A work begun July 31 2020
Recently I put a Viking Optical Kestrel ED 8 x 42 through its paces, and reported very favourably regarding its optical and mechanical quality. But over the last few months I’ve been hankering after a high-quality, light weight birding binocular that offers good value for money but wouldn’t break the bank. My search brought me to consider the Merlin(after the raptor, not the mythical magician lol) ED 8 x 32 also offered by Viking Optical for reasons that I wish to highlight in this review. But my approach in this blog will be decidedly different to most other reviews in that I wish to assess its many optical and mechanical features in comparison to two other binoculars; a Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32, which has many attributes in common with the Merlin, and a smaller, Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20, as an additional control in assessing optical and mechanical quality.
The Merlin Binocular at a Glance:
Specification: 8 x 32mm
Weight(with/without strap): 561g/518g
Dimensions: W/H: 12.9 x 12.3 cm
Optics: Double ED objective, fully broadband multi-coated, with phase and dielectrically coated roof prisms
Field of View: 7.8 angular degrees(137m@1000m)
Eye Relief: 15.6mm
Fogproof/Nitrogen purging: Yes
Tripod Mountable: Yes
Warranty: 10 years( 5 years parts & labour, 5 years parts only)
Accessories: Quality padded & neck strap,padded nylon carry case, rain guard, tethered objective covers, lens cleaning cloth.
Retail Price: £239.00
A Brief Word on Packaging: The Viking Merlin, just like the Kestrel 8 x 42 previously tested, came with the same high-quality presentation box, with all the above accessories included. Very nice!
I recently acquired a small booklet(47 pages), entitled, Choosing Binoculars For Birdwatching and Wildlife, written by Calvin Jones, founder and chairman of Ireland’s Wildlife. Calvin, a veteran birder and naturalist, is a native of Wales, but has put down roots in West Cork, in the south of Ireland, where he offers tours to wildlife enthusiasts and birders. As an expert commentator on binoculars, his booklet consists of concise information and largely impartial advice to the general public on choosing a good binocular for nature observation. I would recommend this booklet to anyone interested in making a binocular purchase, and in this blog I’ll be comparing his advice on a point by point basis, to the binoculars showcased in this review, but will also be including additional tests not covered or mentioned by Mr. Jones in his booklet.
Quote: “Choosing quality optics is about finding the right compromise between size, weight, optical performance, ergonomics, practicality, function and price” Page 7.
Comment: Couldn’t agree more! Jones narrows down his recommendations to two principal formats: 8 x 42 and 8 x 32. For me, 8 x 42 carries a bit too much weight, especially as I intend to use it for many hours in the field. Thus I settled on the 8 x 32 format which offers most of the performance of the larger glass, during normal daylight hours at least, only showing some drawbacks to the larger instrument during very low light conditions. However, since I don’t do much terrestrial glassing at dawn or dusk, the greater light gathering power of the 42mm format is not necessary for my purposes. It is also worth noting that the smaller 8 x 32 format is less expensive than its larger counterpart, which is always good news.
Quote: “Today you can get a good pair of binoculars for a relatively modest investment of around £100-150, and you’ll find some excellent instruments in the £250-400 price bracket that will serve you faithfully for decades of bird watching and wildlife observation.” Page 9
Comment: Again, I couldn’t agree more! Jones is fully aware that the cost of including high tech optical features, previously only available on premium brands, is now standard on mid-priced binoculars. The same is true of mechanical quality as well, though not quite to the same extent. This is great news for the budget-conscious enthusiast. The Viking Merlin delivers wonderful performance for its modest price tag, but so does the less expensive Celestron Trailseeker( ~£145), which possesses all of the optical features of the Merlin bar its ED billing. Mechanically though, the Merlin is significantly better, with a smoother all-metal focus wheel and right eye dioptre ring( they are made of plastic on the Trailseeker), and better overall ergonomics.
Quote: “Unless you’re looking to use your binoculars for a particular specialist task, choose something in the 8x to 10x range for general bird watching and wildlife observation.” Page 19
Comment: Agreed. But between 8x and 10x, I would generally opt for the former more often than not. The reasons are several fold: less shake at lower power, so affording steadier views, less compromised optical quality(at 10x you’ll be introducing 25 per cent more chromatic aberration, and commensurately greater off-axis Seidel aberrations, all other things being equal), the field of view will be also larger in general with the 8x model, which is beneficial for tracking your target and enjoying vistas, and of course, brighter images, owing to the larger exit pupils afforded by the lower power for a given aperture.
Quote: ” Here are a few optical features its worth looking out for when researching your new binoculars:
ED or HD lenses: Colour fringing can be an issue with standard binoculars, particularly when viewing high contrast subjects(light subjects against a dark background or vice versa). ED or HD glass reduces or eliminates colour fringing, improving the perceived sharpness, contrast and colour fidelity of the resulting image.” Page 23-24.
Comments: Here I must admit to being less in agreement with the author. Comparing the views through the Trailseeker and the Merlin (same field of view), I would agree that there is a slight but very subtle improvement in sharpness and image contrast in the latter instrument. The amount of chromatic aberration is so vanishingly small that it’s really only apparent when looking at dark objects against a very bright background sky and only if you look for it. I simply don’t accept that there are night and day differences at the low powers (both 8x) served up by these binoculars. Indeed, I believe the effect of ED glass is generally exaggerated in low power binoculars such as these by the majority of reviewers, and counts for little in the way of improved optical performance. I also read comments like “the colours are off” in non-ED binos, but I don’t understand that either. With trained, average eyes I feel this claim is an exaggeration of the truth. The differences are small at best!
Note added in proof: Jones adds this comment on page 26:
“Look out for HD or ED glass in the objective lens – but bear in mind that non-ED binoculars from premium manufacturers can, and often do, outperform ED optics from some other brands.”
Too right. I have, and previously reported that, a very nice Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20, which doesn’t have ED glass elements, still delivered sharper and more contrasted images than a high-quality Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 binocular. So, don’t believe the hype!
To summarise: I would never base a purchase of a good quality binocular solely on its ED billing. While it’s certainly advantageous to have ED glass as part of a well designed optical system, a properly executed non-ED glass can provide wonderful results in all weathers.
A Curious Aside: In one or two on-line birding sites I’ve visited I came across statements to the effect of ” for birding you need an ED binocular.”
Is that so?
May I ask a few questions?
How long has the hobby of birding been in existence? And for how many of those years were ED binoculars available? What did birders do before the days of ED; pack up and go home?
Thieving gayponaut propaganda…. methinks.
Quote: “Always choose fully-multi-coated optics for wildlife observation and birding. If you’re buying roof prisms look for phase correction …..dielectric coatings are better and deliver a brighter image but tend to cost significantly more…..look for additional protective lens coatings that shield the external lens surfaces.” Page 30.
Comments: Both the Merlin and the Trailseeker are fully multi-coated, have phase corrected optics as well as dielectric prism coatings. In my tests at dusk I noted no significant difference in the brightness of the image between the Merlin and the Trailseeker, so, once again, the claim made by more than a few reviewers – but not Mr. Jones himself – that ED glass delivers brighter images is not substantiated by my findings. Indeed, while the ED glass should focus the light slightly more tightly, it cannot make a big difference to the brightness of the image. At 8x why should it?
What Calvin Jones does not mention much about in his booklet is control of glare, which the coatings on the lenses and prisms as well as the type of binocular baffling employed will certainly contribute to. In my tests conducted during bright overcast conditions in late July, I found the Leica Trinovid to have much stronger veiling glare than either the Celestron Trailseeker or the Viking Merlin.This is attributed to the much more greatly recessed objective elements in the latter instruments compared with the fully exposed objective lenses on the Leica Trinovid. However, such glare can be all but removed by shielding using your hand held above the objectives or by using a broad-rimmed hat.
Internal reflection is another important contributor to loss of contrast in a binocular image. This is easily assessed by directing an intense beam of light into the binocular and examining the images for evidence of internal reflections as well as any diffused light in the image. Well, as I indicated in other blogs, the Leica Trinovid has the best stray light control of any binocular I have tested. The coatings and baffles used by Leica effectively eliminate this annoying artefact.
To my great surprise (and relief), the Merlin proved fully the equal of the Leica in side by side tests. There was hardly any internal reflections at all – and very subdued at that – and showed no signs of contrast-robbing diffused light either. Indeed I scored both the Leica and the Merlin a 10 for this test. The Celestron Trailseeker did very well in the same tests but did show a little more in the way of internal reflections, reducing its score to maybe 8.5 on the same scale.
All three of these binoculars will provide excellent performance at night when looking at strongly illuminated cityscapes, a bright Moon and more besides.
Quote: “Adequate field of view is important, but a super-wide field isn’t really necessary..” Page 32
Comments: Strongly agree! Many 8 x 32s try to push the envelope and deliver very wide fields, sometimes in excess of 8.0 angular degrees. But the wider the field, the more difficult it will be to control off axis aberrations, such as field curvature, pin-cushion distortion and astigmatism etc. Better to have a smaller field that displays better edge-to-edge sharpness than have a very wide field which blurs the image too much at the periphery. Both the Merlin and the Trailseeker deliver the same field of view of 137m@1000m (7.8 angular degrees) but I found the sweetspot (inside which the image remains really sharp and pleasant) in the Merlin to be slightly wider than in the Trailseeker, but none were in the same class as the superlative Leica, which displays clearly superior edge of field sharpness in the same tests conducted on a bright waxing gibbous Moon sinking low into the south-southwest sky on the evening of July 28 2020. However, it must be noted that the field of view of the Leica is noticeably smaller(6.5 angular degrees) than either of the 8 x 32s tested.
Quote: “Make sure the binoculars you buy are robust enough to stand up to the rigours of extended field use. Choose a lightweight but sturdy pair, with good balance and grip and always make sure they are fully waterproof and nitrogen or argon purged.” Page 39.
Comment: Mr. Jones makes a very valid point here. Fortunately, most mid-priced binoculars are very well built these days and are constructed of strong and lightweight materials; polycarbonate, and alloys of aluminium, titanium and/or magnesium. The Merlin is constructed from a polycarbonate substrate, the Trailseeker from a magnesium alloy, and aluminium, in the case of a Leica. Many binocular commentators suggest that the metal alloy bodies are more durable, but I don’t have, as yet, any evidence to corroborate that.
The Celestron Trailseeker tips the scales some 100g less than the Merlin, but while this should act in the Trailseeker’s favour, there are other issues to consider. In particular, ergonomics; how the instrument feels and works in your hands. The Merlin feels very solid and its shorter bridge than the Trailseeker means that I can get my fingers firmly wrapped around the barrels for a firmer grip while glassing. The hard rubber overcoat has excellent grip and doesn’t attract a lot of dust like other models, such as the Nikon Prostaff 8 x 30 I tried some months back. What’s more, I am confident it won’t feel off any time soon unlike the concerns I had with the sweet little Nikon binocular.
But let’s look at other things. Consider the eye cups on both the Trailseeker and the Merlin. Both are solidly made from soft rubber over metal and have a couple of click stops that stay rigidly in place and can accommodate different amounts of eye relief for spectacle wearers as well as for those, like yours truly, who observe without glasses. The quality is the same for both these 8 x 32s and hand-on-heart, I actually prefer the eye cups on the Trailseeker that little bit better. That said, the Merlin’s eye cups are strong and will hold up well, I suspect, even after years of use. One neat way to see if your binocular eye cups are up to scratch is to extend them outwards fully before turning the instrument upside down to see if they support the weight of the binocular. If they do, you’re in business. I’m delighted to say that both the Merlin and the Trailseeker pass this test with flying colours!
Other ergonomic issues to consider in a good birding binocular is the quality of the focus wheel. The Merlin has a smoother and more responsive focuser than the Trailseeker, with zero play or backlash. In addition, from one extreme of focus to the other entails turning it just over one revolution. The Trailseeker, in comparison, requires one and a half revolutions to go from one end of its focus travel to the other. This means that keeping objects in focus with the Viking Merlin is easier to achieve, especially on moving targets like birds in flight etc. That said, the Trailseeker actually has the better depth of focus, that is, it keeps objects in clear vision over a greater distance.
One thing that really gets on my wick when using a binocular is the various appendages that attend the instrument- the tethered rain guard and objective lens caps, an unwieldy strap with ‘dangly’ bits getting in the way. Although I fully concede that the objective caps and rain guard are absolutely essential in some situations, on the average dry day, they are quite unnecessary to have on the binocular. I can do without the objective caps most of the time, as even in rainy situations, the objectives hang downward and the deeply recessed objective lenses act as natural protection against rain and mist. The rain guard need not be tethered to the strap either, but simply carried in a pocket and whipped onto the eye cups when the heavens open. Also, I can’t stand having too much slack in the binocular strap, so I cut them back to size and heat the cut ends with a match to stop them fraying at some later stage.
The result is a much leaner machine, one I can just pick up and use at a moment’s notice. Removing all such appendages also cuts down on the weight of the binocular. Indeed, in its minimalist form, it tips the scales at just 561g, which is much easier on the neck muscles!
Quote: “While few people will buy binoculars solely on the strength of the warranty, and hopefully you won’t need to avail of it, a manufacturer’s willingness to stand over their product is obviously a major plus” Page 41
Comments: I agree. This is a very important aspect of any binocular purchase. It is very re-assuring to know that the company you buy your binocular from will stand behind their product and repair or replace parts as and when necessary. The fact that Viking Optical are a real optics firm and not just a retailer, I get the added benefit of knowing that even if the instrument is no longer under warranty, I can send it down to their technicians who will give it their professional attention and fix any problem that might arise.
Notes from the Field
I always use the stars to measure the field of view of a binocular. In this capacity, the Viking Merlin 8 x 32 was unable to fit the two bright stars of the Plough( Big Dipper in North America) Phecda and Merak in the same field – but just barely! Since these are 7.9 angular degrees apart, the stated field of the view of the Merlin at 7.8 angular degrees seems to be accurately stated.
I gave mention earlier in this blog about the exceptional suppression of stray light in the Viking Merlin binocular. This can also be seen in the lack of stray light around the ocular lenses as shown by the photograph below:
The Merlin 8 x 32 is a joy to use in the field, as it is robust but quite light weight. Having used it for many hours a day during our vacation to Pembrokeshire, South Wales, I was continually delighted with its extreme sharpness, excellent contrast and wonderful colour rendition. It handled many different types of terrain effortlessly; forests and woodland, open meadows and grassland, sandy beaches and wet & windy promontories and fishing piers. Yet despite being put through its paces, its quality mechanical build never left me down.
Pembrokeshire is a well known haunt for bird watchers, where many raptors can be seen gliding high in the sky, facilitated by warm summer ground thermals, or perched on telephone poles watching the fields below for unwary rodents. I saw several pairs of Buzzard, a few Peregrine falcons and even a lucky sighting of a Red Kite and Sparrowhawk. But the wonderful optics on the Viking Merlin 8 x 32, also allowed me to enjoy common birds, such as Black-headed and Herring gulls soaring on the salty sea air and Magpies, Robins, Starlings, Swifts, Swallows, Blackbirds, Ravens and even the Common Crow are a joy to study with this small, high-quality outdoor glass.
But a 32mm binocular is no slouch when the Sun goes down either, as I was to discover. The sultry evening of August 3 2020 presented a gorgeous full Moon rising over the flat lands of my brother’s estate, near the beautiful fishing village of Fishguard. The image was tack sharp, neutral white, with excellent contrast and nary a sign of any glare or internal reflections common to lesser binoculars. But later in the week, the waning Gibbous Moon rose later in the wee small hours of the morning, I enjoyed some clear dark skies to examine favourite astronomical activities and targets, such as cruising through the Milky Way through Cygnus, observing the Andromeda Galaxy still low in the east, the Coathanger just south of golden Albireo, the globular clusters, M 13 & M 92 high in the western sky in Hercules, and with a steady hand, even watching the Galilean moons of Jupiter change their aspect from hour to hour and from day to day.
High in the eastern sky this time of year lies majestic Cassiopeia, with a river of Milky Way starlight meandering through its brighter luminaries. Below it, I enjoyed an early season view of the Double Cluster in Perseus and the wonderful binocular target centred on Alpha Persei- the dazzling Melotte 20. After our return home to Scotland on Saturday August 8, I ventured out in the wee small hours of Sunday morning (the churches still being shut), to witness a wondrous sight of a waning Gibbous Moon with fiery red Mars perhaps just five degrees away to its east-northeast. Finally, directing my gaze to the Fintry Hills a few kilometres away to the east, I chanced upon the magnificent Pleiades hovering above its summit – a sure sign that autumn is on the way.
The old adage is true: time nor time waits for no man.
A high-quality compact binocular is a most desirable asset, especially if you enjoy the great outdoors and the beauty of the creation. The 8 x 32 format has grown on me over the last few years, where I now consider it as offering the best of both worlds – for day and night time viewing. And while you can pay considerably more for a so-called premium model offered by Leica, Zeiss or Swarovski, I hold onto an altogether different philosophy best expressed in this question: if a binocular delivers excellent optics in a mechanically excellent housing, why pay more than you need? With the Viking Merlin ED 8 x 32, you get what you pay for and will have some money to spare for other things, like a binocular cleaning kit, or a good birding or astronomy book to hone your observing skills.
Is there anything negative about the package I received? Yes: one issue – the nylon padded case. Unlike the less costly Kestrel model, the Merlin 8 x 32 came with a case that is clearly undersized, but you’ll not discover that until you attach the strap! I did find a solution of sorts though. Just store the instrument in a larger case like the one shown below, which is a clamshell design rather like the tiny little clamshell I use for my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 pocket binos.
I strongly recommend the Viking Merlin ED 8 x 32 as a high-quality, durable binocular combining the best of portability and optical performance in a very attractive but no-nonsense chassis. Marrying excellent optics with first-rate mechanics, it will give users years of hassle free viewing in all weathers.
Thanks for reading!
Neil English is building a portfolio of binocular reviews in order to write a real-life buyer’s guide on choosing and using binoculars for daylight and nighttime use. If you like his work, you can support him by purchasing one of his seven published works.