Amy K. Hooper
Among many birdwatchers, "the lab” usually means one thing: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Known in the community as a powerhouse of research and education, the Lab offers a lot of resources to birders — including All About Birds’ Bird Guide — while managing citizen-science programs like Project FeederWatch and producing a quarterly magazine, "Living Bird,” for its members.
The autumn 2013 issue of "Living Bird” provides reviews by more than 60 volunteers of more than 100 binocular models. That’s a lot of glass to look through and evaluate! And like this "Best Binoculars of 2013” article points out, there’s no single model that fits everyone’s eyes, hands, needs and budgets. That’s why the Lab recommends 28 models in five price ranges.
To choose binoculars, the Lab suggests six steps that involve price range, magnification, multiple hands-on tests, image quality, eye relief, and other features and warranties. If some of the terminology in the Lab’s six steps – such as "close focus” or "field of view” – sounds unfamiliar or imprecise, then a technical guide from Eagle Optics can provide more info about optics vocabulary.
The price ranges might surprise new birdwatchers, because the Top of the Line bracket features binoculars priced between $2,000 and $3,000. For some beginners, those price tags could cause serious sticker shock. Other brackets are $700 to $1,999; $425 to $680; $210 to $399; and under $200.
The Lab’s 28 top picks include 13 brands, both old and new to the binocular market: Atlas Optics, Celestron, Eagle Optics, Leica, Leupold, Meopta, Nikon, Opticron, Optics Planet, Swarovski, Vixen, Vortex and Zeiss. While some brands predictably populate certain price brackets, others appear in unexpected slots. That diversity lends support for my next points.
Remember: There’s no substitute for handling a binocular yourself. Holding the bino in your hands and in front of your eyes are two of the key tests to choosing the model that’s right for you — which might not be right for your spouse, best friend or grandchild. If you want to give binoculars to special someones, then you need to take them to optics retailers so their hands and eyes participate before you pay for the gifts.
By the way: If you relish digging into data, you can check out the complete table for the 102 binoculars reviewed by Cornell volunteers. The table includes price, specs, ratings and features, and immediately following it is information about the review’s methodology as well as optics definitions — including "close focus” and "field of view” — and advice from the Lab’s staff. They said, "Finally, we want to emphasize again the importance of trying several binocular pairs side by side in person before selecting a pair that’s best for you. We did our best to select some top picks within each price category, based on the extensive comments we received, as well as our own strong birding opinions. But we also know that every birder is different!”