By Michael Deming

Everyone has probably heard the saying, “buy the best optics you can afford.”  This is a philosophy that I learned long ago and there is a box of binoculars in my arsenal showing the years of my business success and optics upgrades over the years.   I started buying optics over 20 years ago and the technology and quality has improved by leaps and bounds.   What was the very top of the line optics twenty years ago won’t hold a candle to some of the lower grade models on the market today.  A person can easily spend over $2,000 for some of those top of the line optics and those units are absolutely fantastic, but they are out of the reach of many people, so we have put together a lineup of binoculars that will cost you less than five hundred dollars that are still good quality and will get the job done well.   This field testing has gone on over the past 3 months during our summer scouting trips and here is our opinions based on clarity, low light visibility, weight, and functionality.
Since most game is moving at extremely low light conditions, we feel that this is one of the very most important aspects of good glass and deserves the biggest evaluation.  If you can’t see the animals, you definitely can’t harvest them.  Clarity goes hand in hand with this as well.  Spending several hours a day looking through binoculars will give you an unwelcome headache as well as severe eye strain if they are not extremely clear.  Some of the aspects of functionality will be a personal preference for each user and we will just provide you with our personal opinion on each product.  This will be a great starting point if you are looking at a getting a new set of binoculars and don’t have more than five hundred dollars to spend.

Bushnell Trophy XLT

Bushnell Trophy XLT
These binoculars were the lowest price optics that we tested.  They are available on-line at Sportsman’s Warehouse for $189.99 which definitely won’t break the bank.  These binos, as with most of the others in the testing, have a center focus ring and a right eye diopter adjustment.  This means that you will adjust the focus of your right eye independently with the knob that goes just under the roll up eyecup on the right side.  On most models in this price range, this is very common as opposed to the higher end models which have the focus and the diopter as a combined unit in the center wheel.  I find this to be a little more cumbersome, but no less functional than the center diopter adjustment.  They have a great ergonomic design and the rubber armor coating wears extremely well.  The lenses are extremely clear and once your diopter is set, the focus is really crisp.  The rollup eyecups are very smooth, but don’t have any set stops, which is a feature that I would like to see.   The rubber lens caps that come with the unit will fall off coming out of the box and are a waste of time.  Since I always use a bino cover of some kind, it isn’t a problem and I would recommend anyone who buys a pair of Bushnell Trophy XLTs to do the same.  It will protect your lenses and the body for years of field use.  Low light capabilities are very good and very acceptable to get you into the twilight hours of hunting within reasonable rifle range.

Nikon Monarch

Nikon Monarch
Nikon has been well known in the camera industry for many years and they have plugged their knowledge of high-end cameras and lenses into their binoculars.  These binos will cost you $299.99, but with the current $50.00 rebate available through Nikon, you will only pay $249.99.  The Monarch’s feel very compact in your hand and they have a strong rubberized armor coating as well.  They are also equipped with a right eye diopter and center focus wheel.  The rollup eyecups have stop locks, which make adjusting for the best eye relief very simple.  The lens covers attach directly to the body of the binoculars, but have a tendency to fall off in the field.  Once again, you are much better off with a bino cover system.  These binos are extremely clear with good edge-to-edge clarity and low light visibility.

Vanguard Endeavor ED

Vanguard Endeavor ED
Vanguard is another company that has been known in the camera industry for years, but more for its tripods and bags.  However, they make a very good binocular in this price range.  It will cost you $399.99 at the Sportsman’s Warehouse on-line store.  It is the heaviest binocular tested in this category and weighs in at 26.8 ounces.  I personally like a little bit heavier optics, which aids in holding the optics steady and these were the best in the group for that category.  These are also center focus with a right eye diopter adjustment, but Vanguard has taken that a step further with a lock down diopter,  so once your glasses are set to your eyes, you can lock them down and don’t have to worry about this portion of the focus process getting moved.  The roll up eyecups are extremely smooth, but not to the point of rolling down on their own and even though they don’t have specific stops, the top end is perfectly adjusted for my eye and the eyecups.  Lens covers are not functional and won’t stay on as with other units tested.  The clarity of these glasses in low light conditions was exceptional and compared favorably with some extremely top-of-the-line binos.

Alpen Apex

Alpen Apex
A new set of Apex will cost you $299.99 and is money well spent.  Some of our field staff has been beating a pair of these around for several years and they have been bullet proof over that time.  They are center focus and right eye diopter set up as well.  The eyecups extend and lock in place and are extremely smooth.  The lens covers will stay attached to the binos due to their design, but will need to be removed if you would like to attach these to a tripod for a long glassing session.  These binos feel extremely compact and fit extremely well for women or children with small hands.  The edge-to-edge clarity is extremely good and the low light visibility is very good as well.

Pentax DCF CS

Pentax DCF CS
A pair of these binoculars will cost you $299.99.  They are a center focus system with center diaopter adjustment.  It is a click type adjustment, which has very specific clicks when moved.  I liked this system extremely well for diopter adjustments.  This unit was the lightest tested weighing in at 21.7 ounces and these feel very compact as well.  The rollup eyecups have 3 specific stops making appropriate eye relief very accurate for each eye.  The rubberized armor is extremely heavy-duty and although not planned during our testing, endured a pretty rough fall onto some rocks from ten feet up.  There was no noticeable damage and functionality was unharmed.  Lens covers are not very functional.  These optics are extremely clear and have good low light performance.

Minox BL

Minox BL
This pair of optics barely made it under our test price threshold of $500.00 and will set you back about $499.99.  You will notice a little bit better quality in the hinge system and frame of these binos.  Although they feel heavier and are more durable than most of the other units tested, they still only weigh 26.1 ounces.  They are built with a center focus and a right eye diopter setup that is extremely smooth and crisp.  The edge-to-edge clarity of this model is one of the best tested in the group and this could be due to the 44mm objective lens when all the others were only at 42mm.  The rollup eyecups have a couple of stops, but they aren’t specific to the touch.  However, once set, they stay in place better than most units tested.  This model excelled in the low light testing more than any model tested.  We can evaluate antlers with this model well past legal shooting time and was considered the best in this class overall.

Leupold BX2 Cascades

Leupold BX2 Cascades

These binos will cost you $299.99 and they are a very compact model similar to the Alpens.  The armor coating is extremely durable, but I didn’t like the feel of it as it is much harder than most of the armor coatings.  The rollup eyecups are small, but very comfortable on long glassing sessions.  The lens covers will fall off on your first outing never to be found again.  The Cascades have a center focus wheel, but unlike the others in this category, it has a center diopter adjustment similar to that of extremely high-end optics.  The functionality of this setup worked okay, but it seemed hard to keep these in focus.  They have good edge-to-edge clarity and the low light visibility was good as well.

Bushnell Legend

Bushnell Legends

These binos will cost you $289.99.  They are extremely durable and compact.  They come equipped with a center wheel focus adjustment and a right eye diopter adjustment, which will lock into place.  This setup was excellent when it was adjusted.  The rollup eyecups have 2 stops, but they are not very specific.  The rubberized armor covering on these units is one of my favorites.  It is extremely easy to grip even when cold or wet and with a little rub from a damp cloth, they look like new.  These have good edge-to-edge clarity and good low light visibility as well.
Our overall opinion of the optics in this class is that they are a great place to start.  You will get years of great pleasure out of every one of these items.  As discussed in the beginning of this article, low light visibility is the most important thing with optics and we tested all of these units well past legal shooting time.  The Minox stood out the very best in this testing in both clarity and low light.  Any one of these optics will get you looking into the shadows and identifying animals most of the time, but the Minox did it well into the dark when the naked eye couldn’t even make out the animal let alone see if it was a buck or a doe.   This is to be expected because they are the highest priced products in our testing.   Personal preferences in styles will determine which optic is best for you, but any of them will be a great asset to your arsenal in the field.  We will be giving away each one of our test models on www.sportsmansnews.com in the next few months.   Log onto our website, register to become a user, and start visiting our forum.   You just might get a pair of these great optics our team has tested, but they may have a few scratches on them, because we have truly hard core tested them.

Binocular

Bushnell Trophy XLT

Nikon Monarch ATB

Vanguard Endeavor ED

Alpen Apex

Leupold Cascades BX-2

Pentax DCF CS

Minox BL

Bushnell Legend

Magnification

10X

10X

10.5X

10X

10X

10X

10X

10X

Objective Lens Size

42mm

42mm

45mm

42mm

42mm

42mm

44mm

42mm

Field of View @ 1000 yds

325′

288′

314′

314′

267′

315′

342′

340′

Prism

Roof

Roof

Roof

Roof

Roof

Roof

Roof

Roof

Eye Relief

15.2mm

18.4mm

17.0mm

16.0mm

16.0mm

18.0mm

17.0 mm

15.2 mm

Tripod Mountable Setup

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Waterproof

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Weight

25 ounces

21.9 ounces

26.8 ounces

22.0 ounces

23.1 ounces

21.7 ounces

26.1 ounces

22.5 ounces

Price

$189.99

$299.99

$399.99

$298.99

$299.99

$299.00

$499.99

$289.99

Clarity Rating

***

***

***

***

***

***

****

***

Low Light Visibility Rating

***

***

****

***

***

***

****

***

Scale

* Poor

** Marginal

*** Good

**** Excellent