spread the different colors of light just as the familiar prism does, making a single point of white light into a little rainbow the standard "achromatic" lens found in most binoculars uses two different types of glass to correct for the color spread and does a pretty good job. The only way to do better is to use "exotic" materials in one or more elements of the objective lens fluorite, or a glass to which heavy metals have been added to increase the density and lower the amount of light "dispersed" or scattered. The benefits of ED glass are most obvious in "long focus" objectives like those in telephoto lenses and spotting scopes. Over the past few years, a few "exotic" spotting scopes have begun to show up (Nikon ED, Celestron Fluorite and ED, Kowa's fluorite scope, and the apparently abortive Bausch and Lomb ED Elite, to name a few). It was only a matter of time before ED invaded the binoculars scene. In theory at least, there should be some improvement in the color saturation, contrast, and even the resolution of binoculars using the more expensive glass . . . how much improvement, and whether it is worth the added cost in binoculars, is the real question.

Judging from the Celestron ED 9.5x44s, there is a noticeable improvement in color saturation, color contrast, and possibly resolution. Still, I doubt that anyone would pick up the Celestrons and exclaim, "there's something different about these!" The improvement is too subtle, and too hard to put your finger on. What it amounts to, as far as I am concerned, is a greater "purity and depth" to the color detail. Every shade and tint of a bird's plumage is sharply delineated, just as though you had the bird in your hand. In direct field comparison, even the best of the other glasses in the test seem just slightly "muted." (Again, without direct comparison, I would not "fault" any of these other glasses for their contrast or color definition. In actual field use, I would be completely satisfied with the degree of color detail they provide . . . the ED glasses, to give them their due, are "just slightly better.")

If ED glass was all the new Celestrons had going for them, the improvement would not warrant placing them at the head of their class Ð but Alan Hale and his design team have done an outstanding job of making sure that these glasses have more to offer birders than exotic glass. It goes beyond optics altogether. Their balance and weight are excellent, making them quite easy to hold steady the "feel" of the ribbed rubber grips under your fingers and palms is ideal and the focus placement and ease are among the best of any binoculars I have ever handled. Then too, they have an excellent field of view for their power, respectable depth of field, and adequate eye-relief and close focus. The 44mm objectives provide exceptional resolution and brightness without the added weight of a bigger objective, and their full multi-coating is right up there with the best. They caused instant enthusiasm in every birder who handled them during the test. Enough? Check the list and average price!

As noted above, most birders expect quite a bit from the Zeiss 10x40 binoculars, and, with minor exceptions, they deliver. They are excellent birding glasses. The other roof prism glasses in their price range, the Bausch and Lomb Elite and Leica Ultra, both offer just slightly better center field resolution, and a just slightly brighter view, but the Zeiss' lack of noticeable distortion right out to the field edge, generous field of view and depth of field, good close focus, lighter weight, and, at least in my hands, better handling in the field, make them my personal pick among the titans and samurai up here in the price stratosphere. The particular pair I had were just slightly stiff in the focus wheel, and I don't particularly like the focus back under the brim of my hat, but those are the only real drawbacks I could find.

For those of us who have to fit binoculars into a tighter budget, this issue's Best Buy has to be the Swift Ultralites. These glasses offer excellent optics and, due to their very light-weight and well designed body, exceptional handling in the field. They place no strain on the neck and should fit even quite small hands. Their 18 foot close focus is just adequate, as is their eye-relief, but in all other areas (field of view, depth of field, brightness, focus placement and ease, etc.) they excel (you should note that even with fairly short eye-relief, given their exceptionally wide field to begin with, their "usable" field with eye-glasses is still quite respectable). With an average street price of around $200, they certainly represent the best value among the current crop of 10x glasses power without the price!

Worthy Contenders
Almost every glass in this class has something to recommend it. The Optolyth Alpins are exceptionally compact and amazingly light-weight, the ideal glasses for combined hiking (or biking, etc.) and birding - and, though their absolute (measured) brightness is not as high as some of the other glasses, it does not seem to effect either their twilight performance or their "feather detail" delivery (they scored among the highest in Twilight Resolution, and came in first in the "Living-bird Feather Resolution Test" see below). Overall, they are excellent birding glasses and just miss being in my group of "Picks."

I like the overall feel of the Bausch and Lomb Elites, as well as their brightness and contrast, though their weight and very shallow depth of field are drawbacks. The 10x50 Swift Audubons have exceptional depth of field, brightness, and twilight performance in this group, but their size and weight might be a problem for some birders. If you don't need the extra power, I still prefer the 8.5x44 Audubon. The Nikon Execulites are a good value in a roof prism glass, the only ones in this test that don't push the $1000 barrier. (You might note that the Nikon E 10x35s tested in the mid-sized issue are real contenders in this class as well. Their excellent resolution, compact design, and moderate price would likely have placed them near the top of this test.) The Bausch and Lomb Customs offer good value, but, as with the Swifts above, if you don't need the extra power, I prefer the 8x36 glass, for their wider field, greater depth of field, and more compact design. It would be nice if Bausch and Lomb would give the 10x40's excellent armored body to the 8x36s. Given the price of the Swarovski Traditional 10x40s, I would look at the new roof prism SLC model, though the Traditional is a very fine glass.

Again, my personal taste in birding glasses might not be yours. Study the comparison charts and read the detailed reports on each of the glasses in this test.

Pans
I could not get to like the Nikon Lookout IIs, even though their optical performance is exceptional for their price range. The body shape is simply too awkward, too bulky, and too strange! Undoubtedly someone thought it was a good idea, but . . . On the other hand, the Lookouts had the highest measured brightness of any glass in the test.

By the same token, I, personally, was disappointed in the Leica Ultras. I had great hopes for these glasses, given the Leica reputation, but I found the barrel-shaped body just a bit too bulky for regular use in the field. Then too, while their center field resolution, brightness, and contrast are among the best, I was disappointed in the amount of distortion at the field edges. I expected more from $1000 binoculars. That is not to say that some birders might not just love these glasses. Some will especially appreciate their complete waterproofness, and some will undoubtedly find the body shape exactly to their liking. There is no question that they provide an exceptionally bright and detailed view of birds in the field. I would advise that you handle these before you buy though.

Added Value!
Once more the Pentax PCF line garners the Extra Value award. Their 10x50s are big and bulky, but, due to their good design and excellent focus placement, even birders with smaller hands than mine found them usable. Their center field optical performance is nothing short of amazingly good for this price category. If you are looking for a second pair of glasses for those occasions when you really need the power, or if your binoculars budget won't stretch to the $200 level, you should be quite satisfied with these glasses! (Celeston also submitted a very fine 10x50 glass in this price range from their Pro line. The lack of close focus eliminated it from the test, but as a second glass for just the "far ones," it deserves a look.)

10X Detailed Reports
Much of the information on the 10x binoculars in this issue is contained in the three comparison charts below.

All specifications are actual measurements of the sample in hand. They may not agree exactly with the specifications published in manufacturers' catalogs or brochures. Our measurements of field of view at 10 yards, for instance, ran somewhat larger than would be expected from the manufacturers' published specifications, while our measurements of eye relief, taken from the folded surfaces of the eye cup, tended to be somewhat shorter than most published figures. Performance measurements (resolution, brightness, and contrast) are based on a single sample and we cannot guarantee that other samples of the same make and model will match our figures.

Resolution figures are based on an arbitrary scale of one to 100 and represent the "center field" resolution of the glasses (how sharp and detailed the image is when the target is centered in the view). All measurements were taken at 10 yards. At rest measurements were taken with the binoculars firmly mounted on a Bogen professional tripod. Hand-held measurements were taken standing with the target at eye- level, as were the twilight readings. All readings, for this issue, were taken use in using both barrels of the binoculars . . . any glasses that showed noticeable alignment problems were either eliminated from the test or replaced with another sample from the manufacturer.

The brightness figures are also based on arbitrary scale. A custom BVD brightness meter uses a lens to focus light on a cadmium sulfide photo resistor (mimicking the human eye). A digital multimeter is used to measure differences in the resistance of the photocell. In order to make the measurements independent of the light source, the figures published represent the ratio of the measurement of the naked light source and the measurement taken through the binoculars. Separate readings were taken for each barrel of the glasses and these readings were averaged. The brightness figure is most valid when used for comparison. To the best of our judgment, it does reflect a noticeable difference in perceived brightness in the field.

The contrast figure is a subjective judgment based on experience and comparison in the field.

Both field of view and depth of field figures are in feet at 10 yards. We selected this closer measurement to bring out differences where they actually matter to most birders.

As you read the detailed reports, you will note comments on distortion and field flatness. If you look at a brick wall with some optics, you will see that, especially at the edges of the view, the straight lines of bricks are bent into curves. All lenses turn straight lines into curves. Optical designers work hard to minimize, or "correct," the effect; distortion refers to any curves in what should be straight lines that remain when they have done their best. Then too, it is a rare optical system that is able to bring the center of the view of that brick wall and the edges into perfect focus at the same time. (Try it!) Lenses have an inherently "curved" plane of focus. Optical systems that are well corrected for "field curvature" are said to have "flat fields." Both distortion and field flatness were quote "measured" for this issue using the classic "brick wall test."

Actual use and comparison of the optics in the field remains our primary test method, and our goal in all our tests is to provide you with an honest assessment of how much each optical system will "measure up to" the demands of active field birders.

The overall rating takes all the features into account, including price.

The legends will explain the headings and measurements:

General Features: Wt.=weight in ounces, Dim.=width x height in inches, Sep=maximum and minimum eye separation in millimeters, List P= Manufacturer's Suggested List Price, Av. P=Average mail-order retail price (US Warranty.) Rating=Overall rating, P=poor, F=Fair, G=Good, VG=Very Good, EX=Excellent, SP=Superior, + or - qualifies other ratings.

Optical Features: Pw=magnification (power), Obj=Objective size in mm, RAR=resolution at rest, RHH=resolution hand held, RTw=resolution twilight, Bri=Brightness, Cont=Contrast, FofV=field of view in feet at 10 yards, ClF=close focus in feet, ER=eye relief in mm, DofF=depth of field in feet at 10 yards, Rating=Optical rating

Handling: Bal=Balance, Wt=Weight, FPl=focus placement, FE=focus ease, HFt=Hand fit, Feel=feel in hand, Hang=how they hang, Rating=Handling Rating

General Info

Make /Model

Wt.

Dim

Sep

ListP

Av.P

Rating

B+L
Custom

30.4

6.9x6.4

72/60

$527.95

250.00

EX-

Elite

29.5

4.6x6.5

76/57

$1995.9 5

860.00

EX

Celestron
ED

26.5

7.3x5.9

75/51

$780.00

400.00

SP Best in Class

Ultima

23.2

6.9x5.4

76/51

$350.00

200.00

EX

Leica
Ultra

32

4.6x5.8

74/56

$1590.0 0

1050.00

VG

Nikon
Execulite

25.2

4.6x6.5

73/56

$670.00

400.00

VG

Lookout II

33.2

6.6x7

73/53

$165.00

110.00

VG

Optolyth
Alpin

18.2

6.3x5.5

72/52

$540.00

435.00

EX

Pentax
PCF

32

7.3x7

72/58

$225.00

110.00

VG Ex. Value

Swarovski
Traditional

25.2

6.8x5.9

74/46

$595.00

450.00

EX-

Swift
Audubon

32.2

7.6x6.6

70/55

$399.50

210.00

EX

Ultralite

21.7

6.8x5.5

76/51

$365.00

210.00

EX Best Buy

Ziess
Dialyt

26.9

4.6x6.2

76/56

$1250.0 0

970.00

EX

Optical Ratings

Make/Model

Pw

Obj

RAR

RHH

RTw

Bri

Cont

FofV

ClF

ER

DofF

Rating

B+L
Custom

10X

40

92

85

62

25

Ex

3.17/s

14

17

4-

EX

Elite

10X

42

95

90

62

24. 4

Sup

3.25/s

11. 6

14

2+

EX+

Celestron ED

9.5X

44

97

87

69

29

Sup

3.7/3.6

17

13

4-

SP

Ultima

10X

42

90

82

62

24. 5

VG

3.7/3.3

18

11

4+

EX

Leica Ultra

10X

42

96

87

69

26. 5

Ex

3.38/3.3

16

16

2+

EX+

Nikon Execulite

10X

40

90

77

65

20

VG

3.3/3.2

15

13

2+

VG

Lookout II

10X

50

90

80

67

31

VG/ Ex

3.5/3.1

23

12

4-

VG

Optolyth Alpin

10X

40

90

90

71

18

Ex

3.5/3.2 5

16

12

4+

EX

Pentax PCF

10X

50

95

90

69

30

VG

3.4/3.2 5

15

8

4

VG+ +

Swarovski Trad.

10X

40

90

80

65

21

Ex

3.5/3.2

14

8.5

3+

EX

Swift Audubon

10X

50

92

82

71

27. 5

VG

3.7/3.3

26

11

6

EX

Ultralite

10X

42

95

82

62

24. 5

VG

3.75/3.4

18

11

4+

EX

Zeiss Diaylt

10X

40

90

82

65

24

Ex

3.4/s

16

11

4+

EX


Handling

Make/ Model

Bal

Wt

FPl

FE

HFt

Feel

Hang

Rating

B+L
Custom

VG

G

G

EX

VG

EX

VG

Very Good

Elite

EX

G

G

EX

VG

VG

EX

Very Good

Celestron ED

EX

EX

EX

EX

SP

SP

EX

Excellent

Ultima

EX

SP

EX

EX

EX

EX

EX

Excellent

Leica Ultra

VG

F

VG

EX

F

EX

EX

Very Good

Nikon Execulite

F

EX

VG

EX

VG

EX

EX

Very Good

Lookout II

P

F

G

EX

P

EX

F

Fair

Optolyth Alpin

EX

SP

G

EX

EX

EX

EX

Excellent

Pentax PCF

VG

F

EX

VG

F

EX

EX

Very Good

Swarovski Trad.

VG

EX

G

EX

EX

F

EX

Very Good

Swift Audubon

VG

F

EX

EX

VG

EX

EX

Excellent

Ultralite

EX

SP

EX

EX

SP

EX

EX

Excellent

Zeiss Diaylt

VG

EX

G

G

EX

EX

EX

Excellent

Bausch & Lomb Custom 10x40 - discontinued
Multi-coated, excellent rubber coating, very poor strap attachments

Slightly on the heavy side for their objective size, and quite large compared to some of the 10x40s. Limited field of view is offset somewhat by excellent eye-relief (if you happen to wear eye-glasses). Optically, very fine, with excellent center field resolution, and minimal distortion and a flat field! Sharp, contrasty view that rivals the best. Like their 8x36 sisters, the extra long eye-relief and wide objective separation produce a view that never quite merges . . . I was always aware of edges of the individual fields, even with the eye cups only half rolled down.

Bausch & Lomb Elite 10x42 - now available as Bushnell Elite 10x43
Multi-coated, P coating on the prisms, excellent rubber armor with contours for "average" hands, excellent strap attachment (swiveling studs)

Quite heavy but very solid feeling. The P coating yields an image with superior contrast. The extra contrast gives the impression of a particularly sharp and bright view, even though several glasses "measured" brighter. As most of the roof prism models did, they show noticeable distortion at the field edge, though their field curvature is less than some. The narrow depth of field may be a problem if you bird active birds close-in in much vegetation. Those with small (or exceptionally large) hands may find the focus placement awkward.

Celestron ED 9.5x44 - discontinued
Fully multi-coated, excellent rubber armor with ribbed grips, Celestron's nice standard woven strap. Tripod mount. ED (Extra Density, low dispersion) glass used in objectives.

Everyone who handled these glasses immediately fell in love with them. They are the right size for most hands, fairly lightweight, and the ribbed grips make them feel like an extension of your hands. They provide exceptional resolution, good eye-relief, a good field, good depth of field, and their 44mm objectives give them an image that rivals the 50mm glasses in brightness. Add the "extra edge" of color definition that the ED glass provides (yes, it is noticeable in direct comparison in the field), and you have one very fine binoculars. Their very slight distortion at the field edge is not noticeable in field use, and they have an exceptionally flat field. Against stiff competition, these are my personal pick from this field test.

Celestron Ultima 10x42 - now available as Ultima DX
Fully multi-coated; soft, slightly padded, covering; good woven strap; tripod mount; water "resistant"

Exceptionally light-weight and compact! A joy to carry in the field. Very fine optics for this price range. They show minimal distortion at the field edge, but do have a noticeable field curvature. All in all, very good performance at this price point.

Leica Ultra 10x42 - now available as Ultravid and Ultravid HD
Fully multi-coated, P coated prisms, fully waterproof (nitrogen filled), heavy rubber armor

Very heavy for roof prism glasses. You either love the solid, bulky, "barrel-shaped" bodies, or you hate them! Small handed birders beware. Even those with bigger hands might not like the focus placement, though the locking focus adjustment is something more makers should consider. Superior center field resolution and exceptional brightness bring the birds for a very fine view, but these glasses do show noticeable distortion at the field edge and marked field curvature.

Nikon Execulite 10x40 - discontinued
Multi-coated, nice fine textured rubber armor, woven strap

Though the overall weight is among the lowest for roof prism models in this range, these glasses feel "front heavy" and are more than usually difficult to hold steady (as is reflected in their somewhat low hand held resolution rating). I suspect that lack of advanced coatings on the prisms contributes to both their low "brightness" rating and their somewhat "soft" contrast when compared directly to other roof prism glasses in the field. They show minimal distortion at the field edge (though they lose some resolution there) and have a fairly flat field...quite good for roof prism designs. They represent an affordable and usable alternative to the more expensive roof prism models.

Nikon Lookout 10x50 - discontinued
Multi-coated, rubber armored, very poor narrow woven strap

Exceptionally bright, and with quite good resolution, only slight distortion at the field edges and a flat field, these glasses provide optical performance that belies their price. Their somewhat unique body design, however, is a case of innovation that is less than successful. They are awkward to hold and carry, tend to tip over when placed on their objective ends on all but the most stable surfaces, and are, in my opinion, simply too large and bulky for even average hands . . . the focus is a far reach! But then . . . they might fit your hands just perfectly! If you are in the market for budget optical excellence, they are definitely worth a look.

Optolyth Alpin 10x40 - still available through one U.S. importer
Multi-coated, heavy ribbed rubber armor, good woven strap

It is difficult to imagine a more compact or lighter 10x40 glass. You simply forget you are wearing binoculars. They offer excellent optical performance, with minimal distortion at the edge of a very flat field, but at this power their "tiny" porro prisms seem to limit the brightness of the view. It is noticeable in full daylight . . . though it is not evident in their twilight performance (a true mystery . . . I suspect their multi-coating is exceptionally efficient at the twilight level). If you hate heavy binocs, (or have very small hands) but are not willing to sacrifice optical excellence or the larger image size of 10x glasses, these are the binoculars for you!

Pentax PCF 10x50 - still available in updated version
Multi-coated, "matte" finish rubber armor, good woven strap

Though quite heavy, and on the bulky side, these glasses again demonstrate just how fine a view you can buy for very little these days. Exceptional center field resolution, brightness, close focus, and a good field of view and depth of field make these a superior value for the birder who doesn't mind the weight and bulk and wants high power. Obviously, at this price there have to be some compromises: the image quality falls off quite rapidly toward the edges of the field and they do show noticeable distortion at the edge and a noticeable curved field. Still, considering overall performance, clearly an exceptional value

Swarovski Traditional 10x40 - still available as Swarovski Habict
Multi-coated, traditional pebbled finish, very poor roll-down rubber eyecups

These are the most "traditional" of the group. They offer excellent optics (with very slight edge-of-the-field distortion and a flat field of focus) in a quite light and compact package, excellent close focus, and acceptable brightness. If they have a failing, it is a certain lack of "flash." They are so ordinary and so competent that they are likely to be overlooked by the serious birder looking for high power glasses. That would be a mistake, since their performance is right up there with the best.

Swift Audubon 10x50 - discontinued
Multi-coated, wide field eyepieces, solid feeling traditional pebbled covering, good woven strap, tripod mount

The 10x50 Audubons are worthy siblings to the well known 8.5x44 glasses in the same line. They are quite heavy and their bulky body might be a handful for some birders, but they offer excellent center field optical performance (though they do show the edge distortion and field curvature typical of "wide-angle" eyepieces), an exceptional twilight view, and good overall value for the price. Their lack of true close focus is somewhat limiting in the field, but they do offer an exceptionally wide field of view and amazing depth of field.

Swift Ultralite 10x42 - still available
Fully multi-coated, very good textured rubber armor, excellent tripod mount, good woven strap

These binocs' excellent weight and very compact, holdable, body make them simply wonderful in the field. Their optics leave nothing to be desired either, with excellent center field resolution, and only slight distortion at the edge of field. They do have a noticeable curved field of focus. At their price point, they certainly offer a superior value for the birder, with field performance that would be hard to better at any price, hence the "Best Buy" award.

Zeiss 10x40 - now available as 10x42 FL T* Victory FL
T* multi-coating, P coating on prisms, good heavy rubber armor, narrow woven strap

For quite a while these binocs have set the standard in the birding community for "serious" optics. They are indeed fine glasses, with a good weight for their power, a good feel in the hands, a view that is sharp and contrasty (and undistorted) to the edges even with eye-glasses, exceptional depth of field for roof prisms, and good close focus. They are not quite as bright as the Leica and B & L glasses in the same price range, but are considerably lighter in weight than either. They remain worthy contenders for the honor of gracing the necks of the most serious of birders.

Living-bird Feather Resolution Test
In my studied opinion, there is nothing that shows off the resolution of optics like the breast feathers of a bird. Feathers seem to have infinite "resolvability." The closer you look the more detail you see - beginning with general plumage patterns and color detail, moving on to individual feather structure, and right on down to the individual barbs of a single feather. A microscope reveals many levels of detail beyond what our naked eye can see. Then too, since a good deal of my enjoyment in looking at birds (and I suspect I am not alone in this) comes from an appreciation of that infinite detail and variety, the beautiful artistry, that I find in them, I am very concerned with just how much of it is faithfully rendered by my optics. Aren't you?

It is very difficult to find a bird in the field that is cooperative enough to allow you to focus 13 different binoculars, so, in my never ending pursuit of excellence in optical reporting, I set myself to find a "stuffed bird" to use as a feather resolution target. After three months of fruitless inquiry, I was ready to go to the local Wal-Mart pet emporium, buy a Budgie, and stuff it! But then, in one of those rare flashes of inspiration, I thought: "Why stuff it? Why not train it, living, as a test target?"

Further research lead me to other avian options, but, to make a long story short and without further adieu, I hereby introduce the official Better View Desired Test Bird: Feather Test, a hand-reared male (we think) Cockatiel.

With Feather's cooperation, I also present our first Living Bird Feather Resolution Test. The results are purely subjective. I kept switching the binoculars around until I had them in order of what I thought was the most feather detail revealed at 30 feet to the least. With this group of glasses, and at that distance, the differences were truly subtle. The best gave a definite "bird in hand" view. The "worst" only pushed the view out to a short arm's length. All in all I was impressed. I would be happy with the feather detail of any of these glasses!

In order then, from the most apparent feather detail to the least: 1. Optolyth Alpin, Leica Ultra, Pentax PCF, Nikon Lookout, Celestron ED, Swift Ultralite, Bausch & Lomb Elite, Zeiss, Bausch & Lomb Custom, Swift Audubon, Nikon Execulite, Swarovski Traditional, Celestron Ultima.

Field Reactions
One of my goals for this issue was to get a wider variety of reactions to the binoculars from experienced field birders. To that end, I took my box of 10x glasses to a recent Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Morning Outing. We went to Capulin Spring, 8800 feet high on the east side of Sandia Crest (one of the southernmost spurs of the Rocky Mountains). For this first trial my method was fairly casual. I placed the box of binoculars on a picnic table and told the birders to help themselves. I did have "official" looking survey forms for them to fill out over lunch asking for Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent, or Superior ratings on Balance, Focus Placement, Focus Ease, Fit in the Hand, Weight, Image Quality, Brightness, Contrast, and Field of View. I did not push binoculars on anyone, simply letting the glasses attract their own testers. An abundance of warblers, finches, grosbeaks, doves, jays, and sparrows, drawn to the mountain spring, provided willing test targets. And a good time was had by all.

Everyone seemed drawn to the Celestron ED glasses (they were handled by 4 of the 5 birders who filled out forms), and responses were uniformly positive. "Feel perfect in the hand." "If this had been available I would have purchased it instead of the Zeiss 10x40s." "Favorite!" The EDs also gathered by far the most "Superior" ratings (25) of any glass in the box. No one rated any feature of the EDs lower than Excellent.

The Celestron Ultimas received more Very Goods, with Excellents on Focus Ease and Hand Fit, and a Superior on Weight.

Another glass that was tried and liked by several in the group was the Swift Audubon 10x50, receiving mostly Very Goods, with a few Excellents. Several birders objected to the weight.

The Swift Ultralites also came in for mostly Very Goods and Excellents with the comment, "Sharp to the edge!"

The one birder who spent some time comparing the Zeiss 10x40s and the Bausch & Lomb Elites, preferred the Zeiss glasses, largely on the basis of what he felt was a superior view, though he rated the B & Ls consistently higher on handling features.

The Leicas received high ratings for their optics, consistent Excellents and Superiors, but fairly low ratings for handling. A typical comment was, "I like a smaller, lighter weight."

The Bausch and Lomb Customs were monopolized by one birder, who rated them Excellent in all categories.

The Swarovskis were rated mostly Very Good and Excellent, but no one liked the eyecups.

The Nikon Execulites got mostly Very Goods, with a Fair showing in Hand Fit and Weight.

The Pentax PCFs were rated Very Good to Excellent on all counts.

No one handled the Nikon Lookouts, and the Optolyth Alpins had not yet arrived on the day of the test.

My thanks to the CNMA Thursday Morning Birding Group!

Written by Stephen Ingraham and originally published November, 1992.

Product information updated 2007.