“OK, the Vortex Fury model. Would you like that bino in an 8x or 10x?”
“Oh! 8 power. 10’s give you a headache!”
“Noooo.” I say. “What makes you feel that way?”
“My buddy has a 10 power and he says 10 powers give you a headache” my buyer says.
“Did he pay over $50 for them?”
“Probably not – he’s pretty cheap.”
Last month, I laid out my First Law of Optics, which is: There Is No Free Lunch. Now my Second Law of Optics – You Get What You Pay For. Nothing new here, it’s true with most things, but it definitely applies here – generally. This Law only seems to break down a little at the upper end of the spectrum, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
A binocular can be had for anywhere from $20 to $2000 or more. So, where does the good stuff start and what do you get by spending more? Let’s start off by defining what the “good stuff” is. It’s a glass that will do the job well, dependably, for a long time.
I have four requirements for binos to get into the good stuff category: 1) waterproof and fogproof, 2) fully multi-coated lenses, 3) phase corrected and 4) a lifetime warranty.
1) Waterproof and Fogproof. These items are easy to explain. A waterproof bino must be o-ring sealed on all openings, and fogproofing is achieved by purging all the atmospheric air, and moisture, from inside the tubes, usually with nitrogen, or gases like argon in the top-notch units. Bear in mind “fogproof” refers to internal fogging, not breathing on the lens or taking a bino that’s been outside all night inside and it fogs up, only to clear shortly. (If they could master that, wouldn’t it be on every bathroom mirror?)
2) Fully Multi-coated Lenses. The best binocular made would be lousy without lens coatings. They reduce glare, reflections and other chromatic aberrations, and improve contrast, brightness and color. Some manufacturers like to tout their “special, patented lens coatings”, but it’s kind of like car engines – they’ll bellow on about special valves, cams and injectors, but the bottom line is they all make lots of horsepower. Lens coatings are like that, they all have their secret formulas, but they all boil down to about the same things, just adding a smidgeon of this or that to tweak the recipe, and the end result is better images, and the more lens coatings, the better. Multi-coated lenses aren’t bad, but for a little more you get fully multicoated, which means that every side of every piece of glass in the bino has multiple lens coatings. These coatings kind of massage the light as it passes through the bino and makes the light look better (don’t you look better after a good massage?)
3) Phase correction or phase coatings. This has to do with roof prism binos (the straight tube ones, not porro prism “dog leg” models). Most folks believe that a roof prism bino is a tube full of lenses straight through to the eyepiece. Actually, there are two prisms in there that bounce the light around five times before it exits the eyepiece. And what happens when light goes through prisms – rainbows! Optics manufacturers can keep this under control without phase coatings, but it’s much better with it. Basically, phase correction helps keep the white light white.
4) Lifetime warranty. Anything Man makes can break, and if the manufacturers built their products for a zero failure rate, we couldn’t afford them. If you’re unlucky enough to get an item that does fail, they’ll fix or replace (usually) for free until you die. That sounds like a great deal to me. But, since most manufacturers are offering such a warranty, one has to ponder the reasons why some don’t. I’d stay away.
If you step out and get yourself a binocular that meets these four criteria, you’ll have a good, serviceable tool you can take most anywhere in the world and be happy with your new toy. Now here’s the great news – you can acquire one of these little gems from most big name optics companies (sorry, not the Germans) starting around $250! That’s probably half the airfare cost on your next hunt, and these may last you 20 years or so before you want to break down and do it again.
As an added bonus, with this class of bino, you usually get other features well worth having like rubber body coatings, nice wide neck straps, carrying cases, twist-up eyecups (instead of those infernal roll up numbers), lens caps and good, solid hinges that keep both tubes in alignment and collimation (unlike our buyer’s buddy at the top of this article). So there’s you basic unit in the “good stuff” category. And from there they just get better.
If $250 gets you in the door, what does $500 or $1000 or more get you? Seems to be three categories of improvement as you spend more: ergonomics, better construction, and better image quality. You’ll see things like locking diopters, textured surfaces on the bino body, better eyecups and such as you spend more. They just feel better, which adds up with a long day of glassing.
A lot of the construction improvements have to do with materials. Magnesium bodies, stronger hinges, argon purging rather than nitrogen (nitrogen is fine, but argon does better and lasts longer) and better construction methods are what you’ll find here.
Now, the Big Kahuna – image quality! This is kicked up with more and better lens coatings, prism coatings, including the shiny stuff that reflects the light (like on the back of your mirror), better lens polishing, and the latest great thing to come down the pike, extra low dispersion, or ED glass. This is wonderful stuff. Also known as flourite glass and other proprietary names, it is denser that standard glass, which transmits light better. Just like sound waves in water versus air, sound travels better in the denser water. Light travels better through denser glass. We’ve been talking about “good stuff” binoculars, well if you get ED glass, you’re definitely into the “great stuff” category now.
This is also where the Second Law of Optics (You Get What You Pay For) starts to get a little fuzzy. At the upper end of the price scale, the optics manufacturers start getting awfully proud of their work. Case in point: one brand I carry has a top-of-the-line, every feature you can imagine, ED bino that sells in the $800 range, while another outfit known for their cameras has their competitive model at around $2000, and I’ll defy you to see $1200 worth of difference – or any difference for that matter!
Then there’s Vince in the Sham-Wow commercial where he says “It’s made in Germany – the Germans always make great stuff”. That’s true in the optics world, too (I’m grouping the Austrians and other Central Europeans together when I say Germans) although they have had a few lemons along the way, but yes, they make fine optics. Don’t sell the Pacific Rim outfits short though! Several companies are making some outstanding, world-class products as well. Another car analogy: Mercedes and BMW are great car makers, but so are Lexus and Infinity. It’s hard to go wrong with German optics, but you’ll pay for it.
And what about all the binos that didn’t make it to the “good stuff”? There’s a place in the world for them, too. Let’s make two categories: Almost There, and Not in Your Gearbag. There are several models, let’s say in the $100 to $200 range, that are really not bad. In fact, they are probably better than 75% of the typical deer hunters’ glass. Usually waterproof, fogproof and multicoated, these are good candidates for kids and the uninitiated, or as a loaner pair, and maybe to tip your PH’s head tracker (Man! With what they can do with their naked eyes, just imagine what they could do with a decent glass!)
I don’t believe any DSC member would seriously consider using a binocular costing less than $100 as their main glass any more than they would use a straight out of the cosmolene WW II surplus military rifle as their go-to gun. Sure, it can be done, but do you really want to put yourself though it? But they definitely have their place! I would much rather see some guy in camp with a $50 Wal-Mart special than with no glass at all because he won’t end up using the scope on his loaded rifle (probably a surplus WW II number) to look at me as I sneak up the other side of the canyon. Hurray for the $50 Special!
The title of this column is “Practical Optics” and here are three more practical tips for you. 1) If you’re comparing two different priced models of bino and can’t see the difference – don’t pay for it. Just be sure you’ve compared them long and well with all-day use in mind. On the other hand, if the more expensive model is a little nicer but you’re not sure if it’s worth it, bear in mind that $100-150 more over ten or twenty years is peanuts. 2) If you are about blind in one eye, look into a monocular. They’re a whole lot cheaper, but a little harder to hold steady. And 3) get a good binocular harness, especially with heavier binos. They are the best $20 you can spend in the hunting world.