“Okay, I need an 8x42 binocular. Why is this one $150 and that one is $750?” I was at a recent hunting show, with 5 or 6 different 8x42’s laid out on my display table, and this man echoed a request I hear from many customers. His knowledge of optics was not great, but he wanted to get a good tool without going overboard on price. I don’t carry European optics for a few reasons, but mainly because I believe they are overpriced. Almost everything they make over there is top quality, but if I included them in my mix of products, the first line above would read “Why is this one $150 and that one is $2,400?” and I would have a pretty weak answer for him from $750 to $2400. Here are the differences I’m aware of:
Quality. Without having torn apart, analyzed and compared parts from the various binoculars on the market in the upper echelons of quality, I can’t give you a quantitative analysis of the construction in them. Truth is, I think the European products are probably constructed a little stouter than the Asian products, but when was the last time you saw an upper end Japanese-built bino fail as to construction (we’re talking how they are built – we’ll get to image quality in a minute)? While European optics may be built stronger - and heavier - the Asian-built optics are still built plenty stout enough. In my years as an optics dealer, I have never seen a Japanese-made bino fail in the construction department.
As an aside, optics from the Pacific Rim come from several countries. If you get a “good stuff” bino (as I have described before, 1) lifetime warranty, 2) waterproof/fogproof 3) fully multicoated lenses and 4) phased coated) it doesn’t matter what the country of origin is since it is usually built with Japanese equipment and technology anyway. They start around $200, and will give you a few decades of good service, by which time you will be ready for a new glass regardless of country of origin.
All the really top quality binos I’m aware of from the Orient are from Japan and their image quality rivals that of binos made anywhere in the world – bar none. In fact, I was recently told that the leading Japanese companies are ahead, technologically, of their European counterparts and will increase that lead in the future. Bottom line is, if you can see a difference in image quality, is it worth $1000-1500 more to you?
Marketing and Production. Another two factors in the high cost of European optics is their cost of promoting their wares along with their production and labor costs. When was the last time you read a hunting magazine that didn’t contain a Swarovski ad? Trust me, ads are expensive. Same thing with Zeiss, Leupold, Nikon and Bushnell. The money has to come from somewhere and you get to pay for it. As with any company, labor costs rank right up there near the top. Think for a minute about all we’ve heard lately about pension costs, 6 weeks of vacation, healthcare, retirement at 60 and all the other perks Europeans get. Again someone gets to pay for that. Interestingly, I mentioned above that the non-Japanese optics use Japanese technology but are made in these other countries. Why? Labor costs. Even Nikon builds a lot of product in China.
The one area where I believe the European products are worth their salt is in scopes for the Big Guns. Once you enter the realm of mid-thirties caliber magnums and above, I feel comfortable knowing that “constructed a little bit stouter” is there. Facing a ticked off buffalo with your .416 and a marginal scope isn’t a comfortable feeling. On the less-than-Big Guns, there are some great optics and values across the market that will hold up quite well and reliably.
Back to the man at the top of this article. He had a very valid question. I don’t carry optics that don’t make the “good stuff” category, so what is the difference? As you spend more, you get better image quality along with improved ergonomics and bells and whistles. Bells and whistles like locking right diopters and wide neck straps, while not mandatory, are nice to have, and with higher sales prices, there is room to include these items. The main difference is clearer, brighter, and sharper image quality. How do you decide which one is for you?
As a quick rule of thumb, assuming that as you go up in price, you see improvement, buy the first one that makes you wince to pay for. I won’t suggest you buy the top of the line and miss a rent payment, but go ahead, stretch a little and miss a night out on the town. In the next couple decades you use your new bino, you’ll be glad you did.