Product Review: Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 Pocket Binocular.

The Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25: a noble gesture from a market-leading optics firm.

October 1 2019

Preamble;

Review A

Review B

 Review C(verified purchaser):

Although I read glowing reports for these pocket Zeiss Terra ED 8×25 light carry binoculars, my previous 4 month ownership of the Swaro CL 8X25 pockets had tempered my expectations. However, I found these small glassing gems to perform optically and ergonomically within 95% of the venerable and well built CL’s (at 1\3 the price)! They, just as the CL, have handling and comfort limitations compared to compact or full size binoculars. But for quick trip non-intrusive viewing, ease of portability and very accurate powered views, these little pockets are hard to beat. Overall, they possess very nice ergonomics, have natural color presentation, crystalline resolution that is real sharp and bright, with very good contrast views. Their FOV (field of view), whose sweet spot extends to within 10% of their wide 357ft limit, has a comfortable and stereoptic DOF (depth of field) . Hinge tensions are perfect, and the focuser is fast, going from close focus (mine’s about 5ft) CW to infinity in just 1.25 turns. Eye cup adjustments lock fully in (for eye glass wearers) and fully out (non-eye glass wearers). My vision is 20\15 and with the very comfortable eye cups fully extended and resting on my brow, I can align the small EP (exit pupil=3.1) with my pupils, gaining a full unobstructed sigh picture! With its ED glass, CA (chromatic aberrations) is well controlled and I find day light\low light viewing to be bright, natural and enjoyable! Diopter is set on the front dial (for the right barrel) and has enough resistance to stay put. Made in Japan for Zeiss, they offer a lot of features and performance at a great value point. These will make great travel companions and will be back-ups for my full sized field excursion instruments!

Review D(verified purchaser):

I also read about these on an astronomy forum, where I got the “use” info below, but not the specs.
Buy these now. A best buy. Here’s why:
1. Zeiss is a world class optics company. So is Swarovski.
Compare this Zeiss Terra ED 8×25 to the world-class Swarovski 8×25 at $819 on Amazon (list price is even higher). This will show you
a) specs are same: field of view (6.8˚),
brightness (14.1 vs 14.2),
weight (11 vs 12 oz),
eye relief (16 vs 17mm), and
size in inches
b) specs favor Swaro: water resistant to 4 meters (vs 1 meter for Zeiss)
c) specs favor Zeiss: close focus 6.2ft (vs 14.2 for Swaro),
operating temperature -20 to 144˚ (vs -13 to 131 for Swaro)
d) use favors Swaro: view is said to be more comfortable to look at, ergonomically
focus has lighter touch, for those who like that
e) use favors Zeiss: view is more crisp, contrasty (Swaro view is said to be softer, more milky)
focus has firmer touch, for those who like that
f) price favors Zeiss: $293 (vs $819 for Swaro)2. Compare them to other Zeiss binos from the SAME series – Zeiss Terra ED.
– 8×25, 10×25 are made in Japan
– 8×25, 10×25 are getting great reviews, for small binos
– all larger Terra ED models are made in China
– all larger models are getting panned for poor optics and build quality
I think everybody is well aware that China optics and build quality are inferior (so far) to those from the US, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Austria, etc.So this 8×25 model is unusual. Superior optics and build are normal for Zeiss, except for their Chinese built Terra ED line.
Luckily, the 8×25 model is made in Japan with Zeiss design. This results in typical world class Zeiss quality.What is hard to understand is how Zeiss makes a $293 optic that arguably outperforms an $819 Swarovski.For bino newbies looking at 10×25, remember: the 10×25 will have a smaller exit pupil, so your views may black out more. Also, a 10x is way harder to hold steady and actually see than an 8x. So, even though you think you want 10x, you probably really want 8×25. With the 8×25, you’ll actually see and enjoy the view more.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

What you get:

The Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 pocket binocular kit.

The Zeiss Terra pocket arrived double-boxed. After opening the outer packaging, the binocular kit was housed inside a very nicely presented box with a very fetching design which folds open to reveal the contents. Unlike other products I’ve received in the past, the Zeiss box has depicted on the inside, a colourful alpine scene with majestic mountain peaks soaring high above a beautiful river valley. Perhaps the team at Zeiss intended the user to explore such landscapes? Whatever the reasoning behind it, it was certainly a pleasant touch.

With Zeiss, even the packaging is premium.

Unlike customers who bought the Zeiss pocket binocular when it was first launched just a few years ago, I was relieved to see that the instrument was housed inside a small clamshell case with a magnetic latch carrying the blue & white Zeiss logo.The box also contained a lanyard, operating instructions and a lens cleaning cloth. I was surprised that the binocular itself came neither with eyepiece or objective lens caps, but I suppose they are not really necessary, as the case very effectively protects the instrument from dust and moisture.

The box has the serial number on the side, which is needed to register the product on the Zeiss sports optics website.  On another side of the box, the detailed specifications of both the 8 x 25 and 10 x 25 models are presented; another nice touch.

The binocular was housed inside the clamshell and was pristine, with no dust on the lenses, or gunk on the interior of the barrels. From the moment I prized the neatly folded instrument from its case, I was impressed. The frame is composed of a fibre-glass like polymer, with a fetching black, grey and blue livery. The sides of the binocular have a rubberised exterior making it easy to grip well while in use. The double-hinges were rigid and hold their positions solidly once the correct inter-pupillary distance is chosen for your eyes. The optics are hermetically sealed, nitrogen purged and had immaculately finished anti-reflection coatings on both the ocular and objective lenses. They are also treated with a Zeiss’ proprietary hydrophobic coating that encourages any moisture and grime that gathers on the lenses to fall off, rather than accumulating on the surfaces. The instrument is guaranteed to operate flawlessly over a very impressive temperature range: -20C to +63C, so covering almost any environment it is likely to find itself in.

The binocular is water resistant, but to what degree remained a bit of a mystery owing to the rather odd way in which Zeiss chose to present it: 100mbar.

You what mate?

Thankfully, some physics knowledge helps to clarify the reference to water pressure.

P = Rho x g x h, where P is the water pressure, Rho is the density of water, g is the acceleration due to gravity and h is the depth in metres. Rearranging to find h gives;

h = P/ (g x Rho) = 10^4/ (10 x 10^3) = 1m

Knowledge is power lol!

So, not as waterproof as a Swarovski pocket binocular(I think it’s 4m) but adequate for most purposes.

Fully folded down, the Zeiss Terra pocket is about 70mm wide and 110mm long. The oversized barrels make the Zeiss a wee bit taller when placed on its side in comparison to a classic pocket instrument, like my lovely little Opticron Aspheric LE;

The Zeiss Terra Pocket(right) is a little wider and taller than the more conventional Opticron Aspheric(left).

The Terra weighs in at 310g, so about 40 grams lighter than the Swarovski-made counterpart. Lighter isn’t necessarily better however, as some individuals find holding such light glasses problematical. But once unfolded, the significantly wider barrels more than make up for its low mass, as I shall explain more fully a little later in the review.

The eyecups look a bit suspect, but once you begin rotating them, they work really well. They have no indents but do have ample friction. There are only two positions; fully retracted or fully extended. You know you’ve reached either situation by hearing their clicking into place. They are very solid and hold their positions superbly. Eye relief is 16mm and I was able to enjoy the full field with eye glasses on or without. Placing your eye on the eyecups is very comfortable, with their soft, rubberised overcoat and the large field lenses makes for very easy centring of your eye sockets along the line of sight of the optical train.

The dioptre(+/- 3) setting lies at the other end of the bridge(near the objectives), which initially presented some problems for me, as it is rather stiff and difficult to get going, but once you’re done you’re done! The focusing wheel is centrally located and is reassuringly large and easy to grip, even with gloves on. It moves very well, with the perfect amount of tension. Motions run smoothly, with little in the way of play or backlash when rotated either clockwise or anti-clockwise. The focuser requires one and a half full rotations to go from one end of its focus travel to another.

The Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 has a large, centrally placed focuser. The right-eye dioptre ring is located at the other end of the instrument, near the objective lenses.

The objective lenses are very deeply recessed, more so than on many other pocket binoculars I’ve used. This affords the 25mm objective lenses greater protection against aeolian-borne dust and also serves as a first-line defence against glare. Cool!

As the other reviewers showcased earlier, the Zeiss Terra pocket binoculars are manufactured in Japan, with the larger models originating in China under Zeiss supervision. You can see that quite clearly by examining the under belly of the instrument:

The underside of the binocular reveals its country of manufacture: Japan.

That said, and contrary to what the other reviewers have asserted, I don’t fully subscribe to the notion that all Chinese-made binoculars are inferior to those produced in Europe or Japan, as I shall elaborate on later.

All in all, it’s pretty obvious that a great deal of sound engineering was put into these pint-sized field glasses.

Handling: The Zeiss pocket is supremely comfortable to use, the slightly larger frame fitting comfortably in my hands. Indeed, with its wide field of view and thicker barrels, it feels like you’re peering through a larger instrument. The big eye lenses make it easy to get the right eye placement with none of the blackouts I’ve experienced on a number of other pocket binoculars. Its light weight means that you can carry it round your neck for hours on end with no neck strain. Its easy to get both hands resting on the central bridge, using my little finger to engage with the focus wheel.

Optical Assessment:

Straight out of its case, the Zeiss Terra impressed. Looking at some tree trunks just beyond my back garden fence reaveled a wealth of high contrast detail. I was immediately taken aback with the expansive field of view; not only was it wide, but the image remained tack sharp across nearly all of the field. Images snapped to a very sharp focus and I experienced no trouble focusing from just a few yards away all the way out to some trees located hundreds of yards away. Glare suppression looked excellent, even when pointed at some backlit scenes strongly bathed in sunlight. It was immediately clear to me that I was looking through a very high quality optical instrument.

As I stated in earlier blogs, I don’t really consider the inclusion of low dispersion (ED) glass as necessary in a small binocular like this, but it’s a nice feature when presented as part of a larger, properly designed system. After all, and as several other reviewers pointed out, the Zeiss seemed quite comparable to arguably the most sought-after pocket binocular on the market; the venerable Swarovski CL pocket binocular. But what is not widely communicated is that the latter achieves all its optical excellence without using ED glass. That should send a powerful message to the gayponaut propagandists. No, its all about using great glass, great coatings and solid mechanical engineering. Alas, I was not able to compare this pocket binocular with the Swarovski, but the fact that the little Zeiss was often mentioned in the same company as it speaks volumes about its optical quality.

Further daylight tests showed that off-axis aberrations were very well controlled. Even at the edge of the field pin cushion distortion and field curvature were minimal. Looking straight up at a denuded tree branch against an overcast sky showed no colour fringing on axis but as the image was moved off axis, some slight secondary spectrum was noted. Overall, I was very impressed at the Zeiss’ optical quality; it really does exactly what it says on the tin!

A niggly moment: While the little Zeiss pocket binocular fits perfectly inside its small, clamshell case without the supplied neck strap attached, I found that the addition of the strap made it very difficult to get a snug fit. Wrapping the neck strap around the central bridge simply didn’t allow the case to close properly(the magnetic latch never stuck), but after several attempts experimenting with different approaches, I finally hit on a way to get the binocular with its strap on to fit the case. The trick involves wrapping the strap tightly around the ocular lenses.The latch sticks.  Problem solved!

More discriminating optical tests:

Flare & Glare assessment:

Even if the glass used in binoculars were mined from the asteroid belt, it counts for nothing if it can’t control light leaks. My initial daylight tests showed that glare and internal reflections were very well controlled in the little Zeiss binocular, but they can’t tell the whole story. So, I set up my iphone torch at its brightest setting in my living room and examined the focused images through  the Zeiss Terra, comparing its results with my Opticron Aspheric(a nice little performer) as well as my control binocular; the Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Savannah, which has excellent control of stray light.

The results were very interesting. The Zeiss faired better than the Opticron, but not by much. However, it was not as good as the Savannah, which exhibits exceptional control of internal reflections even though it collects far more light than any pocket binocular.

Further testing of the binoculars on a bright street light revealed some additional information. Internal reflections were well suppressed in both the Zeiss and Opticron binoculars, but the Zeiss showed more prominent diffraction spikes. The Savannah control binocular, in comparison, proved superior to both pocket binoculars. It shows very little flaring and internal reflections and much better control of diffraction spikes.

And therein lies an instructive lesson. The Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42 is fabricated in China yet shows exceptional control of glare and internal reflections. So, it’s not so much where a binocular is built that counts so much as how it is constructed.

An exceptional, Chinese-made binocular; the Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Savannah wide angle 143m@1000m.

It is all the more remarkable, since the Savannah can be purchased for half the price of the diminutive Zeiss!

All in all, these tests showed that the Zeiss binocular is very well protected against stray light, glare and internal reflections and this goes a long way to explaining why the views through it are so compelling.

Collimation and Field of View Tests:

I checked the collimation of the barrels on the Zeiss by placing the instrument on a tall fence and aiming at a rooftop, checking that both the horizontal and vertical fields correlated with each other. They matched up very well.

Field of view is best assessed by turning the binocular on the stars. Accordingly, I aimed the Zeiss Terra at the two stars at the end of the handle of the Ploughshare, now low in the northern sky. The Zeiss was able to image both Mizar and Alkaid in the same field with a little bit to spare. These stars are separated by an angular distance of 6 degrees 40′ (or 6.66 degrees). This result was consistent with the specifications on the inside of the box; 6.8 angular degrees.

Further Observations:

Comparing the Opticron Aspheric to the Zeiss Terra in daylight, showed that both instruments were about equally matched in terms of sharpness( the aspherical oculars on the Opticron certainly help in this regard), but I could discern that the image was that little bit brighter in the Zeiss. Better coatings in the Zeiss binocular throughout the optical train give it the edge in this regard. Field of view was also much more expansive in the Zeiss( the Opticron has a true field of 5.2 degrees in comparison). Colours were also that little bit more vivid in the Zeiss pocket binocular, caused perhaps by its better contrast and superior control of chromatic aberration.

Close focus is very good. I measured the Zeiss Terra to have a minimum close focus distance of 1.4 metres, so this should be a great little instrument for use as a long distance microscope, to spy out insects, fungi, flowers, rocks and the endlessly fascinating complexities of tree trunks.

The eye lenses on the Zeiss Terra pocket binocular measure 18mm in diameter, the same as the Swarovski CL pocket. But they are still small in comparison to a larger format binocular like my 8 x 42.

But while the field of view is quite immersive in the Zeiss Terra, it lacks the majesty factor of a larger binocular, such as my Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Savannah, with its whopping 8.2 degree true field and better eye relief. Larger binoculars are simply easier to engage with your eye sockets and are thus more comfortable to use than any pocket binocular on the market.

Performance under low light conditions easily show the limitations of the small objectives on the Zeiss Terra. At dusk, the 8 x 42 was vastly superior to the Zeiss, showing much brighter images, as expected. So, as good as the Zeiss pocket binocular is, it can’t defy the laws of physics.

A Walk by the River Bank

River Endrick, near my home.

One of the best reasons to own and use a pocket binocular, is that it encourages you to go outside and explore the landscape. They’re so light weight and handy that anyone can carry one. Sometimes I use the Opticron and at other times I like using the Zeiss. Their sharp, high-contrast optics deliver wonderful images of the Creation. For me, nature is life affirming; a profound source of revelation and illumination. Like a great Cathedral, it fills me with awe and wonder. The sound of the wind whistling through the trees, the babbling brook and the noisy chirps of small tree birds form part of a symphony paying homage to the One who fashioned it all. For some, the Darwinian, materialist lie has dulled or even extinguished the sense of wonder that is innately endowed to every child. Dead to the world, believing themselves to be highly evolved animals, they pose no meaningful questions and can give no meaningful answers to life’s biggest conundrums. As you think, so you are.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

For me, being able to explore the wet and wild places with tiny optical aids is a source of unending joy. On sunny afternoons or early in the morning, I sometimes take myself off for a walk along the banks of the River Endrick which meanders its way through the beautiful valley in which I live. Stretches of shallow, fast-flowing water predominate but are also complemented by deeper pool and riffle sequences; favourite haunts of  Brown Trout, Perch and other course fish. Lanky Herons frequent these waters in search of fresh prey.  Bracken flourishes all along the river, and my pocket binocular allows me to study their shape and form in great detail. As summer gives way to autumn, their bright lorne hues transform into various shades of brown and tan. Spiders weave elaborate but deadly webs of silk with their spinnerets that sparkle and glisten in the morning sunlight, creating a wondrous decoration that I can experience up-close and personal with my long range microscope.

Towering trees soar into a blue sky by the banks of the Endrick.

Many species of tree grace the banks of the river; Ash, Silver Birch, Sycamore, Horse Chestnut and even the odd Oak. Thriving from frequent rain showers, their trunks are covered in lichens, moss and algae that reveal a wealth of intricate structure and a riot of colour that changes in accordance with the varying altitude of the Sun as it wheels across the sky. I especially delight in observing the colour of autumn leaves in bright sunlight, the ruby reds of anthocyanins and the yellow-orange hues of carotenoids. Every now and then, I watch as the fast-flowing water, dappling in weak autumn sunshine, ferries off fallen leaves, their destinies unknown. My pocket binocular shows me that every tree trunk is unique. Each tells its own story, visual scars of its past life.

On some stretches of the river bank, I can still find some late-flowering wild plants that delight the eyes with colour in unexpected ways. And as autumn continues its march towards winter, the thick brambles begin to yield their succulent fruit. What could me more pleasing and more natural than to feast on their nutritious berries?

An expected riot of autumn flowers observed along the river bank.

At some places along the river bank, there are expansive rocky stretches. And yet every stone you un-turn reveals even more of God’s Creation. A scurrying earwig, a wondrously armoured wood louse or a frolicking spider.The pocket binocular brings everything into stunning clarity. And though at first glance, each stone looks more or less the same, my little pocket spyglass shows that they too are all unique. Every crevice, every colourful grain is one of a kind.

A rocky stretch along the river bank.

This tiny corner of the world is ripe for exploration, with every day that passes presenting new adventures, new wonders to delight the eye. But so is yours!

Bird Watching with the Zeiss Terra Pocket Binocular:

Can good pocket binoculars be suitable for birdwatching?

Lots of birding websites don’t recommend using pocket binoculars for bird watching, citing their small fields of view and reduced comfort compared with larger binoculars as the most common reasons. Having used these small binoculars for a while now, I must say  that I respectfully disagree. The Opticron Aspheric has served as a good birding binocular for me, especially for quick looks at birds that visit our back garden table and the crows that nest in the conifer trees in the common ground beyond our back yard fence. Recently, a group of five magpies have taken up residence in the Rowan tree in our back yard. Each evening as darkness falls, they hunker down in the tree and don’t seem to be fazed by us turning on an outside light or noisy disturbances when it’s time to put the garbage out. During the day though, they are often seen chackering away at each other loudly(magpies don’t actually sing) as if to resolve some dispute among themselves. Further afield, there is a small pond just a few hundred yards away in the grounds of Culcreuch Castle, which attract quite a few varieties of water bird; swans, duck, water hens, heron and even the odd cormorant. Once I learned to use them properly, small binoculars like these have never presented much in the way of a problem for me.  And since the Zeiss Terra pockets have a nice wide field of 6.8 degrees, they have proven to be better suited than the Opticron in this regard because you can better track the motions of birds with a wider true field.

On the Zeiss Sports Optics website, under ‘usage’, they seem to be saying that the Terra pockets are less suitable for birding, but I wonder if this is merely a clever ploy to get folk to buy into their larger(and more expensive) models. If so, they’re lost on me. With their excellent optics and generous field of view right to the edge, they can and do serve as good birding glasses. Of course, you can only form your own opinions by actual field experience but you may discover that the little Terra is all you really need! Seen in this light, acquiring a Zeiss Terra pocket binocular can actually serve as a cost-saving measure that stops you haemorrhaging your hard-earned cash on ever bigger and more expensive models.

How About Astronomy?

A small binocular like this is not the best for exploring the night sky since its small objective lenses cannot gather enough light to really wow the observer. However, the Terra’s excellent performance both at the centre of the field and extending nearly all the way to the edges, as well as its wonderful contrast make star gazing a pleasant experience. Out here in the sticks, the sky is quite dark and rewarding, even when observed with such a small instrument. Its field of view is large enough to enjoy some of the showpieces of the sky like the Pleiades, the Hyades, and larger asterisms such as Melotte 20 in Perseus, which can be taken in with its generous field of view. Stars remain very tightly focused and pin sharp across the field. Later in the season, I look forward to exploring the winter constellation of Orion the Hunter, to seek out its magnificent nebula in his Sword Handle, as well as the many delightful clusters of stars that are framed within its borders.

On another autumnal evening, I was able to pick up the three Messier open clusters in Auriga, M34, the Messier galaxies, M81 and M82, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Double Cluster in Perseus, wide double stars like Mizar & Alcor and the Coathanger asterism in Vulpecula. Running the binocular through Cygnus and Cassiopeia will also reward dark-adapted eyes with innumerable faint stars, like fairy dust on black velvet. One delightful little project involves exploring the lovely colours of bright stars such as blue-white Vega and Sirius, creamy white Capella, brilliant white Rigel, orange Arcturus and fiery red Betelgeuse and Aldebaran.

Following the phases of the Moon can also be a rewarding and worthwhile pursuit, as the Terra’s above average glare and internal reflection control will ensure that you get nice crisp, contrasty images. Lunar eclipses can also be enjoyed. You might also like to try your hand at observing the beautiful light shows presented by clouds passing near the Moon on blustery evenings. The excellent contrast of the Terra will also allow you to see stars around the Moon which can be very arresting to observe. Capturing the bright Moon as it rises over man-made buildings will also delight the eye. Above all else, don’t let its small aperture deter you from exploring God’s wonderful creation, which fills the Universe with hope and light.

Final thoughts:

Terra: for exploring the Earth and beyond.

The Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 pocket binocular is a fine, high-quality optical instrument that is easy to use and transport. If taken care of, it will give you years of enjoyment where ever you wish to take it. As I said from the outset of this blog, I believe Zeiss did something very noble in bringing this little binocular to market at the price point they set. To be honest, and as others have quipped, they could well have stuck a ‘Victory’ label on it and no one would be any the wiser. Optically, Zeiss engineers have cut no corners to deliver an ergonomic, durable and optically sound instrument that will delight anyone who looks through it. I suspect that the Zeiss Terra pocket might be one of their best-selling products. It is even available on finance and buy-now-pay later schemes here in the UK, although I would strongly advise would-be buyers to save up and pay the price in full rather than incurring more debt, where you ultimately pay more. The Zeiss is expensive as small binoculars go, but I feel that it’s worth every penny, as for me at least, it has already given me countless hours of wonderful experiences. In the world of high-quality pocket binoculars, the Terra certainly stands out in a crowd. Highly recommended!

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Neil English is the author of a large medley of essays(650pages), Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, which showcases the extraordinary lives of amateur and professional astronomers over four centuries of time.

Post Scriptum:

1. The Zeiss Terra has a two year warranty, which is enacted once you register the product on the Zeiss website. Cross-checking is thorough, requiring the serial number, and the name & address of the place of purchase. After checking these details, you receive a confirmatory email from the Zeiss Sports Optics team, welcoming you to the world of Zeiss.

2. The little foldable Zeiss Terra is very suitable for those adults with unusually small inter pupillary distances (closely spaced eyes) and children.

3. The overall light transmission of the Zeiss Terra ED is 88 per cent. Source here. This is exactly the same as the Swarovski CL Pocket(non-ED just in case Pepperidge farm forgets, ken ) binocular. Source here. Zeiss Victory Pocket binocular light transmission is 91%. Source here.

4. The family of magpies came back to the Rowan tree in my garden, as they always do, just before sunset. Here is a picture of four ( I think!) individuals settled in the tree branches at 20.09pm local time on the evening of October 6 2019.

Wee magpies hunkering down for the night in my Rowan tree.

5. After a week of abysmal weather, with endless cloud and rain, I finally managed to test the little Zeiss Terra pocket binocular on a very bright gibbous Moon at 10:25 pm local time on the evening of October 10 2019, when it was within an hour of meridian passage. At the centre of the field, it delivered a beautiful, clean and razor sharp image with no false colour. The background sky was good and dark with little in the way of diffused light. Internal reflections were pretty much non-existent with the Moon in the centre of the field. Only when it was placed just outside the field did I detect some minor flaring. Moving the Moon to the edge of the field threw up some slight lateral colour, bluish at its southern edge, and green-yellow at its northern edge. These results were entirely consistent with my flashlight testing. This will be a useful Moon-gazing glass!

6. May 11 2020: This afternoon I received a phone call from the Zeiss team clarifying that the Terra pocket binoculars have indeed moved production to China, but they also reassured me that the quality of the product is identical to the original Japanese-made instrument, as is the packaging, accessories and two-year warranty. Not all employees were aware of this until recently and this was the root source of the recent confusion.

7. October 25 2020: Optics Trade has done a new video review of the Zeiss Terra ED  8 x 25 pocket glass. The reader will note that the model featured in the video is also manufactured in Japan. Link here.

 

 

The Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8 x 25 Redux.

The Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8 x 25 pocket binocular and its accessories.

A work commenced October 2 2020

Anyone who has been following my blogs will be aware that I’ve used and discussed many pocket binoculars from every price class. I find them to be charming and useful in equal measure. But after two years of speculation and accumulation, I’ve returned to one model that will remain in my stable; enter the Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8 x 25.

In all, I’ve had experience with no less than three of these units; the older model, used by my wife, which is neither waterproof or fog proof, and two of the updated models which are weather proof. I gave one unit away to my next door neighbour as a gift when I finally acquired the Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20. But in a series of recent optical shootouts between my wife’s Opticron and the little Trinovid, I discovered that while the Leica had the edge in terms of optical performance over the latter, it displayed significantly less veiling glare than the Leica! That came as quite a shock to me and the experience weighed heavy on my mind.

Then I acquired a large Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32, which threw up another issue; this superlative(but expensive) binocular has the best optics I had personally experienced and also displayed exceptional control of veiling glare. Furthermore, because of its small size and light weight, I could use it for all kinds of activities; for casual viewing during my long walks, for birding and even for sweeping the night skies. These circumstances meant that I was no longer using the little 8 x 20 like I had used it in the past and, as I absolutely hate hoarding instruments, I decided to part with it and settle for the much more economical Opticron; the third one.

As I described in a previous blog, the Opticron Aspheric is a really well made pocket binocular, with solid mechanics and very good optics. Furthermore, its larger exit pupil compared with the  8 x 20 makes it much easier to line up with my eyes and its long eye relief(16mm as opposed to just 14mm for the Leica 8 x 20) makes for very comfortable viewing. The field of view of the Opticron is small though – just 5.2 angular degrees( 91m@1000m) but its aspherical ocular lenses ensure great edge-to-edge sharpness that is far more aesthetically pleasing than having a larger field where the sharpness drops off rapidly as one goes off axis. The Opticron produces beautiful vignettes of the creation, just like the smaller than average field of view offered up by my Leica Trinovid HD 8x 32 (at 7 angular degrees). You see, I have personally come to value pristine edge-to-edge performance over chasing ever larger fields of view.

I acquired the Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8x 25 from the Birder’s Store for the princely sum of £95 – reduced from its usual price of ~ £120 – which I think represents exceptional value for money. I wondered why such a nice instrument was going for such a low price. Sadly, I learned that the models had been discontinued as of July 2020. So if you’re looking for a real bargain in pocket binoculars, now would be a good time to acquire one before they’re all gone!

I intend to use the Opticron pocket glass for birdwatching from my kitchen window, sporting events, the occasional trip to the theatre(if they ever open again) and, you know, ‘domestic tomfoolery.’ For all serious excursions though, the larger 8 x 32 will remain my most used, general purpose binocular.

Two classically styled, general purpose binoculars.

 

Thanks for reading!

De Fideli.

Product Review: Viking Optical Ventura 10 x 25 Compact Binocular.

 

The Viking Optical Ventura 10 x 25 Compact Binocular.

A work begun September 25 2020

 

Product: Viking Optical Ventura 10 x 25

Weight: 305g

Chassis: Polycarbonate

Coatings: Fully multi-coated, dielectric and phase coated prisms

Field of view: 6.5 angular degrees(114m @1000m)

Eye Relief: 13mm

Eye cups: Twist up

Close focus: 4m

Tripod compatible: Yes

Waterproof: Yes

Nitrogen Purged: Yes; 1 metre for 5 mins.

Warranty: 10 years

Dimensions: 11 x 11.5 cm

Supplied Accessories: Carry case, neck strap, lens caps

Retail Price: £120-145 UK

 

Viking Optical is a UK-based company that has recently brought a good range of their own branded binoculars to market. In past blogs, I have favourably reviewed two of their models, the Viking Kestrel ED 8 x 42 and Merlin ED 8 x 32, which offer excellent value for money, with their very good optics and mechanics. Having developed rather a soft-spot for pocket binoculars in general, I was curious to find out how their smaller glasses would fare, and so I ordered up Viking’s Ventura 10 x 25 for evaluation. What follows is arguably the first review of this model I have seen on the internet.

The Ventura pocket binocular arrived in perfect nick, double-boxed and containing all the promised accessories, which included the 10 x 25 binocular, a soft neoprene pouch, ocular and objective lens caps and a high quality neck strap. First impressions were very good. The instrument felt nice and solid in my hands, with a tough, texturized rubber armouring which is beautifully finished. The metal focuser moved smoothly, both clockwise and anti-clockwise, with no discernible backlash. The twist-up eye cups are of high quality and slide upwards rather than clicking into place. Both cups are overlaid with soft rubber making viewing through them quite comfortable. The right eye dioptre, located just under the ocular lens proved to be very rigid –  a bit too rigid for my liking to be completely honest  – and my first impressions of the optical performance showed that it delivered nice, sharp, bright images, with a large field of view.

The Viking Optical Ventura 10x 25 showing the fully multi-coated ocular lenses.

Tests for light leaks, internal reflections etc

Setting my iphone torch at its brightest setting, I directed the little Ventura binocular into the intensely bright light beam and examined the images generated. I was relieved to get a very good result – there was a few, minor internal reflections and a modest diffraction spike, but overall the image was very clean and free from diffusion, indicative of the use of high-quality glass components. Overall, it was a notch down from my superlative Leica Trinovid  8 x 32 in this regard, but I was very happy with the result, especially given its moderate price tag. Testing on a bright sodium street light after dark showed very little in the way of internal reflections. This will be a good binocular for observing lit-up scenes in towns, cities or habours, as well as for Moon gazing.

The objective lenses have good anti-reflection coatings but are not very deeply recessed.

Impressions in the bright daylight conditions

I was quite surprised by the size of the field of view on this instrument, especially given its 10x magnification. 6.5 degrees is very wide and indeed, it is larger than the 6.3 degree field offered up by the 8x model. My previous experiences with binoculars delivering impressively wide fields taught me to be cautious about expecting excellent edge-to-edge field performance from a mid-priced model like this. And my tests confirmed by suspicions. Though the binocular has quite a large sweet spot, the image softens noticeably as one moves beyond about 60 per cent of the way from the centre. Indeed the outer 15 per cent or so was very blurred indeed. And while I could correct for much of this edge of field blurring by refocusing, it left the centre of the field out of focus. Testing under the stars showed that it displays quite strong coma, and a touch of barrel distortion near the field stop, with bright stars like Vega transforming from tiny pinpoints in the centre of the field into prominent ‘seagulls’ at the edge. Depth of field too is noticeably shallower than in a high quality 8 x 25 binocular I used as a control in side by side tests. The image is very sharp and bright provided one stays within the sweet spot, so potential buyers should bear this in mind. The binocular displays excellent control of chromatic aberration even though it does not have extra low dispersion glass elements.

The underside of the binocular.

The most annoying result I found with this binocular was its very strong veiling glare. Observing in the open air, under a bright, overcast sky manifested this very strongly indeed. It also shows up when one observes the tops of trees or a hill under a bright background sky. This can be somewhat ameliorated by shading with an outstretched hand but I still couldn’t eliminate all of it. The images were much better if I observed under the shade of a tree or under a roof where the bright overhead sky is blocked off. The effect is also not seen while observing under the shade of forest trees.

Strong veiling glare like this results from the objectives not been deeply recessed enough from the end of the barrel but also from ineffective buffering of reflected light off  the lens edges or the space between the lenses. Compared to an Opticron Aspheric LE 8 x 25, which has objectives that are about as deeply recessed as the Viking Ventura, the latter proved to have much stronger veiling glare. This is a problem Viking should look to improve in the future.

The ergonomics of the Ventura binocular are excellent as pocket glasses go. Its long barrels and short central bridge allows one to wrap one’s fingers around the instrument to achieve a very steady viewing posture. Remarkably, the focus wheel requires nearly three full revolutions to go from one focus extreme to the other! It’s quoted close focus of 4 metres is a gross over estimate though, at least on the unit I tested. I measured the 10 x 25 Ventura’s close focus to be more like 2.5 metres.

As stated earlier, the binocular comes with an exceptionally high quality neck strap which is well padded, and, owing to its quick-release clips, can be easily removed. Ditto the soft neoprene case that fits the instrument snugly, even with the strap attached.

The exceptional quality neck strap that accompanies the Viking Ventura 10 x 25.

Conclusions

I have mixed feelings about this binocular. While its mechanical and ergonomic virtues are clearly in evidence, I felt it under-achieved optically. This is especially the case since I have tested similarly priced instruments with better optical performance than the Ventura pocket glass. The designers could have sacrificed some field size for better field correction and this would not have been missed on a binocular this small. 6.5 degrees is relatively enormous for a 10 x 25 glass anyway. The instrument could also benefit from supressing veiling glare more strongly. Personally, I could live with the inferior edge of field performance if the veiling glare issue were better addressed, since its centre of field performance is quite excellent. Together though, these defects represent a deal breaker for me. I do hope that the 8 x 25  Ventura shows less issues than the 10x!

The Viking Optical Ventura 10 x 25 comes with a snugly fitting soft neoprene pouch for easy storage and transport.

 

Neil English hopes to review many more binoculars in the future in order to build a decent portfolio for a forthcoming book. Thanks for reading.

 

 

De Fideli.

Caveat Emptor!

 

August 30 2019

As you may gather, I’ve taken a keen, active interest in testing out binoculars with an aim to providing my readers with good quality products that won’t break the bank. As part of that process, I needed a few entry-level models to compare and contrast them with other products purporting to provide better optical quality. In one transaction, I purchased an Eyeskey labelled 8 x 32 roof prism binocular on August 5 2019 from eBay. It was brand new and set me back £37.79, taking about two weeks to ship directly from China to my home in Scotland.

Here is a photo of what I received:

The Eyeskey Package.

Here is a close-up photo of the Eyeskey binocular; the reader will note the texturing of the armoring and distinctive tripod adaptor cover

The Eyeskey 8 x 32 roof prism binocular.

Here is what it looks like from the ocular end:

Note the plain 8 x 32 & Bak4 Prism labelling on the focus wheel.

And here is a photo of the tethered rubber objective lens covers as well as the thumb indentations on the underside of the binocular:

Note the tethered rubber objective covers and thumb indentations on the Eyeskey.

After inspecting the Eyeskey binocular and its accessories, I recalled another binocular, marketed by a company called Avalonoptics.co.uk, which I had come across in a previous internet search.

Here is Avalon’s 8 x 32 Mini HD binoculars( all images taken from their website):

Avalon 8×32 Mini HD Binoculars BLACK

Here is an image of the entire package:

Here is an image of the writing on the focusing wheel:

Note the thumb indentations on the under side of the barrels on the Avalon:

And here is an image of the tethered objective covers on the Avalon:

 

Next, I took a look at the specifications of both models.

You can view the Avalon specs here

And here are the Eyskey specs( source eBay):

8561-8X32_01

Both claim to be fully multicoated, are nitogen filled and fog proof, but there is no mention of a phase coating on either model.

There is a few differences in the quoted specifications. The advertised field of view is 6.78 degrees for the Eyeskey and 6.9 degrees for the Avalon model; quite close. Eye relief is quoted as 18mm for the Eyeskey and 15mm for the Avalon, but these figures can often be incorrect or at least misleading(as I will explain in another up-and-coming binocular review). The Eyeskey has an advertised weight of 18.3 oz = 519 grams, whereas the Avalon has a quoted weight of 416 grams.

Weight can also be misleading though, as it can vary according to whether you include the lens covers and strap etc.

The boxes look pretty similar with just different logos on them, same goes for the neck strap and generic instruction sheet.

Now for the price comparison:

Eyeskey 8 x 32: £37.79

Avalon 8 x 32 Mini HD: £119(recently discounted 20% from £149)

Finally, have a look at this youtube presentation of the said Avalon Mini HD binocular here.

Is the Eyskey 8 x 32 model worth the £37.79?

I suppose for what you get it’s a bargain.

But what about the Avalon?

I’ll leave that up to you to decide!

Caveat Emptor!

 

Update: September 16 2020

I have been monitoring a website that sells Avalon binoculars and noted a number of irregularities that continue to concern me. If you click on this link, you’ll see a model called the Avalon Titan ED 10 x 42. If you scroll through the marketing blurb and the specifications of the binocular, its main feature is ED glass. But there is no mention of phase coatings, type of multi-coating, or dielectric coatings, the material out of which the chassis is constructed etc which I would expect given the very high price of the binocular; a whopping £1099 UK! You will also note that the packaging looks very similar to the Eyeskey model featured above, with a generic (one page) instruction sheet. To say the least, I would have expected far more technical information about such an expensive binocular, especially when it retails for more than top branded models from Zeiss and Leica, for example.

I dispatched an email to the said company a week ago, where I asked why the Titan model(weighing a whopping 1.3 kilos) was so much more expensive than their other models given the very sparse information provided on the website. I received no response. I sent another email to the company yesterday and it too has fallen on deaf ears!

 

The company has also produced a number of dodgy youtube videos  and have even used a ‘mathematical ecologist’ ( ooooh) to flog their gear.

The same website sells Zeiss Terra ED binoculars at greatly marked up prices. For example, the Terra ED pocket ( 8x 25) glass is on sale for £489 UK in comparison to nearly all other retailers( ~£250).

Needless to say I am deeply suspicious of this company and would continue to caution customers to tread carefully in order to avoid disappointment.

 

 

Neil English debunks many telescopic myths in his new historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.

 

Product Review: Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32.

The Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32.

Product: Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32

Country of Origin: Portugal

Weight: 630g

Chassis: Rubber armoured Magnesium

Eye Relief: 17mm

Exit Pupil: 4mm

Dioptre Range: +/- 5 D

Field of View(Published): 124m@1000m (7.07 angular degrees)

ED Glass: Unknown

Eye Cups: Removable, twist-up in 5 locking steps

Light Transmission: 90%(published)

Close Focus: 0.95m(measured)

Waterproof: Yes to 4 metres depth

Nitrogen Purged: Yes

Coatings: Fully multi-coated, P40 phase coatings, HDC coatings, hydrophobic & dirt repellent coatings applied to outer lenses.

Tripod Adaptable: No

Dimensions: W/H : 11.7 x 13 cm

Warranty: 10 years

Supplied Accessories: Leica padded strap, rain guard, ocular lens caps, lens cleaning cloth, non-padded neoprene carry bag, instruction manual, warranty &  test certificate.

Price: £700-£750(UK)/$899 USD

Preamble

Review A

Review B

Review C

Review D

Review E

 

A work begun September 1 2020.

 

Leica (formerly Leitz) is a name familiar to all camera and binocular enthusiasts. For over a century, this German based company has brought to market state-of-the-art products for discerning outdoor enthusiasts, combining high quality optics with award-winning mechanics, creating instruments that are not only highly durable but have great aesthetic qualities that make them a delight to hold in the hand and to just look at.

The Trinovid line of binoculars by Leica has long been considered the company’s ‘heritage’ brand. First produced in the late 1950s, the Trinovids were so named because of the three features – or Tri Novitäten in the German tongue – which combine state-of-the-art optics, true internal focusing and excellent ergonomics in one tidy package. If you think the latest incarnation from Swarovski – the NL Pure’s – have a wide field of view of at 159m @ 1000m, it pays to remember that Leica was churning out Trinovids with much larger true fields – up to 170m@1000m by the mid-1960s. If that ain’t prestigious enough, a Leica Trinovid – really a highly specialised 10 x 40 monocular nicknamed the “Eye of Apollo” – accompanied the US astronauts on their epochal sojourn to the lunar surface in the northern summer of 1969.

The Trinovid remained Leica’s flagship binocular until the introduction of their Ultravid line in the mid noughties, but were continued as a lower cost alternative until Leica ceased production of the Trinovids altogether in 2015, much to the chagrin of many Leica fans. So that was the end of a line of binoculars that served the outdoor enthusiast perfectly for well over half a century right?

Thankfully, no!

In 2016, the company announced a new line of Trinovids, revamped with an ‘HD’ moniker. As usual, the new Trinovid HDs – all made in Leica’s factory in Portugal – were first launched in the perennially popular 8x and 10 x 42 incarnations, but a year later Leica added two smaller glasses to the same family – the 8x and 10 x 32. This review will take a close look at the 8 x 32 model. Leica specifically marketed the new Trinovid HD line as “entry-level premium class,” whatever that means.

In order to make this review as objective as possible, I would like to compare and contrast it with the performance of two other 8 x 32 models; the Celestron Trailseeker and the Viking Optical Merlin ED 8x 32, shown below;

Two other good 8x 32 models used to test alongside the Leica Trinovid HD 8x 32; The Celestron Trailseeker(top) and the Viking Merlin ED(bottom).

These models were chosen for a number of reasons; both have fully multi-coated optics, dielectric and phase corrected roof prisms, while the Merlin has two ED elements in its objective for improved colour correction. These models retail at considerably lower prices than the Leica however – the Trailseeker (recently discontinued) at ~£150 and the Merlin at ~ £239. So, testing these units along side the much higher priced Leica would serve as a good reality check in terms of both optics and ergonomics, and will thus provide the reader with a much better overall indicator as to whether or not the Leica Trinovid HD is worth its much heftier price tag.

First Impressions & Ergonomics

The Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 was purchased brand-new from an authorised UK Leica dealer – The Birder’s Store – for a good price; £699, which included free expedited special delivery to my door. I was actually struck by the number of stores that advertised the instrument on their websites, only to find, upon further enquiry,  that many did not have it in stock.

Now what do the townies call that again?

Oh yes; vapour ware.

This was not the case with the Birder’s Store however, the staff of which were friendly and professional throughout, and were able to process my order the day before it arrived here.

The instrument came in the standard padded grey Leica box, complete with neoprene carry case, a lens cloth, padded neck strap with the Leica logo, rain guard, tethered objective lens covers, instruction manual, test certificate and warranty card. I was immediately struck by the beautiful, solid build quality of the instrument, with its magnesium chassis and thick, flat black rubber armouring. The red Leica logo made for a nice aesthetic touch embedded at the end of the right barrel of the instrument. Built like a proverbial tank, the large central focus wheel moved with silky smoothness, taking just over two full revolutions from one extreme of its travel to the other. This extra long focus travel is unusual in a binocular of these specifications but is required for the instrument’s amazing close focusing distance of under 1 metre – the closest I have personally encountered by quite a considerable margin, with the exception of the marvellous Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21, with its unrivalled 0.5 metre minimum focus.

I was very much looking forward to examining the eye cups on this Leica, which turned out to be every bit as good as I had hoped! They are beautifully engineered with five positions from fully extended to fully retracted, and all locked into their respective positions with a loud and reassuring ‘click’ sound. Supremely comfortable, they are ‘cushioned’ in a lovely soft rubber that sanctions prolonged glassing in the field  They remain in place with a rigidity(read rock solid) that I had come to expect from this company owing to my previous pleasant experiences with its smaller sibling – the Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20  pocket glass. Sporting a very generous eye relief of 17mm, this is one binocular that eye glass wearers will never struggle to see the full field with! That’s good news going forward, as I don’t know if I will eventually(maybe a few decades hence when I’m in my 70’s lol) have to observe with my eye glasses on all the time.  The eye cups are also removable should I wish to give them a thorough clean.

The eye cups on the Trinovid HD are made to a standard I would expect from a world class company like Leica.

I normally wouldn’t even comment about the rain guards and tethered objective covers  – like who really cares lol? – but in this case I have to say that they were of unusually high quality- a first for a premium manufacturer like this. The rain guard is very snugly fitting – indeed it takes a bit of effort to prize it off if you’re in a hurry. But I find that it affords that little bit more protection to the eye pieces during rough handling, especially if dust, dirt and sand etc are prevalent. This is the case irrespective of whether or not the eye cups are extended or fully retracted.

Same goes for the objective lens covers too. Unlike most others which are far too loose, these stay on snugly helping to protect the instrument.

It’s just a pity I’ll never use them!

Unlike the older Trinovids and the current Ultravid models, the new Trinovid HDs have their dioptre setting placed under the right ocular lens, as is common with the vast majority of binoculars you’re likely to come across. It has a prominent red line which one can use to mark the optimal setting for your right eye but is not lockable unlike that found on the Ultravid models. Many of the reviewers cited above view this as a retrograde step, but personally, I have always felt that having a lockable dioptre is a bit of a gimmick; more an over-engineered ‘gee whizz’ solution than anything else and not really worth the extra cost incurred in acquiring a model with one installed. Other folk may have different opinions on this and that’s OK. But there are other practical reasons why I prefer to have a dioptre setting that can be adjusted on the fly. Knowing my own physiology, I have come to learn that my eye sight can change ever so slightly if I glass in the early morning after resting for many hours, or after staring at a computer screen for a long period of time. I also notice small changes if I’m tired. And all of these states often have me reaching for the dioptre ring to micro-adjust the focus in my right eye during critical glassing moments when I require the very finest images the binocular is likely to  provide. The adjustments, though very slight, are nonetheless real, and so having a well-made but conventional dioptre ring that I don’t have to adjust by pulling on the focus wheel and fiddling with a dial is actually a distinct advantage in my books.

The Leica Trinovid HD has a simple, right eye dioptre that does exactly what it says on the tin.

All of this may seem a bit new to many readers, but I can assure you I am not alone in noticing this in prolonged field use.

My first look through the Trinovid greatly impressed me; I was immediately taken by its bright, sharp and colourful images of the creation. Indeed, that first look convinced me that I had a first-rate optic in my hands, as I will elaborate on shortly. So, without further ado, let’s have a look at the results my tests revealed about this binocular in comparison to the other models cited above.

Tests for Light Leaks and Glare

Setting up my iphone torch at its brightest setting, I dimmed the lights in my living room and aimed the binocular into the intensely bright light beam just a few metres away, studying the image for internal reflections, diffraction spikes, diffused light etc.The Trinovid produced an excellent result, as I had anticipated. No binocular on God’s earth can pass this test with 100 per cent success, but any reflections it possessed were very very minor and strongly subdued. It was fully the equal of my smaller Trinovid in this regard,  and also the Viking Merlin ED, but a notch up from the Celestron Trailseeker. If the latter scored an 8.5 out of 10, both the Leica Trinovid HD and the Merlin were awarded a score of 10 out of 10. They both displayed a very weak diffraction spike which I did not find bothersome. This is in sharp contradistinction to that reported on the larger 10 x 42 model reviewed by the gentleman in Review C showcased above.

When pointed at a a bright sodium street lamp at night showed excellent results for all three binoculars. No annoying internal reflections and no sign of a diffraction spike – a result I had anticipated owing to the lamp’s less intense brightness. The Leica Trinovid HD will make an excellent binocular to study night time scenes such as city scapes from a lofty vantage, a bright full Moon, or a distant harbour lit up at night.

The Leica Trinovid HD 8x 32 shows little or no light leaks around the ocular lenses (left hand ocular).

And a right ocular.

All binoculars, no matter how well made, suffer from some degree of veiling glare while glassing under an open sky in broad daylight. I am happy to report that the Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 exhibited the lowest amount of this phenomenon I have personally experienced. It was simply far less of a problem than that witnessed in either the Celestron Trailseeker and Viking Merlin glass when viewing under the same bright, overcast sky, and phenomenally better than the little Leica 8 x 20(which shows very strong veiling glare owing in part to its exposed objective lenses). This was the case even though the objectives on the Trinovid HD were not as deeply recessed as on the Merlin binocular( a full 10mm), so must have been attributed to much closer attention to proper baffling of the overhead light. And while much of this veiling glare can be all but removed by shading the glass from above with an out-stretched hand, it is nice to be able to glass without having to resort to such antics except in the most demanding conditions. Kudos to Leica for addressing this niggling and pervasive problem!

Glassing Tests in a Summer Garden

Glassing some late flowering Cosmos flowers in my back garden in bright sunlight was enough to show off the quality of the images in this new Leica glass. The glass is supremely sharp across the vast majority of the field, with only a little peripheral softness near the field stop. Like all the roof prism binoculars I have had the pleasure of using, lateral(horizontal) field correction is noticeably better than when the same image is examined by moving a target from the bottom to the top of the field (vertical panning). This has hardly been mentioned in the online literature so far as I know.

The Leica image has a sparkle to it that was simply missing in the Trailseeker and Merlin, with noticeably better contrast than either of the test binoculars. Reds and yellows are especially enhanced to my eyes. It was almost as if someone had peeled away a thin veil allowing my eyes to see those last fine details that had remained more elusive in the both the Merlin and the Trailseeker. I could also see that the noticeably wider fields on the latter glasses(136m@1000m) were significantly softer in the outer 30 per cent of the field, indicating that the Leica had a much larger sweet spot. Glassing the top of a telephone pole against a bright overcast sky revealed some colour fringing(chromatic aberration(CA)) in the Leica Trinovid HD. Indeed, in the same tests, it was not present in the Merlin ED and actually less prevalent in the Celestron Trailseeker too! This is in agreement with all of the lengthy reviews cited at the beginning of this blog, but you will still note their comments as stating that the “images are excellent(or very good) despite having noticeable CA. This last point deserves further comment.

So what’s going here? According to Leica USA’s Jeff Bouton, the new Trinovid HDs do indeed employ some kind of ED glass but they are not as well corrected in this capacity in comparison to their more expensive Ultravid line. That said, the image in the 8 x 32 Trinovid HD has a quality about it that places it just ahead of the Merlin glass  within its sweet spot, which exhibits better control of CA. I attribute a large part of this to the Leica’s exceptional control of glare which in turn delivers higher contrast images to the more ‘apochromatic’ Merlin. It just goes to show, once again, that a binocular need not exhibit overly aggressive control of secondary spectrum to deliver a gob-smackingly good image. To my mind, the Leica Trinovid HDs offer a very convincing ‘proof of concept’ in this regard. And besides, I rather like to see a little in some images as I have been fond of telling my readers over the years! Having said all of this, I have noticed that the degree of fringing in difficult observing settings is sensitive to eye placement. Paying a little more attention to squaring your eyes in the 4mm exit pupil of these small binoculars will all but eliminate it.

Stop Press: The Leica Trinovid HD is a decidedly achromatic binocular!

Low Light Tests

The Leica Trinovid HD boasts an excellent transmittivity of 90 per cent, placing it just a few percentage points behind the very best binoculars currently available. But how would it fare against the much more economically priced Trailseeker and Merlin binoculars in low light conditions, such as those experienced at dawn or dusk?  Remembering that all three glasses sport fully multi-coated optics, phase corrected prisms with high reflectivity dielectric coatings, I performed some tests on tree branches some 50 yards distant after the Sun had set in early August skies. The results were not surprising to me, given what I had already learned from a number of other tests carried out earlier in the year; there was very little difference in perceived image brightness between all the instruments, though I did give the nod to both the Merlin and the Leica HD over the Trailseeker, but only just. What this tells me is that light transmission is very efficient in these mid-tier binoculars. I would be confident enough to bet that they transmit 85%+ of the light they collect and that’s very good news for the budget conscious consumer. How times have changed from only a short few years ago! What is more, the claim that ED glass results in brighter images was not really in evidence in these tests either, contradicting the claim by the gentleman who conducted Review A above.

Further Impressions in Field Use

The Trinovid HD 8 x 32 has an excellent depth of field. Anything beyond about 50 yards remains in good focus, only requiring a slight tweak of the focus wheel to obtain ultimate sharpness. But it is its remarkable close focus – just 0.95m as I measured it – that really distinguishes it from its competitors including the company’s more expensive Ultravid and Noctivid lines. Viewing objects at close focus – rocks, flowers, insects – has brought many joyful experiences, although I have to switch to ‘monocular mode’ to get the most comfortable views at these short distances.

I measured the field of view under the stars, where I was able to hold Alkaid and Mizar & Alcor in the Plough asterism  in the same field of view with a little bit of room to spare. Since these stars are ~6.7 angular degrees apart, I felt the quoted 7.1 degree field was quite accurate.

I realise that many binocular enthusiasts will be a little alarmed by the smaller field of view offered up by the Trinovid HD. Most 8 x 32 models have fields approaching 8 angular degrees or even a little higher, but this was a very deliberate choice in my case. I mean, if I wanted a wider field of view, I could have acquired the Zeiss Conquest or the Swarovski CL companion for about the same price I paid for the Leica glass. But I have discovered that I’m more interested in vignettes where I don’t have to resort to rolling my eyes around to take in the entire field rather than broader vistas. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that smaller fields are more conducive to study than overly large ones! I absolutely love the wonderful sharp field stops on the Trinovid and the way it frames each binocular scene I wish to image. I also understand from past experiences with instruments like the Nikon Prostaff 7s 8 x 30, which has an excellent 6.5 degree field, that optical engineers can deliver better edge to edge sharpness by cutting down the field of view. I think the folk at Leica are fully aware of this trick, opting for bigger sweet spots within a smaller field of view, rather than a larger, more conservative field of view but with the loss of critical definition as one moves from the centre to the edge of the field. Truth be told, a seven degree field is more than ample for virtually every scenario I’m likely to find myself in, and in field use I don’t ever get the feeling that the image is ‘restricted’ or ‘tunnelled.’

The Leica Trinovid HD has special coatings applied to the outer lenses which repel dirt, oil and water. Though some Leica-run websites give the impression that this coating is their patented AquaDura, I felt it best to contact the Leica Sports Optics team directly for clarification on this matter, and here is how they replied:

The lenses of all Leica Trinovid binoculars feature an extremely effective, water-resistant and dirt-repellent coating. It is a similar style of hydrophobic coating in that it doesn’t allow water to pool on the lens should you be using them in the rain and it also makes cleaning them easier as fingerprints and dirt along with water can’t cling to the surface. The actual “Aqua Dura” coatings are reserved for our Ultravid HD+ and Noctivid ranges only.

Fortunately, this is easy to test at home. I set up the Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32(which does not have such coatings) alongside the Trinovid glass. Both these instruments have the same ocular lens size, so I breathed heavily on them, creating a ‘fog.’ Next I watched both to see which one dispersed that fog more quickly. The easy winner was the Leica. I would estimate that it takes about three times longer to disperse on the uncoated Celestron. This will prove to be very useful in the colder and damper months of the year, where exterior fogging is a common though inadvertent problem.

The Choice of 8 x 32 versus 8 x 42

For less than £100 more, I could have acquired the 8 x 42 Trinovid HD, but I’m a convert to 8 x 32, having enjoyed the larger format glass for quite a while. The main reasons are compactness and reduced weight. I do a lot of glassing; maybe a hour on work days and several hours at the weekends and holidays. The 8 x 42’s I’ve used can be tiresome hanging around your neck after prolonged field use. Indeed, sometimes they felt more like bricks than binoculars. The 8 x 32 format gives up very little to their 42mm equivalents in the vast majority of applications. A high-efficiency 32mm glass  like this works well in strong sunlight and dull overcast days. It also performs adequately under a forest canopy, where there is restricted sunlight. Only at dawn and dusk is a good 42mm binocular a better option, but as I said before, I don’t do a lot of glassing at these times. A 32mm is no slouch for star gazing either, as I shall explain a little later. The smaller frame of the 8 x 32 is also more conducive to stashing away in a rucksack or pocket.

Going from a 5.4mm exit pupil on the 8 x 42 to just 4mm on the 8 x 32 wasn’t an issue for me either, as I discovered using both the Celestron and Merlin binoculars. The Trinovid HD 8 x 32 is supremely easy on my eyes and I don’t have any problems with blackouts or kidney beaning. Furthermore, I happen to think that the smaller exit pupil on the 8 x 32 format produces an image that is that little bit sharper than the larger 8 x 42 owing to the reduced aberrations inherent to design of the human eye. Opinion on this matter will undoubtedly vary and there is no absolute right or wrong answer. You see, it’s all about personal taste!

Why not the Ultravid or Noctivid?

As I alluded to earlier, Leica offer higher priced models with allegedly slightly better optics, light transmission and more refined mechanical features, such as a lockable dioptre that I commented on previously. The Noctivid is not available in a 32mm format, so that eliminated it as an option, but it is offered in the Ultravid HD line. Having said that, many experienced commentators will admit that you’re getting 95 per cent of the performance of the Ultravid HD binocular in the Trinovid optic, and I happen to agree with that assessment having average, though well-trained eyesight.  I doubt that I would be able to tell much of a difference between these glasses, with gains of just a couple of percent in light transmission and slightly better edge of field performance(the Trinovid shows mild pincushion distortion at the very edge of the field), but I certainly would notice the big gaping hole in my wallet. I was struck by the write up made by the gentleman in Review B above, who commented that although he had intended to acquire the Ultravid HD 8 x 32 that day in the Leica store, he couldn’t tell the difference between it and the Trinovid HD, and ended up saving himself a lot of cash! I’m not a sucker for the law of diminishing returns, so for me, the Ultravid HD is overkill and over priced. I don’t need it nor desire it. I got what I paid for and I’m satisfied!

And last, but by no means least, I wanted a top-tier binocular with solid history behind it and only the Trinovid from Leica really has this. Newer, fancier models come and go all the time, of course, but the Trinovid goes back to an era before I was born and there is a satisfaction in owning an instrument that carries on that tradition.

Your mileage may vary.

 

Ad Astra

Though you can fruitfully engage with the night sky with any binocular, large or small, I find a 30mm aperture about the minimum that will yield views that will keep you engaged for long periods of time. And going from 30 to 32 mm results in a noticeable (~14 per cent) increase in light gathering power. With the light from the city of Glasgow some 25 miles to the south having diminished during the lockdowns, the sky is noticeably darker to my eyes and more majestic with it.  The Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 was my instrument of choice to re-explore a truly dark sky after the summer twilight had come and gone. In mid-August, with no Moon in the sky, I set up a comfortable recliner in my back garden, and lying on my back, I explored the starry heaven down to perhaps the 9th magnitude of glory. The stars appear as beautiful, tiny pinpoints and their colours true and rich. I’ve even watched falling stars streak across the field during the Perseid meteor shower in the second week of August, and even witnessed a few brilliant fireballs with this wonderful, small glass.

I’m using my binoculars more and more now to escape the drudgery wrought by this scamdemic and the escalating evil, violence and depravity we’re constantly bombarded with on the air waves. You could say that the sky and the great outdoors have become my new telly. To me the stars are like old friends that come and go as the seasons change and I have enjoyed observing all manner of deep sky objects with this little instrument – the comely Pleiads and the Hyades in the wee small hours of the morning, the Coathanger asterism, the Engagement Ring around Polaris, the majestic Double Cluster and brilliant stellar associations such as Melotte 20 in Perseus. Later in the night, Auriga begins to dominate the eastern sky and all three of its Messier open clusters can be framed within the binocular field. Scanning the Milky Way through Cygnus, I usually pause to soak up the especially rich star fields around Sadr and Deneb, before panning onwards into Cassiopeia further east. The heavens surely declare the glory of God!

I have also enjoyed gazing at the Moon growing ever brighter as the days of August proceeded, its size appearing larger owing to its proximity to the horizon. The Leica binocular serves up tack sharp images of the lunar regolith, set against a jet black sky and remaining pleasingly coherent even at the edge of the field. Placing a bright Gibbous Moon just outside the field stop shows that this binocular is superior to the other models in suppressing stray, off-axis light. And when the rain clouds move in from off the Atlantic, racing across the Moon’s silvery countenance, they create painfully beautiful light shows that are rich in colour. In short the Leica is a wonderful companion whether it be day or night. I have even made some makeshift white light solar filters to fit over the instrument’s objective lenses in order to keep an eye on the Sun. Alas, it appears to be entering what astronomers call a grand solar minimum, which does not bode well if historical archives are anything to go by. Is God saying something here too?

Maybees aye, maybees naw.

A Favourite Birding Spot

Culcreuch Pond, looking east toward the Fintry Hills.

In the last twelve months, I have taken up bird watching as another hobby; something I never thought I would find myself doing if I’m being honest. But by and large, the human world has become such a dark place to me that nature is the only refuge I have left. At least she still obeys her Creator lol. I’m very fortunate to live in a place where I can access the wet and the wild, and observe her perfect regularities with all her wonders and beauty. Having a good binocular makes this an especially joyful experience.

Just a half mile from my home is Culcreuch Pond, where I have spent a few minutes on most dry days glassing a pair of Mute Swans and their new family of six cygnets. I have watched them grow from tiny hatchlings to strong and healthy juveniles. The bright, dry spring and warm, wet summer has generated plenty of pond vegetation for them to thrive on. On many days, the adults see me observing them from the banks and begin to swim their way towards me, the cygnets following their parents gracefully in a wonderful flotilla. And they get real close too; often within a few metres of where I’m standing. The youngsters make loud whistle sounds as they approach in search of an easy meal but I have always resisted feeding them. I guess other folk do throw them food, explaining why they cross the pond to see me. To the casual onlooker, they all appear more or less identical, but I have come to know them so well that I can identify unique markers on their body that helps me to distinguish them.

The pond is also a good place to observe all manner of duck, Coots and even the odd Grey Heron lurking in the reedy shallows. Unlike the swans, Herons are far more leary of humans and getting closer than a few tens of metres has proven all but impossible for me. Still, the Leica glass allows me to make up for this distancing and I have observed these magnificent birds as they patiently patrol the shores for approaching fish.

Looking eastward beyond the pond, the hills soar 1,000 feet or so above the valley and I can often observe majestic raptors – mostly Buzzards but also the odd Peregrine Falcon gliding effortlessly on the warm summer thermals. Much of the lower lying parts of the hills are covered by deciduous trees and bracken which change their colours as the seasons progress. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to glassing their beautiful autumnal shades as September gives way to October.

Summary & Conclusions

Worth saving for.

I commend the Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 to the enthusiastic naturalist, birder or casual star gazer. It does exactly what it says on the tin and its robust – indeed slightly overbuilt – construction will appeal to those who value performance over bling. It has a classical look and feel about it that is as good to look through as it is to look at. It is durable, water proof to 4 metres depth, and can be relied upon in all weathers. It yields wonderful, bright and tack sharp images of the creation that will delight anyone who looks through it.  Like any other product from the modern world, the Leica Trinovid does have a couple of things that niggle me. For one thing, the silly looking neoprene case does not befit an optic of this quality in my opinion. Nor do I really like the ‘HD’ moniker associated with its name. What does that signify? It’s certainly not a scientific term! Does that mean there will be an HD plus in the future, just like the evolution(don’t we really mean intelligent design?) of the Ultravid model?

If so, I’m not for chasing the wind. But I guess some folk will never be content.

For sure, the Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 is an expensive instrument by almost anyone’s standards, but I feel its cost is justified in this case, especially if you intend to use it as frequently as I plan to, by day and by night.

 

Highly recommended!

 

Neil English is the author of many books in amateur and professional astronomy.  He prides himself in sorting the bling from the bread. You can support his ongoing work by purchasing one of his books or by making a small personal donation. Thanks for reading!

 

De Fideli.

A Brief Reaquaintance with my First Roof Prism Binocular.

The Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 binocular.

A work begun August 21 2020.

It was in October 2018 that I began my first, tentative adventures in surveying the  modern binocular market. I had entirely neglected the massive technological changes that had occurred in the industry that continued to drive quality up and prices down; indeed, just like what had already happened in the telescope market. With a background in astronomy, I had stuck fervently to my old 7 x 50 porro prism binocular from the late 1980s and wasn’t at all prepared for what three decades of innovation wrought to the consumer. And boy was I surprised after I received my first roof prism model – a Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 – and compared it with the ole clunker!

The smaller aperture Barr & Stroud had a brighter, sharper and more contrasty image than the ‘high quality’ 7 x 50 porro I had been gifted by a past girl friend.

I suspect that this revelation was not unique to yours truly. Indeed, I imagined that there must be hundreds if not thousands of amateur astronomers the length and breadth of the country who would have been equally shocked by comparing a modern, entry-level roof prism binocular to an old school porro prism exemplified in the 7x or 10 x 50! If that’s you, I can say, hand on heart, that you will literally be blown away by what can now be purchased for a very modest investment.

I had chosen Barr & Stroud solely on the basis of carefully assessing the many enthusiastic reports I had garnered about this old company that once supplied all manner of optical equipment to the British navy during two World Wars. But after the War years, the company experienced a barrage of new challenges that resulted in the company’s decline. Finally, in 1977, Barr & Stroud ceased to exist as an independent trader and with it, an industry that held many trade secrets on how to build a good binocular.

Then, round about 2010, the vintage brand reappeared with a new range of modern binoculars catering for the budget conscious/ beginner birder market. But it lo longer existed as an independent company. Rather it was bought out by Optical Vision Limited UK, who also own perhaps more familiar names like Helios, Acuter, Zenith and Fotomate. The Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 was an extremely delightful experience for me, and whetted my appetite for exploring the binocular market still further. And the rest, as they say, is history.

After I had acquired better models, I gifted the Sahara to my sister- and brother-in law who were also delighted with its performance and served them well on their many fishing and camping trips all over Scotland. During a recent visit to their home in the west end of Glasgow, I got another chance to evaluate it in light of everything I had learned about binocular optics testing in the subsequent two years. So I took it home and brought it on a couple of walks to see how well it was faring.

Exceptional Focusers

First of all, I was very impressed with its build quality; this was a fully weather armoured instrument with a light-weight polycarbonate chassis housing the properly multi-coated optics. The textured rubber and ribbed upper mono bridge design provides for easy and secure handling either with or without  gloves. The large, central focus wheel is notable; it is one of the smoothest I’ve personally encountered and that’s comparing it to a number of big brand models from Opticron, Zeiss and Leica! Indeed, having sampled several binoculars from Barr & Stroud including the more expensive Sierra, Savannah and Series 5 models offered by the same company, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that all of their focusers were superb. They all operated flawlessly with buttery smooth precision and zero backlash, whether constructed of metal or plastic. This can’t be a fluke; it must be attributed the the company’s attention to detail and considerable practical knowledge on how to design and execute a good focusing wheel on all its optical devices. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the Barr & Stroud binocular focusers can outdo top tier companies like Leica in terms of long term productivity. If I asked the same question a decade hence, I doubt I’d get the same answer. But so far, they’ve never failed to impress and have never let me down!

Something you’ll never see in a contemporary binocular discussion; comparing two models with a ten fold price differential in terms of ergonomics. Right, the Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 and the Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 (left).

Other ergonomic considerations

The twist up eye cups on the Sahara are fairly basic and are quite representative of what is provided in the lower tier of the market. That said, and unlike quite a few other models costing a few times more, these rubberised plastic cups still work fine after a few years of use. Yes, one cup is considerably stiffer than the other, but once fully extended, they click into place and rigidly maintain their positions, even after applying considerable pressure to them. Again, while the low-cost materials out of which they are constructed are fairly generic in a lot of entry-level models, these Sahara eye cups still work well because they were put together by a competent team of assemblers.

Ditto the rubber armouring used on the instrument. After giving it some close inspection, it has not peeled or come away from the chassis and retains a good rugged and grippy feel. I can’t say the same thing for a number of much more expensive models I’ve sampled including, most notably, the Nikon Prostaff and Monarch range of binoculars that are so popular today!

The same is true of the right eye dioptre on the unit. It has quite a bit of inertia, to use an old fashioned term, meaning that once it’s set it is very unlikely to move unless deliberately tampered with. Sure, it doesn’t have the sophistication of a lockable device seen on some more expensive models, but I consider this to be superfluous to the needs of the vast majority of glassers. It is an eminently practical solution still employed on some of the best binoculars on the market today, including the venerable Leica Trinovid HD shown above. Furthermore, although some of the company’s more sophisticated models such as Barr & Stroud’s excellent Savannah binocular, has its dioptre dial placed ahead of the focus wheel on the bridge, it is not necessarily a better solution, as I have discovered in extensive field use.

Optics

Although the Sahara lacks sophisticated optical refinements such as phase corrected prisms, it still serves up a good, sharp and bright image during ordinary daylight conditions. The field of view is wide (129m @ 1000m), but not so wide that the effects of off-axis field curvature, barrel distortion and astigmatism become overwhelming. I’ve lost count of the number of binoculars I’ve tested costing considerably more than this unit, that offered tack sharp images inside a central sweet spot, only to show horribly distorted and unfocused images in the outermost part of the field. An eminently sensible optical design would curtail field of view in order to maintain a decent level of off-axis performance that won’t be immediately off putting to a novice enthusiast. Indeed, in my own personal journey through the maze of modern binocular  brands, I have developed a strong preference for smaller, better-corrected fields than uber-wide fields showing too much off axis aberrations. For me, field of view is most certainly not king!

I never got a chance to test the Sahara binocular for light leaks in the customary (and, dare I say, much more discriminatory) manner, I’ve developed in my later binocular reviews, but I now have. My results show a significant amount of internal reflections as well as diffused light that was very similar in profile to an 8 x 32 model marketed by Eyeskey. I interpreted these results to mean that Barr & Stroud has been working with the same optical materials – lenses, prisms etc – used to construct many other entry-level roof prism models. These effects are easily seen in night time tests on street lighting, which show some internal reflections in the field of view and rather strong diffused light, indicative of possible homogeneity issues with the quality of the optical glass employed. What this means is that one might expect the Sahara to show up some glare and internal reflections when glassing a bright Moon(untested by the author) which will be inferior to more expensive models having higher quality optical glass and coatings etc. That said, the Eyeskey, costing about half the price of the Barr & Stroud Sahara, was not in the same league as the latter in daylight optical evaluations, showing a smaller sweet spot, more chromatic aberration and stronger off-axis aberrations.  All of these experiences allowed me to advance the following hypothesis regarding the differences between this less expensive Eyskey model and the Barr & Stroud(both of which are manufactured in China). Using the same quality of optical materials, differences in the assembly of such devices yields very significant differences in perceived optical quality. The Barr & Stroud Sahara is assembled by a more knowledgeable/skilled team than those assembling the Eyeskey marketed model. It’s all in the assembly!

Light Transmission Efficiency

Comparing the Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 to the Viking Optical Merlin ED 8 x 32( bottom).

As noted previously, The Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 does not have a phase coating applied to the roof prisms, nor does it have dielectric coatings to boost light transmission. I was able to detect a significant difference in the quality of the image a phase coating can do to the image in a previous communication, where I compared the views through the Sahara and the more expensive Sierra 8 x 42 model offered by the same company. Nor did the Sahara have any extra low dispersion(ED) lens elements to improve image contrast and perceived sharpness.

In many previous blogs, I demonstrated that ED glass does not significantly boost light transmission but I did attribute greater light transmission to the presence of dielectric coatings applied to the roof prisms. I was able to evaluate these technologies more fully in a side by side test I conducted recently between the 8 x 42 Sahara and the smaller Viking Optical Merlin ED 8 x 32, which does have all the aforementioned optical advances. By day, the Merlin offers up a sharper, more contrasty image than the Sahara but the differences are subtle and not at all like ‘night and day,’ as often reported by others. But testing at dusk – after sunset on a cloudy August evening – did reveal the significant advantages of having better coating technology.

All other things being equal you’d expect a 72 per cent light gathering boost for the larger aperture Sahara binocular. But in low light conditions, the larger exit pupil on the same binocular (5.25mm as opposed to 4mm on the Merlin), might be expected to further extend that advantage to the Sahara. My results showed that although the image was brighter in the larger aperture Barr & Stroud unit, it was much closer than I had expected! Specifically, the Merlin was showing how much more efficiently it was bringing light to my eyes than the Sahara. Its super-high reflectivity dielectric, and phase coated prisms, as well as better control of stray light, were certainly responsible for these gains in low light performance. That said, under fully dark adapted eyes on a Scottish August night, the larger aperture Sahara proved itself to be a better star gazing binocular, reeling in fainter stars and providing better views of a variety of deep sky objects. That’s due to the larger exit pupil in the 8 x 42 compared with the 8 x 32.

Conclusions

So, there you have it! Maybe you can better see why I would choose this binocular again if I were starting out. Now that the scamdemic has hobbled the economies of the nations of the world, millions more families are going to feel the financial pinch in the coming months and years. If you’re after a no-nonsense binocular that will give decent images of God’s creation for a price under £80 UK, you’ll be very hard pressed to find a better model than the Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42. You don’t have to take my word for it either; check out the many reviews of this model online and also have a look at comments made about these models by experienced birders. Happy glassing and thanks for reading!

 

Bird Guide Commentary

Neil English sorts out the bull & bling from the salt & light of the binocular world. You can support his work by making a small personal donation, or by purchasing one of his seven books. 

 

 

De Fideli.

Journey to the Northwest Highlands.

Sunset July 18, Achnasheen, Poolew, Ross-Shire.

From July 17 through 24 2020, our family took a vacation in the Scottish Northwest Highlands. We originally booked a holiday cottage in Gairloch for the week before(July 4 through 11) but the government lock-down owing to the COVID-19 pandemic quickly put paid to that plan. As luck would have it though, the same firm we booked the cottage through offered us another accommodation in the neighbouring village of Poolewe, just six miles from Gairloch for the following week, when shops and restaurants were allowed to open up. Having spent months at home, we naturally jumped at the chance!

The Northwest Highlands is not a place you would want to go for warm summer weather. But for natural beauty and a place to contemplate God’s glorious creation, I can’t think of a better place. The cottage we secured was spacious and comfortable with a large and well maintained garden. There was no internet connection – not even a telephone signal – but after months of the kids sat behind computer screens during the lockdown, it was exactly what the doctor ordered; a place where we could fully re-connect as a family and cast away our anxieties about all the dark events happening in the world.

The cottage, Poolewe.

The village itself only has about 200 inhabitants, many of which are retired couples who have sold up from the cities and moved here to enjoy their autumn years.

This part of the British Isles(57.7 degrees north latitude)  is renowned for its beautiful, pristine beaches and unspoiled coastline, making it a favourite haunt for birders and other nature lovers. In mid July, dark night time skies are out of the question owing to strong twilight. The weather forecast didn’t bode well for star gazing during this week either, so I decided against bringing along a telescope but instead decided to carry a pair of binoculars; little and large – my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 and my Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 high-power binocular which was mounted on a lightweight tripod/monopod. In addition, my eldest son brought along his 8 x 32 compact and my younger boy his 6.5 x 21 Papilio II.

But the trip was not entirely about leisure, at least for my wife. As a research technician in the Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, her research group had been given the task of sampling the sands of the beaches all along the northwest coast to measure a number of radioactive isotopes. This work was commissioned by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). That meant that we were to visit a number of beaches centred on Poolewe, which worked well for everyone; the boys could enjoy a swim and we could get good walks in along the beach collecting the samples.

Redpoint Beach, Ross-shire. Isle of Skye seen in the distance.

I had decided to bring along my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 as my main daytime binocular, partly because I had been feeling guilty about treating it more as an ornament than a dedicated field instrument. But as I was to discover, this little binocular is built like a tank(albeit a very small one lol) and was meant to be properly used.  Indeed, I was more than delighted how well it put up with the vagaries of the northwest weather, which can change from bright, calm and sunny one minute, and then wet and windy the next. And during this week away, it endured heating in the Sun, sand, spray and even heavy downpours, coping admirably with the changing conditions. But it wasn’t exactly a free lunch; those difficult conditions meant that I had to clean the optics a couple of times during the week!

No little jessie: the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 is a rugged pocket glass built for the great outdoors.

Contrary to what some binocular commentators have made, the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 is easy to use. They claim that the small exit pupil of the binocular(2.5mm) is hard to square on with one’s eyes. But like all things in life, that’s only true for lack of practice. Indeed, I have given mention before that in strong daylight, there is little advantage to using a larger glass as one’s exit pupil shrinks to 2 or 3mm at the most. Furthermore, the best part of the your pupil is the central few millimetres, so when imaging with a small exit pupil you are minimising the optical aberrations inherent to one’s own eyes and this yields fine images only limited by the quality of the glass.

Beaches are excellent places for glassing.

Glassing on the beach is one long adventure. Many types of birds – waders and gulls especially – grace the shoreline – providing many opportunities to study their antics. The  rich colours, contours and grains of rocks, polished by the tides over countless millennia, all kinds of seaweed, beached jelly fish, crabs and other crustaceans, and brightly coloured shells of long-dead sea creatures, present many wonders to the eye, as do the ceaseless activities of the lapping waves constantly yielding their treasures as flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict. Each new binocular field presents something new and unfamiliar; endless visual riches provided by our Creator.

The pristine white sands of Melon Udrigle, Ross-shire.

For higher resolution daylight observations, I set up my Pentax 20 x 60 porro prism binocular. This fully waterproof binocular also has a small exit pupil of 3mm, and thanks to its aspherical eyepieces, it delivers a very sharp, high-contrast, flat-field images, with great centre-to-edge correction.

The optically excellent Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 binocular.

Mounted to an extra-tall but lightweight tripod, with a strong ball & socket adaptor, the 20 x 60 is ultra-stable and very easy to use and manoeuvre. I was able to enjoy great close-up views of the barren, rocky crags in the surrounding hills, and boats anchored in the shallow bay a mile or so from the cottage. It also provided excellent images of trees in the neighbourhood, where I enjoyed watching crows, wood pigeons and even the occasional collar dove drop by.

The Pentax 20 x 60 is great for monitoring the Sun in white light.

But the 20 x 60 also came in handy for continuing my monitoring of the solar disk using home-made white light solar filters constructed from Baader astro-solar material. Indeed, during brighter spells in the morning or afternoon, I could whisk the binocular-mounted tripod out from the utility room and observe the Sun at a moment’s notice. Indeed, I got a minor surprise when I spotted my second spot of the summer season at 11.43 BST on the morning of July 22. It didn’t grow or amount to very much though – just one tiny sunspot crossing the solar disk. The last time I recorded it was on the afternoon of July 31. I’ve not seen another thus far into August(22nd).

Alas, the Sun continues to be unusually quiescent.

The ultra stable and smooth ball & socket bracket used to mount and move the big 20 x 60 binocular.

There was no night during our trip where I enjoyed long clear spells. The best I got was a couple of nights where the sky was partially clear, but it was enough for me to see Comet Neowise in deep twilight shortly after midnight on the morning of July 19 near the Plough asterism. By then, it had faded back to a third magnitude object, but the image scale in the Pentax binocular was good enough for me to get a decent view of its nucleus and bright dusty tail. I also put the 20 x 60 to good use observing a few choice binocular doubles.The tripod and its ball and socket adaptor allowed me to achieve rock-solid stability and silky-smooth tracking of a number of systems, enabling me to resolve a few targets that I could never achieve using a monopod alone. The 20 x 60 served up gorgeous images of Albireo, the’ fake triple’ system of Iota Bootis, O^1 Cygni, Mizar & Alcor, the lovely orange pair 61 Cygni, Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae and the lovely chance alignment of Eta(blue) and Theta (orange) Lyrae, which presented as a grand colour contrast ‘double’ somewhat to the east of the main stars of the celestial Lyre.

On the warm and sultry afternoon of July 22, we took a stroll down the road to pay a visit to one of the most famous cultivated gardens in Scotland. Inverewe Gardens, situated on the shores of Loch Ewe, is home to some of the most exotic floral species in all of Britain, thanks to the mild Gulf Stream which keeps the site largely frost free, even in the depths of winter. Here you’ll find pre-historic trees such as the Wollemi pine, and all manner of  rhododendrons native to China, India and Nepal. Himalayan poppies adorn the beautiful walled garden at the site, as well as fascinating Tasmanian eucalyptus trees with their aromatic leaves and beautiful, variegated trunks. As you can imagine, such a visit wouldn’t have been complete without bringing along the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 ultra-close focusing binocular, which provides stunning up-close-and-personal views of the many ornate flowers that grace the grounds of this extraordinary place.

Our youngest son, Douglas, proudly carrying the wonderful little Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21.

My wife actually wanted to visit these gardens in May, but the lock-down made this impossible. But better to visit in July than not pay a visit at all, I suppose.

Magnificent trees grace the gardens, but I was especially taken by the Eucalyptus. As it turned out, I discovered the same kind of tree at the bottom of the garden in our rented cottage, so my guess is that, at one time in the past, the owners managed to plant a young tree and watched it grow to maturity over the years.

Check out the bark on this Eucalyptus tree.

Here’s a question for you: can a banana tree thrive in Scotland?

Yes!

You what mate?

A banana tree: no bananas though!

We encountered several varieties of Bamboo on our walk too:

Wild bamboo.

In one part of the garden, we stumbled across some wicker soldiers commemorating those who lost their lives in the great world wars of the 20th century:

Wicker soldiers.

The garden had many beautiful flowers in full bloom, like these Violet Geraniums:

Violet Geraniums.

The Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 proved to be the perfect instrument for examining these wonders of creation in exquisite detail. With its ultra-close focus of just 18 inches, can you begin to imagine the levels of detail one can capture?

Say, that’s a queer looking cabbage eh?

Douglas had so lost himself looking at close-up views of the foliage that I had to remind him that the instrument also served as a regular binocular; you know; for glassing objects at a distance! At one stage, I found him strolling ahead on the walk while keeping the Papilio to his eyes. Not a sensible thing to do though, as he was to find out. After issuing him a stern verbal warning, he fell headlong into a flower bed lol! Luckily no damage was done to the flowers or the glasser on this occasion. The gardeners too were none the wiser(phew!).

As I mentioned in my review of the instrument linked to earlier, the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 is a belter of a small binocular, serving up excellent high-contrast images at a very attractive price (just over £100 UK). I still use it quite often for all kinds of activities.It’s got a big, silky-smooth focuser and delivers a generous 7.5 degree true field. Indeed, I’ve not needed my Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 ever since the arrival of this instrument on the scene.

The beach sampling was more a labour of love than anything else. Always done when the tide is out, the bigger beaches required three samples, while the smaller ones only required two. My wife had to carry a GPS system to accurately record the positions of each sample and each one consisted of a few hundred grams of surface material. All of this had to be recorded while the sampling was taking place.

Doing science on the beach.

In the end, 32 bags of sand was collected from 8 beaches. And boy did the collective weight add up!

Sand ain’t light weight!

Just a few yards walk from the cottage stood an old war grave yard with an interesting pre-Christian Pictish stone. But I was much more interested in watching a platoon of screeching Swallows flitting to and fro over the weathered gravestones in pursuit of flying insects with the little Leica glass. It’s not the ideal birding binocular, that’s for sure, with its rather small field of view(6.5 degrees) and small exit pupil compared with a larger compact glass, but it certainly did the job admirably enough throughout the trip.

The old Commonwealth Grave yard, Poolewe.

The cottage had a little booklet advertising all the goings on in the catchment area. My interest was especially piqued by the number of local churches; Catholic, Church of Scotland, the Free Church and the Episcopalians to name just a few. Alas, none were open at the time of our visit but I was pleased to see that many were conducting online services on Sundays to cater for the spiritual needs of their congregations. The people of the northwest of Scotland and the Highlands and Islands still maintain a strong Christian faith; in sharp contradistinction to the secularism now all too common in the main towns and cities in and around the central belt.

The furthest north we ventured was Ullapool, located about 45 miles northwest of Inverness(the northernmost city in the British Isles). Here you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Lewis. Normally, this small seaside town is teeming with tourists at this time of year but because of the pandemic(or is it a scamdemic?) its streets and shops were unusually quiet. We enjoyed having a rummage through the various nick-nack shops looking for small gifts for our family and friends. I was delighted to find a book shop there as well, where I was able to pick up a title on introductory birding by the comedian(remember the Goodies?) and veteran twitcher, Bill Oddie. Truth be told, I had no idea how anyone could say so much about our feathered friends!

It made hilarious evening reading!

Packed full of infectious enthusiasm and many hilarious moments.

There are many fine hills and mountains to climb in the region but on this trip we did not attempt any. Perhaps the most imposing is Ben Eighe, just south of Loch Maree. Towering over 2,000 feet above the surrounding plains, it forms a chain of mountains in Wester Ross, two of which exceed 3,000 feet in elevation and are thus designated proper Munros.

Benn Eighe, Wester Ross.

If the evening remained fine, I would take a stroll down the road from the cottage to do a spot of glassing with the Leica pocket binocular along the River Ewe, linking Loch Maree with the open sea. One of the shortest rivers in the UK, at scarcely one mile long, the Ewe has long been prized by anglers for its Sea Trout and Salmon. And because it is so close to the sea, its appearance can change dramatically from hour to hour!

River Ewe- view from the bridge at high tide.

All in all, this was a very refreshing family trip away, with many fond memories of grand beaches, delicious lunches and gorgeous scenery – all provided courtesy of our Creator.

And, God willing, we will return here again some sunny day!

Looking down on Loch Maree.

Neil English is an avid optics enthusiast who is currently enjoying a new lease of life sorting out what’s what in the world of binoculars. If you like his work, why not consider making a small personal donation or consider purchasing one of his seven books. Thanks for reading!

 

De Fideli.

Product Review: The Viking Merlin ED 8 x 32.

The Merlin ED 8 x 32 by Viking Optical UK.

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

Waterproof: Yes

Fogproof/Nitrogen purging: Yes

Focusing: Central

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!

Calvin Jones’ binocular guide booklet( 2017 edition).

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.”

Comment:

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?

Aye right!

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.

Going Minimal

After I cut off the bits of the neck strap I won’t be needing, I take a lighted match to the ends and melt it for a few seconds to stop it from fraying at some later stage.

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!

The minimalist Merlin 8 x 32 weighs in at just 561g.

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.

Concluding Remarks

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.

The rather under-sized carry case supplied with the Merlin ED 8 x 32 is substantially bettered by a larger clamshell case like that shown in the picture above. Just remember to include a sachet of silica gel desiccant to adsorb any unwanted moisture.

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 making a small cash donation (see  the homepage) or by purchasing one of his seven published works.

 

De Fideli.

Product Review: Viking Optical Kestrel 8 x 42 Binocular.

The Viking Optical Kestrel 8 x 42 binocular.

A work begun July 1 2020

Preamble:

** New  Review 5 added below, as well as an expanded conclusion towards the end of the blog.

  Review 1

  Review 2

  Review 3

  Review 4

** Review 5

Specification: 8 x 42

Eye Relief: 17.2mm

Field of View: 8.1 angular degrees (142m@1000m)/

Measured at 8.0 degrees in field tests

ED glass: Yes

Body: High density Polycarbonate, textured rubberised overcoat.

Weight: 692g

Coatings: Fully Multi-Coated

Dielectric Phase Coating: Yes

Dimensions: 12cm x 12cm x 4.5cm

Nitrogen Purged: Yes

Waterproof: Yes (1.5m for 3 min)

Tripod Mountable: Yes

Accessories: Padded soft case, high quality lanyard, instruction sheet

Warranty: 10 years

Retail Price: £205 UK

 

The British optics firm, Charles Frank of Glasgow, has been selling and repairing optical instruments for nearly three and a half decades. In 2016, the firm moved south to Halesworth, Suffolk, where they changed their name to Viking Optical. Recently, the company launched an exciting range of affordable roof prism binoculars featuring a number of impressive optical features exhibited in their Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine(all keen eyed raptors) binoculars. Three models are offered in 8 x 32, 8 x 42 and 10 x 42 configurations, and all feature fully multi-coated optics, dielectrically coated and phase corrected BAK 4 prisms and objectives containing ED glass elements in a fully waterproof housing. Although all these models are assembled in China, I reasoned that their acquired knowledge in repairing binoculars over many years would put them in a strong position to offer a quality experience, so I pulled the plug and decided to order up the 8 x 42 Kestrel model for optical testing and evaluation.

First Impressions

The package as received.

The binocular was ordered up from Amazon and the instrument arrived in the evening of the following day. I was immediately impressed with the packaging of the Kestrel. Instead of the regular colour-saturated cardboard box that usually attends many of the binoculars that have passed through these parts, I received a very fetching presentation box with the phrase “Extend Your Horizons” printed on top. After removing an outer slip case, the binocular and accessories were carefully packaged away inside.

The inner box containing the binocular and accessories features an inspiring outdoor scene.

The package contained the binocular inside its soft padded case, a high quality padded neck strap and one page instruction sheet with details of the warranty. The company states that the binocular went through several stages of testing before the instrument was finally packaged up for distribution. Both the ocular and objective lenses came with standard soft rubber caps which can be permanently affixed to the binocular. I was half expecting a lens cleaning cloth but none was provided.

The binocular has a very attractive appearance, with the optics housed inside a strong polycarbonate body overlaid by an anthracite-coloured, texturised rubber armouring. While I have used binoculars with magnesium alloy bodies before, I have not noticed any particular advantage of using metal bodies over their synthetic polymer counterparts, except perhaps to shave off some excess weight. But at 692g, this binocular is not exactly heavy. Indeed, surveying the market in 8 x 42 roof prism binoculars quickly reveals that the weight of the Kestrel falls into the median in the range for instruments of this specification.

The fetching anthracite colour of the binocular is beautifully complemented by the sky blue logo of the company and its ED billing inlaid on the top surface of the instrument. I’m not normally taken much aback by the cosmetic appearance of a binocular but I must admit to really liking the colour scheme of this instrument!

The Viking Kestrel has a rugged anthracite body with the company’s attractive sky blue logo inlaid on the bridge.

The binocular has a single centrally placed hinge that is reassuringly rigid. Once adjusted to get your particular interpupillary distance (IPD) right, it stays in place even when taken out of and placed back inside of its padded case.  Both the focus wheel and right eye dioptre are constructed from metal and coarsely stippled for maximum grip. The twist-up eye cups are of very high quality, rubber over metal that offer 3 positions. With a very generous eye relief of 17.5mm(measured), they afford very comfortable viewing for those who wear eye glasses and those who don’t. Most importantly, when clicked into place they hold their position very solidly, even after an undue amount of pressure is applied.

The underside of the body has two small thumb rests which allow your fingers to naturally gravitate towards when handling in the field. Overall, I found the Kestrel to be very ergonomically designed.

Details of the underside of the Viking Kestrel 8 x 42 binocular.

The focus wheel moves with what I would describe as slow-to-standard progression. There is a little bit of play in it which can sometimes result in over- or under- focusing, especially when imaging a fast moving object, but overall I felt it was perfectly adequate for most purposes one would use a binocular like this for. The wheel moves through 1.5 revolutions from its close focus to beyond infinity. Having a little extra focus travel beyond the infinity setting may not have any immediate advantages, but I’ve found that it is quite important when attempting to clean up the image at the periphery of the field. In other words, having a slightly longer focus travel can help alleviate some of the off-axis Seidel aberrations found on most any binocular image.

The objective lenses on the Kestrel have very nice and evenly applied anti-reflection coatings.

The attractive cyan coloured anti-reflection coatings on the Kestrel ED binocular.

What’s more, they are very deeply recessed – exceptionally so, I’d say. I measured them at a whopping 10mm – significantly deeper than any other binocular I have encountered. This affords exceptional protection against rain, and wind-borne dust and will also attenuate the build up of contrast-robbing dew.

The objectives are recessed a whopping 10mm or so helping to keep dist, spray and dew at bay during field use,.

All in all, I was well pleased with the ergonomics and physical presentation of the Kestrel, but all of that counts for nought if the optics are not up to scratch.

Mounting the binocular on a tripod is easy to do by unscrewing the stalk at the front end of the bridge, between the two barrels,and which enabled me to test the collimation of the instrument by observing well defined targets on a hillside a few miles distant, looking for both horizontal and vertical asymmetries in the images presented in both optical tube assemblies. To my relief, the Kestrel showed no misalignment issues.

Stray light tests

No roof prism binocular, no matter how well made, can perfectly stave off unwanted reflections, diffraction artifacts and diffused light when a very strong light source is directed inside the instrument Setting up my standard iphone torch light test, I was very impressed with the results I obtained with the Kestrel. I used two controls to compare the views with this instrument; my trusty Barr & Stroud Savannah(which exhibits excellent stray light control and very subdued diffraction spikes) and my superlative Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20 pocket glass, which, until now, offered the best results I have recorded in such tests.  Well, the Kestrel served up an exceptionally clean image, with very low unwanted reflections and an almost imperceptible diffraction spike. The result bested the Barr & Stroud binocular and was the equal of the Leica but with a far less obvious diffraction spike! Furthermore, just like my two binocular controls, diffused light was pretty much non existent.

Stray light control instruments: the Viking Kestrel (bottom) with the Barr & Stroud Savannah (top).

Further testing on a sodium street light confirmed the same results; the view through the Kestrel had well nigh perfect results with no annoying internal reflections, zero diffused light and no diffraction spikes! I did however detect rather strong off-axis flaring with the Kestrel, which was more pronounced than in the control binoculars, as evidenced by placing the street light just outside the field stop of the instrument.

The Viking Kestrel (top) tested against the Leica Trinovid BCA (bottom).

Overall, I was very pleased with the outcome of these stray light tests, which suggested that the Kestrel would likely deliver exceptionally punchy images, rich in contrast during normal daylight use.

Daytime testing

My first day of testing took place on an overcast June day. Examining some tree trunks a few tens of yards distant showed a very wide and wonderfully sharp and vibrant image. Compared with my Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42, the colour tone was noticeably more neutral in the Kestrel compared with the very warm yellowish tones in the former. Within its large sweet spot, I judged the image sharpness to be a tad better in the Kestrel than in the Barr & Stroud. Examining the summit of a nearby hill against a bright overcast sky also revealed that the Kestrel was better corrected for chromatic aberration as judged by the absence of a very faint sliver of blue fringing at the boundary between the summit and the background sky. The achromatic Barr & Stroud did show that fringe in the same test.

That said, it soon became clear to me that the Kestrel was showing some lens flare in a portion of the image similar to what I had previously detected in my sodium street lamp test, reducing its contrast in comparison to my control binocular. This flaring could be removed by simply placing my hand over the objectives, blocking off some of the bright light from the sky above it. The flaring was also reduced by observing through an open or closed window under a roof but always reappeared once I re-emerged into the out of doors.

The flaring was only slight though and I suspect that most folk wouldn’t have even noticed it, but once you see it it’s very hard to ignore it, especially since the less expensive Barr & Stroud Savannah did not exhibit such behaviour. Examining the exit pupils showed up a significant amount of light leakage which you can see in the image below:

I decided that I would contact Viking Optical describing the problem I had encountered to see if they were willing to have a technician look at the binocular. So, I fired off an email to them, describing the problem as best I could, and within a few minutes they got back to me asking if I’d be willing to send them the instrument so that they could properly assess its performance. I agreed, so back went the binocular into its case and box for shipping down to Suffolk.

I will continue this review as soon as I receive word on its progress.

A Change of Heart

I spent the afternoon of July 2 2020 comparing and contrasting the views through my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 with the Kestrel 8 x 42 as well as the Barr & Stroud in bright sunny conditions. I detected the same weak veiling glare in the Leica and the Barr & Stroud  as I did in the Kestrel. Indeed, truth be told, it was more severe in the Leica than in the Kestrel on the same test objects, which I think is caused by its complete lack of any recession of its objective lenses. It was however a little less intense on the Barr & Stroud, but in every case it could be eliminated by shading the objectives with my hand. So I reached the conclusion that it is I who was really at fault. I have come to expect too much and have learned to spot tiny imperfections in optical performance. Furthermore, those light leaks around the Kestrel exit pupil lie outside of where my eyes intercept the image, and so will have little or no effect on the performance of the binocular.

Absolute perfection just cannot be obtained no matter how well made the binocular is. I therefore decided not to bother Viking with my petty complaint and will email them tomorrow morning informing them that I do not wish to pursue this matter, as well as to congratulate them on designing an excellent glass at such a good retail price.

Methinks a large slice of humble pie for tea is in order!

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An Aside: Veiling glare reported in the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 binocular

A very bad case of glare in a Swarovski CL Companion 10 x 30

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Tests on Light Transmission

As I described in numerous previous blogs, the Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42 is an excellent wide angle binocular, especially for its very modest retail price(£120UK), but I understand that it does not have the brightest dielectric coatings on the roof prisms( they may be either silver or aluminium). I therefore expected the Kestrel to deliver brighter images in low light conditions. So I ventured out at dusk on the overcast evening of July 1st 2020 and began comparing the views in both the Kestrel and the Savannah. Starting at about 10.15pm local time and ending at 10:40pm, I conducted simple A/B tests on some tree branches about 40 yards distant,  evaluating the brightness of the image in the binoculars as the light slowly drained from the landscape. These tests did show that the Kestrel served up the brighter images, as I would expect if they had better coatings, but the difference wasn’t exactly night and day. It was only a little bit brighter at best, becoming most apparent toward the end of the testing than at the beginning.

Investigating Claims that ED Glass Produces Brighter Images

I was also able to conduct more tests to ascertain if the presence of ED glass produces brighter images than an instrument with no ED glass. To make the test as fair as possible, I needed a binocular with good dielectric coatings but without ED glass. So, I borrowed my son’s Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32 which I reviewed in an earlier blog. This binocular does have those all important dielectric coatings on the roof prisms and is also fully multi-coated like the Kestrel ED binocular. Because the apertures are different, I made an aperture stop of 32mm diameter from cardboard and placed it over one of the 42mm objectives on the Kestrel as shown below:

I tested the images served up with the stopped-down objective on the Kestrel, comparing them with those garnered by the full-aperture Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32, using the same eye to examine both. Again I performed these tests at dusk, when the test tree branches some 40 yard distant were in deep twilight. The results were quite revealing! Conducting the same A/B testing as before, I concluded that there was very little difference in their perceived brightness. I did however give the nod to the Kestrel though, but only just!

This is the second test of this nature that I have conducted, with both results seeming to indicate that ED glass either does not confer brighter images, or, if it does, it’s marginal at best.

This is at odds with bold claims made by many sources in the online literature and is widely adopted as a marketing stratagem to sell binoculars to the public.

Like I stated before, it’s not so much the ED elements as much as the coatings that distinguish an average binocular from a great one!

Further Notes on Glare, its Causes & its Management

Our long summer days here in Scotland are a godsend, not only because they allow one to observe for longer durations in warm or mild weather but, as I’ve been discovering, they afford many opportunities to conduct experiments with my binoculars. Today proved to be a good day to get to grips with the glare I’ve been observing with my instruments. The afternoon was very bright and sunny but as the afternoon gave way to evening, the skies became very overcast again, so I was able to test out two very different binoculars – the Leica Trinovid and the Viking Kestrel – in these very different conditions. I now believe I have a better understanding of what causes glare in these glasses, and so, by extension, in all binoculars.

The first observation I have made is that glare is actually a lot less problematic during sunny spells than it is during overcast spells. When the Sun is shining in a sky with little cloud cover, the main light source i.e.the Sun, is concentrated in one direction and so long as you are not looking at something very near the Sun, relatively little or no glare is noticed. For example, when glassing tree trunks located at the edge of a strongly shaded copse, with the afternoon Sun illuminating it from the side, glare is very well subdued in both binoculars. This kind of glare manifests itself as a localised crescent or arc at the bottom of the binocular image with much of the rest of the field being largely unaffected. The worst culprit is the little Leica Trinovid, as its objectives have no protection from stray ambient light. The Kestrel does significantly better under the same conditions because its objective lenses are located at the bottom of a 10mm deep ‘well’ which acts as a very effective lens hood, a trick long known to photographers.

But under overcast skies, where strong summer sunlight is diffused by extensive cloud cover, glare becomes much more of a problem in both instruments and seems to be more spread out in the binocular image. Glassing the same tree trunks at the edge of a shaded copse produces noticeably lower contrast images than under sunnier conditions; even when glassing near the Sun. The reason for this must be due to the fact that in the open air, under overcast conditions, with a bright sky overhead, there are many more locations where the light can reflect off the spacers between the objective lens elements at the bottom of the binocular objective, which in turn causes this flaring to spread out or diffuse across the binocular image, reducing contrast in a more noticeable way. This is referred to as veiling glare. So overcast skies appear to produce greater damage to the image because it has a greater potential to affect the entire field than much more localised crescent glare observed in clear sunny conditions. What is more, bigger glasses, which collect more light will show this type of glare well into twilight, whereas in smaller glasses which can’t collect as much light, the same glare can’t be seen!

Consulting a birding forum, I was able to verify this and I also learned that even alpha binoculars suffer from this problem. The poor chap was complaining about glare on his maiden voyage with his fancy new Zeiss Victory FL 8 x 42 and more knowledgeable glassers were able to chime in and offer some detailed explanations and a hefty dose of sympathy for good measure!

Three points to summarise all of this:

  1. The worst effects of glare can be removed by simply shielding the binocular objectives from the offending light source using your hand.
  2. Glare is a fact of life for most any glass, from the most humble to the most advanced. It’s par for the course and we must accept it and move on!
  3. Glassing under the canopy of a forest or in an observing booth with a roof over your head, or even donning a broad-rimmed hat will all but eliminate the worst effects of glare.

Further Notes on using the Viking Kestrel in the Field

Saturday July 3 2020

After a day of heavy rain, the clouds cleared off in the evening, leaving a tranquil blue sky. It was the perfect opportunity to go for a long walk around the picturesque Culcreuch Castle Estate with the Viking Kestrel 8 x 42. The instrument feels very solid in my hands and its fine mechanics work flawlessly. The quality padded neck strap with the company’s fetching colour logo proved very comfortable to use.  I stopped to say hello to a pair of Mute Swans and their family of five cygnets at Culcreuch Pond. The binocular served up beautiful, pin-sharp, views of the pure white plumage of the adults wonderfully contrasted with their rusty orange beaks and jet black foreheads. The cygnets had almost lost their fluffy down feathers by now and had developed their attractive tawny drapery, which stood out well against the sullen waters beneath them. And though the surface of the pond dappled in strong reflected sunlight, the binocular served up flawless images with incredible contrast and no annoying reflections.

Ambling up the path a little further, I enjoyed a fascinating fifteen minute excursion watching a group of Swallows perform their incredible feats of aeronautics (far more advanced than any human made flying machine) swooping and gliding with great speed and agility, gorging on low flying insects along a large grassy lawn immediately in front of the castle. The Kestrel proved to be a magnificent instrument to follow them, with its very large and well corrected field of view. Their prominent forked tails, iridescent blue-black upper body and almost comical, chocolate-brown faces could easily be made out as they flitted across the field of view. A lady out walking her dog, obviously curious about my glassing, stopped to tell me that a few big storms had threatened these migratory birds earlier in the year, reducing the numbers reaching our shores from Africa. It put a big smile on her face to see that it was business as usual for these noisy summer visitors!

These experiences convinced me that the Viking Kestrel 8 x 42 will make an excellent birding binocular with its superb contrast, sharpness and colour correction, not to mention its super-comfortable twist-up eye cups, generous exit pupil size and smooth focusing wheel.  As I continued to walk, I enjoyed glassing the intense colour of mature green leaves drenched with life-giving rains that made them glisten intensely in the early evening sunshine. I almost lost myself observing the intricately textured bark high up in their canopies against a gorgeous blue sky beyond. That said I must also report that there is very mild pincushion distortion at the edge of the field but certainly not enough to cause any alarm.

After sunset I ventured out again to catch a nearly full Moon skirting low in the south-southeast at about 11pm local time. To get a good unobstructed view I had to take a walk about half way up Culcreuch Castle Road. But it was worth it. The almost full Moon in all its glory hovered just above the tree line beyond a gently sloping hill, its low altitude imparting a yellowish cast to its normal pale silver countenance. The image served up in the Kestrel was gorgeous, pin-sharp across almost the entire field, with beautiful contrast and nary a sign of any internal reflections. This will make an awesome Moon glass! As usual, I noted that the Moon remained sharper when glassed horizontally than vertically; again very normal behaviour for a binocular.

Round about a quarter to local midnight, the sky had gotten sufficiently dark to make out the familiar asterism of the Plough high in the northwest. This afforded a perfect opportunity to estimate the size of the field of view. Well, I was able to hold Phecda and Merak in the same binocular field, which I estimated to be 7.9 angular degrees apart, with a tiny sliver of open sky available before it reached the field stop. Thus, I was confident that the ~8.0 degree field I measured was close enough to the quoted 8.1 figure stated in its official specifications. What is more, I glassed the bright orange star, Arcturus, high in the west-southwest, carefully examining the sharpness of the stellar image as it moved from the centre of the field all the way to the field stop. The results were good here too; Arcturus remained nice and pin sharp across most of the field with only the outer 10 per cent showing significant distortion, but there was no ballooning of the star like some inferior models I’ve glassed with in the past. That said, I was still able to play with the focus a little to tidy the image up somewhat at the edge of the field. All in all, I came away convinced that this would make an excellent star gazing glass. I can’t wait to use it later in the summer when truly dark stars return to our shores.

A most impressive performer.

Conclusions

There are good reasons why the 8 x 42 configuration is considered the darling glass for birders, hunters and general nature observers. The extreme comfort with which it meets with your eyes, moderate weight and great low light performance are just a few reasons why they have proven so popular. The Viking Kestrel 8 x 42 is packed full of hi-tech optical features and has very solid mechanics that will ensure it will serve you well for many years. The quality of the image is so good that it will rival those served up by models costing many times more. Indeed, if you’re saving up for a premium glass, I would strongly recommend you try this model first.  It could well be all the binocular you really need!

As you can see from reading the string of reviews posted at the beginning of this blog, the testers were pretty much unanimous in their praise of this extraordinary binocular, and for a retail price of just over £200 UK, I feel it represents exceptional value for money. Indeed, one reviewer thought that the Kestrels were the real winners from the entire Viking Optical range, especially when you consider bang for buck. What’s more, so far as I can tell, the more expensive Peregrine range (retailing for just over £300 UK) are distinguished from the Kestrel only in terms of weight and field of view. The Peregrine tips the scales at 600g, so shaving off about 15 per cent of the weight of the Kestrel, but it also has a smaller field of view (7.0 vs ~ 8.0 degrees). To many enthusiasts, these alterations will probably make little or no difference to their viewing enjoyment, so I would recommend you try the Kestrel before considering the Merlin or Peregrine models from the same company!

It really is a steal!

Viking Optical also has a solid reputation for repairing binoculars and this is yet another reason why it is an especially attractive option for British twitchers, in particular. If something should go wrong with your Viking binocular, you can be confident that their technical staff will repair it if it’s under warranty or, failing that, for a reasonable fee. And that’s very good to know!

Highly recommended!

 

 

Neil English is an avid glasser and telescopist who is firmly on the side of the money conscious consumer. If you like his work, please support him by buying one of his books. Thanks for reading!

 

De Fideli.

 

Thoughts on the Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21 Binocular.

The Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21.

A work began July 9 2020

 

Preamble

Binocular: Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21mm

Cost: £85.99 delivered

Optics: Reverse Porro /patented converging objectives for ultra-close focus

Coatings: Fully Multi-coated

Exit Pupil: 2.47mm

Field of View: 6.0 degrees (105m @1000m/ 315ft@1000yards)

Focus Range: 18 inches to infinity

Eye Relief: 15mm

Weight: 295g

Tripod Mountable: Yes

Dimensions: 11.6 x 11.0cm(L/H)

Nitrogen Purging: No

Waterproof: No

Accessories: High quality neck strap, rain guard, carry case, instruction manual and warranty card.

 

In a previous review, I expressed my astonishment at the quality of the views served up by the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21. Not only did it deliver extraordinary, ultra-close up views of the creation quite unreachable by any conventional binocular, but it also impressed when functioning in its normal way, when imaging objects at a distance. The little Papilio also has a higher power sibling, delivering a power of 8.5x with the same size objective(21mm). In this blog I would like to offer my opinions on how it performs on its own terms but also in comparison to the 6.5x model as well as a very high quality control instrument; the Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20, which I reviewed some time ago.

Now, you’ll appreciate that these kinds of tests are hardly ever done by other glassing enthusiasts, partly because it will almost always be assumed that a binocular costing £85 could never compete with a glass retailing for nearly £400. Furthermore, when you are in possession of one of the most elegantly designed pocket glasses in the world, you don’t want to be told that something a lot cheaper could even compete with it. It’s only human nature to take pride in an expensive glass from a world-class optics firm, but this kind of pride, when taken too far, can blind you to greater and more important truths.

Having said that, these two compact binoculars are very different beasts; the little Leica is a roof prism binocular and is optically more complex than the Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21, which has a much simpler, reverse porro prism design. And because the latter is simpler, it’s easier to make well, so the rather enormous price differential between the two instruments doesn’t really tell the whole story, as I was to find out.

Let’s first take a few moments to compare the specifications on both the Leica and the 8.5x Papilio II. The Pentax delivers a power of 8.5x with a 21mm aperture objective giving an exit pupil of 2.47mm. The Leica delivers a slightly lower power of 8x with an objective aperture of 20mm and so yields a very similar exit pupil size of 2.50mm. The Leica weighs in at 235g whilst the Papilio tips the scales at 295g, So both can be carried pretty much anywhere with ease, based on weight considerations alone. There is a considerable size difference though, as you can clearly see from the photo below; the Leica is a true pocket-sized glass, capable of being folded up in such a way that it fits easily in the palm of your hand. The Papilio, while still very compact, cannot achieve this level of compactness. So, if storage size is set at an absolute premium, the Leica would be the obvious choice. That said, are there really that many circumstances where the storage size difference really matters that much? I would argue that in most realistic situations, this difference isn’t that important.

Stray light and Internal Reflection Tests

Managing stray light inside a binocular is an important parameter in delivering contrast in a binocular image. Thankfully this is easily assessed by aiming the glass at an intense source of bright light like your iphone torch set to its maximum brightness setting and examining the images garnered through the test instrument. As I explained in my review of the lower power 6.5x Papilio II, I was quite impressed with the results I got. There were some internal reflections but they were quite feeble in comparison to many other models I have tested. The Papilio II 8.5x was not as good in comparison. It showed noticeably brighter internal reflections than the 6.5x instrument but the image was still quite clean, with very little diffused light around the light beam and no diffraction spikes. In comparison, the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 was much better. The internal reflections were much more aggressively suppressed(but still there!) and the image was cleaner and had practically zero diffused light around the light beam. It did however, show a pronounced diffraction spike in comparison to both Papilio binoculars.

Predictably, these internal reflections were also more apparent in the 8.5x Papilio II than in its 6.5x counterpart when pointed at a bright sodium street lamp. That said, I didn’t consider this a serious flaw, as I have tested many binoculars showing considerably worse performance that still delivered good daytime views.I would however expect that the 8.5x model might show up more in the way of internal reflections when pointed at bright astronomical sources like the full Moon.

The difference in performance between the 6.5x and 8.5x in regard to controlling stray light is likely attributed to less rigorous quality control in the manufacture of these binoculars. This is probably par for the course for these low cost instruments. It is wholly realistic to expect significant inter-individual performance differences with these mass produced binos, where one sample delivers excellent stray light suppression and another delivering not so good performance in the same tests.

Veiling Glare Tests

As I explained in much more detail in a previous blog, veiling glare is a phenomenon that manifests itself in all binoculars, no matter how well designed they are. It can be seen when glassing in the open air on an overcast day while imaging a deeply shaded target, such as the edge of a wooded area. The most likely cause of this is due to reflections off the bottom lens spacers between the objective lenses, which manifests as a ‘cloudiness’ that covers much of the field reducing contrast in the binocular image. I tested the two Papilio binoculars as well as the Leica Trinovid in this regard and the results were interesting but not entirely surprising!

Both Papilios showed considerably less veiling glare compared with the little Leica. Imaging a shaded copse under a bright overcast July sky showed that the little butterfly binoculars were controlling this rather annoying glare much better than the far more expensive Leica glass. The reason for this is probably due to the fact that the Leica objectives are almost completely exposed to the overhead light as they are not recessed as deeply as the Papilios, which house their objective lenses well behind an optically flat glass window and so are much better protected from the ambient light. I found the differences between them to be quite striking, so much so that it could make all the difference between seeing something clearly and not seeing it at all! Thankfully, veiling glare is easy to remove from the image by simply shading the objectives with your hand, but it was interesting to see how differences in design can manifest quite striking differences in performance in this regard.

Daylight Optical Performance 

After adjusting the click-stop dioptre ring under the right eye ocular lens, I began to test the Papilio II 8.5 x 21 on a variety of targets and compared it to the Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20. I found this higher power Papilio to a very good optically. The images were clean and sharp and high in contrast. Indeed, they were very similar to those served up by the Leica glass. Looking critically at some tree trunks illuminated by bright sunlight showed that both glasses served up the same amount of fine detail. Contrast was a shade better in the Leica glass. Edge of field correction was also very similar in both glasses too, with both showing very mild pincushion distortion near the field stop. I did however detect slightly more lateral colour in the Papilio II than in the Leica but I felt that it did not detract much from the quality of the image.

However, I found some significant differences in depth of focus when comparing both binoculars though. The Pentax Papilio had a noticeably shallower field depth compared with the Leica and, as a result, renders it that little bit harder to focus accurately. I found myself slightly under or over shooting the focus wheel on the Papilio II before I got the precise focus required while glassing a variety of targets in the open air. This might have been expected knowing that depth of field seems to decrease with increasing binocular magnification, although in this case the difference was small (8.5x for the Papilio and 8.0x for the Leica), so the discrepancies I noted might well be due attributed to differences in design of the binoculars than anything else.

I didn’t think a difference of 0.5x increase on the Papilio II would give a noticeable increase in image scale, but I was wrong about that. This represents a 6 per cent increase in image scale and that’s large enough to notice! What this means is that the 8.5x Papilio II will give you slightly more reach with small or distant targets while glassing under good seeing conditions.

I must also report that my eyes were experiencing more in the way of blackouts in the Papilio II 8.5 x 21 compared with the Leica Trinovid though. I attribute this to my lack of practice centring my eyeball properly inside the large eyepiece cups on the Papilio. In comparison, the smaller eyecups on the Leica make centring that little bit easier to accomplish since I have had far more practice with the latter than the former glass. But I would expect these blackouts to reduce in frequency with more practice. The reader will note however that the eye relief is slightly more generous in the Papilio than on the Leica(15mm in comparison to 14mm, respectively). And since the Papilio II 8.5 x 21 has a smaller field of view than the Leica (6.0 and 6.5 degrees, respectively), it will be easier to image the entire field with it compared with the Leica glass.

Of course, one of the key ways in which the Papilio II 8.5 x 21 trumps the Leica is in close focus. The former, which has a patented converging objective lens design, enables its users to obtain stunning ultra-close views of flowers, insects, rocks, gemstones  etc, which simply cannot be achieved with the cute little Leica glass. Indeed, the close focus of the Leica Trinovid (~3 metres) is rather lacklustre in comparison with other pocket glasses I have used in the past, so if butterfly or insect viewing is your thing, the Papilio IIs will serve you much better.

Low Light Performance

Though such small aperture binoculars have limited use in low light situations, such as those encountered during dusk or dawn, I wanted to establish whether there was much of a difference, if any, between both glasses when imaging the same target under twilight conditions that we encounter here in central Scotland during the middle months of the year.  Venturing out about 10pm in the second week of July, I compared the brightness of the images served up by both the Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21 and the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20, by examining tree branches situated about 40 yards distant. My results were very encouraging; both glasses seemed to be delivering equally bright images under these conditions, with the nod going to the Leica. I expected this result owing to the similar exit pupil size of both instruments as well as the application of good anti-reflection coatings to the optical components. This indicated that the Papilio IIs have very good light transmission, which is an important commodity in any binocular.

Some Astronomical Tests

With all the churches shut down, I was able to carry out some tests on both the Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21 and the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 in the wee small hours of Sunday July 12. Starting about 2.20am local time, I ventured out to witness a bright, last quarter Moon rising in the east, and just a few degrees above it and slightly off to the west, fiery red Mars.The sky was not fully dark but still bathed in twilight. Comparing the views in both the Papilio and the Leica, I noticed some very weak internal reflections in the Papilio which were not present in the Leica. Moving the Moon laterally from the centre to the edge, I observed that the Papilio showed some significant darkening  towards the edges but thanks to its aspherical eyepieces, the image of the Moon stayed sharp. In comparison, the Leica showed much less drop off in illumination at the edge of its field.

But things were noticeably different when I repeated the same test in the vertical direction. Again, placing the Moon in the centre of the field, and then gradually moving it to either the top or bottom field stops in both binoculars, the little Leica proved to be the clear winner. The Moon was much more strongly de-focused in the Papilio than in the Leica at the edges of the field. Keeping the Moon at the bottom edge of the field, I could compensate a bit by refocusing the Papilio to make the image of the Moon more presentable, but  alas, ruddy Mars had ballooned in size at the opposite side of the field. In comparison, the Leica image was much more together, indicating that its field of view was flatter overall and better corrected.

In addition, I judged the contrast to be significantly better in the Leica than in the Papilio. Indeed, of all the roof prism binoculars I have tested(with the possible exception of a Swarovski 10 x 42 EL Range), the Leica consistently produces the best contrast when viewing the Moon. Time and time again, the lunar vistas served up by this tiny binocular are quite simply breathtaking and have to be seen to be believed!

So, once again, the Leica pulled ahead in this rather severe test. Leica engineers have designed good field flattening lenses for the Trinovids which guarantee better edge of field correction than that exhibited in many other models. Indeed, truth be told, the Leica has edge of field performance up there with the best roof prism binoculars I have so far tested.

Ergonomics

One of the issues some binocular enthusiasts have with the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 pertains to its small size. It is true that this glass can be quite fiddly to set the correct IPD and exact pupil position when glassing. This is much easier to achieve with the Papilios. That said, since I tend to keep the Leica eyecups in the extended position, it increases its overall physical size and so makes it easier to handle when taking out of and placing it back into its case for storage. The Leica has a very fine focusing wheel but it’s rather on the small side so could prove tricky to operate, especially in winter, when using gloves. The Pentax Papilio II, in comparison, is much easier to handle owing to its larger size which fits my hands better. What’s more, the larger focus wheel is considerably easier to negotiate even with gloves on. Indeed, one of the greatest virtues of the Pentax Papilio binoculars is the large, silky smooth focusing wheel on both models which is essential for bringing objects into focus rapidly from extreme close-up right out to infinity.

The dioptre setting on the Leica is located on the right objective. It cannot be locked in place but does hold its position firmly for many months if not disturbed. Indeed, I have never needed to adjust it since I first acquired the instrument earlier this year. In contrast, the dioptre setting on the Pentax Papilio II is located in a ring under the right ocular. It too can be adjusted by twisting the ring but it has neat little click stops that keep it firmly in place without you ever having to worry about. As I said when reviewing the 6.5x Papilio II, this is a very clever engineering solution applied to great effect on this low-cost binocular!

The Leica glass is better suited to changes in the weather however. Unlike the Papilio IIs, which are neither fog nor water proof, the Leica is filled with dry nitrogen to prevent fogging of the internal optical components in cold weather, which are therefore sealed off from the outside environment. The Leica is splash proof rather than fully waterproof, which means that it can be used in light rain or humid environments without worrying about the build up of internal moisture and, in the long term, fungal infestations. Indeed I have heard of glassers who have used the little Leica in the high humidity of tropical rain forests for weeks and months on end, where they have reported flawless performance from this tiny glass.

Additionally, the Leica binocular has special ‘Aquadura’ coatings applied to the outside lens elements to repel water droplets and dust, as well as dissipating fog accidentally built up on the lenses should the user breathe on the oculars or objectives during cold weather applications. The Papilio IIs do not have these coating technologies.

Another notable difference between both glasses pertains to their ability to be mounted to a tripod. The Leica has no such facility but the Papilio II can easily be mated to such stabilising devices.

Implications

A few weeks experience with both Papilios has proven to be very instructive. Indeed, it has forced me to radically re-think the pocket binoculars I now wish to use going forward. In my opinion, the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 is the gem of the pair. While I would rate the 8.5x as good, the 6.5x is excellent! Indeed my tests have convinced me that I could do without my Zeiss Terra 8 x 25 ED. The Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 has taken its place because it offers me the same comfortable viewing experience, an even wider field of view (7.5 degrees vs 6.8 degrees) and also doubles up as an excellent field microscope when I need it, with its incredible close focus(0.5m). In fact, the entire episode triggered a selling off of a whole string of models I had recently acquired, as I don’t like hoarding equipment. The Zeiss was a very sweet instrument, and everything I have said about it still holds true, but I simply couldn’t justify holding onto two premium models in the pocket size range after my experiences with the Papilio 6.5 x 21. The latter has turned out to be a more versatile than any 8 x 25! The Zeiss went for a good price( it has excellent re-sale value) and to a good home!

My younger son, Douglas, has expressed a particular interest in the 6.5 x Papilio and has been caught hogging it and showing it off to his pals, so I decided to let him have it on the proviso that he look after it properly and I can borrow it from time to time. Now everyone in the family has a pocket or compact binocular!

The Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 has now become my instrument of choice as a general purpose pocket glass for travel and leisure. At first I treated it as somewhat of an ‘expensive toy’ that was more a curiosity than anything else, but after a while that preyed on my conscience. The Leica was designed to be used and used hard in the field. It was not designed to be an ornament or to be pampered inside a glass case.  By using it extensively in the field for hours on end, I have finally come to grips with its small exit pupil and I no longer experience any blackouts with it as I had experienced when I first used it some months back. And though the Trinovid is an expensive piece of kit as pocket glasses go, it will serve me well for decades. How do I know this? Well, check out this recent youtube review from a chap who owned and used a Leitz (the older name for Leica)10 x 25 Trinovid since the 1970s, but who recently treated himself to the newer Leica Ultravid 8 x 20.  If it served him well over all those decades since the 1970s, I figured mine would as well!

OK, time to wrap this blog up.  Thanks for reading!

 

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De Fideli.