If you compare the latest binoculars with their equal-size, equal-power predecessors from 5 years ago, the differences might astound you. The binocular market isn’t one of those categories where recent innovations have been subtle.
Today’s binoculars are a few inches shorter and 4 ounces to 1 pound lighter on average, and the differences in optical quality should be apparent even to those who don’t regularly focus a pair of binoculars.
Better yet, not only are the latest innovations available in a wide range of prices, but prices overall also have fallen by 10 percent to 20 percent from 5 years ago.
SMOOTH AS GLASS. The most notable advancements in binoculars become obvious when you peer through the lenses. Technology has allowed manufacturers to grind the glass more precisely than they could even 2 years ago. So now all models have BaK-4 barium crown glass prisms, which are glass elements that reflect and lengthen light and make an image upright. BaK-4 prisms are a higher quality grade of optical glass than were the BaK-7 borosilicate prisms that were kicking around the market 3 years ago. The change in lens quality results in images that are more clearly defined, even at a distance. Although manufacturers continue to tweak the products, there’s no sign of anything that would be better than BaK-4.
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Glass formulations also are improving. Manufacturers are experimenting with filters by adding chemicals that can trap or screen out certain light wavelengths and enhance the color contrast and sharpness of an image.
For example, Steiner has developed hunting binoculars that are particularly receptive to light reds and browns, which made it easier for us to spot deer and foxes that otherwise might have been camouflaged in the bush. Meanwhile, Bushnell uses a unique glass formula that directs specific wavelengths to the portion of your eye that perceives them the best. As a result, we saw a sharp, colorful image in waning twilight, when typical binoculars show only hazy blacks and grays.
However, we haven’t heard of any manufacturers that are experimenting with binoculars that have glass that accents blues and greens (the colors that you find in birds, insects and plants).
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. The shaping of the glass in binoculars is also better than it has ever been. Almost every pair of binoculars, at every price, now has aspherical lenses, which are precisely contoured to transmit the maximum amount of light to a single focal point and match the natural asymmetry of a human eyeball.
Aspherical lenses sharpen images at all light levels, so they naturally enhance depth and distance perception. What’s better yet, these new lenses allow you to sharply focus at closer distances (called close focus) than ever before.
In 2006, 7 feet was the best close focus that you could find. You now can observe objects that are as close as 1.6 feet with the Pentax Papilio ($129) and as close as 4 feet with five other models. That’s a boon for bird-, bug- and butterfly-watchers.
One thing to note: You should pay no attention to terms that manufacturers use to market their binoculars, such as “high definition.” Nowadays, all binoculars have improved coatings, glass and lenses, so the term could be used to describe almost every model that is on the market.
GET A GRIP. Besides internal improvements, today’s binoculars are lighter than were older models. Pentax introduced lightweight injection-molded polycarbonate binoculars 5 years ago, and in the past 3 years, Nikon, Steiner and Swarovski followed suit. These lightweight frames are 4 to 8 ounces lighter and cost about $100 less than do traditional aluminum bodies. They’re offered in all price ranges and start at as little as $250.