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Nikon Monarch 5 16x56 HD Review

Nikon’s big Chinese-made Monarch 5s are one of the few quality options in a powerful big-eye binocular that doesn’t cost a fortune. But does the competitive price and outsourced manufacturing mean they’ve cut corners with the view? In this test, I try them out during the day and on the night sky, to find out. I also compare them with two of the premium competition – Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs and Zeiss’ 15x56 Conquests HDs - to discover what extra those models offer for their much higher cost.

People periodically ask me to recommend a sensibly-priced astronomy binocular. The answer was once a knee-jerk reaction: Nikon’s 12x50 SE every time. Sadly, the 12x50 SE is no longer available and all the old stock seems to have dried up. What’s more they’re not coming up much used (no surprise there). So what is the alternative?

A few years ago, I had a quick look through a pair of Nikon’s mid-market, Chinese-made Monarchs at my local camera shop and was impressed. The most obviously suitable Monarch for astronomy is the 16x56 Monarch 5, so I thought I’d give a pair a thorough going over to see if I could recommend them for astronomy.

I should point out that most people think 10x or 12x ideal for astronomy, but I find that if exploring for DSOs is your thing, then higher powers - like these - have a definite advantage in image scale and suppression of sky glow and Moonlight.

At A Glance

Magnification

16x

Objective Size

56mm

Eye Relief

16.4mm (claimed)

Actual Field of View

4.1 degrees

Apparent field of view

59.6 degrees

Close focus

~5.5m

Transmissivity

Est. 88%

Length

199mm

Weight

1230g

Data from Nikon

What’s in the Box?

 

Design and Build

Nikon have lots of Monarch models (too many models in general, in my opinion). These are the older Monarch 5s; the bigger objective designs aren’t available in the latest Monarch 7s (yet). However, these have all the latest technology, with HD lenses to cure false colour a notable advantage at this price.

These binoculars are made in China, but don’t seem to be a re-branded generic model. Strangely, Nikon also make a (very niche, I would have thought) 20x56 version, but no 10x56.

Body and Ergonomics

These have the typical Monarch look, which is to say they’re externally well made, with nice armour and quality components. There’s no sense that these are a cheap binocular in terms of look and feel. That black armour is grippy and slightly sticky - like the stuff they use for racing tyres and rock boot soles - but it does mark up more than, say, Swarovski’s and is a real magnet for dust and fluff. It smells slightly rubbery too.

These are compact for a 56mm design – as compact as Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs and more so than Zeiss’ 56mm Conquest HDs. Weight is just a little more than the SLC HDs and about the same as the Conquests.

Externally these are deeply sculpted on the back and fall nicely to hand as we’ll see.

Nikon claim full the big Monarchs are fully water and fog proof (something those 12x50 SEs I mentioned in the introduction were not).

Three 56mm binoculars compared: Swarovski SLC HD, Zeiss Conquest, Nikon Monarch 5.

Monarch 16x56 HDs have heavily contoured body for a comfortable hold.

Focuser

The focuser is the main area where the build quality falls down. The focuser is stiff and sometimes sticky. Worse, the best focus point is hard to find because it shifts slightly as you focus in and out.

Part of the problem may be its speed – little more than half a turn from close focus to infinity is seriously rapid.

The dioptre adjustment is via the conventional ring under the right eyepiece. There is no locking mechanism and no click-stops either (these aren’t Nikon’s HGs).

Optics - Prisms

These have conventional Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms. Nikon claim the latest dielectric coatings for the mirrors.

Optics - Objectives

Nikon don’t publicise the lens design, but these include the latest low-dispersion ED glass that helps correct false colour fringing (chromatic aberration), hence the ‘HD’ tag.

The coatings are greenish tinged and of a high quality, but they are a little more reflective than the best (i.e. Zeiss T* coatings). Dim reflections suggest all the internal glass elements are fully coated – no corner cutting there.

Internal build quality looks excellent – well finished and baffled with solid, rugged-looking mechanicals.

Nikon Monarch’s coatings are just a little more reflective than premium models’. Internals are well baffled.

Optics - Eyepieces

The eyepieces have large eye lenses and are doubtless a modern multi-element design. They deliver a true field width of 4.1° which equates to an apparent FOV of 59.6°. That’s a decent, but not world-beating field of view (though much better than the smaller Monarch 5 10x42s).

Nikon claim high eye relief, but measured from the edge of the cup it is 12-13mm - a lot less than the claimed 16.4mm and too tight for specs wearers. Eye relief is one of the few areas these binoculars really disappoint.

The exit pupils look properly round and un-vignetted; internal reflections are well suppressed.

The eye cups have three extended positions. They’re smooth in action, but chunkier than they need to be which is a problem if your eyes are close set like mine (they squash my nose).

Three position eye cups – more travel than required for the short eye relief.

Accessories

The Monarch 16x56s come with a cordura case, strap, band-on objective caps and a rather loose eyepiece cap.

Tripod Adapter

The 16x56 Monarchs come with a slightly flimsy looking, but perfectly serviceable, tripod adapter that screws into the front of the hinge once you’ve un-threaded the blanking plate. The bottom of the adapter fits a standard ¼-20 photo tripod and helpfully has four different positions so you can get balance right.

The hinge cap unscrews to reveal thread for tripod adapter

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics and Handling

The deeply sculpted body is very comfortable to hold. Some dislike that sticky armour, but it feels both warm and secure to me. Balance is just right and the focuser falls easily to finger. Basic handling is ideal for me and much better than some premium big-eye designs I could name.

The focuser is not up to premium standards: it’s a bit stiff and vague. More seriously, perfect focus isn’t quite the same focusing through and then reversing back. This is a pain for me because I habitually focus that way and I get caught out every time because the perfect focus point isn’t there anymore when I back out.

The dioptre adjustment – by the conventional ring under the right eyepiece – isn’t too stiff, but the slightly soft focus made it harder to use than the best. I also noticed it adjusted slightly off centre, even though my eyes are perfectly corrected with specs on.

Eye relief, unusually for Nikon who pioneered good eye relief on their HG and SE ranges, is very tight. Once again, the problem is the eye cups – the eye lenses are deeply recessed within them, reducing the ER to the point where I can see perhaps only half the field or less with specs on. Without specs, I can most comfortably use these with the eye cups fully retracted – all that extra click-stop travel just isn’t needed.

The eye relief is just too little to give a decent field of view with my glasses on. If you wear glasses when observing these might not be for you.

The thick eye cups mean these aren’t ideal for those (like me) with a narrow inter-pupillary distance. If your eyes are set quite close or you have a smallish face, try before you buy.

The eyepieces are commendably free from kidney-bean blackouts, though.

These don’t look enormous hanging around my neck, unlike some big-eye binos, but I’d probably get a few sniggers from the local birders if I took them down the prom’ to watch the Egrets on a Sunday afternoon.

Testing the Monarchs on a typically wet Lakeland day.

Monarchs don’t look too huge hanging around my neck.

The View

Sharp view centre field drops off towards the edge.

The daytime view is reasonable: slightly dimmer than Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs and a little less sharp and contrasty too. Colours are little less bright than the best. The biggest problem with the view, though, is getting best focus …

The depth of field is shallow (as are all binos of this power), but that means constant re-focusing and unfortunately that somewhat vague and rough focuser becomes a pain when panning around. The optics themselves don’t quite snap to focus like the best either and all too often you find yourself viewing with slightly imperfect focus, which does no favours for the view.

Only the very finest high-power binoculars give a really excellent daytime view and these aren’t among them, but the daytime view is serviceable with no obvious faults apart from the vague best focus point.

Flat field?

One strong point of these is that the field is reasonably flat. It does in fact curve very gently towards the edge, but this isn’t too obvious during the day. Other aberrations – coma and astigmatism – are virtually absent.

Chromatic Aberration

The HD lenses mean that chromatic aberration is very well controlled centre field. Despite the very high power and big lenses (both of which mean more chromatic aberration, all other things being equal), the level of false colour is typical of a first-generation premium HD birding binocular – an excellent result.

False colour is most obvious when focusing through high contrast areas, or when panning through high branches and does increase substantially off-axis. Chimneys and roof lines have a faint fringe of purple you don’t get with the best HD optics.

False colour correction is good, but it is not quite up to the latest premium HD models such as the SLC HDs.

In Use – Dusk

Those big lenses start to come into play as my pupils dilate at dusk and twilight performance is very good. I generally prefer 10x56s at dusk, no matter what the twilight rating number says, but these penetrate deep into dark dusk shadows.

I watched a pair of deer in my neighbours’ drive on Christmas night (Rudolph, where’s Santa?) that were quite invisible to the naked eye.

In Use – The Night Sky

Night testing the Monarch 16x56s in strong Moonlight.

This isn’t the first big-eye binocular to give decent, but slightly lack-lustre daytime views, only to be transformed on the night sky. At night, finding perfect focus on a star is easy and once found you can just keep it that way, so the focuser is no longer a problem. Having done so, you realise the optics are in fact very good indeed.

The field, which appears quite flat during the day, is in fact slightly curved towards the edge: you have to re-focus stars in the last 80% of the field to get them perfectly tight. But other off-axis aberrations are commendably well suppressed and stars never bloat or stretch due to coma and astigmatism the way they do with some binoculars, even at the field stop.

A full Moon generates only the mildest trace of ghosts, but no spikes or other nastiness. Veiling flare when working around a bright Moon isn’t a problem either.

However, looking at a bright security light produced a snow-storm of dim ghosts and a few faint, long spikes too. This is an area where these binoculars can’t compete with the best – Swaro’s 15x56 SLC HDs showed no ghosts or spikes at all on the same light.

In general, stars are tight and bright. Star colours are quite strong and stars remain pin-point across almost the whole field.

The Moon

The Moon looks really good through these binoculars – crisp and sharp. No, it isn’t as white and contrasty as the very best, but a lot of detail is visible and false colour is no problem. The Moon comes to perfect focus in both barrels, unlike the Minox 15x58s where one barrel remained slightly ‘soft’.

Using the tripod adapter, I could make out further detail and the view was similar to that through a small refractor. That extra power (16x vs the more usual 15x) is quite obvious. All you need to add is a Lunar app or atlas and a basic photo tripod and you could enjoy exploring the Moon’s main features with these binoculars straight out of the box. The high power is the absolute maximum I could hand-hold, but it really works on a tripod giving these a handy dual use for astronomy.

Venus

Venus showed little flare spiking or false colour – an impressive performance from a mid-market binocular.

Jupiter

The view of Jupiter was as good as I have seen with binos, period. There was no flare or spiking beyond the planetary disk at all and only very modest chromatic aberration; just a little bloat within the confines of the planet that all prismatic optics give and that make seeing the equatorial clouds belts difficult.

The Galilean moons were very easy to pick out and showed their different brightness well. I was easily able to split Ganymede and Europa which were in close-ish conjunction (around 18” apart) early on Christmas morning – a sure sign of the excellent optical quality.

Deep Sky

Using the tripod adapter, I got a superb view of Orion’s sword region with masses of pin-point stars across the field and extended nebulosity from the nebula. I was able to split the Trapezium. The view was wonderfully comfortable, relaxed and aberration-free, one of the best binocular views of Orion that I’ve had.

The Pleiades also looked excellent with lots of diamond-dust faint white stars set among the Seven Sisters and the two orange central stars clear and bright.

The 4.1° true field is quite narrow, but still plenty for most open clusters and I had good views of the Starfish Cluster in Auriga and nearby M35.

Albireo, my favourite binocular double, looked cleanly split and brilliantly coloured with the high magnification and light-gathering power really helping out.

Overall astronomy performance of these binoculars is very strong by any standards and especially so for the price.

Nikon Monarch 5 16x56 vs Swarovski 15x56 SLC HD

I ended up reviewing these at the same time, so a comparison is interesting, though of course the Swarovskis are a different class and price of instrument.

·        The daytime view through the Swaros is better – brighter, sharper, more detailed and higher in contrast.

·        The night-sky view is better in the Swaros too, but not by the same margin.

·        The Swaros control false colour a bit better across the field, but especially off-axis.

·        Both have low off-axis aberrations, but field curvature is even less in the Swarovskis.

·        The Nikon’s focuser isn’t worthy of the rest of the binoculars. The Swaro focuser is top notch.

·        Handling is very similar; I think I prefer the Nikons, which are very comfortable to hold.

·        The Nikons just don’t have enough eye relief.

·        The Swarovskis cost about three times as much in the real world, about double the list price.

If you are a perfectionist like me who loves a perfect view and wants a binocular for the long haul that you can get fixed or serviced in fifteen years, save up for the Swarovskis. Otherwise …

Summary

My first impression of Nikon’s 16x56 Monarch 5s was negatively influenced by the lack of eye relief and the slightly vague and stiff focuser. But the more time I spent using them the more impressed I became, especially for astronomy.

The daytime view is actually very decent with a wide, flat field that’s bright enough and quite detailed with minimal false colour in the centre, but nowhere near as good as the Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs (obviously, for the price). At night, though, they come quite close to the SLC HDs, which I was testing alongside them. The high power and large-aperture, good-quality optics and good stray light suppression give really superb night sky views that get even better when you use the included tripod adapter. Everything I pointed them at looked great – the Moon full of sharp detail with no false colour; Jupiter sharply defined with no nasty flare; wide star fields full of pin-point stars; nebulae with lots of bright detail.

The binoculars are actually well made too and quite compact and very comfortable to hold for their size. The only real downsides are the vague focuser (these would be little use for raptors – an obvious application otherwise - as the result), lack of eye relief and a possible problem for people with close-set eyes due to the hefty eye-cups.

So, are Nikon’s Monarch 16x56s a new budget astronomy binocular best buy to replace the 12x50 SE, then? Maybe: if you can stand their weight and power. The SEs were much more ‘perfect’ and gave much ‘nicer’ daytime views, but the higher power and larger objectives mean these actually show you more for less cost when it comes to astronomy. Consider that even a pair of Zeiss Conquest 15x56s would cost well over twice as much and these seem great value.

Given their really excellent astronomy performance, good build quality, low discounted price and included tripod adapter, these are very highly recommended for astronomy; less so during the day when the focuser is a problem. But just make sure they work with your eyes/spectacles.

Nikon’s Monarch 5 15x56 – price/performance compares favourably with similar models from Zeiss and Swarovski.

 

 

 

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