“Almost alpha” binoculars

 

Written by ILya Koshkin

I decided to do this article on a whim.  I was roaming around SHOT a couple of years ago and happened to visit Leica and Zeiss booths one after another.  Leica had the re-introduced their Trinovid binocular and Zeiss had the new Conquest HD.  Stephen Ingraham (formerly of BetterViewDesired) who works for Zeiss flatly stated that the new Conquest HD will blow anything in the $1000 – $1500 range out of the water.  I went back to Leica and mentioned that.  The guys at Leica suggested that I follow through with that and I received the 8×42 version of the new Trinovid fairly soon after SHOT.  I made a couple of attempts to contact the folks at Zeiss (neither Steve Ingraham nor the other person whose card I had on hand replied) to get a loaner Conquest HD, but never got anyone to call or e-mail back. I am fairly used to being ignored, so I figured they are either busy or do not want to risk having anything to do with me.  It is not that uncommon for me to have a nice chat with someone at SHOT and then have that person not give me the time of day.  In a grand scheme of things, I have to admit that for a large and well established company, dealing with me is somewhat risky.  They already have the name recognition, so if their product does well in my comparisons there isn’t all that much benefit.  However, if I say something negative, that might spread.  Having failed to get any attention from Zeiss, I changed direction and got a couple of other binoculars into my hands from the good folk at Steiner and Vortex.  They seem to be a little less risk averse despite my criticism of some of their products. The article ended up being different from what I originally intended, but also in some ways more entertaining (for me).  Rather than do a direct comparison, I decided to get three binoculars of nearly identical configuration, but differing in price.  The Steiner Nighthunter XP runs around $900.  Vortex Razor HD is around $1200 and Leica Trinovid is $1450.  What I was trying to determine was very simple: what do you get for that extra cash? and if I was in the market would I spend the extra cash?

In principle, I should have had the Meopta Meostar in there and, if push came to shove, I could have gotten my hands onto the Conquest HD (I could always buy one and sell it after the test).  However, I figured that looking at those three binos would be a good start and would give me enough information to structure the next article appropriately.  Besides, I have a lot of hands-on time with the Meostar and it is one of my favourite binoculars of all I have ever seen, especially for the money.  Hence, I can refer to it where appropriate.

As always, here is the spec table of the three binoculars I tested (in bold) along with the two I did not look at

 

Leica Trinovid 8×42

Zeiss Conquest HD 8×42

Vortex Razor HD 8×42

Steiner Nighthunter XP 8×42

Meopta Meostar 8×42

Length, in

5.6

6.5

5.9

6.8

5.91

Weight, oz

28.6

24.7

24.2

28.2

31.64

Close Focus, ft

11.5

6.5

6

6.6

9.84

Eye Relief, mm

15.5

18

17.5

18.5

17.4

FOV, ft@1000yards

378

384

388

400

411

Prism Type

Schmidt- Pechan Roof

Schmidt- Pechan Roof

Schmidt- Pechan Roof

Roof

Schmidt- Pechan Roof

Price

$1450

$950

$1180

$900

$900

Looking at the specs does not give us all that much useful information.  These are all very similar binoculars.  Leica and Meopta are a little heavier than the others, while Meopta and Steiner have the widest FOV.  Leica has a little less eye relief than the others here, but all seem serviceable enough.  The effective eyerelief depends on the eyecup design anyway, since the rear optical element may be a bit recessed due to the eyecups.

I spent a fair amount of time actually using these binoculars with the bulk of it spent using them off-hand.  However, some of the testing I also did with the binoculars secured on a tripod just to make sure that my hand tremor is not effecting the results (using the binoculars off-hand only would tilt the scales toward the heavier designs since they are a little steadier).  While most of the observation involved me looking out to random distances, I did drag the binoculars with me to a shooting range with steel plates out to 600 yards in 100 yard increments.  Having something to look at at known distances helps with depth of field and focus speed evaluation.

I walked away with fairly predictable, but still somewhat unexpected conclusions.  All three of these binoculars worked like a charm and never hiccuped.  They also ended up being subjected to some unplanned durabillity testing and came out of it unscarred and in perfect alignment.  I had them in a small unpadded backpack (Kifaru E&E) when I went on a short hike. The backpack with the three binoculars in it ended up taking a spill down hill (purely by accident of course…).  There are beautiful hiking trails not far from where I live, and I often hike out to some hill away from people, settle down on top of it and spend a couple of hours glassing.  Sometimes, I also take a laser rangefinder with me to know how far some of the landscape features happen to be.  Simply sitting there and glassing tells me a lot about the binoculars.  All three of these, worked well and did not strain me unduly.  However, Leica was easily the most relaxed binocular to look through and the image through the Leica had the most “pop”.  Some (usually very expensive) binoculars have that extra texture in the image that you can almost reach out and touch.  I have a suspicion that is the result of having better microcontrast rendition, but I could be wrong.  In terms of ability to see real-world detail during daylight Steiner and Vortex were not that far off from each other especially during the day.  Leica, however, was clearly better.  I had a couple of other people look through the binoculars without me explaining the differences in price or mentioning the brands (I taped up the logos).  Both immediately said they preferred the Leica.  Between the Vortex and the Steiner, it was a closer call and, in truth, the image quality in good light is pretty close.  What also makes the difference is the color balance.  Leica has a slightly warm color cast, while Steiner and Vortex have a neutral or very slightly cold color cast.  All three are close to neutral, but when you have them side by side, the colors look a little different.  I suspect that is one of the reasons everyone immediately grouped the Steiner and the Vortex together with the Leica looking a little different.

My house sits on the slope of a hill, not all that far from the top of it, so despite living in a very densely populated area I have unobstructed view from both lower and upper decks of my house for about 12-14 miles.  For those of you who are familiar with Southern California, I live on the slopes of Santa Monica mountains and I can see clear across the San Fernando valley toward Granada Hills and San Gabriel mountains.  SInce I am looking across a valley that is home to a couple of million people (I’ll check the census and update the number), there is all sorts of stuff to look at: homes, billboads, distant traffic, cars, etc.  I also have a few resolution charts set-up at the tail end of my backyard (my house has another small deck on the back so I can look at the backyard from there).

Looking at conventional black and white resolution charts did not yield any significant differences between these two binoculars.  Leica and Vortex were neck-in-neck with Steiner just a little worse.  I thought that the roof prisms on the Steiner had some sort of an imperfection on the roof edges of the prisms and when I did the star test at night, my suspicions turned out to be correct.  The roof edges on the Steienr prisms must have been slightly less than perfect since stars looked like small crosses instead of points sources if I were just a little off center.  The prism irregularities must have created some diffractive effects and extra scatter. I do not know if that was the case for my specific binocular or with all of them.

Looking at color resolution charts (sometimes I print out the same resolution charts but with the patterns in green, red or blue) was a little different.  Green resolution was similar across the board.  Blue was not far off, but Leica was a little better.  With red Leica had even more of an edge.

Then I moved on to color charts.  I looked at both regular and extended Macbeth charts and here Leica really stood out from the group.  FIne color variations were clearly easier to see.  Interestingly, the grain of paper that the targets were printed on was also clearly easier to see with the Leica.  Steiner and Vortex, once again, were pretty similar to each other with Vortex having a little bit of an edge.

Overall, the results of my observation of the charts matched well with my impressions from sitting on the hill and glassing.

Last thing to note about the optics is that the depth of field was a little greater on the Leica with Vortex and Steiner being, once again close.

Eye relief, while different on paper, turned out to be pretty similar across the board in actual use.  I had not problem getting the eyecups properly set up whether I was using them with glasses or with contacts.  Steiner has the fold down stray light shields on the outside of the eyecups, which do help somewhat when there is something bright to your sides.

Whenever I talk about binoculars, I have a tendency to focus on optics a little too much.  However, ergonomics, handling and mechanical quality of the eyecups and the focusing mechanism are just as important.

With the advent of comparatively affordable and high quality optics from China people often ask why they should pay more for Japanese or German binoculars.  Whether they should or not is determined on a case by case basis.  However, while the difference in optical quality is often small, the difference in mechanical quality is often much more noticeable.

With the three binoculars in this group, the quality of the focusing mechnism seems to track price.  Steiner focuser is fairly well weighted, but it has a slight emount of slop in it and a touch of hysteresis.  Razor HD focuser was perfectly precise, but a little lighter than I like.  The focus speed was also higher than with the original Razor, though not as high as the Viper HD.  Leica focuser was as perfect as I have ever seen.

Ergonomically, these three binoculars feel very differently in your hands with both the Steiner and the Vortex feeling comparatively slim and long.  The barrels on the Leica are larger in diameter and feel like the rubber armoring is a little thicker.  Leica felt a little more natural to me since I am used to binoculars like Meopta Meostar and Swarovski SLC which have similar feel and balance.  However, with a little familiarization, all three were easy to get used to.

When all is said and done, the question I was trying to answer was whether the price difference between these three binoculars is worth it.  That is pretty personal, of course, but if I were looking for a binocular for my personal use, Leica Trinovid would be at the top of the list.  $1500 is a lot of money, but I have not seen any less expensive binoculars that can match it.  Best I can tell, the new Trinovid has the same optical system as the Ultravid (or is so dangerously close to it that seeing the difference is hard), but without the hydrophobic coatings and in a heavier chassis.

Between, Vortex and Steiner, it is a close call and I am not convinced the Razor HD is necessarily worth the extra $300, especially if the prism issues on the Steiner I looked are not common for the whole line.  The Razor HD is better than the Nighthunter, but the difference is not as pronounced as it is with the Leica.  What muddies the waters more in the $1000 price range is the Meopta Meostar.  All three are not far from each other in terms of performance, but based on my previous experience, I would probably give the Meopta a slight edge as an overall package.

 Posted by at 10:44 pm