Many of us like to watch wildlife, it seems. According to the latest survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), more than 23 million people participate in wildlife watching activities each year, spending upwards of $12.1 Billion annually just on gear specifically used on viewing activities – the expenditure jumps to a whopping $75.9 Billion for all related activities such as travel, lodging, camping gear, etc.
That’s a lot of people and a lot of money. Still, many of those animal lovers are frugal, and want to hold onto as much of their paycheck as they can. Which explains the emails we’ve received asking for suggestions on the best, affordable, optics available today.
You asked, so we dug out some answers. We found a few products that feature crystal clear optics at a reasonable price.
We divided our review into two categories:
- PRIMARY BINOCULARS (backcountry use) – These are models that are functional in a variety of settings. We looked for binoculars that were compact enough carried into the backcountry and were clear and effective when hand-held, but size and weight were otherwise not a serious consideration. We focused on mid-price ranges.
- COMPACT / TRAVEL BINOCULARS — Here, we looked for the best binoculars where size and weight were primary concerns. But even with those constraints, we sought out clear optics that were affordable and effective.
Nikon Monarch 7 – 10×42
In field-testing, the Nikon Monarch 7 score top marks on the two core review criteria: clarity and brightness. While watching waterfowl at twilight at Washington’s Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, our reviewers found the Monarch’s offered outstandingly sharp focus from edge-to-edge. Nikon’s Extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass coupled with a propriety lens coatings accounts from that clarity. That quality glass and coatings also boast the binocular’s ability to brighten the image during the low-light hours of dawn and dusk. With those high-performance optics, the 10-power version of the Monarch 7 proved exceptional precision viewing.
A sleek rubber coating on the body of the binoculars keeps the glasses comfortably secure in hand, even when wearing gloves. That rubber coating also provides a durable protective layer.
The Monarch 7s features a close-focus range of just 8.2 feet, and a wide field of view (351 feet at 1000 yards). $369. Buy now
Maven C.1– 10×42
Maven’s direct-to-consumer sales strategy lets the company focus on product development rather than wholesale marketing, and that strategy pays off in terms of quality. The mid-range C series of Maven binoculars feature dielectric coated Schmidt-Pechan prism system – a fancy name for ultra-sharp optics with great light transmission for ultimate brightness in low-light situations. The C.1 glasses proved remarkably comfortable in-hand, and the lenses were sharp through the field of vision –we notice just a hint of fuzziness at the extreme edge of the field of view. We used these while watching young bighorns scamper in the twilight above Umtanum Canyon, and while watching ospreys hunt trout in the lower Yakima Canyon.
The C.1 even earned praise from our hardest-to-please binocular tester: Donna has a small face, and frequently finds she can’t bring binocular barrels close enough together to allow easy viewing. The Maven C.1, though, fit her well – but they also worked wonderfully for our big-headed, wide-eyed lead tester. $325. Buy now
Compact / Travel Binoculars
Nikon ProStaff 7S – 8×30
The rubber-armored body of the 8-power ProStaff 7S proved incredibly durable and rugged during hard use hiking and climbing in Washington’s wild coulee country. The deeply-carved basalt canyons of eastern Washington can be great places to view birds and wildlife, but the terrain is highly abrasive. The ProStaff binoculars took bumps and knocks without showing any damage or dings.
The compact 8-power ProStaff 7S fit securely in hand and the central focus knob is easy to use even when wearing gloves. Nikon’s multilayer lens coatings and phase-corrected roof prisms provide good clarity and brightness at a very reasonable price. $189. Buy Now
Tasco Offshore 8×25
The Tasco Offshore proved the best of the budget binoculars we field-tested. The compact 8-power optics feature a rubber-armored housing and multicoated lens for best possible clarity and brightness at minimal cost. These aren’t the glasses to grab it you want perfect performance, but in the “under $100” range, the Offshore rock.
The compact size fits well in hand, though testers with larger hands, or anyone wearing gloves, found it awkward to manipulate the small focus knob. The lens barrels are also 0-ring sealed and filled with nitrogen gas to prevent interior fogging. Anti-reflective coatings on the lens eliminate lens-flare, and the coatings also repel water to improve clarity in wet weather. $32. Buy now