Leica’s Noctivids are the last premium EL-like open-bridge birding binoculars to come to market. In this review I find out if the long wait has been worth it.
Leica Noctivid 10x42 Review
After Swarovski introduced the Swarovision ELs - combining their open-bridge design with the flat field and eyepiece comfort of Nikon’s HGs and the HD optics of Zeiss’ Victory FLs – the other premium makers started to follow along. First came Nikon’s EDGs, then Zeiss’ SFs, now finally Leica’s version, the Noctivids on test here.
With the SFs, Zeiss succeeded in merging their own values with the SV EL concept, to create an open-bridge binocular with a Zeiss character. So let’s investigate whether Leica have managed to do the same, or whether the Noctivids are just a cave-in to the competition’s agenda.
At A Glance
19mm claimed, 17mm measured
Actual Field of View
112m at 100m
Apparent field of view
860 claimed, 896g measured w/caps
Data from Leica/Me.
What’s in the Box?
Design and Build
Leica’s most recent premium range, the Ultravids, were a conventional evolution of the original Trinovid. In comparison, the Noctivids seem to have been designed from scratch to draw on the best of the competition’s ideas.
However, Leica haven’t tried to create anything as radical as the Zeiss SFs. Instead, the Noctivids seem to be pretty much a Leica EL, an admission that Swarovski got it right. So, the Noctivids are a compact open bridge design, with big eyepieces that give a moderately wide, flat field and lots of eye relief for glasses-wearers.
The Noctivids are made of magnesium, apparently with special coatings to avoid oxidation. They weigh in at almost exactly the same as the ELs, but are over a hundred grams heavier than the Zeiss SFs (a difference you can certainly feel).
The Noctivids have slim barrels with no thumb cutouts, unlike the ELs. They are 10mm shorter than the ELs and 23mm shorter than the SFs, making them the most compact premium open-bridge binoculars.
The black armour is thin and lightly textured, typical of Leica. Finish is faultless, with the exposed magnesium in the bridge and lugs satin coated to match the armour. It is worth noting here that external fit and finish was much better than the Zeiss SFs I tested last year. Internal build quality also appears very good, with particularly well finished castings and components.
The focuser knob is quite small compared to the SFs’. It looks and feels a bit plasticky, but it is light and creamy smooth of action – lighter and smoother than the ELs I tested, without the stiffness or dry feel you sometimes get with greaseless focusers.
The full focus range is about one and a half turns, but for most practical purposes it’s going to be a single turn. I say that because the Noctivids focus extremely close – down to about two metres. At closest focus it’s a little difficult to merge the image, but at three metres, the Noctivids give a near-perfectly merged image for me – making them wonderful for butterflies and other close-in nature viewing.
Pull the focuser knob and it clicks out a couple of millimetres to allow dioptre adjustment. There is a scale on the front, but no click stops. The mechanism is better than the Zeiss SFs’ stiff and wonky knob, but I still prefer the Swarovski dioptre adjust which is more solid and precise with quarter dioptre click-stops.
Optics - Prisms
The Noctivids use standard Schmidt-Pechan (a.k.a. Roof) prisms, just like both the SFs and the ELs, instead of the less lossy Abbe-König prisms long favoured by Zeiss. This means that the prisms incorporate mirrors. Leica make much of the quality of the coatings used, so these are doubtless multi-layer dielectric mirrors, but even so transmission at 91% is down a few percentage points on the ~95% achieved by Abbe-König systems like the Zeiss HTs’.
Optics - Objectives
The Noctivids use ED glass elements to counter false colour fringing (chromatic aberration), a technology often described as ‘HD’ (high definition) because the absence of false colour fringes makes it possible to see more detail, especially in high-contrast parts of the view.
Leica don’t quote the overall number of optical elements used, but the Noctivids appear to have some kind of tele-objective with multiple thick elements like the ELs, not the simpler, thinner-element approach used by Zeiss in the SFs to get the weight down. As I noted in the SF review, Zeiss probably used a longer focal length to achieve this, hence the much longer barrels of the SF – you can’t have it all.
Coatings are Leica’s usual neutral pinkish sepia tone and appear outstanding, as you would expect.
To help control flare, the objectives are deeply recessed and a matted ring is placed in front of the glass. Internally, the focuser assembly incorporates one or two thick baffles and is carefully blacked to avoid reflections.
The eye cups are a bit vague but seem to have four main positions as shown.
The focus knob pulls out to adjust dioptre as shown here.
Optics – Eyepieces
In something of a departure for Leica, the Noctivids have big eyepieces, right on-trend for this style of binocular going back to Nikon’s original HGs. The 27mm diameter eye lenses are larger than the Swarovski ELs’ or Zeiss SFs’, but the eye lenses are flat, not steeply curved like the ELs’. The point of this style of eyepiece is to deliver a wide field and good eye relief, but do they?
The actual field of view of 112m at 100m is identical to the ELs’, but 8m less than Zeiss’ SFs. That only amounts to 7% by width, but the greater field area of the Zeiss is noticeable and (IMO) really helps to deliver a less tunnel-like effect. In the same way, the wider field of these Noctivids (and the ELs) is very noticeable when compared to my Nikon 10x42 SEs, which have 8m less again and which seem much more ‘closed in’.
Leica haven’t always been the best for eye relief, but the Noctivids have really excellent ER, claiming 19mm. I found the Noctivids a bit difficult to measure for some reason, but eye relief is at least 17mm from the rim of the eye cup – a critical millimetre or two more than the ELs I tested, though slightly less than the Zeiss SFs. But as we will see, those millimetres are critical because they allow me to see the whole field easily with my thick-framed spec’s.
Blackouts (spherical aberration of the exit pupil) is just not a problem as it is with some high-ER designs.
The click-stop (in theory) eye cups are a bit vague and stiff of action. Keep twisting and the last click-stop (not shown above) seems to go back in one; I have no idea why. The eye cups are one of the few areas where the Noctivids really trail the Swarovski ELs.
The Noctivids come with a felt-lined semi-rigid cordura case in olive green. The case is very small and tapered – so small that getting the Noctivids in and out is harder than it could be. It’s a nicely made and attractive accessory, but the fine zip likely won’t wear as well as Swarovski’s heavier duty one.
The eyepieces have the usual push-on cap, but the objective caps are attached to lugs on the case rather than simply pushing on. That makes them competitive with Swarovski’s ‘FieldPro’ system and they work well: easy to push on and off, but staying securely in place.
The strap is the usual Leica item that attaches to conventional strap lugs.
In Use – Daytime
Ergonomics and Handling
The Noctivids are comfortable to hold with Leica’s usual thin but grippy armour. Balance and hold is natural and easy. Swarovski pioneered the open bridge design and Leica have adopted it because it works really well – as long as you have smallish hands like mine. For big dudes with bear paws and fat fingers it might be a different story.
The focuser is smooth, light and precise. There is no play or sloppiness in the action and focusing to different depths in the view is fluid and natural. Focusing to follow birds on the wing is very easy.
The long eye relief and lack of kidney-bean blackouts make eyepiece comfort outstandingly good. I can see the whole field with my thick-framed glasses on.
Handling is easy, but the Noctivids feel a fairly heavy binocular. I prefer the lighter weight and rear-wards weight distribution of the Zeiss SFs. Leica’s always seem to me the most elegant of binoculars to wear, if that matters to you.
Leica’s Noctivids: compact, easy to hold and elegant to wear.
The view is great – wide, bright, quite flat, cool-toned and easy. At first look it’s a picture-window view like the ELs’. Subjectively, detail and resolution are outstanding. These have that crystalline clarity you only get with the best, a view that’s gorgeous and addictive.
Focus snap is very crisp, indicating excellent optical quality. Brightness in dull conditions is outstandingly good, seemingly as good as my Nikon SE 10x42s which should in theory be brighter (fewer elements, no mirrors).
Resolution centre field is top-notch. Waders far out on the bay sands are easy to ID as the result. I can see detail in the villages across the bay that lesser 10x binos wouldn’t reveal.
Depth of field is good and colour delivery is on the neutral side of vivid, but very true.
In fact, the view isn’t quite as perfect as a pair of SV ELs, but it takes some nit-picking to realise it, for terrestrial use anyhow. The problem, as often with Leicas, is off-axis aberrations.
In daytime, first glance suggests these are a properly flat-field optic, like the Swarovski ELs. In fact, the field is very flat and sharp out to perhaps the last 20-30%, after which it softens progressively, though the edge is still usable. The softening is due to minor field curvature but mostly astigmatism. Distortion is very well controlled, with just a trace of pincushion to ease the rolling ball effect.
Aberrations towards the field stop are just a bit worse than the wider-field SFs, but significantly worse than the Swarovski ELs which have the same width of field. Overall, though, the impression during the day is still of a wide and well corrected field of view.
Noctivid image quality drops off in the outer part of the field.
False colour levels are typical of modern HD designs, i.e. you won’t notice it in most circumstances. Viewing a crow, sitting on my neighbours’ TV aerial, does reveal a trace of violet and green fringing between black feather and bright sky, but I can still make out lots of plumage detail - it’s still an HD view, as promised. As usual, false colour increases towards the very edge of the field, again perhaps a little more so than the very best.
This result suggests the Noctivids employ a single ED element, rather than the two used in some designs (like Kowa’s Genesis models) that effectively eliminate false colour.
In Use – Dusk
I noted that the Noctivids are very bright binocular by day. That means they also penetrate a night landscape, even under light from a half Moon, revealing things you couldn’t see with the naked eye. So, at dusk they also penetrate shadows very well for a 10x42.
The deeply recessed objectives and baffled lens ring should help prevent washout by veiling flare under a bright dusk sky, and that proves to be the case.
In Use – The Night Sky
Centre field, stars are perfect pinpoints – as good as I’ve ever seen in binoculars and typical of Leica’s peerless optical quality. That and the smooth, precise focuser makes finding focus easy, even on dim star fields and DSOs. The tightness of stellar images mean the Noctivids transmit natural star colours really well too.
However, there is a problem for astronomy. The off-axis softening I noted during the day, that didn’t spoil things too much, is much more troublesome on the stars. Across the last ~20% of the field (by width), stars are smeared into lines, though minor distortion occurs from ~30%. Some of this can be focused away, meaning the field is in fact slightly curved, but mostly it is astigmatism – stars become lines parallel to the optical axis on one side of focus, perpendicular to it on the other.
This is not just a theoretical defect. Fainter stars in the outer field disappear altogether, creating that ‘warp-tunnel’ effect I dislike. Try fitting Orion’s sword and belt into a single field (easily possible) and almost nothing of interest is sharp (see below).
Simulated 6.4° Noctivid field, along with the 70% well-corrected part, overlaid on Orion.
A first quarter Moon is as crisp and detailed as you will ever see in a 10X binocular. There is no significant flare or light bleed-over and focus snap is absolute. The Apennines and Plato on the terminator, Eudoxus and Aristoteles in the north, Tycho and Clavius in the south: all delivered with supreme contrast and sharpness, both slightly better than my Nikon 10x42 SE reference. This is evidence of outstanding optical fabrication quality and is typical of other Leicas I have tested.
So far, so excellent. But the Moon knocks a couple more points off the Noctivids’ scorecard. There is a little more false colour – proper purple and green fringing - than you get with the best HD optics, more than through my 15x56 SLCs, despite the Noctivids’ smaller objectives and lower magnification; more than the ELs too.
The bright Moon also yields a faint ghost dancing around the field: it’s not really a problem, but it’s there when it’s not through my Swarovskis.
Jupiter looks perfect through the Noctivids, with little flare and no false colour, the Galilean Moons arrayed as perfect stars around it. Mars, still small early in an opposition year, appears as a tiny bright coal, clearly not a star, with strong true colour and no chromatic aberration.
The clusters in Auriga are as bright and sharply defined as I’ve seen with 10x42s, their individual stars and shapes easily picked out with averted vision. Very tight star images deliver outstanding contrast for a 10x42 and I can really enjoy other open clusters, such as the Double Cluster. Meanwhile, the Pleiades are pleasingly glittery diamonds.
The Great Nebula in Orion, M42, is very bright for the aperture and shows plenty of detail. Other bright DSOs, such as the globular clusters in Hercules, are easy to find and very bright for 42mm objectives.
Centre-field, the Noctivids are an excellent small astronomy binocular, but the progressive off-axis astigmatism spoil things a bit.
Testing the Noctivids under a dark winter sky.
Leica Noctivid 10x42 vs Swarovski SV EL 10x42
Comparisons are inevitable, but these binoculars are quite similar and it’s hard to split them. Here are the key differences:
· The Swarovski ELs are a bit longer, though much the same weight.
· The Swarovski’s have better eye cups.
· The Noctivids have just a millimetre or two more real-world eye relief, but that means you can see the whole field with chunky specs on.
· The Noctivids have a better focuser – lighter, smoother and significantly faster.
· The ELs have a better dioptre mechanism.
· Build quality is very much alike.
· The ELs have less off-axis distortions and are sharp at the field stop, where the Noctivids go slightly soft from about 70% field width, quite noticeably so from 80%. This matters most for astronomy.
· The ELs have a little less false colour.
· The Noctivids show a bit more ghosting than the ELs.
· Everything else about the view, from width to clarity and sharpness, is near identical. The Noctivid’s colour balance is perhaps a bit more neutral, but also slightly less vivid in blues and greens.
Which you choose would come down to personal preference. Do you view with glasses, in which case the extra ER of the Noctivids might be important? If you are going to be doing a lot of astronomy then you might well pick the more perfect outer field of the ELs. If you are super-picky (like me) about false colour, again you might choose the Swarovski option.
The Noctivids are an excellent binocular, for terrestrial use at least. They have a wide, flat, mostly sharp, bright field. They have eyepieces with lots of eye relief and no blackouts. They focus fast but oily smooth too. Build quality is excellent. They are compact and easy to handle, if a little on the heavy side for my tastes.
Being really picky, I would note that they have more outer-field softening than Swarovski’s ELs, along with a trace more false colour and slightly worse stray light performance. But overall these are very minor gripes that shouldn’t spoil your view of an extended flock of waders in bright water, for example.
However, the story at night is very different. That off-axis softening, unobtrusive by day, blurs stars in a broad band around the field stop, spoiling the view of star fields and extended regions, even though the Noctivids deliver excellent results centre-field. The Moon shows up more false colour and ghosting than the very best, too.
So, even though the Noctivids are better the Swarovski ELs in some areas (eye relief and focuser), if you are intending to do much astronomy then I would buy the Swarovskis. Meanwhile, I would choose the Noctivids over the Zeiss SFs purely on build quality, even though I actually prefer the Zeiss.
For birding and other terrestrial uses, the Noctivids are an excellent binocular and are highly recommended, even though the view is ultimately less perfect than the ELs’. For astronomy they work well, but too much astigmatism off-axis means I can’t really recommend them as a premium-priced option.