A work commenced March 19 2021
Product Name: Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR
Country of Origin: Portugal
Field of View: 110m @1000m(6.3 angular degrees) advertised, 113m@1000m(6.5 angular degrees measured)
Eye Relief: 15mm
IPD Range: 34-74mm
Close Focus: 1.8m (advertised and measured)
Exit Pupil: 2.5mm
Chassis Material: Rubber armoured aluminium/titanium
Coatings: Fully multi-coated, High Durable Coating(HDC), phase correcting coating P40 , HighLux-System (HLS), AquaDura coatings applied to outer lenses.
Dioptre Range: +/- 3.5 dioptres(lockable)
Nitrogen Purged: Yes
Waterproof: Yes to 5m
ED Glass: No
Weight: 245g(8.6 oz)
Dimensions: Folded W/H 6.0/9.3cm
Warranty: 10 Years
Accessories: Logoed Cordura case, eye caps, woven neck strap, test certificate, warranty card, instruction manual
Retail Price: £495-570 (UK), $749 (US)
Every now and then, something crosses your path that is truly remarkable and worthy of discussion, something that radically changes your perceived priorities when it comes to choosing the right equipment for your intended needs and purposes. Having thoroughly test-driven the smallest instrument in Leica’s Ultravid line of binoculars, I would have to concede that the 8 x 20 BR is one such instrument, as I hope to elaborate on at some length in this review blog.
When I began my exploration of the world of modern binoculars less than three short years ago, I was amazed what a relatively small financial outlay could buy you in terms of optical quality. As with telescopes, gone forever were the days when you couldn’t acquire decent optical performance without breaking the bank. As my curiosity for all things binocular grew however, so did my appetite for buying up and hoarding lots of different models – some very expensive in the scheme of things – to the extent that I soon recognised that my collection was getting far too large, and indeed was becoming a bit of an obsession.
The catalyst for this personal reflection started when I tested a Leica Triinovid HD 8 x 32 against a far less expensive Barr & Stroud Series 5 8 x 42 binocular. The latter proved to be very good indeed, with a very wide and well-corrected field of view (of the order of 8 angular degrees). Optically, the Series 5 was only marginally less sharp and contrasty compared with the Leica and much easier to use owing to its larger and more forgiving exit pupil and comparable mass(less than 100g heavier than the Leica HD). Ergonomically, it was no slouch either, with a magnesium alloy body, excellent focuser, high-quality twist up eye cups, and a nicely finished rubber armoured exterior. I rapidly grew very fond of this binocular after using it extensively on my walks, and wondered if I had made the right choice in going for the 8 x 32 Leica. After some reflection, I decided that I would part with the Leica glass and embrace the Series 5 as my mid-size binocular. of choice Since then, I’ve had no regrets. Indeed, I’ve completely ruled out buying a more expensive mid-size instrument, as the Series 5 8 x 42 fulfils all my needs from that binocular aperture class.
Incredulous? Why don’t you test drive it?
Thus began a selling off spree that radically reduced my binocular collection. But it also freed up funds to acquire a state-of-the-art pocket binocular that utterly amazed me from the moment I acquired it; enter the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR.
Leica make some seriously nice kit. I had experienced the optical wonders of no less than three Trinovid binoculars; two pocket glasses – the BCA 8 x 20 and 10 x 25 – and the larger HD 8 x 32. Built to last, with optics to write home every day about, it soon became clear to me that Leica were a world-class binocular maker, holding their own or even exceeding the best other optical giants in the field could offer, including Zeiss and Swarovski. I had sworn to myself that the optical performance of these two pocket binoculars was as good as I could possibly perceive with my average eyes, and that acquiring their Ultravid pocket glass would not be justified. But I was wrong about that!
The 8 x 20 BR was purchased from a reputable dealer – Cley Spy of Norwich, England. I got it for a good price – at least as this model retails for – £495 delivered. It arrived the next day in a very large box filled with paper and foam, surrounding a much tinier box containing the binocular and its accessories. As is typical of Leica products, everything was immaculately packed inside; the instrument snugly placed inside the Cordura pouch, with the neck strap, user manual, warranty card, and test certificate.
As I discovered in testing lots of different binoculars of different sizes, I deduced that as the instrument gets larger, they are easier to make well owing to their less stringent design tolerances. This is especially true of 42mm class instruments and above, and it was self evidently the case when I tested the excellent Series 5 binocular marketed by Barr & Stroud. But the opposite is also true, the smaller the binocular, the harder it is to make well – and the tiniest ones of all are the most difficult of all to build. And that’s why they are quite expensive as binoculars go. That said, what Leica achieved in miniaturising almost all of the technologies that went into their large Ultravid models is nothing short of phenomenal! To see why, read on!
The Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR is beautifully made instrument, with a very solid feel in the hand. Weighing in at 243 grams, its frame is constructed from aircraft-grade aluminium overlaid by a thick layer of easy-grip black rubber(whence its BR labelling). It has a dual hinge design, just like the Trinovid BCA models but has fixed stops that prevent it from unfolding too far unlike the latter. That said, it can be used by anyone; from kids to adults, with a wide range of inter-pupillary distances to suit most everyone’s face.
The eye cups twist up and click firmly into place with a very reassuring ‘thwack’ sound. There are no detents just like the Trinovid pocket glasses. You simply leave the eyecups down if you wear glasses or pull them out if you don’t. I personally love this arrangement, as I don’t like having multiple stops as you usually find on most larger binoculars. They are held rigidly in place and only retract after applying a firm downward force to the edges of the soft-rubber-clad padding on the top of the eye cups.
One slight gripe I have is that the left eye cup is harder to deploy than the one on the right. Indeed I have to twist them round as I pull them up to get them to deploy quickly( I don’t observe using eye glasses), but I suspect this will become slightly easier to do with more use. The eye relief is a decent 15mm, a full millimetre more than the 8 x 20 BCA Trinovid. This makes for very comfortable viewing and easier squaring on of one’s eyes with the small exit pupils. Eye glass wearers will also have no problem seeing the entire field with this instrument. I checked this with my varifocals on.
The Ultravid pocket glass has a lockable dioptre mechanism. You adjust it by pressing a small button under the bridge of the binocular just ahead of the focus wheel. When the button is pressed in, you rotate the focus wheel which is indicated by a dial on the focuser. But this must be carried out while looking through the right barrel of the binocular, which can be quite a tricky task, especially if you have large hands. Once the button is released the dioptre setting is locked in place and need not be adjusted again – at least in theory.
Although I do acknowledge that this is a clever engineering solution, I believe it’s a bit overkill, and a bit fiddly to boot, as I found the dioptre adjustment on the Trinovid BCAs to be perfectly adequate in comparison, located as it is on the right objective barrel of the latter instruments. Furthermore, I find I need to tweak the adjustment of the dioptre from time to time, and the Trinovid solution is much more amenable to this kind of micro-adjustment on the fly compared with the Ultravid. The other minor gripe I have with the lockable dioptre on the Ultravid pocket binocular pertains to the lack of a numeric index on the scale. If you already know how much to offset the dioptre from its zero position, and in which direction to rotate it – either plus or minus – you can just go ahead and move it to that position. But that’s not the case with the Ultravid dioptre. You’re simply left guessing which way to turn the dial when first adjusting it. Ho hum.
The large, centrally placed focus wheel on the Ultravid is a significant ergonomic advance over the Trinovid BCAs, which has a much smaller focuser in comparison, and which is especially noticeable when wearing gloves. It is very smooth but rather stiff, especially using one finger. Indeed, I find I like to use two fingers while rotating the focus wheel to get optimum momentum. Close focus was precisely measured at 1.8 metres, exactly as advertised, taking just 1.5 revolutions to go from one end of focus travel to the other. It also can focus just a little beyond infinity.
The objectives of the Ultravid are recessed just a tiny bit more – perhaps 3.5mm – than I remember on the 8 x 20 Trinovid BCA. And while still rather shallow, I’m grateful to have that small improvement, as it affords the objectives with a little bit more protection from rain, dust and peripheral light. You also don’t have to worry quite as much about standing them upright on a level surface in case the lenses get scratched.
The thick rubber armouring covering the aluminium chassis is applied via a novel vulcanisation process which ensures that it will not come loose from the metal even under the harshest conditions of cold or heat.
First class ergonomics counts for nothing of course, unless the optical quality is up to scratch. Beginning with my iPhone torch light test to look for internal reflections, diffused light and diffraction spikes, I was relieved but not really surprised to see that it was every bit as good as the Trinovid binoculars, but did fall a little short of my Barr & Stroud Series 5 8 x 42 control. Specifically, when the torch was set to its brightest setting about 2.5 metres away, the Ultravid served up very clean images of the light beam with only the merest trace of faint internal reflections, and no diffused light that causes a haziness to develop around bright light sources. There was however, a more pronounced diffraction spike in comparison to my superlative Series 5 control binocular. When pointed at a bright sodium street lamp, the little Ultravid served up a lovely clean image, with no diffused light, and only the merest trace of faint internal reflections. I could not make out any diffraction spiking however. Here again, I thought the Series 5 images of the street lamp were that little bit cleaner but the results for the Ultravid pocket glass was more than satisfactory.
The torch test never tells the full story however, as it doesn’t test for veiling glare, one of my pet peeves concerning binocular optics. Veiling glare comes mostly from on high lol, and is seen most easily in daylight in an open area away from the shading canopy of trees and observation hides. It occurs when light from above strikes the edges of the lenses in the objective causing a contrast-robbing veil of glare to manifest in the image. In addition, I discovered yet another source of veiling glare, not reported before in the literature to my knowledge, while testing binoculars during bright sunny winter days, with fresh snowfall underfoot. Under such conditions, the highly reflective snow adds to the veiling glare by causing the upper edges of the binocular objectives to add a significant additional source of this annoying stray light. It is easily detected by pointing a binocular high up in a tree canopy against a bright overcast sky. It also shows up in strongly backlit scenes, such as near a low-lying Sun.
Well, I was absolutely amazed when I tested the Ultravid 8x 20 BR for this phenomenon! It proved excellent in supressing veiling glare; certainly in a different league altogether to the Trinovid BCAs and quite comparable to my Series 5 8 x 42 control binocular! Leica have really done their homework on this model and it is one of the major contributing factors to its optical excellence. Of course, while no binocular yet made can completely eliminate veiling glare, with pocket binoculars being particularly sensitive to it, the little Leica Ultravid is certainly the best pocket glass I’ve yet tested for this by some considerable margin. Leica binoculars are well known in the industry for their very aggressive control of stray light, being ahead of some other premium manufacturers such as Zeiss and Swarovski in this department. Well done Leica!
The field of view of the 8 x 20 Ultravid is advertised(as in the user manual) as 110m@1000m or about 6.3 angular degrees. I discovered however, that the true value is nearer 6.5 angular degrees or 113m@1000m. This I ascertained by imaging a star field at night. The Plough asterism provides a convenient test; specifically the distance between Mizar and Alkaid is a precisely known 6.66 angular degrees, and I was able to see that the Ultravid almost captures both stars in the same field; not quite but very nearly! The result is not surprising, as I’ve found that many manufacturers misquote their fields of view, but mostly to over-estimate field size.
From the moment I picked up the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR, I was deeply impressed with the images it served up. Even before tweaking the dioptre adjustment on the instrument it was showing an intensely sharp, bright and well corrected field. The lack of any glare has the effect of peeling away another layer that brings out the finest details in the image. I would describe the effect as being rather like going from a mediocre 7 element eyepiece to one of the highest optical quality with just 3 or 4 elements. You can really see the contrast and sharpness gain immediately!
The Ultravid serves up a slightly brighter image than the Trinovid BCAs owing to its superior light transmission. Some independent testing by others have estimated its transmittivity to be of the order of 90+ per cent across much or all of the visible spectrum, even exceeding 94 per cent at green visual wavelengths (~550nm). In another test carried out on a larger first generation 10 x 42 Ultravid, a transmission value of 88 +/-3 per cent was measured.
Colour correction is excellent. Indeed, I have yet to see any secondary spectrum from this binocular, even after testing in very challenging light conditions. In good light, the colour rendition of the image is very rich and vivid but also stays natural. Greens and yellows are particularly vivid in this instrument – an observation I’ve made before with the Trinovid binoculars. Depth of focus is also very impressive in this 8 x 20, with objects beyond about 50 yards being in sharp focus and only requiring the tiniest tweak of the focus wheel for optimum results.
The other thing that was immediately noticeable to me was the flatness of the image across the field, with off-axis performance being particularly impressive. There is noticeably less edge distortion in the Ultravid pocket glass in comparison to the Trinovid BCA glasses(which are already very good). Furthermore, this was not only true horizontally but also vertically(hardly ever tested by users). What is especially remarkable is that all of this is achieved without employing extra low dispersion (ED) glass elements!
This is not just hearsay. In an optical matter like this it’s always best to consult with the manufacturer. I contacted Leica Sports Optics UK, asking for information on this matter, and I got this reply:
Nice to hear from you!
We are glad to hear that you are impressed with the Ultravid. As you correctly guessed, the Ultravid 8×20 BR doesn’t have an extra-low dispersion element like the bigger “HD” Ultravid. Despite this, the compact Ultravid features aspherical elements that greatly reduce colour fringing and increase sharpness.
Please let us know if you have any more questions.
E-Commerce Manager| Leica Camera UK
So, there you have it! That extraordinary sharpness and excellent colour fidelity of the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR is achieved using specialised aspherical elements built into the eyepieces most likely, but maybe elsewhere in the optical train. But it also serves as a reminder to those who think the addition of ED glass somehow makes a binocular magically better or brighter.
The Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 is arguably the world’s best achromatic binocular!
But I believe there is yet another ingredient that contributes to the extraordinary image quality of the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20, and it pertains to the small exit pupil. The aberrations in the human eye increase as the exit pupil increases. This enables you to take in more light of course, but with the added disadvantage of introducing more aberrations. For normal daylight observations for much of the year, the exit pupil reduces to between 2 and 3mm, so there is no big optical advantage in using a binocular that serves up a larger exit pupil. Furthermore, because you are sampling the image with the best corrected part of the eye, the image does present as unusually sharp and well defined. Again, this is not mere opinion. Studies have shown the same thing! Thus, when you are using the Ultravid 8 x 20, you are delivering a very well corrected image to the best part of your eye.
Note added in proof: It’s amazing how some so-called ‘experienced’ folk discover the virtues of a small exit pupil after the fact!
Of course, all of this comes with some trade-offs; small exit pupils make it harder to align your eyes with the small light shaft emerging from the binocular making them more fastidious in regard to precise eye placement, with the result that some glassers report blackouts as the eye becomes misaligned with the exit pupil. This makes them unsatisfactory to some users, but I find this is a skill that most glassers can easily learn. You get better with practice! And because there are no collimation issues with these mechanically robust instruments, eye fatigue even after prolonged use is minimised.
Trust but Verify
Unlike the Trinovid BCA pocket glasses, which are splash proof, meaning that they can handle light rain, they are not water proof in the same way that the Leica Ultravid pocket glass is. Indeed, the latter is advertised in the user manual as being watertight to a depth of 5 metres(16.4 feet). Judging by its excellent build quality, I had no real reason to doubt this but decided to conduct a simple submersion test with the Ultravid, by placing it in a bowl of tap water and leaving it there for 10 minutes before retrieving it and letting it dry naturally. To my relief, it presented no problems whatsoever. The binocular remained bone dry inside with nary a sign of any trapped moisture.
I can also confirm that the AquaDura coatings applied to the outer lenses work very well indeed, by testing against another pocket glass with no such coating. Remarkably, even though the ocular lenses were of the same diameter, it took about six times longer to disperse a fog breathed on the surfaces of the control binocular in comparison with the Ultravid. I found a short youtube clip showing AquaDura strutting its stuff. You can see that clip right here.
In yet another test, I placed the little Ultravid inside a small tupperware container and left it inside a freezer at -20C for an hour. Despite being covered in ice crystals, the focus wheel remained smooth and functional, and the optical glass showed no signs of stress, so the instrument should be reliable in these extremely cold conditions.
These features really add to the robustness of the binocular. You needn’t worry about rain or rivers, or even whether the binocular will fog or freeze-up on even the coldest winter days
What does all of this give the owner? In a phrase, peace of mind!
Notes from the Field
The very first thing I did after giving the Leica Ultravid BR 8 x 20 a quick once-over was to affix the strap. Unlike the neoprene neckstrap that attends the Trinovid BCA binoculars, the Ultravid carry strap is fashioned from fine woven cotton. It’s quite comfortable but there is no provision to quickly remove it by unclipping it from the binocular like you can do with the Trinovids. With such a small and expensive instrument as this, one doesn’t want to tempt fate and drop it while you’re using it. Getting that strap on gives you that little bit of extra security.
Though there has been a tendency for sports optics manufacturers to provide ever wider and wider fields of view, I feel very fortunate indeed not to have been caught up with that rat race. The 113m@1000m field of view is plenty wide enough for most any outdoor activity. Leica binoculars have wonderfully delineated field stops that give the distinct impression that you’re looking into a finely textured landscape painting. I have referred to these picture paintings as vignettes and derive great joy framing objects in the landscape that present the finest blend of colour, light and contrast. It might be a tree trunk covered with moss or lichens, a rocky river bank, a cascading waterfall, a craggy outcrop on the summit of a hill catching the last golden rays of a setting Sun, the delicate stone masonry of old, abandoned farm houses and water mills. The Scottish rural landscape is studded with such visual marvels.
The Ultravid 8 x 20 a fine binocular for birding. The very next morning after receiving the instrument, I took myself off for a quick walk down by the river. Frequent rain had replenished the streams that fed into the Endrick and many of its drier spots were now covered in fast flowing water. It was on this occasion that I came across a brand new species I had never laid eyes on before; a plump little Dipper. Presenting with a snow white breast and throat, a truncated tail and short wings, a jet black nape and mantle, and a ring of chocolate brown plumage on its lower belly, it sat on a rock in the middle of the rapids, bobbing its head up and down as if contemplating its next dive into the water. I got quite close to it- within about 15 yards or so- but the little Ultravid presented the creature in exquisite detail. I watched in amazement as it submerged itself in the water, disappearing for a few tens of seconds before coming back to the surface.
Of course, at the time, I had no idea it was a Dipper. It was only afterwards when I rummaged through my RSPB handbook, that I finally knew what I was observing. Apparently they are fairly common in rural waterways, but are quite elusive owing to their small size and tendency to remain submerged for long periods. They are supremely adapted to life underwater, another book informed me, having denser bones than normal which decreases their buoyancy. They actually walk along the bottom of the river seeking their next meal. How ingenious!
The next sighting I had of the Dipper was on the early evening of St. Patrick’s Day, nearly two weeks after my maiden sighting, but after that a longish dry spell put paid to any more visits. But after a day of rain on March 24, a short dry spell in the evening coaxed me back outside and down to the river to see if the Dipper would return; and sure enough it had! But it wasn’t just one – there were two Dippers enjoying the fresh rainwater. I had learned that pairs begin nesting at this time of year and usually set up home within a metre of water. As one bobbed frantically on a rock in the middle of the river, the other took to flight, hovering just a few inches out from the rock, calling its mate with a high pitched ‘zit zit zit’ sound. And then I watched as they took their turns scuba diving. What a wonderful treat to see such marvellous creatures just a short stroll from my home.
But the rain changes the behaviour of other birds too. I had learned quite some time ago that crows and ravens, wood pigeons, common and black-headed gulls, and even the odd Buzzard descend on the rugby fields annexed to the village sports centre in search of juicy earthworms that tend to come near the surface after prolonged rainy spells. The Ultravid has provided some sterling views of these avian species and their great inventiveness for finding grub.
The natural world pays little or no attention to what humans do. Thank God for that!
Can you imagine if nature turned as wicked and destructive as human souls have become?
Will animals and plants accompany redeemed humanity in the New Creation?
I would like to think so!
Another memorable birding event occurred on the afternoon of March 22, when a walk to my local pond in the grounds of Culcreuch Castle revealed a young Cormorant perched on a branch of a fallen conifer tree at the water’s edge. When I first caught sight of it, it was about 120 yards distant at the northwestern corner of the pond. Its relative youth was all too easy to discern owing to its light coloured underparts. When I tried to get a closer look, I frightened off some Mallard ducks that immediately took to flight, and the somewhat anxious Cormorant headed for the water, and began to swim away from me. This is not the first time I had chanced upon seeing a Cormorant at Culcreuch Pond. More than a year had passed since seeing one(an adult), where it remained for several weeks before moving on. Alas, a long staycation was not on this bird’s mind, as several visits to the pond over the next couple of days showed up nothing.
The reader may recall that I subjected the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR to a water submersion test on March 23 2021. Specifically, I placed the binocular in a bowl of tap water for 10 minutes, after which I left it dry naturally. I reported that I encountered no problems after it had dried. The binocular seemed to pass the test flawlessly. In the coming days, I used the instrument on a daily basis and still encountered no problems. But things changed on the afternoon of March 29, when I noticed a marked drop in contrast while glassing some Dippers in the local river. Puzzled, I examined the objective lenses and discovered, to my horror, that one of them had completely fogged up! Worst still, when I got home and inspected the optic more thoroughly, I noticed that the prisms had also fogged up!
Deeply concerned, I took a couple of photos to document what I understood to be clear evidence of a water leak, which took several days to manifest itself!
The next morning I contacted the seller, informing them of my findings and also including the two photographs of the instrument featured above. They asked me to box up the instrument and send it back to them via a courier pickup they had arranged for it. They agreed to dispatch a replacement for the clearly defective instrument upon receipt of the defective binocular. The replacement binocular was received on the evening of April 7 2021. Thank you Cley Spy! To be honest, the whole experience was a bit of a shock for me. I mean, the instrument was meant to be water tight to a depth of 5 metres. In reality, it couldn’t withstand a simple submersion in just a few centimetres of water for 10 minutes!
Will I be checking the water tightness of the replacement binocular?
Are you nuts?
But it does raise all sorts of questions in my head. Maybe this was just a fluke; an unfortunate one-off? But what if it wasn’t? If a leading binocular manufacturer such as Leica can have slip ups like this one, what chance do lesser manufacturers have in this regard? How many other brands claim to be water proof and are not? Are you willing to test your investment? Is it really correct to designate the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR as water tight to 5 metres? If so, for how long exactly? 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute? And if it’s not water tight, it can’t be air tight either. How long will the dry nitrogen pumped into it realistically remain?
At this stage in the game, I am only confident to assign the term ‘splash proof’ to this binocular and thus must tread more carefully with it than I had initially intended!
Having said all of this, I’m very grateful for the replacement binocular and remain suitably impressed with the instrument’s mechanical and optical quality.
The Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR is to become my most used binocular for daytime use. Its superb optics in a small, ultra-portable package makes it the ideal companion for walks, treks through the forest, hill walking and birdwatching. It has replaced my two Trinovid binoculars – the 8 x 32 HD and 10 x 25 – and thus represents a significant cost-saving measure. My larger binoculars will be used exclusively for low-light and night time use, where greater light gathering power is an obvious advantage. I will store the instrument in my small clamshell hard case, with a fresh sachet of desiccant enclosed; the.same shell I used to store my long-gone, but missed; 8 x 20 Trinovid. Unlike the supplied Leica soft storing pouch, this smaller, tougher and less expensive caddy can be zipped closed, keeping the instrument away from dust and moisture while not in use. I hope to write considerably more about my adventures with this small binocular in the months ahead, Lord willing.
Thanks for reading.
Neil English is the author of seven books on amateur and professional astronomy.