Fancy doing a spot of birdwatching or getting closer to the sporting action?
This is our pick of the finest binoculars you can buy
Apart from birdwatching, there probably isn’t many instances you can think of that require a pair of binoculars.
But there are many more (legal) use cases than you think. Going to the races for the day?
They’ll come in handy if you want to watch the horse you backed make it across the finish line.
A good pair can greatly enhance your enjoyment of the great outdoors; a bad pair can put you off for life.
But how do you tell the difference? And are cheap binoculars always a bad move?
To help you make the right decision, we’ve put together a list of the best binoculars you can buy.
And if you don’t know your objective lenses from your Porro prisms, then scroll down the page to get the full lowdown on what features you should be looking for in our handy buying guide.
1. RSPB Puffin 8 x 32: The best binoculars under $80
The general rule is that the cheaper the binocular, the more difficult it is to focus and see a clear image. These compact binoculars buck that trend spectacularly.
Typically sold at RSPB bird reserves, they cost a bargain $75, yet the image you see through them is clear and crisp with little distortion.
You won’t spend ages adjusting them thanks to the wide 7.5° field of view.
True, for $75, you don’t get such luxuries as extra-close focusing (take the 8 feet close focus claim with a large pinch of salt, it’s actually longer than 10 feet).
And they’re quite soft at the edges of the field of view. The strap and pouch are basic, and eye-relief is a low 13.6mm. Glasses wearers would be well advised to try these out before buying.
However, the binoculars themselves feel solidly made, they’re light and portable and offer screw-out eye-cups – a lot more than you’d expect for the money.
Key specs – 8x magnification; 32mm objective lenses; 7.5° field of view; 13.6mm eye relief; adjustable eyecups; 2.5m (claimed) close focusing distance; 489g (with strap and lens caps).
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2. Opticron Discovery WP PC 8 x 42: Optically, the best binoculars under $300
These short, stubby Opticrons may not look particularly exceptional. Still, if you want the very best in optical quality for not much cash, they’re a good shout.
Technically, they’re slightly better quality than the Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 42 and present a sharper, clearer image that’s more neutrally colored.
They focus 2 feet closer – as close as 5 feet – which means they’re excellent for getting up close and personal with butterflies and bees.
They’re cheaper, too, than the Trailseekers and feel better made, with a smoother focus dial and longer 22mm eye relief, so they’re better for glasses wearers.
However, we’re not too keen on the cheap-feeling lens caps.
Where these Opticrons fall slightly short is in what’s included, or rather not included, in the box. All you get is a basic pouch and a simple, non-padded strap.
The Celestron’s include a stretchy neoprene strap, a pouch with extra compartments, and a harness.
Still, suppose the best quality image is important to you. In that case, they’re fantastic for the money and represent a big step up from the cheaper Olympus 10 x 25 and RSPB Puffin 8 x 32 models.
Key specs – 8x magnification, 42mm objective lenses, 7.5° field of view, 22mm eye relief, adjustable eyecups, 5 feet close focusing distance, 1.9 pounds (with strap and lens caps)
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3. Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42: The best binoculars money can buy
Question: What does £1,800 get you in a pair of binoculars?
Answer: The best image quality on the planet. That’s no understatement.
If you’re serious about your bird-spotting and money is no object, these Austrian-made Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 are for you.
They’re so bright and clear that looking through them feels like an exercise in biological enhancement.
In low light, they’re so good they almost feel that they’re brightening the image; in good light, what you see is so sharp and clear you’ll forget you’re peering through binoculars at all.
Optically, they’re beyond reproach, with exceptional sharpness across a wide 7.6° field of view and no discernible chromatic aberrations.
They offer a touch more magnification than most of the binoculars we’ve used at 8.5x. Yet, they’re not at all difficult to hold steady and close focus is superb: you can peer at subjects from 5 feet.
Focusing is incredibly easy on the finger, too. The focus wheel is both light and smooth and super accurate.
The EL 8.5 x 42 are also highly practical and incredibly well-made. The eyecups feel solidly constructed and extend out in three notched stages (eye-relief is an extra-long 20mm).
The stretchy padded strap included in the box attaches via quick release clips to the side of each barrel, allowing for the quick attachment of other accessories.
Strap length adjustments can be made quickly. By simply rotating a dial on each strap to release and spinning it back the other way to lock the strap in position once you’ve made your adjustments.
Dioptre adjustment is super easy. Made not by grasping a ring on the right eyepieces but by flicking the focus wheel up, adjusting to your eyes, and flicking it back down to lock it in.
Naturally, these binoculars are solidly built and waterproof to a depth of 4m.
The Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 are truly exceptional binoculars. They’re not cheap, but if you do have the money and nature watching is your passion, you will most certainly not be disappointed. They’re simply magnificent.
Key specs – 8.5x magnification; 42mm objective lenses; 7.6° field of view; 20mm eye relief; adjustable cups; 5 feet close focusing distance; 4.24 pounds (with strap and lens caps)
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4. Canon 12 x 36 IS III: The best binoculars with image stabilization
Image stabilization isn’t just for cameras. Canon has also built its shaky hands reduction tech into its binoculars range, and it works incredibly well.
Pop a pair of AA batteries into a compartment on the Canon 12 x 3 IS III’s belly, press a small button on the top. Like magic, all handshake disappears, leaving you with a crystal clear, super steady image.
Normally we wouldn’t recommend using a pair of 12x magnification binoculars without a tripod. Still, with stabilization, these work just fine, and optically the Canons are splendid.
They present a sharp, bright image right out to the very edge of your field of view with neutral color representation.
There are some downsides, though. The high magnification level means the field of view isn’t particularly broad. At just 5°, you’ll spot less than you would with a pair of the much cheaper Celestron Trailseekers.
These aren’t quite as bright to look through as binoculars much cheaper, plus there’s visible color fringing around objects set against bright backgrounds.
They don’t focus particularly closely, either, so they’re not great for peeking at insects and flowers. And eye-relief isn’t very long at 14.5mm. Glasses wearers beware.
And we’re a little disappointed with the accessories supplied in the box. The strap isn’t padded. Bizarrely, you don’t get lens caps for the objective lenses. And also, the rubber, non-adjustable, roll-down eyecups won’t be to everyone’s taste either.
Even the ocular lens caps aren’t tethered. However, for that stupendously good image stabilization, we’re willing to forgive a lot.
Key specs – 12x magnification; 36mm objective lenses; 5° field of view; 14.5mm eye relief; non-adjustable eyecups; 20 feet closest focusing distance; image stabilization; 1.46 pounds (with strap and 3 x AA batteries)
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5. Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 42: The best binoculars under $250
The best all-rounders in the binocular business are light, practical, and offer up a bright, sharp image with a wide field of view.
The Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 42 delivers on all these fronts. The field of view is an impressive 8.12°.
The “phase-coated” optics deliver a crisp image (although it does soften a little at the edges of the field of view). Also, the close focussing is an impressive 6.5 feet, so you’ll be able to observe insects and flowers close up as well as our feathered friends.
Despite this and a comparatively reasonable price, the Trailseekers are well-designed and well-built. They come with a generous selection of extras.
The tough-feeling green rubber housing is fully waterproof. The eyecups are adjustable in three stages, with eye-relief stretching all the way out to 17mm.
However, what’s most impressive is the range of accessories on offer here. The neoprene-padded strap, high-quality carry bag, lens cleaning cloth, and even a shoulder harness all supplied in the box.
Key specs – 8x magnification; 42mm objective lenses; 8.12° field of view; 17mm eye relief; adjustable eyecups; 6.5 feet close focusing distance; 1.45 pounds (with strap and lens caps)
Olympus 10 x 25 PC I: The best compact binoculars for close-up spotting
Compact binoculars are great to keep in the car or take on a trip when you’re traveling light, and the Olympus 10 x 25 PC I are some of the best around.
They weigh a mere 9.9 ounces, even with the lightweight neck strap attached and fold up small enough to fit in a jacket hip pocket.
Despite this, the high 10x magnification and narrow 25mm objective lenses, image quality is exceptional – sharp and much brighter than you might expect.
They’re well built, too, with a smooth focus ring, twist-out cups with 15mm of eye relief, and close focus that lets you get nearer to your subject than most other binoculars.
It’s advertised at 8.2 feet, but we were able to focus at around 5.6 feet. Coupled with the 10x magnification, this makes them excellent for insect and plant spotting.
The downsides of that extra magnification are that the field of view isn’t very wide – a mere 5.2° – they can be tricky to hold steady. The price is a little on the high side, but we love these compact binoculars. They’re superb.
Key specs – 10x magnification; 25mm objective lenses; 5.2° field of view; 15mm eye relief; adjustable cups; 5.6 feet close focusing distance; 9.9 ounces (with strap and lens caps)
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How to buy the best binoculars for you
To look at, one pair of binoculars would appear to be much the same as another. Some might be smaller than others. By and large, they’re made up of a pair of barrels with lenses at either end, attached to each other with a hinge in the middle.
Dig deeper, however, and you’ll discover there’s a whole world of features and specifications that determine how good a pair of binoculars are and the sort of spotting activities they’re suited to.
What type of binoculars should I buy?
You’ll probably have noticed if you’ve ever looked for or used a pair of binoculars that they all have a pair of numbers – like 8 x 42 or 10 x 25 – written somewhere on them.
The 1st number on them designates the magnification level. So, an 8x pair will enlarge your subject eight times, while a 10x pair will make it ten times bigger.
The 2nd number tells you how large the objective lenses (the big ones on the end) are in millimeters.
The most important number is the magnification level. You might think here that bigger is better, right?
Well, that’s not strictly true. While a 10x or 12x magnification will allow you to see things further away that bit closer, higher magnification such as this has knock-on effects.
At higher levels of magnification, it’s usually hard to hold binoculars steady enough to see a stable image. Higher magnification also usually means a narrower field of view.
Field of view (or FOV), is another figure usually stenciled on the binocular somewhere. It refers to how much you can see from left to right when you’re peering through them and it’s normally expressed in degrees.
What is the best magnification level for bird watching?
The sweet spot for birdwatching and nature-spotting binoculars is 8x. This gives you a reasonably broad field of view (around 7 to 8 degrees) and magnification and allows you to hand-hold easily without getting too much distracting shake.
Suppose you’re more of a stargazer and need binoculars for looking at the moon and constellations. In that case, you’ll want a higher magnification level – 12x and up – but you’ll need to think about attaching them to a tripod.
What benefit is there to buying binoculars with bigger lenses?
The objective lens size is most critical to the quality of the image you see through your binoculars.
The larger the lens, the greater its light-gathering ability is. Too small, and the image will be murky and dim; too big, though, and the binoculars will be too bulky and heavy to be practical.
That’s why in this test, we’ve mostly focused on binoculars with 42mm objective lenses (and why most manufacturers do the same) because they strike the best balance between light gathering and practicality.
If you want pocketable binoculars, choose a pair with 25mm lenses or 32mm.
If you’re mostly going to be stargazing or mounting your binoculars to a tripod. In that case, you can get away with larger lenses.
In summary, then, an 8 x 42 pair of binoculars 8x magnify a scene and has 42mm lenses; a 10 x 25 pair has 10x magnification and 25mm lenses.
Should I care about features such as prism types or ED glass?
You might hear the other terms connected with binoculars and see on specifications sheets are Porro prism, roof prism, and ED glass.
Porro and roof prisms: All binoculars use prisms to keep the size down. Otherwise, they’d all be huge and look like a pair of telescopes strapped together.
Prisms come in different flavors, though, and the type of prisms used dictates the shape and size of your binoculars.
Traditional A-shaped binoculars use Porro prisms. Porro prism binoculars tend to be larger and bulkier than roof-prism binoculars but slightly cheaper.
More modern H-shaped binoculars use roof prisms. These are the most popular type in use today because they tend to be smaller and lighter than Porro-prism optics.
ED or HD glass: ED (extra-low dispersion) glass (also referred to as HD glass by some manufacturers) is a special type of glass that’s designed to keep chromatic aberrations under control.
You can spot chromatic aberrations by looking at a dark object silhouetted against a bright background – a kestrel against the sky, for example. It manifests as color fringing around those objects.
Binoculars with ED or HD glass tend to keep such fringing to a minimum, and the image you see through them will be clearer and sharper as a result.
However, ED glass is more expensive than standard glass, so you’ll tend to see it only in more expensive binoculars of above £200.
The other key features to look out for
Close focus: Great for spotting insects and inspecting flowers from close range. The best binoculars let you focus from as close as 1.5m away.
Waterproofing: You’re going to be using your binoculars outside, so it’s best to be sure that they won’t let in if you’re caught in a rain shower. They’ll fog up, and condensation will form on the inner surfaces if this happens.
Fog proofing: To prevent binoculars from fogging up when transitioning from the cold outdoors to the warm indoors, manufacturers fill their binoculars with an inert gas (usually argon or nitrogen) with no water content and thus inhibits condensation.
Eye relief: If you wear spectacles, binoculars with long eye relief and adjustable eyecups will make it much easier for you to see the full field of view while wearing your glasses.
Look for binoculars with an eye relief of 14mm or longer. The more, the better, though, as this will give you more opportunities to tweak for the best view.
When it comes to finding the best binoculars, there are a few considerations that you must make. One of the most important things that you have to take into consideration is lighting. If you are using your binoculars at night, you obviously need to make sure that the pair you buy is waterproof. To see clearly at night, even with the best quality binoculars, you must be able to use them in the dark.
The best binoculars available for astronomy will be very different from the best binoculars available for bird-hunting, stargazing, or horseback riding. If you are new to this hobby and are not sure what type to purchase, we have rounded up what you should know to quickly find the best binoculars available for beginners like you. First, you must understand that there are basically three types of binos: solid-state binos, gas-cooled links, and solar binos. All of these come in one basic design, but there are a few different variations that you can take advantage of.
Last update on 2021-06-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API