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.