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Nikon’s original HGs were once the world’s best binoculars, whilst the Monarchs have long been a cheap best buy. Which, if either, are these Monarch HGs?

Nikon Monarch HG 10x42 Review

At A Glance

Magnification

10x

Objective Size

42mm

Eye Relief

17mm claimed, 15mm measured

Actual Field of View

6.9°

Apparent field of view

62.2°

Close focus

<2m (my measurement)

Transmissivity

92% claimed

Length

145mm

Weight

680g claimed, 700g measured (incl obj caps)

Data from Nikon/Me.

A decade or more ago, Nikon’s HG (for ‘High Grade’) label was attached to possibly the best binoculars in the world. A pair of Nikon’s original 8x32 HGs were among my first premium bino’s, replacing some 7x42 Zeiss Dialyts; I was astonished at the clarity of the HGs’ view, the smoothness and speed of their focuser, the comfort of their eyepieces, the sheer quality of their construction.

But when Nikon wanted to upgrade the HGs – to make them lighter and fix the false colour from their non-ED objectives – they launched a completely new line instead, the EDGs, retaining the Monarchs as worthy but basic Chinese-made binoculars priced way below.

So what then are these? They look like the EDGs, but carry both ‘Monarch’ and ‘HG’ labels. Yet they are priced at about the discounted price of the original HGs and HG Ls. Are they a lower-cost EDG then? Or a fancier Monarch? Or a proper successor to the HGs made cheaper by outsourced manufacture? As always, let’s find out …

What’s in the Box?

There seems to have been a packaging war going on between Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss to see who can produce the most lavish box. Nikon’s is very basic by comparison, no Alpine watercolour paintings and glamorous unboxings here:

Design and Build

Unlike regular Monarchs, these are made (assembled?) in Japan and have a high price to match – list price is up with Zeiss Conquests and Leica Trinovids. Confusingly, they look nothing like either the Monarch 5s or the original HGs, but much more like the EDGs.

Like the EDGs the Monarch HGs have long barrels and a small bridge, lots of exposed metal and thin leatherette armour. Unlike Nikon’s robust EDGs, though, these have a very refined but slightly flimsy-seeming build. Nonetheless, build quality is very high with faultless fit and finish everywhere.

Nikon also market an 8x42 version, along with 8x30 and 10x30s. All share the same look and notably low weight for their format. All are priced in line with mid-market models from ‘Alpha’ makers Leica and Zeiss.

Body

These have the same semi-open bridge design used by the EDGs (and which they closely resemble): the bridge is single-hinge, but quite shallow, leaving lots of barrel to curl your fingers around. It’s a design increasingly adopted by other makes, including Vortex for its premium Razors.

The Monarch HGs feel very light, almost insubstantial. Indeed, a weight of just 700g including the stay-on caps is very low for a 42mm binocular – less than my SE 10x42 which used to lead the field in this respect and the same as Swarovski’s 7x42 Habichts which suffer a tunnel-view from simple eyepieces to keep weight down.

One reason for that class-leading weight is that the Monarch HGs use magnesium for the body, a premium feature.

Another way Nikon may have achieved the low weight is to use a thin, partial leatherette-style covering instead of rubber armour, but at least it doesn’t attract dust and fluff like some do. The protein armour on my SEs seems more functional, but based on my 8x20 HGs, which have a similar covering, the HG’s armour may be more rugged than it looks.

The ‘executive’ leatherette-and-anodising look is very different from a European Alpha binocular, but is in line with the EDGs. Despite the slightly flimsy appearance, Nikon claim they should be robust and their 5m waterproofness is very good.

Focuser

The focuser is accurate and smooth and has good snap. The feel isn’t ‘dry’ the way greaseless focusers often are, but rather slightly spongy. It’s as good as most, but not up to the best-ever standard of the original HGs or more recent EDGs. The focuser knob is a good size, but again not up to the super-chunky one fitted to the original HGs which helped make them such focusing heroes for gloved hands or cold fingers.

Close focus is excellent at around 1.5 metres, but as usual I struggled to merge the image below 2m. Still, it gives some potential for close-in viewing of butterflies etc.

Close focus to infinity is quite fast at just under one and a half turns: competitive with most premium birding binoculars.

Dioptre adjustment is via a ring under the right eyepiece: click up to adjust, click-down to lock. Unfortunately, it’s much too easy to click up by mistake and the ring feels flimsy. This is one of the few areas where I can really fault the Monarch HGs.

Optics - Prisms

These have standard Schmidt-Pechan (a.k.a. Roof) prisms, not the Abbe-König prisms that some premium binoculars have. The latest multi-layer dielectric prism mirrors are used for brightness and doubtless phase coatings too.

Optics - Objectives

It says ‘ED’ on the them, and these contain high-fluoride ‘extra low dispersion’ lens elements to combat false colour. Examination with a laser suggests the objectives are air-spaced doublets (many bino’s have triplet objectives) with quite thick elements, like Nikon’s other recent premium models.

The objective coatings are exceptionally transparent, some of the best I’ve seen yet. Their colour is a very muted greenish-pinkish tobacco and gives a nicely neutral colour balance to the view, as we will see. The coatings are claimed to be ‘scratch resistant’, but I assume they’re not the dirt-shedding variety.

The claimed overall transmittance of 92% is high for ordinary roofs (as opposed to Abbe-König prisms). This may in part be down to a minimalist optical configuration, hinted at by those doublet objectives.

The objectives are set quite deep within the barrels and fronted by micro-ridged baffles. The insides of the barrels are ridge-baffled too, but are not as well blacked as some (see below). Whether this matters is moot.

Coatings compared: Nikon Monarch HG on the left; Nikon SE on the right.

Optics - Eyepieces

The wide field of 62.2° apparent suggests sophisticated eyepieces, but laser investigation suggests relatively few thick elements, much like the EDGs I tested and the new ultra-premium WXs as well.

The large (22mm) eye lenses are flat, not dished like some, and are quite deep-set below the eye cup rims, reducing usable eye relief. Nonetheless, I measured 15mm of E.R. from the eye cup rims, which is just enough to see most of the field with my glasses on. Nikon claim 17mm, but that’s from those recessed lenses.

Blackouts as you move your eyes around are mercifully not a problem with these eyepieces, adding to comfort.

The eyecups click out very positively, without the squidgy vagueness you get with Zeiss Conquests (and Leica Trinovids to some extent). However, there are only three clicked-out positions which is less than some.

Accessories

The case is a semi-rigid design with a Cordura body and a leather flap with a snap-buckle fastener.  It’s a nice accessory – much more conventional, but probably more useful, than the strangely ‘woke’ little pouch that came with the Trinovids.

The eyepiece caps are quite a thin, hard rubber and seem a little difficult to push on and off. The nicely logoed objective caps are the stay-on variety. But unusually they seem to be integral with the rubber objective bumpers. And instead of pressing over the barrels, they fit into the ends. I found them annoying, needing careful seating to avoid popping out again. Nikon thoughtfully supply alternative objective bumpers without the caps.

 

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics and Handling

These are a very compact binocular. Though they have those long EDG-like barrels, there isn’t really enough space to get my fingers right around them. Weight is class-leading and very low – almost 200g less than a pair of Swarovski ELs - and should help with long periods of carrying or use in the field.

Despite their small size, I found them reasonably comfortable to hold, though big hands may not. Eyepiece comfort is good, with no blackouts and decent eye relief (though I prefer a couple of mm more for my glasses and face).

The focuser is OK, but I prefer the extra-chunky feel and fluidity of the HGs’ and EDGs’ (which share the ‘best focuser’ award for me). The dioptre adjustment isn’t great: it’s similar to the original HGs’ in design, but feels flimsy and imprecise, much too easy to click out by mistake.

There is no doubt that Monarch HGs’ small size, light weight and elegant appearance make them good to wear, even if they don’t have the cachet of Zeiss or Leica.

The View

The view is basically excellent – sharp, bright, wide and very detailed, with almost nothing to criticise. Optical quality appears extremely high.

I noticed especially high resolution on the plumage of various birds on the field opposite: every detail of feather picked out with stunning definition. Colours are very neutral, with neither the extra-vivid greens you get with some, or the warm tint of others.

That extra-high resolution helps with viewing at large distances. I had fun watching the ebb and flow of a flock of waders way out on the bay sands as the tide came in.

Comparisons with my Nikon 10x42 SEs show a very similar view overall, with a slightly cooler tint and a bit more width (but more edge curvature too – see below). Depth of field is slightly lower than the SEs.

Flat field?

Since the words ‘Field Flattener’ are etched into the body near the strap lugs, you would expect a flat field, especially since Nikon were an early adopter of the technology with their original HGs and SEs. During the day, the first impression is of a very flat field.

In fact, though you could probably ID a bird at the field stop, the field quality does drop off a little towards the edge and there is some field curvature (probably for panning comfort) in the last 15-20% or so. This is slightly worse than my 10x42 SEs and original HGs, but quite typical of many Zeiss and Leica models.

Distortion is low and there isn’t too much ‘rolling ball’ effect when panning.

Chromatic Aberration

These claim ‘ED’ optics, which is much the same as others’ ‘HD’, i.e. they should be well corrected for false colour and they are.

In general, daytime use reveals just a little residual false colour, so you can pan through tree branches in silhouette with only minor flashes of green and purple. However, false colour does increase in the last 15% or so of field width where that curvature creeps in too.

A pair of crows highlighted against a bright cloudy sky show the faintest rim of purple and green, but every feathery detail of their glossy black plumage is still visible. I watched a sunlit seagull set against black storm clouds with perfect clarity.

Overall, false colour levels are typical of modern HD binoculars, much the same as my old SEs but not quite as good as the very best that use two ED elements in their objectives.

In Use – Dusk

These are a bright binocular and perform well at dusk. I can still view those waders on the bay sands, even though the streetlights are on across the bay. Even in the winter twilight under the tree cover of my local copse, I can still make out leaves, mossy rocks and roots; an occasional deer. No problem with veiling flare from a bright dusk sky. These even penetrate dense cover in moonlight.

In Use – The Night Sky

The Monarch HGs’ exceptionally light weight is a bonus when holding them high for astronomy. Focus snap is most impressive, confirming optical quality is very high.

In terms of stray light suppression these are a mixed bag. True, there is no ghosting on a bright gibbous Moon. Even an intensely bright security light in-field produces only a faint ghost, but four long and bright prism spikes that span the whole field instead. But those spikes rarely show up otherwise, not even on the full Moon.

Working around a bright Moon or streetlight produces quite a lot of veiling flare and stray light performance in general is below my old Nikon 10x42 SEs, or recent premium birding binoculars.

The field-edge softening noted during the day manifests as field curvature, but also some astigmatism, at night: stars blur into lines near the edge and if you re-focus they become cross-shaped, then blur into lines at 90°. This is very obvious in star fields. For example, centre the Double Cluster in the view and it’s like viewing through mist: stars in the outer 20% of the view have simply smeared out and disappeared into a haze.

The Moon

The Monarch HGs give one of the best 10x views I’ve had of the Moon, really.

There is only a trace of false colour on the limb (noticeably a little less than through the similarly-priced Leica Trinovids I reviewed recently) and the view is perfectly sharp and clear, with lots of detail resolved. The ED optics yield a Moon that is free from flare and perfectly white and grey, without the yellowish tint some older Nikons deliver.

Resting on my car’s roof, the view of a near-full Moon yielded all the major features in pin-sharp detail: Copernicus and Plato, bright white Aristarchus, Tycho’s exploding rays, including one that I could follow northwards across the whole face of the Moon.

The superb resolution evident during the day shows up very clearly here and a huge amount of detail is available with fabulous contrast: it’s a view similar to that at low power through a fine astronomical telescope.

Planets

Only Venus was around when I reviewed these and it held no nasty surprises – no significant flare against a darkening sky and just a trace of false colour. There was a hint of those prism spikes, though.

Deep Sky

The excellent optical quality yields pin-point stars with intense true colours: Aldebaran was a blazing orange. Even in full moonlight, I was able to pick out numerous fainter stars amid the Pleiades. The Seven Sisters themselves were super-sparkling. Those ultra-intense stars mean these go deep for a 10x42.

I easily found other brighter members of Messier’s list, including the clusters in Auriga, the Double Cluster, M31 and of course M42 (the Great Nebula in Orion). All looked as good as through any 10x42 binoculars I have tried with brightness and contrast excellent. Only those distorted stars in the outer field made the view less than perfect.

These split Albireo better than any 10x binocular I can recall and showed its components’ colours – orange and blue - very well.

Nikon Monarch 10x42 HG vs Nikon 10x42 SE (HGP)

Nikon’s SE 10x42s are my old reference standard in 10x42 binoculars and share much in common with the Monarch HGs, apart from the ‘HG’ label. Both were Nikon’s mid-market option but with top optics and had a similar new price. Both aimed at very low weight for their class. Both claimed a flat field. So how do they compare?

·        Remarkably, the Monarch HGs are slightly lighter and much smaller

·        The Monarch HGs have 0.9° of field extra – quite a lot

·        The SEs field is flatter and has less astigmatism at the edge, so better for astronomy

·        The HGs have worse stray light performance overall (though slightly better in-field ghosting)

·        Chromatic aberration is virtually identical, though the Monarch HGs boast ED optics

·        Resolution is very high in both

·        The SEs have several mm more eye relief for better comfort with glasses, but worse blackouts

·        The Monarch HGs are fully waterproof; the SEs are not

For general use, you’d take the Monarch HGs. For astronomy, the flatter field of the SEs remains a winner.

Summary

Perhaps in the end the biggest issues with the Monarch HGs are cost and marketing. They are not a reborn HG and lack the robust construction, superb focuser and ultra-flat field of their original namesake, yet cost about the same in the real world. Instead, think of them more as EDG-lite.

The first impression was of flimsiness, but that’s not really fair and may in part just be down to their unusually light weight. True, I had just finished reviewing Leica’s new Trinovids which have a more European-traditional build. By comparison, the Nikons seem less robust, with thinner leatherette armour and less of it, more exposed anodised metal.

In fact, build quality is very, very high. The view, meanwhile, is excellent – sharp, crystal-clear and with high resolution. Optical quality is high too and eyepiece comfort good. A bit too much field edge softening from curvature and astigmatism - despite those field flatteners - is a minor disadvantage for astronomy.

The Monarch HGs do suffer from a couple of minor faults, though. The dioptre adjustment ring really does seem flimsy and its click-lock operation is too light. Prism spikes on bright lights at night (though not the Moon) are too pronounced and might reveal themselves looking at birds on bright water, for example.

Overall, the Monarch HGs look a bit too ‘executive’ for my tastes, but their build quality and optics are class-leading for their price. Their extremely low weight is a real bonus either for carrying all day, or holding high for astronomy.

The Monarch HG’s are an excellent binocular with a quality build and a very fine view. Only a bit too much field-edge softening mars them a little for astronomy. Whether they’re worth the price compared with excellent Euro models like Leica’s Trinovid HDs, is up to you.

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