Product Review: The Barr & Stroud Sierra 10×50 Roof Prism Binocular.

The Barr & Stroud Sierra 10 x 50 binocular with peripheral eyeshields.

 

There has never been a better time for the binocular enthusiast. Nowadays, a huge range of models are available that offer high quality optics for nature studies, birding and astronomy. Doubtless, this revolution is wrought by advances in technology; better glass, better coatings,  as well as steady progress in materials science. Greater competition among the various optics houses also helps drive prices down, so that many more people can take advantage of this new technological wave; and that is good news for a multitude of hobbyists.

I recently described my very favourable impressions of a new instrument; the Barr & Stroud Sierra 8 x 42 roof prism binocular, which offers excellent optics, good weather proofing, great compactness and very light weight compared with my old, well-worn 7 x 50 porro-prism binocular, which had served me well for three decades. The 8 x 42 is an ideal instrument for daytime applications, where its decent light gathering power and efficient transmission of light to the eye, yields images that have great colour fidelity and excellent contrast. As I also explained, the 8 x 42 can be used productively for night-time applications, where it offers good performance within the remit of its aperture.

Still, as good as the 8 x 42 is, I felt I was missing out a little were I to use the instrument for specialised deep sky viewing, compared with slightly larger instruments that have long been the staple of the binocular astronomy enthusiast; I wanted to be able to do binocular astronomy using only a binocular; under its own terms.

Enter the venerable  10 x 50. And that prompted me to seek out a high quality instrument that I could almost exclusively dedicate to night sky use. A good 10 x 50 would gain about about a half a visual magnitude over the 8 x 42 and its slightly higher magnification would be advantageous for pulling out faint deep sky objects that are not so well seen with the smaller binocular.  I had heard some great things about the Nikon Aculon 10 x 50 porro prism binocular and I seriously thought about acquiring it, since it seemed to offer a lot of bang for the buck, but when I considered its weight- 898g, it seemed rather on the heavy side. You see for me, weight is a brute fact: the heavier the binocular, the less I would likely use it.

Deeply impressed by the way the compact 8 x 42 handled various situations, I looked again for a roof prism model offering 10 x 50 specifications and it wasn’t long before my interest was piqued by the Barr & Stroud Sierra 10 x 50 roof prism binocular, which I felt was very reasonably priced. So I took the plunge and ordered one up.

Just like the 8 x 42, the 10 x 50 Sierra arrived very well packaged in an attractive box. The same soft, black carry case housed the binocular, as well as receiving the neat 10-year warranty card and single page instruction sheet.

The 10 x50 Sierra binocular in its soft carry case.

 

The binocular is very well built, with a strong, rigid bridge that is not easily moved once the proper interpupillary distance was set. Ditto for the diopter setting, which is quite stiff and thus not likely to budge in field use. Like the 8 x 42, the unit is o-ring sealed and purged with dry nitrogen gas making it fog and weatherproof (water resistant up to 1.5m for three minutes), Its weight is considerably lower than the Aculon; just 780g. The focuser is smooth and firm to the touch and offers an excellent close focus distance of just 2.5 metres (tested). It also has rubberised caps to protect both the objective lenses and the eyepieces. What’s more, they can be permanently affixed to the binocular so they won’t get lost in a hurry.

The 10 x 50 Sierra is fully multi-coated and the prisms are phase coated for optimum field performance.

 

Like the  8 x 42 Sierra, the 10 x 50 unit features fully multi-coated optics and the BaK-4 roof prisms are phase coated to maximise image brightness, contrast and colour fidelity.

Very nicely designed oculars ensure comfortable viewing, either with or without eye glasses. Note; the oculars are shown fitted with eyeshield peripheral shades (purchased separately).

The eyecups can be twisted upwards for use without eyeglasses, or can be kept fully down if oe decides to use them with eyeglasses.

Eye relief is very generous 17.8mm and the field of view offered is just under 6 angular degrees.

Full details of the 10 x 50 Sierra can be viewed here.

The very same afternoon the 10 x 50 Sierra arrived, I took off on my long country walk to see how they performed during daylight hours. The first thing I noticed was their additional weight; fully 130g heavier than the 8 x 42 Sierra. After a few miles of walking with the instrument hanging around my neck, I experienced significantly greater back strain than I was accustomed to carrying the lighter 8 x 42. This was fully expected however and affirmed my conviction that 8 x 42 would better serve me during daylight hours.

I fully expected a little more chromatic aberration, given the specifications of the 10 x 50 and this was confirmed by focusing on a distant hilltop against a bright overcast sky. Still, it was very minimal and perfectly acceptable. Certainly, it would never be enough for me to consider a model with ED glass; that would be overkill to say the least! The images served up by the 10 x 50 were beautiful, crisp and bright, with great colour fidelity and excellent contrast, although it was immediately acknowledged that I would be sacrificing some field of view over the 8 x 42.

While using the 8 x 42 for prolonged periods during my daily walks, I noticed that on bright days, light entering my peripheral vision was causing some annoying glare to seep in. This had nothing to do with the type or make of binocular but merely reflected an operational issue while using any binocular. Thankfully, I found a great solution; enter Eyeshields produced by a US-based company called Field Optics Research.

A good product for any binocular user. Eyeshields by Field Optics Research.

 

Costing £25 delivered, I received two pairs (one for the 8 x 42 and the other for the 10 x 50) of eyeshields which fit snugly onto the oculars and can be deployed at a moment’s notice. They remain permanently affixed to the eyepieces and fold down when not in use. Another neat feature of the EyeShields is that you can still use the rubberised dust caps with them on. They do a simple job, shileding your peripheral vision from stray light, but also stop wind-driven dust from accumulating on the oculars. They work really well, effectively eliminating the said glare I was encountering during my observations. Though a bit costly for what they really are- rubber eyeshields in a tin box lol –  I can certainly vouch for their effectiveness and would highly recommend them to any binocular enthusiast.

One thing caught my attention though: I noticed that the company state that the product is “patent pending”. I don’t know if something like this can really be patented though. I mean, I have similar eyeshields which came with some of my older orthoscopic and Plossl eyepieces, so it’s hardly something truly novel.

The eyeshields very effectively block peripheral light entering the eye while using binoculars in bright ambient light settings.

Ad Astra

Though I acquired the binocular at the start of November 2018, I was not able to conduct star tests until the evening of November 7, owing to a prolonged bout of cloudy, damp and misty weather, typical for this time of year, which all but extinguished the light from the stars. Seeing some breaks in the clouds after dark stoked deep feelings of joy, and I immediately grabbed the 10 x 50 to begin my observations. My first impressions were very favourable. This cost-effective instrument served up beautiful views of the Pleaides, my first target in northern Taurus. I immediately appreciated the wonderful contrast of the instrument and could instantly make out many more fainter members than I could see with the 8 x 42. The increased image scale was quite significant too, framing the asterism very well in the field of view.

Two tests of the size of the field were conducted; first with the Hyades, which was quite simply stunning in the 10 x 50 and I was delighted to see that the main ‘V’ shaped configuration was nicely framed in the binocular field with a little room to spare. The field came alive with many sparkling jewels, brighter and more numerous than in the 8 x 42. Star colours seemed even more vivid too.  Since the main part of the Hyades is in excess of 5 angular degrees wide, this comported well with the field quoted in the specifications table.

In the second test, I was able to get brilliant white Rigel just inside the same field as the Orion Nebula (M42), a distance I estimated to be about 5.7 angular degrees, so quite close to what the manufacturer claimed. It’s nice when the stated specifications agree with experience!

At tightest focus, brilliant yellow Capella in Auriga showed no fringing of any sort that my average eyes could detect, and moving the brilliant autumn luminary to the edge of the field showed that it remained agreeably sharp and tight; perhaps even a tad better than the wider field offered up by the smaller 8 x 42. I reasoned that this was not to be unexpected, as it is easier to get a better corrected field as the field shrinks in size.

Sweeping the binocular through the heart of Auriga showed its clear superiority over the 8 x 42. The 3 Messier open clusters were easier to pull out from the background sky and I was also able to more easily see a number of other fainter nebulae that were mere suggestions in the smaller Sierra binocular.

As a resolution test, I steadied the binocular on the side wall of my house and aimed it at golden Albireo, now rather low in the northwestern sky. I believe I was just able to pick off its companion, something I have not been able to achieve using the 8 x 42 after several attempts.

The weight difference between the Sierra binoculars is immediately obvious under the painted canopy of the night sky. It is harder to hold the 10 x 50 steady, but I find that this is less important for large deep sky objects than it is for studying smaller targets like individual stars, where the wondrous creation of the human eye-brain seems to act as a natural image stabiliser. I found it beneficial to move my hands further forward in order to get a better grip of the objective end of the instrument while in field use. This strategy definitely helps me to get the most stable images from the 10 x 50 during prolonged (greater than 20 seconds or so) observations.

In another test, I compared the binocular views of M 35 in Gemini, which had cliimbed out of the eastern murk, reaching a decent height just after local midnight. While both binoculars easily showed the large, roughly wedge-shaped open cluster, its sub-optimal altitude enabled only a few stellar members to be made out in the 8 x 42 but many more were discernible with the larger 10 x 50.

Some other daylight tests:

Many inexpensive binoculars often come with misaligned prisms which cut off some of the light reaching the eye. This is especially true when the product comes via courier. I’ve had a large 15 x 70 binocular in the past that came badly misaligned, which made me far more cautious about buying a binocular online. Thankfully, this was not the case with the Barr & Stroud binoculars, which were all properly and securely collimated in the factory prior to dispatch.

A simple way to test this is to examine the shape of the exit pupil of the binocular when pointed at a bright light source. A square or non circular shaped light shaft is an easy way to show if the prisms are undersized (thus losing some light) or misaligned. As the photo below shows, the exit pupils of the 10 x 50 are round, as are the 8 x 42s,  indicating that all is well.

No sign of a squared off exit pupil on the Barr & Stroud binocular.

 

Like the 8 x 42 previously tested, the 10 x 50 showed little sign of pincushion distortion while examining the profile of a horizontal roof located about 100 yards distant.

Attaining binocular stability without sacrificing mobility

As I stated previously, binocular astronomy, for me, generally means hand-held viewing, without the need for tripods or other more elaborate kinds of mounts that just get in the way. That’s one of the reasons why I eventually grew disillusioned with large and heavy binoculars. But any 10 x 50 unit, whether roof- or porro prism-based, will eventually show its limitations in regard to attaining rock steady views of star fields, or for teasing apart tighter binocular double stars, or even for seeing the most detail on the Moon. One way round the problem is to stabilise the binocular on a fence or a wall, but this convenience is not always practicle, especially if you’re on the move. The best compromise is to use a lightweight monopod and it is to this device that I turned to in field testing.

One thing the reader must be made aware of is that roof prism binoculars will not, in general, be compatible with standard porro prism binocular tripod adapters. Many of these adapters might fit the roof prism binocular but the stalk will more often than not be too wide to attain the optimum interpupillary distance so important for the most comfortable, immersive views. To that end, I ordered up a smaller adapter especially designed for medium sized (up to 50mm aperture) roof prism binoculars. I elected to go for a well machined, high-quality unit marketed by Opticron (shown below).

The Opticron tripod adapter designed for medium sized roof prism binoculars.

Having acquired a monopod some time ago for use in landscape photography, I was eager to see how the binocular would fare using this configuration, so I began a set of field tests using this device to see if it would tick all the boxes.

The Opticron adapter mates to the 10 x 50 Sierra very well, enabling the correct interpupillary distance to be maintained.

A good fitting: the Opictron tripod adapter mates to the binocular perfectly and will allow the user to re-adjust the interpupillary distance for optimum field performance.

 

The binocular with its adapter readily screws into the monopod. The whole configuration is still very lightweight, ultraportable and is now ready for testing under the night sky.

The 10 x 50 Sierra securely mounted on the lightweight monopod.

To what degree will the monopod stabilise the images in the 10 x 50? Off the bat, it will yield images that are more stable than an image-stabilised (IS) binocular, without the attending arm strain, high cost and need for battery power, but will fall short of that generated by a tripod.

Shortly before local midnight on the evening of November 15 2018, I stuck my head out my back door to discover that the sky had cleared somewhat after a rainy spell. The air was grand and mild, and the Moon had set shortly after 11pm, yielding a fine, dark sky. Pleasantly surprised, I ran in and fetched the 10 x 50 atop the monopod. The Pleiades was very high up in the south; ideally placed for binocular viewing. Settling into my recliner, I was able to negotiate a very comfortable position with the monopod securely held against the ground. Centring the asterism in the field of view, I was dumb struck by how good the view was; a blizzard of blue white stars piercing through the canopy of night in a blaze of glory! The effect of stabilising the view makes an enormous difference to what you see. Some highly experienced binocular users claim that you can go up to a magnitude fainter if the image is stabilised. I don’t know whether that’s accurate or not, but what I can say is that it was a supremely joyful experience. I just lay there for twenty minutes in the dark feasting my eyes on the celestial apparition before me. During the spell, cloud patches of varying thickness marched across the sky, diminishing the brilliance of the Pleiads by varying degrees, but as they passed through the full splendour of the cluster reasserted itself.

I will add a strong ball & socket adapter to the monopod so that I can make angular adjustments to the binocular. That way, I will increase the viewing comfort that little bit more.

That was my first experience with the monopod; a first step. In time, I’ll take another.

November 17 2018:

After rummaging around in me ole box of tricks, I selected a good ball & socket adapter for the 10 x 50 binocular. Although I had a few of these handy, I elected to use one that could carry the 780g instrument with ease. My best one, shown below, can carry cameras and other equipment up to 2 kilos in weight.

An all-metal ball & socket adapter mated to the monopod with a 2 kilo carrying capacity.

 

It worked really well with the binocular in daylight tests. Indeed, it will give me yet another degree of freedom whilst conducting my observations of the night sky.

Another view of the ball & socket adapter mounted on the monopod.

 

So, there it is; I think I’m ready for another session under the stars. What attracts me to this arrangement is its sheer simplicity; increased stability, easy to carry, easy to manoeuvre, easy to store away!

Simplicity itself.

Round about 6pm local time, I ventured out to see if the clear spells we enjoyed during the afternoon had persisted. I was in luck. The 10 day old gibbous Moon was low in the southeast, still a couple of hours before meridian transit. Eagerly, I turned the 10 x 50 astride the monocular mount at it, focused, and then carefully assessed the image.

I was very pleased! Our 70 per cent illuminated satellite showed some wonderful detail, easily superior to the smaller 8 x 42. The prominent ray crater, Copernicus, stood out a mile, as did Clavius and Tycho in the southern highlands. Eratosthenes, Plato and Archimedes proved easy too. The Apennine Mountains were clearly seen running from northeast to southwest and the various maria; Tranquillitatis, Fecunditatis, Serentatis, Nubium and Imbrium were all beautifully presented. Some faint stars in the vicinity of the Moon were easily seen in the 10 x 50. Thin, whispy clouds often ran across the lunar countenance, acting like a natural filter and increasing contrast. The upper edge of the Moon had a very thin bluish hue, whereas its southern counterpart was similarly tinged yellow. I attributed this in the main part to atmospheric refraction owing to its fairly low altitude (20 degrees) at the time the observation was made. Even at its brightest, glare was really well supressed, just like the 8 x 42 Sierra.

The Moon really comes alive in the image-stabilised 10 x 50!

The observations were conducted just standing up with the monopod, and I was able to tweak its pointing accuracy by making small adjustments to the ball & socket bearing. Turning over to the east, I aimed the binocular at Alpha Persei and made some more adjustments to the ball & socket so as to obtain the most comfortable standing observation of the binocular field. Even in bright moonlight, the rich starfields around it were wonderful and sharp almost all the way out to the edge, with excellent contrast.

Final testing: November 18-20 2018

Guid graith.

With unsettled weather being the rule rather than the exception over the last few days, my final tests were mainly conducted on a bright gibbous Moon, now rising much higher in the sky than previously reported on November 17. Whether seated, reclining or standing, the monopod is an excellent platform for image stabilised binocular astronomy, as it’s very easy to find a supremely comfortable position to conduct observations for all altitudes, from the horizon to the zenith. The lunar images remain sharp, with high contrast and very little in the way of glare evident to my eye. The extra image scale (25%) over the 8 x 42 is immediately appreciated, allowing lunar details to be more easily discerned at a glance. Some brief spells observing star fields in bright moonlight also produced very satisfying results. Suffice it to say that I cannot wait for the Moon to get out of the sky so that I can enjoy the wonders of the winter dark with this little instrument.

I have just one quibble with the 10 x 50; the soft carry case is identical to that which came with the 8 x 42. The case is ideal for the latter but is a little too small for the larger 10 x 50. Not a big deal but it should be said.

The Barr & Stroud 10 x 50 is the ideal astronomy binocular, offering exceptional perfromance at a price that meets most folks’ budgets. It’s solid construction, quality optics and very attractive price makes it an exceptional value in today’s market. Indeed, in an age where it is so very easy to get carried away by gimmicks and clever marketing ploys that pressurize individuals to depart with relatively large amounts of money, it is very reassuring to know that one can acquire this level of performance for a very reasonable financial outlay.

I heartily recommend these binoculars to stargazers everywhere and hope that they will give the reader as much joy as they have given me.

Thanks for reading.

 

Neil English is writing a new book dedicated to the ShortTube 80 achromatic telescope.

 

De Fideli.

Product Review: The Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Sierra Roof Prism Binocular

The Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 roof prism binocular.

 

With some sage commentary from former Sky & Telescope columnist, Gary Seronik.

Binoculars are indispensable tools for the naturalist and amateur astronomer. Their strength lies in their ease of use, low-power, wide-field views of the Creation, whether terrestrial or celestial. In this era of high technology, there is a huge number of models to suit just about everyone’s needs, wants and budgets. Content with my old 7 x 50 porro prism binos for three decades, I came to realise recently that it would be good to get a newer model that was better suited to my life circumstances.

I had grown older you see, with the result that the maximum diameter of my pupil could no longer open to 7mm. I became less tolerant of the fairly substantial weight of the 7 x 50s too, especially when I took some time out to relax on a recliner in my garden to gaze upon the heavens for prolonged periods of time. The 7 x 50s also suffered some knocks over the years and once they were fully submerged when I accidently slipped on some moss and fell into Loch Lomond lol. Luckily, though a source of considerable hilarity to my travelling companions, the ordeal wasn’t the end of the world, and though the prisms became mis-aligned, I managed to get them repaired at reasonable cost.

But what really catalysed my desire for a new binocular was the recent acquisition of an inexpensive 10 x 50 binocular I received in a swap (barter) for an eyepiece with a fellow amateur. At first I was thrilled with the 10 x 50s. They had a suitable exit pupil (calculated by dividing the diameter of the objective by the  magnification), but they were quite heavy and owing to their ‘fully coated’ specifications, manifested significant light loss and reduced contrast owing to the presence of internal reflections when pointed at a bright light source.

I knew what I wanted going foward though. The binocular needed to be light weight but not feather-weight, as my experience with small compacts were somewhat less than inspiring. Somewhere between 600 and 700g would be ideal. The instrument had to be fully muti-coated to reduce light scattering inside to an absolute minimum. I could dispense with ED glass, as at the magnifications I intended to use the binocular at, I would be very hard pressed to see any secondary spectrum and I wasn’t going to splash out on an optical feature I could’t readily see! Much more important for me was that the binocular be well made and have a secure, rugged feel to them in field use.

I considered field of view too; at least 7 angular degrees but not overly wide since I reasoned that although some models were being offered with impressively wide fields up to 8 angular degrees or more, they would likely suffer more from off-axis aberrations that I would notice in field use.

Many of the ‘premium’ models also had features that I could readily do without as well: a slightly flatter field at the edge of the field, for example, or faster, smoother focusing that might be somewhat more important for observing fast moving wildlife at close hand; or a lockable diopter setting; those kinds of things.

Waterproofing would be a bonus, for sure, but not essential, as I don’t spend my days wading through swamps in search of feathered friends lol!

I decided that a full-size 8 x 42 roof prism binocular was the way to go. I was delighted to see that even very highly respected brands were offering many of the attributes I wanted without ED glass elements. For example, here’s one Fujinon model I considered. If Fujinon of Japan did not consider ED glass as an essential feature in a modern binocular, then why should I?

Consulting former Sky & Telescope columnist, Gary Seronik’s beautifully illustrated book, Binocular Highlights (Second Edition 2017), I was able to affirm what I felt about the view served up by a premium optic compared with mid-priced models:

….You can get good optics for relatively little money. So what do you get if you spend ten times as much? In terms of the actual view, not as much as you might expect. Yes, the more expensive binoculars have better optics that will deliver more light to your eyes and sharper images, but the difference is not night and day. What the extra money does buy is mechanical quality. Expensive binoculars can withstand the inevitable bumps and knocks of everyday use without trouble, and having focusing mechanisms that are sure and precise.

pp 11

 

Being new to this type of binocular, I did however find out the hard way that not all roof prism binos were created equal. My first purchase was a model that did have everything I was looking for, save for phase-coating technology which corrects for the inherent design flaw in all roof-prism binoculars. Finally, I purchased a model that did tick all my boxes; enter the Barr & Stroud Sierra 8 x 42.

It’s specifications can be viewed here.

The Sierra 8 x 42 came well packaged inside a handsome box. As well as the binocular, I received a lens cloth, neck strap, soft, padded carry case, a single-page instruction sheet and a warranty card (10 years).

Right from the get-go, I was very impressed with the fit and feel of the binocular. The fern-green body is fashioned from polycarbonate with a rubberised overcoat. The central bridge was set at just the right degree of stiffness, ensuring that when I adjusted the inter-pupillary distance, it was rigid enough to stay snugly in place; so no need for constant re-adjustment when taking them from their case. Both the objective and ocular lenses had good rubber-like caps that can be affixed to the binocular with a much reduced chance of getting lost while on the move.

The Barr & Stroud Sierra come with nicely made, stay-on rubber caps for both the ocular and objective lenses. Very handy both in the field and during storage.

 

Both the objective and ocular lenses have lovely anti-reflection coatings that make the lenses all but disappear when looking straight through them.

The great anti-reflection coatings on the achromatic objectives of the Barr & Stroud Sierra.

 

The Sierra come with adjustable eyecups that click up or down for use with or without  eye-glasses. With its generous 17.8mm eye relief, eye-glass wearers will be able to enjoy the full field of view by keeping the eyecups in the fully down position. I do not use eye-glasses when observing, so I always have the eyecups twisted fully upwards.

The twist-up eyecups ‘click’ into place for comfortable viewing of the entire field for use with or without eye-glasses.

 

The diopter setting is located under the right eyecup. It is satisfyingly stiff and, as a result, fairly difficult to adjust. I thought this was plenty good enough for my use, as it has not budged a millimetre since I made the adjustment for my own eyes on the day they were acquired!

The diopter ring is located under the right-hand eyecup and is very stiff and difficult to move out of position while in field use.

 

As the specifications reveal, the instrument is nitrogen purged and o-ringed sealed making it fog and water-proof. Since molecular nitrogen [consonant with the name ‘azote’, (meaning ‘without activity’) bestowed upon it by early chemists] is quite an inert gas, it also ensures no moisture- or oxygen-induced corrosion will occur to its internal components for the foreseeable future. Argon gas filling would have been better, of course, since it is even more inert (being a Noble element) than nitrogen and its larger atomic mass would ensure even more sluggish diffusion-based leakage over the years. But for my purposes though, ordinary nitrogen was deemed perfectly acceptable. The specs also say the instruments have been immersion tested and can withstand being submerged in up to 1.5 metres of water for 3 minutes; that’s plenty of time to retrieve them if ever an accident should occur!

I’ll not be testing that by the way, lol!

    Optical Testing & Handling in the Field

It does exactly what it says on the tin!

 

The Sierra 8 x 42 provide instant gratification from the moment you pick it up. It feels very secure in the hand. The view is very clear and sharp and colour rendition sensibly perfect. The factory collimation was spot on. The focus wheel is very responsive and smooth allowing you to zoom in on a subject as close as 6.5 feet all the way out to infinity. If you look carefully at the edges of the field, there is some softening of the image as well as a trace of chromatic aberration but not enough to distract the vast majority of users. Examining a horizontal roof at 30 yards distance revealed very little pincushion distortion.

Comparing it to my old 7 x 50s revealed something rather shocking; the image was actually brighter and sharper in the Sierra, despite it having smaller objective lenses ( 42mm as opposed to 50mm). I attribute this to solid advances in the application of better coatings to all optical components and superior baffling of stray light in the roof prism binocular. Focusing on the middle distance, the binocular provides very impressive depth of field perception but maybe not quite as good as that provided by their porro prism-based counterparts.

Definition of daytime targets is excellent. It presents autumn leaves in their beautiful colours and focusing in on tree trunks showed up its wonderful textured grain. I can easily carry them round my neck for many miles and with little in the way of neck strain. The binocular can also be attached to a tripod if need be using the 1/4-20 threaded socket found under the B&S logo at the front of the bridge. Just unscrew the plastic cover and screw in the tripod adapter.

As a rather severe test of how well stray light is managed in the binocular, I pointed it at the full Moon. The inexpensive 10 x 50s showed clear evidence of internal reflections producing annoying glare in the image and thereby reducing contrast. To my relief, the Sierra 8 x 42 showed very little in comparison indicating that stray light was being very well controlled.

A week after full Moon, I examined a rising last quarter Luna and again, the image was very impressive; there being very little glare and contrast remaining very high. The only false colour I could see was attributed to atmospheric refraction. The battered southern hemisphere with its vast crater fields stood out well, as did the contrast between the brighter and darker maria. I particularly enjoyed seeing the wonderful earthshine from the dark hemisphere of the Moon which made the view all the more magical.

Continuing my adventures with the Sierra under the stars, the binocular has a wide field of view (7.33 degrees), allowing you to take in generous swathes of sky. Stars focused down to tiny pinpoints across the vast majority of the field, with only the edges of the field showing a slight softening and the merest trace of lateral colour. I judged the contrast to be very good.

Confident that I had indeed obtained a very good binocular, I relaxed and just enjoyed the magnificent views it served up of large deep sky objects; the Hydaes was wonderful and filled the view with lots of room to spare, the Alpha Persei Association was spell-binding with many dozens of hot, white stars assaulting my eyes. The Pleiades was a beatufiful sight to behold. Bright stars such as Aldebaran, Capella and Vega faithfully revealed their true colours (orange, yellow and blue-white, respectively).Running the binocular through the Milky Way in Cygnus and Cassiopeia was a joyous experience and proved quite overwhelming to this tester.

The Sierra 8 x 42 will be an excellent new tool in my arsenal of optical instruments. It will complement the detailed, close-up views served up by my telescopes. The binocular will be accompanying us on our up-and-coming family vacation to the Solway Firth in southwest Scotland next week (commencing Monday October 15 2018) together with my 130mm f/5 Newtonian travel ‘scope.

The perfect binocular accompaniment.

 

I heartily recommend this binocular to amateur astronomers, nature watchers, for those who love poking around the landscape, or as the perfect optical accompaniment for a day at the races. It will offer up very satisfying performance at a price that won’t break the bank. It provides excellent value for money and, if properly cared for, provide a lifetime of wonderful views.

Postscriptum:

Please check out some other reviews of Barr & Stroud Binoculars:

The Barr & Stroud Sierra 10 x 42 Sierra

The Barr & Stroud 8 x 32 Sierra

The Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42

 

Neil English’s new book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, explores  four centuries of visual telescopic astronomy, as well as the pantheon of colourful characters who helped shape both the hobby and the science today.

 

De Fideli.

A Tale of Three Binoculars

My 30-year old 7 x 50 binocular.

 

It was just over 30 years ago when I was gifted a nice 7 x 50 binocular by my girlfriend. They featured a 7 degree field, multi-coated optics and BaK-4 porro prisms. They served me well all these years on holidays, walks and for casual stargazing. They weren’t cheap either. Lesser units would have fallen apart by now, but after trying a few modern binoculars out I knew that technology had moved on, mostly for the better.

And so had my eyes.

Now that I’m older, I wanted a binocular that had an exit pupil more suited to my age. I wanted an instrument that was more light weight, so that I could observe for longer without using tripods. I wanted a binocular that would do well in a variety of situations, from nature watching from dawn to dusk, and for astronomy. They had to be robust and ideally weatherproof to a degree. My ideal binocular views had to serve up sharp, colour pure views of autumn’s radiant hues but also allow me to throw caution to the wind and just enjoy the glories of the night sky from the comfort of a recliner. But which ones to buy?

Alas, I found that choosing a model that ticked all the boxes for me to be a daunting prospect! Today, we have so many makes to choose from; which is a good thing. My experience with telescopes came in very handy though. Not easily swayed by marketing gimmicks and wishy-washy hyperbole, I slowly pared them down to size.

I decided I wanted a fairly compact, full-size binocular that would offer good light grasp, so a clear aperture of 42mm would be about the minimum that would do the trick. I wanted a fully multi-coated instrument to maximise light transmission to the eye and reduce glare on bright objects to an acceptable minimum. They had to be well made with a decent warranty should they get damaged or worn out from regular use. And they had to present good value for my hard-earned cash.

I narrowed my search down to a good roof-prism binocular as these had many of the features I was looking for; small, light weight, decent light grasp, ultraportable etc. Two magnifications were considered, 8x or 10x. With 10x you’d get a smaller exit pupil and lose some advantages of using them in low light conditions. 10x would also introduce more shake and would be more difficult to accurately focus while in use too, so I decided on 8x; an 8 x 42 binocular.

I went to amazon.co.uk to check out the user reviews of a variety of models I had an interest in. In many ways, these types of reviews give the prospective buyer a more rounded view of what it’s like to use a given model, as they are often more honest and less biased than those offered by so-called ‘experts,’ who, more often than not, succumb to clever marketing ploys and had a tendency to push premium products over more economical models that might still offer perfectly acceptable performance. I found that birders, for example, often highlighted a variety of mechanical and optical features that were largerly superfluous to my needs. I didn’t really need super-fast focusing, locked in dioptre settings, nor ED elements in the objectives. At such low powers, one would be hard pressed to see the advantages of employing low dispersion glass and most of the online literature seemed to over-emphasise their advantages even though I knew that it would only make a small (insignificant?) difference to the views. Afterall, how many amateur astronomers insist on having ED finder ‘scopes eh? Why haven’t 8 x 50 ED finders or some such become the industry standard, if they really offered any tangible advantage over good ole crown & flint? The honest answer is that they’re unnecessary, and so can be dispensed with.

As a case in point, check out this user review of the Vortex 10 x 42 Diamondback roof prism binocular. The gentleman states that he was asked to try out the more expensive Viper model with ED objective elements in a blind test. He states that he couldn’t really tell the difference in field use. I have no reason to doubt the gentleman’s conviction. Why lie on such a trivial matter?

No, a good, no-frills, traditional achromatic binocular to match my average eyes was what I was shopping for!

I went with a company that had a long track record of producing high quality optics, as I reasoned that such knowledge would be invaluable in the construction of a well-made binocular. Many companies selling such binoculars were not long in the game though, so my instinct was to avoid them. I gravitated toward an old British firm that had produced optics for the military in two world wars; Barr & Stroud.

Now bought out by OVL, Barr & Stroud  re-entered the sports optics market by bringing out a range of affordable roof prism binoculars in an 8 x 42 format and my first purchase was the Sahara 8 x 42, which retails for about £70-£90 UK.

The Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42.

 

Though under no illusions that these are British made, Barr & Stroud binoculars are now assembled in China, just like those marketed by Vortex (a US-based company) and many other companies. They are supplied with a nice, soft carry case, neck straps, a lens cleaning cloth and have a 10-year warranty.

The Sahara 8 x 42 binocular comes in attractive box with a good carrying case with the usual accessories.

 

The specifications of the Sahara 8 x 42 model can be viewed here.

The Sahara is a joy to use. It’s small and light weight (670g), has good eye relief (17.5 mm) and with its twist up eyecups, will allow those who must wear eye glasses (I don’t) to enjoy the expansive field of view (7.33 angular degrees). Images are bright and sharp and colour fidelity is sound. With its fully multi-coated optics, contrast and glare suppression are excellent too in comparison to my old 7 x 50s. You really have to look for chromatic aberration but it is there. You can best see it by focusing on the edge of a telephone pole against a bright, overcast sky background, but is minimal and not in the least bit intrusive(I’d say mostly bum-fluff). At the edge of the field, the image gets a little softer with some slight fringing during daylight hours but it will never be enough to disturb the vast majority of users. Focusing is smooth and intuitive, not overly stiff or loose and it has an excellent close focus distance of just under 2m (measured) to allow you to enjoy insects, flowers etc at close range. It also has adequate waterproofing for my intended uses for it.

Night time views were very impressive too. Stars are sharp and pinpoint across the majority of the field. Only by using a stable tripod, will you be able to notice a little defocus of the stellar images at the edge of the field. All in, I would rate the Sahara as very good and considering its modest cost; a great bargain in today’s market! These guys certainly know how to make a good binocular!

Shortly after purchasing the Saharas, I began researching the properties of roof prisms and discovered that they have a significant design flaw. In the roof prism design, the two halves of the collected light from the objectives travel through the prism independently and are recombined before reaching the eyepieces. Because the path of the two wave trains are of slightly different lengths, one half of the light takes a little longer to travel through the prism than the other. When the two halves of the image are recombined, the wave with the longer light path will be slightly out of phase with the light that undergoes the shorter route. This results in a combination of destructive and constructive interference of the wave trains, affecting the colour balance, contrast and fidelity of the binocular image.

Note that this flaw does not affect porro-prism-based binoculars!

By introducing a special phase coating to the prism undergoing the shorter light path, optical designers can slightly retard the wave train, thereby correcting the phase difference with the other wave train. This results in sharper, brighter images with higher contrast; in theory. As I researched this some more, I discovered that the result was quantitatively significant; 8 per cent according to the manufacturers. Intrigued, I looked for a Barr & Stroud model that had this phase coating as the Sahara’s did not have this technology built in and that quickly led me to their 8 x 42 Sierra model.

The Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Sierra binocular.

 

Luckily, the Sierra was only a little bit more expensive than the Sahara. Full specs here.

Otherwise sharing very similar specifications to the Sahara, the Sierra 8 x 42 is also slightly lighter (650g), coming with the same soft carry case and accessories as the former. The polycarbonate body was also a little different in the Sierra compared with the Sahara, as the above images show. When it arrived, the first thing I did was undergo a test to see if there was any significant difference between the images. Examining a brightly lit scene with a trunk of a tree shadowed by some over-hanging branches and comparing the two binocular images, I must admit that the Sierra was that little bit better. It’s difficult to describe in words but I suppose I’d say that the Sierra image had a little bit more ‘zing’ to it. The image was that little bit brighter and the colours more vivid. Contrast was also better by a shade.

Based on this test, I think phase coating technology is definitely worth having. Subsequent research of other high-end and mid-priced binoculars revealed that they all possessed these phase coatings. I see them as increasing the overall efficiency of light transmission, improving the image in a way that the human eye would notice in a critical test.

In another test comparing my 7 x 50s to the Sierra’s, I had to immediately concede that the images in the latter were far superior to the old porro prism binocular. The image was actually brighter even though it only had 42mm objectives(as opposed to 50mm in the auld yin) and the contrast far superior. The Sierra also presented a larger field of view.

Man and his technology!

Before describing my experiences with the Sierra 8 x 42 in any more detail, I was curious to see how the unit would fare compared with a high-end binocular with roughly the same specifications. As luck would have it, my coalman is a keen birder and dabbles in hunting big game. He’s the proud possessor of a Swarovksi EL 8.5 x 42 binocular, which retails for about £1800 UK. When he came to deliver some coal I got chatting with him and asked him if he would be so kind as to bring them by some afternoon so that we could compare and contrast the images garnered by these binoculars. He agreed.

The Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 roof prism binocular.

 

Though certainly not a ‘gayponaut’ (a word of my own coining, fomally defined as: an irrational obsession with small ED optics), my coalman, Graham, bought his Swarovski’s about ten years ago, and I was glad to see that they looked as though they’d been used. When I asked him why he chose them he said, “they’re supposed to give brighter views in low light.”  I thought that answer was a little vague though. He didn’t seem to know anything about the fluorite element in the objectives, or the effects of coatings on the optics. He was simply won over by the advertising. I believe this is common among buyers of high-end optics. Afterall, you don’t need to know anything about an internal combustion engine in order to drive a car do you?

Indeed, I knew far more about his Swarovski’s than he did. Nevertheless, we compared the images. I got a shot of Graham’s 8.5 x 42s and he got a chance to test out my 8 x 42 Sierra’s. The results were interesting.

I felt the image quality was excellent in the Swarovski’s. It gave a slightly more neutral colour tone to the Sierra’s in a very slightly larger true field (7.6 angular degrees). Contrast was excellent with really first-rate definition. The built-in field flattening lenses in the eyepieces improved the edge of field correction, and the slight colour fringing I had tried hard to detect in my Sierras was invisible in the Swarovski’s.

Graham liked the Sierras too though. Indeed, he said to me that, ” they’re pretty much the same aren’t they?”

I found it hard not to disagree. I felt the images were much more similar than different.

But what I did appreciate were the mechanical attributes of Graham’s binocular. Its buttery smooth focusing wheel made it easy to adjust focus distance from about 4.5 feet to infinity very swiftly; a bonus for birders I guess. I also appreciated the wonderful diopter adjustment apparatus and hearing the ‘click’ as it was turned to the correct setting.  This clever diopter locking mechanism means that there’s little chance of it slipping out of place during field use. Great, but not something I couldn’t live without.

The Swarovski’s body is a very rugged magnesium alloy chassis which gives a feeling of reassurance while handling the optic, but I didn’t really understand how it would be more resistant to corrosion over the far less expensive polycarbonate body usually found on the majority of sports optics. What Graham and I did notice was the significant weight difference between the models. The Swarovski’s were nearly 200g heavier than the Sierra’s, something that would definitely have a bearing on observing comfort during prolonged field use.

The excellent life-time warranty on the Swarovski’s was something Graham appreciated. He told me that one of the caps on the ocular lens had worn out (they can actually be removed for easy cleaning of the eye lenses) but one of the company reps immediately fitted his unit with a new one; that’s great service!

In the end, I was very grateful to Graham for bringing by his high-end binocular. I was delighted to know that there wasn’t much in it optically. But then again, I kind of expected as much! Did the experience tempt me to save and invest in a Swarovski? I’d have to say no. My Sierra’s were plenty good enough, warts and all!

What to do with the Sahara’s? My sister- and brother-in-law love the great outdoors; camping, glamping, fly fishing, hill walking and sight seeing. The’ve never owned a decent binocular so these will serve as a suitable Christmas gift for them. I just know they’ll love it and use it!

As for the Barr & Stroud Sierra binocular, I will present a separate, in depth review of this instrument in another blog.

Thanks for reading!

 

Neil English is author of several books on amateur astronomy.

 

De Fideli.