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Whether you’re birdwatching, attending a concert or cheering on your favorite team, a good set of binoculars gives you a front row seat to view it all, even from far away.
Birdwatching has become an unlikely activity during last year’s lockdown, and for good reason – it’s a way to safely get outdoors with friends, connect to nature, and you don’t even need to travel far (unlike the migrating birds).
But beyond birds, binoculars are always good to have on-hand. These instantly immerse you in sporting events that you otherwise can barely see from the upper seats, and are especially great for music festivals when you want to view your favorite band without getting crushed in the stage-rushing crowd.
Here’s what you need to know before going in on your first set.
What Makes a Good Pair of Binoculars?
Field of View: A wider field of view (FOV) is really helpful for tracking fast-moving things, like birds, drones and planes.
Material: Aluminum, often with rubber coating, is a common and durable construction material for binoculars. However, aluminum on its own can get slippery in wet conditions, so if you’ll be out in the rain make sure it’s also got a neck strap or be wearing something to hold it steady, like leather gloves. Shock-resistant and totally weather-proof designs are available too, and for an even lighter (but pricier) material, magnesium is a solid option.
Image Clarity: For seeing clearly at large distances, clarity is crucial. Auto-focusing can be a big boost, and dielectric lens coatings increase the reflectivity of light, keeping chromatic fringe (or failure of a lens to focus all colors on to the same point) to a minimum. Some models can even help to enhance brightness, color resolution and contrast, perfect for those concerts as night is rolling in. If you wear glasses, there are available sets of binoculars that take this into consideration too.
Image Stabilization: Along with clarity, having a stable image can make or break your viewing experience. Our hands naturally shake, some more than others, but even with steady hands, outside factors can shake the image you see, such as strong winds, vibrations from a boat engine or bass at a concert. Having a built-in image stabilization system is a big boost to steadying what you see.
Eye Cups: These are what you’ll be looking through each time, and different sets offer varying amounts of magnifications you can toggle through. Twist-up eye cups let you set your own focus, and if you’ll be in misty or humid conditions, go for a pair that’s designed not to fog up.
Size and Magnification: For most sets of binoculars, you’ll see them measured in a numbered format, such as 7×35 or 10×50. The first number is what tells you the strength of magnification you’ll see (such as x times larger than normal vision), with the second number representing the size of the lens in millimeters going across. While bigger doesn’t always automatically mean better, larger lens surfaces do let more light in. With more light comes more brightness, and the potential for a higher-quality image. And with larger lenses, a binocular’s barrels are going to need to be bigger too in order to process all the incoming information, making the overall size bulkier.
Lens Covers: These may seem like an afterthought, but once you’re done with your binoculars, always make sure to put them back on to prevent damage and scratches – even while inside a carrying pouch. Lens covers are almost always included with the set, but some of the more budget models don’t fit well, which can be annoying when trying to get them on each time. Also, lens covers that aren’t attached to the binoculars can get lost easily, so it’s important to keep everything organized.
Smartphone Connection: Many modern binoculars are designed to work with their own apps, which can let you do things like take photo or video of what you’re seeing through your lenses. Even the best phone camera zoom can be boosted by binocular viewing, and these apps often give you additional tools to work with like de-blurring, altering image sharpness, and bringing out the small details you want to highlight.
Extra Accessories: If you’ll be stationary in one spot for a while, consider getting a tripod. These are included with some sets, but not all binoculars have the ability to securely connect to one.
What are the Best Binoculars?
Whether you’re an avid adventurer or just want something to tuck into your bag as you go see the sights, we’ve rounded up some of the best binoculars to buy online.
1. Celestron NatureDX 10×42
Big enough for bird-watching and concerts, while compact enough to comfortably travel with, Celestron’s Nature DX 10×42 feels like the just-right size for all sorts of activities, from the woods to the stadium.
These bring the power of 10x magnification, with 42mm objective lenses, a 6.5-foot close focus and a 5.8º angular field of view. All in a lightweight 1.75 pounds.
Fully multi-coated lens mean brighter images, with greater contrast and high resolution, thanks to the phase-coated Bak-4 prism glass inside, ensuring that real-life colors come through. These are also waterproof and fog-proof due to sealed dry nitrogen inside, with a tough rubber-armored body that can stand up to light damage and drops.
This set comes with the binoculars, a neck-strap, carrying case, and manual. This pair though is easy to use even for beginners (and glasses wearers).
2. Bushnell Falcon 10×50 Wide Angle Binoculars
Bushnell’s been in the binocular business for decades now, and have perfected this great option for beginners and occasional users.
The Falcon features an auto-focusing Porro prism, and a 25-foot close focusing distance, so you can see clearly without the blur or wonky colors, and still get a 300-feet field of view at 1000 yards. Fold-down eye-cups even let you keep your glasses on, and prevent lenses from scratching while you’re looking.
Complete with guidance and instructions, it’s an excellent and ideal choice for those just looking to get started with birding, or to use at any sporting events or the next music festival.
3. Canon PowerShot Zoom Monocular
It may look a little unconventional compared to the others here, but Canon’s packed a lot into this little monocular.
Designed for one eye instead of the usual two, this has an instantly switchable telephoto optical magnification, from 100mm to 400mm, and up to 800 with the help of digital. There’s also auto-focus for getting up close, as well as face-tracking and Optical Image Stabilization to keep things steady.
The Zoom can record not just video in HD with a 12MP CMOS sensor, but also captures audio too, and stores it on a small microSD card.
It’s ready with WiFi and Bluetooth, and can connect up to compatible devices for remote viewing too.
4. Stilnend Professional Waterproof Binoculars
Stilnend’s pair might look a little bulkier than most, but the lack of weight may surprise you – only 0.5 pounds, making this ideal for backpacking and travel when every ounce counts. Plus they fold up for an even smaller fit that can be concealed in your palm.
They’re also IPX7-rated to be waterproof and fog-proof, with a tight seal to prevent potential damage inside from dust and moisture.
These work surprisingly well in low-light conditions, providing clear visuals at sunset, sunrise, and nighttime events.