Looking for great close-up views of wildlife, birds, sports or the stars? Here’s our pick of the UK’s best binoculars
Binoculars aren’t only for birdwatching, although they’re a must if you’re something of a twitcher. Going to the races? They’ll come in handy if you want to see your horse make it across the finish line. A decent pair can also change the way you watch sports events. Today’s more compact and lightweight binoculars are great for spotting wildlife when you’re on your hols or hiking, and there’s no better way to start exploring the stars than an affordable set of binos.
The challenge is making the right choice. There are loads of options out there, some hugely expensive, some extremely cheap, but will you be able to tell the difference between the premium pairs, and can you get more wallet-friendly binoculars without getting disappointed? We’re here to help you make a smart decision, and if you don’t know your objective lenses from your Porro prisms, our handy buying guide will fill you in.
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How to choose the best binoculars for you
To look at, one pair of binoculars would appear to be much the same as another. Some might be smaller than others but, by and large, they’re made up of a pair of barrels with lenses at either end, attached to each other with a hinge in the middle.
Dig deeper, however, and you’ll discover there’s a whole world of features and specifications that determine how good a pair of binoculars are and the sort of activities they’re suited to.
What type of binoculars should I buy?
You’ll probably have noticed if you’ve ever shopped for or used a pair of binoculars that they all have a pair of numbers – like 8×42 or 10×25 – written somewhere on them.
The first number designates the magnification level. An 8x pair will enlarge your subject eight times while a 10x pair will make it ten times bigger. The second number tells you how large the objective lenses (the big ones on the end) are in millimetres.
The most important number is the magnification level. You might think here that bigger is better, right? Well, that’s not strictly true. While a 10x or 12x magnification will allow you see things further away that bit closer, higher magnification such as this has knock-on effects.
At higher levels of magnification, it’s hard to hold binoculars steady enough to see a stable image. A higher magnification also usually means a narrower field of view. Field of view (or FOV), incidentally, is another figure usually stencilled on the binocular somewhere. It’s normally expressed in degrees and refers to how much you can see from left to right when you’re peering through them.
What is the best magnification level for bird watching or astronomy?
The sweet spot for birdwatching and nature-spotting binoculars is 8x. This gives you a reasonably broad field of view (usually around seven to eight degrees) and a good level of magnification, and you’ll be able to hold them easily without getting too much distracting shake.
If you’re more of a stargazer and need binoculars for looking at the moon and stars, you may want a higher magnification level – 12x and up – but you’ll need to think about attaching them to a tripod if you want anything like a steady view. What’s more, many amateur astronomers will advise starting with a decent 7x, 8x or 10x pair, as the wider field of view will be better for spotting constellations and you’ll have an easier time using them handheld, or while sitting back on a lounger on your lawn. 10x is a good compromise for long-distance viewing, too, like watching passing ships if you’re on the coast.
What benefit is there to buying binoculars with bigger lenses?
The size of the objective lens is most critical to the quality of the image you see through your binoculars. The larger the lens, the greater its light-gathering ability. Too small and the image will be murky and dim; too big, though, and the binoculars will be too bulky and heavy to be practical.
That’s why we’ve mostly focused on binoculars with 42mm objective lenses (and why most manufacturers do the same) because they strike the best balance between light gathering and practicality. If you want pocketable binoculars, choose a pair with 25mm or 32mm lenses.
If you’re mostly going to be stargazing or mounting your binoculars to a tripod, you can get away with larger lenses. 7×50 and 10×50 pairs are popular for moon exploration and constellation-hopping, while 12×60, 15×70 and 20×80 pairs will take you even deeper into the night sky, although they start getting too heavy for realistic handheld use.
For sports or hiking, where you’re more likely to be viewing in full daylight or under bright stadium lights, you can get away with a smaller objective lens as long as the magnification isn’t too high. 25, 26 and 30mm pairs fit into this category, with 7x, 8x and 10x magnification.
In summary, then, an 8×42 pair of binoculars magnifies a scene 8x and has 42mm lenses; a 10×25 pair has 10x magnification and 25mm lenses.
Should I care about features such as prism types or ED glass?
The other terms you might hear connected with binoculars and see on specifications sheets are Porro prism, roof prism and ED glass.
- Porro and roof prisms: All binoculars use prisms to keep the size down, otherwise they’d all be huge and look like a pair of telescopes strapped together. Prisms come in different flavours, though, and the type of prisms used dictates the shape and size of your binoculars. Traditional A-shaped binoculars use Porro prisms. Porro prism binoculars tend to be larger and bulkier than roof-prism binoculars, but slightly cheaper. More modern H-shaped binoculars use roof prisms. These are the most popular type in use today because they tend to be smaller and lighter than Porro-prism optics.
- ED or HD glass: ED (extra low dispersion) glass (also referred to as HD glass by some manufacturers) is a special type of glass that’s designed to keep chromatic aberrations under control. You can spot chromatic aberrations by looking at a dark object silhouetted against a bright background – a kestrel against the sky, for example. It manifests as colour fringing around those objects. Binoculars with ED or HD glass tend to keep such fringing to a minimum and the image you see through them will be clearer and sharper as a result. ED glass is more expensive than standard glass, however, so you’ll tend to see it only in more expensive binoculars of above £200.
The other key features to look out for
- Close focus: Great for spotting insects and inspecting flowers from close range. The best binoculars let you focus from as close as 1.5m away.
- Waterproofing: You’re going to be using your binoculars outside so it’s best to be sure that they won’t let in water if you’re caught in a rain shower. They’ll fog up and condensation will form on the inner surfaces if this happens.
- Fogproofing: To prevent binoculars from fogging up when transitioning from the cold outdoors to the warm indoors, manufacturers fill their binoculars with an inert gas (usually argon or nitrogen) that has no water content and thus inhibits condensation.
- Eye relief: If you wear spectacles, binoculars with long eye relief and adjustable eyecups will make it much easier for you to see the full field of view while wearing your glasses. Look for binoculars with eye relief of 14mm or longer. The more the better, though, as this will give you more opportunity to tweak for the best view.
How we test binoculars
To test binoculars, we conduct comparative tests between two or more models over a period of at least one week, carrying them with us on countryside and coastal walks, and using them for stargazing and nature viewing. We also test them against a familiar reference pair for consistency. During the test period, all binoculars are run through some basic optical tests at fixed range, and taken to a local wetlands nature reserve during daylight hours and in the early evening to evaluate performance in both bright and low-light conditions. In addition, we look carefully at the build quality, weatherproofing and shock-proofing, and test the focus controls and optical adjustments, plus any cases or accessories provided.
The best binoculars you can buy in 2023
1. Opticron Discovery WP PC 8×42: Best for under £200
Price when reviewed: £199 | Check price at Wex These short, stubby Opticrons may not look particularly exceptional but if you want the very best in optical quality for not much cash, they’re a good shout. Technically, they’re slightly better quality than the Celestron Trailseeker 8×42 and present a sharper, clearer image that’s more neutrally coloured.
They focus half a metre closer – as close as 1.5m – which means they’re excellent for getting up close and personal with butterflies and bees.
They’re cheaper, too, than the Trailseekers and feel better made, with a smoother focus dial and longer 22mm eye relief, so they’re better for glasses wearers, although we’re not too keen on the cheap-feeling lens caps.
Where these Opticrons fall slightly short is in what’s included, or rather not included, in the box. All you get is a basic pouch and a simple, non-padded strap, whereas the Celestrons include a stretchy neoprene strap, a pouch with extra compartments and a harness.
Still, if the best-quality image is important to you, they’re fantastic for the money and represent a big step up from the cheaper Olympus 10×25 and RSPB Puffin 8×32 models below.
Key specs – 8x magnification, 42mm objective lenses, 7.5° field of view, 22mm eye relief, adjustable eyecups, 1.5m close focusing distance, 747g (with strap and lens caps)
2. Pentax SD 8×42 WP: Waterproof with a 30-year warranty
Price when reviewed: £267 | Check price at AmazonOnce you climb above £250 or so, there are plenty of good binoculars to be had. The Pentax SD 8×42 WP is right up there with some of the best mid-range options, yet still very affordable.
These are roof prism binoculars, waterproof and although they don’t use extra low dispersion glass (ED) like the Nikons, the glass is fully multi-coated to reduce flare and glare. These are also fully waterproof to the extent that they can be submerged in up to 3m of water. Throw in a 30-year warranty and you have a pair of binoculars that are likely to last you a long time.
Image quality is excellent with a decent 7.5° field of view and excellent sharpness across the frame. Colour reproduction is neutral and brightness is a hair’s breadth better than our lower mid-price pick, the Celestron Trailseeker.
My only complaint is that the focus adjust wheel is a little stiff and needs a fair bit of effort to shift. Oddly, the diopter adjustment wheel, which is handily located just behind it, is far easier to tweak.
Overall, at the price, the Pentax SD 8×42 WP is a great buy, and well worth the extra over the usual budget favourites.
Key specs – 8x magnification; 42mm objective lenses; 7.5 ° field of view; 12mm eye relief; adjustable eyecups; 2.5m close focusing distance; 615g
3. Swarovski NL Pure 10×42: Best binoculars you can buy
Price when reviewed: £2,680 | Check price at Clifton CamerasSwarovski’s range of binoculars is generally regarded as one of the very best in the business, and you’ll see its products hanging around the necks of many celebrity and professional naturalists. Its newest range, however – the NL Pure – is next-level brilliant, combining an astonishingly wide field of view with ultra-sharp optics, neutral colour rendition and the best ergonomics we’ve ever experienced in a pair of binoculars.
In fact, the field of view is so wide – on the 10×42 it’s 7.6-degrees and the same as older EL 8.5×42 – that you can step up in magnification without the usual pitfalls of doing so. We generally prefer 8x binoculars over 10x or 12x binoculars because, normally, they strike a better balance between magnification and field of view. These binoculars, however, give you the best of both worlds. The 8x NL Pure have an even wider field of view at a frankly unbelievable 9.1-degrees.
The large, raised central focus wheel also makes them incredibly easy and quick to focus and the ergonomically shaped barrels mean they’re extremely comfortable to hold. If you love spending lots of time outdoors peering at far-away wildlife, these are the binoculars for you. They’re also robust and, as with the previous model, waterproof down to a depth of four metres.
We tested the NL Pure 10 x 42 for a month and didn’t want to give them back at the end of the loan. The only bad thing about them is that to buy a pair of our own would require a serious financial commitment. If you are passionate about your birdwatching, though, you can’t get better than this.
Key specs – 10x magnification; 42mm objective lenses; 7.6° field of view; 18mm eye relief; adjustable cups; 2m close focusing distance; 850g
4. Swarovski EL 8.5×42: Still incredible but not quite the best
Price when reviewed: £1,675 | Check price at Park CamerasThe Swarovski EL 8.5×42 are no longer the best binoculars money can buy – that honor falls to the NL Pure, reviewed above – but they’re still stupendously good and considerably cheaper, too. Like all Swarovski Optik binoculars, they’re optically beyond reproach: so bright and clear that looking through them feels like an exercise in biological enhancement.
They’re exceptionally sharp across a wide 7.6° field of view and no discernible chromatic aberrations. They offer a touch more magnification than a regular 8x binocular, yet they’re not at all difficult to hold steady and close focus is superb: you can peer at subjects from 1.5m. Focusing is incredibly easy on the finger, too. The focus wheel is both light and smooth and super accurate.
The EL 8.5×42 are also highly practical and incredibly well made. The eyecups feel solidly constructed and extend out in three notched stages (eye-relief is an extra-long 20mm). The stretchy padded strap included in the box attaches via quick release clips to the side of each barrel, allowing for the quick attachment of other accessories, and strap length adjustments can be made quickly by rotating a dial on each strap to release and spinning it back the other way to lock the strap in position once you’ve made your adjustments.
Dioptre adjustment is easy, made not by grasping a ring on the right eyepieces, but by flicking the focus wheel up, adjusting to your eyes and flicking it back down to lock it in. Naturally, these binoculars are solidly built and waterproof to a depth of 4m.
The Swarovski EL 8.5×42 are truly exceptional binoculars. They’re not cheap, but if you do have the money and nature-watching is your passion, you will most certainly not be disappointed. They’re simply magnificent.
Key specs – 8.5x magnification; 42mm objective lenses; 7.6° field of view; 20mm eye relief; adjustable eye cups; 1.5m close focusing distance; 974g (with strap and lens caps)
5. Canon 12 x 36 IS III: Best for image stabilisation
Price when reviewed: £712 | Check price at AmazonImage stabilisation isn’t just for cameras: Canon has also built its shaky hands reduction tech into its range of binoculars, and it works incredibly well. Pop a pair of AA batteries into a compartment on the Canon 12 x 3 IS III’s belly, press a small button on the top and, like magic, all handshake disappears, leaving you with a crystal clear, super-steady image.
Normally we wouldn’t recommend using a pair of 12x magnification binoculars without a tripod but with stabilisation these work just fine, and are optically splendid. They present a sharp, bright image right out to the very edge of your field of view with neutral colour representation.
There are some downsides, though. The high magnification level means the field of view isn’t particularly broad – at just 5° you’ll spot less than you would with a pair of the much cheaper Celestron Trailseekers. These aren’t quite as bright to look through as binoculars much cheaper, plus there’s visible colour fringing around objects set against bright backgrounds. They don’t focus particularly closely, either, so they’re not great for peeking at insects and flowers. And eye-relief isn’t very long at 14.5mm – glasses wearers beware.
And we’re a little disappointed with the accessories supplied in the box. The strap isn’t padded, bizarrely you don’t get lens caps for the objective lenses, and the rubber, non-adjustable, roll-down eyecups won’t be to everyone’s taste. Even the ocular lens caps aren’t tethered. However, for that stupendously good image stabilisation we’re willing to forgive a lot.
Key specs – 12x magnification; 36mm objective lenses; 5° field of view; 14.5mm eye relief; non-adjustable eyecups; 6m closest focusing distance; image stabilisation; 726g (with strap and 3 x AA batteries)
6. Celestron Trailseeker 8×42: Best all-round binoculars
Price when reviewed: £269 | Check price at WexThe best all-rounders in the binocular business are light, practical and offer up a bright, sharp image with a wide field of view and the Celestron Trailseeker 8×42 deliver on all these fronts. The field of view is an impressive 8.12°, the “phase-coated” optics deliver a crisp image (although it does soften a little at the edges of the field of view) and close focusing is an impressive 2m, so you’ll be able to observe insects and flowers close up as well as our feathered friends.
Despite this, and a comparatively reasonable price, the Trailseekers are well-designed and well-built and they come with a generous selection of extras. The tough-feeling green rubber housing is fully waterproof and the eyecups are adjustable in three stages, with eye-relief stretching all the way out to 17mm.
What’s most impressive, though, is the range of accessories on offer here, with a neoprene-padded strap, high-quality carry bag, lens cleaning cloth and even a shoulder harness all supplied in the box.
Key specs – 8x magnification; 42mm objective lenses; 8.12° field of view; 17mm eye relief; adjustable eyecups; 2m close focusing distance; 729g (with strap and lens caps)
7. Nikon Aculon A211 10 x 50: Best binoculars for starting stargazers
Price when reviewed: £139 | Check price at Amazon10 x 50 is arguably the sweet spot for entry-level stargazing, giving you a wide enough field of view for constellations and star-hopping, but enough light-gathering power and magnification for good views of the moon and, with the right conditions, some star clusters and the larger planets. Here, Nikon’s Aculon A211 10 x 50s give you a lot of bang per buck.
These are Porro prism binoculars with high-quality BAK-4 prisms and Nikon’s multi-coated Eco-Glass, and they deliver a crisp, bright image that’s perfect for back-garden astronomy or low-light wildlife watching. The 6.5 degree field of view isn’t huge by 8 x 42 standards, and the close focusing distance is fairly long at 7m, but that goes with the higher magnification, and you can step down to the 8 x 42 version if you’re looking for a slightly more versatile pair.
What’s more, you’re not just getting decent optics, but a solid, rubber-armoured build, smooth focusing and a comfortable, lightweight design. Sure, at 900g the Aculons weigh more than most equivalent Roof Prism binoculars, and they do get tiring over prolonged use, but compared to some budget 10 x 50s, they’re well-balanced and easy going. Nikon also bundles a case and a comfy padded strap.
Key specs – 8x magnification; 50mm objective lenses; 6.5° field of view; 11.8mm eye relief; adjustable eyecups; 7m close focusing distance; 900g
8. RSPB Puffin 8×32: Best binoculars under £100
Price when reviewed: £70 | Check price at RSPBThe general rule is that the cheaper the binocular, the more difficult it gets to focus and see a clear image with them. These compact binoculars buck that trend spectacularly.
Typically sold at RSPB bird reserves, they cost a bargain £60 yet the image you see through them is clear and crisp with little distortion, and you won’t spend ages scanning around thanks to the wide 7.5° field of view.
True, you don’t get such luxuries as extra-close focusing (take the 2.5m close focus claim with a large pinch of salt, it’s actually longer than 3m), and they’re quite soft at the edges of the field of view. The strap and carry pouch are basic, and eye-relief is a low 13.6mm. Glasses wearers would be well advised to try these out before buying.
However, the binoculars themselves feel solidly made, they’re light and portable and offer screw-out eyecups – a lot more than you’d expect for the money.
Key specs – 8x magnification; 32mm objective lenses; 7.5° field of view; 13.6mm eye relief; adjustable eyecups; 2.5m (claimed) close focusing distance; 489g (with strap and lens caps)