The five binoculars tested
The five binoculars tested

This summer I put five pairs of similarly constructed binoculars, retailing under $500, through the wringer. I tested under different conditions and at different times to ensure that the results I came to were as accurate and complete as I could make them. I avoided the overly technical aspects of the units and focused on tests that provided real-life tangible benefit and application that could be understood by every reader.

Every model being tested for this review was an 8×42 roof prism chassis. In my opinion, reviewing binoculars of different magnifications or objective lens diameter in the same review is reckless. Magnification and objective lens diameter define the basic principles of how the unit will perform. Reviewing models with different basic chassis specs is flawed, and will not produce a true result. This was removed from this review by only accepting 8×42 models.

The Binoculars

Let’s look at the units being reviewed and their MSRP (links go to Amazon.com).

1. Tract Tekoa – $454.002. Styrka S5 – $454.95
3. Nikon Monarch 5 – $299.95
4. Vortex Diamondback – $269.00
 5. Bushnell Trophy XLT – $269.00

Of the five units, the first three listed make use of ED glass in the optical system. ED glass is widely known to be superior to standard optical glass. I did want to include multiple optical system designs in the review to see how much actual difference could be perceived in normal-use conditions.

The Test Criteria

Clarity/fringing

How crisp is the image transmitted to the eye. For this I created a board to view through the binoculars at gradually increasing distances. To the board I applied black electrical tape in a small square that left a roughly one-inch by one-inch square of white backer exposed in the middle. Around that black tape box, I also added a gray duct tape box, roughly six-inches square. Because the backer board is pure white, these boxes provide stark contrast, with defined edges that I could look for. As the edges started to fringe, or blur, I could rate the units on clarity and fringing. I make note of the maximum distance for each binocular at which the innermost white box is still clearly visible.

How this applies to you – If what you are viewing isn’t clear the binocular isn’t of much use. While not scientific, it’s easy to see how distinguishing contrast and colors when scanning the woods for a deer or turkey is a valuable trait in your optics.

Low-light performance

img_1971The optics buzzword: low-light. It seems most game prefers to move in those misty minutes right around dawn and dusk. Spotting deer in a field in the middle of the day is easy, but 15 minutes before sunrise? In Indiana, legal hunting hours are from one half-hour before sunrise to one half-hour after sunset. When evaluating the binoculars for low-light performance, I wanted to know how long before and after legal hunting time one could survey the surroundings for game. For this test I wanted to view a static object, from a fixed point as the sun was both rising and setting. In a far corner of my yard, 80 yards from my porch is a drainage standpipe. It is a yellow plastic, that being slightly downhill, is surrounded by yard, and green soybeans. Some contrast, but not so much as to be obvious in waxing or waning light.

How this applies to you – Sitting in a treestand as the sun comes up, scanning the woods and field for movement or objects is important. You can’t hunt what you can’t see.
Yellowing – Without getting too “optics geek” on you, color transmission can never be perfect. It can be so close as to not be noticeable, but because of the way light travels through the glass of an optical system, the image that is transmitted to your eye will have color differences from that of your naked eye. For most, this is most easily perceived by viewing something that is pure white. Any tinge or shading is most visible on a color that itself has no tinge or shading. For this I simply used the white backer board in use for the clarity testing, and rated each of them out based on the level of yellowing that was perceived.
How this applies to you – Color representation of what you are viewing can help discern between objects while viewing. The more of the color spectrum that is accurately represented when viewing through binoculars, the more true and robust the transmitted image will be.

Depth of field

Simply, how much you have to turn the focus knob to bring objects at two different distances into focus, or how much of an image is in focus moving away from you. If focused at 18 yards, are things blurry at 22 yards, or 25? This is more of an issue closer to you while viewing, than it is viewing things farther away. To test, I placed a sign at 50 yards. Moving in five-yard increments I moved a second sign away from the sign at 50 yards. As the second sign becomes unable to be read, I note the distance and level of clarity loss.

How this applies to you – Tracking a trophy buck through the woods, judging him, evaluating if he is the one you want to shoot, or trying to make out bumps on an antlerless deer to decide if it is a button buck or a doe is made much easier if the optics being used have more depth of field, as you can spend more time viewing the deer in focus, without adjusting the focus wheel, especially when the target is on the move.

Aesthetics

With these technical aspects covered, each unit was rated on aesthetics, or fit and feel. How comfortable are they? Are they easy to hold? For this aspect I also solicited the opinion of two other reviewers, with different levels of binocular use and experience. These comments were used to rank each unit in terms of preference based on features, with specific remarks being noted for each unit.

How They Performed

Clarity

All models performed well out to the 150-yard mark. At that point, the Bushnell started to show noticeable fringing of the interior white square. At 200 yards, the Styrka and Tract models were still crisp, but the Vortex, and to a less degree the Nikon started to show reduced clarity. At 250 yards, all models now showed fringing. With the Bushnell it was difficult to make out the square. It appeared as a lighter colored center, but the shape was not distinguishable. The Vortex and Nikon seemed to even up here, with the Vortex not suffering as much image quality loss in the 50-yard move as the Nikon, though both still showed some shape. The Tract binos were slightly clearer at 250 yards, and win the clarity test.

Think of this like an MOA test for a rifle. All models showed a relatively clear, one-inch square image at 150 yards, or a “sub-MOA group.” For practical purposes every model received a passing grade. As expected, the ED models separated themselves from the others, thought the Nikon not as much as the Styrka and Tract.

Low-Light

Over the course of the summer I conducted the low-light test five times. In the morning, on both a sunny and cloudy day, and in the evening during a full, quarter, and new moon. I noted each time how long before, and how long after, the standpipe remained visible, and calculated an average usage time after shooting light the units functioned.

First of all, every unit performed quite well within legal shooting hours. For this test, every model provided a complete and detailed image of the standpipe, including contrast and definition of features, to at least six minutes after legal shooting time. While on stand, if a shot is legal, every binocular in this test will perform well enough to help you judge the game you are after.

Beyond legal shooting hours, I was actually surprised how little variance there was. Below is a list showing for each model, how many additional minutes of visibility they provided.

Bushnell Trophy – 22.8 minutes
Vortex Diamondback – 27.9 minutes
Tract Tekoa – 34.8 minutes
Nikon Monarch 5 – 35.1 minutes
Styrka S5 – 37.7 minutes

Depth of Field

Performance was similar for all models out to 75 yards. At 80 yards, the Bushnell and Vortex became too out of focus to read the far sign. No model was able to make it beyond 85 yards, with the Tract showing the least loss of clarity, Nikon following, and Styrka showing the most loss of focus.

Again, the ED models show a slight performance edge, but these results are remarkably similar, and when considering practical application in the field all models exhibited an acceptable depth of field.

Yellowing

I had to essentially remove this from the comparison. Advances in coatings and glass production in recent years has helped make good binoculars affordable at almost any price point, though middling units can still be found. Every unit in this test provided remarkable color transmission, and no discernable yellowing was detected in any of the models. The category could have been removed from the review, but I thought it worth noting that color transmission on all models was very good, and exceeded expectations.Aesthetics

Aesthetics

The combination of texture and material made the Tract a favorite in-hand.
The texture and material made the Tract a favorite in-hand.

The following are quotes from testers:

Tract
“They just feel quality”
“This is the best focus wheel in the group.”
“These have the best texture, it’s a natural grip.”
“The objective covers don’t feel as secure or locked-in as I would like.”

Nikon

img_1967-large
Reviewers were split on the contouring of the Nikon Monarch 5.

“Focus wheel is very smooth.”
“I love this texture. It feels like a receiver glove. I don’t know how you would drop these.”
“The countouring is a little overdone, it doesn’t quite fit my hand.”

Styrka
“The eyecups are comfortable, and the function is smooth.”
“These are a perfect size, they just fit my hand naturally.”
“Focus wheel is a little stiff.”

Bushnell objective lens covers were the favorite of the panel.
Bushnell objective lens covers were the favorite of the panel.

Bushnell
“Best objective covers in the group, hands down.”
“Texturing is nice, and necessary as camo finish feels slick.”
“Focus wheel could be freed up a little bit.”

Vortex
“Thumb detents make the grip more uniform.”
“I feel like I could use these all day. They’re lightweight and easy to hold.”
“Thumb detents weren’t in the spots I want

I loved the Vortex thumb detents. They didn’t fit the grip of another reviewer.
I loved the Vortex thumb detents. They didn’t fit the grip of another reviewer.

to grip. Made it feel awkward.”

Summary

Tract, by virtue of winning every category aside from low-light, was the highest rated binocular in the review. Followed by Styrka and Nikon, separated by only a few points, and Vortex edged out the Bushnell model which finished fifth.

Every unit in the review performed well. I would be perfectly comfortable taking any of the products reviewed to the field with me. In the end, the results bore out what would be expected, and what your grandfather always told you, “you get what you pay for.” In every case, however, the binoculars tested surpassed my performance expectations, especially given the retail price point for each model. There were no failing grades in this review, and I am 100% comfortable recommending any of these products for your use in the woods this fall.

Purchase links:

Trent Marsh - Gear Editor
Trent Marsh spent much of his childhood in the woods and lakes of Northeast Indiana. He has long had a passion for the outdoors. He transferred that passion into a career as the marketing manager for an optics company the last five years. In a short amount of time Trent has become a respected outdoor marketing professional and one of the next generation of outdoorspeople. When not hunting or fishing Trent is can usually be found tending his garden or chickens, or travelling the world with his wife.

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