Binoculars mean the difference between seeing a little gray bird and identifying a titmouse, cheering a home run and seeing the epic catch, or realizing that the 10-point buck is actually a doe standing in front of dead branches.
Whether you’re scouting terrain, watching birds in your backyard, or getting season tickets at Fenway, binoculars bring the world closer, making it sharp and clear far beyond what your eye is capable of seeing. Finding the right pair of binoculars means first figuring out what you’re going to use them for. If you’d just like to watch some birds at the feeder in your backyard and perhaps overcome the limitations of the cheap seats at the ballpark, there’s no need to spend a fortune. On the other hand, if you plan to go birding in diverse locations, or are planning a big hunt in unfamiliar territory, it’s often worth the extra money to get something a little more powerful.
Be sure to check out our other guides, including The Best Gear to Make Your Backyard More Fun, The Best Hiking Gear, and How a Birdfeeder Can Bring You Joy.
Updated February 2023: We’ve noted Nikon’s new Prostaff models, added links to Leica’s Noctivid binoculars, and updated models, pricing, and availability throughout.
Table of Contents
- Best Overall
- Best High Powered
- Best Compact
- Best for Kids
- Best for Special Use Cases
- What Do the Model Numbers Mean?
- Why the High Price Tags?
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What Do the Model Numbers Mean?
Binoculars are usually listed with two number specifications; for example, the Nikon Monarch M5 are 8×42.
The number 8 refers to the magnification power. Objects seen through these binoculars will be eight times bigger than when you look with your naked eye. Newcomers should stick with 6x or 8x. They have enough power that you’ll see things clearly, but they don’t magnify so much that you’ll struggle to find what you want to see or have trouble following fast-moving objects (though all binoculars take some practice).
The 42 refers to the size of the front lens in millimeters. The larger the lens size, the more light reaches your eye. That means the image will be bigger, brighter, and clearer. A pair of 8×42 binoculars are often significantly brighter and have a better viewing experience than a pair of 8×32 binoculars, even though both provide the same magnification. But the larger you get, the more glass they will use—so they’ll weigh more. The weight difference between a pair of 8×32 and 10×42 binoculars is significant if you’re wearing them all day. We suggest sticking with the 26-50 range. Our top pick is roughly in the middle, at 8×42, generally considered the sweet spot for most people.
Nikon Monarch M5 8×42
Nikon’s Monarch 5 binoculars were my first “real” binoculars. Years later, their upgraded M5 is my top pick for most people just getting started. These offer great bang for your buck, and the 8×42 magnification is the most versatile. It isn’t just me, either. These are some of the most common binoculars I see when I’m out birding.
The Monarch M5s strike an excellent balance between optical power, quality, and price. The glass in these provides nice, bright views with very little chromatic aberration (the distortions or fringing that you sometimes see around objects in bright sunlight).
The Monarch M5s are also light enough that they can hang around your neck all day without bothering you too much, and they come with the most comfortable stock strap of any binocular I’ve tested.
The nomenclature for the Monarch series is a little confusing. I’m recommending the Monarch M5 here, which is new for 2022, but the Monarch 5 binoculars I own are technically still available. The new M5 designation features a slightly wider field of view and better optical coatings. There’s also the more expensive Monarch M7 series, which is available in 8×42. I have not tested the latter, which offers an even larger field of view but is significantly more expensive.
More Great 8×42 Binoculars
- Budget Pick: Celestron Nature DX ED 8×42 ($169). These are a solid buy for under $200 (they’re often on sale for around $140). They aren’t quite as bright as the Nikon Monarchs, and I did notice more chromatic aberrations, particularly purple fringing. But for the price, these are a good entry-level option. Another budget pick worth considering is Nikon’s Prostaff line, which has an 8×42 model for $160. I find these to be roughly the same as the Celestron Nature DX ED model above.
- Another Solid Option: Nocs, best known for their compact, colorful 8x25s (our top pick for kids, see below), recently scaled up, releasing a 8×42 model ($295) and a 10×42. I’ve been testing the 8×42 for a while now and for the price, these are really nice. The Nikon Monarchs still win out for me, but this is a very close second, and if you want something more colorful—which makes them much easier to find in your pack—these are a great buy.
- Nice Upgrade: Pentax 8×43 ZD ED Binoculars ($799). Pentax/Ricoh’s 8x43s are just a little bit sharper, clearer, and brighter than the Monarchs. This is a somewhat personal preference, but I like the slightly cooler colors of these compared to the Monarch M5s.
- Really Nice, Insanely Expensive: The Leica Noctivid 8×42 binoculars are everything you’d expect from the Leica name, including being very expensive. These are by far the brightest, sharpest lenses I’ve ever put to my eye. Unfortunately, they’re also $2,849, but if you have the funds, you will not be disappointed. The 10x42s are available for $2,850. The other options in this high-end category are the Swarovski EL 8.5×42 ($2,369) and the Zeiss Victory HT ($2,900).
Best High-Powered Binoculars
Viper HD 10×42
The difference between 8x and 10x doesn’t sound like much, but in practice, it’s significant. Objects are larger, but the field of view is narrower. That means it’s harder to follow things, especially something like a small bird in thick shrubs. It also means any hand shaking can cause you to lose your subject. That said, this is my favorite resolution for birds, as long as I am not carrying these all day, because 10x42s are considerably heavier.
Our top pick at this size is the Vortex Viper HD Binoculars. These offer excellent clarity, crisp, clear views, and good color accuracy. The colors are slightly less saturated to my eye, but I only noticed this in side-by-side comparisons with the Nikons above. The focus wheel is smooth, though I wish it were slightly faster. There is some blurring in the periphery (the edges of your field of vision through the lenses), but that’s to be expected at this price.
One caveat: Cabela’s frequently sells the pre-2018 model of these at a steep discount but doesn’t label it as such. I have not tested that model, and while the deal is pretty good, the optics are definitely different and potentially inferior.
More Great 10×42 Binoculars
- Budget Pick: Nikon Monarch M5 10×42 ($285). These are the stronger magnification version of our top pick, and everything I say about those holds true for the 10×42 as well. For those on a budget, these are a great 10×42 option.
- Another Good Budget Pick: Celestron Regal ED 10×42 ($329). The Celestron Regal EDs are what I call a sleeper deal. That is to say, you’ll find very little information about these online, but they’re excellent binoculars, and the price is almost impossible to beat. You get great field of view (6.5 degrees), a sharp clear image, and very little chromatic aberration. I have not tested a better binocular that costs less.
- Nice Upgrade: Nikon Monarch HG 10X42 ($997). Nikon’s Monarch HG offer a slightly wider field of view and are brighter and sharper than the Vortex or the Celestron, though the price is accordingly higher. Still, if you have the money and are serious about binoculars, the Monarch HGs are a great investment. If you want to keep going price-wise, the Swarovski EL 10×42 ($2,399) are deservedly legendary.
Compact binoculars often involve a significant compromise in image quality. Depending on your use case the weight savings may be worth the trade-off, but in general, I suggest that birders and hunters stick with 32mm or larger binoculars. Yes, you can bird with 8x25s, but it’s often frustrating.
My previous top pick in this category, the Olympus Tracker 10x25s are sold out everywhere, and I do not have another pick that I like enough to call the “best”. I am in the midst of trying to find some 32mm or even 25mm models that offer a good compromise between resolving power, weight, and price. In the meantime, all of the below are excellent options, though none of them meet all three criteria.
- Zeiss Terra ED 8×25 ($380): I have not tested these extensively, but I’ve used them enough to know that they’re lightweight (10.9 ounces) and deliver a very good, sharp image. They have 8x magnification and come with a nice rugged, waterproof case. The folding design means they also easily fit into your pocket. The downside is they’re more expensive than the Nikon Monarch 8×42 and yet offer a much smaller field of view.
- Nocs Standard Issue 8×25 ($95): These are detailed below, but the short story is that these are wonderfully compact, light, and the price is right, but the image quality could be better. A great choice for the ballpark or general use, but not as good for birders and hunters.
- Olympus WP II 10×25 ($120): I have not tested these, but they are the closest thing I could find to the now sold-out Tracker 10x25s. These even add a waterproof body with a rubber-coated finish, something the Trackers lacked. That said, the optics are slightly different and again, best suited to general use, not birding.
Nocs Standard Issue 8×25 Binoculars
Before I dive into why the Nocs are great for kids, let me be clear: Nocs are not kids’ binoculars. They would fit well in the ultralight category above. They’re fine compact binoculars. I “borrow” them from my kids all the time. Nor would I suggest these as the best first pair of binoculars for young kids (in that case, see our budget pick below). But for anyone over the age of 8, these make a great, compact, first pair of binoculars.
You get good magnification, with a waterproof (IPX7 rating) and fog-proof design in a lightweight package (11.8 ounces). These also have two things that specifically make them great for kids: rugged construction and a great, rubberized grip. I can’t tell you how many trees and rocks these have bashed into while around my son’s neck, and they’re still as good as new.
More Great Kids Binoculars
- Budget Pick for Kids: Let’s Go Binoculars ($25). If you have little ones that are new to binoculars, the price tag of the Nocs might be too high. If you want to see if your kids actually use their binoculars before diving in, there are a multitude of options. I’ll be blunt: None of these are great, but they’re cheap and light and don’t cost a fortune. Another option is the Obuby Binoculars ($30).
Best Binoculars for Special Use Cases
Image Stabilized Binoculars: I am still testing, as this is a huge category, but so far my top pick are the Fujinon 14×40 Techno-Stabi image-stabilized binoculars ($1,500). If you’re on a boat, these are the binoculars you want. They offer industry-leading stabilization of plus or minus 6 degrees, there’s hardly any image lag, they carry an IPX 7 waterproof rating, and as an added bonus, they float. I did most of my testing on a SUP, which is about as unstable of watercraft as I could come up with, and these made it possible to bird-watch without going ashore. They’re not cheap, but they definitely deliver.
Rangefinder systems: This is another area I am still testing, but so far Nikon’s Coolshot Pro IIs ($450) are at the top of my list for golfers (with the caveat that I don’t actually golf, I relied on some help from my father-in-law). These tiny, 6.3-ounce rangefinders are also image stabilized, which makes it easier to ensure that you’re getting the range off the flag and not the green behind it.
You may have noticed that the binoculars in this guide span a huge price range, from under $100 to over $3,000. This comes down to two main factors: the quality of glass and coatings, and the engineering behind them.
All the binoculars listed here share the same BaK-4 prism design, which is a glass designation used by the German glassmaker Schott AG. However, within that design standard, there is still a significant range in quality. The unfortunate truth is that the more you spend, the better the image quality will likely be.
That difference is very obvious when comparing high-end Leicas or Swarovskis to $300 models like the Monarch M5. The difference between the Monarch M5 and similarly priced 8×42 binoculars is much less obvious. For this reason, I highly suggest visiting your local store and trying some of these, if at all possible. Some people will see little difference between a $300 pair and a $500 pair, but you’ll never know unless you try them out.
If you can’t get to a store, stick with our top pick. It may not be the absolute best that money can buy, but it will be good enough for most people and will leave more money in your pocket.