Zen-Ray ED2 7×36 Binoculars

 
Zen-Ray ED2 7×36 Binocular
 
 
It looks like lately, it has become a habit of mine to be routinely conflicted about picking the right comparables for the products I review.  I suspect that one reason for it is that the products of most interest to me are often configured in a less than common way.

 

The only comparably priced and configured binocular to compare to the 7×36 Zen-Ray is the (also not very common) 7×36 Swift Eaglet.  Unfortunately, I do not have the Eaglet on hand, although I have seen it before.  The only other 7x binocular I currently have is a Russian military BPO 7×30 porro.  It is a pretty good piece in its own way, but it made no sense to compare it to the Zen-Ray.  Magnification is just about the only thing they have in common.
 
 
Ultimately, I decided to structure the discussion of this binocular in a somewhat different way.  I decided to run it side by side with two binoculars of completely different configurations that I have on hand: Hawke Frontier ED 8×43 and Vortex Viper 6×32.  All three binoculars provide approximately the same exit pupils of just over 5mm.  However, they espouse very different design philosophies.  Either one of the three can serve as my primary binocular, except the compromises involved are a little different for each one.
 
 
 
Part 1: Specs, mechanics and first look at the glass.
 
In the table below, I list the three binoculars in question plus two others:
  • Swift Eaglet 7×36 (Zen-Ray’s only truly direct competitor)
  • and Meopta Meostar 7×42 (that is, IMO, the best allround binocular for the money available)
 
  Zen-Ray ED2 7×36 Vortex Viper 6×32 Hawke Frontier ED 8×43 Swift Eaglet 7×36 Meopta Meostar 7×42
Prism type Roof Roof Roof Roof Roof
Weight, ounces 22 19.4 26.2 20.6 31.39
Height, inches 5.8 4.9 6.5 4.9 5.5
Width, inches 4.8 4.8 5 5 5.2
Field of View, ft @1000 yards 477 420 426 374 411
Real FoV, degrees 9.15 8.04 8.16 7.16 7.87
Apparent FoV, degrees 64 48.3 65.3 50.1 55.2
Close focus, ft 5.1 3 6.6 5.9 9
Eye Relief, mm 16.8 19.5 16.6 16 20
Exit Pupil, mm 5.1 5.33 5.38 5.1 6
Price $370 $480 $390 $410 $860

 

Looking at the numbers, the first thing that stands out is that Zen-Ray has appreciably wider linear field of view than just about anything else here.  Similarly, Vortex Viper has a rather narrow field of view for a 6x binocular; ditto for the Swift.  Meopta’s FoV is not particularly wide, but not super narrow either.  In terms of apparent FoV, the two Chinese binoculars are clearly ahead of the competition here.  Even with a quick perusal of 7x and 8x offerings from a number of very expensive makers, it is clear that both Zen-Ray and Hawke are absolutely world class in that regard.
 
 
The two Chinese binoculars (Zen-Ray and Hawke) are quite long, but not especially heavy.
 
 
The single Euro binocular in the table, Meopta, is a bit squat, but hefty.
 
 
Also, Meopta and Vortex have noticeably more eye relief than Zen-Ray, Swift and Meopta.
 
 
Before I go into more detail of the binoculars, I will first go over the impressions of one of my co-workers who spent some time comparing them at my request.
 
Richard’s Take:
Richard knows a lot about images and not all that much about binoculars.  I did not go into detail on what these are, how much they cost, configurations, etc.  He has looked at some binoculars for me before, so he knew how to set them up for his eyes.  Beyond that, he is about as close to an unbiased AND educated observer as I could think of.  All of his testing was handheld, which should be taken into account.  However, he has exceptionally steady hands (definitely steadier than mine).
 
As an allround binocular for himself, he thought that the 7×36 Zen-Ray was the best fit.  He felt that it provided more detail than the 6×32 Vortex and was easier to use than 8×43 Hawke.  On top of that, the color of the Zen-Ray image looked most natural to him.
 
With the 8×43 Hawke, he was able to see more detail than with the other binoculars (as you would expect with the highest magnification), but thought that it was a little bit too hard to use.  When I pressed him a little on what he meant by it, it turned out that the focuser was sufficiently stiff to disturb his sight picture during adjustment.
 
On the other hand, he felt that the Vortex Viper is the easiest binocular of the three to use, and by a noticeable margin.  His exact words were: “if I were to pick one of these to hand to someone for a quick look, this would be it”.   Wide depth of field and a superb focusing knob make it easy for anyone to use.  From usability standpoint, he was very impressed with the focusing knob on the Viper.
 
 
Considering where Richard and I work, this is high praise for the Zen-Ray 7×36.  Richard knows more about images than almost anyone I have ever met.
 
 
One interesting observation that came out a little later is that the Viper had a little too much eye relief for him.  The way his face is shaped, even with the eyecups extended all the way out his eye was in the perfect spot only if the eyecup was not in contact with his eye socket.  I do not have those problems, but that is yet another example, that we are all different and you should see what fits your eyes and your face.
 
 
As far as the mechanics go, I am largely in agreement with Richard.  Both Chinese binoculars are optically superb.  They are OEM’ed by the same factory with Zen-Ray ED2 being a slightly newer version of the design than the year-old Hawke Frontier ED that I have.  
 
 
The most obvious difference is in the focusing wheel.  The focuser on the Hawke is stiff and not particularly even through the adjustment range.  Zen-Ray is quite a bit better in that regard.  It is a little faster, lighter and smoother all round.  However, despite being much improved, it is still not quite in the same league with the Japanese-made Vortex Viper (or higher end binoculars like Meopta).
 
 
Here is how these three binoculars compare physically.
 
 
 
Front View (Hawke and Zen-Ray are almost equally tall):
 
 
Side View (here you can see that Zen-Ray is quite a bit slimmer than Hawke):
 
 
 
 
Eyepieces (all of roughly the same size and all work well with Vortex Doubler that I have):
 
I do not have any particular preference for open hinges (Hawke and Zen-Ray) or monolithic piano hinges (Viper).  I have seen all sorts of internet discussions on which one is stronger and why.  
 
Most of those discussions seem to be a bit lacking in terms of actual data, so I tend to stay out of them.  I strongly suspect that when properly executed either hinge design is durable enough for my needs.  All three binoculars are sufficiently comfortable in my hands to keep me from complaining.
 
 
 
The eyecups are also of somewhat similar size.   The rims are a little thinner on the Vortex, but it is still comfortable.  Vortex has a couple of intermediary click stops, while Zen-Ray only has one.  I find that with glasses I keep the eyecups retracted all the way in, while with contacts, I keep them extended all the way out.  Hence, for me personally, intermediary positions do not matter much.  However, for other people it might, and more clickstops could be a good idea.

 

Zen-Ray has a covered tripod mount on the front hinge, so for extended observation, you can keep the binocular as stable as possible. Barrel alignment seems to be quite good and the binocular is easy on the eyes: no headaches yet.
 
 
 
I have not done a whole lot of optical testing so far (that will be in Part 2), but at this point I am quite impressed.  The image is superb, with good resolution and contrast.  Field of view is sufficiently wide to sometimes give a feeling that you are looking through a large window rather than an optical instrument.  The view really “pops”, for lack of a better word, with vibrant colors and good depth of field.
 
 
Overall image quality seems fairly similar between the Zen-Ray and Hawke (aside from obvious magnification differences).  Zen-Ray is supposed to be a little better on paper due to dielectric prism coatings, but that is the kind of a change that will demonstrate itself as color differences and slight low light performance improvement.  Since the rest of the package (glass, AR coatings, etc) also effects the same things, isolating the dielectric prism coatings is not easily possible.
 
 
 
One of the things that really stands out on the Zen-Ray is the very well controlled chromatic aberration.  Combination of long barrels and ED glass with low magnification makes it very hard to find if you are looking for it.
 
 
 
 
For the rest of the optics evaluation, stay tuned…
 
Part 2. Low Light
It so happened that this time around I ended up looking at the performance of these binoculars in low light before I do a thorough work up in good light. That is a bit of “bass ackwards” way of looking at glass, in my opinion, but I do not expect it to have an impact on the results. If need be, I will revisit low light performance again going forward.
 

 

Since I wrote the first part of this review, one of the forum members, Klamath, loaned me his Swift Eaglet 7×36 to compare against the Zen-Ray, so I was comparing four binoculars instead of the three I started out with.

 

 

None of these binoculars displayed any particularly pernicious flaws during my low light testing. However, there were some differences. All of them have approximately the same exit pupils with Hawke and Vortex having a slight edge. In terms of the ability to see detail in a dark scene with diffuse light, the highest magnification binocular in the group, the 8×43, had a slight edge. That is hardly surprising. Zen-Ray 7×36 was in a close second place, while 6×32 Vortex and 7×36 Swift performed similarly. The Swift suffered a bit from having narrower field of view: less reflected light is collected and it can make a difference if there is not all that much light available to start with. Vortex Viper, despite not having particularly wide field of view either, benefited from a very contrasty image. As the light got progressively worse, Viper retained color vision a little longer than the Swift which also helped. Still, with overall similar optical quality and similar exit pupil, magnification helps you see more detail. There is no surprise there.

 

 

Then, I experimented a bit with bright point light sources present in the field of view. There, the situation changed a little. Overall, the 8×43 Hawke still showed me the most, but it only beat the 6×32 Viper by a small margin. Zen-Ray was close behind, with Swift trailing behind by a more noticeable margin. When you have bright objects within your field of view while looking at a mostly dark scene, you have to worry about flare and about spurious reflections that can cause ghosting. In some cases, there are also diffractive effects, likely from imperfections in the roof-edge of the prism.

 

 

None of these binoculars had particularly severe flare, but Vortex Viper was ahead of the field in this regard. Flare was minimal. Ghosting was well controlled and diffractive effects were very mild and contained to the very edges of the image. Swift, on the contrary, had the strongest flare (still not very strong) and, coupled with an overall less bright image, was the most effected by spurious reflections. Hawke and Zen-Ray were somewhere in between the Vortex and the Swift as far as flare control goes. It was a little more pronounced in the outer 20% of the field of view, but considering that these are fairly wide angle binoculars, that is not especially objectionable. However, even dead-center, the flare was more significant than in the Vortex.

 

 
 
In terms of overall ease of use in low light, Zen-Ray and Vortex worked the best, owing to the most predictable focusing mechanisms. Hawke focuser was too stiff, which makes it a liability in low light: when you do not quite have enough light to see achieving good focus can be tedious. Swift, on the other hand had a focusing knob that I found too light and quick, although I would probably get used to it in time. Vortex, with its great depth of field and superb focuser was, by a solid margin, the easiest low light optic to use out of this bunch, closely followed by the Zen-Ray
 
 
 
Part 3.  Daylight, closer look and conclusions
 
During this test, I was mostly looking at the two 7×36 binoculars: Swift and Zen-Ray and at the Vortex Viper 6×32. The 8×42 Hawke, while a very nice binocular, really belongs in a different group due to its larger size and weight. As you would expect, it comfortably outresolves the lower magnification binoculars, and, having spent a lot of time with it in the past, I do not expect to discover anything new there.

 

 

Between the other three binoculars there are some interesting differences. In terms of overall optical performance in good light, this is really a no contest, Zen-Ray ED2 7×36 is better than the other two. It has better resolution and wider field of view (both actual and apparent). Between the Viper 6×32 and the 7×36 Swift Eaglet, things get more complicated. In terms of outright resolution, the Swift is a bit better, it does have more magnification after all, but as soon as conditions get at all challenging (looking into sunset, for example), the Viper catches up, owing to its better contrast and less prominent flare. Also, the 7×36 Eaglet has a somewhat shallow depth of field to my eyes which, to a certain degree, defeats the purpose behind going with a lower magnification binocular.

 

Mechanically, all three of these seem to be very good, with Zen-Ray and Vortex fitting me better than the Swift. In terms of hand fit, I actually like the Swift quite a bit. However, I could not quite get used to its super fast focusing wheel. Also, I wish it had eyecups with intermediary positions. Aside from that, I really liked the form factor of the Swift. It is almost the same size as the 6×32

Viper, while having larger magnification and objective lens.

 

Ultimately, I set out to test the 7×36 Zen-Ray ED2 and to compare it to some well known quantities. I ended up looking at binoculars of three different configurations and, along the way, spent some time trying to determine which makes the most sense as an allround piece.

 

For my purposes, I can comfortably use 6x or 7x for the majority of my needs. If you are like me in that regard, the 7×36 Zen-Ray is a tremendous allround binocular. If the performance of the Zen-Ray was stuffed into a compact form factor of Swift Eaglet, it would be nearly perfect. As is, I am having a hard time to find flaws to pick on. Having seen several products from the same Chinese factory where the Zen-Ray is made, I paid special attention to the quality of the focusing knob and it is better than I expected.

 

In order to start seeing any flaws with the Zen-Ray, you really need to put it into very challenging lighting conditions. Even then, it performs very well, but there you begin to see where the extra money you pay for the reeeeally expensive stuff goes. Is the performance difference worth the price difference? That is a personal decision.

 

 
For the time being, I can comfortably name the 7×36 Zen-Ray as a best buy in its price range. As a practical matter, if you are looking for a 7x binocular, you will need to spend twice the money to get better performance.

 

 
 
 
 
 
OpticsTalk thread:

 

 Posted by at 1:47 am