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Most hunters won’t drop a grand on binoculars. We know because our readers have told us so—many times. And that’s O.K., because most don’t really need to. Truly high-class glass is a joy to behold, but mid- and even low-priced optics have improved vastly in recent years. If you make your living spotting far-off critters in big country, that’s one thing, but for the average hunter’s needs, today’s modestly priced binoculars will likely do the job. The only question is: Which one should you buy?
To help you figure that out, I traveled to western New York to meet hardcore whitetail hunter and University of Rochester professor of optics James Zavislan, whose living room houses a miniature optics lab and whose hunting property made for the perfect field-test venue. Zavislan enlisted hunting buddy Bill Lipnickey and urban bowhunter–optics undergrad student Joel Hoose. Together, we subjected 10 new full-size binoculars, ranging from a little over $100 to right around $1,000, to the most thorough and technical optics test F&S has ever conducted.
1. BEST OF THE TEST: Sig Sauer Zulu7
Score: 92.3 • Specs: 10x42 • 5.9x5" • 28.3 oz. • 17mm eye relief • 4.2mm exit pupil • 341' FOV @ 1,000 yd. • 5.9' close focus
Lowdown: How good is the Zulu7? One measure is all the 9s and 10s it scored in our eight test categories (see p. 78), including top marks for resolution, perceived image quality, and weather resistance. Another was all the wows and oh damns issued from the testers upon looking through them, which is like stepping into a world where everything is bigger, sharper, and more brilliant. The open-bridge design and tacky rubber finish provides a great feel in the hand, and the grooved focus wheel responds smoothly to a medium-light touch. The one glaring fault is the objective lens covers, which engage only with concerted effort—though it hardly matters because you’ll lose them within days due to how easily they pull off. It’s a small shortcoming, however, that you’ll forgive the second that you bring this binocular to your eyes.
2. Cabela’s Intrepid HD
Score: 86.4 • $800 • cabelas.com • Specs: 10x42 • 6.1x5" • 29.5 oz. • 16.3mm eye relief • 4.2mm exit pupil • 340' FOV • 9.8' close focus
Lowdown: A Cabela’s-branded binocular made by Vortex, the Intrepid HD got off to a sluggish start in our test with a mediocre ergonomics score, due to a somewhat slick finish, a slightly awkward feel in the hand, and a focus wheel that wasn’t exactly rough but wasn’t smooth either. It made up for those shortcomings, however, with stellar scores in almost every other test category. Resolution and perceived image quality were just a tick below the Sig’s; low-light performance was better—a 9.9 out of 10. The Intrepid’s diopter adjustment, which locks and features clicks, was one of the best of all the test models. A thorough soaking had almost no effect on the perceived image, and after an hour in the deep freeze, the Intrepid was one of only two models to still deliver a serviceable picture with noticeable detail.
3. KILLER DEAL: Vanguard Endeavor ED IV
Score: 86.3 • $499 • vanguardworld.us • Specs: 8x42 • 5.8x5" • 28.8 oz. • 19mm eye relief • 5.25mm exit pupil • 377' FOV • 5.9' close focus
Lowdown: This was a surprise. Priced on the bubble between the mid and low range, there was no reason for us to think the Endeavor ED IV would hang with models costing $300 to $500 more. But it did—and in many of the categories that matter most to hunters, including resolution, image quality, and low-light performance. The Endeavor pulled fine detail from both sun and shade, and delivered a clean, immersive picture. Another open-bridge model with a soft rubber coating, it too feels good in the hand. The focus wheel is big and smooth, and the diopter adjustment locks. The Endeavor did fall slightly behind the other top contenders for design and build and finished in the middle of the pack for weather resistance, but at this price, it’s a versatile, quality hunting tool and a standout value.
4. Meopta MeoPro HD
Score: 85 • $1,035 • meopta.com • Specs: 8x52 • 7x5.6" • 38.8 oz. • 18.5mm eye relief • 7mm exit pupil • 315' FOV • 7.2' close focus
Lowdown: This is a gorgeous binocular. The only model to notch perfect scores in design and build, low-light performance, and ergonomics, the MeoPro HD narrowly missed the top pick for perceived image quality, too. Everything on this binocular, from the rubber finish to the ultrasmooth adjustments, has the feel of quality and precision workmanship. So why is it fourth? First, the MeoPro did not resolve detail quite as well as some others, but mainly its greater size and weight hampers versatility and may well confine it to the truck for many hunters. And its price may put it out of reach. Ultimately, the MeoPro may not be the best all-around option on this list, but if you’re after a great low-light binocular for the truck or blind, and you don’t mind paying extra for gear that will last for decades, this one’s for you.
5. Leupold BX-3 Mohave Pro Guide
Score: 84.9 • $599 (as shown) • leupold.com • Specs: 10x50 • 6.6x5.1" • 29 oz. • 18.8mm eye relief • 4.9mm exit pupil • 283' FOV • 10' close focus
Lowdown: The Mohave scored 10s in resolution and build. In terms of detail in the middle of the image—say, for counting tines or duck ID—no model here did better. A tight FOV and some visual artifacts hurt, as did so-so low-light performance. We loved the ergonomics and the Kryptic finish.
6. Steiner HX
Score: 82.4 • $1,000 • steiner-optics.com • Specs: 10x42 • 5.8x5" • 28.5 oz. • 16.5mm eye relief • 4.2mm exit pupil • 326' FOV • 8' close focus
Lowdown: The HX is a precision-built tool that will handle bad weather and shine at dusk and dawn. Resolution and image quality were not quite as good as the top models. And it’s pricey. We can’t rank by reputation, but Steiner does have a name for making glass that lasts, which may help justify the cost.
7. Minox BL 10x44 HD
Score: 82.3 • $579 • minox.com • Specs: 10x44 • 5.7x4.9" • 26.7 oz. • 17mm eye relief • 4.4mm exit pupil • 345' FOV • 8.2' close focus
Lowdown: Hold the Minox BL in your hands, and you want to own it. It’s compact, comfortable, and the adjustments are positive and smooth. Resolution, image quality, and build weren’t quite equal to the ergonomics, though. Weather resistance was so-so, but low-light performance was very good.
8. Vortex Diamondback
Score: 78.5 • $189 • vortex.com • Specs: 10x42 • 5.9x5.1" • 21.8 oz. • 16mm eye relief • 4.2mm exit pupil • 345' FOV • 5' close focus
Lowdown: The inexpensive Diamondback comes with a significant drop in resolution, and it scored last in weather resistance. Still, despite noticeable field curvature, testers judged image quality higher than the other sub-$200 models, and build proved as good as some costing much more
9. KILLER DEAL: Nikon Prostaff 3S
Score: 75.4 • $129 • nikon.com • Specs: 10x42 • 5.9x4.9" • 20.4 oz. • 15.7mm eye relief • 4.2mm exit pupil • 367' FOV • 9.8' close focus
Lowdown: In terms of resolving detail, the ProStaff 3S performed with the very best. It showed significant chromatic aberration, though, and image quality wasn’t great. Neither was build or low-light performance. But there’s no cheaper binocular better at counting far-off kickers in decent light.
10. Bushnell Trophy Xtreme
Score: 70 • $180 • bushnell.com • Specs: 10x50 • 6.4x5.4" • 32 oz. • 17mm eye relief • 5mm exit pupil • 315' FOV • 10' close focus
Lowdown: If the light is low, the Trophy Xtreme will let you see deer after the Nikon Prostaff 3S has gone dark. You’ll give up detail during the rest of the day, but image quality is about the same. The binocular feels bulky, and it finished last in build quality. But with its smooth adjustments, it’s a good value.
After weighing and measuring the binoculars, we evaluated them in the following eight categories: Resolution Zavislan set up two poster boards, one in the sun and another in deep shade, each with 1951 USAF Resolution Test Charts in varying contrasts, as well as two color artifact tests. From 100 yards away, testers recorded values corresponding to detail resolved and color shift perceived. Perceived Image Quality Testers judged each model’s image for ease of use, feeling of immersion, clarity, and visual artifacts, including stray light and apparent field curvature (or blurring at the edges). Low-Light Performance This category aggregated exit pupil, deep-shade resolution, and light transmission, as measured by Zavislan. Design & Build Zavislan evaluated features and subjected each unit to a drop test; he also measured collimation and focus backlash and wander. Weather Resistance We submersed each binocular in a 5-gallon bucket, and then froze them for an hour, rating the effects each time on image and functionality. Ergonomics We judged overall feel in the hand, as well as the quality, feel, and functionality of the focus wheel, eyepieces, diopter adjustment, and lens covers. Handling The lighter and more compact, the better. Value Performance divided by price. We scored each binocular on a 1 to 10 scale for every category, and then doubled the key ones of resolution and image quality for a total possible score of 100.—D.H.