A Work Commenced February 6 2023
Product: Oberwerk SE 8 x 32 ED
Country of Manufacture: China
Exit Pupil: 4mm
Field of View: 145m@1000m(8.2 angular degrees) advertised, 7.48 degrees (131m@1000m)measured
Eye Relief: 15mm(Useable)
Coatings: Fully broadband Multicoated
Chassis Material: Aluminium
ED Glass: Yes (FK-61)
Water Proof: Yes
Nitrogen Purged: Yes
IPD Range: 56-76mm
Close focus: 3m advertised, 2.99m measured
Weight: 794g advertised, 798g measured
Tripod Mountable: Yes
Dimensions: 13 x 11 cm
Accessories: neoprene neck strap, padded canvas carry case, rubber objective caps and rain guard, microfibre lens cleaning cloth, test card.
Warranty: 2 Years
If you’ve been following my blogs and the kind of gear I review, you’ll no doubt come to see that I have cultivated a particular fondness for Porro prism binoculars. Though they have somewhat fallen out of favour in the smaller size formats due to the flooding of the binocular market with roof prisms with all their technical bells and whistles, it remains the case that Porro prism designs are much easier to execute well to such an extent that it takes a great deal of technology to create a roof prism binocular that can compete with well-made Porro prism instruments. Moreover, they have certain optical qualities by virtue of their design that no roof prism can match.
Roof prism binoculars offer many conveniences to the modern outdoor enthusiast, not least of which is compactness, full water- and fog proofing, as well as the incorporation of dielectric coatings, phase corrected prisms and ED glass which deliver bright, sharp, high-contrast images nearly devoid of chromatic aberration. Add in field flattening optics and you arrive at a state-of-the art roof prism design that can edge out the best traditional Porro prism binoculars in critical tests. But there’s a catch: to do so involves shelling out relatively large sums of money, where today you’d have to pay four figure sums to secure the very best. And while there have been noble efforts made by a number of binocular manufacturers to bring those costs down, you still have to pay in the region of £350-500 just to acquire entry-level instruments having all these features.
The push to develop the best roof prism models over the last twenty years has resulted in a rather serious underinvestment in Porro prism designs. But there are signs that this trend is now being bucked with news of compact Porro prism binoculars with improved optical designs including wide angle eyepieces, ED glass and state-of-the art anti-reflection coatings, as well as better ergonomic features that promise to give the best roofs a run for their money. One such instrument arrived here in Scotland from the United States; the Oberwerk SE 8 x 32 ED.
I first got wind of the new Oberwerk binocular from online forums like Cloudy Nights and Birdforum, where it was generating quite a bit of excitement, especially from Porro prism fans. The founder and CEO of Oberwerk, Keven Busarow, seems to have a penchant for resurrecting cool instruments from the past. The company’s highly lauded Oberwerk 20 x 65 ED Deluxe is one such example, which Busarow described in his own words to be, “our take on the venerable Takahashi Astronomer 22x 60.” Here at least, Oberwerk appears to have been vindicated.
The Oberwerk SE 8 x 32 ED is the culmination of Busarow’s latest efforts to fashion a modern re-interpretation of a binocular that seems to have held legendary status among binocular collectors just a few short decades ago, the Nikon Superior E(SE) line of advanced Japanese-made Porro prism binoculars that flourished for a while before being discontinued back in 2014. Since then, these fine instruments, which included 8 x 32, 10 x 42 and 12 x 50 models, have become as rare as hens’ teeth, commanding eye-watering sums on auction sites whenever they show up. What Oberwerk has attempted to do is create a product that offers similar levels of performance at a price that won’t break the bank. Did they succeed? That’s what this review is all about!
The instrument arrived well packaged and double-boxed. The binocular was stored inside a very attractive green canvas padded case of the type I’ve not seen before. All the accessories were there too – the neck strap, test card, lens cleaning cloth etc – but I found it odd that no instructions were included in the package. That said, the accompanying thank you card does have a link to Oberwerk’s online guide to setting up a binocular. Anyway, I soon forgot about that once I prized the instrument from the case. This is one chunky instrument, tipping the scales at 798g – the heaviest 8 x 32 that I’ve personally encountered and much more in keeping with instruments in the 42mm aperture class. That said, it has a beautiful, solid feel in the hands, the central hinge being good and tight, the focus wheel moving smoothly, the eye cups twisting up and down nicely. The instrument came with the thick rubber rain guard and objective lens covered attached. These were of unusually high quality, at least on a binocular that retails for just under $250. They fit on very firmly, so there’s little chance of losing them by accident. While the rubber rain guard is tetherable to the neck strap, there is no such provision for the objective caps. That wasn’t an issue for me though, as I hardly ever use them, except for storage purposes. I also really liked the antireflection coatings on the Oberwerk SE 8 x 32 ED. They are immaculately applied and give a pink hue in daylight.
The Oberwerk SE 8 x 32 ED is a handsome binocular. With an aluminium chassis covered in a thick green rubber armouring, the instrument feels very secure in the hands. Like the Nikon SE, it has bulky shoulders where the prisms are located, which gives it a very distinctive look. The rubber armouring around the objectives has a rougher texture than that of the upper body, no doubt to assist the fingers in gripping the barrels. The objective lenses are exceptionally well protected thanks to about an inch of barrel overhang. Indeed they reminded me very much of the Kowa SV II, which adopts a similar design. This affords them excellent protection against rain, dust and the encroach of stray light. The sides of the barrels have upraised ribs to allow the palms of one’s hands to better grip the instrument.
The twist up eye cups are constructed from machined aluminium and covered with soft rubber which are very comfortable when pressed against the eyes. There are three intermediate positions between fully retracted and fully extended. At each position the cups lock securely into place. Eye relief is very generous, especially for a 32mm instrument. I was able to access the entire field using glasses while the eyecups were fully retracted.
The centrally placed focus wheel is distinctly different from the original Nikon SE in that it is placed further away from the eyecups. It’s very easily and comfortably accessed once you wrap your hands round the barrels, when the fingers can naturally fall on its prominent ridges. It turns smoothly with a good amount of friction. I experienced no backlash or free play, although I sometimes encountered a bit of inertia when the wheel was reversed in direction at the extreme ends of its travel. Just shy of 1.5 revolutions anticlockwise takes you from closest focus(measured at 2.99m) to infinity and a little bit beyond.
The dioptre compensation is achieved by rotating a small plastic ring under the right ocular. It moves smoothly but I would have liked to have seen a wee bit more tension to avoid it accidentally wandering in field use. For example, while out on a forest walk, I encountered some light rain which forced me to place the rubber rain guard on quickly. Once the shower passed, I began to struggle getting it off again(yes it’s that tight!), but that physical effort was enough to move the dioptre slightly out of its desired position.
Though it’s quite a heavy binocular for its aperture class, the supplied padded neoprene strap helped greatly to lighten the load. Handling the instrument is a real joy though. Because more of the weight is located towards the eyepiece end of the binocular, its centre of gravity is tipped closer to your body, making prolonged viewing more comfortable. Indeed, Zeiss use the same idea –ergobalance – on their flagship SF models. I certainly never felt any strain or fatigue while using the instrument in the field for several hours at a time.
Good ergonomics count for very little if the optical performance isn’t up to scratch. So how did it perform? Well, beginning with my bright light test, I directed an intensely bright beam of light from my iPhone torch placed at the far end of my living room and examined the focused image of it through the binocular. The results were excellent. There was only a couple of very faint internal reflections and no diffused light around the light beam indicating well applied coatings throughout the optical train. The same was true when I turned the instrument on a bright sodium streetlamp after dark. The image was very clean with no internal reflections and no scattered light around the source.
My next test involved looking at the exit pupils of the binocular. As you can see below, the results are excellent: perfectly round pupils and no false pupils or stray light in their vicinity. In fact, this is one of the best pupil images I’ve personally seen in four years of testing out binoculars!
To be honest, I had very high hopes about this binocular given its advertised specifications as well as the reputation Oberwerk has garnered among members of the amateur astronomy community. And I wasn’t disappointed! The day the instrument arrived was quite overcast and dull – not the best light to glass, but certainly the best conditions to ferret out any issues the binocular might have had. The images were incredibly sharp in the centre and also on the edges, with bright, vivid colours, excellent contrast and superb control of glare. Examining a vertically erected scaffold pole, I was delighted to see very mild pincushion(positive) distortion in the outer part of the field. I was also thrilled to see the well-defined field stops with the eyecups fully extended. Unlike the Nikon SE, which was widely reported to have black outs owing to spherical aberration of the exit pupil, this instrument produced none. The view was, to all intents and purposes, sensibly perfect.
Images snap to a very precise focus with no ambiguity. But what really amazed me was its complete lack of chromatic aberration. This instrument employs Chinese FK-61 low dispersion glass, roughly equivalent to Ohara FPL-51, but it was more than enough to cut out colour fringing both in the centre of the images and in the outer field. Comparing the venerable Nikon E II 8 x 30 with the Oberwerk SE, the former showed some lateral colour on high contrast targets like the branches of trees set against an overcast grey sky. The Oberwerk SE showed virtually none, save for the merest trace right at the field stops. Indeed, comparing the views of both instruments in a variety of lighting conditions, I formed the impression that the Oberwerk was just slightly sharper with a little better contrast and more pronounced colour ‘pop’.It’s also noticeably brighter in dull light conditions owing to its 14 per cent greater light grasp. The biggest difference between the two was the significantly wider field of view in the Nikon E II(8,8 degrees vs 8.2 degrees). That’s quite a result for a $250 binocular!
On another afternoon, I chanced upon a wonderful apparition on the road leading to Culcreuch Castle. This time of year, Chaffinches, Bullfinches and other species forage in the leaflitter at the sides of the road, with many of them hopping onto the road in search of tukka. About 25 yards ahead of me, I watched in sheer amazement as a beautiful Redwing was taking a bath in a water-filled pothole. Standing dead still, I brought the Oberwerk SE to my eyes and focused in on the scene. The image was superb! I could see its beautiful dark brown spots adorning its white belly, its striking red flanks and underwings and the creamy white stripe over its eyes. The contrast against the dark tarmacadam made it all the more compelling, but I also became acutely aware of the bumps and depressions on the road, both in front and beyond the bathing Redwing- a consequence of the binocular’s prominent stereopsis(3D effects) at moderate distances.
The question of how well corrected the field is is always best answered by examining celestial objects. That’s why I recommend all optics reviewers for birding magazines learn to star test their binoculars. It will also show up any potential aberrations that can all too easily be missed in daylight observing. Centring the bright star, Procyon, in the field of view, I was delighted to see that it remained a tightly focused pinpoint nearly all the way to the field stops. I would estimate that in the last 10 per cent of the field, the effects of very mild field curvature and a trace of astigmatism(elongation) could be made out with a concentrated gaze. This is an excellent result. I must report though that there is some modest illumination drop off as the star approached the field stops. Comparing it to the Nikon E II 8 x 30, the same tests showed more pronounced field curvature starting in the outer 20 per cent of the field, becoming distinctly distorted at the field edges.
Turning to the full Moon, I noted no chromatic aberration in the centre of the field, but also crucially, virtually none right up to the field stops. Only the merest trace of lateral colour – blue nearest the centre and yellow furthest away – could be made out. The Nikon E II showed much more pronounced colour at its field stops in comparison. A few short weeks ago, I reviewed the Celestron Regal ED, which, you’ll remember, has field flattening optics. I noted that the image of the Moon was distinctly distorted at the field edges, mainly due to astigmatism and a touch of coma in the outer 10 per cent of the field, which couldn’t be focused out. What’s remarkable about the Oberwerk SE was that it was far better corrected at the field edges in comparison – and all of this without field flattening optics!
Summary & Conclusions
The Oberwerk SE 8 x 32 ED is a phenomenal performer by day and by night. Though it was inspired by the Nikon SE, there are a number of significant design differences that set it apart from the famous Japanese optic: it has a significantly larger field of view, incorporates modern ED glass to improve colour correction and doesn’t use field flatteners – a design characteristic I personally prefer. Yet it achieves a very high level of optical performance thanks to the incorporation of cleverly designed wide angle eyepieces. Moreover, it does not manifest the less desirable optical effects of the Nikon SE with its widely reported kidney beaning(blackouts). It’s also water proof and fog proof, so can be employed in a wider variety of outdoor conditions than the Nikon super glass. This is a first-rate birding binocular but will also serve up excellent views of the night sky. And if it gets a bit heavy to hand hold, stick it on a lightweight monopod and you’re off to the races. Mr Busarow ought to be congratulated for bringing such a superb optic to market at a price that many folk can afford. It goes without saying that this product gets my highest possible recommendation.
Very highly favoured!
Dr Neil English is the author of seven books in amateur and professional astronomy. His new book, Choosing and Using Binoculars: A Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts is now available for purchase.