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Which Compact Binoculars Are Best?

While a Western or open-country hunter wouldn’t be caught in the field without  binoculars, that’s not the case everywhere. But are hunters who aren’t carrying binoculars missing something—even if their normal distances aren’t that great?

I often find myself asking that question while turkey hunting when a bird flies down in the first few minutes of legal shooting time, and I wish I had the added light-gathering power of binoculars. Or, it happens when I am sitting in a blind and a turkey appears 200 yards or more away. I also want more magnification then.

The idea of binoculars when turkey hunting doesn’t always fit in, though, since binoculars aren’t always lightweight to carry. Compact binoculars can fill that gap, however.

Testing Five Sets

I put five popular compact binoculars through two different testing protocols and looked at their overall product features.

To understand the comparisons between the products, it’s necessary to look at the inner workings of binoculars. The main types are porro prism and roof prism binoculars. It’s easy to tell which is which by looking at the construction. Porro prism is the original binocular design, with the objective lenses offset from the eyepieces. Roof prism binoculars have the objective lens in line with the eyepiece. The optical difference is the prism inside.

The other important distinction with binoculars is the size of the objective lens. Compact binoculars have objective lenses less than 32 millimeters in size. The larger the lens, generally the more light that gets let through. However, glass quality, coatings and prism quality also play a role.

To the Test

I tested the binoculars using a USAF 1951 1X target. These targets are often used with a formula to calculate the resolution of an imaging system. I printed these targets out on letter-sized paper and looked at the four rows of lines and numbers. My test was to try to read the numbers in the different systems. They were shown as -2, -1, 1, and 0. I tested them at 50, 100, and 200 yards.

All the binoculars in the main test were 10-power. To be fair, putting a 25-mm objective lens against a 32-mm objective lens is not a test of equals, but there were some surprising results. Smaller objective lenses aren’t expected to be as bright as larger objectives.

The secondary test was looking at a stop sign from a mile away, looking to see if I could read the letters at that distance.

Both tests were done on an overcast day. I figured this better simulated the twilight conditions when wildlife is most active.

Bushnell 10×25 H2O Waterproof

American optics company Bushnell gained a reputation for providing quality optics at a reasonable price. The company has really revamped its optic line to increase quality.

These lightweight binoculars have a non-slip grip and are waterproof to three feet for 30 minutes (IPX-7 waterproof). The folding roof prism design makes for one of the smallest of the binoculars I tested. They were also the lightest and are of aluminum construction. The lens caps aren’t attached.

In the USAF 1951 test, these binoculars could clearly read the -2 line at both 50 and 100 yards. The -1 numbers were legible, but barely. These binoculars were the darkest of those tested and had less contrast. The letters on the stop sign weren’t quite legible.

With their small size and waterproof construction, I thought these binoculars would be ideal for waterfowl hunting. I don’t normally take binoculars duck hunting, but handling these, I saw them as fitting that niche. They are tough but not expensive, since that can be a tough test on optics.

Price: $49.99 USD

Prism: Roof

Weight: 10.7 ounces

Length: 4.1 inches

Twist-up eyecups for those that wear glasses

Bushnell Prime 10 x 28

These binoculars have Bushnell’s EXO Barrier to repel water and dirt. They are waterproof to three feet (IPX 7 waterproof) for 30 minutes. The objective lens caps are fastened on the body and eyepiece caps will fasten to the strap. The body has a rubber coating with a non-slip grip.

The -2 numbers on the USAF test were visible at both 50 and 100 yards, with the -1 visible at 100 yards. In the stop sign test, the letters could be read. These binoculars were the third brightest of those tested. These binoculars are a great value for the money.

Price: $129.99 USD

Prism: Roof

Weight: 14.2 ounces

Length: 4.7 inches

Twist-up eyecups for glasses wearers

German Precision Optical (GPO) Passion ED 10 x 32

GPO is a company led by former major optic companies that had a vision to offer top- quality products at a more reasonable price.

The Passion ED binoculars boast an incredible 99.7% light transmission through each optical surface, for a combined total light transmission of 92%.  These were the only binoculars tested with ED glass.

The magnesium body has a two-part coating and a more intense grip on the portions where the hands fall. The lens caps are not attached to the body of the binoculars. These binoculars are waterproof, but there was no depth or rating given.

These were the brightest binoculars tested with the most contrast. In the optical testing, the -2 and -1 numbers could be easily read at 50 yards. The -1 could be read at 50 yards and the -1 was on the edge of legibility at 100 yards. Stop sign letters were an easy read at a mile.

Price: $579.99 USD

Prism: Roof

Weight: 17.6 ounces

Length: 4.9 inches

Twist-up eyecups for glasses wearers

Leupold BX-1 Rogue Waterproof 10 x 25

Leupold is the established source for North American optics, with more than a century’s experience in producing quality products.

The BX-1 Rogue features scratch- and smudge-proof lenses with Leupold’s legendary light transmission. The body is armor-coated and these binoculars were tested for waterproofness to 33 feet. The lens caps are not attached to the body. Although these were the second smallest physically, the ergonomic shape makes them seem smaller. The BX-1 rated fourth in brightness.

In testing, it was possible to read the -2 numbers at 50 and 100 yards and the -1 at 50. The stop sign could just be read at a mile.

Price: $104.99 USD

Prism: Inverted porro

Weight: 12.7 ounces

Length: 4.3 inches

No twist-up eyecups for glasses wearers

Vortex Diamondback 10 x 28

Vortex has a growing reputation for its high-quality optic products. The Diamondback 10 x 28 didn’t disappoint.

Sporting HD glass, the Diamondbacks have a rubber-coated body for a better grip. They also have grooves in the body to further enhance grip.  There was no mention of the waterproof level of these in the company’s material. There are flip-down lens covers attached to the body. These were the second brightest of the binoculars tested.

The resolution of the HD glass paid dividends. It was possible to read the -2 and -1 numbers at both 50 and 100 yards. These were the clearest in that regard. It was no problem reading the letters on the stop sign at a mile.

Price: $219.99 USD

Prism: Roof

Weight: 13.3 ounces

Length: 4.6 inches

Twist-up eyecups for glasses wearers

Notes on Magnification

I also tested to see how much power was needed to read the 0 at 50 yards with the variable power on my most powerful optic, a Bushnell Forge spotting scope with 15-45 power. To read the 0, I needed 30 power.

Both Vortex and Bushnell provided 8-power samples for testing. The lesser power gives a better field of view. It was possible to read the -2 numbers at 50 and 100 yards. It was tougher to read the -1 than with 10 power but it was legible.

Overall Winner

Since brightness is somewhat of a subjective measure, my wife Karen accompanied me to confirm my results. Her pick for best overall binoculars were the GPO Passions. I was impressed with these, but I gave top marks to the Vortex Diamondbacks. Although they weren’t as bright, I preferred the clarity and flip-down lens caps.

The testing process was an eye-opener for me, showing me the value of compact binoculars. They will fit in the pocket of any hunting coat or are light enough to hang around your neck and be at the ready. With compact binoculars, there is really no excuse to leave your binoculars at home.

Read More: “A Game of Hide & Seek: 8 Tips for Spotting & Stalking Mule Deer”

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