Every year I have the opportunity to test and evaluate the latest hunting optics from a wide range of manufacturers; and I am always impressed by how many quality riflescopes and binoculars keep turning up. The following are some of the best binoculars of the year, 2014 edition.
Let’s start with the Celestron Optics Granite ED 10×42 (manufacturer’s suggested retail price — MSRP — $319.95).
For decades Celestron’s reputation has been founded on celestial telescopes. They have also been building terrestrial telescopes for many years. (The difference? One is for viewing the sky — celestial — and often, but not necessarily, uses a reflecting mirror to focus the image on the eyepiece; while the terrestrial is for earth viewing, and sends the image directly to the eye, via a prism to turn it rightsideup; celestial telescopes don’t “erect” the image, because in space they not only can’t hear you scream, they can’t tell if you’re standing on your head.) Now they are taking on binoculars.
The open-frame Granite roof-prism binocular (and one more optics lesson: a roof prism erects the light image in a straight line–sorta, after bouncing it around–from objective — the big end — to ocular — the small end — lenses, while the classic Porro prism bends the image into the eyepieces, making for a wider binocular; how to remember is that the Porro takes a dogleg in the barrels, so “poor-old dogleg”) uses extra-low dispersion (ED) lenses for greater clarity, BaK-4 prisms which are made from best-quality glass, and rubber-armored magnesium-alloy body that feels compact in the hand. It is, overall, a great value.
The 10×42 Nikon Monarch 5 ($329.95), virtually six of one, half dozen of another compared to the Celestron, has some differences. Instead of an open bridge, the Nikon achieves a solid grip with a contoured rubber-armoring. It also offers ED glass — wait a minute, that’s the same. Honestly, it’s another great, lightweight “glass” to carry comfortably in the field, at a very reasonable price. It comes down, primarily, to which name you like the sound of better–Celestron or Nikon.
The Zeiss Victory HT 10×54 ($2,777.77), on the other hand, is something completely different in any number of ways. First off, let’s establish that this is the kind of superb optical instrument you expect from Zeiss, with utterly nothing to complain about in terms of performance, and much to be impressed by. Without offending anyone, I hope, let me just say that the Lord or Zeiss don’t make no junk.
I don’t know if you can call it an open-bridge design, but there is certainly plenty of barrel on the Zeiss to wrap your hands around at the balance point. I also like the position of the center-focus ring which is far enough forward to allow for use under the bill of a hunting cap. You have to ask, though, what’s it for?
Frankly, the 10×54 is a way for Zeiss to build a lighter (by almost half a pound), slimmer version of their Victory FL 10×56, which is a standard of European hunting. Those Europeans, though, hunt from raised stands (Hochsitz), and often shoot at night with 10×56 riflescopes, needing no artificial illumination, especially under the moon against snow. The new 10×54, with an advertised 95 percent light transmission, is something to use pre-dawn and past sunset from a sitting position. The rest of the day, it’s definitely lighter on your pickup seat than around your neck.
Cabela’s Outfitter Series 10×42 ($519.99) is the right size for an all-day hunting binocular, in the same size range as the Celestron and Nikon. The binocular has textured palm indents on the sides (though I would prefer the open-bridge grip on the Celestron). It is a foreign-sourced binocular branded as Cabela’s. It’s definitely sharp and clear and should perform very well. Better than the other two 10x42s, though, is the $200 question.
Last on the list, and certainly the least expensive is the Bushnell Excursion HD 10×42 ($237.95). This is a nice bright open-bridge binocular with a particularly attractive MSRP. I found the open portion of the bino a little crowded to squeeze my fingers into for a tight grip, but otherwise a great starter binocular, as a beater (so to speak), or one to get for a kid for the field. (And a word on that — too many grownups want to buy kids really cheap compact binos, like 10×24, with which they can see basically nothing and become frustrated with glassing. At just over 24 ounces, the Excursion is surely kid sized and should provide years of comfortable viewing.)
A final word on price. MSRP is what it says, “suggested.” There is another price, the “minimum advertised price” (MAP) which is often some 15 percent less, as a rule. A third price is what the dealer may offer you in the store, which can be below the MAP. Woody Allen, when he seemed less creepy, used to say, “In my family, the biggest sin was to buy retail.” In short, never pay MSRP, and seldom MAP.
TOM MCINTYRE is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.