Many regard Nikon’s Superior E range of porro-prism binoculars as the finest ever made. In this review I find out if that reputation is justified.
Nikon 10x42 SE CF Review
A decade or so ago, a famous birding website proclaimed Nikon’s 10x42 SEs to be pretty much the best high-power binoculars ever. They won in every category, beating much larger-aperture premium designs in resolution and low light performance. Later, when the smaller 8x32 SE came out, the same website judged them the best small binocular as well. That’s a heck of a claim.
Today (2016) roof prism binoculars have done a lot of catching up, so let’s find out if the (sadly discontinued) SEs still rank among the very best.
At A Glance
17mm claimed, ~18mm actual
Actual Field of View
6 degrees (104m at 1000m)
Apparent field of view
Data from Nikon.
What’s in the Box?
Design and Build
The Superior E range are all “old fashioned” porro prism binoculars, the type with “shoulders”. In some ways, they are like most of their type – they aren’t strictly waterproof and have old-style fold-down eye cups. They focus with an external mechanism via a “bridge”.
But behind the scenes, Nikon have used the very best materials and know-how (at least for when they were designed more than a decade back).
The SE range includes just three models: 8x32, 10x42 and 12x50. At the time of introduction, they were said to compete with the aperture class above, i.e. these 10x42s compared well to premium 10x50 roofs in the early Noughties.
All three Superior E models appear to share the same prisms and eyepieces, differing only in the objectives. Both the 8x32s and 10x42s have quite short objective housings and so are quite compact, whilst the 12x50s are much longer. All three binoculars are light for their size because they have magnesium bodies. The 10x42s weigh 710g (725g on my scales), which is still lighter than any premium 10x42 roof-prism model, except for the non-armoured Leica Ultravid BLs.
In most ways, the SEs appear to be conventional enough, although the body is completely encased and sealed in grey, textured armour, unlike older porro styles. Nikon don’t claim waterproofing, but it is clear that the only place water is going to get in is through the objectives or the eyepieces (which have an ample cover), so in reality these will probably survive rain but not immersion.
Build quality is very high and reminiscent of the High Grade line of roof prism binoculars from Nikon. Interestingly, the bridge bears the designation “HGP”, so I suspect that Nikon view these as an equivalent high-grade line. I have been told by binocular repairers that internal build quality is outstanding.
Focusing is by the conventional central knob which moves the eyepieces up and down on a bridge. The focusing is smooth and accurate, but perhaps not as quite light and quick as a modern roof-prism birding binocular.
Neither focuser nor bridge have any free-play or wobble to spoil the optical alignment like some porros do.
Dioptre adjustment is also conventional, by twisting the right eyepiece, but it’s stiff enough to avoid accidental movement.
Optics - Prisms
These are of course a porro-prism design. They boast no dielectric or phase coatings, because porro-prism binoculars don’t need them.
Optics - Objectives
The SE range all employ a cemented achromatic doublet, like most porro prism binoculars. Chromatic aberration is controlled by allowing for a generous focal ratio, rather than by using special glasses. This would explain the long barrels of the 12x50 model (false colour increases with a larger objective, but decreases for longer focal ratios).
Coatings are very good – doubtless the very best of the time. However, they are a blueish hue, whereas most of the latest premium coatings are pinkish and so give their maximum transmission in blue-green. Transmissivity doesn’t look much worse than Swarovski’s latest though (see below).
The barrels behind the objectives have a cast-in knife-edge baffle and machined-in micro baffles behind it; and very careful blacking to curb stray light.
Swarovski Habicht 10x40 (2016 model) and Nikon 10x42 SE coatings compared.
Prism housings are ridge-baffled.
Optics - Eyepieces
The SEs have a five or six element eyepiece design that incorporates a field flattener and allows for very generous eye relief of ~18 mm from the rim of the eye cup when folded. This is plenty for almost anyone to see the whole field whilst wearing glasses and must be a first - because it’s actually more than Nikon claim!
Long eye relief sometimes comes at the expense of spherical aberration of the exit pupil. This causes so-called ‘kidney bean’ blackouts (see below). The SE range all suffer from this to some extent – the view will suddenly black out as you move your eye around.
The eyepiece design allows a true field of six degrees, which is quite wide, especially given that it’s essentially flat all the way across.
The eye-cups are the old-fashioned fold-down type which are less convenient than twist-ups.
The Nikon SEs all come with a high-quality soft leather case. Objective caps are the non-stay-on type, whilst the combined eyepiece cap is effective protection from rain. The strap is standard Nikon fare.
Nikon’s SE range get a nice soft-leather case.
In Use – Daytime
Ergonomics and Handling
The SEs are comfortable to handle. They are light and the chamfered prism housings easy to hold. The armour is warm and grippy, but not rubbery and sticky like some and doesn’t mark easily.
The 12x50 SEs feel front heavy, but these 10x42s are perfectly balanced.
The focuser is smooth and precise, but not as light and quick as the best roof prism focusers and not as good as the old Zeiss Oberkochens.
The dioptre adjustment may use the old-fashioned ring under the focuser, but it’s beautifully smooth and accurate.
Those eyecups are less convenient than the twist-up type, especially if you share between users with glasses and without. There’s masses of eye relief for specs wearers, but more kidney bean blackouts than the best.
The SEs don’t have the classic leather-clad elegance of Swarovski’s Habichts when you wear them, don’t look bad either.
Example of ‘kidney bean’ blackout – it goes away if you move your eye slightly!
Nikon 10x42 SEs are light, small and unobtrusive to hold and wear, look fine with that dog-haired old Barbour.
The view is very good indeed: bright and sharp and detailed with a nearly flat field usable to the edge and with plenty of width, that softens just a little towards the field stop. Resolution is excellent. Focus snap is absolute, suggesting high optical quality.
Colours are natural, but a bit warmer than the latest HD designs, probably due to the blueish coatings.
The SEs were one of the first widely available binoculars with field flatteners. The field is indeed pretty flat as a result, with just a little curvature at the very edges and almost no astigmatism or coma (all the remaining fall-off in image quality off-axis can be focused out). By comparison, the field is not quite as flat as Swarovski’s ELs’ though.
There are no exotic glasses or quadruplet objectives here, but chromatic aberration is well controlled - similar to mid-price HD designs like Leica’s Trinovid HDs, with a thin coloured fringe on the highest contrast objects. Only the very best HD binoculars show less false colour.
Control of chromatic aberration is not up to the latest premium standards, but false colour is never a problem the way it is even with Nikon’s premium HG roofs.
I often use the 10x42s as an improvised telephoto lens for my phone camera when travelling. Below is an example: Falcon Heavy sitting on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space centre ready to go. The image shows the SEs’ flat field, if a little pin-cushion distortion (and some Florida-June heat haze):
In Use – Dusk
In deep dusk conditions the 10x42 SEs continue to work when most 42mm bino’s would have given up - more like 10x50s. It is quite possible to keep viewing with these binoculars even when to the naked eye the shadows have already become solid and black and all detail has gone from the view. It’s quite strange to have been enjoying a dusk view through these, only to take one’s eyes away and find that it’s virtually night. This low light performance shows the care with which Nikon has gone about maximising throughput and contrast.
In Use – The Night Sky
On the night sky the 10x42 SEs continue to perform like a good 10x50. Stars are pinpoints and show excellent colour. Yes, the 12x50s go deeper and show more detail on the Moon, make picking out Jupiter’s Galilean moons in twilight easier, but the price is greater weight, a narrower field and a lot more shakes.
A telling comparison was with the latest Leica 10+15x50 Duovids on their 10x setting, both in daylight and on the night sky. The Nikons were much lighter, had a wider flatter field, a brighter view, even in low light conditions and much better eye relief. “These are better” concluded my wife handing back the Nikons; I had to agree.
Good though they are, the 10x42 SEs are not quite perfect. The field doesn’t have quite the flat-to-the-edge performance of the 12x50s. The eyepieces have masses of eye relief, but the corollary is more tendency to black out (kidney been distortion) than I would like. The HG roofs have just as much ER, but are less sensitive to eye position.
Veiling flare is well controlled, but place a bright security light in the field and a very faint ghost dances around the glass.
The Moon shows a lot more detail than with 8x binos and is very sharp and with minimal false colour on the bright Lunar limb. Contrast is exceptional. Very minor ghosting is apparent on a bright Moon. Overall, the SEs give a superb binocular Moon.
The Jupiter test reveals a clean disk with no spikes or flare and the Galilean moons are easily visible.
Bright nebulae are easy to find and open clusters are lovely through these, thanks to tight stars and that flat field. Star colours are excellent. The Orion Nebula showed a lot of nebulosity for a 42mm binocular.
Nikon SE 10x42 vs Swarovski Habicht 10x40 W
These two fine porro-prism binoculars are some of the last really top-notch examples commonly available (though only the Habichts can be bought new now). They are quite similar, so a point-by-point comparison is in order.
· The Nikons are about 60g heavier than the Habichts on my scales (The Nikons heavier than claimed, the Habichts lighter)
· The Nikons have loads more eye relief, but some blackouts
· The Nikons’ focuser is much more fluid and easier to use
· The Habichts have a wider (6.6°vs 6°) field, but much more off-axis aberrations, so the usable part is actually smaller
· The Habichts have a slightly cooler colour balance that is very noticeable, perhaps due to coatings which transmit more evenly across the spectrum
· Chromatic aberration is low and virtually identical in both
· I fancy the Habichts might be slightly sharper and more contrasty centre field, but not by much
· Brightness is very similar, with perhaps a narrow win for the Swarovskis to my eyes, perhaps due to their latest coatings
· The SEs show very minor ghosting on bright light sources, like the Moon or a streetlamp; the Habichts do not
· The situation is reversed for flare from bright lights outside the field – the Nikons show very little, the Habichts quite a lot (this might be a choosing factor for urban astronomy)
· Depth of field is very similar in both
· The Habichts are fully waterproof, the Nikon’s are not
· The Nikons are armoured, especially around the barrels, and will survive minor knocks better
· Given the 10% extra objective area and similar transmittance, the Nikons go a little deeper on the night sky
Overall, the Nikons are a slightly nicer binocular, especially of you wear glasses to observe.
Nikon SE 10x42 vs Swarovski EL 10x42 SV
The Swarovision ELs are among the most perfect binoculars to date (early 2016). A comparison with the Nikon SEs, which used to hold that title, is interesting.
· The Nikons are about 90g lighter than the ELs on my scales
· Despite what the brochure says, the ELs actually have a couple of mm less eye relief than the Nikons, but less blackouts to compensate
· The ELs have a wider (6.3°vs 6°) field
· The ELs’ field is even flatter than the Nikons’
· The ELs have a slightly cooler colour balance that is even noticeable if you project the exit pupil onto white paper and which I prefer
· The ELs have very slightly less chromatic aberration centre field, but rather more at the very edge
· Resolution, focus snap and depth of field are all very similar
· One clear win for the ELs is flare and ghosting. The SEs show a bit of both on bright light sources, like the Moon or a streetlamp; the ELs do not
· The ELs focus closer
· The ELs are fully waterproof, the Nikon’s are not
Don’t think that the ELs are much better than the Nikons, they aren’t: the differences are small and overall performance quite similar. However, I do prefer the wider, slightly less warm-tinted view through the ELs, if money is no object.
Nikon’s 10x42 SEs remain one of my very favourite binoculars. They provide a great view, day or night and are especially easy to handle due to their light weight, compact size and long eye relief. They are noticeably lighter to carry than most 10x42 roof-prism models (these are ~130g lighter than Zeiss’ 10x42 HTs for example). I actually prefer them to the much larger 12x50s because they are much more comfortable to use.
The only minor downsides are eyepiece blackouts, a touch more ghosting and a perhaps a little more false colour than the latest HD models.
Sadly, Nikon have discontinued the SE range, but these 10x42s make a particularly good general purpose binocular to buy used.
Nikon’s 10x42SEs are no longer (quite) the world’s best binoculars, but they still get my highest recommendation for an unbeatable combination of modest price and premium performance.