Swarovski’s Habicht range of porro-prism binoculars have been around for decades, but with the latest coatings they are far from being outclassed. The 10x40s are an obvious choice for a mix of birding and astronomy, so how do they compare with the latest designs?
Swarovski Habicht 10x40 W Review
High-end porro-prism binoculars aren’t so much a ‘dying breed’ as an optical Dodo. With the deletion of the SE range from its catalogue a few years ago, Nikon were the last to throw in the towel with a state-of-the-art porro design.
You might imagine this is because porro-prisms are somehow inferior, but that’s one of those ‘alternative facts’ that define our era (apparently). The actual fact is that in many ways porro-prisms are better than roofs. It’s just that the look and style of porros has gone seriously out of fashion.
So, I thought it was time I took a look at the last porro-prism binocular range from a premium manufacturer – Swarovski’s Habichts, specifically the 10x40 which should be good for both birding and astronomy. These don’t really count as a modern porro-prism design, though, because they are based on a sixty year old model. But what they are is a porro-prism binocular built to the highest standards, in the same Austrian factory as Swarovski’s other products. (I’m afraid that Nikon’s EIIs – now made in Malaysia – don’t count as premium on either front, design or manufacture, good though they are.)
At A Glance
13mm (claimed and actual)
Actual Field of View
Apparent field of view
Data from Swarovski
What’s in the Box?
Design and Build
Swarovski introduced the Habichts in 1949 I believe and they don’t look much different today. There are currently three models – 8x30, 7x42 and these 10x40s. However, these do not differ just by magnification – the 7x42s have a simple eyepiece design and so a very narrow field, but peerlessly low weight to compensate.
All models are available with or without green rubber armour and all are waterproof.
Unlike many porros, the prism housing is lined with a conical baffle tube to stop stray light bouncing about and the insides are very carefully blacked and baffled generally. These are the subtleties you pay for when you buy the best.
Given the simple design and long production life, Swarovski are always likely to be able to repair them and even if Swarovski close down, local binocular repairers should be able to work on them.
Though these are a retro design, it’s important to remember that the materials used are bang up-to-date. Swarovski are well-known for continuously improving their products. People who send older examples for service often end up with them back better-than-new (I did).
In photos, the Habichts look gorgeous, but close up they are a more utilitarian binocular than, say, a fifty-year-old pair of Zeiss Oberkochens or modern Leica BLs – the Habichts lack the top-of-the-range finish of those models.
Body and Ergonomics
These appear to be a conventional, if small and slightly flimsy feeling porro-prism design. They are mostly metal with a thin covering of leatherette. It looks as if these have rubber ‘bumpers’ around the objectives, like Nikon’s SEs, but they don’t - it’s thin metal too, like the prism housing covers.
Appearances are deceptive, though, because these are magnesium alloy to save weight and are (most unusually for porros with a central focuser) nitrogen purged and fully waterproof to 4m – just like any other Swarovski.
The absence of armour makes these very light at 690g, but they do feel a bit vulnerable to knocks. You can get a ‘GA’ version with full rubber if you prefer, but it’s more expensive, heavier and a lot uglier. Take solace from the fact that if you bash them on a rock, Swarovski will likely be able to repair them.
The focuser is just the typical moving bridge design found on most porro prism binoculars. It was very stiff at first, but loosened a bit with use and is smooth and accurate enough. I will again point out it doesn’t have to be this way – the focuser on a 1960s Zeiss Oberkochen I once owned was super-smooth and twirly, very much like the focuser on Nikon’s modern HGs or EDGs.
Close focus on the Habichts is 2.8 metres – good for this type of design - but close-in the images don’t merge as well as many roofs’, mainly because of the wide set of the objectives. Close-focus to infinity is about a turn, but these focus a long way past infinity.
Habicht focuser and dioptre are traditional.
Optics - Prisms
The prisms are just simple porro-prisms. No phase coatings or dielectric (SWAROBRIGHTTM ) mirrors here. Why? Because porro-prisms just don’t need them!
Optics - Objectives
These have none of the recent developments in objective design – numerous elements, ED glass, big air gaps and the rest. No, these are a simple achromatic doublet, just like they would have been in 1949. You might expect that these basic lenses would suffer from significant false colour, but as we will see, they don’t.
The objectives may be of the simplest design, but they benefit from the latest glass and coatings. As you can see below, the coatings are almost identical to the ELs’.
Overall transmission is quoted at 96% - that’s about 6% higher than Swarovski’s top-end EL range and about the highest I have ever come across. As we will see, subjective daytime brightness bears this out. So what’s going on? I thought these were an outdated design?
Every optical surface of every glass element – lens or prism or optical window – scatters or absorbs a bit of light. How much it absorbs or scatters depends to a very high degree on the coatings applied. In case you think we’re splitting hairs here, know that the transmission for a pair of uncoated 1949 Habichts would have been … wait for it … about 45%!
Because these Habichts (made in 2016) have both state of the art coatings and a very simple (call it outdated if you want) optical design with no lossy mirrors and just basic doublet objectives, they transmit more of the light to your eyes.
Optics – Eyepieces
The eyepieces are physically tiny compared to many modern binos’, about the diameter of the eye lenses on a pair of ELs. You might think that means they are just basic Kellners, but cutaways of the Habichts show a 6-element design tying in with the tech-sheet’s claim of 10 optical elements per side (two for the objectives, two prisms and six in the eyepiece). However, note that the identical-looking 7x42mm Habichts do have basic eyepieces, accounting for their very narrow FOV.
In the case of these 10x40 Habichts, those multi-element eyepieces give a field of about 60° apparent and 6.5° true, which is well up to modern standards, though narrower than Nikon’s otherwise quite similar 10x35 EII porros.
The eye cups don’t stand very proud of the eye lenses when folded down, so eye relief is 13mm, for once just as claimed. But that means I lose at least a third of the field with my thick-framed glasses on.
The 10x40 Habichts come with the thinly padded fabric case that used to come with the non-HD SLCs; it’s adequate, but no more. The eyepiece cap is Swarovski-logoed, but thin plastic that doesn’t stretch over the eyepieces if you fold the cups down – a minor irritation.
If the other accessories show unmistakeable signs of cost-shaving, the strap is lovely. It’s made of leather and stamped with ‘Swarovski’ and has little hawk badges at the ends, but it is quite broad and well-padded, not like those old Zeiss leather straps that cut into your neck.
In Use – Daytime
Ergonomics and Handling
The Habichts are wonderfully light to carry and hold. Those stubby objectives make for an easy, steady grip.
So far so good, but the focuser is stiff compared to modern designs and eyepiece comfort is poor. There just isn’t enough eye relief for my glasses and folding down the cups is fiddly. However, without specs on I don’t find the narrow eye cups as uncomfortable as some testers have.
In my opinion, few binoculars look as chic as these when worn.
It’s hard to argue with the Habichts’ authentic retro chic when worn.
If, like me, you were expecting Swarovski’s ancient, ‘budget’ binoculars to deliver a substandard view, you are in for a shock.
The transmission figure quoted by Swarovski for the Habichts – 96% - is the highest of any binoculars that I have ever tested, so you would expect them to have the brightest daytime view (remember, daytime brightness owes little to aperture, because your pupil stops the aperture down to say 20mm anyway) and they do. The daytime view is astoundingly bright. By comparison, my 10x50 Els - a bright binocular by other standards - seem just a little dimmer and less sparkling.
So, the Habichts are extraordinarily bright. But the good stuff doesn’t end there, because they are also amazingly sharp centre field, delivering a very detailed and high-resolution, high-contrast view – the equal of any in the centre 50% or so. The view is quite wide too, although the quality does drop off towards the edge. What’s more, there is none of that yellow-tint that you get with older porros (even Nikon’s SEs are slightly ‘warm’ to my tastes) – the colour balance is cool and neutral.
Depth of field and stereoscopic effect are simply excellent.
Many of the recent premium binoculars I have reviewed, from Swarovski SLCs through Zeiss SFs, have had an essentially flat field. These don’t. The off-axis softness (mainly due to astigmatism, as we will discover at night) are like binoculars used to be. About 50% of the overall field width is clean and sharp, after which aberrations creep in. By the edge things are pretty blurred; there’s no viewing to the field stop here. However, that less flat field does make for more traditional and comfortable panning.
The habichts’ field edge is quite distorted, even during the day.
More surprises. Zeiss’ HTs have six elements in their objectives, two of which are special ED glass – all to control false colour. These old fashioned Habichts have a simple doublet up front and no ED glass. So you would expect them to be a mess of false colour in comparison, but not so. If the Habichts do have a touch more chromatic aberration than the very best HD designs like the HTs, the difference is marginal. For much of the time they seem false-colour free, even observing dark plumage amid high branches.
To put this in context, false colour levels are much lower than the previous generation of premium roofs (like Nikon’s HGs for example).
In Use – Dusk
The Habichts’ peerless brightness penetrates dusk shadows well and a Moonlit landscape is revealed at bright twilight levels. I suspect these would make a good, lightweight night hunting glass.
In Use – The Night Sky
Working around a brilliant full Moon does produces flare and odd ghosts and reflections where the best modern binoculars do not; ditto from local lights as I’m panning around. But with the full Moon blindingly bright in-field, I could detect no ghosts at all – an impressive achievement for such an old design.
These binoculars live up to the theory that porro-prisms generate less spikes and so tighter star images. These have some of the brightest, most pin-point stars I have ever seen in binoculars. One result of this is that they show faint stars extremely well; another is that star colours are very strong.
The field is not flat, with stars distorting progressively from ~50-60% of field-width. However, this doesn’t get really intrusive until the last 10% or so, where faint stars become invisible due to smearing of their light. Most of the off-axis aberration is pure astigmatism that can’t be focused away – stars become linear parallel to the field stop one side of focus, radial the other. Since the field is wide to start with and the central area is so good, I don’t find this the problem I do with some binoculars.
As during the day, false colour is just never an issue – not on bright stars, not on Venus, not even on the full Moon.
Perfect focus is an absolute snap and though the focuser may be stiff, it’s accurate enough to find it.
Despite the severe vignetting with my specs, due to the short eye relief, I can still see 4°-4.5° - enough to fit in most the things I want to look at in the night sky, including M31.
A full Moon generates almost no false colour. Sharpness and contrast are top-line too. So the Moon is a beautiful sight through the Habichts – crisp and hard and full of detail. The aperture is small enough to make the full Moon enjoyable, whereas with 50mm objectives and upwards it is just too bright.
Venus shows very little flare or false colour and I can make out its crescent phase, showing what a clean image those porro-prisms deliver.
Jupiter’s disk and its Moon are clearly visible with little flare from the bright planet.
Each successive size of binocular yields a definite improvement for deep sky astronomy, so don’t expect the Habichts to perform like 15x56s, or even good 10x50s. Having said that, whilst an 8x32 is marginal for astronomy, these 10x40 can find a lot.
I easily found Bode’s Nebula and could distinguish the different shape of the two galaxies (just). The Double Cluster looked good and I could see the shape of the Starfish Cluster with averted vision. The Great Nebula in Orion (M42) wasn’t as bright as I am used to, but still showed quite a bit of nebulosity. The belt region of Orion was filled with stars and the main three stars easily fitted in the field, even with my specs on (and with the outer stars – Alnitak and Mintaka – still within the central sweet-spot and showing little astigmatic distortion). Meanwhile, M33 was easy to find and M31 on the other side of Mirach extended for a long way. The Pleiades looked jewel bright. But I failed to find some smaller, dimmer DSOs, including M1 in Taurus.
Overall, I really enjoyed using the Habichts for astronomy, particularly appreciating their pin-point stars and perfect Moon.
Swarovski 10x40 Habicht vs Nikon 10x42 SE
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 Nikons to my eyes.
· 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 Nikons are merely ‘weather resistant’.
· 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.
The Habichts’ design may be a throwback, but the view is not. If you are happy to concentrate on the central half of the view they are as good as any and much better than most – sharp, high contrast, super-bright and low in false colour. Most porro-prism reviews start making excuses for lack of waterproofing at this point, but not here – these are just as waterproof as any other premium birding bino’. What’s more, these are lighter than most 10x42 roofs and the higher transmissivity makes up for that 2mm aperture difference.
So why then might you pay three times as much for a pair of 10x42 ELs? The Habichts do have some downsides, let’s list them:
· Whilst the field of view of the Habichts is actually slightly wider than the 10x42 ELs, it is very unsharp at the edge, falling off in quality from about 60% width compared to the sharp-at-the-edge ELs.
· The Habichts have much less eye relief and so are much less comfortable for specs wearers.
· The Habichts lack convenience features, like twist-up eye cups, click-stop dioptre adjust and a super-smooth focuser.
· These unarmoured Habichts are more vulnerable to knocks.
· The ELs have just a bit less residual false colour, but the difference is small.
· The Habichts show some flare (but not in-field ghosting) that the ELs do not.
· The Habichts’ retro looks have less status value in the local hide (though I’m guessing more if taken for a stroll down the prom’ at Cannes or Montreux).
If you aren’t bothered by the fuzzy field edge and don’t wear glasses, are happy with a stiffer focusing action, then these Habichts would make a wonderful birding or hunting binocular that work deep into dusk thanks to their super-bright optics. For astronomy, they go deep and show pin-point stars and a very sharp Moon. The field-edge astigmatism doesn’t really spoil the night-sky view.
The icing on the cake is European build quality and the promise of long-term reparability, and the fact that they will never date and so are likely to hold their value exceptionally well.
If you’re not bothered about the blurry field-edge and the short eye relief, Swarovski’s 10x40 Habichts are highly recommended, especially for birders and hunters in the low-light conditions of a northern winter and who want a lightweight glass. Centre-field the view is up with the very best.