If I needed binoculars for zeroing in on birds, fireworks or the people in the building across the street, I'd get the Nikon Monarch 8x42mm.
The glasses cost about $250, but you could spend a lot more and have little to show for it, or spend a little less to lose a lot. The Monarch's rugged, waterproof design, and its light weight and superb optical clarity under all types of lighting, have earned high praise from ornithologists, hobbyists and retailers alike.
Before I get into specifics, I think it's a good idea to touch on some basic things to consider when buying binoculars. First and foremost, what will you be using them for? For example, an opera enthusiast will have much different requirements than a hunter, but that doesn't mean there can't be some overlap. We chose amateur birdwatching as our baseline activity because the features that attract birders—such as color accuracy, sharpness, low-light performance, close focusing ability, and portability—are useful for most other applications as well. Think of birding as the lowest common denominator for activities enhanced by close-up viewing.
With birding in mind, we still have some other considerations. First of all, regarding magnification, it's best to stick with 8x zoom glasses. It's tempting to get into the "more is better" mindset and spring for super-zoom 12x binocs but after a few minutes of trying to keep them steady to avoid puking, you'll wish you'd gone with the 8x. Less zoom also means more light and a brighter image. At this level, you still have a fairly wide field of view, while getting close to the action. Less zoom also makes for a brighter image and better depth of field so you can see more even when there's less light. (If you want to know more about the pros and cons of the various magnification levels, I suggest reading this informative Amazon review.)
You should also make sure to get waterproof binoculars; even if you're not planning on going near the water. That's because there's always water in the air and if your glasses aren't waterproof, it means they're not completely sealed. Thus, water vapor could build up inside the binoculars, ultimately turning them into an expensive and boring kaleidoscope.
Comfort is also an issue, especially if you already wear glasses. Nowadays, however, all binoculars worth buying come with adjustable eyecups that have multiple quick-adjust, eye-relief settings for bespectacled and bare-eyed users alike, so this shouldn't be an issue.
You probably saw this coming, but the Nikon Monarchs includes all these features, and then some. They're waterproof, lightweight and capable of focusing down to just 8.2 feet. A shock-absorbing exterior and durable, roof prism-based optics mean that they'll take a beating without breaking. If something does break, though, you'll be glad to know that the glasses come with a 25-year warranty. I won't get into the specific marketer-created names of the myriad treatments applied to the lenses and prisms, but basically it has a bunch of fancy coatings that make for a seriously sharp and colorful picture under all sorts of lighting conditions. It's these carefully-engineered coatings that make the difference between great binoculars such as these, and the mediocrities you'll find stashed in the bargain bin at Walmart.
We asked John W. Fitzpatrick, executive director of the world-renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology, what he thought of the Monarchs and this is what he said: "We actually recommend the Nikon Monarchs to everybody who asks us for the best reasonably priced binocs (and I’ve given many pairs as gifts). With Nikon, you know you’re getting great glass." But you don't have to take his word for it. Ken Rosenberg, editor of Living Bird magazine, had this to say about the Monarchs after testing them along with almost 80 other models: "These lightweight, waterproof and very comfortable binoculars focus down to six feet (they were given the name 'Monarch' to attract butterfly watchers) and offer an image and feel that surpasses many models costing two or three times more. Only in a direct comparison with the top-priced binoculars could our reviewers discern the narrower, slightly duller image, which was not quite sharp at the edges. But with a street price well under $300, the Monarchs are a steal." The Monarchs earned similar praise in reviews from BirdWatching-Bliss.com, Best Binoculars Reviews, and Steve Huff Photo. Retailers like it as well: Optics Planet named it the "Best All Use Binocular of 2009," and Binoculars.com picked it as a "2012 Binocular of the Year" in the birding category.
That being said, you should make a serious effort to go to the store and try multiple binoculars for yourself before making a decision. Everyone's eyes are different and if you can't tell the difference between $50 and $1,000 binoculars, there's no point in wasting $950 on bragging rights. However, if this isn't an option for you, then the Monarchs are a pretty safe bet.
As for as higher-end binoculars, Fitzpatrick gave us this advice: "From this price point upward [$300], there is a logarithmic increase in price-to-quality ratio, so the very best binoculars made now cost $2,000 or more. But believe me, you do get what you pay for, and once you go birding with one of these great pairs (either Swarovski or Zeiss [or Leica]) it will be hard not to want one."
It's up to you to decide if that extra 10 percent bump in performance is worth a 10-fold increase in price but it's safe to say that most people would be willing to settle for less. I would.
Speaking of which, for those who want to settle for even less than the Monarchs, Nikon's Action line of binoculars offer Nikon quality at budget prices. The Action 7x35mm led the budget category in Living Bird magazine's 80 binocular roundup, but in an email follow up Ken Rosenberg said that the 8x40mm model was the way to go though he lamented its lack of waterproofing. Based on this information and a little Amazon digging, we think that the $123 Nikon Action Ex Extreme 8x40mm is the way to go if you're looking for binoculars on a budget. They have the same, high-quality optics as the normal Actions, but are also waterproof so they'll last you a long time. However, it's worth mentioning that these, like the rest of the Action line, are based on a porro prism design, which can come out of alignment over time or if jostled. Thankfully though, they're also backed by the same 25-year warranty as the Monarchs, should something go wrong.
Bushnell is perhaps Nikon's best known competitor in the binocular market and for good reason: they make a lot of binoculars. They have binoculars for every budget and they sell a lot of them, but quantity does not equal quality. Kenneth Rosenberg from Living Bird had this to say about Bushnell's offerings: "Bushnell is known in the inexpensive binocular market, [but] we have seen issues of quality control and durability—even in their more expensive models." Better not to risk it.
There are also a number of lesser known binocular brands that you may not have heard of like Leupold or Eagle Optics. They sell some really great glass but none of them outperform the Monarchs at this price point. Plus, if something goes wrong with your binoculars, you'll be glad you have the giant multinational company with a generous warranty policy behind your back.
Simply put, the Monarchs offer the best combination of performance, durability, features and price. If you want to spend more, you'll have to shell out at least $1,000 before you find any significant increase in performance. Spending less will mean sacrificing some of the lens and prism treatments that give it such exceptional clarity and low-light performance.