A New Breed of Binoculars

By Chris Denham
Copyright Western Hunter Magazine

Today's mid-range binoculars are anything but average.

I was in the middle of an archery elk hunt in September 2008 when the first crash of the U.S. economy occurred. Before the hunt ended, the Dow had lost more than 2500 points, retirement accounts plummeted, and home values were on their way to rock bottom. Suddenly, companies started talking about "value" and "bang for the buck" when comparing their products to the competition.

The hunting optics market was not immune. During the decade prior, we watched as high-performance binoculars increased in price up and over the $2000 mark, but with the sagging economy and a shrinking customer base, manufacturers responded by creating a new mid-priced ($500-$1500) class of optics. The competition is fierce and today's hunter has been the beneficiary of renewed research and development that yielded a remarkable number of excellent binoculars.

This article originally appeared in Western Hunter Magazine and appears courtesy of Western Hunter Magazine. Western Hunter Magazine is your best resource for hunting information for all western species. Whether you are interested in elk, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep or moose we will bring the adventure to your mailbox! Our subtitle is Gear - Tactics - Information - Adventure and we take each of these seriously. We only feature the finest hunting gear available from the finest makers in the world. If you are looking for information or looking to buy, we will steer you in the right direction. In each issue you will learn tips and tactics from the most experienced hunters in the west. With articles on field judging trophies, glassing techniques and calling strategies, we guarantee you will learn something new in every issue, and will continue to become more knowledgeable and skilled Western Hunter.

Because of the quantity of binoculars that fit into this price range, we don't have enough room to talk about all of them, so we've chosen what we consider to be the best options available from the top manufacturers in this class. One could argue the merits of a particular product that might not be included in this lineup, but I'd be proud to own and hunt with any of the binoculars featured here. Also, we stuck to only the 10-power models, but in most cases, there are other models available within that brand that may offer more or less power or different objective lens diameters.

Please keep this in mind that in order for a manufacturer to build a product within this price range, they had to make some compromises from the premier class of binoculars. A common way to reduce production cost is to build the diopter adjustment from the center focus area to the right barrel collar. This doesn't affect optical performance, but it isn't quite as easy to adjust. The fit, finish, weight, and materials also affect the price of the finished product. As a consumer, you need to put your hands on the binocular and decide for yourself what compromises you are willing to accept.

Note: In the Fall Issue of Elk Hunter Magazine (EHM 4), we published the first article in this series of optical reviews. In that article, we discussed the following in depth: optical terminology, how the human eye works, and how to evaluate and purchase high-performance optics. If you don't have that issue of Elk Hunter Magazine, you can order it online at www.elkhuntermagazine.com, or it's available in every Cabela's, Gander Mountain, Barnes & Noble, and most WalMart stores in the country.

Vortex Razor HD 10x42

If you're familiar with the old version of the Vortex Razor, then you need to forget everything you know, because the new Razor HD is completely different and far superior. The Razor HD employs an open-hinge system for better ergonomics (it fits well in your hands). The magnesium housing is protected by a new rubber-armoring material that is both lightweight and durable. The HD lens delivers excellent color rendition and image quality. The Razor HD is threaded for a center-post tripod adapter, allowing the user to take full advantage of the incredible 362-foot field of view. I seriously struggled to find anything critical to say about the Razor HD; it performs at a level far above its asking price.


Vortex Razor HD 10x42

Cons: Narrow body style might be difficult for hunters with big hands.
Pros: Great-looking binocular; center-post tripod adapter; locking diopter adjustment; excellent image quality; incredible field of view with strong edge-to-edge clarity.

Manufacturer: Vortex
Model: Razor HD 10x42
FOV (ft@1000ft): 362'
Length (in): 5.90
Weight (ozs): 24.80
Eye Relief: 16.5 mm
Price: $1199

Vortex Viper HD 10x42

The Viper HD might be one of the lowest-priced binoculars in this review, but it held its own in every comparison. During all of our lowlight testing, the Viper HD was always one of the last ones to go down. The focus is smooth and precise, and the locking diopter adjustment is a bonus at this price point. It's also threaded for a center-post tripod adapter. The combination of the Viper HD's performance and incredible lifetime warranty makes it the best value in its class.


Vortex Viper HD 10x42

Cons: Rubber armoring is functional but slick when wet; short field of view.
Pros: Price; tremendous light transmission at this price point; very good depth of field; center tripod adapter; well-placed
thumb grooves.

Manufacturer: Vortex
Model: Razor HD 10x42
FOV (ft@1000ft): 319'
Length (in): 5.80
Weight (ozs): 24.60
Eye Relief: 16.5 mm
Price: $599

Zeiss Conquest HD 10x42

When Zeiss introduced the Conquest HD series earlier this year, they redefined my expectations for mid-priced binoculars. With extremely high light transmission, good edge-to-edge clarity, excellent field of view, HD objective lens, and a weight under 25 oz., the Conquest HD has it all. The unique squared rubber housing is very comfortable and your index finger naturally falls on the focus wheel. The Outdoorsmans is working on a ring tripod adapter, but in the meantime they do have an affordable system available.


Zeiss Conquest HD 10x42

Cons: No center-post tripod adapter; diopter adjustment doesn't lock.
Pros: Price; innovative ocular and objective lens covers; razor-sharp image; No-Fault Policy warranty; random awesome bonus – Zeiss has the coolest packaging in the entire industry.

Manufacturer: Zeiss
Model: Conquest HD 10x42
FOV (ft@1000ft): 345'
Length (in): 6.5 in
Weight (ozs): 28.00
Eye Relief: 17.0 mm
Price: $999

Swarovski Companion CL 10x30 or 8x30

The CL's are the smallest and lightest binoculars in this review. What they may lack in initial light gathering potential due to the 30mm objective lens is made up for with extremely good light transmission. The combination of Swarovski's best lens coatings ensure that a high percentage of available light makes it to your eyes. The open-barrel design of the CL makes them easy to handle with one hand and the scant weight is not a burden. The Outdoorsmans does have a tripod adapter available for the CL, making it an interesting option for the weight-conscious backcountry hunter.


Swarovski Companion CL 10x30

Cons: With only a 30mm objective lens, they're not a low light binocular; the super light weight makes it difficult to hold them steady; folks with big hands may find it difficult manipulate due to their small size.
Pros: Super easy to manipulate with one hand; the most compact 30mm binocular on the market; ridiculously lightweight; comes with the nicest case in the business.

Manufacturer: Swarovski
Model: CL 10x30
FOV (ft@1000ft): 300'
Length (in): 4.70
Weight (ozs): 17.60
Eye Relief: 14.0 mm
Price: $929