Gear Guy

Q:

What's a good pair of compact binoculars?

I'm looking to get a lightweight and compact pair of binoculars to carry with me on hikes. Do you have any general tips and some recommendations for good buys? Joe Voelcker Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A:Lots of choices out there, Joe. General rules of thumb: Get something with seven- or eight-power magnification for all-around use. Ten-power can be better for something like bird watching, but can also be more difficult to hand-hold (12-power is harder still, as you magnify hand-shake as well as the image). A larger lens diameter (the second number in something like "7X35") is generally better as it allows more light through, but in the compact range a diameter of 18 to 25mm is most common, and I've found that to be fine for daylight use. Speaking broadly, lower-power binocs are better for dim-light use. You'll find two construction methods: roof prism and porro prism. Roof prisms are the slim, straight-barreled binocs; it requires considerable precision to fold the optics into that shape, so bargain models may be no bargain. In the sub-$100 category, bulkier porro-prisms -— which have that traditional "binocular" look —- typically are better.

With binoculars, you really do get what you pay for. More-expensive models have better glass and better coatings, both of which yield sharper, brighter images and truer color rendition. There's no reason to empty the bank account for a good pair, but being too cheap now will cost you in the long run.

So, what to buy? At the high end, you can't go wrong with something like Leica's BCA Series 8X20 binocs ($350 street price). Super-sharp lenses, great coatings, sturdy armored case. Sure, they're expensive, but you'll never regret buying them. Same for Steiner's 8X32 Predator glasses, which go for a whopping $500. They're waterproof and shockproof, so ideal for lugging around in a pack. Several models of Steiner binocs are available from Sierra Trading Post (www.sierratradingpost.com), which last time I checked had a particularly good buy on the 10X28 Rocky model—$229, marked down from $400.

A notch down, price-wise, look for Nikon's Mountaineer II glasses, such as the 8X28 models for about $175. Sturdy glasses, waterproof and fogproof, with armored cases. Or, Fujinon's 10X25 SCF-FX glasses, for around $250. Pentax also makes nice glasses in the $150- to $250-range, such as its 10X24 UCF-WR glasses ($200).

Below $100 there are dozens of choices, but the quality definitely begins to fall off. Still, there are some decent optics in there —- just set a half-dozen on the counter of the store where you're shopping and start comparing. You'll see pretty quickly which ones offer acceptable function for that price.

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