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The Cornell Lab Evaluation: Reasonably priced Full-Dimension 8×42 Binoculars 


We reviewed two dozen pairs of 8×42 binoculars—a popular, versatile choice for most kinds of birdwatching. Here’s what we learned.

Image by Hugh Powell.

It’s one of the most common questions birdwatchers hear: What kind of binoculars should I buy? And it’s hard to give a blanket answer: with hundreds of models at price ranges from under $100 to more than $3,000, the market can be bewildering.

But the good news is that today’s binocular market is full of great-performing options. Even fairly low price points can deliver bright, crisp images, a comfortable feel, and generous field of view.

With such a crowded field, we didn’t attempt an across-the-board survey and instead focused on 24 models of 8×42 binoculars—the most popular and versatile binocular style of the last couple of decades.

Recognizing that many birdwatchers are on a budget, we aimed this review at two affordable price tiers: $130-$250 (Budget); and $250-$650 (Mid-Range). In coming weeks, we’ll be posting additional review details and mini-reviews of each pair we tried out. (We’ll continue to roll out reviews that cover segments of the market including premium, compact, pocket, other affordable models we missed in this review, and more.)

With many of today’s binoculars delivering great image quality at these prices, your choice also depends on ergonomics (such as weight, focus wheel, barrel size, eyecups); and how you plan to use them (such as watching feeder birds vs. birding in dim light or at greater distances).

See The Top-Level Results in One Graph 

This graph shows our ratings and the list price of each binocular in our review. Our ratings were conducted without respect to price, so binocular ratings are comparable across price tiers. (For our review and analysis methods, see the end of this article.)

As a caveat, remember that binocular rankings are inherently subjective. We do everything we can to make them objective—multiple testers, clear ranking criteria, data analysis—but people’s needs and preferences differ in ways that no single number can capture perfectly. So don’t worry too much about exactly where each binocular sits on the graph, and be sure to try out multiple pairs.

Hover over each point to bring up details about the binoculars.   

The rating score is a combination of the binoculars’ image quality and ergonomics or feel (see Review Methods at the end of this article). Binocular prices vary through time and from retailer to retailer. For consistency, we quote prices as MSRP as of Dec 2022. Note that the MSRP of Hawke Nature-Trek is $209 and Celestron Nature DX ED is $210; in the graph the prices are slightly different in order to make the two points easier to see.

Overall Top Picks

A brown and gray Bohemian Waxwing bird perches with pink and red berries
Bohemian Waxwing by Sunny Zhang/Macaulay Library.

These are all binoculars with bright, detailed images as well as good balance and easy adjustment of the focus wheel. The Celestron TrailSeeker ED is our overall top pick, and the Opticron Oregon is notable for being the only model in the Budget tier to make the group. In short, all these binoculars were a blast to go birding with.  

  • Celestron TrailSeeker ED ($380)
  • 2-way tie: Nikon Monarch M7 ($489), Kowa BDII ED ($449)
  • Nikon Monarch M5 ($290)
  • Celestron TrailSeeker ($300)
  • Hawke Frontier ED X ($549)
  • Opticron Oregon 4 PC Oasis ($219)

Where Budget Binoculars Shine ($130–$250)

A group of yellow and black male Evening Grosbeaks on a bird feeder.
Evening Grosbeaks by Alan Sankey/Macaulay Library.

Budget tier binoculars are especially good in situations such as watching bird feeders. Birds are at medium to close range, out in the open, not moving around too much, and generally in strong light. If this describes your typical birdwatching setup, there may be no clear reason to spend more. 

Here’s how we rated the 8 binoculars in the Budget tier (highest to lowest):

  • Opticron Oregon 4 PC Oasis ($219)
  • 2-way tie: Celestron Nature DX ED ($210), Hawke Nature-Trek ($209)
  • Nikon ProStaff P7 ($190)
  • 3-way tie: Vanguard VEO ED ($200), Vortex Crossfire HD ($190), Nikon ProStaff P3 ($140)
  • Meade Canyonview ED ($200)

Move Up to Mid-Range For These Reasons ($250-$650)

A gray and yellow Golden-crowned Kinglet bird in a bush with red-orange berries.
Golden-crowned Kinglet by Jason Jablonski/Macaulay Library.

The Mid-Range tier typically offers binoculars that are sharp most or all the way across the image, handle challenging light, have a wider field of view, and focus smoothly and quickly. If you find yourself looking at birds in the distance, peering into backlit treetops, tracking birds as they flit through cluttered spaces, or needing to change focus in an instant, then spending a bit more is likely to make a noticeable improvement and leave you more satisfied. Note that in general, higher-priced binoculars do have better image quality, but there is variation—so check our recommendations. 

Here’s how we rated the 15 binoculars in the Mid-Range tier (highest to lowest):

  • Celestron TrailSeeker ED ($380)
  • 2-way tie: Nikon Monarch M7 ($489), Kowa BDII ED ($449)
  • 3-way tie: Nikon Monarch M5 ($290), Celestron TrailSeeker ($300), Hawke Frontier ED X ($549)
  • 3-way tie: Maven C1 ($400), Vanguard Endeavor ED IV ($620), Vortex Viper HD ($640)
  • Vortex Diamondback HD ($290)
  • 2-way tie: Opticron Explorer WA ED-R ($355), Zeiss Terra ED ($449)
  • Kowa SV II ($259)
  • Celestron Regal ED ($390)
  • Bushnell Forge ($459)
  • Meade MasterClass Pro ED ($459)

How to Choose: Try Before You Buy, and Ask These Questions  

In years past, choosing binoculars was largely a matter of zeroing in on the relatively few models that delivered premium image quality. Nowadays, image quality can be astoundingly good, leaving room for ergonomics and build quality to be equally important considerations.

Our #1 tip is to try as many binoculars as you can before you buy. Because ergonomics have such an effect, there’s really no substitute for feeling them in your hand, twirling the focus knob, and evaluating how well the image fills your eyes as you look at a bird. It can be hard to find stores that carry a wide range of binoculars to try; we suggest specialty stores like Wild Birds Unlimited, or bird festivals where a wide range of binocular companies will set up booths. (There’s also the option of striking up a conversation on a bird walk, asking your fellow birders how they like theirs, and possibly even swapping for a few minutes.)

As you’re trying out binoculars, ask yourself these questions to dial in on the best pair for you:

  • How does the focus wheel feel?
  • Is there enough field of view?  
  • Do the binoculars immerse you in the scene?
  • How are the weight and balance?
  • Are the eyecups right for you?
  • Do you like the accessories?
  • Does the manufacturer’s warranty provide enough coverage?

For more on each of these questions, see our full article on how to choose binoculars you’ll love.

Review METHODS 

Reviewing binoculars is inherently subjective, while the goal of reviews is to be as objective as possible. For this review we combined the two approaches: Our ratings are based on qualitative evaluations of binocular performance as well as a quantitative analysis of ratings from a wide range of people. 

Quantitative:  Over the course of several weeks, 75 people participated in 280 head-to-head tests between two pairs of binoculars. Testers included novice, intermediate, and expert birders ranging in age from 8 to 83 and including men, women, and nonbinary people. After using and comparing two arbitrarily chosen binoculars for 5–10 minutes, testers recorded which pair they preferred in terms of image quality, comfort/feel, and build quality. They also recorded which pair was their overall favorite of the two. While these were not blind tests, testers referred to each pair of binoculars using a two-letter code to minimize any brand-recognition bias. The price levels were not disclosed to any of the testers.  

We then asked a Cornell Lab colleague, Dr. Eliot Miller, to analyze the results using a method that would give each binocular an overall ranking relative to the others. Even though each pair wasn’t tested against every other pair, the hundreds of head-to-head tests enabled us to have high confidence that our final rankings would reflect the overall preferences of our testers. (Miller had previously used this same analysis technique to identify a dominance hierarchy among more than 100 species that visit bird feeders.)   

Qualitative:  Following the head-to-head tests, the two authors of this review spent over 50 hours doing deep-dive field tests on each individual pair. This allowed us to put each binocular through its paces—how did they perform over the course of an extended birding session? Did the physical elements hold up? How did they perform in low light, while looking at backlit objects, or while trying to track a bird that was moving through a brushy area? How easy or comfortable were they to carry, hold, and focus? The extended time we spent with each model helped us fine-tune the quantitative testing, and to clarify the strengths and weaknesses of each individual pair.  

Final Ratings: Our final ratings used the quantitative analysis as a starting point. But we recognize that birdwatchers have differing needs and preferences that are impossible to represent with a single number that applies across the board. To arrive at our final ratings we incorporated observations from our in-depth reviews. We also compressed the numerical scale to avoid giving an exaggerated impression of quality differences among what is a relatively tight field.  

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Susanna Lawson and Justin Cleveland for contacting optics companies and handling the details of optics loans. Thanks to the optics companies for loaning us binoculars for the duration of the review. Thanks to Eliot Miller for the data analysis. And thank you to the many Lab staff and members of the public who volunteered their time to try out binoculars and provide ratings.

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