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Nikon Monarch 5 10x42 Review

A couple of years ago, I tested a pair of modestly priced porro-prism binoculars from a major brand (no, not Nikon). They were terrible, so depressing I wrote a review and never posted it. Never mind, they’ve deleted the model already. That’s why I’m reluctant to review cheaper bino’s – poor quality and ever-changing product.

Then I tried a pair of Nikon’s Monarch 5 16x56s last year. They weren’t perfect, but for the money they were pretty damned good. So I thought I’d break my rule and try another “cheaper” pair of Nikon’s bino’s – the mass-market Monarch 5 10x42, a size good for both birding and casual astronomy.

At A Glance

Magnification

10x

Objective Size

42mm

Eye Relief

18.4mm claimed

Actual Field of View

5.5°

Apparent field of view

51.3°

Close focus

2.5m

Transmissivity

85% (my own unscientific estimate)

Length

145mm

Weight

600g

Data from Nikon Europe

What’s in the Box?

Design and Build

Nikon market lots of different versions of its Chinese-made Monarch binoculars, confusingly now including some that appear to compete with their premium models. These Monarch 5s are among the most commonly found and cheapest. Still, they boast ED glass for false colour suppression and full waterproofing too.

Body and Ergonomics

These have the typical Monarch look. 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 makes them very secure in the hand, but it is a real magnet for dust and fluff. It smells slightly rubbery too.

Underneath, the body is made of composite, which makes them warmer to hold and allows a sculpted shape that falls nicely to hand.

These are compact for a 42mm binocular, significantly more so than most 10x42s at just 145mm long. That composite body makes them light weight, too – 165g lighter than the similarly compact Swarovski 10x42 SLC HDs.

Nikon claim waterproofing, but they may not be as immersion resistant as the very best.

 

Focuser

The focuser isn’t nearly as effortless as say, Nikon’s HGs’ or EDGs’, but it’s mostly smooth and accurate, if a bit heavy. There are none of the focuser problems I encountered with the big 16x56 Monarch 5s last year. It’s quite fast too – just a single turn from close focus to infinity. Focusing below four metres, merging of the view isn’t as good as the best though.

The dioptre adjustment is via the conventional ring under the right eyepiece. There is no locking mechanism and no click-stops, but it’s fine – again, smooth and accurate.

Optics - Prisms

These use conventional Schmidt-Pechan (a.k.a. Roof) prisms, complete with high-transmission and phase coatings for the brightest, sharpest view.

Optics - Objectives

Nikon don’t publicise the lens design, but it incorporates ED glass to help correct false colour fringing (chromatic aberration), hence the ‘HD’ tag. As we shall see, this is very effective.

The coatings are greenish and of a high quality, but they are a little more reflective than the best (i.e. Zeiss T* coatings). It appears that not all the optical surfaces are coated (there are some bright white reflections) which may explain the prism spikes I noted with a bright security light in-field.

Internal build quality looks decent – well finished and with solid, rugged-looking mechanicals, but with components that look cast, not CNC-milled like the best. There is a single knife-edge baffle behind the objective to catch stray light and some machined-in baffling in the focuser tube.

Barrel interiors show single knife-edge baffle and utilitarian castings

Optics - Eyepieces

These eyepieces have quite large (21 mm) eye lenses and are clearly not just a simple three-element design. However, complex eyepieces typically confer three potential benefits: a wide field; a flat field; and good eye relief for comfort wearing glasses.

In this case, the field certainly isn’t wide. In fact, 51° is narrow these days, with 60° or more being the norm. The field isn’t very curved, but it isn’t flat either. That leaves eye relief and fortunately that’s something these have plenty of, unlike so many binoculars.

The eye lenses are deeply recessed in the eye cups, which reduces the potential eye relief of 18mm a bit. Even so, measured from the rim of the eye cup, the relief is about 15mm – adequate for an almost-full field of view with most glasses. One problem with large eye relief can be blackouts as you move your eye around, but fortunately, that’s something these are almost free of.

The twist-up eyecups are of good quality and have three extended positions to make good use of the generous eye relief.

Eye cups have three twist-up positions

Accessories

The Monarch 5s come with fairly basic accessories, just as you might expect for the price. The case is lightly padded cordura with a Velcro close and is perfectly functional.

The objective caps are the stay-on type that push into the objectives. Unlike the ones on the expensive Nikon EDGs I tested last year, which fell out all the time, these work perfectly; ditto the conventional bridged eyepiece cap.

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics and Handling

The small size, light weight, grippy armour and sculpted shape of these Monarchs make them very pleasant to hold, at least for my smallish hands, with the focuser falling naturally under my index finger. After testing several pairs of heavy binoculars, I really appreciated the light weight of these.

As described, the focuser works well and the eyepiece comfort is excellent, with plenty of eye relief and no blackouts.

These are a modest and inoffensive binocular when worn: no premium brand bling, but no geekiness either.

Nikon’s Monarch 5 10x42s are unobtrusive and light to carry, comfortable to hold

The View

The view is very good for this price range, really quite close to premium levels in some areas: quite bright, pin-sharp, reasonably flat and false-colour free. Focus snap is absolute – a sure sign of excellent optics. Every time I used the Monarchs I found myself thinking ‘wow, these are good!’

Comparing it with the view through my 10x50 Swarovski Els (a £2000 binocular), the view is quite a lot narrower, a bit more curved and a little dimmer; resolution is a little bit lower too and there is slightly less of that crystal clarity; depth of field isn’t quite as good. But here’s the thing: the differences are there, but not huge.

On a bright day, I can enjoy a Crow stalking about in the fields opposite with every shimmer of feather and gleam of eye picked out in vivid detail. Flocks of waders far out on bay sands that are dazzling under a low sun are perfectly resolved with no softness or false colour, no flare.

Flat field?

The field is narrower than many 10x42s, but the pay-back is that it appears quite flat. The last 10% or so does curve off and you couldn’t I.D. a bird at the field stop like you could with the best (Swarovski Els, Zeiss SF), but field curvature seems modest. In fact, the quality of the image does drop off progressively from about 50-60%, but this isn’t that noticeable in daytime use.

Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration levels are very low, much lower than you ever got a few years back before ED glass became commonplace. Panning through high branches there is just none of that jazzing false colour you used to see so often. Only at the very field edge, or when viewing birds in silhouette against a bright dusk sky, does a trace of chromatic aberration creep in.

To put this in perspective, false colour is much lower than Nikon’s older premium HG models’, as low as their newer EDG models’.

In Use – Dusk

Penetration of dusk shadows is good for the aperture and working under a bright dusk sky only produces a touch of veiling flare which the very best do not (perhaps due to the slightly worse than best coatings).

In Use – The Night Sky

A full Moon in-field produces no ghosts. Likewise, working around the Moon produces little or no flare. A bright security light causes minimal ghosting too, but does generate four long spikes from the prism edges, something premium bino’s generally avoid. For astronomy, though, ghosting and flare aren’t a problem – good news of urban astronomers.

The apparent field is a bit narrow, but the 5.5° true field is wide enough to encompass most things. It just fits in the Hyades, but not the complete belt and sword of Orion (unlike wide-field 10x binoculars’).

The mild off-axis field deterioration noticed during the day reveals itself as progressive astigmatism that distorts stars from about 50% field width, but only getting bad at perhaps 80%. So these aren’t flat-field binoculars, but neither do they have lots of off-axis aberrations, like some older Zeiss models (for example). Centre-field, stars are very tight and bright and show strong (true) colour as the result.

The light weight, grippy armour and composite body make the Monarch 5s comfortable to use on cold nights. Their light weight is particularly welcome for astronomy.

The Moon

The Monarchs gave an outstandingly crisp and high-resolution view of a gibbous Moon, with lots of hard, sharp detail; lots of craters. I could easily enjoy the elongated crater Schiller in the south and Mare Humorum with the crater Gassendi on the terminator. The excellent contrast made the hard whites and greys of the highlands and maria, the wispy rays of Tycho extending across half the Moon, really standout.

The Moon Showed very little chromatic aberration, even slightly less on the limb than my Swarovski 10x50 ELs and the view was otherwise very similar.

Mars

Mars is just a tight, bright red star, but again produces no nasty ghosts or false colour.

Venus

Venus showed minimal flare and spiking and just a touch of gold-hued false colour out of focus, even against a black sky - an impressive result for a budget binocular.

Jupiter

In pre-dawn twilight, Jupiter showed a perfect dusky-white disc, with no flares or spikes, surrounded by its four pinpoint Galilean moons.

Deep Sky

Deep sky is very typical for a good pair of 10x42s. Orion’s belt shows a myriad of diamond-dust stars and the Great Nebula is clearly visible, though it doesn’t show its shape as well as through larger apertures. Smaller (in binocular terms) planetary nebulae, like M57 and M1 are tricky, but the Dumbbell Nebula is easy to find. The chain of clusters running up through Auriga aren’t as bright and don’t show individual stars the way they can with a good 10x50 (that gathers 42% more light), but are satisfying to locate and view. The core of M31 shows up nicely, but these don’t have the aperture to reveal the whole galaxy.

Overall performance for casual astronomy is very good, with just that narrow field and off-axis astigmatism to spoil things a little compared with a premium 10x42.

Nikon Monarch 5 10x42 vs Swarovski 10x42 EL SV

Swarovski’s 10x42 Els remain a benchmark at the top of the performance (and price) heap. So exactly what extra do you get for your money (about six times as much as for the Monarch 5s)?

·        The Swarovskis are better made and this is especially noticeable internally

·        The Swarovskis are likely to be more immersion resistant

·        The Swarovskis have a brighter, much wider, much flatter field of view

·        The Nikons are just as sharp centre field and just as well corrected for false colour

·        The Nikons supress stray light just as well, except for those prism spikes (which you are unlikely to see in normal use)

·        The focuser on the Els has a lighter, more fluid feel

·        Adjusting dioptre is easier and more fool-proof on the Els, with its scale, click-stops and locking mechanism

·        The Els have slightly more eye relief

·        The Els are made of metal and lots of glass – they are substantially heavier (and longer) than the Nikons

·        Swarovski are much more likely to provide warranty support and long-term servicing and repair

·        Re-sale prospects and percentage depreciation will hold up much better with the Swarovskis (but they are much more expensive to start with)

I love premium optics and the Swarovskis do give a better view, but for many people the Nikons will provide everything they need in a binocular and they’ll have the bonus of being less worried about theft or damage.

Summary

Saying that Nikon’s Monarch 5 10x42s aren’t quite up to premium standards in most areas makes them sound mediocre. Far from it! They are surprisingly good, even when compared to bino’s that are significantly more expensive. Ten years ago, you just couldn’t buy binoculars this good for this money and that’s got to be progress.

The view is quite bright and very sharp, if rather narrow and with more off-axis curvature and astigmatism than the best. False colour correction is up with the best. Handling comfort and eye relief are good. Built quality is very decent. Even stray light suppression, apart from some prism spikes in extreme circumstances, is excellent. Their compact size and light weight are a real bonus on long walks or for travel.

The Monarchs have few real downsides, with that spiking from the prism edges on a bright security light the only issue of real note apart from the narrow usable field.

The Monarch 5 10x42s work very well for their intended use as a birding binocular, but on the night sky too. I test a lot of quality binoculars, but would be quite happy owning and using a pair of these.

Nikon’s 10x42 Monarch 5s are very good for their modest price. Highly recommended and an easy best buy.

 

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