I know it’s hard to figure out how much to spend on a pair of binoculars, even approximately, if you’re not very experienced with them. How much are good binoculars anyway? There are probably some for sale in you local department store for $20, while serious birders and hunters can often be seen with devices topping $2000.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to spend in the $100-$400 range on binoculars. You can get pretty decent optics for $100-$200, and above $200 you’re already in the solid mid-range with lots of high quality products. Spending under $100, you risk being disappointed by both the image and construction quality, while above $500 is mostly for people who already have significant experience with binoculars and own several and are looking for a serious upgrade.
That’s the simple answer, but you probably want more detail, and I have a lot more to share.
So how much does a good binocular cost? How much should I spend?
People tend to think of price-benefit relationships linearly: if I pay $100 more, I’ll get that much more benefit, and if I pay another $100 on top of that, I’ll get that much more benefit again.
The reality is, at least with optics, is that the “benefit” you get tends to taper off as you go higher.
There’s a world of difference between a $50 binocular and a $150 one. The difference between $500 and $600 ones is much less obvious and might not even be there.
I find that for most people, the optimal price is in about $200-$300 range. If you start at $0 and work your way up to $200, comparing binoculars at these price points, you’ll notice obvious improvement with price. $50 will get you a much better bino than $20, and $100 will get you a much better one than $50.
But once you to around $300, the improvement slows.
That’s not to say that binoculars don’t get better as you go up from $300, they certainly do! But the benefit that most people would get from having, say a $500 product vs a $300 one, is quite marginal compared to the price increase.
If you’re a pro and you’ve owned various binos and you’re serious about your optics, then yeah, sure, that $1500 Swarovski may be just what you need. But in that case, you probably already know what you want and how much it costs and you wouldn’t be reading this article.
If you’re a relative novice, but you want a good binocular that won’t fall apart in 2 months and won’t fog up and will give you pleasurable viewing experiences in various situations, the $200-$300 range is what I would go with.
What makes up the price?
When buying optics, you’re paying for a few separate things.
Let’s break down what the price is made up of.
First and most obvious – you’re paying for the OPTICS
Both the $20 Walmart bino and the $2000 Swarovski simply magnify faraway objects. In fact, they magnify them by the same amount – the price has nothing to do with the magnification power. The most common magnification powers are in the 7x to 10x range, whether for cheap or super-expensive products.
Where the two differ is the quality of the image.
High-end models will feature extra-low dispersion (ED) glass, BAK-4 prisms and numerous lens coatings on each glass-air interface (that is, where light enters or exits a lens or prism). These lens coatings are the “secret sauce” of many higher-end models – the formulations and application mechanisms are a closely guarded trade secret for the manufacturers. But thanks to all these features, as a result, you get bright, clear and sharp images with excellent color reproduction.
Good optics also reduce or eliminate things like chromatic aberration. This is when objects seem to have multi-color edges and really reduces the viewing experience.
You can also expect a nice wide and even field of view.
Cheap options will have none or almost none of those features. You’ll still see stuff, but it will be dimmer, fuzzier, especially closer to the edges of the viewing area. The edges of objects will be distorted etc.
All this talk about the little details of the image may seem like hairsplitting, but it’s not. Once you have used good quality binos, looking through cheap no-name budget ones will make you cringe.
Keep this in mind – seeing is not all about your eyes. It’s just as much about your brain. The more detail you provide to your brain, the better it will be able to pick out the information to generate a clear visual image.
It’s not just about the “quality”. With good optics you will actually see more than with lower end optics. Things that are nice and obvious through a $500 bino, you might struggle to comprehend with a $50 one.
Interestingly, low-grade optics even have a tendency to actually tire people out and even give them headaches after prolonged viewing – the strain of trying to make out the details is just too much.
Next, you’re paying for the BUILD
Cheap binoculars feel cheap. The outer casing will usually be just plastic, or maybe some cheap rubber that doesn’t protect the device and well, simply feels low-grade in your hands.
On higher-end models, you almost always get a high-quality protective rubber armouring. This actually protects the device from damage and is easier to hold, even when using one hand only.
Any moving elements, such as the hinge, the focus knob, eyecups tend to be quite flimsy on budget products. I mean, the optical elements usually don’t break unless you actually drop the bino or something, but all these moving parts are most likely to break from ordinary usage. You shouldn’t encounter any such issues with an expensive binocular.
A very important consideration that may not be immediately obvious, is the ease and smoothness of focus. When you switch between looking at objects that are at different distances, you’ll need to adjust focus. In quality binoculars, this is quick and smooth, while on lower-end ones, the focus knob may be too hard/too easy to rotate or just really hard to get to the right setting that you need.
A hugely important factor is whether the binocular is waterproof and fog proof and just how good that proofing is.
If you use the device with any regularity, it will encounter bad weather sooner or later. In damp environments, such as the open sea or tropics, it doesn’t even have to be bad weather for the moisture to get into the tubes. And once it does, it’s not that easy to get it out. You’ll get foggy lenses or even visible drops of water in your viewing field.
I’d say from about $200 and up, pretty much all binos are sealed with O-rings to make them completely waterproof and fog proof, and also purged using nitrogen or argon gas – this helps remove any moisture or other impurities during the construction. Below $200, I would carefully check what the product description has to say about this.
I’ve been repeatedly surprised to see a model that I was sure would be waterproof turn out to be not so.
Higher-end binoculars also often have IPX ratings that specify to what degree of exposure to water they are meant to be waterproof.
Of course, you’re also paying for the BRAND
When you buy a big name like Leica, Zeiss, Swarovski and such, you know that you’re giving away a significant chunk of that money just to have that brand name stamped on the side of the bino.
In some circles, it may be a matter of prestige to own one of those brands and not something less known.
But this fact is important to understand.
The thing is, there are manufacturers who are less known than the big names, or even almost completely unknown, and yet produce top-notch optics nonetheless, for a significantly lower price (precisely because they’re not a big name).
One that comes to mind is Maven. The quality of their optics is often compared to the likes of Zeiss and Swaro, but they’re a relatively small producer and sell direct, without middlemen, and this is clear from the price. You can check out some of their products here.
So if you want a quality product, but don’t necessarily care about having a particular brand, you can consider one of those.
Finally, you’re paying for the WARRANTY
Servicing products and shipping replacements is not free for the manufacturer, so of course, it’s part of the price.
Warranties differ wildly – from barely any for the cheapest products, to transferrable lifetime coverages of pretty much all possible issues (within reason).
Should I buy budget binoculars (under $100)?
I’m not going to say you shouldn’t, even if it’s very tempting 🙂
You have to think about your requirements and usage. If you need them only very casually, like maybe to view some birds in the backyard or take them on an occasional trip just in case you see something cool – budget binoculars are probably going to be just fine for you.
If, on the other hand, you want to say, take up birding as a serious hobby, or you need them to go on long hunting trips, I’d definitely consider something closer to $200. In these cases, you’re invested in the outcome, be it spotting that rare bird or that prize buck in the undergrowth, and having binoculars fail you would be a major let down.
And remember, as I said, at this low end, quality improves dramatically with price. If you do go for a budget option, as I said, $100 will get you a much better bino than $50. The closer to $100 you can get, the better product you’ll get.
I have a pair of binos from Eyeskey that cost me under $100 and are actually a very decent piece of gear for the price. I couldn’t find the exact ones on Amazon, but they have a number similar options – you can check them out here.
Should I buy really expensive binoculars?
If you’re reading this article and got this far, then probably not.
Expensive high-end binoculars are for people who are around optics a lot, who own multiple products, know how to compare them etc.
Importantly, they know what exactly it is about, say $300 ones that they’re not happy with, and why $1000 ones would be better.
Do you know these things? If you do, and the difference is truly worth $700 to you, then by all means, go ahead.
Otherwise, it’s hard to justify that price difference.