Semptember 9, 2019
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is something in a name.
In my ongoing investigation into binoculars, I’ve discovered that, like telescopes, you don’t always get what you pay for. In particular, if a product offers advanced optical features like a full multi-coating on all air to glass surfaces, ED elements, or phase corrected roof prisms, it doesn’t necessarily translate into a solidly functioning optic. I’ve tested products purported to have premium optics but upon inspection, did not deliver all the goodness that they were promising in cleverly devised youtube promos and fancy specification sheets etc.
One company that has bucked this trend is Barr & Stroud, a once prestigious optical and engineering firm, established in Glasgow, Scotland, that at one time supplied all manner of optical instruments to the British navy during two world wars. Like many other large optical firms established in Britain, it underwent considerable re-structuring over the decades. Today, the brand name is owned by Optical Vision Limited(OVL) and began producing binoculars for the civilian market in 2011, moving production to China.
My enthusiasm for the brand began just a year ago(2018), when I initiated testing a variety of their binoculars in different price ranges. Like many others who have looked through their instruments, I was duly impressed by the incredible bang for buck of their offerings, with optics that punched well above their modest price tags.
Of particular note is the Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42, which delivered wonderful, wide-field, high-contrast and colour pure images of the Creation. Unlike other brands in the same price range, which offered so-so performance, especially off-axis, these binoculars maintained excellent control of the same aberrations. The massive 8.2 degree field of these 8x glasses is sharp across the vast majority of the field, with only the extreme edges showing significant distortion.
My first Savannah was actually purchased on the second-hand market, and that out of sheer curiosity. Expecting such a wide angle binocular to show average optical quality as one moves off axis(like so many others I’ve tested), I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that this excellent image quality was being maintained to the extreme edge of the field. Indeed, the view, in retrospect, was almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, the dioptre ring, which is situated in a very unusual place on this binocular (just ahead of the large focus wheel) developed a fault, which necessitated its return to OVL for repair. What I actually received was a brand-new instrument and so I was able to asess the performance of two samples of the Barr & Stroud Savannah that inspired the writing of this blog.
Built like a proverbial tank, the fully weatherproof and nitrogen purged Savannah 8 x 42 is heavier than many competing models on the market. Indeed, at 819 grams, it even weighs more than my 10 x 50 Barr & Stroud Sierra binocular (which also delivers excellent optics and mechanics for the buck). Outwardly, the Savannah has a rather Spartan look and feel about it, with features that are simple and rather understated. The eye cups are of very high quality, which can be set to three positions, and with a very generous 18mm eye relief, is ideal for eye glass wearers and those who like to observe without glasses. When twisted up, they click into place with a reassuringly loud “thwack” sound, and which remain in that position even after excess pressure is applied. Indeed, I rate these eyecups very highly and amongst the best that I have sampled thus far in my binocular education.
The focus wheel is large and moves smoothly without any stiction, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, making it easy to change the position of best focus from as close as 2 metres to beyond infinity. The tension is just right; not too stiff and not too slack.
All the accessories that come with the Savannah are of high quality; including a hard black clamshell case, a padded neck strap with the B&S logo and rubber objective and eyepiece lens caps that can be affixed to the binocular and so are not easily lost in routine field use. The instrument also comes with the company’s 10-year warranty.
The new binocular turned out to be every bit as good optically than the first one I returned! Indeed, it could even be that little bit better! Images are bright and razor sharp, rich in contrast and colour pure. Though it contains no ED elements, the instrument shows only a trace of chromatic aberration, and only if you go looking hard for it. Like I said before, I don’t consider the presence of ED glass as a feature that is necessary on binoculars of this specification. Crank up the power nearer to the resolving magnification, and it’s a different story. But in this realm, what I’m more interested in, and which is far more important in the scheme of things, is how well the binocular is put together.
Roofs are complex instruments, requiring engineering skill and very careful assembly of the components. Some firms know how to do it well, others don’t…..methinks.
My assessment of binocular optics involves the usual procedures employed by other reviewers, but I have also devised much more demanding tests to learn how well the light is being transmitted though the optical train. What I have discovered is that many purportedly high-end roof prism binoculars (based solely on their recommended retail price) often show considerable flaring and annoying internal reflections when observing strongly backlit daylight scenes. In addition, night time testing on bright artificial street lights and the full Moon also provide solid clues as to what is going on inside the test binocular(which unfortunately, are all hermetically sealed!!).
One particularly stringent test is to direct an intensely bright beam of light from my iphone into the binocular to see how it deals with glare and internal reflections. No roof prism binocular, no matter how well made, can completely pass these tests;
All fall short:- but what astonished me was how well they were suppressed in the Savannah 8 x 42. Unlike many other models, which reveal too much glare and bright ghosting across the field, both my 10 x 50 and 8 x 42 Barr & Stroud instruments came out with truly excellent results! In particular, the degree of glare suppression and control of internal reflections present in the Savannah was fully the equal of a world class binocular: – in this case, the Swarovski 10 x 42 EL Range:. Where you will often pick up diffraction spikes and flaring from bright street lighting in an inferior instrument, as well as contrast-robbing diffused light around such artificial light sources (not to mention internal reflections), my new Savannah 8 x 42 shows up very little. This is easily seen in regular daylight testing, where the images thrown up by the instrument show very high contrast, allowing very fine details to be easily discerned.
I thought long and hard about why such an economical instrument offered such unreasonably excellent control of stray light, and then I remembered how the same company made high-quality optical instruments for the British navy. Out at sea, where sunlight is strongly reflected off the water, glare suppression would have been a high priority for any optic used for long distance surveillance. Although it remains an interesting conjecture on my part, it could be that the technicians who assemble such binoculars have specialised knowledge on how to keep those internal light leaks at bay. Afterall, once upon a time, not doing so might well have made all the difference between life and death!
Whatever the reasons for such optical excellence, the wonderful colour correction, contrast and suppression of stray light make the 8 x 42 Savannah binocular an excellent choice for birders and naturalists. I cannot think of a better instrument – without dropping an additional few grand – to take along with me to observe the deluge of autumnal colours that are only just emerging, as the trees shut down for a long, winter nap. But, as I’ve discovered, the 8 x 42 also delivers knock-out views of the celestial realm!
As I recall, it was with some trepidation that I decided to try the Savannah. I was leary of the advertised field of view -143m@1000m or 8.2 angular degrees. I had learned of other binoculars delivering such enormous fields of view but having disappointing off-axis performance. Better to have a binocular that delivers a smaller field of view with tightly focused stars near the edge than suffer the indignation of seeing those stars swell up in the outer part of the field. It’s just not tennis!
But my fears were completely allayed once I tried them out on the night sky. I was literally blown away! Not only was the field of view enormous, but it was very well corrected, right to the edge of the field. Believe me, I have experienced some real howlers, where stars are pinpoint sharp in the centre of the field but when moved off axis, the same test stars balloon into enormous blobs when positioned near the field stop. Starfields remain crisp throughout the field of the Savannah binocular making it an excellent choice for casual star gazing.
Although the binocular can be mounted on a monopod for increased stability, I have rarely used it in this capcaity. Instead, I enjoy hand-holding the instrument where the 8x magnification makes it considerably easier to hold steady over a 10x instrument. That said, if I wish to push the instrument to see the very faintest stars, a monopod is a good way to go. Some binocular authorities I have read suggest that you can gain up to 1 stellar magnitude deeper if the image is stabilised.
The very well corrected, ultra-wide field of the Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42 provides stunning views of large clusters of stars. For example, it provides knock-out views of Melotte 20, otherwise known as the Alpha Persei Association, where the field is littered with several dozen hot, white stars varying in glory from the third to the 10th magnitude. But perhaps my fondest night time experience with this wonder binocular was seeing the entire Sword-Handle and Belt stars of Orion in the same field on a cold, dark December evening. And where my 10 x 50 Sierra binocular can just frame the Hyades, the Savannah frames the same picturesque asterism with plenty of room to spare!
The large, sensibly flat field of the Savannah has proven excellent for watching meteor showers. I just aim it at the radiant and watch to see if some shooting stars flash across the field. I also love exploring the interface between land and sky. Indeed, as described in this blog, the Savannah is my instrument of choice to explore Moon and starscapes rising above trees and buildings near my home. The Savannah has re-kinded my interest in observing the full Moon when the clouds pass over it. I adore the play of light and colour the binocular serves up in its enormous field of view.
The 8 x 42 is always by my side while using my backyard telescopes. It has greatly increased the speed and efficiency of finding faint fuzzies. Once I locate the target with the binocular, the telescope is pointed at the same spot of sky where I can rapidly hone in on the object.
Readers will forgive my rather vaunted praise of this amazing instrument. But I feel it is justified. In an age of con artists and let downs, this instrument is nothing short of a ray of sunshine. It offers exceptional value for money and has sated my desire to acquire anything else in this mid-sized binocular class. I can hand-on-heart recommend it to other observers looking for an excellent all-round binocular for day and night time use. You’ll not be disappointed!
Thank you for reading!
Neil English is the author of several books in amateur and professional astronomy.