Scope Views’ Best Buys 2021
Here are my best buys for 2021, sifted from many recent reviews, some ongoing. I update this from time to time to reflect recent product releases and new reviews.
Note: Click on the image for any bino/scope to go to the full review.
Best Buy Premium Birding / Nature Viewing Binoculars
Swarovski NL Pure
I’ve avoided this category until now because I’ve been seriously conflicted. On the one hand, Zeiss 10x42 SFs had the best overall performance of any birding binocular I’d tested. Trouble was, the build quality of my sample was terrible and I’ve seen other recent Zeiss the same. If pressed, I’ve been recommending the older Swarovski EL SVs, knowing that the Zeiss were better in some areas.
Now, though, no such conflict because Swarovski’s new top-line NL Pure range have Swarovski quality but with all the performance and more of the SFs (apart from weight). Specifically, they have a super wide, flat, bright detailed view, a really superb focuser, lots of eye relief and a comfy hold. Their only ‘fault’ is a touch of veiling flare under some conditions.
So the SW NL Pure is the best birding binocular I’ve tested, but they are expensive. Still, if you just want the best experience and view, cost no object, the NL Pures are my best buy. I’ve only tested the 8x42 and 12x42 models, but you can safely assume the 10x42s will be excellent if you prefer a 10x binocular.
Between the 8x42 and the 12x42, I actually prefer the 12x model. Why? Because for once it comes with no downsides – view and handling and eyepiece comfort are the same, but the 12x42s take you closer and have a slightly flatter and wider apparent field.
I do still really like the ELs as a cheaper choice. I really like Zeiss’ SFs too, but make sure you can return them if you get a duff pair like the ones I tested.
Best Buy Mid-Price Birding / Nature Viewing Binoculars
Leica Trinovid HD 10x42 or Zeiss Conquest HD 10x42
The newer Leica Trinovids do almost everything well. They have a great view from HD optics, comfortable eyepieces with plenty of relief for glasses wearers and a comfy hold. They are light too, focus close and have an excellent focuser. The only downsides are a bit more field-edge softening and false colour than some.
Their European build quality (made in Portugal) is almost embarrassingly good – much like Leica’s premium models in fact. The icing on the cake is that their price is currently very reasonable – lower than the Zeiss Conquests or Nikon Monarch HGs.
If only things were that simple. My recent review of Zeiss’ 10x42 Conquest HDs found them every bit as recommendable overall, but for different reasons. With the Conquests, it’s all about the view – wide, bright, sharp, well corrected and immersive with just a little less false colour than the Leica’s. But in terms of build and mechanical quality, weight and size and handling, I still prefer the Trinovids. Which you choose will depend on your preferences (and more prosaically maybe current deals) – try both!
Best Buy Budget Birding / Nature Viewing Binoculars
Nikon Monarch 5 10x42
These binoculars seem to be a bit of an exception to the rule that you get what you pay for. Online you can get them for as little as £250, yet the view is very comparable with the next price bracket up which includes budget models from premium brands at over twice the price.
On the upside, these are very light weight, well made and give a bright, sharp view. The Monarchs use ED glass to kill false colour and do it as effectively as almost any binocular I have tested. They handle well, have good eye relief for specs-wearers and a smooth focuser too. They work well for birding, but very acceptably for casual astronomy as well.
The only downsides to the Nikon Monarch 5 10x42s are that they have a narrow field of view and a bit of astigmatism at the edges; but overall, they are an excellent binocular from a quality brand for a modest outlay.
Best Buy Astronomy Binoculars
Canon 12x36 ISIII
You want high-power binoculars for finding and enjoying brighter DSOs and for quick looks at Luna or keeping track of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, but you don’t want to pay thousands. What do you buy? Well, I can tell you what I’ve bought - Canon’s 12x36 IS IIIs (not the older ISIIs, yes it makes a difference). Many cheaper high power binos are a bit compromised optically or mechanically, which usually means bad for astronomy. But these Canons have truly excellent optics, a smooth accurate focuser, decent eye relief for glasses wearers and a very light weight of about 700g with batteries.
All those things alone would make them good value, but the killer feature is of course image stabilisation. In this latest version (IS III) it just works ... and then some. Not only does this give you amazingly detailed views of the Moon, but wonderful deep sky performance too, despite the modest aperture. Even more surprisingly, planets too – I had great views of the recent Jupiter/Saturn conjunction with both planets clearly and distinctly resolved, Saturn with its handle-shaped rings.
They may be just 36mm aperture, but the stabilisation allows them to outperform good 12x50s for astronomy in many ways. The main downside is too much false colour for some terrestrial uses (birds on the wing, or nature viewing over bright water or snow), but that’s not an issue for astronomy at this magnification.
Yes, I know they’re a piece of consumer electronics, but if you want outstanding astronomy performance for a sensible price, these are my top pick.
Best Buy Conventional High-Power Astronomy Binoculars
Swarovski 15x56 SLC HD or Vortex Razor 18x56 UHD
These two models share my recommendation for the best available hand-held non-stabilised astronomy binoculars. But in both cases, only if you can handle their weight and high-power shakes – try before you buy. Both do work well on a tripod too, but the adapter is extra in both cases and there are cheaper good bino’s for use mounted.
Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs were my once my absolute favourites for astronomy. Technically, the 15x56 SLC HDs are some of the best binoculars I have ever tested, period, with a wide flat field and outstanding correction for false colour as well as very sharp optics and good eye relief. Their astronomy performance is astoundingly good if you can hold them steady – they will find things 10x50s just won’t and they cut through sky glow better too.
The Vortex Razor 18x56 UHDs were launched more recently. They are slightly less perfect than the SLCs: they have a bit more field edge softening and quite a lot more false colour. However, their view is otherwise every bit as brilliant and detailed, whilst that extra power does give them even more reach for deep sky. On the Moon they offer detail to rival a small telescope. What’s more, their unusual flared-barrel design makes them very easy to hold steady.
Runner up is Zeiss’ 15x56 Conquest HD. The Zeiss remain a great binocular, but the Swaros are smaller, better made and have a better corrected field and a brighter view, whilst the Vortex offer more power and are slightly lighter and comfier to hold. If you want the high magnification but not the shakes, Canon’s venerable 18x50 image stabilising binoculars are worth trying.
Best Buy Travel Binoculars
Swarovski 10x30 CL Companion Field Pro
All change this year. I used to recommend Zeiss’ excellent 8x32 Victory FLs, but they are now very expensive and in some ways the world has moved on.
If you want a pair of ‘proper’ binoculars for that special trip (or maybe lots of special trips) it’s going to have to be small and light or you’ll end up tossing it out of the case to make room for more underwear. I know, I’ve been there.
So, which is the smallest and lightest proper binocular that gives a really great view? My answer is now Swarovski’s updated Companions. The old version was lacklustre, but the new Field Pro edition is much like any other Swarovski – excellent.
They really are tiny and light, just under 500g on my scales and actually pocketable (I’ve carried them for long walks in a pocket). Before, such small size meant compromises, but not now. The Companions have a decently wide, bright field, sharp to the edge and with high resolution and excellent false colour suppression.
Make no mistake, the 30mm objectives make them far more functional than 10x25s – you can use them in lower light and they work for casual astronomy too (a great feature because travel often takes you to really dark skies). Better astronomy performance and more reach for events is why I’ve picked the 10x version, but you might prefer the wider, steadier view of the 8x model.
Competition? Not really in a Premium binocular. Nikon’s 10x30 Monarch 7s are similar and cheaper to buy, but likely not cheaper to own. How so? If you drop the Companions, Swarovski will fix them quickly and for a modest sum. My experience of trying to get Nikon gear fixed hasn’t been good. Meanwhile, if you want to upgrade in five years, the SWs will hold their value better too.
My old pick, Zeiss’ 8x32 FLs, are still great, but heavier and much more expensive at current street prices. I still love Nikon’s 8x30 EIIs for a more traditional, non-waterproof alternative and old-fashioned optics repairers can easily fix them.
Best Buy Travel ‘Scope for Eclipses
Takahashi FS-60Q or Questar Standard 3.5
Lunar eclipse through Takahashi FS-60Q.
The FS-60Q is a tiny portable quadruplet refractor. It is basically an FS-60 (an F6 fluorite doublet) with a special doublet 1.7x extender called the ‘CQ Module’ threaded into the OTA.
The result is superb small apochromat with a very well corrected and flat field covering a 44mm image circle (in other words you get a flat, well-illuminated field across a full-frame sensor). The extender also removes most residual aberrations, so the FS-60Q works at very high magnifications and image scales for its size.
All that makes the FS-60Q a super-sharp 600mm telephoto lens for fantastic photos of the Moon that belie its small size; it works brilliantly as a visual instrument too. It packs up into a tiny carry-on bag and will fit on the smallest mount. So it’s ideal for travelling to eclipses – both Solar and Lunar.
You can either buy the FS-60Q as a complete scope (see above), or just get the thread-in CQ module to upgrade an existing FS-60.
Since I started recommending the FS-60Q for eclipses, Takahashi have brought out another 60mm ‘Q’ telescope, the FOA-60Q. I love the FOA-60Q, so why aren’t I recommending it instead?
Although the FOA-60Q does have slightly better correction than the FS-60Q, along with larger image scale, it is significantly longer, heavier, more expensive and slower at F15.
The reason this category has two best buys is that the FS-60Q is just a telescope, whilst Questar is a complete package in a way nothing else is: a tiny carry on case that contains ‘scope, finder, mount, drive, star and Moon maps, eyepiece, barlow lens and a white-light solar filter. No, it’s not cheap, but nothing else comes close to its functionality as a travel scope. That case contains everything you need (except maybe for a camera adapter).
Optically, Questar is a long-focus Maksutov, so it’s not nearly as flexible as the FS-60Q for imaging, though perfect for eclipses.
Best Buy 3” Refractor
The FC-76 replaced Takahashi’s superb-but-big FS-78. It is lightweight, very well corrected and good for high power visual use as well as imaging (the field is surprisingly flat, even without a reducer/flattener). If you want a basic flattener, Tak’ make a cheap-but-good multi-flattener that will cover full frame and work with any other Tak’s you might own.
The FC-76 now comes in two versions; optics are the same:
· The FC-76DS weighs about 3kg and has a sliding dew-shield for maximum compactness; it looks like a Sky-90 and shares its 95mm O.D. tube and focuser
· The FC-76DCU is cheaper, has a fixed dew-shield and 80mm O.D. tube and the smaller FS-60 focuser. It is longer than the DS, but only weighs a paltry 1.8 Kg
Crucially, the DCU splits in half for easy carry-on portability and gets the nod from me.
You could get an FC-76DCU in three ways:
· Buy the FC-76DCU as a complete product
· Buy the FC-76 objective unit to upgrade an existing FS-60C
· Create a complete split-tube FC-76 from the objective unit using a third party focuser like a Feather Touch and the FS-60C to CB conversion tube:
Best Buy 4” Refractor
Takahashi’s 100mm equivalent of the FC-76 is another excellent Tak’. The FC-100D is a fluorite doublet and though it’s not quite as well corrected as the discontinued TSA-102 triplet, it is pretty good, with low false colour, a flat field and good coverage (hence the ‘D’ for Digital tag). So the FC-100D is great for imaging, with various reducers available but still good without. Surprisingly, it also works very well for high powered visual use too.
There are now four versions of the FC-100D, but unless you need the DF’s imaging focuser or the DZ’s perfect correction, get the FC-100DC – it is light, cheapish, portable and great.
Best Buy Budget Refractor
Sky-Watcher Evostar 100ED
This is easy. The Sky-Watcher 100ED Pro has excellent optics with minimal CA and a smooth dual-speed focuser. It is a proper 4” apochromat, so shows a lot more than smaller scopes, even premium ones. Yet it’s available for a very modest price, much less than the 120ED. It’s light-weight too, so you can mount it on an EQ5. And you can get a cheap reducer for imaging.
The main downsides are its length, compared with say an FC-100DC, and slightly lower performance at high magnifications.