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With this highest-power model of the new Razor UHD range, Vortex have upped the ante for big-eye binoculars. In this review I find out if a magnification of 18x in a hand-held binocular is really worth a premium price.

Vortex Razor UHD 18x56 Review

I first encountered an original Vortex Razor when I went to pick up a telescope. The guy was impressed with the Razors and pressed them into my hands. I’ll admit I was pretty sceptical, but even I had to admit the view was excellent.

That was about a decade ago. Since then I’ve managed to avoid reviewing a pair. Partly, honestly, it’s the name. I can’t say ‘Vortex Razor’ without a shopping channel voice. And though I have absolutely nothing against regular (i.e. not big game) hunting - often the most ethical way to get meat, IMO - Vortex marketing is all a bit too Guns'n'Ammo for me.

Then they launched these 18x56 UHDs and I just had to try a pair. Why? Because as far as I know these are the highest magnification ‘Alpha’ binocular available and I generally like high magnifications for astronomy.

Sharp intake of breath. He called a Vortex Alpha! Indeed. Reputation, price, features, warranty and view all point in that direction. No, they weren’t made in an Alpine village by Europeans wearing Lederhosen; time to get over it. But calling them Alpha does set an expectation. As always, let’s go ahead and find out if these Razor UHDs live up to it.

At A Glance

Magnification

18x

Objective Size

56mm

Eye Relief

18mm claimed (16mm from eye cup)

Actual Field of View

194ft/1000 yards (64.7m/1000m): 3.7°

Apparent field of view

~60°

Close focus

3m

Transmissivity

Est. 92%

Length

8.3in (21cm)

Weight

1179g (1240g incl. obj. caps)

Data from Vortex/Me.

What’s in the Box?

Vortex packaging falls short of the unboxing fabulousness offered by Zeiss and Swarovski. No watercolour landscapes here. Not sure about becoming a Vortex Nation expat either.

Design and Build

Vortex have marketed Razors as their premium product for many years, including the ‘HD’ models now relegated to second tier. Then in mid-2019 they introduced ‘UHD’ Razors in various sizes from 8x42 to these 18x56s. The UHDs are roughly 50% more expensive than the HDs.

Razors are Japanese made and these latest UHDs have had all the latest technology thrown at them to create a really premium binocular. The unlimited, no-quibble warranty seems to reflect a real confidence in their quality too.

Overall build quality and materials are indeed absolutely top-notch, but I did notice two very minor flaws: a dob of glue on a strap lug and some burs from where the armour had been trimmed around the objectives. This kind of minor fault is not unique to Vortex – I’ve seen similar armour fails in Zeiss and Swarovski too (as yet, never Leica).

Body

These Vortex Razors have a body made of magnesium - a premium feature that reduces weight compared with aluminium. Their weight of around 1200g is virtually identical to Swarovski’s 56mm SLCs.

The main armour is an olive green, a more muted shade than Swarovski’s but otherwise very similar. It is warm to hold and has a nice textured feel that I like. Crucially, there is no rubber smell and unlike many it isn’t a magnet for dust and finger marks. Where some bino’s might have exposed metal, these have a smoother grey armour with ridges on the part inside the barrels for extra grip. I really like the finish of these Razors.

Focuser

The focuser action is close to perfect – smooth, precise and very accurate (it needs to be, as we will see) with no nasty stickiness or backlash.

Dioptre adjustment is conventional with a ring under the right eyepiece – snap up and turn to adjust, snap back down to lock. It works well, with just the right resistance. Unlike the Nikon Monarch HGs I recently reviewed, there’s no danger of the ring moving up in use.

Focus is so snappy and depth of field (inevitably, given the magnification) shallow that you need to take time to get the dioptre adjustment right if you’re to see the full high-resolution potential of the view.

Close focus is about 3m as claimed and I can just merge the image at that. Close focus to infinity is about two turns, perhaps a little less. So it is possible to follow birds on the wing and these would be ideal for distant viewing of soaring raptors.

On this example, there was a small fault in the focus/dioptre mechanism. It’s one I’ve seen on other high-power binos which the best (Swarovski and Zeiss avoid) – the dioptre setting changes slightly as you focus and re-focus.

Optics - Prisms

These UHD Razors employ the Abbe-König prisms that Zeiss pioneered with their Dialyts, rather than the usual Schmidt-Pechan (‘roof’) prisms. Abbe-König prisms are longer than conventional roof prisms, but have a key advantage: they bend the light using total internal reflection, whereas roof prisms need mirror coatings. Mirrors scatter light, reducing transmission and maybe contrast as well, so getting rid of them is a good thing. Abbe-König prisms can increase transmittance by a noticeable 5% or so.

Recent binoculars from other brands, such as Swarovski’s SLC HDs, Zeiss’ HTs and big-eye Conquests and Nikon’s WXs, use Abbe-König prisms too. So Vortex is right on trend.

HD, UHD and XD – Technical Overview

I believe these new UHD Razors employ two technologies in their objectives to improve definition, so a brief overview is in order.

Vortex have labelled these ‘UHD’ to distinguish them from their ‘HD’ line that’s quite a lot cheaper. So what’s the difference? It all comes down to false colour fringing, technically chromatic aberration.

False colour fringes can wash-out definition on high-contrast parts of a view. If you’re not familiar with the effect, think of those violet edges you get in high contrast parts of a photo. Ten years ago, this was an almost universal problem with binoculars. More recently, many brands have adopted the ‘HD’ (‘high definition’) label for binoculars that contain an SD (‘special-dispersion’) or ED (‘extra-dispersion’) crown glass element to curb it. Such glass typically contains fluorides as well as oxides.

False colour fringing gets worse with increasing aperture and magnification, so this ultra-high-power, big eye model is a prime target for technologies to reduce it. Although they don’t publish design details, these UHDs likely employ two SD or ED elements in their objectives to eliminate false colour fringing, rather than the now-usual one.

Using two SD or ED lenses to cure false colour isn’t new. Takahashi pioneered it on their ‘TOA’ telescopes. More recently, Kowa have adopted it in their ‘XD’ range and a few recent Zeiss and Swarovski models use it too. Does it make a difference? I believe so. Kowa XD binoculars are effectively free of false colour and have amazing resolution.

Vortex also claim an ‘APO system’ that uses ‘index matched lenses’ for these UHDs. This may imply that the objectives also use a special type of glass for the flint element, giving even better correction. Again, this is a technology found in some recent Takahashi telescopes.

In other words, these Razors UHDs employ every available technology to reduce false colour fringing.

Optics - Objectives

Investigation with a laser confirms a triplet objective consisting of a cemented doublet in front of third air-spaced bi-concave element. It appears that both front and rear elements are low-scatter high-fluoride (i.e. ED) glass as expected (see above). This is exactly the same objective design as Kowa use in their ‘XD’ Prominar range.

Instead of the usual machined-in ridge baffles, these have a substantial single knife-edge baffle behind the objectives and ridging in the focuser housing. The lens ring holding the objectives in place is micro-ridged to reduce flare.

Vortex claim the latest scratch-resistant (ArmorTekTM) and high-transmission (XRTM) coatings. Those coatings have the same muted greenish hue seen in other premium binoculars today and they are very transparent:

Razor barrel has a single knife-edge baffle, not the more usual ridging. Coatings are top notch.

Optics - Eyepieces

The eye lenses are a massive 25mm, like many high-end bino’s feature now; but the eye lenses are flat, not the dished type you get with say Swarovski ELs.

Field of view at 3.7° is exactly the same as Canon’s 18x50 IS binoculars – a moderately wide 60° apparent.

Eye relief is often a problem with high power binoculars. Why’s that? I’ll spend this paragraph explaining. Skip it if you’re not interested. Essentially, the short focal length eyepieces needed to get the higher power have naturally lower eye relief. Let’s take an imaginary example, based on a type of telescope eyepiece commonly available in a range of focal lengths, the Plössl, which tends to have eye relief a bit lower than its focal length. So, imagine 8x56 binoculars with objectives that have a focal length of 224mm (F4). These would need 28mm eyepieces (224mm/8x).  Plössls of that focal length would have a super-generous ~20mm eye relief and sure enough most 8x56 binoculars do have. Now consider the same objectives but an 18x magnification. Now the eyepieces need to be 12mm focal length, but based on those Plössls again it would have ER of ~10mm, which is very low by (modern) binocular standards. Solving this problem takes expensive eyepieces with lots of elements, sophisticated designs and special glasses...

Vortex has done just that and claim an outstanding 18mm of eye relief for the 18x56 Razors, but that’s from the recessed eye lenses. I measured 16mm from the rim of the eye cup: still a very good result for high power binoculars. Leica’s 12x50s have much less and even my best buy Swarovski 15x56 SLC HDs have a critical millimetre or two less than these Razors. It’s enough that I can pretty much see the whole field with my glasses on.

Blackouts as you move your eye around aren’t a problem either, but are slightly worse than the very best.

The twist-out eye cups have three out positions and are among the smoothest and most positive I have tried, as good as Swarovski, better than Zeiss and Leica.

Accessories

The caps are basic but effective – a push on rubber eyepiece cap, push-in objective caps held on by bands. A little logoed belt-on pouch is provided for the caps, or – according to Vortex – a brace of your favourite .378 Weatherby Magnum cartridges.

The strap is a fairly low-rent item compared to a Swarovski ‘Lift’ strap too, but that does make it much cheaper to replace.

The case is rigid and designed to carry the bino’s whilst attached to a harness (also provided) or your belt. It’s a large but quality accessory with extra pouches on the side. It has an unusual lid held on by elastic that can fold away forwards in the field, but it doesn’t provide complete closure when folded over the binoculars (it’s open at the back – see below).

Unthreading the logoed cover on the front of the Razors’ hinge reveals a standard tripod-adapter thread. Disappointingly, given the high power (and unlike Zeiss’ 15x56 Conquests), the adapter is not provided.

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics and Handling

Those barrels with their long slim section and flared ends look weird. But here’s the thing, they make these the most comfortable big-eye bino’s I have tested. Reducing shakes in big-eyes means holding them around the objectives: Vortex know this and have designed accordingly, with that patch of ribbed armour where your fingertips go. This feature really helps make them easier to hold stead. The only problem is that the focuser is then a long way off; it might have been better on the front end of the bridge.

Eyepiece comfort, with plenty of eye relief and minimal blackouts, is state of the art for high-power binoculars.

Weight is comparable with other recent premium big-eyes and these look a bit slimmer hanging around your neck than some monsters (think Zeiss 56mm Conquests).

Not a small binocular, but the Vortex razors are less obtrusive than a pair of big black Zeiss Conquests, for example.

The View

The view is stunning. For a start it’s incredibly bright, especially for a big-eye binocular of this power. As I’ve explained before, brightness during the day isn’t helped by the big lenses, because your contracted pupil stops the binoculars down. Instead, brightness depends on transmissivity and here it’s as good as almost any premium 10x42. Colours are vivid but natural. Sharpness and resolution seem outstanding.

It’s a good job the focuser is precise because these have an absolute and unforgiving focus snap. Combine that with the high magnification and a shallow depth of field (not a fault – inevitable at this magnification) and careful focus is required to get the very sharpest view.

I enjoy watching a flock of Goldfinches in the high branches of a tree, with their golden wing flashes and red heads displayed with perfect clarity. So what? So, They’re 200m away! At a similar distance, I can see the spring buds of bulbs poking through the fallen leaves in my local copse. I can ID waders hundreds of metres off on the bay sands, or a plane passing at altitude. Resolution at distance is amazingly high.

Overall, these have a view as good as the very best high power binoculars, but with even more reach.

Flat field?

These are a hunting binocular so you should expect, and do get, some field curvature to avoid the worst ‘rolling ball’ effect when panning. The field softens in the last 20% or so of field, perhaps a bit more so than with Swarovski’s 15x56 SLCs and definitely more than their ELs, but still less than many.

Field quality drops off slightly towards the edge. Note the false colour fringing the bright tree trunk. Compare Swaro’s 15x56 SLC HDs below.

Same view through Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs.

Chromatic Aberration

Given all that marketing hype about ‘UHD’ and ‘APO System’ (and there really is a lot of special glass in the objectives) you might expect these to be free from false colour. They aren’t. Watching my local Jackdaws against a bright dusk sky, their black plumage gets fringed in purple and green the way all bino’s used to. Even regular bright targets – a tree trunk, a sheep’s fleece, a chimney pot – show false colour, proper green and purple in focus.

Don’t think this ruins the view, it certainly doesn’t. But these do display quite a lot of false colour under certain circumstances – more than most regular HD binoculars, much more than Swarovski’s 15x56 SLCs (one of the few areas these Razors trail the SLCs). That false colour also gets worse in the field edge area that suffers from softening as noted above.

The source of the false colour is partly, of course, the objectives, given the very high magnification. But the eyepieces may partly be to blame as well. Still, it’s one of the few areas these binoculars fall well short of perfection. It’s especially surprising considering Vortex must have had the 15x56 SLCs to benchmark and that these Razors are about a cm longer than the SLCs too (longer focal length objectives reduce false colour, other things being equal).

In Use – Dusk

Super bright optics and big-eye objectives mean these perform very well at dusk, really digging deep into dense twilight shadow to deliver woodland colour and detail. Given that many will buy these for twilight hunting, that’s no surprise. There is no problem with sky-glow washout either.

In Use – The Night Sky

That field edge softening noted during the day surprises by being a total non issue at night. Stars remain stars until close to the field stop; and even then, they don’t turn all linear as they do through some. You don’t get that smeared ‘tunnel’ effect on the Milky Way at all. Orion’s belt easily fits into the field, whilst Alnitak and Mintaka at either end remain largely undistorted. What slight distortion you get at the very edge is mostly field curvature – you can focus it away.

These easily pull brighter Messier objects out of a twilight sky between civil and nautical dusk and an hour before true astronomical darkness. They would likely work very well for urbanites dealing with light pollution.

Star images are tight for the magnification, just a little less point-like than through a fine pair of 10x porros.

The small field of view (due to the 18x mag) makes finding things a bit harder than with a fine 15x56. Distances between objects seem huge at this power and you have to re-calibrate your star-hopping. But the rewards are outstanding binocular views, often more like a fine small telescope.

The 18x magnification does magnify shakes, but holding them around the barrel ends steadies things, helped by the flared barrel design and open bridge. I found the high power more manageable than I was expecting, but leaning on a car or wall helps. The good eye relief and lack of blackouts made for a very comfy view too.

The Moon and bright streetlights produced no ghosting, but a trace of a faint spike on the streetlight. Working around the Moon revealed no flare at all. But viewing well away from the Moon, I suddenly discovered a bright reflection of it, from an un-blacked barrel or prism perhaps.

The Moon

A magnification of 18x gives a telescopic view of the Moon. Combined with the sharp, high-res optics it makes a hand held binocular Moon something to linger over and explore, rather than a quick look … if you can hold steady. On the Moon, more than anything else, I became aware of the shakes through the 18x56s. There was masses of detail and enough magnification to really explore, but it was also obvious how much shakes were a limiting factor.

Finally, leaning on my balcony rail or sitting with my head resting back on the wall, I got a steady enough view. And what a view! A 22-day Moon revealed bright white Aristarchus, way out west in Oceanus Procellarum; Maurolycus near the terminator with its central peak; dark floored Plato and nearby Teneriffe Mountains in Mare Imbrium. Huge craters like Albategnius; subtle shading, brilliant rays and dark patches in the maria; more philosophers – Aristoteles and Eudoxus – in the far north.

The Razors showed a hint of false colour on the very limb of the Moon, but otherwise the view was as sharp and monochromatic and detailed as through a small apochromatic telescope designed for astronomy.

Venus

A brilliant (magnitude -4) Venus at just 14” across showed a hint of its gibbous phase with almost no flare and just a trace of false colour at twilight. In a dark sky, there was more false colour and flare which obscured the phase, but no nasty ghosts and just a hint of spikes.

Deep Sky

I had a fantastic deep sky session one dark night with my neighbours’ security lights all off for once – so good I didn’t want to come in and write this up!

The clusters – M37, M36 and M38 - in Auriga were easily resolved into individual stars with direct vision. M37 was just spectacular and M38, the Starfish Cluster, really showed its sweeping arms. The Double Cluster was one of the best views I have had with bino’s – big, bright and surrounded by myriads of stars.

M31 was bright and dense of core, its companion (M110) very obvious and that dark-lane cut-off much more evident than usual. I even found M33 before true astronomical darkness and the view in full night was one of the best I’ve had, with a sense of its shape for once. Bode’s Nebula was easy to find and its paired galaxies’ different shapes more apparent than usual.

Albireo was a giant split, with strong blue and orange colours. Resting on the car and breathing like a marksman (how appropriate!), I split the Trapezium.

The Pleiades filled much of the field, full of fainter stars – a beautiful view much more typical of a small telescope than most hand-held bino’s. The misty nebula surrounding the main stars was really obvious through the Razors, as it usually is only through a telescope.

Globular cluster M15 was especially big and bright and easy to find. M1, often challenging for bino’s, was easy to find too – standing out with direct vision.

The highlight was M42, which showed nebular structure like I’ve never seen with bino’s before and hints of nebulosity in other parts of the sword too. The whole view was just wonderfully comfy and easy, detailed and perfect.

Overall, these performed outstandingly for deep sky. The combination of bright optics, big lenses, flat field and high power, along with the comfiest hold I’ve experienced made these an unequalled astronomy experience for me.

Vortex Razor 18x56 UHD vs Swarovski 15x56 SLC HD

The SLC HDs are my all-time favourite high power binocular and astronomy binocular in general. Let’s compare them with the Razors.

·        The Swarovskis are more ’perfect’ with almost nothing of note to criticise

·        The Razors show a bit more field-edge softening and (surprisingly) quite a lot more false colour, again especially off-axis

·        The Razors are slightly more troubled by stray light and prism spikes

·        In most ways, their build quality is equally good. If anything, the Razors have a slightly more ‘premium’ look and feel

·        The SLCs’ dioptre adjustment is more sophisticated and better

·        The Razors have a couple of mm more eye relief which makes them more comfy with glasses

·        The Razors’ slim, flared barrels are a bit easier and more comfortable to hold steady

·        The Razors are longer and slimmer, but no heavier

·        The Razors’ higher power ultimately pulls in more distant detail, if you can hold them steady

Summary

Vortex’s Razor 18x56s are really excellent, truly an ‘Alpha’ binocular. The view is wide, sharp and incredibly high resolution. These pull in distant detail like nothing else this side of a mounted scope (or maybe a pair of image stabilised Canon 18x50s). Build quality is generally excellent too, with little to criticise. Comfort, both in the hold and at the eyepiece, are class leading for a high-magnification binocular.

They underperform the most perfect big-eye binoculars I have ever tested – Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs – in just a couple of areas: field edge softening is slightly higher and false colour markedly so, despite the ‘UHD’ label. In terms of build, the Swarovski’s dioptre adjustment is more sophisticated, but it’s a minor point. A more serious one is minor variation in the dioptre adjust as you focus and re-focus; it’s not as bad as some, but a pair of Swarovski SLCs or ELs would avoid this flaw.

Hang on, though, because these Razors actually beat the Swarovskis in three ways. The first is simply magnification. The extra 3x does make a real difference to close in views – during the day for nature viewing or plane spotting, raptors or hunting; but especially for astronomy, where views of the Moon and DSOs remind of a small apochromatic telescope. The second is that the Razors are more comfortable to hold steady with those flared barrels. Finally, the Razors’ extra eye relief is more comfy for specs wearers.

True, the Swarovski SLC HDs are ultimately more ‘perfect’, but if you can hold them steady the Razors will likely reveal more. Which should you choose? That really does depend on your personal preferences – both are superb binoculars. Personally, I am tempted to buy a pair of the Razors for their outstanding astro’ performance.

The Vortex Razor 18x56s now share the top spot for high-power bino’s with Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs. With a bit less false colour and field curvature, the Razors would an outright best buy. They may well be the best hand-held astro’ bino’s I’ve tested, but try before you buy to make sure you’re happy with the extreme high power.

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