Buying Right: Bantam Binoculars

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Review, April 1997

Buying Right: Bantam Binoculars
By Gregory McNamee

If you spend time in the backcountry, where there are specific advantages to being able to discern whether that distant lump on the trail is a fallen log or a hungry bear, you can appreciate the value of good, clear binoculars. Yet whether the aim is safety or plain old spying, few people want to lug around a heavy necklace of optics when they're mountain biking, trail running, kayaking, or on some other wilderness pursuit. Which explains the popularity of so-called pocket binoculars, sub-eight-ounce glasses that can fit comfortably into your jersey pocket or lumbar pack but are still powerful enough to let you spot what you want to spot.

You don't need to have worked on the Hubble telescope to figure out which binoculars best suit your needs; just take the time to experiment with various models and maintain a severe in-store countenance to keep impatient sales clerks at bay. As for specifications, binocular math is simple: An 8x21 binocular, for instance, magnifies objects so that they appear eight times closer and has an outer lens diameter of 21 millimeters. With the first number, bigger is not always better in these lightweight models, partly because at more than eight times image amplification even subtle hand tremors can make it seem as if an earthquake is striking. The second number indicates how much light can enter the lens (affecting how well the glasses perform in low light), as well as how wide a viewing area the binoculars allow (field of view, in binocular jargon). Here, bigger is better, all the way around. Most important, be sure to test your prospective purchase for fit.

Swarovski Optik (800-426-3089) shamelessly boasts about its binoculars, and frankly the crowing is merited. Given its $520 price, the 8x20 B Pocket model ought to be good. Most of the expense is in the finely ground and polished lenses, which give the Swarovski the clearest view and the truest color of any binoculars I've used. Its fine-focus capabilities are also notable: I shifted from scanning a rock outcropping 20 miles away to tracking a raven winging by my shoulder with only a subtle adjustment. Plus, the glasses are practically indestructible, despite weighing only 7.6 ounces, and are sealed with O-rings for water-tightness.

At 13 ounces, the Bausch & Lomb Custom Compact 7x26 ($420; 800-423-3537) is slightly heavier than most pocket binoculars. You won't be stashing it in your shirt, but it's still unobtrusive enough to hook comfortably onto a belt or backpack strap. I found it a little heavy for extended use, and it doesn't accommodate a tripod, but the benefit is in something lighter-weight glasses don't have: a seal of approval from the National Audubon Society. Birders will certainly appreciate its wide field of view, some 320 feet at 1,000 yards.

Aside from the renowned optical rep of Leica, the company's Trinovid 8x20 BC ($379; 800-222-0118) is notable because it's so darn small: a feathery 7.8 ounces that folds into a three-by-four-inch package--the most petite of the pocket models. Even so, it focuses expertly and quickly and squeezes-in a 377-foot field of view at 1,000 yards. One quibble: The oddly-balanced Trinovid tends to tip backward in use.

If weight is your first concern, try the Nikon 8x20 Sportstar ($218; 800-645-6687), which barely tips the scales at 7.5 ounces. Yes, the Sportstar's fussy center-focus knob requires a delicate touch, but that's because it's so fast. Best of all, the Sportstar has superb resolution and color fidelity, which allowed me to decipher the green markings on a duck's tail feathers at 300 yards without having to squint.

If you spend most of your outdoor time at the beach or mucking about in swamps, the 8x25 Bushnell Trophy ($128; 800-423-3537) is probably your best option: only eight ounces, with a waterproof armor and fogproof lenses, all of which makes it great for humid climes.

The optics in the Pentax 10x21 UCF Mini ($120; 800-877-0155) have a green tint and extensive coatings that block UVA and UVB rays--nice eye protection for desert-bound folk or backcountry skiers. Also impressive is the 7.4-ounce Pentax's ability to hold steady, courtesy of its evenly-weighted body: On a day hike through Arizona's Patagonia Mountains I spent ten minutes spying on a pair of mule deer without once fiddling with the focus. Bonus? The Pentax is also the least expensive model we tested.

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