How to Choose Binoculars

When you set out to buy your first pair of binoculars, or “move up” to a higher-quality pair, the vast range of choices may seem overwhelming. But rest assured, once you’ve given some thought to what you want your binoculars to do for you, and determined a target price range, you will have narrowed down your selections significantly. The best news is, thanks to today’s technology (and competition among manufacturers) it’s easy to get a great pair of binoculars at an affordable cost.

The price range for binoculars is wide, from $20 for the lowest-end pairs up to $1,500 and even more for top-of-the-line quality. (For more on binoculars pricing see out How Much Do Binoculars Cost? page). Before you begin shopping for binoculars, it’s best to have an idea of how much you want to spend, or can afford to spend. It’s like house-hunting: If you tour million-dollar homes when what you can afford is a quarter of that price, you’re bound to end up disappointed.

Think of good binoculars as a long-term investment. If you’re going to use your binoculars a lot, save up and pay more for higher-quality. You’ll get a more durable product and save yourself eye strain and other distractions in the long run. However, there are plenty of lower-end binoculars that are fine to toss in the car for a ball game, hike or other casual adventure in which you might want to simply get a closer look at things. In short, the type of binoculars you need depends on the purpose for which you’re going to use them.

Look for binoculars that are sturdy, which have the power (magnification) appropriate for your purposes, and that are easy to focus and use. Make sure you’re buying binoculars that are coated. (Read more about coating on our Coated Binoculars page.) To determine the best binoculars for you, consider what features you must have and which you can do without. Close focus? Zoom? Do you want to be able to focus quickly? How important is field of view? Do you need waterproof binoculars?

It’s not a great idea to buy a pair of binoculars expecting that two people can share them comfortably. Not only will you have to compromise on who “gets” the binoculars when; you’ll have to refocus them or deal with a less-than-perfect view for one of you. You might even be better off buying two lower-quality binoculars to stick within your budget.

Pick up the binoculars you’re considering. Don’t rush as you experiment with their feel, weight and ease of use. Practice carrying them, lifting them and looking through them. Are they too heavy? Light weight binoculars are available. How are the ergonomics? Are the binoculars too big for your hands to hold comfortably, or too small? Will you be able to carry them comfortably around your neck, in a backpack and so on. How long are you going to holding the binoculars aloft? (That 10x pair might give you a great view but the 7x is almost as good and feels so much lighter after a day in the brush!) Newer, turn-and-lock eyecups are considered by many to be superior to the old, collapsible design. How do the eye cups feel against your face, or your glasses? (If you normally wear glasses, leave them on. You’ll need to pay extra attention to eye relief, and read our section on Using Binoculars if You Wear Glasses). Do the binoculars strain your eyes? Make sure your view is bright and sharp and that colors are true, and be wary if the view loses quality at the edges.

If you’re buying used binoculars, watch out for scratches or dirt on the lenses. Check to makes sure all moving parts move smoothly.

Besides checking out binoculars at stores, ask to try out your friends’ binoculars. It’s best to compare binoculars “in the field,” meaning in the setting in which you’ll be using them. If you’re a serious birder or hunter looking to move up to a better pair of “bins,” weigh your options at vendor booths at festivals and fairs. A handful of retailers offer “trials” in which you can try out binoculars before you commit to buying them.

Some birders are so brand-loyal that they’ll actually note in their “Life List” of birds they’ve observe what brand of binoculars they saw them through.

One thing to keep in mind if you’re buying binoculars for bird watching is that bird watching is in general a very affordable hobby (barring travel, of course), and considering that binoculars are the only costly piece of equipment required puts the expense in perspective. Especially since a quality pair of binoculars will last you for many years and even decades.

Buy the best binoculars you can afford, but don’t spend so much that you’ll be overly protective of them or so fearful or losing or damaging them that you might opt not to bring them along at all.

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