6 Steps to Choosing a Pair of Binoculars You’ll Love

October 15, 2013
kids looking through binoculars Photo by Susan Spear/Cornell Lab.
New Call-to-action

If binoculars aren’t 100% indispensable to bird watching, they’re pretty close. For almost any bird that crosses your path, a good pair of binoculars will show you fine details, make colors pop out of shadows, and improve your chance of identifying what you’ve seen. For most bird watchers, binoculars soon become almost an extension of their bodies.

But binoculars are expensive. In fact, we’d argue that you should stretch your budget to buy the best binoculars you can afford. Binoculars are a long-term investment that starts paying off the day you get them. Most likely you won’t be buying new binoculars every couple of years, so it makes sense to choose carefully, try a lot of varieties, and save up for a pair that will deliver great views of the birds you seek out.

That said, decades of binocular R&D by the top brands has started to trickle down into their lower-priced models, and you’ll be amazed at the image quality you can now get from binoculars priced at a few hundred dollars. Factored out over 20 or more years of bird watching, that’s a pretty good deal.

So how do you choose? Follow these 6 steps… and then check our full binocular review to figure out where to start.

  1. Decide on your price range. Top-of-the-line binoculars give you a pristine image in a comfortable, durable package. Lower price ranges also offer some great options, thanks to technological advances in the last decade. See our chart of Performance vs. Quality Index to look for your best value. Note that we provide MSRP (from October 2013), but many retailers sell binoculars at below this price.
  2. Pick a magnification. Deciding between 8x and 10x binoculars is a personal choice. In general 10x are better at distance birding. But it usually also means a narrower field of view, a slightly darker image in low light, and more noticeable hand-shake. An 8x gives you a smaller image that’s wider, brighter, and easier for finding and following birds.
  3. Test a lot of models. No two birders look through binoculars exactly the same way. Size of hands, shape of face, how you focus, how you carry the bins when you’re not using them—all matter. So pick up as many pairs as you can to get a feel for what suits you.
  4. Look for bright, crisp, true color. Image quality has an overriding importance. How bright are the bins? How sharp? How true are the colors? How well do they resolve details in a backlit image? Most optics stores are better lit than your average forest—find somewhere dark to compare low-light performance. In our ratings, pay special attention to the Clarity/Crispness score to decide on image quality. Note that because of poor image quality, we don’t recommend any compact-style binoculars with objective lenses smaller than about 30 mm.
  5. Check the eye relief. Most binoculars have eyecups that retract to accommodate eyeglass wearers or extend to provide shading for those without. Look for durable, multi-adjustable eyecups. If you wear glasses, adjust the eyecups to their minimum position and make sure there’s enough eye relief—you shouldn’t see black rings around the image. Our Eyeglass Friendliness score helps indicate this.
  6. Review additional features and warranties. Pay attention to field of view and close focus, two measures that affect how much you’ll see. See our report on field of view and close focus to understand how these factor into your choice. Also pay attention to durability, waterproofing, and warranty—many major optics companies now offer excellent warranties. Check our full review spreadsheet for these details.