10 best binoculars for bird watching and star-gazing
We've tried and tested the best eye gear on the market to help bring things into focus
Whether you are a serious wildlife watcher or just want a better view of the antics of the blue tits in the garden, 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 will see. Modern rubberised bodies take everyday 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 have 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 wildlife watching. They all have carrying straps, soft or hard cases and eyepieces that twist in or out for use with or without glasses.
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Viking peregrine 8x42: £327, Harrison Cameras
Avid birdwatchers will love this understated pair from British brand Viking which are backed up with a 10 year warranty. The bigger 42mm objective lenses gather more light, making them ideal for misty, murky early mornings in the countryside. At 592g they won’t hang too heavy around your neck, while out and about they feel beautifully balanced in use. We appreciated the soft-sheen rubber finish and the larger focusing ring proved easy to adjust with frozen fingers on chilly mornings. The ED in the name stands for extra-low dispersion glass, which helps to improve image quality in more expensive optical equipment.
Zeiss terra ED 8x32: £349, Wex Photo Video
This beautifully-made pair weighed in at just 503g on our scales, making them one of the lightest in our review. Terra is German maker Zeiss’ entry range but they are still superbly engineered with fantastic lenses, as you would expect from a firm with a long history of making quality optics. The rubber-armoured body sits really well in the hand thanks to some subtle contouring at the sides. We liked the two-tone grey finish of our test pair and you can also get them in black or green. They come protected in a hard case and focus down to just 1.6m, making them perfect for close-up nature watching.
Eschenbach arena D+ 8x42: £142.58, 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 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.
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 pretty hefty, 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 or smaller animals close-up, but they are excellent value and backed up with a 25 year guarantee. Be aware that they are not fully waterproof.
Canon 14x32 IS: £1,049, Amazon
Canon’s futuristic-looking glasses have image stabilisation built in to remove minor hand tremors. They’re amazing to use and with their higher 14x magnification we found them particularly good for stargazing and looking at high-flying aircraft. The IS system needs a couple of AA batteries to work and is activated using two buttons on the body. One is for use while panning – watching motor racing for example – the other for watching static objects.
The downside of such a high magnification and narrow field of view is that it can be quite hard to locate targets while looking through the lenses, although we soon found a technique that worked for us. Unlike the others in our range, they don’t have a hinged body – the eye pieces simply swing in or out until you find your ideal fit. As you would expect at this price, you get a hard carrying case to keep them safe.
Opticron Oregon 4 PC 8x32: £109, Amazon
We had to double-check the price tag on this lovely little pair. They are aimed at occasional users but still offer excellent performance and come with a five year guarantee. There’s a nice big focusing ring and the armoured body is the perfect size for smaller hands. Our only minor gripe was the fact we found them harder to use than some of the others while wearing glasses, although they were fine without specs and with the eyepieces wound fully out. Definitely ones to consider if you want a pair to leave near the window for garden wildlife watching, or need some to carry in the car glovebox for impromptu bird spotting.
Bushnell H2O 8x42: £129.16, Amazon
If you spend a lot of time on or around water, this pair could be the one for you. They are fully sealed to keep moisture out and nitrogen purged to stop them fogging up internally. At 685g they are fairly hefty, but they sit well in the hands thanks to the chunky design with its rubber armour and non-slip grips. Image quality proved to be really good and we found fine adjustments easy thanks to the smooth action of the focusing knob. They have a mounting point for a tripod and the blue finish makes a nice change from the usual black.
RSPB harrier 8x42: From £220, RSPB
We really liked this pair from wildlife charity the RSPB. They’re a great price, a decent weight at 694g, and offer excellent image quality. Nitrogen-filled to stop internal fogging, they are also fully waterproof so should stand up to anything the Great British weather can throw at them. There’s a nice big focusing ring while some handily-placed dimples for your thumbs mean they are really comfortable to hold, even for long periods. The RSPB back them up with a 10 year warranty, making them a bargain at this price point.
Eschenbach sektor F 8x25: £128.90, 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.
Celestron trailseeker 10x42: £179, 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. 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.
The verdict: Binoculars
There are some seriously good binoculars available for under £150 these days and they should be more than adequate for occasional users. But if wildlife watching, plane spotting or stargazing is your passion then it’s worth spending a bit more on equipment that could last you decades. We thought the Oregon, Olympus and Bushnell models all offered incredible value for money. But our Best Buy goes to Viking for offering superb image quality backed up with a long warranty, they are built to last a lifetime if you look after them.
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