Hawke Frontier ED 8×43 Binoculars

 

Hawke Frontier ED 8×43 Binoculars

In the last few months there has been a lot of talk about some world-class glass coming out of China.  Specifically, the talk was about one Chinese factory making binoculars that, reportedly, are good enough to compete against the “”alpha” glass while being reasonably priced.

After following the internet chatter on the subject for some time, I decided to see for myself what all the talk is about.  The three binoculars that are most frequently mentioned are the ones marketed by three companies: Zen-Ray, Promaster and Hawke.  Some time late in 2008, I looked around a bit and ordered Hawke Frontier ED 8×43 binoculars to test (the binoculars were NOT provided by Hawke for evaluation, I bought these for my own use with my own money).  

Why did I choose Hawke as opposed to Promaster or Zen-Ray? For a number of reasons:
1) I plain like the name.  At the time I knew nothing about the company, but the name seemed pretty cool.
2) Hawke, as it turned out, has been around for quite some time on the other side of the pond, and it is a well established company with a rather complete product line of both binoculars and scopes.  
3) Continuing the previous point: I am a shooter, not a birder.  Given a choice, I like the idea of supporting a company that sells riflescopes in addition to binoculars 
4) Hawke specs showed a somewhat wider field of view than Promasters.
5) When I was buying them Hawke binos were slightly cheaper than Promaster (Zen-Ray was not in the picture yet, it was a while back).

Why am I going into this detail? Because several people asked me the exact reason I chose to buy a Hawke binocular as opposed to other labels.  Since Hawke is new to the US, a natural question is about the warranty.  Here is what Hawke website says:

Hawke World Wide Warranty
Your Hawke product contains a lifetime warranty (restricted to 10 years in Europe). Please refer to the warranty card enclosed with your product for details of your warranty. 

All warranties are limited to the original purchaser and do not cover failure resulting from ‘wear and tear’ only manufacturing defects. 

With this review, I will follow my usual format, starting with a brief summary of what I think of the Frontier ED for people who do not feel like reading the whole write-up.

In a nutshell: For the money, this is likely one of the better deals on the market place.  Optical quality is excellent with minimal distortion and aberrations.  Field of view is wide with a large sweet spot .  The only knock on this binocular optically is somewhat shallow depth of field.  The edges are a touch soft, but that is pretty common and I am really talking about the thin outside sliver of the field of view.  Mechanically, the binocular functioned well.  The focusing knob is, while very serviceable, a weak link of the design.  It is more than acceptable for this price point, but it is not quite up to the standards set by the optics.  Overall, I feel quite comfortable recommending this binocular as one of the best bargains out there.

If all you wanted is a summary, you can stop reading now, while I move on to some more details.

Usually, I skip over the packaging and what is included in the box, but in this case, I think it is worth mentioning.

Hawke Frontier ED came better packaged than any binocular I have seen to date.

It certainly has all the usual stuff: neck strap, microfiber cloth, etc.  What is unusual, is that in addition to fairly typical carrying case with shoulder strap (Hawke’s outer case is a semi-hard shell which should work well to protect the bino from the elements), Hawke also includes an additional open-top case that you can attach to your belt.  It does not have a flap and it leaves the top (eyepiece) end of the binocular sticking out, so that you can extract it out quickly with one hand.  I do not especially like neck straps, so for me an open case attached to the belt is a very welcome option.  Here is what it looks like, next to a softer outer case:

Hawke1
Hawke2I tried carrying it around with a strap and with the open case hooked up to my belt.  I certainly prefer the case.

I compared the Frontier ED to three binoculars from Vortex, since I had them on hand: Vortex Viper 8×42, Vortex Razor 8×42 and Vortex Razor 8.5×50.

Before I move on to how they stacked up I need to make a disclaimer.  The Vortex binoculars I used are the slightly older models that differ somewhat from the current crop.  It appears that both Viper and Razor binoculars have been recently updated to dielectric prism coatings (previously they had silver coatings) and Razors also have new outer lens coatings.

Here are the four binoculars next to each other:

Hawke3From left to right: Vortex Viper 8×42, Vortex Razor 8.5×50, Vortex Razor 8×42 and Hawke Frontier ED 8×43

As you can see, Frontier ED is about the same size as the Razor 8×42, although it is a bit lighter (by 5 ounces or so).   Vortex Viper binos are a bit lighter yet, and appreciably more compact.  Overall design looks similar to the Razor with a split bridge physical construction.  I found that Frontier ED binos balanced well in the hand, and were reasonably comfortable.  I have medium-sized hands with somewhat long fingers, so I would have preferred slightly thicker barrels, but they are comfortable as is.  Unlike the Razor, Frontier ED’s diopter adjustment is not incorporated into the center knob.  It is on the right ocular.  The diopter adjustment is pretty stiff, but it does not not lock.  I spent some time messing with the binoculars and the diopter adjustment stayed put.  On the Vortex binoculars the diopter adjustment locks in place, but in practical use both held in place just fine.  The eye cups on the frontier ED are of the twist out type with one intermediary position half way out.  The intermediary position had a little slop in it, but seemed to be secure enough.  For me, twisting them all the way out was the way to go and the eye cups did not twist back in inadvertently under normal use.  Overall eye cup design seems similar in shape and size to the Viper and, while not as versatile as the Razor’s, worked well for me.  I generally wear contacts, but I did try to use the binoculars with eyeglasses and had no problem getting the full field of view with the eye cups rotated all the way back in. 

Here is a snapshot with the eye cups rotated out:
Hawke4

Mechanical quality

Mechanical quality for a binocular centers around the following features: focus knob quality, barrel alignment (and the durability of that alignment), and the eye cups.  I talked about the eye cups above, and I will address the rest of the mechanical qualities and issues here.  I will not talk about ergonomics any more than I already have, since that is very personal.  As far as barrel alignment goes, I got a chance to spend some time with three different pairs of this binocular and barrel alignment was not an issue (partially signified by lack of eye fatigue).  I will spend more time with the pair I have and see how it holds up.  So far, the binocular is proving to be quite durable.  

Focus knob is quite serviceable.  It is appropriate to what I would expect in a binocular in this price range.  The catch is that the rest of the binocular is far better than I would expect for the price range, so the focuser stands out as a weak point.  The first time I heard about these binoculars, I went ahead and bought one directly from the website.  I was very impressed, but the focuser was stiff and had one very tough spot.  So tough, that when I first tried to use it, I thought I ran out of the focus adjustment range. With a little use the knob smoothed out somewhat, but was still not up to par.  A bit afterwards, I headed over to SHOT and played with the binocular they had in the booth.  That particular set had a focus knob that was much lighter (probably worn in by all the people messing with it on the show floor) and had a little slop in it.  During further contact with Hawke rep, I mentioned that my binocular has a very stiff focuser.  He seemed genuinely surprised and immediately sent me a replacement.  The replacement binocular has a much better focusing knob, but it is still not as smooth as the Vortex binoculars I used for comparison.  It is, however, getting better with use, and I’ll report on it as I keep using it.  As far as focusing speed goes, it seemed perfectly adequate.  I think it is a touch slower than Vortex Viper, but a touch faster than the Razor.  

Ultimately, the focuser is the only complaint I have with this binocular.  That is the bad thing.  The good thing is that I am picking on it largely because there is not much else to pick on.

Optical Quality
Now we get to the good part.  The optical quality is quite impressive.  The field of view is wide and the sweet spot is quite large.  Resolution and contrast are very good and the image has, for the lack of a better word, a certain sparkle to it.  Just about everyone I asked to look through these said the following: 
First phrase: Wow!
Second phrase: Very clear!
Third phrase: How much do these cost?

The fourth phrase depended on whether the person in question knows what binoculars cost or not.  

Truthfully, I was equally impressed when I first saw them.  I have seen better glass, certainly, but not in this price range, and not by all that much.  There is very little, if any, chromatic aberration.  Color accuracy is good.  There is a touch of edge softness, but in a binocular with a very wide field of view, it is not abnormal and I am really talking about a thin sliver right by the edge.  Contrast is excellent as is low light performance.  Depth of field is not very deep, but not very shallow either.  Flare is pretty well controlled and stray light is reasonably well suppressed.  I could induce a condition where I could see a ghost image, but it was faint and I had to really try.  To put it bluntly, the overall optical quality per dollar is astounding.  One of the things you notice with some cheaper binoculars is that even when the look very sharp, extended use gives you considerable eye fatigue and headaches.  Frontier EDs did not give me any such problems.  The view did not “snap in” quite as quickly as it did on the Razors, or on some more expensive glass (Meopta, Swaro, etc), but was still no slouch.

I set up to compare the four binoculars (Frontier ED, Viper 8×42, Razor 8×42 and Razor 8.5×50) at around an hour before sunset and spent the next few hours looking through them side by side both handheld and mounted on tripods.  Once again, keep in mind that the Vortex models I looked at have gone through a slight upgrade since then.

Compared to Vortex Viper 8×42

Price-wise, the Viper is the most direct competitor to the Hawke.  With the binoculars I compared, the Viper was a fair bit smaller and had a smoother focusing knob.  However, in every optical parameter, Frontier ED has it beat in any light: better resolution, better contrast, wider field of view and better depth of field.  I also found that Hawke’s eye cups matched my eyes a bit better. 

Compared to Vortex Razor 8×42
With the 8×42 Razor, it is a closer call, since the field of view is similar.  I like the Razor’s focusing knob more and the Razor has appreciably better depth of field.  The 18 position eye cups on the Razor are still the best I have ever seen, but the Hawke eye cups are almost as comfortable (for me).  Hawke outresolved the Razor by a little bit and had an overall snappier image with a larger sweet spot.  The slight optical advantage of the Hawke carried over into low light performance as well.  Handheld, the difference was a little less noticeable due to the heavier Razors being a little steadier in my hands, but when mounted on a tripod, the Hawke binos had better glass. 

Compared to Vortex Razor 8.5×50
The above comments about the eye cups and the focusing knob of the 8×42 Razor are equally applicable to the 8.5×50 model.  The larger Razor is substantially bigger and heavier than the Hawke and, despite the slightly higher magnification, was a touch steadier in my hands (probably owing to the extra weight and marginally larger exit pupil).  In terms of the ability to see detail, Hawke Frontier ED 8×43 was about equal to the higher magnification Razor until it got REALLY dark, where the Razor enjoyed a very slight edge.  In terms of depth of field, interestingly, even the 8.5×50 Razor was a bit better than the Frontier ED, but not by a whole lot.

While I was at it, I also evaluated all four binoculars with the Vortex Doubler (which fit the Hawke like a glove):
Hawke5
The results with the doubler mirrored the results without a doubler.  The larger sweet spot of the Frontier ED, really made it easy to use the doubler.

Conclusion
As I have stated above, I am awfully impressed with the Hawke Frontier ED binoculars so far.  I think the focusing knob issue is a minor glitch that will be resolved.  Perhaps, it is just my luck.  The Hawke rep I talked to sounded like he was going to take the faulty binocular I am sending back and beat some QC manager over the head with it.  That is the exact attitude I want to see.  No product is born perfect and if there is flaw or a glitch, the factory should do FA on it and fix it.

Durability is, of course, an unknown so far, but time will fix that.  I am very curious to see how this product line will develop further.  I would love to see some 7x binoculars with the same quality, and, perhaps, some larger objective lens models for dedicated low light use. 

There are of course other considerations when buying a binocular: warranty, customer support, country of origin (China in this case) etc.  While I am happy to report on those, my review is mostly designed to discuss the technical merits of the product.  All other factors are a matter of personal choice as far as I am concerned. 

As it stands today, based on its technical merits, the Hawke Frontier ED 8×43 model I looked at is the best allround binocular for the money I have ever seen.  Bar none.

 Posted by at 12:11 am