Swarovski Pocket 8×20 B Review

 

Swarovski Pocket 8×20 B Review

 

March 18, 2012

by Les (Jim) Fischer (BigJimFish)

 

While at Shot Show this year to look at scopes, I brought with me a set of binoculars so that I might also be able to make comparisons of binoculars. In particular, I was interested in pocket-sized binoculars because it seemed to me that little attention is paid to this class by other reviewers. Most reviewers of binoculars are birdwatchers and since they typically day trip and have only optical gear to carry, the size and weight of binoculars is not crucial. In fact, the binoculars are often the most important item being carried and therefore not subject to critique on aspects unrelated to function.

 

My background is somewhat different from the typical birdwatcher. Most of the first applications I had for binoculars surrounded Boy Scouts. Backpacking and canoeing treks were the most important excursions. Weight and size are quite the concern when any item you take you must carry for 50 miles on foot. My first binoculars were therefore compacts. It seems fitting that my first review should follow suit.

 

Amongst the compact binoculars to catch my eye at Shot were the Swarovski 8x20mm Pockets. This should not come as a surprise. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Swarovski is the most flattered of all binocular manufacturers. I can’t tell you how many open hinge green binoculars I saw at Shot, but I can tell you that they are all styled after Swarovski El’s.

 

Swarovski makes their pocket binoculars in 8x20mm and 10x25mm. The 8x comes in black/tan rubberized, black/green rubberized, and black/leather. The 10x does not have the leather option. I have chosen the green 8x model for my review because Swarovskis really ought to be green and my exceptional eyes but unsteady hands are a recipe for 8x magnification.

 

Swarovski Pocket 8×20 B binoculars with packaging, manuals, case, and cleaning cloth.

 

In order to get an accurate idea of what was valued in Swarovski’s design, I compared them to a range of binoculars old and new at a variety of price points. Of most relevance was a set of new Nikon 8x20mm Premier binoculars.  It was very interesting to see the different decisions made by each manufacturer with regards to contrast, color, weight, field of view, and resolution. It is often not appreciated by the casual observer that not all aspects of a design can be maximized. Cost is not the only limiting factor in optical design and money cannot buy you all of everything. If you want good depth of field, for instance, you may have to sacrifice some resolution or contrast in the design to get it. Swarovski has executed a fine balancing act in the design of the 8x20mm pockets and I think they have largely done very well.

 

The first thing I noticed about the Swarovskis, aside from the very nice box and carrying bag, is that they are very small and light. Before you jump all over me for a gross statement of the obvious, allow me to be more specific. I do not mean that the pockets are light in some expansive, relative to the weight of all binoculars sense. They are pocket size, of course they accomplish this. What I mean is that they are light in a very narrow, as compared to other top tier compact binoculars sense. They are lighter and smaller than Zeiss, Leica, and Nikon’s competing optics. In the Nikons’ case, they are more than 20% lighter and, having carried them both for a few days, I can tell you the difference is noticeable. While you might think it is easy to shrug off 55 grams of weigh difference as irrelevant, remember that we are dealing with compact binoculars. ‘Compact’ is the operable term. If size and weight were not important, I don’t think anyone would ever carry an optic from the compact class. It stands to reason, therefore, that one of the most important aspects to consider in a compact binocular is size and Swarovski leads the class in this aspect.

 

Despite their small size, the Swarovski Pockets do not feel flimsy or in any way lacking substantial-ness. They feel very rugged, in fact, and the quality of manufacture is exceptional. All of the joints, adjustments, and eye cups are smooth and have the desired resistance. None of this is really a surprise. At this price point you would expect for the quality of construction to be high, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless – you don’t always get what you pay for.

 

The evaluation of optics in binoculars is very nuanced.  Coming from rifle scopes, I am used to much more obvious differences between products than top tier binoculars exhibit. It is not unusual for a rifle scope to be downright fuzzy around the edges, exhibit a pronounced fisheye distortion, or have dramatic problems handling stray light. None of the top tier binoculars I have observed exhibited obvious aberrations. Even the low-priced Hawke’s I recently looked at did not have major problems. This is something never true of low priced rifle scopes. The differences in optical performance between binoculars are much more subtle, balanced, and even polished. If I were to have to guess how many times more money is spent perfecting binocular design than rifle scope design, I would put that number quite high.

 

I thought for a long time about what would be the best, most relevant way to evaluate the image produced by each set of binoculars. I considered using optical charts, magnification doublers, and tightly controlled indoor testing to tease apart minute differences in resolution, chromatic aberration, and various distortions. In the end, I decided that more time spent behind the optic in actual viewing situations would provide better insights. To that end, I rounded up some family and friends on a couple occasions and hiked off into the woods. My observations are therefore subjective, but I think that they are also full-bodied and I hope they will give you an accurate impression of what it is like to be behind each binocular.

 

I think that Swarovski’s highest goal in the optical design of the Pockets was to have edge-to-edge clarity. The image appears very uniform from one side of the view all the way to the other. Your eye is not necessarily drawn to the center of the field of view, but might linger outside of the center portion should you find something interesting there. With most binoculars, the first impulse upon seeing an object of interest is to center it. The Swarovskis seem to delay this to some extent. In particular, if you are watching two birds you might set them on either side of your field of view instead of moving back and forth between the two. At first, I thought that this was a function of resolution at the edges. More careful examination revealed this not to be the case. The Swarovskis were not significantly less distorted or less fuzzy at the edges than the Nikons, but rather were more uniformly lit. This subtle difference led to changes in the viewer’s behavior.

 

In keeping with the idea of maximizing useable viewing area, Swarovski has also maximized depth of field. This is not immediately obvious to the viewer in many situations, but became so to me when viewing across a lake. I realized, surprisingly, that some of the foliage in the foreground on the side of the lake closest to me was in focus despite my having focused the binoculars on some mallard ducks at the far side of the water. This depth of field was not present in any of the other binoculars tested and gave more life to the scene. It also did not escape my attention that if I were using the binoculars to glass for game or varmints, the depth of field and flatter appearance would be most welcome.

 

The advantages the Swarovski displays with regard to viewable area are not totally without cost. When comparing these little Swarow’s with the similarly-sized Nikon Premier 8x20mm binoculars, it became apparent that the Swarovski displays less contrast and the image therefore appears less dimensional. I think that the best way to describe the difference is to say that the Swarovskis appear brighter and livelier whereas the Nikons appear deeper and richer. This is not a matter of stray light handling or light transmission, but rather one of color rendition and contrast. Both pairs of binoculars transmit similar amounts of light and fail at around the same time at dusk. Both also minimize stray light well and do not have significant problems with flares or a hazy appearance when the sun is at an inopportune angle. What they do differently is color and contrast. Nikon seems to have put these two aspects near the top of their optical design priorities whereas Swarovski has put them more towards the middle behind edge-to-edge clarity and depth of field.

 

The result of all these choices seems to be that the Swarovski is most preferable for use when viewing a large scene unfolding and is somewhat less desirable when viewing singular entities. This is particularly true if they are small and far away. At the lake the Swarovski’s were the clear favorite for observing schools of waterfowl. However, at a different place in the park when observing a nesting eagle in a far off sycamore tree, a higher contrast binocular was more desirable.

 

Lastly, I think it is worth discussing ergonomics and eyeglass use. Perhaps in part because of their small size, Swarovski uses rather unusual twist-up eye cups. They are shorter than others I have observed and retract into the main tube rather than around it. The appearance is quite nice, but the function is slightly less desirable. The shorter eye cups provide a less substantial purchase in the eye socket and also allow the eyelashes to brush against the eyepiece, eventually leaving little oily streaks. I had never thought about it before now, but eyelashes are oily. I can’t remember ever deliberately washing my eyelashes, so it is probably surprising that they aren’t more oily than I observed. I did not observe any eyelash streaks on competing glass, so more regular cleaning of Swarovski’s eyepieces will be in order. In addition to the short eye cups, the eye relief on these binoculars is not as long as on many other compacts and did cause problems for the glasses user. This was a large enough issue to be something of a non-starter for some users. They simply could not get close enough to achieve much of a view. That is not to say that most other compact binoculars fared much better. A few did, but many were similarly poor when glasses use was required. Fortunately, use of glasses with binoculars is not necessary for most glasses users, though it can cause a bit of logistical discomfort to switch back and forth from binoculars to glasses.

 

Swarovski Pocket 8×20 B binoculars with one eye cup extended and one retracted.

 

Swarovski offers a petite, finely balanced, and attractive binocular in the pocket 8x20mm’s. The amount of research and development involved in deciding on the exact emphasis of the optics is readily apparent and those decisions compliment each other well resulting in an excellent viewing experience. Of all the binoculars used in my testing, these Swarovski’s were the most preferred even when not considering the size and weigh advantages they offer.

 Posted by at 8:16 pm