Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review: 5 best binoculars for bird watching beginners (2019)

"Which binoculars are best for birding?" This is a question I have been asked numerous times over the years. In recent years binoculars have improved tremendously. As birding has become more popular, more and more manufacturers are creating more and more models aimed at the bird watching market. It's hard to keep up!

Even though new makes of binoculars come out regularly, certain models consistently are the best value for the money, out-performing the competition, year after year. The rest of this article will review what I think are the best binoculars for beginning birders. I will also explain the criteria I used for making this decision, as we compare each one.

The 5 best binoculars for bird watching beginners are these full-sized models:
  • Vortex Viper HD 8x42
  • Nikon Monarch 7 8x42
  • Celestron Trailseeker ED 8x42
  • Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42
  • Nikon ProStaff 3S 8x42



What kind of binoculars are best for bird watching beginners?


Whatever binocular you decide to choose, start by comparing it with this model: Nikon Monarch 5 8x42.

Why? This very popular binocular has very good optical and mechanical properties and is exceptionally well-priced. If you just bought this one as your first birding binoculars it will suit you for many years. And you'll probably be very happy with it.

First, a word about price


When you buy your beginning birding binoculars, as with many things in life, you get what you pay for. We're not talking about a $45 pair of binoculars that you pick up at Wal-Mart. Such binoculars have poor optical qualities, are probably not aligned properly, are dim and have soft focus. They are not waterproof. They are not rugged. They will likely be broken within 2 years, if not sooner. They will likely discourage you from watching birds.

Binoculars should last a long time. They are a major investment for most people. A good rule of thumb is that you should always buy the best binoculars you can afford.

I'm going to start by shocking you, and then work back from there. The very best birding binoculars are in the $2000-3000 price range! They're very nice; but you don't need them. In my opinion. They are wonderful and, sure, I probably wouldn't turn them down if you were to buy them for me as a gift.

The so-called "mid-priced" binoculars are in the $500-1000 range. This is where the value is, as I'll explain below.

My personal price point for binoculars for myself is $500. That's considered the upper end of "low-priced" birding binoculars. And that's where I set the high price for beginner bird watching binoculars.

I've been birding for over 45 years and I think I'm on about my 7th pair of binoculars. I wore out the first couple pairs that were inexpensive. Then I damaged a couple pairs banging them on trailside rocks after taking a tumble in the mountains, or dropping them one too many times on the deck of a fishing boat while birding at sea. I even think I drove off with a pair of binoculars on the roof! Gone. If I lose a pair of binoculars overboard, or smash them on a mountain cliff, I don't want it to be a life-altering event. Thus, $500.

Photo of Greg's new binoculars! Nikon Monarch 7 8x42
I just purchased these Nikon Monarch 7 8x42 bins in June 2019.
They are one of 5 binoculars I recommend for beginning birders.

Greg's weird rule-of-thumb on determining binocular value


Here's my possibly warped view on how I value binoculars. If I double the price, will I also double the number of birds I can identify? That's the purpose of binoculars, right? See and identify more birds. $50 compared to $100? Very much so. $100 compared to $200 binoculars? Yes. Will a $400 pair of binoculars allow me to identify twice as many birds as a $200 pair of binoculars? Maybe, especially in low light woods or overcast. Will an $800 pair of binoculars allow me to identify twice as many birds as a $400 pair of binoculars? No. But they may last longer and give a clearer view. Beyond this, though, the benefits for me decline quickly.

Some $500 pairs of binoculars are nearly as good as a $1000 pair. And a $3000 pair of binoculars is only marginally better than a $1000 pair. In my opinion. Your opinion, though, is the only one that matters. To me, $500 is a lot of money. It may not be to you. Or, conversely, $500 may be beyond all reason for you. If you are a beginning bird watcher and your budget is tight, you can get started with a decent pair of binoculars for under $150, even under $100 by sacrificing some features.

But plan for your binoculars to last at least 10 years. Not everyone is as hard on binoculars as I am! Buy the best you can afford, because you'll likely be using them for the next 10 years, if not a lifetime.

Some important features of binoculars


Whether you are a beginning bird watcher or seasoned expert, you need to know some terminology about how binoculars are constructed and assessed. Then the comparisons below will make more sense. You will also be able to compare other models using their specification sheets.

Magnification determines how large the image appears to your eyes. It is set by the ocular lenses (the smaller lenses on your binocular that you look directly through).

Objective lens size, measured in millimeters, is the diameter of the "big end" lens on the binoculars. This lens gathers light.

7x35 is a magnification of 7 power and an objective lens of 35mm diameter.

Exit pupil. The magnification divided by the objective lens size, in millimeters. 5.0 is good and gives a sense of how bright the image will appear.

Nitrogen purged/waterproof. All the binoculars listed here have the internal air (which contains oxygen and water vapor) pushed out and replaced with nitrogen (or argon). These are then sealed. This makes them waterproof and fog proof on the inside. No more heating up your binoculars on the dashboard heater of your car in winter to remove condensed moisture from inside. Most of these binoculars can be submerged in a couple of feet of water without getting water inside. They can be used in a pouring rainstorm without worry.

Close focus is important for viewing smaller birds in the woods, or butterflies at your feet, or hummingbirds on the window feeder.

Multicoated lenses. Inside the binoculars are prisms. You know what happens when you shine white light through a prism, right? It breaks it into a rainbow of colors with red at one end and violet at the other. If you look through binoculars and the image has a violet halo, that is chromatic aberration. Lens coatings keep the light together. There are many types. This is where much of the increased cost comes from.

Eye relief is how far your eyes are from the ocular lens. If you are an eyeglass wearer, and use eyeglasses to look through binoculars (as I must), then your eyes are farther back from the lens than someone not wearing eyeglasses. Adjustable eyecups push non-eyeglass wearers back away from the ocular lens to match the distance of eyeglass wearers, but fold down for eyeglass wearers.

Interpupillary distance is how close together your eyes are, and whether the binoculars can adjust. All the binoculars here adjust for most adult eyes: 56-72 millimeters. If your head is unusually small (or a child) or your eyes are unusually far apart, this range may not be enough for your eyes to combine the two binocular images into one seamless view.

Field of View is how much width you can see edge-to-edge at a certain distance. A binocular with a narrow field of view is like looking through a straw--you can't see much, and may have a hard time "getting on" a flying bird, for instance. Binoculars with a wider field of view take in more of the scenery, making it easier to initially put your binoculars right on the bird. Measured as feet of width at 1000 yards distance. "300 feet at 1000" yards is fairly narrow, while "450 feet at 1000" yards is fairly wide.

Weight of binoculars determine how steady you can hold them. Very heavy binoculars can become wearisome to hold up to your eyes all day.

Putting it all together


Why not get the greatest magnification possible? If you magnify too much you increase image shakiness. You also need larger objective lenses to gather more light to keep that 5.0mm ideal exit pupil brightness. Larger objective lenses are heavier and more costly. Thus, most general purpose birding binoculars are 8x42.

Some birders use 10x42 binoculars. These aren't quite as bright and don't focus as closely. After wearing out my father's 7x35 sporting binoculars, I purchased 10x50's as my first beginner binoculars. They were bright enough, but big and heavy. I have used 8x42's ever since.

Up to this point I've talked only about full-sized binoculars.

Compact binoculars are smaller and lighter with smaller objective lenses. A popular size is the mid-sized 8x32. The exit pupil is only 4.0, so they aren't as bright in low-light conditions. This can be partially offset with good lens coatings. These are great for casual use, hiking, a second pair to carry in your car's glove compartment, or a window sill pair for watching your bird feeder. But they'll work fine for birding if that's all you can afford at this time. Not one of the 5 recommended binoculars, I offer one of these as a "bonus" birding binocular.



Comparing the 5 best binoculars for bird watching beginners


All of the best binoculars for beginning birders are nitrogen purged to be waterproof and fog proof, and have the same interpupillary adjustment range. So we don't have to compare those features.

In general, the glass and coatings are the main driver in the difference in cost. Higher priced binoculars should have better brightness, sharpness, and clarity, and be more rugged and balanced in the hand. But there are other considerations we'll examine below that help differentiate models from each other.

Since 8x42 is the most popular size and magnification, all my recommendations are of this size, called "full sized" binoculars. [If you are determined to go with 10x binoculars of these same models, fine. There's nothing wrong with that. But remember you will be sacrificing field of view, close focus, brightness, weight, and cost. In other words the 8x42 is superior to 10x42 in all aspects except magnification. Check the specs carefully so you know exactly what you are sacrificing.]

In the following tables, features with less than ideal specs are highlighted in red. These aren't deal-breakers, rather, these are the compromises that differentiate one pair from another. Likewise, I've highlighted in blue the especially good specs.

Remember, I said to start with the popular Nikon Monarch 5? Let's do that.



<$300 binoculars


Nikon Monarch 5 8x42

Field of View: 330 feet at 1000 yards
Close focus: 8.2 feet
Eye relief: 19.5 mm
Weight: 20.8 ounces
Comments: Though perhaps the most popular birding binocular, the field of view is less than ideal for beginning birders. It does have a very long eye relief for comfortable viewing for all eyeglass wearers.

Please visit Amazon (here) to check the current price.


So, even though I ask you to compare with the very popular and best selling birding binocular, Nikon Monarch 5, I no longer recommend it, as there's something better!

Celestron Trailseeker ED 8x42

Field of view: 426 feet at 1000 yards
Close focus: 6.5 feet
Eye relief: 17.2 mm
Weight: 23.5 ounces
Comments: The price is nearly identical with the Monarch 5. The close focus allows you to observe butterflies at your feet on the trail, or birds in close bushes, or even at your window feeder! The eye relief is good for eyeglass wearers. The field of view is terrifically wide! You'll be able to see everything that's going on not just with the bird under view, but off to the side. A bird flies over, you raise your binoculars, and there it is! The wide field of view makes getting on the bird so much easier.

Please visit Amazon (here) to check the current price.



$475-650 binoculars


Next we take a step up in quality and price from the Nikon Monarch 5. There are two binoculars worthy of your consideration. It doesn't matter if you're a beginner or not, these are great binoculars.

Nikon Monarch 7 8x42

Field of view: 420 feet at 1000 yards
Close focus: 8.2 feet
Eye relief: 17.1 mm
Weight: 22.9 ounces
Comments: Excellent field of view, especially compared to the Nikon Monarch 5. Most people with eyeglasses will be able to use these without problem (16 mm is minimum for eyeglasses), but some eyeglass wearers may experience some vignetting (not seeing all the way to the edge of the full image). This is my latest purchase... and the best binoculars I've ever owned.

Please visit Amazon (here) to check the current price.

Vortex Viper HD 8x42

Field of view: 409 feet at 1000 yards
Close focus: 6.5 feet
Eye relief: 18 mm
Weight: 24.5 ounces
Comments: Good field of view. Excellent close focus. Decent eye relief.

Please visit Amazon (here) to check the current price.



$120-175 binoculars


If your budget just won't allow you to purchase the Nikon 5, then let's drop the price to 1/2 or 1/3 of that. Normally, I'd never recommend birding binoculars for less than $250, not even for beginners. But these are the exceptions. These are very good binoculars at a budget price.

Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42

Field of view: 393 feet
Close focus: 6.5 feet
Eye relief: 17.8 mm
Weight: 24.9 ounces
Comments: The ED is a newer model with extra-low dispersion glass for superior optical quality. It bumps the price up an extra $25 to the upper end of this price range from the previous DX 8x42 version. But it's well worth it. The close focus is excellent. Eye relief is good, as is the field of view. It's a bit heavy, but not bad.

Please visit Amazon (here) to check the current price.

Nikon ProStaff 3S 8x42

Field of view: 377 feet
Close focus: 9.8 feet
Eye relief: 20.2 mm
Weight: 19.9 ounces
Comments: Outstanding eye relief for eyeglass wearers. Light weight. Field of view and close focus are adequate. Waterproof at this low price! Amazing quality in a full-sized binocular for such a low price.

Please visit Amazon (here) to check the current price.



Bonus #1: compact binocular under $120

There's a whole slew of compact binoculars from budget priced to well over $1000. In general they don't perform as well in low-light conditions. But some people really like them. I offer one bonus review of a compact binocular that has excellent quality for a low price.

Celestron Nature DX 8x32

Field of view: 388 feet
Close focus: 6.6 feet
Eye relief: 17.5 mm
Weight: 18 ounces
Exit pupil: 4.0 mm (this is good for a compact binocular)
Comments: This compact binocular has smaller objective lenses, so it's not going to be as bright in low-light conditions as the other binoculars (exit pupil 4.0 mm compared to 5.25 mm for all others). Under most conditions you won't notice the difference. But it is a decent binocular for such a low price. And, the smaller lenses mean less weight and smaller overall size. The eye relief is good, field of view good, close focus is excellent.

Please visit Amazon (here) to check the current price.



Bonus #2: I told you to buy the best binocular you could afford...


>$2500 binoculars


Zeiss Victory 8x42 SF T*

Field of View: 444 feet at 1000 yards
Close focus: 5.0 feet
Eye relief: 18 mm
Weight: 27.5 ounces
Comments: I don't recommend this binocular for beginning bird watchers. But I did tell you to buy the best binoculars you could afford. So I offer this just in case. I want you to look at these specs, though. Absolutely excellent field of view and outstanding close focus. The eye relief is long to accommodate most eyeglass wearers. Of course the glass and coatings are second-to-none. However, you can't build such a rugged product without weight. These are fairly heavy binoculars.

Please visit Amazon (here) to check the current price.



Related: Nikon Monarch 5 vs 7: which is best binocular for birding?

Related: 12 Best birding binoculars under $200

Check out our in-depth binocular buying guide. Compare all the specs in the handy tables.


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I'd love to hear from you. What did you think? Is something missing? What else would you like to see in a future article? Comments are moderated to eliminate spam; thanks for understanding that I may not be able to get back to you right away. --Greg--

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