Many binocular enthusiasts will often recommend a good 8 x 42 as the near perfect all-round instrument for birding, hunting and astronomy. This recommendation seems sensible enough given their medium size, weight and decent light gathering power for use in bright daylight, low light conditions and stargazing. But the increasingly popular compact 8 x 32 has also earned a respectable place in the hearts of many birders and sightseers owing to its lighter weight but greater light gathering power over a pocket binocular. But that raises an interesting question; which model is more versatile in the long run?
To begin to answer that question, I’ve spent some time comparing and contrasting the efficacy of two binoculars in these size classes; a Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42, which I have written enthusiastically about in a past blog, and more recently, a Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32, described in more detail here.
Let’s first look at the specifications of both models at a glance:
The Barr & Stroud 8 x 42
Phase coated(probably silver or enhanced aluminium)
8.2 degree FOV(143m@1000m)
5.25mm exit pupil
18mm eye relief
Dry nitrogen purged
Retail Price: £120 UK
The Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32
Fully broadband multi-coated
Phase coated(high reflectivity dielectric coatings)
7.8 degree FOV(137m @1000m)
4mm exit pupil
15.6mm eye relief
Dry nitrogen purged
Retail Price: £125(recently reduced for clearance owing to the discontinuation of the model)
Performance in Bright Daylight Conditions
Both instruments serve up very sharp, high contrast images of well-illuminated targets with virtually no chromatic aberration(this is widely exagerrated by many reviewers but is actually not really an issue in any realistic situation. Indeed, in my comparison of smaller high-quality ED and non-ED instruments there has never been a target that I have imaged where ED glass made any meaningful difference to the viewing experience). The Celestron has a narrower field of view and a smaller ultra-sharp sweetspot. The Barr & Stroud displays a wider, flatter field with a noticeably larger sweetspot. The larger exit pupil on the latter makes viewing that little bit more comfortable, since positioning the eye over a larger shaft of light is easier to achieve. Both instruments generate images that are about equally bright under these conditions though. Near equal too is their ability to suppress glare and internal reflections owing to good baffling and high-quality coatings applied to all optical surfaces. The objective lenses are also deeply recessed in both binoculars, offering protection against rain, wind-blown dust, as well as serving as an effective barrier against peripheral glare.
I also noted slight differences between these instruments in colour tone when observing brightly illuminated daylight targets. The Celestron had a more neutral colour tone, whereas those of the Barr & Stroud were ever so slightly yellower and darker in comparison.
The focusing wheels on both instruments are notably different in field use however. The Barr & Stroud possess one of the best focusers I have personally experienced(indeed they have been very good in a number of other instruments marketed by the same company). It is buttery smooth and very easy to adjust in situations where rapid changes of focus are necessary. The Celestron focuser has much more tension in comparison, even after using it for a considerable number of hours in the field. When rapid focusing is required, the Barr & Stroud Savannah is clearly superior, which makes a significant difference when scanning fast-moving targets like birds flying across the field of view.
There is also a significant difference in eye relief between the two instruments. The Barr & Stroud has a whopping 18mm eye relief whereas the Celestron Trailseeker only exhibits 15.6mm in comparison. What this means in practice is that the latter is far more comfortable to use while using eyeglasses. I can see the entire field of the Savannah if I use my eyeglasses but it’s a lot more challenging with the Trailseeker.
The weight difference between the models is considerable however; with the Celestron tipping the scales at just over half the weight of the Barr & Stroud. Indeed the latter is one of the heaviest 8 x 42s currently available, while the Celestron Trailseeker is one of the lightest models in its aperture class. This has a significant bearing on prolonged use and transport in the field, where neck strain is effectively eliminated in the light-weight Celestron.
Low Light Performance
On paper, one would reasonably expect that the significantly larger 8 x 42 would prove better in low light conditions, such as those experienced at dawn and dusk, but my testing revealed some surprising results! In a nutshell, the Celestron Trailseeker proved to be much closer to the Barr & Stroud under such conditions! Immediately after sunset on several late January evenings, I found that both instruments produced very similar performance in terms of the brightness of the images garnered of a heavily lichen-adorned tree branch located some 50 metres off in the distance. Indeed, the 8 x 42 only pulled noticeaby ahead well into twilight when the last light of day was ebbing from the landscape. This seemed genuinely puzzling to me, as I fully expected the results to be well, like night and day. But why though?
The first significant difference between the models relates to the coatings used on the roof prisms in both instruments. The Celestron Trailseeker has state-of-the-art dielectric coatings that significantly improve its light transmission over a similar sized model with lower reflectivity aluminium or silver coatings. Maybe the Trailseeker has better anti-reflection coatings applied to the lenses making up the objectives and the eyepieces? The second thing that I noted is the significantly larger frame of the Barr & Stroud Savannah, which will have commensurately larger prisms than the smaller Celestron, with the implication that more light will be absorbed while traversing the former. That said, I still couldn’t understand why an instrument with 42mm objectives was not pulling very far ahead under such low light conditions than an instrument with only 32mm aperture objectives. Quite frankly, it still didn’t add up!
It was then that I realised that the best explanation possibly pertained to the size of the exit pupil under the same conditions. As any amateur astronomer worth his/her salt will tell you, the pupil of the eye is designed such that it dilates in low light conditions to allow more light to reach the retina. Indeed, this is one of the ABCs in telescopic deep sky observing, where a fully dilated eye pupil shows you much fainter objects than eyes that are newly accustomed to the dark. But while some dilation certainly occurs under low light, I wondered whether there was a limit to how much dilation actually occurs during early twilight, when the differences were observed to be most similar in both instruments. If my eyes only extended from say 2.5mm during bright daylight to a liitle over 4mm in early twilight, the extra millimetre or so offered by the 8 x 42 would be of no significant benefit. Maybe my eyes were just not capable of using the 5.25mm offered up by the larger 8 x 42 under such conditions?
I also noted that the tests on both binoculars were carried out more or less simultaneously for the duration of about 15 minutes, so not long enough to induce big changes in the ratio of rhodopsin(which reaches higher concentrations in darker conditions) to retinal(which exhibits higher concentrations in bright light conditions) In addition, the eye takes quite a long time to effect these biochemical changes, and most certainly longer than the 15 minute duration over which these tests were conducted. Moreover, rhodopsin is still rather labile even in low light conditions such as those encountered during the twilight sessions. However, these findings were quite in keeping with the subsequent experiences I had with both binoculars under well-adapted dark conditions; specfically under a clear night sky with no Moon.
Dark Sky Performace Compared
Donning some dark sunglasses I sat out in a deck chair for about 25 minutes after leaving a bright indoor environment to accelerate dark-eye adaptation. By then I was sure that my eye pupils had dilated to their maximum extent and the process of rhodopsin biosynthesis was well under way. Examining the region centred on Orion’s belt stars, I immediately noted a very significant difference between the glasses; this time the clear winner was the 8x 42 Barr & Stroud binocular. It was easy to see that it was pulling in more numerous and fainter stars in Collinder 70 than the smaller 8 x 32. The same was true when I critically examined the Sword Handle of Orion, and in particular, the marvellous gaseous nebula of M42. The 8 x 42 was very much superior, indicating that my eyes were indeed gathering in more light( as they should do) owing to its larger exit pupil of the 8 x 42 binocular.
That said, the 8 x 32 was more comfortable to hold over prolonged periods(several minutes), owing to its much lower weight and transmitted a surprising amount of light; far more than any pocket glass (25mm aperture or less) I had recalled from memory, yielding quite impressive views of star fields and open clusters like the Auriga Messier trio, then very high overhead in the winter sky. The slower focus wheel on the Celestron was far less of a problem under these viewing conditions owing to the relatively tiny focus adjustments required when viewing astronomical targets, and especially when moving from the zenith to objects imaged nearer the horizon.
So which instrument is more versatile? Unsurprisingly, this is a deeply personal choice and, as such, there are no absolute answers. If you don’t mind carrying around the extra weight, then the 8 x 42 would get my vote. I just love the way the instrument feels in my hands, its solid, Spartan construction, wonderfully sharp, super-wide field of view and spectacular bang for buck. The 8 x 42 is exceptionally easy on the eyes with its very comfortable 18mm eye relief(compared to the considerably tighter 15.6mm on the Celestron) and larger exit pupil, so pulling well ahead as an astronomical instrument, or when glassing under deep twilight conditions. It’s only significant downside over the 8 x 32 is its lack of dielectric coatings on the Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms, but it more than makes up for this with its fine optical quality and sturdy mechanical design. Indeed, the 8 x 42 Savannah remains this author’s personal favourite binocular!
But if weight is a big issue and you like to do all or nearly all of your glassing during daylight hours, then a high-quality 8 x 32 will certainly deliver the readies and thus deserve serious consideration.There are some other models in this binocular size class that are as good, if not better than the Celestron, and at prices that won’t leave you out in the cold; the Vortex Diamondback HD 8 x 32(with its famous ‘no questions asked’ VIP warranty), the Nikon Monarch 7( 8 x 30) and the Hawke Frontier X HD, immediately come to mind, all of which retail in the UK for between £200 and £300 and well worth checking out. If possible, you should try before you buy to avoid disappointment.
Thanks for reading!
Neil English is the author of several books on telescopes and astronomical observing, but does not endorse bling. He is seriously considering writing a similar text dedicated to binoculars in the future.
PostScriptum: I intend to have my fully dilated eye pupil size measured on my next visit to my optician.