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How does a Japanese-made flagship model from a 2nd tier brand compare with Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski? Read on to find out Ö

Pentax 8x32 DCF ED Review

When I went to buy a pair of 10x42 Leicas recently, the sales guy tried to persuade me to get the 8x32s instead. In a way he was right Ė for most people, most of the time 8X32s are the best binoculars. 8x32s are bright enough to work well in low light, compact enough for extended carry and travel and (just) large enough of aperture for some casual astronomy.

The trouble with 32mm binoís is that they seem hard to make well for a sensible cost, probably due to real optical constraints. Whatever the reason, all my favourite 8x32s have been expensive. So if you want a really good pair of 8x32s with all the premium features Ė light, compact body; bright, sharp, high-res view; wide field and good eye relief; quality, rugged build and long warranty Ė without bringing £1500 (~$2000) to the table for a pair of ĎAlphasí what do you do?

As Iíve said before, a good strategy is to target the flagship model of a wannabe-premium brand. The brand has worked hard to match the best of the best and may have tried to price accordingly. But when the sales flood fails to materialise, the discounts can be deep.

These Pentax DCF EDs are a case in point. On paper at least they look competitive with Zeiss and Leica (if not quite with Swarovskiís ELs) and they were once expensive. But at new-old-stock discounts they can be had for a third the price. Specs can be deceptive though, so as usual letís find out if these top-of-the-range Pentax DCF EDs really are pushing into the high end.

At A Glance

Magnification

8x

Objective Size

32mm

Eye Relief

17mm claimed (13mm measured)

Actual Field of View

7.5į

Apparent field of view

55į

Close focus

~1m (yes really)

Transmissivity

? 85-90% ?

Length

127mm

Weight

665g

Data from Pentax/Me.

Whatís in the Box?

The Alpha brands have gone mad with packaging lately, creating unboxing experiences to savour. That isnít good for the environment, though, and these Pentaxes have the exact opposite Ė the most basic box you can think of.

Design and Build

These DCF EDs were Pentaxís flagship range and once also included 8x43, 10x43 and 10x50 models. On paper at least they have all the luxury features, like high eyepoint eyepieces, click-stop eye cups, ED glass and fast focusing. They were likely designed as a response to Nikonís then-class-leading HGLs and their specs and some design features closely match the Nikons.

Pentax were at one time a really high-end Japanese brand, but like Nikon they have diluted that reputation a bit with some less than wonderous cheaper optics sourced elsewhere in the Far East. But as we will see, these truly are a high-end product Ė made in Japan and with very high build quality, both mechanical and optical. And when they were first released, ED glass was still a rarity in binoculars.

Body

These are a typical pair of roof prism binoculars with a short stubby body and conventional bridge Ė no fashionable open or semi-open body here. Of the other top quality 8x32s out there, the DCF EDs perhaps most closely resemble Zeissí Victory FLs, though these are slightly longer and chunkier.

The armour is especially thick, warm and comfy, offering maximal protection. Itís very well fitted too. In terms of fluff and dust attraction itís worse than Swarovskiís, but better than Zeissí. It does smell slightly rubbery.

Weight at 665g (650g measured) is around 100g more than Zeissí Victory FLs, Swarovskiís 8x32 ELs and Leicaís Ultravid HDs. But hefting the Pentaxes itís not hard to see why. These are a heavily built binocular with a robust feel: thick armour, deeply recessed objectives and over-sized strap lugs. The extra weight isnít materials, since these boast a magnesium alloy body.

Strangely, though, Pentax only advertise waterproofing to 1m. Though whether they really are less immersion proof than a pair of Swarovskis or Nikons, or whether itís Pentax playing safe, I donít know.

Focuser

From their general specs, which are almost identical, I suspect Pentax benchmarked Nikonís old HGLs before designing these. In which case itís odd they didnít attempt to copy the large knob and super-fluid focuser of the Nikons. The focuser is precise and doesnít suffer free play, but itís heavier and stiffer than the best.

They do however focus insanely close, down to about a metre (Pentax conservatively claim 1.5m), but youíll struggle to merge the image at that extreme short distance. Even so, close focus is an outstanding feature. Pentax make the Papilio, a specialist binocular for butterflies etc, and I guess theyíve used that expertise here too.

Despite that super-close minimum focus, infinity is just 1.5 turns away, so these still focus plenty fast enough to follow birds on the wing.

Optics - Prisms

These have the usual Schmidt-Pechan (a.k.a. Roof) prisms, not Abbe-KŲnig prisms which wouldnít fit into such a compact format (all Zeiss Victory FLs have Abbe-KŲnig prisms, except the 32mm models). They have phase coatings like most modern roofs and may have dielectric coatings on the prisms for high transmittance (the larger models certainly do).

Optics - Objectives

The objectives appear to be of triplet design, with a single (?) ED element. Whatís that? Well, ED (extra dispersion) glass in one or more of the lens elements allows much better correction for false colour fringing (technically chromatic aberration).

Coatings are a muted purple rather than the greenish-pink or tobacco hues typical now. However, they look to be of high quality and are very transparent, nonetheless.

Behind the objectives there are ridge baffles in the focuser housing, but no anti-flare baffles in front of the glass (though the retaining ring is blackened):

Deep purple multi-coatings are a bit old-fashioned now, but still of high quality.

Optics - Eyepieces

The eyepieces are a 5-lens design with aspherical elements. The eye lenses are large at 22mm, but flat not dished like some. Coatings look excellent, exactly like a premium astronomical eyepiece in fact (no surprise there since Pentax still make premium astroí eyepieces). Field of view at 7.5į true is 0.5į less than the Zeiss or Swarovski equivalents, but the same as Nikonís HGLs.

Pentax claim eye relief of 17mm but thatís especially misleading here. The ER may actually be 17mm, from the eye lenses. However, those lenses are so deeply recessed that eye relief from the rim of the cups (which is what matters) is much less Ė more like 13mm. Why is this especially misleading? Because 17mm would mean the whole field is comfortably visible with glasses on, whereas 13mm means the field Ė not the widest in the first place Ė is significantly reduced for specs wearers.

Why is it hard to get decent eye relief in a compact binocular? Due to the short focal length of the objectives, the eyepiece has to be of short focal length too and eyepiece ER tends to naturally drop off at shorter focal lengths. Swarovskiís 8x32 ELs have really good eye relief, but they are a significantly longer binocular and Zeissí new 32mm SFs look to be much the same.

The click-stop eye cups have three out positions and are positive and stable, right up with the best. The eyepieces are also thankfully free from blackouts as you move your eye around, a problem that some other long eye relief designs suffer from.

Accessories

Case and strap are both a bit basic. In particular, the strap doesnít have the usual wide padded portion. Youíd probably buy a harness for all-day carry. The push-in rubber objective caps are high quality and give a tight seal, but are a real pain to get in. The case is shaped like the one for Nikonís HGLs, but there itís leather, here itís basic cordura.

In Use Ė Daytime

Ergonomics and Handling

Weight is an area where these Pentaxes fall short of the premium competition, which typically weigh about 20% less. You donít really notice that extra weight in the handling, though you might if wearing them all day, especially since the strap is much thinner and less padded than many.

The focuser is precise and it falls easily to finger. Finding perfect focus is easy and focus snap is perfect. But the action is quite heavy and doesnít have the fluidity that the very best do. Then again, depth of field is so good you wonít need to focus that much anyway.

Dioptre adjustment is via the standard ring below the eyepiece. Itís well weighted and precise, with a positive lock. But it has some free play and isnít as convenient as a good co-mounted centre knob.

Multi-adjust eye cups and no blackouts mean eyepiece comfort is excellent without specs. But for those like me who view with glasses on there isnít enough eye relief and you lose both field width and comfort compared to the best 8x32s.

I think these are an elegant and understated binocular to wear Ė they are compact, exude quality and avoid the fugly bulbous look of say Nikonís old HG 8x32s. I quite like the armour colour, too.

Pentax DCF EDs are a compact and quite elegant binocular. Push-in objective covers are a pain, though.

The View

Centre field the view is crystal clear, sharp and there is a sense of very high resolution indeed. Itís bright too, if perhaps not as stunningly so as the very best these days. Unlike a pair of Nikonís otherwise-superb HGLs, there is minimal false colour to spoil things when things get very bright on snow or water, or the contrast is high.

Depth of field is very good indeed Ė you can set a middle distance and mostly just forget the focuser after that, unless viewing down to garden distances.

Field width is half a degree less than the Alpha leaders and it does feel a bit more constricted, but there isnít that sense of viewing through a tunnel that truly narrow fields give.

The close focus view is excellent and really comfortable, like a good birding glass should be. I watch a Robin collecting nesting fluff from my drive in perfect 3D clarity. But then I find I can focus closer, much closer. So I watch the bees in my heather with complete comfort.

Flat field?

Unlike some recent binoculars, these donít have a flat field. Off-axis, blurring starts from about 60% field width in the daytime and gets noticeable after 70%. I canít read the scale on a ruler much beyond 75%, but it doesnít blur out completely at the edge like some do. Does this matter? In the daytime, where you concentrate on the centre, probably not.

Chromatic Aberration

It says ĎEDí on the focuser and indeed false colour correction is excellent. I can watch the Goldfinches that flit around the trees opposite, silhouetted against a bright cloudy sky, with no purple and green fringe to spoil their plumage. Off-axis false colour is very well controlled too.

Only when viewing the Jackdaw parents bringing up another brood in my neighboursí chimney do I notice the faintest tinge of false colour, but thatís true of almost every binocular.

In Use Ė Dusk

A 4mm exit pupil isnít ideal for very low light conditions, so these donít work as well at dusk as a pair of 42mm or 50mm binoculars. That said, their dielectric prisms and quality multi coatings mean they make the best of low light during the day, so use in the forest or on very cloudy days isnít a problem like it is for 20mm binoís.

In Use Ė The Night Sky

Field-edge softening during the day always looks worse at night. Stars blur from just 50% field width, though stars on axis are commendably point-like and sharp. But unlike other binoculars, the off-axis blur is mostly due to field curvature with very little astigmatism until the very edge Ė you can focus the distortion away until the last 10% or so. This suggests Pentax put it there by design to make for comfortable panning. Shame they didnít ask an astronomer because it does spoil the view slightly through what would otherwise be one of the best 8x32s Iíve tested for astronomy.

The field isnít as wide as some, losing about half a degree to a typical Alpha 8x32. Nonetheless itís enough to cram in whole chunks of constellation. Orionís belt and sword both fit in the field, but that field curvature means Nair Al Saif and Mintaka are both somewhat blurred and distorted. M37, M36 and M38 all fit (just) in the same field of view.

In other ways theyíre handy for astroí use. The thick, warm armour is appreciated, likewise their light weight and general wieldiness. Ditto the lack of blackouts (which are a pain when the view is mostly blackness anyway).

The Moon

A 6-day-old Moon is a thick crescent with a highly distinctive group of three craters, Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catherina, just coming out of deep shadow. Identifying them, even including the central peak in Theophillus, is easy. I can also see a couple of deep craters in the north Ė Atlas and Hercules - too, but thatís about it for craters; otherwise itís about enjoying the larger landscapes of the Moon, the Maria and highlands, sweeping Apennine mountains and bright rays.

No, a magnification of 8x hand-held isnít ideal for the Moon, but nonetheless itís a good view Ė absolutely pin sharp, with no flare or ghosts, no spikes, just a dazzling white and grey crescent.

Venus

A brilliant evening Venus showed a clean image with no ghosts and minimal flare and just a trace of spikes, no significant false colour.

Deep Sky

The Hyades easily all fitted into the field of view, as did M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga. But whereas a larger aperture would reveal M38 in particular as a burst of stars, at this aperture itís a dim fuzzy blob with stars only visible using careful averted vision. M35, one of the biggest and brightest clusters, needs averted vision to make the most of it too. Other bright open clusters like The Beehive are dimmer and much less populous than through larger apertures; even the Pleiades are less sparkly than Iím used to.

In similar vein, the Double Cluster is much less spectacular than through larger binoís and the Orion Nebula is significantly dimmer and less nebulous than through a 42mm. If found exactly where the Crab Nebula should be, but couldnít honestly claim Iíd spotted it.

The Andromeda galaxy was lowish in the spring evening sky and easy to locate, but only the core was readily visible, along with just the faint sense of the galaxyís wider extent. Still, on the other side of Mirach I found a big dim smudge that was M33 when I wasnít expecting to.

All in all, a 32mm aperture isnít optimal for astronomy, but the little Pentax DCFs give a good view with sharp stars and wide fields and a crisp, detailed Moon Ė great for some casual astronomy once in a while.

Pentax 8x32 DCF ED vs Zeiss Victory 8x32 FL

The Victory FLs are my favourite 8x32s to date for their combination of sharp, bright optics, wide field, good eyepiece comfort and very compact size. How do these Pentax EDs compare?

        The Victorys are actually slightly (1cm) shorter and 100g lighter

        The Victorys have 0.5į more field width, but slightly worse edge softening

        False colour levels are virtually identical and excellent in both

        The Victorys have about 2-3mm more eye relief in practice (despite 1mm less on paper)

        The Zeiss focuser is smoother and faster, has a larger more glove-friendly wheel

        The Zeissí pull-to-adjust central dioptre is better and easier to use

        The Pentaxes have a conventional aluminium body, the Victorys are composite

        Resolution and general optical quality seem about the same

        The Victorys seem a tad brighter

        External quality seems better in the Pentax Ė better plastics and armour, better fit and finish

        The Pentax do focus closer, which might be the killer app if you like macroscopic viewing (flowers, butterflies)

Overall, the Zeiss are the better binocular. But hereís the kicker Ė probably not three times (the typical cost multiple) better, even to the pickiest optics fan.

Summary

In most ways these Pentax 8x32 EDs fall a bit short of the very finest at this size Ė i.e. Zeiss Victorys and Swarovski ELs, probably Zeissí new 32mm SFs too. But that makes them sound mediocre and compared to most thatís unfair. What they give away is minor and may not matter much in practice; meanwhile you might save £1000.

What do you give away if you choose these over a pair of Alphas, then? The weight is a bit higher, the field a little narrower and not quite as sparkling bright, the eye relief a bit less. Compared to the ELs, the field blurs a bit more towards the edge. The focuser and dioptre adjust arenít quite as refined as Swarovskiís at least.

But in other ways, these give away very little to the class leaders. Centre field, the view is super-sharp, bright enough and full of high-res detail. False colour correction is excellent, just as the ED label promises. Build quality is really very good indeed and the 30-year warranty confirms it. The armour is thick and the objectives heavily recessed; Iím guessing they would take hard use well (much better than say Nikonís Monarch HGs). Depth of field is very good and close focus absolutely class-leading.

Interestingly, these play very much in the Kowa Genesis XD 8x33 league, but I mostly prefer these Pentax DCFs.

So, unless you really must have the very best, these make an excellent every-day birding or travel and nature-viewing binocular, especially if you donít wear specs to view. They are good for a bit of casual astronomy too.

If you are looking for a properly premium 8x32 at a mid-range price, these Pentax DCF EDs are well worth a look, especially if you view without specs in which case they come close to the European high-end. Highly recommended.

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