Welcome to the 5th Annual BBR Awards.
2014 really seems to have flown past for me, having spent a good part of it in Southern Africa and the rest in Southern France.
Both of which are really great locations to test as well as use optics to enjoy the beauty of nature and it's wildlife. Indeed along the way I have managed to use, test and review a whole bunch of cracking binoculars, scopes and night vision devices in an assortment of exciting situations and locations.
However without some sort of reflection many of them seem to either merge into one or the details become a little blurred, so I find these awards are not only a great way for me to remind myself of the highlights, but they are the best way to emphasize and put the spotlight back onto those optics that really stood out from the pack and deserve to be noticed.
Unlike some so called "awards" that I have come across that to me seem little more than advertisements or badges that manufacturers get by paying for, I can assure you that the BBR Annual Binocular Awards are exactly like my reviews: 100% completely independent and totally unbiased.
However there are a few points to keep in mind:
Whilst as you will see below, I have been lucky enough to test some fantastic optics this year, however I do feel none quite matched that of these Swarovski binoculars that I believe are truly superb and thus I have decided to confirm theses as being the very best binoculars that I have tested for the second year running:
Indeed this latest incarnation of the Swarovski EL binocular with all it's extremely high end glass and optical coatings that make up the so called "Swarovision" label could easily have won or placed highly for many of the individual awards below.
These Swarovski binoculars use a whole host of the very best components and coatings available, so it is no wonder they scored a chart toping 97% on the BBR Ratings Scale. This score included perfect 10's for their Image Quality, Optical Components Quality, Optical Stats, Body Quality and for their Extras and Attention to Detail, which to me also confirms that it is indeed a worth winner of this years award.
Their main highlights include:
Whilst these may not be cheap by any stretch of the imagination, for a very high end binocular that uses the very best materials and coatings and which ranks with the very best, I consider their price is very reasonable.
Read full Review - of these Swarovski binoculars.
For the best value for money binocular, I look for a product that delivers far more than you would normally expect to find within a price range. This must include both it's optical performance and it's features.
This year this was most noticeably achieved by these mid-priced Celestron Trail Seeker binoculars:
At this price level you would expect to have a fully water & fogproof body, but one that is made from lightweight magnesium is totally unexpected.
Likewise I would expect to see that the optics have been fully multi-coated within this class, but to have both dielectric & phase correction coatings on the BaK-4 Roof Prisms is something you rarely see at this level.
These and other optical features combine to produce a fantastically clear and crisp image, with true, yet vivid colours.
What is more, these 8x42 binoculars have a very wide field of view (426ft @ 1000yds) that is substantially wider than the majority and thus will bring a smile to most birders, hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts faces.
It is for these as well as many other reasons that I have no hesitation in awarding these the best value for money binocular I reviewed in 2014 and indeed on of the best ever.
At the time of writing these were available for around $240 / £200 and thus they easily nestle within my mid priced binoculars category, which if you consider the quality of the optical elements, coatings and body construction, is super impressive:
Read full Review - Read my full review of these Celestron Trailseeker binoculars.
Whilst the best all-round birding binoculars need to be strong in a whole range of areas, image brightness and quality are probably more important for birding than just about any other use for binocular.
This is because the main reasons for their intended use is to ether identify a bird where image accuracy and color reproduction are super important or it is just about enjoying the beauty of the bird in your view where a superior image is obviously paramount.
In order to produce the brightest and highest possible quality image is not easy and usually requires a whole lot of expertise as well as some very specialized optical glass and coatings, all of which I am sure you will appreciate are not cheap or easy to manufacture or integrate into the instrument.
So whilst it is always tempting to give the award for the best bird watching binocular to a very expensive "alpha" type instrument that uses all the very best components, I also feel strongly that bird watching should not be elitist and so I like to give some credence to those that still manage to produce an exceptional image, but are priced at a level that more of use can afford and thus enjoy.
In this regard, the Minox BL HD 8x44 binoculars really stood out for me. As with the best Minox binoculars, you are presented with a product that is entirely designed and manufactured in Germany using top end components and their second to none expertise and quality controls.
Most full-sized bins, especially those designed for general use will incorporate 42mm objectives and for good reasons too, as they offer a good compromise between size and light gathering potential.
However with the addition of a couple of extra millimeters, you get more area with which to gather light, which if used correctly can not only produce a better quality image, but as can be explained by the larger exit pupil, they potentially present a brighter image in poor light. For birding, especially those that go out in dense forests, early in the morning or late into the afternoon, having this additional brightness and quality is perhaps more important than with most other general uses.
What is more the extra 2mm of glass makes almost no detectable difference to the size of the bin, so everyone is a winner.
Very Wide Field of View
Another key attribute that a good all-round birding bin has to display is a wide (or high) view. A wide field of view (FOV) makes it much easier to firstly locate and then track objects like birds ... especially the smaller faster and erratically moving ones!
Whilst there are some 8x bins that have slightly wider FOV's, at 409 feet wide at a distance of 1000 yards (136m @ 1000m) or 7.8°, these Minox BL HD binoculars rank right up there with the best.
Read my full Review of these Minox Binoculars.
Whilst almost all of the attributes that I look for in a great birding binocular (see above) are also essential in a great general wildlife binocular (especially those pertaining to image quality), they differ slightly in that I feel that whist it is still important, having a super wide field of view is perhaps not quite as critical.
Other attributes like being lightweight and extra tough will also come to the fore for many wildlife enthusiasts and indeed hunters.
Vanguard Sport Optics have up until now largely focussed on mid ranging bins, which they have done very successfully as can be seen by the multiple best value for money awards they have won with models like the Endeavor ED.
However with the introduction of the Endeavor ED II, they have stepped it up a level, producing a bin which has just that little better quality components, which is perfectly demonstrated by their use of ED lenses made in Japan, rather than the Chinese ones used on all their and indeed most other brands within the mid-range class.
Image Brightness & Quality
One of the real highlights of the Endeavor ED II for me was the image: Scoring 9/10 in this area, it was no doubt superb. Not only does it look super bright in low light, but is vibrant, completely sharp, flat right to the edges and with almost no perceptible color fringing. This is one area where these Vanguard bins truly excel and even though they now sit within the mid-high value category, I feel they easily match bins that are significantly more expensive.
For most people, the most important qualities to look for in a binocular to take travelling with, especially on a safari adventure are:
I chose these Snypex Knight ED binoculars for this award because I feel that they offer you all these qualities and much more:
Size & Image Quality
True, there are much smaller and more compact binoculars out there, but I feel that these mid-sized Snypex Knight ED 10x32 bins offer the ideal compromise between the size of the device and the quality of the image that they produce:
They are still easily small enough to stow away in your carry bag, yet their 32mm objective lenses ensure that they collect enough light to be able to deliver a high quality as well as bright image, even in pretty bad light. Remember on Safari you will probably be going out at or before sunrise as well as at or after sunset to view game as this is when many species are at their most active, so low light performance is important.
Other Highlights Include:
Please note: Snypex binoculars are to my knowledge only currently available in north America, so if you are in the UK, rest of Europe or Australia etc, take a look at these alternatives instead:
Whilst I agree that these Kite binoculars would not win an award for the MOST compact binocular out there, I would say they are still just small enough to be classified as either a large compact or perhaps a small mid-sized bin.
However what I can't argue with is that their reasonably large 30mm objective lenses, combined with a quality of glass and coatings that surpass the quality used in many high end full sized bins, these easily outperform almost all others in their size class and indeed many mid and even full sized bins I have used.
Fully multi-coated optics, with ED glass lenses and phase corrected, dielectrically coated, BAK-4 roof prisms combine to deliver a stunning quality image that if you also consider the field of view that is a whopping 453ft wide at a distance of 1000 yards, there is plenty to like on these.
For those who have not come across the Kite Optics brand before, they are a small company located in Belgium, but have been producing really high end optics for over thirty years. True they are harder to find in the US than in Europe, so if you cannot locate a pair, perhaps take a look at last years winner below.
Read full Review - Read my full review of these Kite Lynx HD binoculars.
True Compact Binoculars
If you are after one of the very best true and very compact binoculars, I would highly recommend that you take a look at last years winner in this category, the Swarovski CL Pocket that is simply outstanding:
Using very high end Japanese glass, Celestron Echelon binoculars are put together by hand in their plant back in the US where the focus is very much on precision and quality.
Designed for long range terrestrial use as well as astronomy, they feature very large 70mm objective lenses as well as fully multicoated optics that ensure as much available light as possible gets to your eyes for the brightest images and really do excel compared to many of their competitors in low light conditions.
As you would expect with a large instrument like these, they are tripod adaptable as well as fully water and fog proof and come with an included and very high quality hard carry case.
These Hawke Nature-Trek binoculars are very deserving of this award as I feel that not only are they excellent within their price range but I would still consider them really good within the price bracket above them and thus they also make fantastic value for money bins.
Not only does this newer version of the Nature-Trek quite a bit different to the original open-bridged version, but Hawke Sport Optics have improved on it in a number of areas, yet all the time managed to keep the cost down.
Firstly they weigh less, indeed for a full sized 8x42mm binocular they are very lightweight. However the body still not only looks and feels tough, but they also don't have that cheap plastic feel that I often get with lightweight, lower cost bins like these. Indeed with these really do look and feel far more expensive than what their price tag suggests.
Secondly Hawke have used some good quality optics that have been fully multi-coated, which is most certainly not always the case in this price range and which go a long way to ensuring that these transmit as much of the available light to your eyes as possible for a better quality and brighter image.
The optical stats on these are also very good and once again far better than I would have expected with in this range:
Read full Review - Read my full review of these Hawke binoculars.
I would like to make a quick special mention to the Tom Lock 'Series 1' 10x42 Binoculars. It is not often that I recommend a pair of really cheap binoculars as for the most part they really disappoint and to be hones you are better off without them!
However, these Tom Lock binoculars, which are currently only available in the UK, where they now cost only £40 did surprise me and whilst they don't quite match those above, if you really are on a very tight budget these are well worth taking a look at.
In the old days it was and indeed it still is an incredible feeling to effectively be able to "see" in the dark. However now with digital devices getting better all the time (as well as cheaper), you can not only see every bit as well as those that use traditional intensifier tubes, but you can record what you see as well.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to use the latest offering from Luna Optics - the LN-DM50-HRSD Digital Night Vision Viewer & Recorder and whilst it would never win an award for the most catchy or easily remembered name, it is truly one of the best night vision devices in its class that I have ever seen:
Make no mistake, this Hawke Spotting Scope is a very high quality optical instrument, but rather incredibly also comes at a price that is much more affordable than what you first might have anticipated.
Top spec features include a very lightweight magnesium body that is also fully waterproof. The Endurance ED has dual focus knobs and is boxed with a 20-60x zoom eyepiece included, but which can also be removed and exchanges for others should you need to.
Optics are fully multi-coated, which along with the large 85mm objective lens and a dielectric mirror coated BaK-4 prism, ensure that not only is plenty of light captured, but the transmission levels are extremely high making for one of the best quality and brightest images I have ever seen.
Also included is an extendible sunshield, adjustable collar for body rotation and a very well made stay-on soft scope cover for complete protection, even when using the scope.
For those who take out their optics on longer walks and hikes, or who also want to carry other equipment like a camera and who don't want to sacrifice image quality by getting a compact bin, probably the most useful accessory you can get is a harness.
Back in 2011 I gave the award in this category to another harness, the LockDown Optics Deployment System, mostly because of how well it works, but also because of just how innovative the product is.
This year I have decided to give it to the Celestron harness, not because of any innovations, but just because of how simple it is, yet it still manages to do exactly what it says on the tin!
This binocular harness in my opinion a great choice for those looking for an inexpensive solution for carrying your bins more securely and comfortably.
As always, I really appreciate getting your particular thoughts and opinions. Do agree or disagree with any of my choices? Which bins would you recommend for an award?