9 best binoculars
Whether for bird watching or stargazing, we've tried and tested the best eye gear on the market to help bring things into focus
Whether you’re a serious wildlife watcher or just want a better view of the garden blue tits’ antics, decent binoculars will bring you an awful lot of pleasure. Just be sure to have a good think about how you will use them before you buy.
Will you be tramping around misty marshes looking for rare birds where optical excellence is at a premium, or do you need a tiny pair you can stuff into a pocket?
Eight times magnification and 42mm objective lenses – the big lens at the bottom – are an ideal combination for most uses (you’ll see them listed as 8x42s). Basically, the bigger the objective lens, the more light they can gather and the brighter the image you’ll see.
Modern rubberised bodies can take bumps and knocks in their stride, and if you’re an all-weather nature enthusiast, look out for waterproofing and specialist coatings to keep the rain out.
We’ve brought together a range of binos from big-name manufacturers, plus a few optical specialists you might not have heard of.
In our list you’ll find expensive models using the latest image stabilisation technology to give you the steadiest possible view, as well as budget pairs that you won’t mind kids bashing about as they get into birding. They all have eyepieces that either twist up or fold down to allow you to use them with or without glasses.
Opticron Imagic BGA VHD 8x42: £449, Wex
Our best buy isn’t head and shoulders above the rest – it just does everything that little bit better. The image is slightly crisper and brighter, the rubberised finish feels nicer in the hands and the focusing wheel is just a tad smoother to operate. Even the Cordura case and neoprene neck strap ooze quality. Made in Japan and weighing just 709g, the binos focus down to 2m and are waterproof to 3m. Excellence comes at a slightly higher price, although with a 30-year guarantee they should give you a lifetime’s service. One for hardcore wildlife watchers who want superb field glasses they can enjoy for decades.
Olympus 8x42 EXPSi: £139, Amazon
This is a modern take on the traditional angled “porro-prism” design that’s been around for more than a century. At 785g they are almost 80g heavier than the Opticrons but the sculpted, rubberised body sits really well in larger hands. The image is bright and clear even in low light, and having the objective lenses that bit further apart improves depth of field perception making the image seem more three-dimensional. They only focus down to 4m, so are not ideal for watching insects, but they are excellent value and are backed up with a 25-year guarantee, although they’re not fully waterproof.
Viking Kestrel 8x42: £219.95, Amazon
We really grew to like this pair during our time together. The understated, no-frills design sits comfortably in the hand and the larger, knobbly metal focus ring was lovely and smooth in use. At just 702g they are a smidge lighter than our best buy, the Opticrons. Image quality is really good, helped by the fact that despite being a mid-price pair they boast extra-low dispersion glass – put simply, it stops colours spreading out. They are nitrogen-filled to prevent fogging up and can focus down to just 2m, making them perfect for wildlife watching. Viking, based in birdwatching heaven in Suffolk, is so confident of their durability that it backs them up with a 10-year warranty. They will stay waterproof down to 1.5m for up to three minutes should you drop them in a pond.
Eschenbach Sektor F 8x25: £99, Amazon
Weighing in at exactly 300g, these tiny binos are perfect for hikers or anyone who wants to carry a pair in their car glovebox. They use a double hinge design to fold down really small, making them ideal to stuff in a pocket or rucksack. Alternatively, you can wear them in their case on your belt. Despite their size, the army green rubberised coating makes them feel quite substantial and they come with a five-year guarantee. On the downside, the small 25mm objective lenses mean they gather a lot less light than their bigger 42mm rivals and we found the smaller eyepieces meant they were a little harder to use with glasses, although they were fine without.
Canon 10x32 IS: £1,099, Amazon
With their high-tech looks and amazing image stabilisation, you’ll feel like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars when using this pair. It’s not until you go back to “ordinary” binos that you realise how much even breathing can make your hands shake. Press one of the two buttons on the body and the usual jitters disappear, although the glasses make several small, smooth movements as the system adjusts. One button is for use when panning or making bigger movements, the other is for looking at more static objects. To save battery power the system shuts down after five minutes or when the glasses hang from their strap. We enjoyed using them while birding and they really came into their own when observing the moon and stars on cold, clear nights in the Lake District. Although not fully waterproof, they will survive a rain shower and weigh in at 780g without the two AA batteries needed to operate the IS system.
Celestron Trailseeker 10x42: £188.99, Amazon
Celestron has been making telescopes since 1960 and its devices have even been sent into orbit on the International Space Station, so it should know a thing or two about optics. This compact pair is smaller than many of the 8x42 models in our list and weighs in at just 645g, yet the engineers have packed in a whopping 10x magnification. Fully waterproof, they come in an attractive dark green, which makes a change from the usual jet black offered by most manufacturers. Along with the usual strap and case, they come with a chest harness if you prefer to avoid hanging them round your neck. There’s a limited lifetime warranty too, so Celestron will repair or replace for the original owner should any defects ever emerge.
RSPB 8.5x42 WPG: £204.75, Tesco
Wardens at wildlife charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds use these binos while out and about on their reserves, so they must be pretty durable. They have a similarly understated look to the Vikings but are a tiny bit more powerful with an 8.5x magnification. They are waterproof and weigh in at a very reasonable 735g. For your money you get a hardshell case for storage plus a soft pouch to stow them inside. The RSPB-branded neck strap proved really comfortable even after hours outside walking and wildlife watching. Again, they come with a 10-year guarantee for peace of mind.
Eschenbach Arena D+ 8x42: £116.12, Amazon
This functional-looking pair is a solid choice for any budding birders in your family or occasional users. They weigh a meagre 628g and are protected by a rugged rubberised armour. The image is sharp and bright despite the relatively low price, although they only focus down to 3m. German firm Eschenbach has been in the optics business since 1913 and makes everything from opera glasses to very high end binoculars, and they back this waterproof and fog-proof pair up with a five-year guarantee.
Bushnell Legend E Series 8x42: £149.97, Manfrotto
This pair was a very pleasant surprise. Noticeably smaller than many of the others in our line up, they are also very light at just 685g – although that was 50g more than advertised on the box. The focusing ring is nice and big, making adjustments super easy, while the eyepieces use a click system to reduce the risk of them being accidentally moved once you have them set to your liking. Image quality and brightness is excellent and the lenses are treated with a special Rainguard HD coating so that moisture beads and runs off rather than hampering your view. If you can grab a pair at our offer price you’ll be getting a real bargain and saving nearly £150.
The verdict: binoculars
The Opticrons really deserve our best-buy rating – they gave the brightest, sharpest images in our line up – but if your budget doesn’t run to almost £450 then take a look at either the Vikings or the Bushnells, both of which were easy to use and offered great viewing. If you have cash to splash and shaky hands then the Canons are an amazing product.
Have we missed any brands? Do you agree with our expert’s choices? Drop us a line with any feedback or questions on [email protected].
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