Binoculars mean the difference between seeing a little gray bird and identifying a mallard, cheering for a home run and seeing the epic catch, or realizing that the 10-point buck is actually a doe standing in front of dead branches.
Whether you’re exploring the grounds, bird watching in your backyard, or getting Fenway season tickets, binoculars bring the world closer, making it sharp and clear far beyond what your eye can see. Finding the right binoculars means first figuring out what you’ll be using them for. If you just want to see some birds at your backyard feeder and maybe overcome the limitations of cheap seats at the ballpark, there’s no need to spend a fortune. On the other hand, if you plan to go birding in multiple locations or plan a big hunt in unfamiliar territory, it’s often worth the extra money to get something a little more powerful.
Be sure to check out our other guides, such as The Best Gear to Make Your Backyard More Fun, The Best Hiking Gear, and How a Bird Feeder Can Bring You Joy.
Updated August 2022: Added Fujinon 14×40 Techno-Stabi Stabilized Binoculars, Nikon Coolshot Pro II Stabilized Rangefinders, Nocs 8×42 Binoculars and Nikon Monarch 10×42 Model, as well as updated prices throughout.
Table of contents
- Better overall
- Better high power
- Best Compact
- Best for kids
- Best for special use cases
- What do the model numbers mean?
- Why the high price tags?
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What do the model numbers mean?
Binoculars usually come in two number specifications; for example, the Nikon Monarch M5s are 8×42.
The number 8 refers to the magnification power. Objects seen through these binoculars will be eight times larger than when viewed with the naked eye. Newcomers should stick with 6x or 8x. They have enough power that you’ll see things clearly, but they don’t zoom in so much that you’ll struggle to find what you want to see or have trouble tracking fast-moving objects (although all binoculars take some practice).
The 42 refers to the size of the front lens in millimeters. The larger the lens size, the more light reaches your eye. This means the image will be bigger, brighter and clearer. A pair of 8×42 binoculars is often significantly brighter and a better viewing experience than a pair of 8×32 binoculars, even though both provide the same magnification. But the bigger it is, the more glass they’ll use, so they’ll weigh more. The weight difference between 8×32 and 10×42 binoculars is significant if you carry them around all day. We suggest sticking with the 26-50 range. Our top pick is roughly in the middle, at 8×42, generally considered the sweet spot for most people.
Nikon’s Monarch 5 binoculars were my first “real” binoculars. Years later, their updated M5 is my top pick for most people just starting out. These offer great returns and the 8×42 magnification is the most versatile. It’s not just me either. Here are some of the most common binoculars I see when I’m birding.
The Monarch M5s strike an excellent balance between optical power, quality and price. The glass on these offers nice, bright views with very little chromatic aberration (the distortions or fringing sometimes seen around objects in sunlight).