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The best binoculars (2023) - A fall and holiday guide to binoculars for birdwatchers

Selecting binoculars for birders, birdwatchers, and wildlife lovers can seem daunting with such a large selection and a lot of differences in price tags. Luckily, we are taking the flocking guesswork out of this process.

A young, male Broad-tailed Hummingbird hovers before feeding.
Proper binocular selection can allow for amazing views of hummingbirds, such as this Broad-tailed Hummingbird.

Aside from your own senses, binoculars can be the most helpful tool in your birdwatching arsenal. So, how can we select the best binoculars for going birding, watching birds at our feeders, or finding distant wildlife? We can use three selection criteria to select a pair of binoculars:

  1. Budget

  2. Optics Quality

  3. Durability

We will organize this post by budget while prioritizing quality optics within each budget. We list our least favorite options to our top recommended binoculars within each category. The pictured binoculars are our favorite for each budget. Use the clickable list below to navigate to your preferred binocular budget section:

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Want our top overall binocular recommendation that balances the selection criteria? It is the Nikon M5 8x42!


Want a summary of our recommendations for the best binoculars of 2021? Here it is:

Category of Binocular

Binocular

Link to Amazon

Kids/Students

Celestron Outland X

Entry-level

Nikon Prostaff 3s

Mid-tier <$500

Nikon M5

Daily Use <$1000

Swarovski SLC

Top Tier Binoculars

Swarovski NL

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How to select binoculars

Using budget, optics quality, and durability as the main guidelines for binoculars is a great starting point. However, if you do not know anything about binoculars, you might be confused by the various numbers and terminology used in optics. Let's break these down briefly.


What do the numbers on binoculars mean?

A standard pair of birdwatching binoculars have a number set of 8x42. These numbers give you a clue as to how your viewing experience will be with your binoculars. The first number (8x42) indicates the level of zoom your optics provides. A pair of 8x42 binoculars means an object appears 8 times closer than your eye. The second number (8x42) tells you the diameter (length across) of the objective lens. In our example, the objective lens is 42 mm across. The objective lens is the outer lens that allows light to enter the binoculars. The larger this number is, the more light is allowed into your view!


How much zoom should birding binoculars have?

When it comes to selecting a level of zoom on birding binoculars, our recommendation is to never go below a power of 6 and never above a power of 12. If you have unsteady hands, sticking to a power of 6 or 8 is best to prevent an exaggerated shake from an increased zoom.


How large an objective lens should birding binoculars have?

An extremely large objective lens might seem appealing for low-light situations, but an objective lens that is too large can create heavy and awkward binoculars. If you do not like to carry much weight, look for binoculars in the 25 mm range. If you want more light, look at the 42 range. We do not recommend going over 50 mm. A nice in-between set can be around 32 or 36 mm.


Want a quick summary?

  • Lightweight Binoculars: 6x25 or 8x25

  • Mediumweight Binoculars: 6.5x32 or 8x32 or 10x30

  • Recommended Binocular Size: 8x42 or 10x42

  • Large binoculars: 11x45 or 12x56


How to use binoculars

Using binoculars is quite different from using a spotting scope. Because a spotting scope is a monocular, the focus can be adjusted per situation easily, and the zoom can be tailored to the distance of the bird. You must focus your right/dominant eye for binoculars, then bring both eyes into full focus.


Adjusting the focus on binoculars

Most binoculars have a single focus wheel, typically between the two eyepieces. Use this focus wheel to bring the object into focus AFTER the right objective lens focus is set.


To focus your binoculars, pick an object approximately 20 yards away. Close your left eye and turn the right eyepiece focus wheel until your right eye is focused on the object. Then, with your right eye open, open your left eye. With both eyes open, turn the middle focus wheel until the object is in focus for both eyes.


The best binoculars for kids

Picking binoculars for kids can be tough! If your young birdwatchers are too small to hold binoculars, they almost certainly will not be able to operate the optics solo. In our experience, many children are able to use binoculars efficiently at 9 or 10 years old. However, they will likely need lighter binoculars to remain steady while viewing. Here are our recommendations:


Best Focusing Binoculars for Kids: SVBONY 8x25 Permafocus

The Svbony 8x25 Permafocus binoculars are lower-quality optics, BUT they do not require a child to manually focus them. We only offer these as a recommendation for younger-aged children who have small hands and faces and cannot focus their own binoculars.


Best Birding Binoculars for Kids: Celestron Outland X 8x25

If you have children capable of regular binocular use when birdwatching, the Celestron Outland X 8x25 binoculars offer an above-average set of optics, great durability, and they are typically offered for a price under $75. This binocular is our top recommendation for children's binoculars!


Small-budget binoculars | Cheap binoculars under $125

Whether you are new to birdwatching or just need to stick to a tight budget, this selection of binoculars provides insight into average to above-average optics for under the price of $125. These types of birding binoculars are optimal for those new to birding and wildlife watching. They may last you for 5 to 10 years with proper care, but we would recommend upgrading to medium-budget binoculars when you feel comfortable with using binoculars or have the funds to do it! We only suggest name-brand binoculars for any price point, as they are often backed up with warranties and repair options. We have personally field-tested these binoculars. Want to skip the reading? Here is our top recommendation for this category: Nikon Prostaff 3S 8x42.


Best Tough, Cheap Binoculars: Bushnell H2O Waterproof/Fogproof

What do we like about the Bushnell H2O 8x42 binoculars? They can take serious abuse from hundreds of tweens and teens while still offering average optics for viewing birds. They are fairly compact and lightweight, but we are not a fan of the strap. These binoculars are not great in low-light situations, and the color lacks much vibrancy, but these birding binoculars are only bested by the options seen below at greater prices.


Best Binoculars for Teens: Celestron Outland X 8x42

Celestron may make our favorite affordable set(s) of binoculars, the Celestron Outland X 8x42 binoculars. If you follow the link provided for these binoculars, you will see a large variety of size options. These binoculars come in sizes from 8x25 to 10x50. They are rugged, have above-average optics, and are completely affordable. We frequently use and recommend these binoculars for tweens, teens, and classrooms!


Best Affordable Birdwatching Binocular: Nikon Prostaff 3s

This is our top recommendation for low-budget birding binoculars!

Nikon's were the first pairs of binoculars for many of the Flocking Around crew. Why? Higher quality glass and durability at very affordable prices. In fact, we have a pair of Nikons that are over TEN years old and still operate at peak performance! If you can afford a little bit more, go with the Nikon Prostaff 3s 8x42 binoculars. They come with a better warranty service than Celestron or Bushnell. They have better performance in low-light conditions, and colors appear more vivid.


Medium-budget binoculars | Mid-priced binoculars under $500

If you have been birdwatching for a few years, or you have a more comfortable budget, these birdwatching binoculars make for GREAT selections. Do you need to go up to the next tier eventually? Probably not, unless you are a biologist, hardcore birder, or have plenty of $$$. The birding binoculars in this list are priced well under $500. For those who want quick and easy answers, here is our top recommendation for this category: Nikon M5 8x42!

Zach holding a pair of Nikon Monarchs.
I've owned my Nikon binoculars for over a DECADE!

Best Smooth-Focus Binoculars: Vortex Diamondback HD

Vortex is a storied brand, and the Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42 binoculars are no exception. You will appreciate the feel of these binoculars, the focus is smooth, and they are fairly durable. The optics between these and the Maven C.1's are comparable. The warranty is for life. However, the Maven binoculars receive a slight edge due to a better warranty and ownership in the Rocky Mountains.


Best Warranty Binocular: Maven C.1

Maven is a Wyoming-owned optics company that was born after the demise of Brunton. One of the premier binoculars from Maven is the Maven C.1 8x42 binocular. The eyecups and smooth (but slightly tight) focus ring, plus the amazing, fix-anything, lifetime warranty, are the highlights of this binocular. One of the Flocking Around crew uses this delightful birding optic, and they offer compliments about the low-light performance and the oversized neckstrap.


Best Mid-tier Binocular: Celestron Trailseeker ED

Again, the Flocking Around crew has a member birding with this binocular, the Celestron Trailseeker ED 8x42 binocular. What do they like? Better color vibrancy and saturation, beautifully easy focusing, and a comfortable feel in the hand. The ED glass creates some of the best glass in this list, but the field of view is one small drawback.


Best Daily Birding Binocular: Nikon Monarch M5

This is our overall recommendation!

Our Flocking Around crew also does some serious birdwatching with this Nikon M5 8x42 binocular. In fact, they have been used for heavy loads of birding for almost TEN years! The durability is FANTASTIC, but the glass used in these optics is by far our favorite. Color and low-light performance are best in the Nikon Monarch M5. The new neckstrap is an upgrade from previous Monarchs, removing one of the last elements of the Nikons that we did not favor. How good is the warranty? I would not know. My Nikons have outlasted every other pair of nockies, and I have never had to use the warranty.


Large-budget binoculars | Upper-tier binoculars for under $1500

If you're a serious 'ticker,' ornithologist, or flushed with cash, this may be the list for you. Unless of course, you are looking for the best binoculars offered. If you are, move forward to the next category in this list.

The binoculars in this category are over $750. If your budget is between $300 and $1,500, either select from one of the options listed in the 'medium budget' or save up and choose one of the following, amazing optics. The binoculars that live in the $500-$700 range are not impressive when compared to the medium-budget binoculars (or the large budget). We recommend sticking to the <$500 or the >$1,000 range.


Best Balance Binoculars: Vortex Razor HD

The Vortex Razor HD 8X42 birding binocular is the flagship binocular from Vortex. The optics are top-notch, the focus is smooth, balance is great. The differences between the optics in this list are minuscule. However, the warranties of the other two optics are outstanding. Though, Vortex has an above-average warranty.


Best Warrantied Binoculars: Maven B.1

Maven is our favorite up-and-comer in the optics world. We field-tested the Maven B.1 10x42 binoculars, and they hold up against the top-tier binoculars. Could they beat them? Possibly. We would need the ability to use them for extended periods to make a final decision. The focus is buttery, the low-light performance is phenomenal, and the balance was great for our hands.


Best Large-budget Binocular: Swarovski SLC 8x42 Binocular

Swarovski is the premier name in birdwatching binoculars. Possibly, the only reason the Swarovski SLC 8x42 binocular is ahead of the Maven B.1's in this category is brand recognition. Swarovski has been around long enough that we know they will not disappear overnight. This pair is not even the flagship binocular for Swarovski. Want those? Move to the next category.


Best overall binoculars | Top-tier binoculars for over $1500

Woo. Do you want a pair of these? Go you. If you go birding 24/7 and 7/52, these are for you. However, you could also fly to Colombia and bird for a month at this price point. The differences between these binoculars are negligible.


The Best Binoculars Money Can Buy: Swarovski NL

Great optics. Comfortable grip. Smooth focus. Nearly indestructible. The Swarovski NL 8x42 binoculars are tough to beat.

 

Also, the Best Binoculars Money Can Buy: Leica Noctivid 8x42

The Leica Noctivid 8x42 binocular is rivaled only by the Swarovski NL binocular. The difference between these two binoculars is a matter of comfort and balance.


How should I pick binoculars for birdwatching?

The answer to this question comes down to your budget first, optics second, and the quality of the warranty service third. Generally speaking, the more you spend on a birding binocular, the higher the quality of the glass and warranty service. However, no binoculars are perfect. Simply put, choose the pair of binoculars for your birding obsession that is most comfortable for you and your budget.


 

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