Which Pair of Binoculars Should I Gift?

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Binoculars make great gifts. Regardless of who you are shopping for, or what their hobbies are, a nice pair of binoculars can be appreciated and enjoyed by just about anyone. If you think about it, almost all of us find ourselves out in the world wishing we could have a closer view of something almost every day.

Now that I have convinced you to gift a beautiful pair of binoculars, you’ll click thought to the binocular section of the B&H website and feel a mild sense of dread because there are more than 1000 pairs to choose from, from more than 40 brands!

You ask: Why is this? How different can a pair of binoculars be from another pair? Don’t they all do the same thing? Why are some so expensive? Why do some cost less than a fast food lunch? Are there pairs of binoculars that are better for different types of viewing?

You need a binoculars gift guide!

Well, you have come to the correct article because I am about to answer all of those questions and, hopefully, guide you to purchasing a nice pair of binoculars.

ZEISS 20x60 Classic S Image Stabilization Binoculars
ZEISS 20x60 Classic S Image Stabilization Binoculars

Price Point

Let’s start by talking about price. As I mentioned above, some binoculars cost less than an ultra-fancy cup of coffee and others cost more than a lot of used cars—sometimes the price can be 100x more on what looks to be a similar pair of binoculars. A look at the specifications for inexpensive binoculars versus expensive pairs reads very similarly, so what is the source of the price difference?

I group mid-sized birding and hunting binoculars into three price points—high, midrange, and inexpensive. In general, the high-priced binoculars have four-figure, or near-four-figure, prices. The midrange span the lower to middle three-digit range. And the inexpensive ones are in the two-digit realm. As a gift giver, I’ll find myself debating items in the midrange to inexpensive categories when shopping for optics. (My father-in-law could very well be reading this and wondering how much the pair I bought for him a few years ago set me back.)

The above paragraph applies mostly to mid-sized binoculars. Compact binoculars are generally less expensive because their glass elements are smaller. Larger binoculars, like those for astronomy, can be prohibitively expensive, but there are lower-priced examples, as well.

As you shop, you might notice that many manufacturers have binoculars that span those price ranges with the top brands, like ZEISS, producing models that are high priced and midrange.

If you have the financial ability to gift top-tier binoculars and/or you friends and family have expensive taste, then, by all means, go for it! Also, while you are at it, feel free to send a pair my way!

For we mortals, however, we need to adhere to budgetary constraints, even when shopping for loved ones. So, here are my thoughts and my advice.

I find the difference between a $2000 pair of binoculars and a $200 pair to be much less than the difference between a $200 pair and a $20 pair. Most of us won’t be able to notice, or fully appreciate, the viewing or build differences between the super-expensive pair and the midrange binoculars. Almost all of us will certainly be able to see the difference between the $200 pair and the $20 pair.

The value of a good midrange binocular is hard to understate. In fact, having looked through some of the world’s most expensive optics, I have found that there are pairs of mid-priced binoculars that give almost identical viewing performance. And, having looked through some of the world’s least expensive binoculars, I can tell you there is a huge difference in performance between the inexpensive pairs and a pair in the midrange.

What does all that extra scratch get you? In general, you get clearer, brighter, and sharper optics, fewer internal reflections, less lens flare and color fringing, and possibly better sealing for truly waterproof and fog-proof performance. Most of us will thoroughly enjoy the view through a mid-priced pair of binoculars.

The only time I would recommend something in the inexpensive binocular range is for younger viewers who you know will not take good care of their binoculars and/or lose them the first time they head out into the woods. In that case, by all means, get them an inexpensive pair.

A Quick Talk about Specifications

On all binocular listings on the B&H website, you will see two numbers separated by an “X.” These numbers refer to the magnification of the binoculars and the size of the objective (front) lenses. For example, an 8x42 pair of binoculars has 8x magnification and 42mm objective lenses.

Is more magnification better? Not always. While more magnification means a closer view, it also means that any movement of the image is magnified, as well. I have pretty steady hands, but I have trouble managing a nice shake-free view with more than 8x magnification.

Are larger objectives better? Not always. The advantage of larger objectives is that more light gets into the binoculars and the view is, therefore, brighter. The disadvantage of larger objectives is that larger lenses means more weight and less portability.

There is a lot more to dive into when it comes to specifications, and, if you want graduate-level knowledge of the subject, look no further than our Binocular Buying Guide.

For the purposes of this article, we will press onward.

Things to Avoid

As I mentioned, I would steer clear of the bargain-basement-priced pairs of binoculars unless gifting them to a small child who is just getting into birding or hunting. When they get older and learn to take better care of their belongings, reward them with a nicer pair.

The other thing I would avoid in the world of binoculars is the “zoom binocular.” While zoom lenses for cameras have come a long way as far as image quality goes, the same cannot really be said for zoom binoculars. The thought of not being stuck with a single magnification pair of binoculars and being able to zoom in to get a closer look at something is attractive on the surface; the reality is that these binoculars are generally optically inferior to pairs with fixed magnifications.

Categories of Use

Binoculars can be used by anyone at any time when they need a closer view of something. But there are basic usage categories into which most viewers fall:

  • Birding
  • Hunting
  • Travel
  • Astronomy
  • Marine
  • Opera
  • General*

*General use would be a viewer who uses binoculars for multiple purposes—from looking at a critter in the backyard, to getting a closer view of a scenic view on a road trip, to looking up at a beautiful full moon, to feeling like you are on the sidelines of a football game when really in the nosebleed section.

Let’s tackle these genres one at a time and, if you are shopping for a birder, for instance, feel free to just read that section and press on with your shopping fun!

Birding and Hunting

The traditional birding and hunting optic is the full-size 8x42 or 10x42 binocular. The 42mm objectives are on the larger side, so they let in a lot of light, which is beneficial for looking for birds under a shaded tree canopy or whatever it is you are hunting in the early hours of dawn or the late hours of dusk. Some birders prefer the extended reach of the 10x magnification, but many of us find a steadier view with 8x binoculars.

The downside of the 42mm objectives is that binoculars with those relatively big lenses are on the heavier side. You can easily hold and view with them, but if you are heading out on a long hike or holding them up for an extended period of time, you might start to notice their weight. This weight consideration certainly applies to birders and hunters. Are you birding in your backyard from the comfort of your home? Are you hunting from a stand not far from your home? Portability might not be a consideration. But, if you are trying to travel light as you are heading out into the wilderness, the 42mm binoculars might become a burden after a few hours of trekking.

Alternatively, in the interest of portability, several companies have mid-sized pairs with the same magnification and 32mm or 30mm objectives, like these premium ZEISS binoculars that I reviewed recently.

And, if you want to dive deeper, read A Guide to Birding with Binoculars.

Suggested mid-price range pairs:

Nikon Monarch 5

Vortex Diamondback

Hawke Sport Optics Frontier ED

Nikon ProStaff 3S

Celestron TrailSeeker ED

Celestron Nature DX ED

Travel

In my article recommending 12 Travel Tripods, I wrote, “Any tripod is a travel tripod if you are willing to travel with it.” That same premise applies to binoculars. There is nothing that says you cannot travel with a giant pair of heavy binoculars, but most of us prefer to travel light and have the ability to slip a pair of binoculars into our jacket pocket, camera bag, backpack, or purse and forget that it is there until needed.

The rules of magnification remain the same, but, for truly compact travel binoculars, you will want to look at 30mm or smaller objectives. The price points shift in this category since premium pairs are in the mid-three-figure range and there are some glasses with two-digit prices that are really quite good.

I use a pair of 8x30 binoculars almost daily and love their size and weight—not hesitating to drop them in my camera bag or head out to the beach with them in a jacket pocket to see shore birds. I tried to sell a pair to my mother for a trip to Africa, but she wanted a smaller and lighter pair because she had strict weight restrictions with her luggage. She opted for a pair of Pentax 8x21s that she loves. She mentioned that some others on her trip enjoyed her pair as well—even those with larger binoculars.

Suggested compact binoculars:

ZEISS Terra ED

Nikon Trailblazer ATB

Pentax A-Series AD WP

Celestron TrailSeeker

Astronomy

The key to astronomical binoculars is light gathering. That means larger objective lenses that generally prohibit thoughts of long-term carrying and viewing due to the weight of the glasses. The best astronomical viewing with binoculars is done on a tripod. Some astronomical binoculars come with integral tripod mounts and others allow add-on tripod adapters.

You’ll definitely want to find binoculars with 50mm objectives or larger for stargazing. Also, it is important to note that a good pair of astronomical binoculars is definitely the easiest way to enhance your stargazing because spotting scopes and telescopes can be a bit complicated to use.

Suggested astronomical binoculars:

Celestron SkyMaster

Fujinon Polaris

3D Astronomy Space Walker (See my hands-on review here.)

Marine

I wrote a short treatise about marine binoculars a few years ago, and not much has changed since then. As a boater, I am always a bit surprised by the number of folks who go boating (sail or power) without a good pair of binoculars on board. As a former merchant marine officer, I can tell you that binoculars are regularly used on the bridge of large ships to spot traffic, and as aids to navigation. In my opinion, all recreational boaters should own a pair of good binoculars and use them effectively.

As I mentioned in that article, 7x50 is the traditional size for marine binoculars. The 50mm objectives are great for letting in a lot of light, the 7x magnification is manageable, even on a moving boat, and the combination of the two gives a large opening (exit pupil) to peer into.

Suggested marine binoculars:

Steiner Marine Binoculars

Bushnell Marine Binoculars

Fujinon Mariner Binoculars

Opera Glasses

Yes, opera glasses are still a thing—B&H sells more than 100 different pairs—but I haven’t been to an opera in years, nor have I really taken a deep dive into the current state of opera-glass technology. While there is nothing in the playbill that would keep you from bringing your favorite pair of birding binoculars to your local opera house, a look at the models B&H sells shows that the standard kit feature optics with a bit of bling. Some even have built-in flashlights.

Suggested models:

LaScala Optics Hamlet Opera Glasses

KabukiGlasses Theater/Opera Glasses/Binoculars

LaScala Optics Carmen Opera Glasses

General Viewing

With all the specific uses for binoculars, there are those of us who need a Swiss Army optic—something that you can travel with, casually view birds, or take to the stadium to watch a game. The bad news is that there is not one binocular that is great for every task—if there were, I wouldn’t be trying to help your purchasing decision and you wouldn’t be reading this article.

However, if you think your gift recipient will be falling under the guise of using binoculars for many different tasks, I would certainly lean toward the birding/hunting recommendations or the travel models I mentioned, as well.

Vortex 8x42 Diamondback HD Binoculars
Vortex 8x42 Diamondback HD Binoculars

Monoculars

An oft-overlooked segment of the optics world is the monocular. Not every one of us has a pair of working eyes. For those who can only see out of one eye, having two optics isn’t logical. The monocular is also an interesting way to allow you to carry a larger optical device (more light and/or more magnification) while saving weight in your pack. If you don’t need stereo vision for your observations, you can cut the weight of a binocular by a half or more if carrying a monocular—it’s like having a small spotting scope or telescope in your pocket.

Suggested monoculars:

Hawke Sport Optics Endurance ED Monocular

Celstron Outland X Monocular

Vortex Solo Monocular

Vixen Optics Multi Monocular

Image-Stabilized Binoculars

Here, at the end of the article, is when I get to throw you a curveball. There is a slew of image-stabilized binoculars on the market that, for all intents and purposes, throw any notion of “traditional” binocular specs totally out the window—i.e., birders don’t use 8x42 image-stabilized binoculars and boaters don’t use 7x50 image-stabilized binoculars.

When looking at the magnification and objective specs of image-stabilized binoculars, you need to realize that the issue of image shake basically goes away as the stabilization allows you a steady view at much greater magnifications. But, light is light, so if you need to see in fading light, you will still want larger objective lenses for light gathering.

The early image-stabilized binoculars were rather clunky, but the latest models are small, light, and very good at their stabilizing missions.

Suggested stabilized binoculars:

Canon IS II Image Stabilized Binoculars

Fujinon Techno-Stabi Image-Stabilized Binoculars

Still Confused?

Do you still need some pointers on what binoculars to gift this holiday season? Do you have questions or desire more specific recommendations based on your budget?

Please shoot us a note in the Comments section, below, and we will be happy to assist!

Items discussed in article

5 Comments

Which pair of binoculars, not what.

Hi Craig,

I shall ping our copy editor for his thoughts before I flog myself! :)

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

It is a a very good guide.

Headline was updated. Thanks for your eagle eye.

Thank you, Craig!

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