This comprises the slightly edited individual product commentary and comparison chart sections of the original Better View Desired compact binocular print review written by BVD founder, Stephen Ingraham, in 1994. An updated and expanded version of the general commentary section of his review, dealing with the pros and cons of compact binoculars, will be found in the “Basic Education Articles” section of this website on the lower right side of this page.
Most of the binoculars in this review have been discontinued over the past dozen or so years since its publication. Some models continue to be made in updated and improved versions – such as the Bushnell Natureview, the Leica and Swarovski high end roof prisms, the Nikon Travelites, and the Pentax UCF. Since the updating that has been done to these has often addressed the comments and criticisms in the review below (in the areas of phase-coatings and full multicoatings, for example), take the review’s comments with a grain of salt. Some brands – Copitar and Minolta – are out of business and have disappeared completely. And one, the Bausch & Lomb 7x26 Custom, is being made in an upgraded (but essentially unchanged) version under the Bushnell name. There is a review of the Bushnell 7x26 Custom at the bottom of this article. We’ve noted in italics the discontinued and changed models in the copy below.
Here’s the original review:
The Big Plus
The most obvious reason for owning and using compacts is portability. There is simply nothing like having binoculars with you all the time, and compacts make that possible. No more decisions about whether to pack the binoculars or an extra change of underwear. For those already loaded down with other equipment, either traveling, or in the field (cameras, tape recorders, video gear), compacts are the obvious solution. Then too, unless you have birded a full day (or several full days in a row) with both compacts and full-sized binoculars, it is hard to imagine the difference 10-20 ounces in weight around your neck (and held at least intermittently up to your eyes) can make in your fatigue factor by the end of the outing. Even the smallest mid-sized binoculars are really "full-sized" when compared, ounce for ounce, with compacts. The difference between 12 and 18 ounces is definitely noticeable by the end of a long day in the field. The bulk issue is more complicated. Some of the smallest mid-sized glasses are not all that much bigger than the largest compacts. The Leica 8x32s come to mind. (The updated Leica 8x32, now called the 8x32 Ultravid, is still being made in 2007.) If packing space is the problem, you could fit the 8 x 32 Leicas into most spaces where, say, the Nikon Diplomats or the Bausch & Lomb Customs would go.
The Big Minus
While compacts are easier to carry in the field, that does not make them easier to use in the field. The major culprit here is exit pupil size. I have written extensively about the fallacy of using exit pupil (the size of the circle of light that comes out of the eyepiece) to predict almost anything about binoculars' performance. Here is the one exception to prove the rule. Small exit pupils, such as those produced by compacts, require precise alignment between the binoculars' exit pupil and the pupil of your own eye. Full-sized binoculars, especially in full daylight, are very forgiving about where you put your eye behind the eyepiece. Slight motion of your hands and binoculars is not really disturbing because your pupil stays within the exit pupil of the binos. In fact, the eye/brain automatically compensates for such motion so well that we don't even "see" it. The slightest motion of compacts, however, often places your eye's pupil outside (or partially outside) the exit pupil of the glasses. Blink! Blink! You shift the glasses around, flex the hinge, maybe pull the glasses away from your eyes and put them back, refocus. When you go through that 4 or 5 times an hour in the field, it can, without your realizing the exact cause, lead to both physical and mental fatigue. The muscles of the eyes get tired. The brain gets tired. You lose visual acuity (and ids, and enjoyment) because you don't want to look hard any more.
To compound the problem, most compacts are more difficult to focus than most full-sized binoculars. Their limited depth of field means you have to be spot-on to get the clearest view of the bird, while their relatively fast, and often somewhat imprecise, focus makes it hard to hit the spot. Again, the more difficult focus is, the more fatigue you will build up.
Then too, while lightweight binoculars are easier to hold up to your eyes, they are not easier to hold still! The lighter something is, physics tells us, the less force it takes to move it. Compacts bounce around with every breath and vagrant breeze.
Some people find compacts harder to hold on to in the first place than full-sized binoculars. The smallest folding roof prism models can be simply too small for average sized hands. You end up putting extra tension on finger muscles because there is just no easy way to grip the things. Worse yet, focus knobs are often small and you can end up doing finger contortions just to get a decent angle to turn the things. The saving grace is this: if you can find compacts that do fit your hands and face, they are small enough to cup, first fingers firmly against your brow, so that the binoculars become almost a physical extension of your head.
Finally, few compact binoculars yet made will give you the kind of optical performance that you are (or should be) used to in full-sized glasses. Surprisingly, the limiting factor is not brightness. Even the 20mm compacts provide enough light to be useful well into twilight. Certainly full-sized binoculars will reach deeper into shadow, even on a bright day, than compacts – and full-sized glasses tend to handle tricky lighting (backlighting, strong side-lighting, etc.) better than compacts, but, in general, you will not be disappointed with compacts' light gathering ability. The limiting factor is distance – or, to put it another way, resolution. The little objectives simply do not have the resolving power of larger objectives. Close in, within 50 to 100 feet, where many of us do most of our birding, the differences between the compact view and the full-sized view are very subtle (to indistinguishable). Beyond 100 feet, however, most compacts quickly begin to show their limitations. The detail you need and want simply isn't there. Oh sure, you can see the bird. 10x25's give you same size bird at the eye as 10x40s, but the inner detail of feather placement and color simply isn't there in the compact view. At 200 feet, it is difficult to tell a Song from a House Sparrow, let alone a Song from a Lincoln's.
Given all that I still strongly recommend compacts in four situations:
1. Beginning birders: There are a number of porro prism compacts on the market that you can buy for under $100 (see the chart below) that will give you a real taste of the view that good optics can (and should) provide. For that money, there is really only one binoculars that I can think of that would provide a better view, and, being quite a bit larger and heavier, you might carry it less, and actually end up seeing fewer birds. Not to keep you in suspense, I am talking about the Bushnell Birder Natureview 8x42. An exceptional value in full-sized bird-worthy binoculars. (This Bushnell is still being made in 2007 in an updated version as the Bushnell 8x42 Natureview Plus porro prism with BaK-4 prisms and full multicoatings.) ) Quality porro prism compacts are an intelligent choice for the beginner who intends to carry glasses all the time and advance rapidly. (They, being small, are also ideal for the younger birder.)
2. Birders who primarily bird close-in: We are not talking close-in in dense woods or forest here, but in almost any other situation, if you rarely go after birds that are beyond 100-200 feet, compacts will serve you quite well, and you will not have to cope with the weight and bulk of full-sized glasses. (Dense woodland requires the shadow penetration and contrast handling of full-sized glasses, even when the birds are close.)
3. Any birder, for back-up, pick-up binoculars: Taking a trip to San Francisco for a conference? Surely there will be time for a pre-breakfast walk along the bay. Compacts are guaranteed to fit in your luggage. Sometimes forget to grab your big binos on the way out for a Sunday drive with the kids? The compacts in the glove compartment have sorted many an unexpected kettle of hawks and bush of sparrows. Birding in sensitive areas? Jean-Pierre Burnet's comments about urban birding apply equally well to crowed National Parks, campgrounds, public transport, wharf-side restaurants – anywhere where you might not want to be seen with big glasses around your neck (or take the risk of bashing some innocent tourist in the head with them as you track a pelican down the bay). Is there a potential, but binocular-less, birder along on the nature/bird walk with your Saturday group? Grope in the old camera or bird-book bag (or purse) and lend him/her your compacts. Oh, you dropped your Swift Audubons, with a factory repair turnaround of one to two weeks, at the height of the warbler migration? Bring on the backup compacts. (The Audubons are still being made in 2007, in both standard glass and ED glass versions.)
4. Any birder, for secondary birding: There are times for even the most serious birder when we are really out there doing something else. We might be mountain biking, hiking, jogging, collecting wildflowers or butterflies, taking a walk with the spouse, whatever, but we are not primarily birding. Are we going to miss a lifer because we left our binoculars at home? Not if we own compacts. This one applies especially to those of us who have an interest in photography. When you are out photographing birds, you are already carrying too much weight in lenses and bodies and film and tripods and blinds – compact binoculars can be a real life-saver. (By the way, my own observation is that bird photography and birding are incompatible activities. You are either taking pictures of birds, or you are watching them. You can enjoy both activities, but you can't do both at the same time.)
The compacts in this issue fall pretty neatly into four distinct groups.
Unless pocketablity is your only concern, there is really no reason any birder should even look at inexpensive folding roof prism binoculars. The constrains of the design and the price point do not allow for the kind of optical performance that we need. With the tiny objectives used in compacts, you have to eke out every bit of performance. Any roof prism has to be very precisely made and coated with expensive phase coatings to match the performance of a much less expensive porro prism. The inexpensive roof prisms used in compacts just aren't up to the job. They limit the brightness, resolution, and contrast of the system. When looking at larger objects (big game, varmints, landscapes, etc.) you might not notice the limitations – but birding requires the resolution and definition of extremely small details and subtle colors. Birds are simply too small a target to be satisfying viewed with inexpensive folding roof prism binoculars. Leave them to the hunters and the tourists.
Inexpensive porro prism compacts, on the other hand, provide some of the best values in today's optical market. Because they are small, and require less material to make, they can be quite inexpensive while still employing high quality materials and workmanship. It is common to find BAK-4 prism materials (the best), at least partial (and sometimes full) multicoating, and sturdy light-weight housings with sometimes exceptional close focusing – all in a binoculars often selling for less than $100. The result is a truly bird-worth view – a view that can only be improved upon by investing in one of a handful of exceptionally well designed $200 porro prism glasses or $1000 roof prisms.
There are only two expensive porro prism compacts in this review. The Bausch and Lomb Custom 7x26, at about $200, are an example of what can be done with compacts if you are willing to spend the money to get everything just about right. (The Customs are still being made in 2007 in an upgraded version by Bushnell as the 7x26 Bushnell Custom.) The Customs eke out about all the resolution, brightness, and ease of view that is possible in the compact design. The Nikon Diplomats are interesting as well. They use an aspheric lens element somewhere in the design (they aren't being any more specific than that), which is supposed to flatten the field and improve resolution. Indeed the 10x25s I tested had the highest resolution of any compacts in the test. (In fact, they easily outperformed the one pair of 8x30s I had on hand.) In the field they showed a simply amazing amount of detail and color depth. Their only limitation is a fairly narrow field of view. I hope to be able to test the 8x model for a future issue. If it lives up to the standard of the 10x glass, and provides a wider FofV, it will certainly be a contender for the birder's compact money. (The Nikon Diplomats were discontinued in 2001, but the aspheric optics that impressed Stephen Ingraham have spread to many of the binoculars from Nikon and others, including even the Nikon Travelites mentioned elsewhere in this review.) The Customs and the Diplomats are the only compacts that I would even consider as my primary birding glasses, and, if you can't justify the cost of the expensive roof prism pockets, they are what I would recommend to any serious birder willing to spend the money for back-up, pick-up, or secondary birding.
Which brings us to the expensive folding roof prism pocket binoculars. Of these, the only ones I would buy, if I could convince myself it was okay to spend that much money on something that fits in my pocket, are the Swarovskis. Even then, it would be hard to resist the temptation to buy Customs and spend the rest of the money on something else. Of course, if money were no object, the sheer elegance of the Swarovski's, along with their true pocketablity, waterproofing, and excellent optical performance, would make them very nice to own. The Optolyths are also quite nice. (The Optolyths are no longer being imported from Germany.) When it comes to the Leicas it is simple: if I were spending that kind of money on Leicas, I would spend a little more, buy the 8x32 Ultras and get perhaps the best "smallish" binoculars currently on the market. Still and all, none of the roof prism glasses come close to the Nikon Diplomats when it comes to detail.
So, after all that, if you are considering compacts, keep this in mind: don't think of them as binoculars at all – think of them as a pocket full of birds!
Individual and Group Evaluations
Inexpensive Folding Roof Prism "Pocket" Binoculars:
Celestron Mini 8x21, 8x25, 10x25; Minolta Pocket 8x22, Swift DCF 10x25 (and any number of other similar, but somewhat lesser, binoculars from Bushnell, Simmons, Tasco, etc.) (All of these have been discontinued as of 2007.)
Again, I do not recommend any of this group for birding. Of the tested models, all are well made, with partial multicoating, rubber armor, fold down eyecups, decent focusing action, a pretty good feel in the hands, and true pocketablity, but nothing makes up for the slightly indistinct, slightly foggy, slightly dim view they show when compared to porro prism glasses with the same objective sizes in the same price range. The offerings from other manufacturers are very similar, with the added liability of lacking any multicoating at all. Birders beware (or at least be aware)!
Inexpensive Porro Prism Compacts:
Optically these small glasses are all quite similar. BAK-4 prisms and partial multicoating yield sharp, contrasty, fairly bright images. All are reversed porro prism designs – the eyepieces are farther apart than the objectives.
The 8x glasses all feature wide (to very wide) fields of view and exceptional close focus. (See the Optical Comparison chart for more detail). All are approximately the same size (with the exception of the Celestron 8x21s, which are truly tiny, pocket sized rather than compact). They do, however offer a variety of exteriors and some unique handling features.
The Pentax UCF 8x24 stands out from the pack the most. It looks, and feels, like something from Star Trek (perhaps The Next Generation at that). (The Pentax 8x24 UCF is still in production in 2007 as an updated 8 x 25 UCF X and 8x25 UCF WP waterproof.) Instead of the standard two-optical-barrels-hinged-together-in-the-center design, the Pentax objectives are fixed in a single housing. The eyepieces and prisms are mounted separately and rotate in and out of the central housing to set eye separation distance (it is hard to describe). They have a very well designed locking individual eyepiece focus adjustment on a pop-up button in the center of the focus knob, and the only tripod mount in the whole group (though the positioning of the mount makes it difficult to impossible to use on a standard tripod without some kind of special attachment). The Pentaxs also have the widest field of view in the bunch and fair eye relief. Poor shielding of the objectives from out-of-field light and insufficient internal baffling make the Pentaxs susceptible to flare when the sun hits the objectives just right (the image washes out in a bright blur of unwanted light).
The Nikon Travelite features a smooth plastic exterior with finger grips sculpted in. They even put two little patches of more grippy rubber just where your index fingers fall. If the sculpting fits your hands (it does mine) they are very secure and comfortable to hold. The Travelites, despite their 23mm objectives, have the highest tested resolution of any binoculars in this group. (The Nikon Travelites are still being made in 2007 as the 8x25 Travelite V, with aspheric optics.)
The Minoltas (Discontinued a few years back; Minolta is no longer in the binocular business.) have a sleek modern design with the largest and easiest focus knob in the group. They also feature a very wide field, though their eye relief is not long enough to make good use of it with glasses. The body overhangs the objectives by a half inch, giving some protection from the flare that can be a problem with all these compacts, as mentioned under the Pentaxs above.
The Bausch and Lombs have slim sculpted design reminiscent of the Nikons. Instead of the shaped finger grips, the whole upper surface of the B&Ls is coated with grippy rubber. The eye relief is a little short for use with glasses. (The Bausch & Lomb 8 x 24 Legacy is discontinued, and since 2004 the Bausch & Lomb brand name is no longer being used by Bushnell.)
As mentioned above, the Celestron Mini 8x21s are truly tiny. Their small objectives do not provide the resolution of the larger compacts, but there is no denying that they are the only binoculars in this group that will actually fit comfortably into an average pants (or shirt) pocket. The rubber coating with molded thumb grips is quite nice to hold. These are not for eyeglass wearers.
Finally, the Swift Microns (Discontinued as of 2007.) are the only 25mm glasses in the 8x group, which gives them just a slight edge in brightness. They feature a hard plastic exterior with molded, diamond pattern thumb grips and rubber under your forefingers. In the field, they are very secure in the hands. A good field of view and fair eye relief make them a good choice for eyeglass wearers.
It is from this group (with the exception of the Celestron 8x21s (Discontinued as of 2007.), which are just a bit too small unless smallness is your primary interest) that I would recommend beginning and budget conscious birders make their compact pick. Overall optical and handling performance is excellent. Value, the amount of performance you get for the price, is exceptional. If cost is your primary consideration, you could almost shop this group on price alone. Whichever one of these had the lowest price at the moment you were ready to buy would provide satisfying service in almost any situation where compacts are recommended. After testing and using them all, I don't think, even at gun point, I could honestly choose one of these as clearly superior to the others. They are all Best Buys!
If you are after a bit more power, the Celestron Mini 9x25s (Discontinued as of 2007.) are quite nice. They have very good resolution and contrast, are no bigger than most of the 8Xs, and feel quite nice in the hands. Their ruby multicoating will gain you some strange looks in the field, but it seems to work quite well. Be warned: for the extra bit of power you trade a good deal of field of view. Combined with their narrow field, short eyerelief makes them a poor choice for glasses wearers.
The Copitar Skyview 10x25s (Discontinued as of 2007.) have a more traditional leather-like covering, the same ruby coating as the Celestrons, and a just slightly wider field. Unfortunately they only focus to about 40 feet, limiting their appeal just where they should perform best: close-in.
Expensive Folding Roof Prism Pocket Binoculars:
Elegance! The Swarovskis, Leicas, and Optolyths are simply fine pieces of miniature machinery. Like the best Swiss (and Japanese) watches, they would be a joy to own whether their performance was in any way exceptional or not (after all, what does a Rolex do that a Timex doesn't?). Fortunately, both the Swarovskis and the Leicas provide optical performance that is nothing to be sneezed at either. Unfortunately, their performance can be equaled, or bettered, for half their price in porroprism glasses. Even the best $100 porroprism compacts will give a view that is at least as sharp, contrasty, and bright as the $400 roof prisms. Only the Swarovskis in this group have phase coated prisms (No longer an accurate statement.) Non-phase-coated roof prisms always yield an image that is just slightly soft when compared directly to the best porroprism designs.
Within the group, the 10x25s provided the best resolution and brightness. Either the Swarovskis or Leicas are good optical choices if you must have true pocketability. The Optolyth 10X25s (Discontinued as of 2007.) were not quite up to the Swarovski/Leica optical standard, but they were, largely because of a very well designed and placed focus knob, just slightly easier to use in the field for extended periods. My comments above sum up my impressions of the group well enough so that I don't need to say any more here.
Expensive Porroprism Compacts:
I have, as far as I am concerned, saved the best for last.
As mentioned above, Bausch and Lomb, by raising the price point significantly on the Customs, has managed to get about as much out of the compact design as can be gotten. The 7x26 Custom (The Customs are still being made in 2007 in an upgraded version by Bushnell as the 7x26 Bushnell Custom.) provides a large enough exit pupil to avoid the finicky handling of most compacts, with enough power and resolution to be truly useful in the field. They have a very wide field of view and their long eye relief makes the whole field available even to eyeglass wearers. The traditional pebbled leather-like covering wrapped around a well shaped body makes them quite comfortable in the field. Even the slight extra weight is to their advantage, giving them enough mass to be steady in the hand and at the eye. Overall they are the easiest of the compacts to use for extended periods in the field – that alone should be a major selling point. I was disappointed to note that they are not fully multicoated (many full sized binoculars selling for the same price are), and I have never liked the click stop individual eyepiece focus adjustment (my eyes are always somewhere between clicks).
At this price, of course, you would have to really want compacts. For the same money you could get an excellent pair of porro prism full- or mid-sized binoculars, and, if you are only going to own one binoculars, the full sized binoculars would be a far more satisfying choice in the long-run. For compacts though, you simply could not find a binoculars with better overall performance. These have to be, right now, the reference standard in the compact class.
The brand new Nikon Diplomat AS series are the first consumer binoculars to feature an aspheric lens element in the design. Traditional lens surfaces are all segments of a sphere. The sphere is the easiest curve to grind and polish, and the lest expensive to produce in quantity, but lens designers have always known that the spherical shape introduces several distortions or aberrations into the final image, distortions which degrade the quality of the image in noticeable ways. These aberrations can be corrected by shaping one or more of the lens surfaces to a curve other than a sphere. The best correction requires complex, compound curves, where the radius (or radii in the case of non-spherical curves) varies over the surface of the lens. For obvious reasons aspherical surfaces, especially complex ones, are very difficult and expensive to produce. (The Nikon Diplomats were discontinued in 2001, but the aspheric optics that impressed Stephen Ingraham have spread to many of the binoculars from Nikon and others, including even the Nikon Travelites mentioned elsewhere in this review.)
It is hard to say how much the aspheric element contributes to the overall performance of the Nikon Diplomats. They are also the only binoculars in the test that have full multicoating. For whatever reason, they provide a truly exceptional degree of resolution, contrast and brightness in the field. Their measured resolution was at or beyond theoretical resolution for 25mm objectives – within one or two tenths of an arc second of the Reference Standard for full sized glasses. Still, the lab tests did not prepare me for what I was going to see when I actually pointed the things at a living bird. In almost all cases they show as much detail on birds under 50 feet as any full sized binoculars I have compared them to (including the Reference Standard Zeiss 7x42s and the Product of Special Merit Swift Audubon 8.5x44s). Indeed, they held detail out to 200 yards and beyond, often showing more detail than the 7x42s or 8.5x44s at those distances. ("If this be heresy, then heresy is sweet." Or sentiments to that effect.) When you consider that these are 12 ounce binoculars, that is nothing less than amazing. The body shape and size is also quite nice – a bit on the large side for compacts without being heavy – very holdable in extended use, and very steady in the hands. The locking, pull up, push down, individual eyepiece focus adjustment ring is one of the most intelligent designs I have ever seen. If they had a wider field (5° is pretty narrow even at 10x, and though they have decent eye relief, you can't see the whole field with glasses), they would be real contenders to replace my full sized binoculars on most birding outings. Even as is, they are very appealing, one might say almost addictive, in the field. I find myself picking them up on my way out the door more and more often. At a list price of close to $400 they are not going to be inexpensive, but they may not come in all that much above the Customs once the dust settles on the street. They rate a solid Product of Special Merit, and make me very anxious to test the 8x23 model against the B&L Customs in an extended field test. They also make me anxious to know if Nikon has any full sized aspheric designs in the works!
In the following comparison chart, here is the current status of the various binoculars listed: Basuch & Lomb 7x26 Custom, in production essentially unchanged optically as the Bushnell 7x26 Custom; Bausch & Lomb 8x24 Legacy, discontinued; Celestron Mini, all models, discontinued; Copitar 10x25 Skyview, discontinued, company out of business; Leica 8x20 and 10x25 BCA, in production as updated Trinovid BCA compacts; Minolta, all models, discontinued, company out of binocular business; Nikon 10x25 Diplomat, discontinued; Nikon 8x23 Travelite, in production as 8x25 Travelite V; Optolyth 10x25 Sporting, no longer being imported; Pentax 8x24 UCF, in production as updated 8 x 25 UCF X and 8x25 UCF WP waterproof; Swarovski 8x20 and 10x25 Habicht, in production as updated 8 x 20 and 10x25 Pocket; Swift 8x25 Micron and 10x25 DCF, discontinued.
|Model||X||Ob j||Type||Wt.||Dim.||List||Av.||Overall Rating|
|Habicht||10||25||R||8.2||3.8x4. 5||550||440||very good|
Obj.=mm, R= roof prism, P= porro prism, Wt.=oz., Dim.= in. (width x height), List= List Price, Av.= Average street price : all of the roof prism models are "folding" – folded width is typically 2/3 of width given. Both List and Average prices are approximate. *shared Best Buy, new=too new to have street price yet, PofSM=Product of Special Merit, Ref. Stand.=Reference Standard for group
-- Currently Testing --
|In a review in February, 1994, Better View Desired founder Stephen Ingraham called the Bausch & Lomb 7x26 Custom “ . . . an example of what can be done with compacts if you are willing to spend the money to get everything just about right . . . These have to be, right now, the reference standard in the compact class.” The Bausch & Lomb 7x26 Custom was replaced by the Bushnell 7x26 Custom in 2004. This report compares the older “Reference Standard” B & L Custom with the current Bushnell version of the same binocular.|