Reviews of optics
Published in Alula Magazine and Linnut magazine
ALULA TESTS LATEST TOP BINOCULARS (4/2000)
CANON 15x50 IS UD All Weather (4/2001)
Zeiss Victory FL a new champion? (3/2004)
Kowa TSN-883 (1/2007)
Opticron ES 80 ED (4/2007)
Canon 10x42L IS WP (NEW)
Hawke 8x43 ja 10x43ED (NEW)
Leica APO-televid 82 (NEW)
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Review of Optics
Leica Ultravid 10x42 challenges
In the fall of 2003, Leica introduced its new series of Ultravid binoculars with 7,8 and 10x42 as well as 8,10 and 12x50 models. The optics of the new series are based on the Leica BN series, but the optical coatings of the lenses and prisms have been refined to improve light transmission, contrast and colour balance. The bodies have been thoroughly redesigned, and the metal-bodied, rubberised Utravids are now as light as corresponding Swarovski ELs. Previously in ALULA, I have tested 8x binoculars, but 10x magnification still has its adherents. In 10x binoculars, field of view and depth of field are not as good as in 8x models and their image shakes more, but they do resolve significantly smaller detail even when used hand-held. In addition, greater magnification allows you to see more in twilight and in the dark, and is a distinct advantage at long distances such as in migration- and seabird-viewing. I thus decided to introduce the new Leica to our readers as a part of a comparison test of 10x binoculars. To not fully disappoint the fans of 8x binoculars, I have a few comments on the Ultravid 8x42 at the end of the discussion of the 10x42. My original intention was to compare the Ultravid with the Swarovski EL 10x42, Zeiss Victory 10x40 and Nikon10x42 HG. Since the Nikon was not available during the time I did the testing, I replaced it with Nikon's smaller model, the 10x32 HG, and to provide a yardstick to the smaller Nikon I also included Swarovski's new smaller EL, the 10x32. Running through the test along with the others was my reference binocular, the Nikon 10x42 SE. Its data is included in the table, and there is a separate section on it for those who are interested in how a porroprism binocular fares against modern top-class roof prism designs.
Resolution: I measured the resolution of all the binoculars using test charts and with the binoculars tripod-mounted. Each one was measured both by viewing in the usual way and with the aid of a 3x "booster". Without the booster, I could resolve 2.8 line-pairs per millimetre from a distance of ten meters. My visual acuity is not up to resolving the next block of lines at this magnification, so this is an excellent result. Subjectively, all the other binoculars appeared exceedingly sharp, but the 10x32 EL left a little to be desired. Measured through the booster, the 10x32 EL resolved 4.5-5.0, the Nikon HG and Leica Ultravid 5.6 and the 10x42 EL and Zeiss Victory 6.3 line-pairs/mm, or, in other words, 1.8-2.2 times what I had measured without the booster. These results together with my impressions with these binoculars in the field reinforce my notion - gathered through earlier testing - that for an image to feel super-sharp and show the maximum amount of detail, the resolution of the optics should be about twice as good as what the resolving power of the user's eyes are through that magnification. The very best binoculars can do this and then some. In the field, impressions about sharpness remained nearly the same as with the test charts. The only exception was the Zeiss Victory. Although it was super-sharp in every other respect, it had clearly visible chromatic aberration even in the middle of the viewfield. This causes narrow purple or yellow-green fringing on high-contrast objects and compromises sharpness and colour definition somewhat. All the binoculars had some chromatic aberration, but in the others it was not as objectionable. Contrast: The Nikon and Zeiss had the best contrast, Leica and EL 10x42 were a tad behind and the EL 10x32 a bit further still. All of the binoculars retained their contrast very well even when viewing towards the sun.
Brightness: Here the Ultravid successfully challenges the Zeiss. This duo was discernibly brighter than the others under all light conditions. The EL 42 was slightly dimmer. Especially in low light, the 32mm duo of Nikon and Swarovski were noticeably dimmer than the bigger binoculars. Of these two the EL is slightly brighter, but due to its better contrast the Nikon performs just as well in low light. In very low light, the Zeiss and Leica showed colour a bit more easily than the rest, but the differences were minimal. Also the differences between the bigger and the smaller binoculars in their ability to resolve detail in deep twilight were very slight.
Colour rendition: The image of the Leica, the Zeiss and the smaller Swarovski has a slight yellow-green bias and the Nikon has a very slight reddish bias. In my view all of them are sufficiently close to neutral. However, the 10x42 EL has a pretty distinct cold bluish bias, and when I switched to it from any other binocular I always felt as if the weather had suddenly turned more wintry. Its bias is thus quite different from that of its sister model, the 8.5x42 EL, which has a slight warm yellowish-green bias. The colours are most vivid and vibrant through the Nikon, and Leica and Zeiss are also excellent in this respect. The colour rendition of the 10x42 EL is somewhat compromised by the aforementioned cold bias, and the similarly slightly less vibrant colours of the 10x32 EL I presume are linked to its contrast and resolution not being quite up to the level of the others, since its colour balance ought not to present any problems in this regard.
Flare and backlight properties: All the binoculars were excellent. This time the lighting conditions were exceptionally demanding, and all the binoculars exhibited some flare, but none to an objectionable degree. I have heard that Zeiss has worked to solve the flare problems that plagued the Victories initially, and it seems that they have succeeded very well. The design of the Zeiss eyecups also very effectively blocks stray light from entering between the eye and the eyepiece lens. With the 10x42 EL, a halo of light tended to emerge around the periphery of the image. This seemed to be caused by stray light getting to the eye from the ground edge of the field lens. In all the other binoculars in this test and also in the 8.5x42 EL, this lens edge is covered under a field stop and cannot cause reflections. This halo does not affect image quality, but some might find it annoying.
Image quality near the edge of field: Edge quality is best in the Zeiss, a clear step behind come the EL 10x42 and the Nikon 10x32 HG, while the EL 10x32 (which has a wider field of view than the others) and especially the Leica Ultravid get poor marks. Image quality at the periphery of the image naturally isn't one of the most essential features in real use, but in conjunction with such an extensive redesign, Leica could have bothered to redesign their eyepieces as well. They would even have had fine examples of their own to follow, such as the widefield eyepieces of their telescopes or their 10x32 and 10x50 binoculars in their BN series, which have much better edge performance. Admittedly, though, the sharp area around the centre of the image in the Ultravid is sufficiently wide.
Ease of viewing: The Leica, both Swarovski's (especially the larger) and the Nikon were easy for me to view with. 10x binoculars generally are a little more critical with respect to eye placement than lower-powered ones, but using these was pleasant and effortless. With the Zeiss Victory my experience was less consistent. At times I found it easy and pleasant to use, but if my eyes were tired from too much testing, finding the optimal image with the Zeiss was more difficult, and its image-twist while panning bothered me more than with the other binoculars. This seems to be largely a matter of what one is used to: a birder friend of mine who uses an older model, the Zeiss Dialyt, found the Victory the most natural of all to view with.
Technical properties and usability
Field of view is widest in the Swarovski EL 10x32 at 6.8°. Next comes Nikon HG at 6.5°. Leica Ultravid, Zeiss Victory and Swarovski EL 10x42 have fields of 6.3°, which is a pretty normal field for wide-angle 10x binoculars. With my eyes, all the binoculars focus down to two meters or under. There are large differences in the speed of focusing. Focusing from 10 metres to infinity takes about a 230° turn of the focus wheel with the EL 10x42, 130° with the Zeiss, 120° with the Leica, 105° with the EL 10x32, and only 60°with the Nikon HG. Nikon's fast focus is very useful in quick situations or when viewing small birds or butterflies at very short distances, but precise focus adjustments at larger distances require a very gentle touch - fortunately the Nikon's focus wheel is large and its movement is smooth and precise. At the other extreme, the larger EL's focus is annoyingly slow in quick situations. With the rest, I feel the speed of focus is a good compromise between speed and precision which is easy to get used to. With the Victory, you need to get used to the focus wheel working counterclockwise. As for eyeglass use and diopter adjustments, the shortest eye-relief, ca. 10mm according to my measurements, was in the Swarovski EL 10x32. The EL 10x42 measured just under 12mm, while the Zeiss, Leica and Nikon HG measured between 12 and 13mm. Manufacturers usually report rather optimistic figures for eye-relief, and people who view with their glasses on are strongly advised to always personally test how well the binocular suits them. If you need strong positive correction for your eyes and use binoculars without glasses, the Leica Ultravid might not focus to infinity for you. The other binoculars are less likely to be a problem in this regard. As for the diopter adjustments, I feel that Swarovski's 1/3 diopter steps are a bit coarse, whereas the other models use 1/4 diopter increments. With Leica and Nikon, it is possible to adjust the diopter setting and focus the left side of the binocular simultaneously which facilitates the adjustment.
Other observations: all the tested binoculars are waterproof and nitrogen purged. Guarantee times are 10 years with Nikon and 30 years with the others. All come with an eyepiece rainguard, and the Swarovski EL's also have useful objective lens caps. The carrying straps of Leica, Zeiss and Swarovski are wide and comfortably padded while Nikon's strap is much narrower and its padding is rather Spartan. Since the Nikon is not particularly heavy, however, the strap is more or less adequate.
Leica Ultravid 10x42 BR
The new Ultravids are over 10% lighter than Leica's previous models, and are also more slender in their design. Their heavily rubberised magnesium alloy body feels very solid. Rubber armouring has nice texture and gives a good grip. The design team has apparently been instructed to improve the handling of the new series, whereby they have designed ridges under the tubes to guide your thumbs. These stick uncomfortably into my thumbs if I hold the binoculars in good balance. The focus wheel is large, well positioned and partially rubberised so it is easy to use. Its motion is a bit rough, though, and there is also some play in its movement. The twist-out eyecups have two different indentations for the extended position. The outer position suits me very well, and the inner one is probably just right for those for whom Swarovski designs their eyecups - a nice improvement. In both of the Ultravids I tried, the small plastic cap covering the front of the centre hinge rattled and twisted when the binocular was handled, giving a cheap feel to a high-quality binocular. Despite these criticisms, I liked the handling of the Ultravids very much and used them gladly. Image quality is also first-rate. Brightness is second to none, the image is sharp, contrast is close to the best, colour balance is neutral and colours are vivid. In addition, the Leica is very easy and natural to view with. Soft and muddy edges of the image are the Ultravid's most significant shortcoming, and I would also hope for less chromatic aberration. Pretty much the same can be said about the Ultravid 8x42. It is also very bright and easy to view with, has natural colours and good contrast. The 8x42 also has poor edge performance, and the field of view is mediocre for a wide-angle binocular. Overall, I still prefer the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, but the Ultravid comes very close. In addition, the Ultravid's faster focus can be a decisive advantage for some users.
The Swarovski EL 10x42
The EL binoculars have excellent ergonomics and are solidly built. At 780g, the 10x42 is also pretty light. The focus wheel is a good size and falls naturally under the index fingers, but there is a little play and roughness in its movement. The focus ratio is also frustratingly slow, although this does mean that precise focusing is always easy. The solid and comfortable twist-out eyecups should, at least for me, twist out even further, since now dark shadows rather easily appear at the edges of the image. It would also be nice to have the cold, bare metal between the tubes covered with rubber. The image of the EL 10x42 is exceedingly sharp, very bright, has high contrast and is very peaceful. The amount of chromatic aberration is relatively low, and the binocular is easy and natural to view with. If you can live with the cold colour balance and slow focusing and are not bothered by the halo of light which tends to appear around the periphery of the image in bright light, you can get a brilliant binocular for yourself in the EL 10x42.
Zeiss Victory 10x40
The Victory is a good size, lightweight and fits the hands very well. Thick rubber armouring covers the entire binocular and gives a solid grip. After our binocular test in 2000, the Victories have been improved further, and now the carrying strap lugs no longer chafe your hands, intermediate settings of the eyecups can be utilised and internal baffling has been markedly improved to prevent flare. The focus action is smooth but moves counterclockwise, although you quickly get used to this. It would be nice if the ridges that improve the grip of the focus wheel could extend all the way to the front of the wheel, though. Victory has exceptionally sturdy and comfortable eyecups. They fit my face so well and are so solid that the Victory's image also shook less than in the other binoculars. The slanted form of the eyecups also prevents stray light from entering the eye from the sides. However, there is a drawback to all this. While testing the binoculars outdoors in cold weather (+2C) the Victory's eyepieces fogged up quickly time after time. With the other tested binoculars, in the same conditions, this did not happen nearly as much. The Victory suits eyeglass wearers pretty well, and with the eyecups twisted down, fogging should not be any worse than with the rest. The centre hinge in the Victory I had for testing was somewhat loose, meaning that the interpupillary distance could alter on its own. I hope this was an anomaly, since it is annoying in quick situations to first have to re-set the interpupillary distance before you can look at the bird.
Victory's image is astonishingly bright, colour balance is excellent, sharpness and contrast are first rate and edge resolution is the best of the lot. Unfortunately, the Victory has significantly more chromatic aberration than the other binoculars in the test. Thus birds surrounded by sky, water or snow get purple or yellow-green fringes even in the middle of the viewfield more easily than usual, and sunshine glitter easily gets rainbow colours. Bright red or orange objects also appeared to slightly "bounce" out of the rest of the image. The Victory image also twisted and churned more while panning than in the other models, or, at least, it bothered me more. This is not likely to be serious, though, since usually people become accustomed to the distortions of their binocular and cease to notice them after a while.
Nikon 10x32 HG
The 10x32 HG is a compact fully armoured binocular which despite its smaller size weighs nearly as much as the Zeiss. For those with large hands, its narrow body might feel cramped, but otherwise its handling is very good. Twist-up eyecups are comfortable and the field of view pleasantly wide, but when extended the eyecups have some play. The large rubberised focus wheel moves very smoothly and evenly, but its fast movement might be hard to get used to. Fast focus also gives an impression of poor depth of field, but to the extent I was able to measure it, the HG actually had one of the best depths of field in this group. Image quality both with test targets and in the field was excellent. Contrast is superb, colours vivid and natural, and the image is just as sharp as in the Leica which has larger objectives. The HG has about the same amount of chromatic aberration as the Leica. The HG is not quite as bright as the larger binoculars, but in twilight tests it could resolve detail as well as the others--only colour definition in very low light was slightly easier with the larger models.
Swarovski EL 10x32
Due to its small size, light weight and design which fits the hands extremely well, the EL 10x32 is exceptionally nice to use. There is plenty of room for fingers between its slender tubes, and the focus wheel is just the right size and in the right place. Its speed is a good compromise between speed and precision, but its feel is not as silky smooth as in the Nikon. Due to rather short eye-relief, the EL 10x32 does not suit eyeglass wearers very well. The image is bright with natural colours, but sharpness and contrast fall a little short by comparison with the other binoculars in this test. Field of view is unusually wide, but edge resolution is poor and there is a lot of chromatic aberration at the periphery - in the middle of the field there is about the same amount as in the Leica and the Nikon HG. Although the EL 10x32 does not excel in this elite group, its image is sufficiently good that it may be the right choice for someone looking for a light and handy binocular, providing they are not put off by the premium price Swarovski is asking for them.
All the binoculars in the test were very good, but none can be elevated above the others as a clear winner. I liked using the Leica, the Nikon and the Swarovski EL 10x42 very much. They were so sharp that once you had them focused there was no need to fiddle with the focus, and although they all had their respective shortcomings, you could easily ignore these when there was something interesting to view. The Swarovski EL 10x32 fit my hands like a glove and was a pleasure to use, except that when viewing with it I was left wishing for a sharper and more contrasty image. The Zeiss Victory's rather prominent chromatic aberration and the tendency of its eyepieces to fog up are features that I would probably have a hard time getting used to. However, the Zeiss otherwise has such excellent image quality and usability that it should definitely be included on a binocular buyer's short list.
How did the porroprism binocular fare?
The Nikon 10x42 SE is a sturdy and light (710g) rubber-armoured porroprism binocular which is not waterproof. In practice it has turned out to be rainproof, however. It has rather thin rubber fold-down eyecups, and if you press the binocular solidly against your face you can rather easily get dark shadows at the edges of the image. Like in the Swarovskis, there is bare cold metal between the barrels. The wide, rounded body is best suited for larger hands. The rubberised focus wheel is rather too small and its action is pretty stiff. Focusing from 10 meters to infinity takes a 160° turn of the wheel, so it is pretty slow, but precise focusing is very easy. Closest focusing distance is a bit over 4 meters. Viewing at close ranges is generally difficult with porroprism binoculars, since with the objectives placed far apart the viewed object gets too close to the inner edge of the image in either tube. With the SE however, the sharp area of the image is wide enough that viewing in the 4-6 meter range is possible. The advantage of objectives spaced far apart is that the image becomes strongly three-dimensional. The SE has an eye-relief of over 15mm, but the old-fashioned eyecups are a pain if you have to frequently alternate between normal and eyeglass use. Diopter adjustment is done in the traditional way by twisting the right eyepiece. There are no steps, it is easy to adjust and there is sufficient friction so the setting won't alter on its own. In resolution tests, the SE was on the same very high level as the Zeiss and the Swarovski EL 10x42. As for contrast it shared the lead with the Victory and Nikon HG, in brightness it was a bit short of the Victory and Ultravid but equalled the EL 10x42, and in colour rendition it was the best of the lot alongside with the Nikon HG. Flare and backlight properties were top notch and edge resolution second after the Zeiss. Also in general ease of viewing the SE is among the best. In addition, its image has noticeably less chromatic aberration than the other binoculars in this test. The SE loses points for a somewhat narrow field of view (6.0°). Overall, with respect to image quality the SE is the best in the test by a narrow margin. The SE's usability, however, is a long step behind the others, and its lack of waterproofing is a serious shortcoming for many birders.