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Swarovski 10x42 EL SV (SWAROVISIONTM) Review

 

A well-known reviewer has written that he doesn’t consider it worthwhile reviewing Premium binoculars anymore because they are all so close to perfection. When I read that my first reaction was an expletive, because I couldn’t disagree more strongly.

 

I remarked in my review of the Leica 12x50 Ultravid HDs that such an expensive binocular was still no better (in some ways worse) than Nikon’s fifteen-year-old 12x50 SE. Specifically, the Leica HDs (and Zeiss Victory FLs and HTs) still fail to deliver flat fields and sufficient eye relief in some models, still suffer quite noticeable chromatic aberration, despite their HD lenses.

 

This was precisely the point I was making in my “Open Letter to the Alpha Bino Makers” which you can read here.

  

The first manufacturer to move towards the kind of wide-field, aberration-free binocular I was asking for was Swarovski with its SWAROVISIONTM version of their premium and well-liked EL range, so let’s see if this latest version of the classic 42mm EL is getting closer to a “perfect” binocular, as the specs suggest they might be.

At A Glance

Magnification

10x

Objective Size

42mm

Eye Relief

17.3mm

Actual Field of View

6.3 degrees

Apparent field of view

61 degrees

Close focus

5m

Transmissivity

91%

Length

160mm

Weight

880g

Data from Swarovski

What’s in the Box?

Design and Build

I first encountered Swarovski’s EL binoculars when I was living in Switzerland. A colleague who was a deer-hunter and birdwatcher swore by Swarovski optics and had a pair of older SWAROBRIGHTTM 8.5x42 ELs. I used the ELs several times watching birds on Lake Geneva and really liked the wide bright field and good eye relief, but noted the following negative points:

 

The new Swarovsion version of the EL on test here boasts a number of technical improvements to address these issues.

 

Body and Ergonomics

The most obvious thing about the new ELs is that Swarovski have addressed my last and most trivial point: they look nicer than the old ones. The dark green armour is pleasantly warm and textured to hold, has a classy embedded Hawk badge and is supposed to be hypoallergenic too. They have extended the armouring into the bridge area, which look better and should be warmer to hold. I still think they look less elegant than Leica HDs, though, but that’s just my taste.

 

Other than those minor tweaks to improve the look, the body is the same open-bridge design as before, pioneered in the ELs, but now much copied. For comparison, the body is slimmer, but slightly longer than the Zeiss Victory FL and heavier than some other premium models (the new copycat Zeiss SF included), at 840g without the caps and strap. The open-bridge design is comfortable to hold, allowing me to wrap my hands around the barrels.

 

Swarovski claim use of magnesium alloys in the body and as you would expect the ELs are sealed against water to 4m.

 

Compared to Swarovski’s 56mm SLCs, the ELs are very compact.

Cutouts on the back make the ELs comfortable to hold.

Focuser

The focusing action has been improved for the SWAROVISIONTM EL and it is now mostly smooth and very precise, about on a par with Leica and Zeiss.

 

Swarovski claim two turns lock-to-lock, but mine measure just under two and a half. That might sound a bit slow, but in general use this is a fast focuser, taking just one turn to go from a few metres to infinity. The reason full focus travel takes two and a half turns is that these have a very close focus distance of 1.5 metres at one extreme and lots of travel out beyond infinity at the other to compensate for those with less than perfect vision. Note (2015): specs suggest the latest version of the SWAROVISIONTM EL may differ in close-focus performance and the speed of the focuser.

 

Focuser with click-out dioptre adjustment.

Optics - Prisms

The Swarovsion ELs use conventional roof (Schmidt-Pechan) prisms that incorporate mirrors, unlike the Abbe-König prisms used in Zeiss Victorys and Swarovski’s own 56mm HD SLCs. This means they transmit a bit less light than those models (3-5% less) due to scattering by those mirrors. However, the mirrors are of the latest multi-layer dielectric type which are as good as they can be.

Optics – Objectives

The new ELs must now be one of the most complex designs around with 12 optical elements per side, which may explain why they feel heavy for their size (Swarovski’s cut-away view show them fairly packed with glass).

 

One of the most important optical upgrades is the use of HD lenses to rival Zeiss and Leica. HD lenses contain high-fluoride glasses to reduce chromatic aberration (false colour fringes) the way an apochromatic telescope does. In these ELs, the lenses appear to have at least four elements, incorporating a large air gap.

 

Coatings include the new SWAROCLEANTM technology that rivals Zeiss’ “Lotutec” to provide a surface that resists water and marks.

Complex multi-element objectives include high-fluoride glass for ‘HD’ performance.

Optics - Eyepieces

Swarovski sales literature has made much of the field-flatteners in the new ELs. Field flatteners are not new: Nikon’s HGs, Prostars and SEs have had them for decades, as have Fujinon’s FMT line. But the new ELs are a first among recent “Alpha” birding binos to have a field flattener and it’s been a somewhat controversial move.

 

Holger Merlitz has gone into the issues with very flat fields in binoculars at considerable length here and I would refer you to him for the technical ins and outs. Here suffice to say that the human eye introduces some distortion into the view that gives a “rolling ball” effect when panning. Most binoculars have some pincushion distortion to relieve this, but such binoculars also have off-axis field curvature and coma that spoil the static view a bit, especially for astronomy.

 

A binocular with field-flatteners, like these Swarovsions ELs, eliminates these off-axis distortions, giving a perfect view to the edge. But this comes with a price when panning – it supposedly makes some feel sick.

 

Field of view on the SWAROVISIONTM 10x42 EL is 61° apparent, which translates to 6.3° actual field width. That’s a decent figure by alpha binocular standards, but class-leading if you consider that the whole width is usable by all (thanks to the good eye relief and that flat field).

 

The eye lenses are very large on the ELs – about the largest I’ve seen on binoculars at about 25mm diameter and steeply dished. They remind me of the eye lens on a premium astro’ eyepiece. The eyepieces come with click-stop adjustable cups to accommodate different eyes and specs.

 

I have long been moaning about eye relief, because you need plenty of it to make binos comfortable to use with glasses. The “Alpha makers” were (and still are) routinely offering too little (13mm, when 16mm is really the minimum in my opinion). Swarovski originally claimed 20mm for the SWAROVISIONTM ELs, but have now dropped that figure to 17.3mm for the 10x model (the 8x model has 2mm more). According to my measurements it’s actually a bit less than that, more like 15-16mm. That’s enough – just – but not the super-generous eye relief that the original sales literature suggested. It’s also (oddly, I thought) less than the 10x50mm ELs and new 10x56mm SLC HDs.

 

 

Big eye lenses remind of a premium astronomy eyepiece

 

Accessories

The early version I tested here came with a decent stay-on case, but newer versions have the excellent padded field case that is much better than the cheap-looking cordura job that comes with a pair of Zeiss Victorys.

The latest ELs are essentially identical to these optically, but come with Swarovski’s new ‘FieldPro’ cap and strap system that I haven’t tested yet. The older version tested here has conventional caps and strap.

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics and Handling

The new ELs are a bit heavier than the Zeiss Victory FLs and slightly longer, but much slimmer. They are significantly heavier than the new Zeiss SF open-bridge model.

 

The open bridge design and deep thumb recesses on the bottom make them easy and comfortable to hold. The armour in the bridge area eliminates the cold spots of the old ELs (great for frosty days). The focuser sits easily under the forefinger.

 

it’s worth noting that someone with larger hands may find the ELs difficult to hold, as they are so slim and the bridge gap small. The message is that if you have big hands, try a pair first.

 

The focuser is generally excellent, though I noticed some “stiction” now and then, as with other greaseless focusers and the action is not quite as oily-smooth as a Nikon HG (nothing is).

 

The View

Although I prefer the 7x42 format as a general purpose daytime binocular, I have to admit that the new EL has a state-of-the-art view for a higher-powered binocular. Indeed, you have to take these outside and use them for a while to realise how great the view is: because these have so few aberrations of their own they show up every imperfection in a window.

 

For a start the optics are pin-sharp in both barrels, in a way I have only previously seen in Leica’s 12x50 HDs. Focus snap is so precise that the tiniest movement on the wheel defines it: a sure sign in my experience of the very best optics.

 

We’ve established that the claimed eye relief gives a false idea of how these actually perform, but the good news is that whatever the true numbers (like horsepower in a Rolls Royce) eye relief is sufficientI can see the whole field with my glasses on, but only just.  Unlike other binoculars with long eye relief, the 10x42 EL SVs are pleasingly free of blackouts (spherical aberration of the exit pupil).

 

Brightness is very good, seemingly on a par with other premium roofs, but not quite as good the Zeiss FLs with their higher-transmittance Abbe-König prisms, or Nikon’s 10x42 SEs with their porro-prisms. Colour rendition is very cool and neutral, though, better than the Nikon’s warmer tones (at least to me).

 

Resolution is exceptional – probably about the best I’ve ever experienced in a hand-held binocular for daytime use. The reason is the superb optical quality and the freedom from chromatic aberration (on which more anon) and unfocussed light that the HD lenses impart.

  

As I explain in the next section, flare and ghosting are as good as the best (i.e. Leica’s HDs) and better than the rest (e.g. Zeiss Victory FLs).

 

The daytime view is among the best I’ve seen in a 42mm binocular.

 

Flat field?

The field is very flat, as claimed, with very little distortion in daytime viewing right up to the field edge. You could I.D. a bird even when bisected by the field stop (well, as long as it wasn’t just the legs!)

 

I really, really like the flat field, coming from the direction of astronomical telescopes as I do. However, if I am completely honest it does make panning less comfortable than with say Zeiss FLs or HTs, though it’s not nauseating for me. Having said that, though the field curvature of the Zeiss FL is acceptable to me in the 7x42 format because the field is so huge, it is less so on the 10x42 model and I prefer the SWAROVISIONTM compromise in the high-power format.

 

Chromatic Aberration

A trace of chromatic aberration can still be found when using the new ELs ... but you have to go looking for it and it’s mostly off-axis. Comparing them side-by-side with Zeiss Victory FLs and Nikon’s SE, the New ELs are the best by a small but significant margin. They are on a par with the 10x HTs I tried, but not quite as good as the very best (Swarovski’s own SLC HDs).

 

The roosting Jackdaws in a high tree across the way from me are a long term binocular frustration – most binos just produce too much CA between the black Jackdaws and branches and the bright sky to make the view enjoyable. The new ELs are one of the few binoculars that give a view of my Jackdaws that’s close to a small APO refractor.

 

In Use – Dusk

Dusk performance is good for a 42mm binocular and without any of the skyglow washout which affects some binoculars. That said, the slightly brighter view through the Victory FLs with their Abbe-König prisms makes for slightly deeper dusk reach.

In Use – The Night Sky

A good pair of 10x42s should be good for astronomy and the ELs certainly are. Star images are very tight on all but the brightest stars and even then spikes are small. Star images remain pin-point all the way to the field stop with very little coma creeping in.

 

The HD lenses give good star colours and contrast is excellent.

  

Both flare and ghosting are virtually non-existent as only the finest binoculars are (the objectives are recessed a long way), so you can view just to one side of a bright Moon.

 

Overall the new ELs deliver a great view of the night sky, as good as you can get with 42mm, but their smallish aperture mean I wouldn’t recommend them on their night-sky performance alone. Unlike the unique Zeiss 7x42 with their huge true field that nothing else matches, there are other binoculars for the price that would offer more of the same than the ELs (Swaro’s own 15x56 SLCs, for example).

 

The Moon

These give one of my favourite binocular views of the Moon – a hard crisp and 3D view with no ghosting at all in-field. The Moon is very sharp and grey/white, with virtually no chromatic aberration on the limb and none of the yellowish cast some optics (falsely) give it. Quite a lot of Lunar detail is visible through these, evidence of the excellent resolution.

 

Venus

Flare and spiking are well-contained even on Venus, though as with all the prismatic optics, the ELs can’t completely deal with Venus and show a bit of unfocussed light that obscures the disk (and hence the phase).

Jupiter

Jupiter delivers four pin-point Moons and a perfectly round disk with no flare or spiking – up there with the finest binoculars I have used

Deep Sky

The smallish aperture means faint DSOs aren’t an option for these, but brighter clusters look superb with diamond dust stars and strong stellar hues.

As I said, that flat field really shows its advantage with extended objects like Milky Way star fields and wide open clusters like Perseus, where the stars remain pin-point almost to the edge. This is an area where binoculars with lots of off-axis coma like the Zeiss Victory FLs let themselves down – stars turn into tiny comets much past about 60% field width, spoiling the view and creating a nasty tunnel-like sensation you just don’t get with the SWAROVISIONTM ELs.

Overall night-sky performance is amongst the best I’ve experienced in a 42mm binocular.

Swarovski 10x42 EL SV vs Nikon SE 10x42

 

 

The Nikon 10x42 SE was long a Better View Desired reference standard and I have never found a 10x42 binocular that really betters it, so a comparison seems in order:

 

·         The Nikons are significantly lighter weight at 710g compared with 800g for the ELs on my scales.

·         The new ELs actually have a couple of mm less eye relief than the Nikons, but less blackouts to compensate.

·         The ELs have a wider (6.3°vs 6°) field, but this isn’t that noticeable.

·         The ELs’ field is even flatter than the Nikons’.

·         The ELs have a slightly cooler colour balance that is even noticeable if you project the exit pupil onto white paper.

·         The ELs have slightly less chromatic aberration (though CA is not a problem with the Nikon’s as it is with many binos).

·         The Nikons are slightly brighter and go slightly deeper at night, due to their ~5% higher transmittance.

·         One clear win for the ELs is flare and ghosting. The SEs show a bit of both on bright light sources, like the Moon or a streetlamp; the ELs do not.

·         Depth of field is very similar in both.

·         The ELs focus closer.

·         The ELs are fully waterproof, the Nikon’s are not.

Don’t think that the ELs are much better than the Nikons, they aren’t: the differences are small and overall performance quite similar. However, unlike the Leica HDs I tested earlier, the new ELs do (just) beat the Nikon SEs in most areas except sheer brightness, if money is no object (and given that the price differential is about 3x used, it wouldn’t have to be).

 

Summary

You can tell that Swarovski have really tried to move things forward with the new EL. For me they have succeeded. Carping about the eye relief aside, the SWAROVISIONTM ELs are among the very best binoculars I have tested. When I bought them, I compared them against the then latest 10x42 offerings from Zeiss and Leica and they were clearly superior in almost every way, though the newer Zeiss SF is much stiffer competition.

 

The field is wide, super-sharp and certainly very flat. That flat field doesn’t make me nauseous; I really like it in the daytime and it’s great for astronomy because stars stay star-like right to the edge (instead of turning into little comets like they do through Zeiss Victorys, for example). Resolution and optical quality are supreme for a hand-held binocular. Chromatic aberration is still there, but at a lower level than any other roof prism binocular I have tested (and much lower than in most binoculars). This makes a big difference when trying to identify birds in branches and to the overall quality of the view. The ergonomics and focuser are much better than the old EL focuser, but the focuser does still stick a little sometimes. My only other criticism is that they are quite heavy.

 

So, the SWAROVISIONTM ELs are close to optically perfect for a 10x42. As I once wrote of the Nikon 10x42 SEs, if I had to have just one pair of binoculars it would be these (or their larger siblings). They are a pleasure to use in every way, in every situation.

 

But one last thought: the newer 10x50 ELs aren’t that much bigger or heavier, have more eye relief and would work better at night because of their bigger lenses. They aren’t much more expensive either. Buy these 10x42s mainly for daytime birding, the 10x50 ELs if you will mostly use them for astronomy or in low-light.

 

The SWAROVISIONTM 10x42 ELs are very highly recommended. They are among the best binoculars I have ever tested, but seriously consider the 10x50 model instead if you’ll be doing a lot of astronomy.

 

 

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