Leica 12x50 Ultravid HD Review

These two pairs of 12x50s are both superb binoculars, but the ones on the left cost almost four times as much.

I really like binocular astronomy. Despite the absurd number of scopes I own, I am often happiest trawling the skies with a good pair of binos. For me, though, binocular astronomy means hand-held, because the way I like to do it is to wander around my garden and driveway, looking for glare free views and new vistas of sky to explore. All this means I have long been searching for the perfect hand-held astronomy binoculars.

Some of the best views I’ve had were with a pair of Minox 15x58s, but ultimately these were too heavy (about 1.5 kg) and the right barrel was a bit soft and vague in focusing, which annoyed me. My search continued.

A few years back I bought a used pair of Nikon 10x42 SEs and liked them so much that a pair of the 12x50s soon followed.  To date these have been my favourite astro binos. They don’t go quite as deep as the Minox, but they are light, sharp, contrasty and generally excellent with a very flat field and the eye relief I need for use with glasses (I can’t entertain a glass which require me to take my glasses off to view).  The Nikons offer stunning views of everything from the moon to DSOs and clusters.

Then the opportunity came up to buy a new pair of Leica Ultravid HD 12x50s at much less than list. I’d always wondered about the “Alpha” binos, and here was my chance to find out and compare them with the Nikons.

Design and Build

Nikon 12x50 SE

 

The Nikons are a classic porro prism design, but with modern rubber armour and a very high build quality, but the Nikons aren’t as chic-looking as the Leicas, if that bothers you (no, me neither, well not much anyhow). The magnesium body gives them a low weight (900g), although they are a traditional “big” porro glass. The coatings are some of the best I’ve ever seen, with only the dimmest reflections (the coatings are different and even better than the 10x42s for some reason). The inside of the objective barrels are ridged and everything is painted in super-matt black. The eyepieces are a large multi-element design and have lots of eye relief, but have old-fashioned folding cups. The field of view is stated as 5 degrees. Focusing is via the normal porro centre-wheel. These are not waterproof.  The Nikons have a nice leather case.

Leica

This, the latest incarnation of the Ultravid, is one of the most expensive binoculars around.  A roof prism glass, it is remarkably slim and compact for an armoured 12x50, but despite a magnesium body it weighs in at about 1050g (150g more than the Nikons).  The coatings are supposed to be hydrophobic and super durable; they are an unusual tobacco-colour. Leica make a big fuss about these coatings, but they are very obviously not as transmissive as the Nikons’, showing brighter reflections. Overall build quality is superb, as you would expect, and this is the first binocular I have seen with knife-edge baffles behind the lenses, like an APO refractor.  Focus is smooth and swift, but not as good as my 10 year old Nikon 8x32 LXs. The FOV is super-wide at 5.7 degrees, but eye relief is tight at 13mm. Leica claim to use high-fluoride glass for better control of CA and these contain no less than 11 lenses per side! These are claimed to be (and doubtless are, I didn’t try it!) fully waterproof to 5m. The Leicas have a rather cheap cordura case (surely they could throw in a leather one for this kind of cash).

Leica HD on the left, Nikon SE on the right.

In Use - Daytime

In use under bright daytime conditions the views from both 12x50s are remarkably similar at first glance.  The Leica has a noticeably wider field, but the field loses sharpness at about 75% width.  The Nikons’ field is almost perfectly flat and sharp to the edge. Centre field on the Leicas is absolutely sharp and super-detailed, though. The eye relief on the Leicas is just about enough for me to use with glasses, but not nearly as comfortable as the Nikons. With glasses on, the useable field of the Nikons is actually larger due to the generous eye relief. Both binoculars offer lovely bright, sharp views with just a hint of chromatic aberration around the feathers of a flock of crows in silhouette against a bright sky.

A bit more on the subject of chromatic aberration is in order here. CA control on both pairs under review is better than in most binos, but as a benchmark, my NP101 at the same magnification on the same flock of crows appears totally CA free.  Does this matter? Yes! The NP101 delivers more detail of the crows’ feathers than either binocular because the CA bleeds over and robs contrast. I find myself wondering why, with FL glass and 11 lenses (think NP101 plus Nagler), Leica couldn’t have cured this completely and gotten a flat field and decent eye relief to boot.

I am about to call the optical quality a draw when I notice a pair of crows fighting over a rotten apple in the field opposite. The Leicas offer the sharpest, most detailed view and I don’t want to put them down. There is no doubt: more detail in the feathers and a crisper look overall. Careful testing with the binocs, supported to avoid shake, tends to confirm this impression: the Leicas have (by a very small margin) the sharper optics and probably deliver just a bit more resolution. However, attempts to formalise this by viewing bar codes and text at distance failed and it may even be an illusion caused by the flatter field of the Nikons.

Handling

The Leicas feel small and slim, handling is more like a pair of regular 10x42 roofs, nothing like the Minox 15x58 monsters. The Nikons handle well too and are noticeably lighter, but need gripping around the barrels to reduce shaking at 12x.  I notice that the focus on the Nikons is much slower and stiffer (by the way, If you think this is inevitable for porros, try a pair of 1950s Zeiss Oberkochen).  I also notice that the Leicas have a real snap to the focus the way a fine APO does, on both barrels; the Nikon slightly less so. The focus action on the Leicas is good and superior to the Nikon SEs, but not up to the Nikon LXs, however I understand the Leicas are grease-free and will work down to very low temperatures. I’m not keen on the dioptre adjustment on the Leicas, again I prefer the click ring on the LXs.

Irrelevant for astronomy, it’s worth noting that The Leicas focus very close for such a powerful glass: I can focus in on a big print of Chesley Bonestell’s “Saturn seen From Titan” on my study wall and imagine I was there. The image still merges perfectly. Very cool, but not worth paying the extra for!

As an aside, the folding eye cups on the Nikons are a pain, especially if you want to share them (as I do) with someone who doesn’t wear glasses.

In Use - The Night Sky

Again the two pairs perform very equally and careful comparison is required to split them.  The Leicas have slightly tighter images on bright planets – Jupiter and Mars – with almost perfectly clean disks and little spiking or flare. The Nikons show just a touch of spiking on Jupiter, but this seemingly slightly poorer performance could be due to their greater light throughput. Both are able to pick out the Galilean moons in a twilight sky.  Both show detail on the moon even in full daylight. In other words, both binoculars deliver superb contrast.

The one area in which the Leicas clearly excel is stray light and ghosting.  Those knife-edge baffles really work. Put a street light just outside the field of view on the Leicas and ... nothing. Not a hint of flare or ghosting or any loss of contrast; very impressive.  The same test on the Nikons produces some diffuse reflections and ghosting with loss of contrast. Ghosting from bright light sources in-field is very well controlled on both binoculars and there is very little flare.

Both binos perform very well on deep sky and relative performance is too close to call. Both are a real pleasure to use. For me, the larger eye relief gives the Nikons a bigger useable field. M31 fills the FOV and shows a hint of structure. The Ring nebula is easy, so is the Dumbbell. I think I can pick out the Crab. Clusters like M35 resolve out and Albireo shows off its contrasting colours in both binos. Orion is a mass of stars and the nebula shows more detail than it does in lesser binos. Which do I prefer? Neither! The Leicas have sharper, tighter stars, but the Nikons are more comfortable with their superior eye relief and are maybe a tad brighter.

Summary

The Leicas are certainly as good optically as the Nikons, but not really better overall. They are elegant and superbly executed, but they aren’t perfect. They have better suppression of stray light than the Nikons and a smoother focuser. But they are heavier and have much less eye relief. The wider field is compromised a little by curvature towards the edge and the tight eye-relief, whereas the Nikons’ remains flat almost all the way and the whole field is easily seen to the stop with glasses on. The Nikons have more transmissive coatings and are a little brighter as the result. Despite FL glass, the Leicas still suffer a bit of CA, just as do the Nikons. The Leicas are waterproof, the Nikons aren’t. The Leicas are three times as expensive, new or used.

You could look at this one of two, equally valid, ways:

You could say Leica have done a remarkable job in creating a pair of small 12x50 roofs with superb optics that handle like a 10x42, are fully waterproof and are optically the match for one of the best porro glasses ever made; binoculars not designed for astronomy, but which work superbly for it, yet will work for any other application just as well.

Or you could find it surprising that the much older design of the Nikons offers much the same optical quality for so much less; that a pair of binoculars as expensive as the Leicas, boasting  fluoride glass and no less than 11 lenses per barrel, doesn’t have enough eye relief, still shows some field curvature and has residual CA. You might be surprised that this new design doesn’t manage the super-smooth focusing and flat-to-the-edge that Nikon achieved with the LXs 10 years ago.

Personally, I really like the elegant build and super-sharp optics of the Leicas. They have an overall quality and charm that goes beyond the hard facts and the optics are the best of any binocular I have tried, except for my peerless 8x32 LXs (maybe I just got lucky with those). Sadly, I can’t justify the cost of the Leicas when the Nikon SEs run them so close in all areas and are more comfortable with glasses.

If money is no object, or if you want a waterproof cross-over glass for say hunting or safaris, whale watching or whatever and astronomy too, buy the Leicas, they are state of the art, though not perfect. If you wear glasses and mainly want an astronomy bino’, pick up a pair of the Nikon SE 12x50s whilst you still can.

Both Nikon SE and Leica HD Ultravid 12x50s are recommended – which you buy would depend on need and budget. Personally, I kept the Nikons and sold the Leicas.