I have traditionally NOT been a binoculars guy when it comes to astronomy. If I’m totally honest, I’m even a bit judgey for those who respond to newbies’ questions about what type of telescope to get with “get binos, great way to get started” advice. It’s a common refrain, by experienced amateurs, and I think it can be amongst the worst advice to give anyone given the learning curve, unsteady viewing if going hand-held, and low magnification. But it should probably be part of everyone’s toolkit, so who am I to argue?
So, I was thinking of getting a pair just as SkyNews for July/August 2020 arrived on my doorstep with an article from no less than famed Canadian astronomer Alan Dyer reviewing entry-level / beginner binoculars. Perfect, I could choose one from his list! His cut-off was $300 and generally available in Canada, which is a pretty good starting point.
Dyer covered 13 choices is his list, grouped under 5 headings. I confess I was a bit surprised right off the bat as the only thing I thought I really knew about quality was that Porro prism designs were supposedly the best, and that turns out to no longer be true. That alone was a shock. I worked through all the options, and it was hard since I was mostly choosing “blind” i.e., with COVID, I wouldn’t get to try them out in person.
8×42 Roof prism binoculars
Dyer’s article noted that if you have a shaky hand, which I do a bit plus I want kids to be able to use them, an 8x magnification option is pretty stable. So these went to the head of my list. I also was attracted to seeing more sky, since my large 8SE scope gives me a 1-degree field of view at most.
First up were the Vortex Crossfire’s HD binos, with Vortex having a decent reputation and a rock-solid warranty. $240 is nothing to sneeze at, but with a 7.5-degree field of view (FoV), the largest of any of the ones listed, it could be worth it. Another issue in choosing is the Interpupillary Distance (IPD) which is the distance between your pupils. Kids are generally “smaller”, so you need to be able to go small for the binos to line up with their eyes. I, on the other hand, have a big fat head, and so my eyes are farther apart. I measured Jacob at around 58 mm, the same as Andrea’s, and Jacob estimated mine to be closer to 74 mm. So I wanted a decent range. The Vortex ones cover 57 to 74 mm, from the second smallest IPD to the biggest, a good option for us. It comes with a diopter to adjust for your eyes, i.e, if you don’t have perfectly normal vision (hah!), and they only weigh 675 grams, the third lightest of the list. Plus 17mm of eye relief (pretty comfortable to avoid a tunnelling effect). Do you see where I’m going with this? They ticked all my boxes.
Second in this category was a more classic name in astro equipment, the Celestron Nature DX ED model, costing an extra $20 to $260, according to the article. They listed a slightly smaller field of view at 7.4, but honestly, they’re the same, just a rounding difference. They DO go to 56mm for IPD and their eye relief was an extra .5 mm, AND they weigh less at 630g. But I couldn’t confirm if they had a diopter or not, and there was added confusion when it came to the ED element. According to Dyer, ED means “extra-low dispersion” to reduce fringing around bright objects, but he didn’t see any colour difference between these ones and the above ones. Many of the sites listed ED in the specs but listed a non-ED price, while others didn’t list ED in the specs, yet had the same ED price. I just found it confusing, plus couldn’t confirm for the diopter element. This took them out of the running for me.
Of the two models of this type, Vortex was my clear preference.
10×42 Roof prism binoculars
These ones are the same type as the previous ones, and they simply move you from 8x to 10x power. The extra magnification is good to help resolve star clusters BUT it adds shaking.
There were two models listed, and I confess they didn’t get serious consideration. The Meade Rainforest Pro pair were listed at $190 and the Nikon Prostaff 5 pair at $240, both available on Amazon. They both have a 6.2/6.3 FoV, a full degree smaller than the 8x42s, and 15mm / 15.5mm in eye relief, 2mm smaller than the 8x42s. The Meades have a diopter adjustment; no idea if the Nikons do or not. To be frank, it was very hard to find reliable info on the Nikon pairs on sales sites as v5 has been replaced by v7, yet much of the information on sites still has partly v5 info with v7 prices or v7 info with v5 prices. You couldn’t be sure what you were paying for or getting. Worse still was that I couldn’t find reliable info on either pair about the IPD range. For that reason alone, they were out of contention, but online reviews also said they weren’t very good with glasses on. But to round out the specs, they ranged from 726g for the Meades to 648g for the Nikons.
So no 10x42s for me!
7×50 Porro prism binoculars
This was more the style I was expecting him to push, as Porro prisms have been the go-to design for years. Everything I ever read in the past said PP is better for astronomy, while RPs tended to be for sports. With improvements in technology, apparently PPs are being crowded out and the big push is for roof prism ones. Nevertheless, there are still Porro prism designs available, as the real benefit is MUCH lower cost, even though there are lots of concerns that 7x50s give a very strong “tunnelling” effect when looking through them.
First on Dyer’s list in this category was the classic Celestron Cometrons. They are only $70, and I saw them as low as $63 on Amazon. Sounds great! They even have a 6.8-degree FoV, with a IPD of 56 to 72mm. I wasn’t sure what my actual size was, Jacob measured it closer to 74, but I wasn’t completely sold that was right. I didn’t like the minimal 13mm of eye relief, the lowest of the bunch, but you have to save design costs somewhere. Still, it could be a good starting point, right? 774 grams of weight was heavier than the others to date, but not horrendously so. But no diopter. Since I’m not sure if I want to have my glasses on to view or not, and there will be multiple people using the binos with different eye issues, I kind of want that feature. So likely not. But the price was certainly attractive if all I want to do is learn how to surf the sky.
Next on his list was the Nikon Aculons A211s. They were double the price, $150 in the article and $160 on Amazon, with the specs showing only a 6.4-degree FoV but an impressive 17.6 mm of eye relief, yet weighing a whopping 904g. Your hands will definitely notice they’re holding THOSE ones for any length of time. No diopter could be confirmed, but worse, there were NO details on their IPD range. Kind of important. Pass.
The last ones in the group were the Orion Scenix, checking in at $170. An impressive 7.1-degree FoV and an amazing 20mm of eye relief. But the IPD was 59-72 mm, a bit larger than Jacob’s eyes and seemingly a bit small for me. Plus 816 grams of weight, and no diopter. Yeah, another pass.
I could consider the Cometrons in a pinch, and if someone was selling a pair off used, I might go for it. Otherwise, no.
10×50 Porro prism binoculars
This is the classic recommendation of astronomers pretty much everywhere. They always recommended Porro design, and they always suggested 10×50 as the right magnification, light gathering and weight. So Dyer’s article works through 4 models.
First up were Pentax Spotmatic SP binos at $150 in the article, $200 on Amazon. After that, you’re on your own. I couldn’t confirm ANY spec details about FoV, weight, IPD, eye relief or diopter. Pretty easy to pass on those.
Next on his list are Bushnell Legacy WPs, at $170 but my local telescope store had them listed for $150. A 6.5-degree FoV (standard at this size), 18 mm of eye relief, and wow, 865g of weight. That’s not insignificant. Oh, wait. Only 59-71 mm IPD. Okay, I’m out again with my 58-74 mm need. Plus no diopter.
Okay, how about the Orion Ultraviews? $230 in the article, a little pricey, but wait…why does it say $150 at Walmart of all places? Hmm…6.5-degree FoV, check, 58-72 is a bit low potentially, 22mm of eye relief is incredible, but no diopter and no info on weight. Plus there’s that whole version issue of whatever Walmart is selling. Since I’m buying these “sight unseen” (no pun intended), I can’t be dealing with version issues. I’m going to pass.
Finally, there were Nikon Action EX binos. They get decent anecdotal reviews, $250 in the article and they are supposedly available through Costco. And a diopter? Great. Oh, wait. No info online about FoV, IPD, eye relief or weight. Well, that’s a problem. Okay, off the list. Maybe if I could go into a store and try them out onsite, or look at the box for specs, but not in a COVID world.
So the whole category is a write-off.
10×50 Roof prism binoculars
These are the “new” styles that are all the rage and where manufacturers are investing their production money.
The Nikon ProStaff 5 model problem reared its ugly head again, as it did in the 10×42 models. I can see a price ($270, although potentially only $223 at Cabelas now that the v7 models are out), a 5.6-degree FoV (the smallest of all of the binos), an impressive 19.6 mm of eye relief, 813 grams of weight. But no info on diopter OR the IPDs. And the confusion again on v5 vs. v7 specs in online retailers. Sigh. Out.
The last pair for consideration were contenders. The Celestron Nature DX ED models again (seen previously at 8×42), with higher price in Roof prism than Porro prism design, so $280. A 5.9-degree FoV, IPD of 56 to 74 mm (the widest range available), 806 grams (the top half of the weight range, given their bigger size). Even 17.8 mm of eye relief. A serious contender. But no diopter, which is a bit of a black mark.
The final two models in contention
In the end, my final two choices came down to two very different pairs of binoculars.
|Model||Vortex Crossfire HD||Celestron Nature DX ED|
|Design||Roof prism||Roof prism|
|Field of View||7.5 degrees||5.9 degrees|
|IPD range||57-74 mm||56-74 mm|
|Eye relief||17 mm||17.8 mm|
|Weight||675 grams||806 grams|
So basically it comes down to this. I can either go lighter, less magnification/bigger swath of sky, and be more stable with a diopter to adjust for eye issues (with the Vortex) or pay $40 more to get more magnification/smaller swatch of sky but still decent, add some heft to the binos as they’ll be bigger, less stability in seeing, and no diopter.
Or put even more simply, see big chunks of stable sky with better vision adjustments, or more detail on smaller chunks of potentially shaky sky with slightly fewer adjustments.
I want the stability. I’m going with the Vortex ones, and my local telescope store even has them in stock. Sweet.