Binoculars are highly versatile tools. Although there are many things that you can use a good pair of binoculars for, they still come in a wide variety of sizes, configurations, quality levels and price points. For example, if you are one to frequently go out into nature and would like to have a closer view of birds or other animals around you, it’s a great idea to have binoculars on you – they need to be easy to take with you, as well as provide sufficient magnification.
Although in general, you can expect better views from a bigger bino, often you’d like to have a tool that combines both powerful magnification and small size. This may be particularly the case when you’re going to be walking a lot and don’t want to drag a big clunky device around with you.
Although the desire to have both high magnification power and compact size is natural and expected, there are a few considerations that you need to be aware of before you spend your money. In this little buying guide, I attempt to cover the most important aspects of choosing the best powerful compact binocular with as little compromise as possible.
Now, before we go into all the little details, let me quickly suggest an excellent bino you may want to look at. If all the details of choosing the best bino are not something you’re interested in, then you can just go for the product below – you’re unlikely to have any regrets.
Vortex is an optics brand that is well known for their high quality mid-range products and the Diamondback series may be considered their workhorse.
There several different configurations in the Diamondback series, but in this case I specifically recommend looking at the 8×32. For more details on these numbers and how to choose the best option, see below. Although 8x magnification is not what many would call “high powered” – it’s prbably the most common magnification factor that you’ll encounter and will be perfect for most jobs.
The optics on pretty much any Vortex product are excellent. You get fully multi-coated lenses (FMC) for bright wonderful images. Another great thing about this bino is the really wide field of view (426 feet at 1000 yards), which is great for things like wildlife observation, bird watching and viewing landscapes.
This is a fairly compact binocular, measuring around 4.5 x 4.6 inches. It won’t fit into every pocket, but it will fit into a decent-sized jacket pocket, for example. That way, it’s easy to carry it around and you have less reason to leave it at home. Don’t underestimate this reasoning – a binocular lying on your shelf at home while you’re out camping, is useless.
If you’re in doubt, go ahead and read some user feedback over at the Amazon site, there’s plenty of good insight there and the general opinion is very positive. All in all, these binos are great value for money.
Now that we’ve looked at one great product, let’s cover some of the basics of choosing small high powered binoculars and what you should take into account.
Obviously, you’re getting binos to magnify stuff and talking about “powerful binos” implies high magnification. Just so you know, it’s the first number in the description of binoculars, e.g. 7×50 means they magnify things 7 times.
But magnification is a number you should be careful with. If you go too low, you won’t get the sort of zoom you’d like to have and you won’t see the detail you might be expecting. But if you go too high, you’ll encounter a whole number of issues.
First, high magnification creates a shaky image. Many people will find that holding anything above 10x steady to get a good view is just too difficult.
Second, the more you zoom in, the less of an area you see: magnification decreases you field of view.
Third, the more powerful the magnification, the less light enters your optics and, as a result, the dimmer images you’ll get. This is a particularly important thing to remember if you want binos that are both small and high-powered. See the next point.
Objective lens size
The lenses at the very front are called objective lenses and their size matters because it determines how much light they can “soak up”. The size of the lenses is shown as the second number and it’s in millimeters. So 7×50 binos will have 50mm lenses. Of course, the smaller the binocular, the smaller your lenses are going to be.
So, if you go for high magnification and very small lenses, the result will be dim and dull images. This can be mitigated somewhat with top-notch optics from an expensive brand, but at some point it becomes simply a matter of physics: there’s only so much light that a small lens can “catch”, especially if you zoom in to a very detailed level.
Which brings us to the next point.
Compact binoculars are nice. They’re easy to carry around and easy to hold. But you will have to find a compromise between small size and image quality. As I said above, small size makes your optics small and the quality of the view goes down.
How to make a good choice
Here are a few takeaways:
If you want small size, don’t for too much magnification. Stick to 8x or 10x.
Go for the best optics you can afford. Optical quality is largely determined by the price. $20 binoculars can make a nice toy for a kid, but not much else. If you try to do any “serious” observation with this kind of a product, it will only bring you frustration.
If you plan to use the binoculars only in broad daylight, then lens size matters less. You can get away with using 10x magnification and 25mm lenses on a daytime safari trip, for instance. But at dusk or dawn, when many animals are most active, don’t count on them.
All-in-all, go for the biggest lens you can allow in terms of size, and get the best optics you can afford in terms of money.
Best Small but Powerful Binoculars
Right, so that was a lot of information. Keeping all of the above in mind, I think it’s time to look at some great products that are available for purchase.
I thought I’d mention this very special bino first. The Papilio range from Pentax has been designed first and foremost for close-up observation of butterflies and other insects, as well as flowers etc. For this they have an ultra close focus, so you can get a really good magnified view from a small distance.
But that does not mean that this is the only thing they work for. In general, they make for an excellent pair of general purpose compact binos. They focus into the distance just as well as close up, and they’re really small too. They’re a perfect tool for the job when you want to watch birds or animals in the wild but want to do it with something that won’t make your neck sore from carrying it around.
Steiner is a German brand well known for their big marine and military binoculars. This little guy is however quite different.
The Safari Ultrasharp has 10x magnification and 26mm lenses. The lenses are small, so don’t expect to use them late in the evening or at night, but during daytime they’ll get the job done really well. They have great coated optics and a nice field of view for 10x magnification.
Steiner’s products are known for their ruggedness and that is the case with this model as well – it’s well built and won’t fall apart easily, and it’s also waterproof, which is something you can expect from any midrange bino. The great thing about this Steiner is that it’s really light at just 10.5 oz.
The UltraSharp is a very good choice for a regular adventurer who wants some quality but small and light optics to always be with them.
If you like the idea of having a Vortex binocular like the one recommended at the beginning of the article, but would prefer something cheaper, with slightly greater power and perhaps smaller lenses, then have a look at the Vanquish.
It’s a compact bino by Vortex, featuring the same quality of optics as you’d expect, but in a very small package. In terms of parameters it’s similar to the Steiner above, although this one is a Porro prism. Porro prisms are often considered to have superior light transmission to roof prisms, but you’d need to actually take two binos side by side to be able to make a definite comparison.
In any case, the Vanquish is a small versatile gadget and will serve you well on trips and adventures.
On the other hand, if you like the parameters of the Vortex Diamondback above, but would like an alternative, that is also more budget friendly, then Wingspan is one manufacturer to check out.
The thing about Wingspan is that they make binoculars specifically for birders and they do get a lot of praise from that community. You see, if a binocular is good enough for bird watching, it’s going to be good enough for most other things. Birdwatchers use optics to watch little colorful details on creatures who move quickly and suddenly. You need top-notch equipment for that.
Though this 8×32 model is not the optimal solution for birding (I’d recommend 8×42 for that purpose), it’s certainly one of the best in class and will serve well for almost any general purpose. It’s got all sorts of optical enhancements, such as ED glass, phase correction coatings etc.
It provides a very nice wide field of view of 393 feet at 1000 yds and just 6.5 foot close focus for close-up watching.
A great tool overall, definitely worth checking out and reading some user reviews from verified buyers.
As you can see, there are some trade offs when looking for small-sized but high powered binoculars. Make sure you understand what those trade offs are before you buy, then decide on your budget and finally research the models. Start with ones I’ve suggested – they’re all great products for the money – and if you’re still not satisfied, click around to find something that fits your purpose and budget.
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