To find the best binoculars, we had a professional ornithologist spend over 100 hours field-testing 17 pairs against his own $2,500 Leica Ultravids. After using our test pairs in the mountains and hills of Southern California, then on a research trip to the rain forests of southern Mexico, he found that the Athlon Optics Midas ED 8×42 pair was the best of the group, offering performance comparable to his Leicas for a fraction of the price and the widest field of view out of all the binoculars tested. This means you’ll see more, and it will look better.
Athlon Optics Midas ED
Relatively affordable with great optics, these binoculars have comparable performance to many models that cost thousands more.
The Athlon Optics Midas ED 8×42—along with nearly all of the other binoculars we tested—are the beneficiaries of a revolution in optical quality caused by the falling costs of precision manufacturing and optical treatments. For just over $300 you can get a pair of binoculars that matches—that’s matches, not comes close to—products that cost hundreds, or even thousands, more. The Athlon Midas ED pair’s optics aren’t its only strong suit: These are exceptionally durable binoculars that easily withstood the humid, dusty, and hostile environment of the Mexican rain forest and harsh sun of the Californian desert. And their focus dial adjusts reliably and smoothly across a wide range of depths, making it easy to focus on what you’re trying to see, no matter where it is.
Celestron Trailseeker ED
These binoculars are a close second to the Athlons, with just-as-clear optics, solid construction, and easy-to-use focusing. They also have a slightly smaller grip than the sturdier Athlons.
If you prefer a slightly smaller grip or the Athlon Optics Midas ED pair is out of stock, the very similar Celestron Trailseeker ED 8×42 Binoculars are a sharp, easy-to-use choice. After the Athlons, these were the binoculars I most often grabbed when trying to see a new bird. Like the Athlon set, the Celestron Trailseeker features crystal-clear optics (even around the edges of the field of view), comfortable ergonomics, and predictable focusing, all in a slightly smaller package.
Proof that binoculars have undergone a quality revolution, these are high quality at a price that once would have gotten you little but junk.
If you’re on a supertight budget and are willing to see less of a scene at a time, you can get the Carson VP 8×42 for around half the price of the Athlons and get almost all the performance, with only a slight compromise in field of view (how much of the landscape you’ll see through the binoculars).
Pentax AD 8×25 WP
Compact binocs aren’t the best for birding, but these combine pocket-size convenience with enough magnification to actually identify things.
The low-cost Pentax AD 8 x 25 WP are ideal for day hikes or airplane travel, where you want good-quality optics in a small package. Everything worked—the eyecups felt solid and comfortable, the hinges weren’t too loose, and focusing was quick and surprisingly accurate at any distance. Of course, this is not the pair for serious birding, stargazing, or anything requiring exceptional detail. But if you want inexpensive, very compact binoculars, this is the pair for you.