The idea of binoculars was a breakthrough in the history of science. Since their invention, they have been used extensively for various purposes, such as long-distance traveling and stargazing in the early years to more widespread activities, such as in surveillance operations, bird watching, wildlife hunting, and marine navigation. Now that they are used in all parts of the world and produced by numerous optics manufacturers, it is important to understand the characteristics of binoculars before deciding to buy one for your professional or recreational needs.
Binoculars gained prominence in the 19th century when an Italian optician named Ignazio Porro used prisms inside his design of binoculars which helped shorten their size, lighten their weight, and produce images that were brighter and sharp, unlike the design of Hans Lippershey, a Dutch eyeglass maker who invented the first pair of binoculars in the 16th century.
Initially designed to be used for observing enemy movements and navigation during long-distance travels, the use of binoculars gradually gained momentum, and people from around the world began using it for recreational purposes, including stargazing, bird watching, hunting, hiking, and marine navigation. The number of binoculars owners has grown exponentially over the years and people have found several ways to make use of their devices in outdoor activities.
Experts in the field always advise potential buyers to compare binoculars from multiple brands before making a decision, since it is possible for some brands to offer better features in the same price range than others. The features to consider when buying a pair of binoculars are the objective size, magnification, field of view, eye relief, focusing mechanism, waterproofing technique, eyecups design, and build quality. The fundamental parameters are magnification and objective size, which is why they have been inscribed in model information of all binoculars for quick identification.
Factors which contribute towards the high cost
Depending on the above features, the price of a set of binoculars may vary significantly. You will find binoculars that cost above 3,000€ and some that even cost below 100€. So, what is it that makes binoculars that make binoculars expensive?
For starters, the objective size, magnification, focusing mechanism, built quality, eye relief, and field of view are the usual deciding factors when we are talking about pricing for binoculars. However, binoculars have seen a drastic increase in options, optical performance and build quality which contribute towards their high prices.
These features are discussed at length below.
Price Range of Binoculars
Usually, binoculars are available in three price ranges depending on the features and build quality.
Standard-sized binoculars that lie in the premium category cost between 1,000 and 3,000€. The most expensive binoculars models are manufactured from the highest quality of materials, optics, and valuable features. Usually offered from top sport optics manufacturers like Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski, Steiner, Nikon, and others, these binoculars usually have innovative features, such as low-density fluoride-induced glass, laser rangefinder, multi-coated lenses, open-bridge design, rubber armor, precise focusing, and long eye relief.
Some popular binoculars in this price range are Swarovski NL Pure, Zeiss Victory SF, Leica Noctivid, Swarovski EL, Steiner Nighthunter, Leica Ultravid, Zeiss Victory HT, Nikon EDG, Steiner Commander, and Vortex Razor HD. Almost all of these binoculars are manufactured in-house at factories in Europe and come in multiple configurations.
Binoculars that cost between 500€ and 1,000€ are included in the mid-range category. These devices offer a balance between quality and price and are therefore the most-sold binoculars. All high-end optics manufacturers offer products in this range and most of them mimic their premium counterparts in the material and optics departments.
Zeiss Conquest, Leica Trinovid, Swarovski SLC, Steiner Ranger Xtreme, Kahles Helia, and Vortex Razor are examples of notable binoculars in this price range. Most mid-range binos are produced in European factories while only a fraction of them have been outsourced to Asia. Those binoculars in this class that are made outside of EU are usually produced in Japan.
Binoculars from reputable brands that cost between 100€ and 500€ are included in this range. These binoculars provide an entry into the universe of usable optics and enable users to experience affordable binoculars before they can invest in a high-end model. This category usually includes full-sized, compact and pocket-sized binoculars that provide basic viewing capability along with average quality construction and optics materials.
Swarovski CL, Steiner Observer, Vortex Viper HD, Noblex Vector, and Meopta Optika HD are a few examples of affordable binoculars from well-known binoculars. Most of these binoculars are produced in Asia and Japan. Additionally, a number of cheap brands offer innovative options in this price range, but they feature inexpensive materials that often do not perform as advertised. It is better to stick to well-known manufacturers and invest in a quality product.
Materials used in the construction of housing play an important role in the built quality and resilience of binoculars. However, using the strongest materials available cannot be simply used for manufacturing. They have a large weight and unbearably high cost, which would, in turn, increase the cost of binoculars. For this purpose, experts have come with a list of materials that provide a balance of strength and weight. They include the following:
Magnesium Alloys are the most commonly used materials for the manufacturing of optics housings. They are known for their high resilience and small atomic weight that makes them an ideal choice for binoculars and riflescopes. Binoculars with magnesium housing are however usually the most expensive ones.
Aluminum alloys are known for their toughness and small weight compared to other metals. They are readily used in spacecraft structures for this very reason. Similarly, tempered Aluminum alloys have been used for the production of riflescope and binoculars for a very long time. In addition to their light nature and high toughness, they are corrosion-free and easy-to-machine too.
Stainless steel is the toughest material available but its weight and machining surpass its qualities. High machining costs and large weight are some of the reasons Stainless Steel is only sparingly used for the manufacturing of binoculars.
Specialized composites are the newest addition to the list of materials used for the fabrication of binoculars and other sport optics products. They are light in weight and can withstand substantial amounts of external stimuli, which are both desirable parameters for binoculars. Well-known brands have started to replace metal alloys in favor of resin-based composites and they might completely replace metals in the future.
The above-mentioned materials are specifically developed for use in the optics industry, which is why they make up a significant portion of the actual cost of the binoculars. The higher the quality of materials used in manufacturing, the higher will be the overall cost. Since all renowned optics boast their use of high-end materials, their products are, therefore, priced higher than most other models you will in the market. Steiner is especially known for their Makrolon composite material.
Ever since binoculars came into being, optics experts have been continually introduced innovations into the product over the years and consequently, today’s binoculars are nothing like what travelers or armed forces used in the past. The more features a set of binoculars has, the higher its price point will be. Additionally, larger objectives, greater field of view, and bigger magnifications also influence the price of binoculars.
The following features can be found on most binoculars of today:
Optics experts at Steiner came with the idea of purging the insides of binoculars barrels with pressurized Nitrogen in 1973. The purpose of purging was to keep the binoculars sealed against external matter, such as moisture, water droplets, dust, and dirt. Before the invention of this method, binoculars suffered from dust particles, and internal fogging of objective and eyepiece lenses. This internal misting of the lenses was impossible to clean without disassembling the device. If left unattended, the moisture inside would promote the growth of fungus and molds inside the optical cavity, which marks the end of life of a set of binoculars.
The technology has since evolved thanks to constant scientific research and all contemporary binoculars feature some kind of purging. More recently, notable optics manufacturers have started replacing Nitrogen with Argon in their binoculars and telescopic sights. Argon is a heavier gas compared to Nitrogen, and it leaks very slowly in the event of an accidental fall. Regardless of the gas, purging of binoculars and riflescopes is a costly procedure.
Individual focus mechanism
Another cost inducing feature is the individual focus mechanism which allows each barrel of the binoculars to be adjusted for focus irrespective of each other. If the focus is adjusted suitably on both barrels, the user will not need to wear his/her eyeglasses during the use of binoculars with individual focus (IF) system. In comparison to the central focus system, the IF system requires very strict tolerances and alignment, therefore binoculars that contain this feature are comparatively pricier.
In order to minimize the loss of light due to reflection and scattering and ensure sharp images with high contrast, all modern binoculars feature some form of optical coating on both surfaces of lenses and some surfaces of prisms. A decent coating can reduce the problems of loss of light down to 4% (96% light transmissin rate) from much higher numbers, which is significant, especially for low-light viewing. Since this applies to all lenses and prisms surfaces, the resulting improvement in performance is highly noticeable. Lens coatings also affect resolution, CA and all other optical factors.
Binoculars come in several coating classifications: Single-coating and Multi-coating.
Single Layer coating:
In this type of coating, the surfaces of lens and prisms are coated with a single layer of anti-reflective chemical, usually Magnesium Fluoride (MgF2). These can be further classified into Coated or Fully Coated, in which the prior category means at least one glass-to-air surface in the binocular is coated, while in the Fully Coated classification, all glass-to-air surfaces are coated.
Binoculars that feature multiple coatings of chemicals fall into this category. The coating usually has 3 to 5 layers and can effectively minimize reflected light that otherwise cannot be reduced by single-layered coating. Multi-coated lenses ensure an improved transmittance of light, therefore, observers can experience clear and sharped images with better contrast levels. Binoculars with multiple coated glasses cost considerably more and they are generally targeted towards individuals that require ultra-bright and sharp images. Some examples of lens multi-coatings are Zeiss’s T* Coating, Steiner’s Diamond-night, Swarovski’s SWAROTOP, Celestron’s StarBright XLT.
Apart from the aforementioned coatings, high-end binoculars also feature water and dirt-repellent coatings, such as AquaDura, RainGuard HD, Nano-Protection, SWARODUR, and SWAROCLEAN, to shield the lenses against external fogging and dirt. These coatings are very effective in stopping water droplets from forming on the surface of lenses, which indirectly prevents dirt from sticking onto the glass surface.
In addition to multi-coated lenses, state-of-the-art binoculars also feature multiple coatings on prisms to enhance their optical performance.
Phase Correction Coating:
This coating is applied specifically on prisms to correct the phase of the incident light. Prisms, especially roof prisms, have more than 5 reflective surfaces and when light enters the prisms, it gets reflected inside the prism several times before it travels through the set of eyepiece lenses into the observer’s eyes. By reflecting multiple times, the light usually loses its phase, or in simple words, the colors in the light will result in the fringing of colors and appear to be overlapping. This phenomenon is also known as chromatic aberration. The phase correction coating minimizes chromatic aberration to produce consistent sharp images.
Silver Mirror Coating:
The silver coating is also applied to the reflective surfaces of the prisms for improving internal reflection. This coting improves the prism reflectivity to more than 95%, which results in brighter images.
Gone are the days when people had no choice but to use bulky Porro prism binoculars. Although Porro prism binoculars are cheaper, the newest Schmidt-Pechan roof prism binoculars have made life easier for everyone with their compactness and small weight. However, the advantages come at a cost. Binoculars with roof prisms are expensive due to the intricate manufacturing processes required to shape glass into specific angles.
In recent years, some manufacturers have begun to replace the Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms with Abbe-Koenig prisms due to their high light transmittance. Zeiss and Noblex/Docter/Zeiss Jena were both however producing binoculars with Abbe-Koenig prism since decades, other are following now (Swarovski, Vortex). They are more complex than conventional roof prisms and therefore, require precise production methods to obtain the right angle measurements. Binoculars with Abbe-Koenig cost significantly more than binoculars with other prism-configurations.
Every prominent sport optics manufacturer has a binoculars series that comes with a range-finding mechanism. This is especially true for binoculars that are aimed at wild game hunting and surveillance experts. Nearly all range-finding binoculars make the use of laser technology to measure the distance of objects from the observer.
Most contemporary binoculars even measure the angles at which an object is positioned, which paints the complete picture of how far an object is. Such capabilities are also needed for all balistic calculations Although extremely useful for specific users, the range-finding feature is a costly addition to the overall price of the binoculars. The average price range of binoculars with this feature is between 1,500€ and 3,500€.
Marine Navigation Compass
Binoculars are an extremely important tool for marine navigation, island sightseeing, and whale observation. In the past, this was achieved by the use of telescopes, but today's ships are equipped with binoculars with large objectives for bright images.
It is difficult to assess the direction when there is no landmark reference in deep waters, therefore, skippers rely on a compass for assistance with navigation in the sea. Many marine binoculars have a waterproof compass feature that enables ship and boat voyagers to effectively measure the clockwise angle between the North and landmark objects observed from their vessel. This information can be used to approximate the position of their vessel in the sea.
Quality of Glass material
The key to improving the optical performance of binoculars is to opt for high-quality glass material for the manufacturing of optics components, such as prisms and lenses. The nature of glass plays an important role in effectively transmitting the light from the objective lenses to the eyepiece lenses. While affordable binoculars may feature cheap glass, popular optics manufacturers like Leica, Zeiss, and Swarovski use German-made fluoride-induced glass for the manufacturing of lenses and prisms. This ensures (together with high quality coatings) that at least 96% of the light is transmitted through the objective lenses to the eyes of the observer. Most manufacturers use ED glass, such as NBK or BK7, for manufacturing objective and eyepiece lenses.
BAK-4 is a kind of high-density glass that is used within the roof and Porro prisms. This glass is capable of generating circular exit pupil in binoculars, instead of the older non-circular and squared-off exit pupils in conventional binoculars.
Longer Eye relief
A big percentage of the Earth’s population wears eyeglasses. In the past, binoculars were designed in such a way the observer could put his eyes as close as possible to the eyepiece to get the perfect viewing. This minimum distance between the eyes and the eyepiece is called the Eye Point or Eye Relief. Since eyeglasses will occupy some space between the eyepiece and the eyes, the observer will experience a vignette effect around the object that is viewed through the binoculars.
To counter this issue, modern binoculars feature specialized eyepieces that contain more than three or four ocular lenses. The combined effect of the lenses substantially increases the eye relief of binoculars, which enables eyeglasses wearers to use binoculars without cropped viewing. Binoculars with longer eye relief cost more.
Premium binoculars with longer eye relief feature retracting eyecups on the eyepiece lenses to accommodate both eyeglass wearers and non-wearers. Those wearing eyeglasses can fully retract the eyecups by either twisting or snapping the eyecups while non-eyeglass wearers need to extend the eyecups in the same way. The extended eyecups can also be used to rest the binoculars on the face to provide extra stability during precise observation. Like other features on the list, adjustable eyecups add to the overall cost of binoculars, especially twisting ones that last forever.
Shockproof Rubber Armor
Most binoculars feature an ergonomic and non-slip rubber cover on the metal housing to provide a comfortable grip to the user. This allows the binoculars to be used for a long time without unwanted discomfort in addition to a strong grip which protects the binoculars from potential damage caused by accidental falls on hard surfaces.
As binoculars become more popular, fans have come up with several innovative uses for them. Nowadays, all hunting, camping, and sightseeing trips are incomplete without a reliable set of binoculars. Sometimes these trips with friends and family last for an entire day and carrying standard-sized binoculars with both hands for longer periods can become cumbersome for some users.
In recent years, several optics manufacturers have incorporated an open-bridge design in their high-end binoculars that enable users to hold their devices comfortably at the center even with one hand. Notable products with this feature include Leica Noctivid, Noblex Vector, Leupold Santiam, and Kahles Helia binoculars. The first such binoculars on the market were Swarovski EL.
Close Focus is the minimum distance at which a pair of binoculars can focus on an object. While binoculars are made to observe distant objects that are otherwise difficult to see with the naked eye, outdoorsmen occasionally use it to observe objects that are comparatively nearer.
This would be impossible to do with a conventional set of binoculars, but many brands offer binoculars with small close focus distances nowadays which contain specialized optics that make it possible to observe objects that are not very far. This feature has become quite relevant in recent years and you will see “Close Focus” as a parameter alongside the field of view and magnification in most product listings. Production of binoculars with extremely short close focus distances is very expensive and some manufacturers take advantage of this fact when they try to lower the price of their binoculars. Swarovski used this aproach with the last generation of EL binoculars. They lower the price of binoculars in this series in 2020 and the only physical difference between current and previous generation was longer close focusing distance. They did the same with the last generation of SLC binoculars.
In addition to features and quality of material, high manufacturing and labor costs are also the reason behind the high prices of binoculars these days. Binoculars and other optics products are extremely sensitive devices which require highly trained labor and specialized machinery to be manufactured. The labor includes glass workers, tool designers, machine operators, assembly workers, and quality control inspectors. Cost incresease is also the consequence of much strickter (thus more expensive) environmental regulations in EU.
Presently, a large number of optics manufacturers are based out of Europe and the US. Since the minimum wage and production costs are relatively higher in these regions, binoculars produced there are subsequently expensive, which is justified. These binoculars are often branded with “Made in Germany” or “Made in Austria” and people buy them for this very reason. Although such devices appeal many, in reality, they are at the same time also out of reach for many.
To lower down manufacturing costs and consequently the prices, many optics manufacturers in Europe and the US have started working on the outsourcing business model. They have successfully outsourced the manufacturing of affordable binoculars to Japan, China, and Vietnam.
This move has enabled even the premium brands to set the prices for their affordable and entry-level products in a way that they become accessible to everyone. While most US companies operate this way, many Germany-based manufacturers are still considering it. Swarovski and Leica still produce all their binoculars in Europe, while Ziess, Steiner and Kahles do outsource some of their more afordable series of binoculars. It should not surprise users if they see a gradual decline in the prices of binoculars in the future.
Since their inception in the 1600s by Hans Lippershey, binoculars have evolved over the centuries to include numerous features that add to their optical performance, comfort, and longevity thanks to the continuous technological advancement. Modern binoculars are much more than their older counterparts. Contemporary binos feature laser rangefinders, waterproof and weatherproof construction, marine compass, multi-layer nano-coatings, strong metal constructions, high performing optics, non-slip rubber armor, and adjustable eyecups.
The variety of features, low-light performance, and improved construction is the reason why binoculars from notable manufacturers like Leica, Zeiss, Nikon, and Swarovski are priced much higher than binoculars from other brands. While cheap binoculars might sound like a great idea to beginners, the truth is experienced users always opt for the best binoculars available in the market, and it is no surprise that they come at a high price. The cheaper alternatives do not just lack valuable features, but they are also considered unreliable for use in demanding situations, such as hunting or sea navigation.
Experts urge potential customers to buy the best binoculars available since it is not uncommon for premium binoculars to last for a lifetime. Additionally, well-known brands listed above provide lifetime warranty for all of their devices, which makes them the perfect choice for all kinds of users, and not just experts.