There is now a vast array of binoculars and spotting scopes available to birders and making a choice is difficult for anyone considering purchasing optics, particularly at the lower end of the price range.


An exigency for optical excellence – driven primarily by birders – has, since the turn of the century, resulted in heavy investment in research and development at the top end of the market. The ground-breaking EL binoculars launched by Swarovski in 1999 were to set the standard to which many other manufacturers aspired and with which they found themselves having to compete. Now, in 2017, the same company has combined binoculars with a spotting scope to form the Swarovski BTX Binocular Spotting Scope.

However, the difference in performance between top tier optics and those in the mid- to low echelons of the quality spectrum is gradually narrowing, with many good, low cost models now manufactured in China being branded and sold in the UK.

When it comes to binoculars I am often asked my opinion on which models offer value for money within certain – usually low – price brackets or for a certain specification. While this is a matter of personal taste I can only offer comment on models of which I have had some experience. There are many good, low-cost models on the market. To my mind, the best ‘performance per pound’ 8×42 options are headed up by Opticalia’s amazingly inexpensive Tom Lock series I and series II binoculars (from £50) but there are also some nice performers out there from Eden (Quality HD 8×42), Hawke (Sapphire ED 8×43), Helios (Nirvana ED 8×42), Kite (Caiman 8×42), Nikon (Monarch 7 8×42) and Opticron (DBA VHD 8×42) – all ranging widely in price from £100 to below £600.

For smaller binoculars (32 mm objective), which are obviously lighter in weight, check out models from Hawke (Frontier ED 8×32 or Endurance ED 8×32), Nikon (Monarch 7 or Prostaff 7S), Opticron (Discovery WP PC or Savanna R), Viking (Vistron Pro) and Vortex (Diamondback).

The advances in optical quality also apply to telescopes and they have recently allowed compact scopes, with small objectives, to represent an attractive option for many. Probably the best-known examples are Opticron’s Mighty Midget, now in its fourth incarnation, and Nikon’s Fieldscope ED50. Weighing just 540 g the tiniest of all, however, is Celestron’s Hummingbird 7-22x50ED, which has been well received since its launch in 2016. So-called ‘travelscopes’ are now being offered by an increasing number of manufacturers. More are on their way but the best performer in this category I have come across to date is the Vortex Razor 50 HD – but it’s also the most expensive.

I have been reviewing birding optics for Birdwatch and BirdGuides since 2002 and a number of more recent review articles available online are listed below. Simply click to read full reviews.

8 thoughts on “Optics

  1. I find your comments useful, Mike, as I am looking to buy a cheaper pair of x8 to complement my x10 Swarovski. I know describing optics involves a lot of numbers already, but I do think the actual weight should always be given as it is a vital factor in the choice – especially for women.

    1. You are of course right, Barbara. In all my formal Birdwatch reviews I quote and comment on the weight but I do tend to overlook this when I advise people verbally, unless the weight is exceptional in terms of it being either very light or very heavy. Many manufacturers have gone to great lengths in recent years to minimise weight (e.g. thinner rubber armour, magnesium or polycarbonate vs. aluminium body) and generally, this seems to have been successful.

      1. After Bird Fair, I’m now thinking of updating to latest Swarovski EL 8×32. Have you reviewed these? When I clicked on the Swarovski link on your optics page, I was taken to Helios Mistral.

      2. Thanks, Mike. Now read review and sound perfect! Cost not so bad if I can get a reasonable price for my “old” Swarovski 10×32 some time.

        On 5 November 2014 23:30, Northantsbirds wrote:

        > Mike Alibone commented: “Barbara, my apologies. I have now fixed the > link but I guess you’ve already found the review. This model is really nice > … !”

  2. Hi Mike,
    I’m looking for a spotting scope in the sub-£250 price range. Am I being realistic in finding something worthwhile for this price? I haven’t owned one before.

    1. To get a decent scope for £250, including eyepiece, is going to be very tricky – you should consider spending at least double this. You don’t say of you prefer a zoom or fixed magnification eyepiece. Zooms these days are a lot better than they used to be and, personally, I prefer them. You will get a reasonable quality of image up to about 40x-45x magnification but after this they frequently become dark and the image loses sharpness and focussing becomes difficult.

      One scope I tested a couple of years ago and which stood out as being pretty good quality was the Acuter DS PRO Series DS20-60x80A, which has dual focussing and delivered a reasonably sharp image. Currently it retails at £249 but they have since brought out an updated version with ED glass, the DS20-60x80A-ED for £479. I haven’t tested it but if it’s better than the non-ED model I imagine it will be pretty good for the price. Bear in mind it has only 1 year guarantee.

      While smaller models are less expensive, try and go for an 80 mm objective as the light-gathering capacity is greater and the resolution (= image sharpness, or amount of detail you can see) will be higher.

      Have a look at what Opticron and Hawke have to offer and also check out the Nikon Prostaff 5 Fieldscope 82 mm (£360) + zoom eyepiece (£140) – I haven’t seen it but if it’s like their Prostaff bins it will be good.

      If you want an idea of pricing and specs for all models you can download the full listing from the Birdwatch website at: http://tinyurl.com/q6jur8o
      Hope this is helpful.

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