Looking for a lighter alternative to a pair of binos? Get the perfect take-anywhere optic with the best monoculars
You can look at a monocular as a tiny telescope, a shrunk-down spotting scope or a pair of binoculars cut in half. Either way, while the idea sounds weird, the reality is popular and practical. For one thing, monoculars are light. After all, you’re only carrying half the weight of the equivalent binoculars, and that also makes them a whole lot easier to cram into a bag or backpack. For another, monoculars are usually cheaper than their stereoscopic equivalent, partly as a result of the 50% reduction in lenses and materials.
Smaller, lighter, cheaper. What’s not to like?
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How to choose the best monocular for you
Most of the advice we’d give you if you were buying a set of binoculars also applies to monoculars. Price, size and weight are all going to be big considerations, but otherwise the key factors are the level of magnification and the size of the objective lens. This is the larger lens at the end of the monocular, and will usually have a size of between 25 and 55mm (any larger and you’re in telescope or spotting score territory). The bigger it is, the better it will be at gathering light, giving you a brighter, crisper image. The magnification speaks for itself. Monoculars tend to start at 7x magnification and go up through 8x and 10x to 12x and 15x. Hence, you’ll often see a monocular described as 8 x 25 or 10 x 42.
Generally speaking, the bigger the objective and the higher the magnification, the larger, heavier and more expensive your monocular is going to be. It’s also crucial to keep them in balance. A 10 x 25 monocular can still give you great views of distant objects in good light, but may sometimes struggle early in the morning or on an overcast day. For that reason, you might want to look at an 8 x 25 or 10 x 42 if you like to go stargazing at night or watching wildlife at dawn.
The other key thing to look out for is the field of view. You’ll usually see this specified in degrees and/or as the horizontal or vertical distance you can see through the eyepiece at a distance of 1000m. Lower magnification monoculars will usually have a wider field of view, and will also give you a steadier view, as the higher the magnification, the more noticeable any shake or movement is going to be.
What else should you look out for?
All of the above is important, but there’s more to the optics than that. Different lenses, different coatings on the lenses and different porro prism or roof prism designs all make a big difference. You’ll see some monoculars listed as having ED (or extra-low dispersion) lenses, meaning the lenses have been designed and built to minimise the level to which the light disperses as it enters, creating a brighter, sharper image with richer colours and no distracting red or purple fringing around high-contrast edges. Needless to say, this comes at a price.
Otherwise, look at the build quality and any waterproofing. Monoculars can get knocked around, and it helps if you can use them outdoors without worrying about the weather. Most have some basic water-resistance or weatherproofing, but some go the whole hog with a sealed construction and a nitrogen-filled interior, keeping the glass mist-free in all temperatures. Again, this costs extra, but it might be worth it to have a monocular you can use in most conditions, and that will last you for years of use.
Finally, check out any extras, including cases and wrist straps, and keep an eye out for a tripod mount. While this isn’t a necessity most of the time, it’s sometimes handy to fit a small tripod or a monopod when you’re trying to maintain a steady view. Some monoculars even come with smartphone adapters, enabling you to take quick snapshots through the lens. Don’t expect incredible results – these aren’t photographic quality optics – but you might get a good image or even a video of critters far away.
How we test monoculars
We test monoculars by running comparative tests between a range of models over a period of at least one week, carrying them around on countryside and coastal walks and using them for stargazing and nature viewing. During the test period, all monoculars are also 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. We also look carefully at the build quality, weatherproofing and shock-proofing, and test the focus controls and optical adjustments, plus any cases or accessories provided.
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The best monoculars you can buy in 2023
1. Viking Cygnus 8×25: Best low-cost monocular
Price when reviewed: £35 | Check price at AmazonIf you’re on a budget, the Viking Cygnus 8×25 might be your perfect take-anywhere monocular. It’s light and very compact – just 11cm long – while the rubber armouring and comfy grip make it easy to handle. The eye-cup twists out to give you ample eye relief, and while the focus dial isn’t the fastest or lightest, it’s smooth and accurate when making small adjustments. There’s no end lens-cap, with the objective lens recessed inside the body, but you can always slip it into the soft case provided when not in use.
Obviously, there’s a limit to what you can expect from the optics of a £35 monocular, but views from the Cygnus are a cut above those from most cheap monoculars, and with some decent light to work with it’s great for birdwatching, nature and hiking. What’s more, the low cost and weight, plus the rugged build, mean you can happily take it with you everywhere you go.
Key specs – Optics: 8x magnification, 25mm objective lens, BAK4 prism, fully-coated lenses; Field of view: 6°; Exit pupil: 2.5mm; Eye relief: 13mm; Close focus: 1.6m; Weatherproofing: Rubberised armouring, waterproof construction; Accessories provided: Wrist strap, soft case; Length: 11cm; Weight: 131g
2. Hilkinson Quickscope 6×20: Best monocular for close-up and macro views
Price when reviewed: £30 | Check price at Viking Optical CentresThis tiny, sub-100g monocular isn’t the best all-rounder, with a low 6x magnification and a 20mm objective lens. It’s not as rugged or as weatherproof as the Viking Cygnus 8×25, although the metal casing, rubber lens cap and soft pouch should keep it safe from harm. It’s even a little weird to use, with the main tube extending outwards from the inner tube with the eye-cup to change the focus and the focal length.
However, the quickscope isn’t competing with more traditional monoculars. Instead, it’s built to give you crisp, magnified views of close-up objects, with a close-focus range of just 25cm. This makes it brilliant for checking out bees, butterflies and bugs or getting a detailed look at plant life. Plus, if you want to look at the wildlife within, say, a small garden, you can do that kind of thing as well. Clarity is impressive, considering the cost, and the handling’s brilliant once you get used to it. It’s the best budget option for seeing up-close things a little larger.
Key specs – Optics: 6x magnification, 20mm objective lens, coated lenses; Field of view: 7.58°; Exit pupil: 3.3mm; Eye relief: N/S; Close focus: 0.25m; Weatherproofing: N/A; Accessories provided: Lanyard, soft carry pouch; Length: 10cm; Weight: 92g
3. Hawke NatureTrek 10×25: Best step-up monocular
Price when reviewed: £69 | Check price at Hawke UK The Hawke NatureTrek makes a great step-up from the sub-£50 monoculars, providing higher-quality optics in what’s still a relatively cheap package. While the 10×25 we tested has a narrower field of view than the 8×25 options, you get great close-up views of birds and other wildlife in bright conditions, and clarity doesn’t suffer much in gloomy weather or the early morning light. The image from the Viking 8×25 ED is sharper still, but Hawke has done a fine job of minimising colour fringing and distortion. Plus, if you’d rather have wider angles and a larger exit pupil, the NatureTrek also comes in an 8×25 version.
The other strength of this monocular is the handling. It’s light, easy to grip and weatherproof, with a twist-out eyecup and a smooth, easy-to-turn focusing ring. The 13mm eye relief makes it comfortable, too. The minimum close focus – 5m – is on the long side, so look elsewhere if you’re after a monocular that works at close range, but otherwise it’s perfect for walkers, casual twitchers and nature lovers.
Key specs – Optics: 10x magnification, 25mm objective lens, multi-coated lenses; Field of view: 5.5°; Exit pupil: 2.5mm; Eye relief: 13mm; Close focus: 5m; Weatherproofing: Nitrogen purged, waterproof, fog-proof; Accessories provided: Soft case, lens covers, wrist strap; Length: 10.5cm; Weight: 147g
4. Viking 8×25 ED: Best compact monocular
Price when reviewed: £115 | Check price at Viking Optical CentresWhile this price might seem a lot for a compact 8×25 monocular, it’s actually a bargain given that the Viking 8×25 ED is one of the cheapest monoculars out there using Extra Low Dispersion (ED) glass. This reduces chromatic aberration (or colour fringing) and gives you a sharper, higher-contrast image through the lens. As a result, the 8×25 ED delivers the crispest, sharpest, fringe-free views we’ve seen from a monocular at this price point, particularly in bright conditions where colour fringing is most likely to rear its ugly head.
We found the 8×25 ED perfect for birdwatching on a sunny afternoon, but it also held up well in gloomier conditions. The low close-focus range also makes it more versatile than some of the higher-powered options. It’s a little heavier than the other 25mm monoculars, although the all-metal construction feels tough, and we found the central focus wheel stiff when trying to focus in on distant objects. However, it’s waterproof and comes with a protective soft case and wrist strap. Overall, you’re getting high-performance optics at a mid-range price, making this our go-to compact monocular for serious birdwatching, nature and hiking.
Key specs – Optics: 8x magnification, 25mm objective lens, fully coated ED lenses; Field of view: 6.8°; Exit pupil: 2.5mm; Eye relief: 15.3mm; Close focus: 1.6m; Weatherproofing: Waterproofing; Accessories provided: Soft case, strap; Length: 11.1cm; Weight: 162g
5. Opticron Oregon 4 PC Oasis 10×42: Best monocular for low-light viewing
Price when reviewed: £109 | Check price at OpticronWhile it’s bigger and heavier than the compact 25mm monoculars, this 10×42 monocular makes the added weight worth your while. With the larger objective lens and 10x magnification, you can get great views of fairly distant subjects even in the early morning or under gloomy weather, where the smaller options struggle to bring in enough light. And while there’s no ED glass at this price point, the view through the lenses is still impressively bright and sharp; perfect for birdwatching, sports or nature.
Despite the 334g weight, it’s well balanced and easy to use single-handed, where you can adjust the focus with your fingertips using the smooth dial on the top. The eye-cup twists out to give a decent 18mm of eye relief, and you have the comfort of an armoured, waterproof construction, complete with a nitrogen filled chamber to prevent fogging. This is an affordable monocular that’s an absolute pleasure to use.
Key specs – Optics: 10x magnification, 42mm objective lens, BAK4 prism, fully-coated lenses; Field of view: 6°; Exit pupil: 4.2mm; Eye relief: 18mm; Close focus: 1.8m; Weatherproofing: Shockproof, waterproof construction, Nitrogen filled; Accessories provided: Soft case, strap; Length: 14.7cm; Weight: 334g
6. Opticron Explorer WA ED-R 8×42: The best monocular for wide-angle views
Price when reviewed: £139 | Check price at London Camera ExchangeMove up from Opticron’s Oregon range to its Explorer range, and there’s a definite step up in terms of both build quality and optical capabilities. With its 42mm objective lens and 8x magnification, the Explorer WA ED-R 8×42 gives you wider viewing angles than the Oregon 4 PC 10 x 42 and a larger exit pupil, at the expense of magnification power. However, this combined with ED glass make it a better option in low light conditions and also in bright sunlight, where the superb clarity and lack of colour fringing ensures great views of wildlife, scenery or the moon and stars above. It’s an impressively robust and versatile miniature scope.
Of course, the larger objective lens and metal construction have an impact on weight, although the way that weight is distributed means that there’s not too much wobble if held one-handed. However, you will need a second hand to shift the stiff central focusing ring. Beyond that, this is an excellent monocular, offering serious optics for a sensible price.
Key specs – Optics: 8x magnification, 42mm objective lens, fully-coated ED lenses; Field of view: 7.8°; Exit pupil: 5.25mm; Eye relief: 17mm; Close focus: 1.9m; Weatherproofing: Nitrogen-filled waterproofing; Accessories provided: Soft case, neoprene strap, rubber lens cover; Length: 13.8cm; Weight: 330g
7. ARPBEST 30×55 High Definition Monocular: Best low-cost, high-power monocular
Price when reviewed: £75 | Check price at AmazonThis low-cost, high-power monocular surpassed expectations, providing clear, bright views of distant birds and objects thanks to a big 55mm objective lens and a 10-30x zoom lens. Inevitably, focus isn’t as sharp at the edges and there’s a little chromatic aberration, but there’s nothing to spoil the up-close view, either in bright daylight or gloomy, overcast conditions. While the ED monoculars win on pin-sharp clarity, the ARPBEST does a fine job of getting you close to birds and wildlife, and it’s a decent option for looking at the moon and stars.
The package as a whole is also solid. We like the green rubber armouring and the smooth focus knob at the top, while ARPBEST throws in a simple mini-tripod and a clip-on smartphone adapter. It’s best to try out the latter before leaving the house, as you won’t get it fitted in a hurry while you’re out in the wilds, and getting decent pictures through it can be hit and miss. That aside, don’t worry about the lack of a big-name brand; this monocular goes big on size and value.
Key specs – Optics: 10-30x magnification, 55mm objective lens, fully-coated lenses; Field of view: 6.5°; Exit pupil: 1.8-5.5mm; Eye relief: 22mm; Close focus: Not stated; Weatherproofing: Rubber armouring, shock proofing, waterproofing; Accessories provided: Soft case, strap, mini-tripod, smartphone adapter, rubber lens cover, cleaning cloth; Length: 21.1cm; Weight: 860g
8. Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10 x 42: Best monocular for birdwatching and nature
Price when reviewed: £212 | Check price at Amazon If you have the budget for seriously good optics, the Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10 x 42 is one of the strongest options around, particularly for nature and birdwatching. It’s an incredibly robust and well-made monocular, with a thick, near-seamless rubber armour, a nitrogen-filled chamber and a water-resistant coating on the glass that encourages any droplets to condense and clear. It’s also superbly balanced and easy to handle, with an adjustable eyepiece and a smooth focus dial on the top. There’s also a Picatinny rail on the bottom, with which you can attach compatible accessories – although this is removable, if you don’t require it.
However, the best reason to buy this monocular is its phenomenally good image quality. Through the ED Prime glass, even distant objects are beautifully clear and free of fringing, while impressive close-focusing abilities make it just as good for observations at close range. Thanks to the large objective lens and exit pupil, it’s also a strong performer in low light. It’s more than twice as expensive as some competitors, but the Legend Ultra HD makes it worth it.
Key specs – Optics: 10x magnification, 42mm objective lens, ED Prime glass, fully multi-coated; Field of view: 6.5°; Exit pupil: 15.2mm; Eye relief: 13mm; Close focus: 0.6m; Weatherproofing: Rainguard HD coasting, IPX7 Rubber armour; Accessories provided: Wrist strap, padded case; Length: 9.8cm; Weight: 374g
9. Viking Cygnus ED 8 x 42: Best mid-range monocular
Price when reviewed: £115 | Check price at Viking Optical CentresViking’s 8 x 42 monocular sits in something of a price/performance sweet spot. At just over £100 it isn’t a huge investment, but the combination of a 42mm objective lens, 8x magnification and ED glass ensures that you can achieve excellent image quality in most conditions – it’s a solid option for dawn or twilight twitchers. Focus is crisp and there’s barely any colour fringing, and while the Opticron Explorer WA pulls ahead slightly in terms of clarity, there really isn’t much in it.
Build quality is impressive for the price, offering a rugged waterproof rubber armour and a very comfortable grip. We found the focus dial easier to work with than the central focusing ring on the Opticron. It’s quite a heavy monocular; but it’s durable, affordable and good for everything from birdwatching to hiking to some light stargazing from your garden.
Key specs – Optics: 8x magnification, 42mm objective lens, ED glass; Field of view: 7.5°; Exit pupil: 4.2mm; Eye relief: 17.2mm; Close focus: 2m; Weatherproofing: Waterproof, rubber armour; Accessories provided: Wrist strap, soft case; Length: 9.8cm; Weight: 374g