Top Binoculars Review Update 2017
The best of the best
In this review we look at the 10x42 versions of these three new binoculars and make a new hands-on comparison. We chose to focus on the 10x42 models so that we could make fair comparisons of resolution and field of view, between binoculars with the same magnification. Comparisons between the lower magnification versions would be pitting 8-power Leica and Zeiss against 8.5-power Swarovski. However, the conclusions reached in this review will generally hold true for the 8x and 8.5x siblings of these three binoculars as well.
With this review, we'll include an overall chart, which compares the features and shows how each binocular rates against the others. We assigned numerical scores (from 1 to 10, 10 being the best) to some features, for which we rated the binoculars against each other. Other features, such as close focus and weight, show the raw data.
For each binocular, the chart shows a calculated overall score, which takes into account all the other scores. Some of the raw data items are also integrated into the final scores.
Please note that the final overall scores are so close as to result in a virtual three-way tie. Yet there are subtle differences among the Titans. We'll point out what separates these binoculars from each other. However, when binoculars are this good, you will not find stunning differences in quality. To choose among the three, a prospective purchaser would want to look at which features, especially ergonomics, are personally most important, rather than rely on minute differences in the overall scores.
All three are premium optics for the owner who wishes to acquire the state of the art. Starting at around $2600, these binoculars are not priced for the faint of heart.
Leica's optical quality was already legendary in the older Leica Ultravid Plus. Leica is known for delivering a crystalline image. No binocular of comparable size makes the world look brighter. There really wasn't a lot of room for improvement.
However, Leica has come up with enhancements. The new Noctivid brings a new outward appearance to the Leica line and, in our view, a greatly improved level of ergonomics and comfort.
Light transmission — For the Noctivid's binocular prisms, as in Leica's Ultravid line, Leica uses Schott HT™ high-transmission glass, which offers strikingly natural colors and maximum light transmission. Leica boasts of 91% light transmission in the 10x42 Noctivid and 92% in the 8x42. Stray light is controlled with a new internal baffle system
Edge-to-edge sharpness — Leica has redesigned the optical system to enhance sharpness at the outer edges of the field of view. In this respect the Noctivid performs noticeably better than the old Leica Ultravid and is comparable to the edge-to-edge sharpness of the Zeiss and the Swarovski.
The anti-reflective coatings on all the Noctivid's lenses and prisms have been optimized to transmit the entire visible spectrum of light. This gives the Noctivid virtually perfect color neutrality.
Close focus — The Noctivid focuses as close as 6.2 feet, not quite so close as Swarovski (5 feet) and Zeiss (5.4 feet).
Eye relief — A binocular's eye relief is determined by the design of the eyepiece. In general, the longer a binocular's eye relief, the narrower its field of view. For the Noctivid, Leica has come up with a new eyepiece design that supports its wide field of view and yet maintains a generous 19 mm of eye relief in the 10x42 as well as in the 8x42 model, allowing glasses wearers the same pleasure of a wide field of view as non wearers of glasses. In the 10x42 model, this is a distinct improvement over the Leica Ultravid Plus 10x42, whose eye relief, at 16mm., may not work for all glasses wearers. The Noctivid should provide no problem in that respect.
Perhaps we were expecting something similar to the older Ultravid when we opened the box and took out the Leica Noctivid for the first time. What jumped out at us was a tremendous improvement in comfort, fit, and feel.
Compactness and weight — At just under 6 inches in length, the Noctivid is the most compact of the three top binoculars. However, it weighs slightly more than either of the others.
|Leica Noctivid 10x42||5.9 inches||30.3 oz.|
|Swarovski EL 10x42||6.3 inches||29.8 oz.|
|Zeiss Victory SF 10x42||6.8 inches||28.0 oz.|
Hand friendliness — The Noctivid employs an open bridge design (as do the Swarovski and the Zeiss). This style has become popular, because it makes it possible to wrap your fingers around one barrel. For some people this means they can hold the binocular in one hand.
The contour is even, with no thumb ridges on the lower side. (We deem this a great improvement over the Leica Ultravid line, which fits some people's hands fine but does not suit everyone.) You can hold the Noctivid however it feels right for you.
The armoring has an exceedingly pleasant texture and feel in the hand.
Diopter adjustment — The Noctivid continues the Leica tradition of a diopter adjustment that is both functional and elegant. An addition in this model is the serial number appearing directly on the focus knob, where it cannot be missed.
Eye relief — At 19 mm. of eye relief, the new Noctivid will work for everyone, glasses user or not.
Focus speed — The Noctivid has a fast focus, on a par with the Zeiss and the Swarovski. To change the focus from 20 feet to 250 yards requires less than half a turn (5/12 turn) of the focus wheel. This is fast, nimble focusing over the range that many birders use all the time. Another 1-1/4 turns takes the focus from 20 feet down to the minimum focusing range of 5.4 feet.
The Leica Noctivid is available in two models, which are the same size and weight, and have the same 42 mm. objective lens. The two are:
Leica Noctivid Warranty
The Leica Noctivid carries a lifetime warranty against manufacturer's defects. In addition, Leica also includes a non-transferable "Leica 3 Year Passport Protection Plan," which adds three years of coverage for accidental damage (other than fire) to Noctivid binoculars bought from authorized USA dealers and registered within 30 days with Leica.
Where is it from?
The Leica Noctivid is manufactured in Germany.
In building the SF, Zeiss decided to start over from scratch and design a brand new binocular. Their stated goal was to create the best birding and wildlife-observing binocular in the world. A slightly updated version was released a year later, in 2016.
You can tell the new Victory SF from the original SF by black rather than gray armoring. The name now includes T* and appears in full as Zeiss Victory SF T*.
The eyecups have been improved. Instead of only three settings of eyecup extension, there are now four. This answers a demand from some users who needed a stop between the shortest eyecup position and the first indent.
There's also been some re-engineering of the focus knob, making it smoother and bringing it into line with the overall mechanical excellence of this binocular.
Even when we used a doubler to magnify the images, we could see no difference in resolution between the three Titans. All three binoculars are heart-rendingly bright, too.
Please see the section below, "A word about brightness."
Edge-to-edge sharpness — We found the Zeiss Victory SF to be razor sharp, both at the center and at the edge. The field of view is remarkably flat. Yet, even when we panned from one side to the other, we detected none of the "rolling-ball" distortion that troubles some users of binoculars known for a flat field of view.
Field of view — The Zeiss Victory SF 10x42 offers 360 feet at 1000 yards, handily beating both of its competitors. It is a stunning, gorgeous field of view. The fact that Zeiss maintains sharpness even at the outside edge of the image seems almost miraculous.
Field of view
|Zeiss Victory SF 10x42||360|
|Swarovski EL 10x42||336|
The Zeiss Victory SF maintains its field-of-view superiority in the 8x42 model as well. See remarks below about field of view.
Eye relief — With 18 mm of eye relief, we doubt that anyone, whether wearing eyeglasses or not, would have any problem enjoying the full field of view.
Where the Zeiss Victory SF shines, even in this brilliant field of competitors, is in its amazing balance.
Hand friendliness — With the introduction of the Victory SF, Zeiss changed the prism system from the Abbe Koenig system of the Victory HT to the Schmidt Pechan prism system. This allowed them to redesign the optics so that there is more weight in the eyepiece end and less in the objective end, shifting the center of gravity toward the eyes and giving the SF perfect balance.
At 28 oz., the binocular weighs a bit less than the Swarovski EL or the Leica Noctivid. Our own experience with this binocular is that the improved balance makes it feel even lighter. All strain is gone from holding the binocular, and one does not tire of holding it even after extended viewing. Diane remarked, on first taking a long look through the SF, "It feels like it's weightless."
|Zeiss Victory SF 10x42||27.5 oz.|
|Swarovski EL 8.5x42||29.8 oz..|
|Leica Noctivid 8x42||30.3 oz|
Interpupillary distance — Here's an issue that matters not at all to most people but can make or break the binocular experience for certain users. If the barrels of your binocular won't come close enough together to allow you to see through both eyes at once, well, you might as well have a monocular. And the Zeiss SF squeezes down to just 54 mm apart. The Swarovski and the Leica won't come closer than 56 mm. So for a person with a small face or close-set eyes, the Zeiss may be the only one of the three top binocular that will work at all!
Over the years we have run into very few people whose eyes are too wideset to work with binoculars, but for a person with that situation, the Zeiss also spreads to the widest interpupillary distance — 76mm, as opposed to a maximum of 74mm for the other two binoculars.
Triple bridge — The Zeiss SF has a lightweight, open-bridge design, like the Swarovski EL and the Leica Noctivid. However, the Zeiss has three bridge hinges instead of two, which may enhance long-term stability. The bridge spacing allows more room for your fingers, giving you more choice in where and how you grip.
The finger spread — The new prism system also allowed Zeiss to place the focus knob where the index finger can reach it in a natural position, without having to angle way from the other fingers. It provides a spectacularly comfortable focusing experience.
Protective coating — Zeiss coats exterior glass surfaces with LotuTec®, which repels water and grease, causing water to bead up and drip off. It also reduces glare and reflections and makes the lens surface tougher.
The Zeiss Victory SF T* is available in two models, which are the same size and weight, and have the same 42 mm. objective lens. The two are:
All Zeiss binoculars purchased from authorized US dealers carry a transferable, limited lifetime warranty against manufacturer's defects. The Zeiss Victory SF binocular also carries a USA and Canada, non-transferable, 5-year "No Fault Policy" that covers accidental damage during normal and intended use, provided the binocular is registered within 60 days of purchase.
Where is it from?
The Zeiss Victory SF is manufactured in Germany.
The EL Swarovski came out in 1999 and introduced to the world the open-bridge design that lets you wrap your fingers around a binocular barrel so that you can easily grip and use it even with one hand. It was a welcome advance in comfort and usability.
Since its appearance, other manufacturers have attempted this design, with varying degrees of success. Swarovski's binoculars continue to perform with a precision that eclipses most would-be imitators.
In 2010, Swarovski remodeled the EL into the elegant EL Swarovision, which replaces the earlier EL's aluminum housing with lightweight, durable magnesium. The open bridge continued, but the barrels got slimmer and even more comfortable to hold.
Swarovski continued intensive development. Most recently, in 2016, Swarovski updated the EL with the new EL Swarovision FieldPro Package.
The new FieldPro Package version re-engineers the lug straps and the objective lens covers.
In the old days (and in many binoculars today) the objective lens covers were held on by a sort of glorified rubber band, easily lost in the field. But in the new FieldPro package, the lens covers are securely attached by a clip that fastens into the end of the barrel. The lens cover swing down when you're using the binocular and then clip neatly back into place for transporting or storage.
You can remove the lens covers completely if you wish. Doing so exposes a small gap in the end of the barrel into which you can replace the covers at any time. We found it not especially easy to replace them, but we felt that a person would get used to doing it after a little practice. Swarovski includes a tiny gap cover that you can insert into each opening if you prefer to use the binoculars without the lens covers.
The great advantage in this method of attachment is that your lens covers won't get lost, so you'll have them handy when you need to protect your binocular from external impacts.
In a technological breakthrough, the FieldPro Package's lug straps have been completely redesigned. The new, rotating PUSH & TURN strap connector adapts to any movement and can be quickly and silently fitted to the binocular. This system also allows you to attach a Swarovski harness instead of the strap. And with a turn of a dial on the carrying strap, you can adjust it to whatever length feels most comfortable to you in the field.
Short, clear, online video instuctions take all the mystery out of how these systems work. You will find the videos here.
Resolution — The fluoride-containing HD glass in lenses provide virtually perfect freedom from chromatic aberration. The EL also provides unreproachable color fidelity.
Swarovision for edge-to-edge sharpness — The EL has gained an enthusiastic following, in part for its remarkably flat field of view, which provides a sharp image, edge to edge, thanks to field flattener lenses.
Close focus — In case you like to watch hummingbirds right almost within hand's reach, the Swarovski El will get you very close indeed, with a minimum focusing distance of a mere 5 feet. This minimum focus distance beats out the Zeiss Victory SF (5.4 feet) and the Leica Noctivid (6.2 feet).
|Swarovski EL 10x42||5.0 feet|
|Zeiss Victory SF 10x42||5.4 feet|
|Leica Noctivid 10x42||6.2 feet|
Eye relief — The Swarovision EL still leads the field for generous eye relief, with 20mm on both the 8.5x42 and the 10x42 model, allowing glasses wearers to see the full field of view. Most users do not need quite 20mm of eye relief, but if your glasses ride far from your eyes, this could be an important usability factor for you.
Open bridge design — All three of our Titan binoculars utilize the open bridge. We salute Swarovski for bringing it out first of the three.
FieldPro package — These ergonomic enhancements (described above) are a great advance in the functionality of lens covers and strap attachments.
Diopter setting — We very much like the EL's diopter adjustment mechanism. It has a good, clear, numbered scale to let you return your binocular instantly to your customer setting should it be accidentally moved. Clear tactile indents give positive feedback, and there's an excellent, snappy lock. All very easy to use.
Focus knob — In the example we tested, the focus wheel was good, better than most binoculars, but not quite so smooth as either the Leica or the Zeiss. This may be matter of individual variation, and it may not be true for every Swarovision EL.
Protective coating — External glass surfaces are coated by Swaroclean™, a non-stick coating on the lenses that makes it easier to clean away dust and dirt.
Swarovski EL Swarovision with FieldPro Package is available in six models, with objective lenses of 32, 42, or 50 mm., and with magnifications of 8x, 10x, and 12x. The models are:
Swarovski EL Swarovision Warranty • The ELs carry a lifetime warranty on the optical system when purchased by US residents from an authorized Swarovski Optik North American dealer. For warranty service, a copy of your receipt from an authorized dealer is required. The warranty does not cover accidental damage. However, Swarovski has a reputation for being very generous in providing warranty service, often going beyond what the written guarantee promises.
Where is it from?
The Swarovski EL is manufactured in Austria.
The brightness of a binocular is important to birders, especially if they like to go out owling or want to watch woodcocks displaying at dawn. To check out the brightness of our test binoculars in dim conditions, we took them outside and compared what we coud see on our resolution chart as the light diminished.
It is a stunning experience to look through any of these binoculars in low light. When the naked eye can barely see detail, look through one of these Titans, and the lights come on again. Wow!
However, we found no perceptible differences in the brightness of Zeiss, Swarovski, and Leica binoculars. This is what one would expect, considering they all have special glass and the most advanced coatings. They all have light transmission specifications over 90%. It would take expensive scientific instruments to objectively detect any difference this small. Your eye doesn't see it. Since we scored all three binoculars as perfect in brightness, brightness did not contribute to any difference in the overall scores.
Experts in vision say that the unaided human eye is not a reliable instrument for measuring small differences in brightness, because the brain is always involved in seeing, interpreting what we see.
For example, in the image at right, it seems obvious that the right page is darker than the left. But as soon as you cover the fold with your thumb, you see they are the same shade of grey. Image by R.Beau Lotto. To learn more about how we see and to be amazed by other great illusions, check out lottolab on the Internet.
We carefully tested the resolution of the Zeiss SF, the Swarovski EL, and the Leica Noctivid 10x42 binoculars, using a T-21-RP USAF 1951 optical resolution chart, from Applied Image Inc.
Even when we used a doubler to magnify the images, we could see no difference in resolution between the three Titans. They are better than what anyone needs — indeed, probably beyond what the sharpest human eye can see. As for resolution, in our scoring, we had to give all three binoculars a perfect score. As with brightness, resolution did not make any difference in the overall scores of these three superb binoculars. If you want to choose among them, you'll have to consider something besides resolution.
This is a somewhat different matter from the resolution achieved at the center of the field of view. Edge-to-edge sharpness describes whether the edges of the field of view are in focus when you have locked in your focus at the center. This quality helps create the sense of immersion in the image.
Some very good binoculars can be sharp in the center but soft at the edges. However, all three of the Titans do a spectacular job of providing the entire field of view in focus at once. There are some diffeneces in edge-to-edge sharpness and which areas of the image focus most clearly. However, we felt these differences would be undetectable in a birder's everyday life.
Top scores all around. Once more, not a way to discriminate between the three.
At 1000 yards, you see a train, going left to right. How many cars can you see? Now substitute "feet" for "cars," and you'll understand how "field of view" is specified in the chart. Since field of view is such an important aspect of a binocular experience, we gave it extra weight in the overall score. The Zeiss wins.
Field of view
|Zeiss Victory SF 10x42||360|
|Swarovski EL 10x42||336|
The 8-power binocular scores are not calculated into the overall scores for this review of the 10x42 models. However, below are the fields of view for the 8x and 8.5x models. The Zeiss Victory SF maintains its field-of-view superiority in the 8x42 models.
Since the field of view normally decreases as the magnification increases, the comparison shown below is not entirely fair to Swarovski, whose magnification 8.5x, not 8x as in the other two. Adjusted for that difference, the 8.5x42 Swarovski actually has a better field of view than the 8x42 Leica Noctivid, but the Zeiss still comes out best.
Field of view
|Zeiss Victory SF 8x42||444|
|Leica Noctivid 8x42||405|
|Swarovski EL 8.5x42||399|
How close you can focus a binocular depends partly on the focusing ability of your eyes. This varies from person to person, and that means that one person will be able to focus closer through a particular binocular than can somene else. Since the manufacturers' methods of measuring may also vary, we measured the close focus ourselves, using one individual's eyes.
In our testing Swarovski scored the best (5 feet), with Zeiss coming in a close second (5.4 feet), and Leica third (6.2 feet). These are all good numbers for minimum focus distance. However, because we were trying to quantify distinctions between the binoculars, we gave points for closer minimum focus.
Binoculars with a wide field of view tend to have short eye relief, which is bad news for glasses wearers. To create an eyepiece with long eye relief and a wide field of view requires a sophisticated, expensive optical design. A few years ago, we could find no 10x42 binoculars with eye relief usable by a glasses wearer. It is a great new world now, with the top binoculars providing long enough eye relief for virtually everyone.
If you don't wear glasses, the issue of eye relief is completely irrelevant. However, since many people who are ready to purchase a high-end binocular do wear glasses, we included eye relief in the overall score. With 20mm of eye relief, Swarovski got the most points on this measure. The Leica Noctivid came in second with 19m of eye relief, and the Zeiss has 18mm. All are sufficient for use with glasses.
All these binoculars have twist-out eyecups. Twist in for use with glasses, and twist out for use without glasses. They all have indents for intermediate positions. If the indents don't match up with your face or type of glasses, you have the option to custom dial them to any length.
All three of these binoculars have exemplary eyecups. To our hands, the Swarovski may offer a slight edge in its snappy, neat action. The difference did not seem significant enough to influence the overall scores.
Some people's eyes are very close together. Some people's eyes are very wide apart. The chart shows the range of adjustment available, in millimeters, for each binocular.
If you have had a problem getting a binocular to match the distance between your eyes, the Zeiss SF has the best chance of fitting your needs. However, we did not include the interpupillary distance in the overall score, because to most users the maximum and minimum do not matter at all.
All these binoculars have magnesium housings, making them as light and strong as possible. From the lightest to the heaviest, the difference was less than three ounces. The Zeiss SF, at 27.5 oz., is the lightest. It got a slight bump in its overall score for this.
All these binoculars' optics are inert-gas purged, sealed, and waterproofed. The quality of the seal determines the degree of protection against fogging up in humid environments and ruining your trip to Costa Rica.
The waterproof specs show how deep under water you can hold the binocular before its seals will fail. These are the manufacturers' data. We did not try to drown the binoculars ourselves. We gave a small bump to the Leica Noctivid because it claims a waterproof depth of 16.5 feet, as opposed to 13 to 13.4 for the other two binoculars.
All these binoculars have their diopter adjustment mechanism on the center column with the focus knob. This location is more ergonomic than diopter adjustments done by turning one of the eyepieces. These diopter adjustments all lock and have some kind of scale.
We especially admire the Leica's diopter adjustment. It is beautiful, and you can see the setting instantly any time you glance down at your binocular. We thought its elegance deserved an extra point.
The Zeiss's setting is also easy to see, but not quite so easy as the Leica's. To see the Swarovski diopter setting, you have to turn the binocular sideways. It does, however, have a numbered scale, making it easy to remember the setting. This can be very useful if someone else has used your binocular and has left the diopter adjustment in at wrong setting.
All three binoculars have excellent focus knobs that are wide enough to use with a glove or with two fingers. They're smooth and precise, without backlash.
The Zeiss SF's focus knob, in our opinion, has the most ergonomic finger placement. Your index finger falls on the focus knob without having to angle off from the other fingers. We counted that toward the SF's overall score.
Focusing speed 20 ft to 250 yds • How many turns of the focusing knob it takes to move from close to far is an indication of how fast you can focus a binocular. We measured how many turns it took to go from 20 feet to 250 yards. We think that this range reflects much of a birder's experience in the field. The Swarovski took 1/2 of a turn to cover this range. The Leica did it in 5/12 a turn. We found the Zeiss SF covered the distance in 1/3 of a turn, the fastest speed of the three. It's fast, but not so fast that one overshoots the point of focus.
Focusing speed 20 ft to close focus • We measured how many turns it took to go from 20 feet down to the closest the binocular would focus. We found the Zeiss took 1-1/2 turns to get to 5.4 feet, starting at 20 feet. The Swarovski took 1-2/3 turns to reach 5 feet. The Leica took only 1-¼ turn to get from 20 feet down to its minimum focusing distance of 6.2 feet.
However, focusing speed is a personal choice. We provide the data but did not use the focus speed as part of the calculation of the overall score. How you rank that feature is up to you.
The overall score takes into account most, but not all, of the items in the chart. A few items, such as interpupillary distance, show the data for reference only but do not affect the relative scores. Some of the features are weighted more heavily than others. For example, field of view counts more than close focus.
It bears repeating that the overall scores are very close. We are keenly aware that how well a binocular scores in our personal comparison is not as important as your personal choice. No test by someone else can tell you how well a binocular will fit your hands or suit your eyes and brain. We hope that at least we have been able to bring your attention to whatever factors matter most to you.
Our own personal choice is for the Zeiss Victory SF. Zeiss did start from scratch and created a new design with the express intention of creating a product that would beat the competition on as many metrics as possible. For us, the optics and ergonomics tipped the scales toward Zeiss. Here's why.
Zeiss SF Optics • The SF combines the best view with edge-to-edge sharpness and long eye relief. The combination provides an exceptional experience of immersion in the image that works even if you wear glasses. Even more than the other binoculars, the Zeiss SF seems to disappear, and all your attention is on the bird.
Zeiss SF Ergonomics • The SF is an incredibly comfortable binocular. It's the lightest weight, and its perfect balance makes it feel even lighter. There's less small muscle activity needed to hold it up to your eyes, so you can observe longer without fatigue. The focus knob can be turned either with one or with two fingers without having to reach at an angle or feel the strap lugs poke your hand. You can focus from 20 feet to 250 yards with only 1/3 turn of the focus knob. That's one easy finger swipe.
However, on the most important features, resolution and brightness, to our eyes, all of the Titans seemed equal. Any one of them would be a happy choice.
Where to buy
Birdwatching Dot Com carries all of these binoculars. Click below to see store listings:
© 2017 Michael and Diane Porter
Please call us toll free 800-779-7256 for advice on choosing binoculars or other birding products.
Birdwatching Dot Com Store
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Fairfield, IA 52556
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