The Binocular Site
Mid-range Binoculars: Balancing Performance and Value
Life requires balance. Work and home, healthy food and decadent indulgences, exercise and relaxation—it’s the balance between them that makes them enjoyable. The same can be said of binoculars. The right balance of performance and value makes a big difference, not only in what the binoculars may be used for, but in how the user feels about the purchase. Choosing the right pair of mid-range binoculars is easy with an understanding of what they have to offer.
Some people refer to the idea of an alpha binocular. These are the premium-range binoculars finally chosen by a user after working up the price range from an entry-level model, through a mid-range model. Most binocular users begin with an inexpensive model – largely because they are just beginning an activity for which a binocular is required or at least highly useful, and often because they either do not have or do not want to spend the money for a higher priced model at that time. The thing is, not everyone wants or needs to own premium-level binoculars. Just as a Ferrari is not essential for everyone who drives a car, premium-level binoculars are not necessary for all binocular users.
The mid-range of binoculars is an astonishingly rich and varied segment of the binocular market. The designers of these products carefully balance cost versus performance, and continually incorporate features once found only in higher priced models. The opportunity for a binocular customer to buy a mid-range model that offers high quality and performance is excellent. Not long ago, phase coating was only found in premium-level, roof prism binoculars; now it is found in many mid-range models. Even the once all-but-untouchable calcium fluoride (marketed as HD or ED) glass of the highest end models is beginning to approach the top of the mid-range product offerings.
With such a wide field of products to choose from, where should the potential binocular buyer begin? An excellent course of action is to look to the brand names most strongly associated with performance and moderate pricing such as Bushnell, Leupold, Minox, and Nikon, as well as more recent market entrants like Vortex. For buyers in commonwealth nations, this list should be expanded to include Opticron.
The Bushnell Elite e2 binocular line usually runs about $500. Offered in the conventional 8x42mm and 10x42mm configurations, the Elite e2 models are a perfect example of features previously found only on higher priced binoculars. Not only do the Elite e2 models feature phase-coated roof prisms, they also offer a Magnesium chassis for a lighter overall weight, as well as water-repellant lens coatings (Bushnell’s name: RainGuard) that disperse water into tiny micro-drops, offering a clear field of view even in the rain.
Leupold offers a remarkable selection of products in the middle price range. Models such as the Cascades, Katmai, Olympic, and Pinnacles have all earned reputations for high reliability and performance. The Mojave is a recent addition to this line, a dual-hinge design that is already showing all the initial signs of success already achieved by the other models in that line. Optically, the Mojave binoculars are quite similar to Leupold’s well-established and highly popular Cascades binoculars, incorporating multi-coated lenses and a cold mirror coating on the prism assemblies. Because of their optical quality, coupled with the ergonomic dual-hinge design that allows for a natural and relaxed grip, as well as the rugged physical structure of the well established Cascades design, the Mojave 8x42mm or 10x42mm models should be included on any mid-range binocular buyer’s short list.
Another Leupold offering that has justifiably won fans in both bird watching and hunting markets is the Katmai. Offered in 8x32mm, 10x32mm, and 6x32mm models, the Katmai is both mid-sized as well as mid-range. The core 32mm objective diameter format of the Katmai models should not be underestimated versus any 42mm objective model. The Katmai’s incorporation of phase coated roof prisms and metallic coated auxiliary prisms combines with their short optical path length for an image that is bright, crisp, expansive, and versatile. The 6x32mm model provides an 8.0° field of view, and close focus distance for all three models is 4.9 feet / 1.5 meters.
Anyone seeking binoculars for very low light conditions, should give long and serious consideration to the Katmai 6x32mm model.
While sometimes overlooked, the German optics firm Minox provides a very respectable entry into the mid-range binocular grouping – the Minox BL line. Offered in the standard 8x42mm and 10x42mm models, as well as the very popular 8x32mm design, and 8x56mm format, the Minox BL line specializes in providing high quality optical performance in a lightweight binocular design. In addition to all the features expected of a mid-range roof prism binocular, the Minox BL models, particularly those in the 8x range, offer extended eye relief for ease of use in the field, and comfortable accommodation to users who wear eyeglasses.
From Nikon comes another middle-price range binocular well worth considering, the Nikon Monarch PC ATB. Offered in a wide variety of magnification and objective diameter configurations including the popular 8x42mm and 10x42mm designs, the Monarch product line has been a favorite of bird watchers and hunters alike for years. Both mirror and phase coatings on the roof and auxiliary prisms, respectively, help the Monarch models provide an image that is both bright and well defined. The fiberglass-reinforced polycarbonate body helps to keep the overall weight of each Monarch model well within a range that doesn’t cause a sore neck from a day carrying it in the field. One of the particularly effective features found in the Monarch models is the very long eye relief found in the 8x42mm model, which provides ease of use in the field, and comfort and overall usability for anyone wearing eyeglasses.
Vortex must be included in any consideration of mid-range binocular models. A bit of a newcomer, Vortex is the parent brand behind the Audubon, Eagle, Stokes, and namesake Vortex optics lines. Many of the models found in these various product lines fall well inside the mid-range retail price parameters, but one in particular stands out from the rest – the Vortex Fury. Offered in both 32mm and 42mm objective models, and in magnification levels ranging from 6x to 12x, the Fury line models include such performance enhancing features as silver-coated auxiliary prisms, phase-coated roof prisms, and a scratch resistant coating applied to the external lenses to enhance their durability against scratches.
The selection of binoculars in the mid-price range is quite extensive. All of these models offer optical quality, durability, field performance, and reputation. Taking all of these factors into account will help make the decision of which binoculars to buy much easier, and any of these products will provide years, even decades, of solid performance and satisfaction.
This article was written for The Binocular Site by John E. Riutta. To learn more about John please see his full biography.