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Swarovski 12x42 NL Pure Review

For years, all I wanted for Christmas was this: a high-power binocular with a really wide, well-corrected view and plenty of eye relief – for birding, yes, but especially for astronomy (blame Tele View’s wide field eyepieces).

It’s taken a decade, but my wish has finally come true with Swarovski’s NL Pure birding binoculars that have an apparent field of view of 70°, much like a Tele Vue Panoptic or Delos eyepiece. What’s much more, unlike earlier truly wide-field designs, Swarovski claims that picture-window view is sharp to the edge.

As expected, I really liked the 8x42 NL Pure, calling it out as the best birding bino’ to date. But high powers often tax designs that work well at lower ones, a reason they’re rare among premium birding models. So, are these high-mag’ oddities among birding bino’s as good as the more mainstream 8x42s? As usual, let’s find out ...

Binoculars with a wide flat field, like a Tele Vue eyepiece, are my ideal for deep sky astronomy, but for birding and nature viewing too.

At A Glance

Magnification

12x

Objective Size

42mm

Eye Relief

~18mm measured

Actual Field of View

6.5°

Apparent field of view

71°

Close focus

2.6m claimed, ~2m measured

Transmissivity

91% claimed

Length

158mm

Weight

840g (870g measured)

Data from Swarovski/Me.

What’s in the Box?

NL Pure gets the usual Swarovski unboxing experience, but lengthened!

 

Design and Build

Swarovski’s previous top-of-the-range birding glass, the Swarovision EL, has been around for the best part of a decade. The ELs remain an excellent binocular, but bettered in a few areas by Zeiss’ SFs.

NL Pure is Swarovski’s response: a completely new top-of-the-range birding bino’, offered for now in three sizes, 8x42, 10x42 and these 12x42s.

As I hinted in the introduction, 12x42 is unusual in a premium birding bino’. That’s because most birders go for 10x if they want a higher power, whereas hunters generally prefer the low-light performance that comes with bigger objectives. So why a 12x42 NL Pure?

We can get a clue from the old Tele Vue recommendation to choose eyepieces based on field of view, not just on magnification. If we look at Swarovski’s previous premium birding bino’s, the ELs, we find that the 10x42 model has the same true field as the 12x42 NL Pure. With an extra 8-10° of apparent field, SW can up the magnification by a notch across the NL Pure range without compromising true field.

The NL Pures are not just about field width and magnification, though. The NL Pure gets a new body style to go with its new name. Instead of the double-bridge design pioneered by the ELs, NL Pure has a single narrow bridge set back behind carefully contoured barrels for a super-snug hold.

Kudos to Swarovski for putting huge effort into really improving on the already good EL, with upped specs and performance in most areas to go with the new higher price.

Body

The NL Pure has returned to a narrow single bridge design with long barrels to distance itself from the SFs and Leica Noctivids. It’s a route previously trodden by Nikon and Vortex, though the NL Pure’s bridge has a much more sophisticated built-in focus wheel and dioptre adjust.

The revolutionary thing here isn’t the bridge, though, but the body in front of it – specially sculpted for a comfy hold. It’s a bit like Nikon’s HGs, but SW have used complex curves to produce a flattened cross-section that fits the hand more snugly than any other.

Meanwhile, the armour is standard Swarovski - warm, grippy, doesn’t smell rubbery and isn’t too much of a dust magnet.

These are claimed waterproof to SW’s usual 4m standard.

Claimed weight of 840g is almost identical to the ELs’, but I measured ~870g. Perhaps the claimed figure is without the objective caps.

Length is very similar to the ELs’ too: at 158mm, NL Pure is actually 2mm shorter than the 10x42mm EL, even though it looks longer. Meanwhile, Zeiss’ innovative 42mm SFs are longer than either at 173mm.

Focuser

Both focuser and dioptre adjustment are incorporated within the bridge. The focus action is superbly fluid and accurate: lighter and with less stiction than the last pair of ELs I tried. This might just be the best greaseless focuser I’ve ever used.

I measure close focus at about 2m, at which distance merging remains reasonable and text viewed close up is sharp across the whole field. That’s very close focus for a 12x bino’ and not much different from the 8x model.

From close focus infinity takes just over 1 ½ turns, not the fastest but it feels ideal for this magnification. There’s plenty of focus travel past infinity to cater for people with strong prescriptions, too.

Dioptre adjustment is different from the ELs’, where you pull out the focus wheel to reveal a scale. Here there is a rotary lever behind the focuser. It’s well weighted, has a détente for neutral and is easy to use with a gloved hand without taking your eyes off that view. At first, I thought there was no dioptre scale, but in fact it’s hidden underneath the bridge – clever!

Optics - Prisms

The NL Pure range use a conventional Schmidt-Pechan (a.k.a. Roof) prism like the ELs before them, not high-transmission Abbe-König prisms. Still, they manage a transmission of 91% which is just a few percent less than Zeiss’ Abbe-König HTs.

Optics - Objectives

The objectives appear to be a triplet with two special dispersion elements (plus focusing element). Coatings are current state of the art, as you’d expect.

Some binoculars feature ridges inside the barrels to kill stray light, but here there are knife-edge baffles behind the objectives – the traditional way fine astro’ telescopes do it. The focuser carriage is still ridged as usual, though.

Optics - Eyepieces

The doubtless optically-sophisticated eyepieces have huge 25mm eye lenses which are gently dished.

Swarovski claim 18mm of eye relief and 17-18mm is what I measured, from the rim of the eye cup. That’s the same as the 8x model and ~2mm more than the 12x50 ELs I tested (though they claim 20mm)! Like Rolls Royce horsepower, it’s sufficient. I can comfortably enjoy that whole big field with my specs on.

I did notice some blackouts when viewing without specs, but only when moving my eyes around the field. It’s caused by spherical aberration of the exit pupil and is normal for wide field oculars.

Field of view is 71° apparent. That’s actually 2° more than the 8x model and equates to 113m/100m or 6.5° true.

For comparison, SW’s own 12x50 EL has a 5.7° true field, as do Leica’s 12x50 HD+ (but with more off-axis distortion and much less eye relief). Canon’s 12x36s manage just 5°, same as my once-best-buy Nikon 12x50 SEs.

As an aside, these 12x42s are currently (early 2021) Swarovski’s most expensive birding binocular and the highest powered. Their cheapest and lowest powered, the 7x42 Habichts with their simple reverse Kellner eyepiece design from fifty years ago, have the same field of view.

Getting such a wide flat field and excellent eye relief out of a high-power compact binocular is hard to do. To prove it, I plugged the likely specs into Tele Vue’s eyepiece calculator. A Delos 14mm would do the job optically, but would be much too large physically. Again, kudos to Swarovski for pushing the envelope.

As usual, Swaro’s twist-and-click eye cups are the best. With four clicked-out positions (and intermediates possible), there’s enough adjustment for anyone. Check the images below to see if there’s a position likely to suit you (there should be!)

Accessories

These have a new style of Swarovski case. It’s padded and zips lengthwise for easy access, has a smart Habicht logo.

The strap is the Field Pro version of the lift strap, with a wider belt than standard and winders to adjust for length.

I really struggled with Field Pro straps at first. They key is to click the lug as far as it will go through the strap, then insert and give it a firm push whilst twisting to lock. I found I needed both thumbs to grip and turn the lug until it locked. Field Pro lug adapters are provided, so alternatively you could fit a regular strap if you prefer.

In another first, Swarovski give you a tiny bar of special soap and a brush to clean the armour – SW really are going the extra mile for the user experience! The only problem is that ‘NL Pure Soap’ sounds a bit Neste Dante; maybe I’ll get a bar for the shower.

Swarovski have gone from the band-on push-over caps to the push-in variety that are integral to the armour. It’s a neater solution if you want caps, but they can spring back out if you don’t get them right in.

The new-style eyepiece cover is rubberier than before, but still a quality item compared to most. It’s slightly harder to squeeze on than the previous harder plastic one, but stays in place securely.

One accessory I should mention is the forehead rest that fits onto the front of the bridge – you’ve doubtless sniggered at the photos. It’s supposed to reduce shakes, especially for this high-power version. It’s an expensive optional extra and I haven’t tried it.

 

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics and Handling

The management summary is that handling is just peerless for me. I love that snug-formed body: it really helps hold them steady because my hands are more relaxed. I find myself holding around the barrels less because of that snug bridge hold.

The focuser action is among the best, dioptre adjustment the very best. What’s more, putting them in the middle of the bridge brings them closer to finger, enhancing that super-snug hold.

Eyepiece comfort is excellent too and unprecedented for a high-power model: there’s loads of eye relief for specs. Viewing without glasses is almost more immersive, but moving your eye around that huge field does cause some blackouts, though not when viewing straight-on.

Perfect focus is absolute but so easy to get. The combination of optics snap with the supreme precision and ease of use of the dioptre adjust are the best I’ve ever tried. My specs are perfectly corrected and the dioptre was set at almost zero, so I was surprised to notice slight defocus in the left barrel. The tiniest tweak on the dioptre lever, barely registering on the scale, snapped it in to perfection: like a premium astro’ refractor with a microfocuser.

Powers above 10x usually frustrate me when trying to follow birds on the wing, but here the field is so wide and sharp, the focuser so intuitive, the optics so snappy that it’s easy.

I originally thought the NL Pures’ styling was a bit weird, but I’m used to their sculpted shape now.

The View

Perfect.

No really, the optics just disappear. There are almost no visible aberrations at all of any kind and the wide apparent field means that tunnel view is almost gone, it’s like looking out of a porthole – you’re only vaguely aware of the circular boundary and it never intrudes. The view is just brilliant, detailed, vivid and incredibly spacious and immersive. Resolution seems exceptional across the whole width, even my binocular-novice daughter remarked on it.

I don’t generally like powers above 10x for birding, so I’m astonished how much I like these. I enjoy views of a Blue Tit snoozing in the sun on a high branch 100m with stunning fidelity. Views of birds on the wing are mesmerizingly good.

I took these on some long Lakeland walks and had simply wonderful views of snow covered fell and dale, climbers on Gummers How miles away, gulls lined up on the roof-ridge of a cottage a mile distant, soaring Buzzards. I bored my companion by constantly exclaiming over some new revealed detail or vista. Optics rarely wow me these days, but these certainly did. Reverting to a bino’ with a standard ~60° field seemed really confining after the NL Pures.

Out in the field, the 12x42 NL Pures proved to be my favourite binoculars ever. Even compared to my previous favourite (Zeiss quality issues aside), Zeiss’ excellent 10x42 SFs, I prefer these in every way except one – weight, which is palpably higher.

Do I need a view this stunning and expansive and absorbing? No. Do I want it? Oh yes.

Flat field?

These have just a touch of distortion for panning, but otherwise they’re sharp and aberration-free to the field stop, better even than the 8x model. Those had some mild softening at about 75%, but here a metre ruler viewed from about 4m away is pin sharp all the way across and to the very edge.

The 12x42 NL Pures have the perhaps best corrected field of any bino’s I’ve tested.

Chromatic Aberration

Freedom from false colour is effectively total. I’m fussy, but even crows on the wing against a clear sky are just black-meets-blue, with nothing in between. Focusing through silhouetted branches reveals almost no false colour either. Only in the last ~10% of field width does some false colour creep in (the purple in the photo above is mainly from the camera lens).

This level of correction is better than most HD designs and is especially impressive at this magnification.

Freedom from chromatic aberration completes the near perfect view.

In Use – Dusk

The high power and bright optics surprise at dusk and in moonlight. These could almost be a night glass. I spent ages scanning the tree tops for my noisy but elusive local Tawny owls.

In Use – The Night Sky

The field is stunningly wide, stars sharp and pinpoint to the field stop with almost no astigmatism at all. Just as during the day, there is no false colour even focusing through Sirius, which gave nice concentric diffraction rings too.

Focus snap is so good you forget these are a prismatic optic, they almost don’t seem like binoculars. Let me explain ...

Testing in the small hours early on Christmas Eve, I’d been using astro’ telescopes – Takahashi and Tele Vue - all evening. Walking out into the still, quiet darkness, the view through the 12x42 NL Pures seemed oddly familiar. Then I realised why. These come the closest of any binocular I have ever tested to a pair of premium apochromatic astro’ refractors with premium eyepieces.

Some veiling flare viewing around the Moon, as with the 8x42s, are their only fault.

The Moon

The NL Pures give very crisp and detailed lunar views, with no false colour focusing through the limb and just the faintest ghost well off-axis. Lots of craters were on view: Clavius, Tycho, Plato; dawn on the rim of Copernicus, crater floor still in deep night. But for views of the Moon, Canon’s 12x36s just resolve far more detail due solely to their image stabilisation.

Planets

A bright Mars showed a perfect tiny disk, perhaps the first time I’ve seen the planet like that through bino’s. A bright and low dawn Venus showed just a trace of spiking from the prisms.

Deep Sky

The 12x42 NL Pures gave really excellent deep sky views. The wide, flat and sharp field is a revelation at this magnification. For example, the whole of the Hyades or both Orion’s belt and sword, fit in the field with all the stars still points.

I had beautiful views of the Double Cluster, Stock 2 open cluster and Heart Nebula region in one field – masses of stars. Two of the Auriga open clusters, M37 and M36 fitted in same field and looked fantastic. The nearby Starfish Cluster (M38) really showing its arcs of stars and M35 resolved into stardust too.

I easily found some smaller Messier objects, including the Dumbbell Nebula and the Ring in Lyra.

The Orion nebula revealed lots of nebulosity for the aperture with sweeping arms and central ‘spike’. Whilst I was examining M42, a pair of brilliant silver Geminid meteors shot through the field to the left of the nebula one after the other – a magical moment I’d have missed but for that huge field.

The limited aperture means these are ultimately less capable of finding smaller, dimmer DSOs than a big-eye bino’. But that gorgeously wide and sharp field is just a fantastic feature for astronomy, whilst the higher power mean you can use them for Messier marathons or quick lunar views too.

Testing the 12x42s just after Moon set.

Swarovski 12x42 NL Pure vs Canon 12x36 ISIII

This comparison isn’t fair - the SWs currently cost about three times as much as the Canons. So it’s not surprising that the NL Pures best the Canons in every way except three:

·        The Canons are every bit as sharp on axis as the Swarovskis

·        The Canons are significantly lighter

·        The Canons have a magic button on top

That last point is the reason for this comparison. The NL Pures unquestionably give a more beautiful view – much wider, brighter, more immersive and free of the false colour that troubles the Canons; even sharper off axis – but hand held they can’t match the resolution of the Canons because they lack image stabilisation.

So, for targets where resolution matters more than aesthetics, you might choose the Canons.

Examples? Long range birding IDs; plane spotting; quick looks at the Moon (something I use bino’s for a lot); surveillance. Sad for us optical purists perhaps, but the future of optics is electronics.

Swarovski 12x42 NL Pure vs Swarovski 12x50 EL

This is easy, because the NL Pures are just a little better in almost every respect except aperture: a wider, even flatter field, more eye relief, a more comfortable hold and lighter weight, a touch brighter by day.

Should you upgrade? That would depend on your priorities. For maximum reach in low light and for astronomy, then no. But for ultimate comfort, in the hold and at the eyepiece, perhaps yes.

Summary

Curb your enthusiasm, Roger. But look, these give the most beautiful view ever for astronomy. No, they don’t have the reach of bigger apertures so you need averted vision more. No, they don’t have the hand-held resolution of stabilisers. Yes, they’re expensive. But the quality, the aesthetics of the view really are the finest I’ve yet experienced, the closest to a pair of premium apochromatic astro’ refractors. That’s the summary, all you really need to know for astronomy.

So for astronomy, especially deep sky, I just love the 12x42 NL Pures. The ultra-wide field and razor-sharp view means these are great for panning around star fields, but resolve smaller DSOs and clusters too. But what about daytime use?

Again, these are fantastic by day. The extraordinary thing here is that the higher power really comes with no downsides at all. The view, handling and comfort are just the same as the 8x42s, but you’re closer. That’s quietly revolutionary. You just revel in that vast, crystalline, immersive view. It doesn’t even seem shaky – thank that snug hold.

In more detail, that stunning view is truly wide at 71° apparent, but this isn’t the wide-but-distorted field of Nikon’s 8x30 EIIs. Here the field is basically aberration free to the very edge, with just a touch of distortion for panning, but almost no curvature or astigmatism. What’s more, this isn’t a wide field for the naked eye only, because there’s enough eye relief for perfect specs comfort too, just like the 8x42s.

Then there’s the ergonomics. I’m off the fence. That sculpted body looks odd but it’s massively comfortable. The focuser and dioptre fall easily to finger and precision and feel are of the best.

Faults? Just one – a touch more veiling flare than I’d like working around a full Moon, same as the 8x42s. But that’s it.

A final word of advice: these are expensive, don’t try them if you don’t want to buy them. Excuse me, I’m going back for a last look.

My favourite ever binoculars. If you want to own just one pair that gives wonderful views of everything, but is light and easy to carry these are what I’d recommend. They’re a stunning achievement and for my use profile they’re even more compelling than the 8x model.

Buy Swarovski 12x42 NL Pure from Wex here:

 

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