Zeiss Victory 8x20 (LotuTec)
A few years ago my wife and I went for a weekend break at a local hotel up in the Lake District to celebrate a birthday. They gave us a room with a view of the lake and thoughtfully provided a pair of mini binoculars next to the champagne flutes. Those little binos looked very plausible, but the view was hopelessly dim, fuzzy and horrid. A friend of mine bought a similar pair and they were equally useless. The moral?
At larger sizes many makes of binocular work fine, but for the most compact sizes – especially roofs – premium makes are the only ones that really work.
For most people ‘premium’ means three marques: Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss; I’d add Nikon to that august list (at least high-end Nikons). In fact for some years my favourite mini binos have been Nikon’s excellent 8x20 HGLs. When I bought them, about five years ago, they impressed me more than both the Swarovskis and Leicas of the time. Since then, they are the binoculars I use regularly on walks or on holiday, so they’ve shown me most of my finest binocular sights – bears and eagles at Yellowstone, herds of dear in The Lakes’, sea otters in California, Red kites near Gruyere.
In fact, the Nikons are so good I had never thought of changing them. Then something unexpected happened. I acquired a pair of cheap Zeiss 8x20s to give as a present only to find them faulty. I returned them to Zeiss hoping for a service and ended up with a brand new pair sporting the latest coatings. One look said they were good, so I thought a test (and comparison with the Nikons) was in order.
Design and Build
These have a curious asymmetric single-hinge design that looks odd, especially when folded. But I can’t say that it caused any issues, except that they pack a bit wider than the double-hinged Nikons. Otherwise they are a conventional roof prism deign, albeit very small and light (shorter and lighter than any of the competing premium offerings in the 8x20 size at the time of writing). That featherweight really makes a difference and more than any binoculars I know, you simply don’t notice these hanging around your neck – great for walking, trekking or travelling.
These are expensive binoculars, not as expensive as the Leica 8x20s, but otherwise amongst the most expensive small binoculars you can buy, so given that you have a right to expect fine build quality. Traditionally this is one thing (along with service) that comes as standard with all premium makes.
Hmmmm. These don’t feel that way. They need to be light weight of course, but they just seem flimsy alongside the Nikons. The focuser and dioptre knobs seem unnecessarily fiddly and plasticky and their feel is less smooth than the Nikons’. Instead of twist-up, multi position eye cups, those on the Zeiss just pull crudely in or out, like the ones on budget brands.
Overall, the build quality feels nothing like that of my Zeiss FLs and a glance at the base might explain why. The FLs are ‘Made in Germany’, these are ‘Made in Hungary’. Now this shouldn’t matter in a post-globalisation market, but perhaps it does. These are a premium German make and that optical heritage is part of why you’d buy them. The Germans make great optics, we all know that … except these aren’t German.
But if the Zeiss Victory 8x20s feel a bit low-rent in terms of build quality, the optics look first-rate. The coatings are the very low-reflectance, reddish ones we’ve come to expect from Zeiss in recent years and that I have come to suspect perform notably better than the ‘China green’ variety you find on cheaper makes. What’s more, the little tag says they have the ‘Lotu-tec’ coatings that repel water and dirt (or, more pragmatically, just make the lenses easier to clean in my experience). There are no bright reflections from any of the optical surfaces and the insides look carefully blackened and baffled.
I reckon these have 15-16mm of eye relief, a bit more than the Nikons’ and welcome news for spec’s wearers like me. Given the fairly wide field and the compact design, Zeiss must be using complex multi-element eyepieces to achieve this.
The premium makes often seem a bit stingy with cases and accessories and these are no exception. The Nikons come with a top-quality leather case; with Zeiss you make do with basic cordura.
In Use - Daytime
Just as with people, one look is usually enough with binos. Further analysis just serves to confirm the initial impression. That is certainly true of the Zeiss 8x20s. Putting your eyes up to these for the first time is a rather spooky experience because the view just seems too big for such tiny things. Wide, sharp, bright and with loads of eye relief, they confounded my expectations of a miniature binocular. In all these respects they are slightly ahead of the Nikons. Those unusual red coatings seem to work well (red reflectance means blue-green transmission, right?) and Green is where the eye is most sensitive), but like other recent Zeiss binos this accentuation of blue-green does give the view a cool tone (one that I personally like).
Sharpness is of a very high order with these tiny binoculars. Many low to middle binos have pretty horrid optics to a practised eye, with poor sharpness and that telltale vagueness of focus that betrays mediocre optics, large or small. The tiny Zeiss are the opposite of that fuzzy, vague norm. Perfect focus is an exact point, making dioptre adjustment easy: try it in many binos and you just can’t seem to find the right setting. The in-focus view is super sharp and very detailed. These have really excellent optics.
In Use – The Night Sky
In general I reckon apertures under 32mm (and certainly under 30mm) too dim for general astronomy, but one target that even small binoculars can do well is the Moon.
The problem for many binoculars when looking at Luna, however, is stray light and internal reflections (ghosting). Looking in the objective end of the little Zeiss Victorys you can see numerous ridged baffles to scatter stray light and in use they confer outstanding stray-light performance.
The full Moon produces no reflections or flare either inside or outside the field of view – a test all too few binoculars pass.
In fact the limited aperture but very sharp optics and complete freedom of flare make these one of the nicest ways to look at a full Moon in a dark sky. But that performance reflects (or rather doesn’t!) careful design during daytime use as well, when sunlight causes little or no flare under any circumstances.
Another bugbear of mine is chromatic aberration – false colour fringes on high-contrast targets – but this tends to be less of a problem in smaller apertures and so these are predictably near perfect in this respect. The full Moon remains brilliant white’s and greys – no blue Moon here.
Optically the Zeiss Victory 8x20s are right up there with the finest designs, so good in fact that it’s hard to imagine significantly better optics constrained by such a small package.
So the Zeiss Victory 8x20s are now my favourite tiny bino, replacing the Nikon HGLs in my affections, right?
Well, hold on ... You see the Zeiss are certainly a bit better than the (already excellent) Nikons optically – they are brighter, a bit wider of field and have more eye relief. They also control stray light a bit better too. What’s more, they are slightly lighter and shorter than the Nikons. However, they just don’t feel as nicely made, a bit plasticky if truth be told. The ‘Made in Hungary’ sticker doesn’t help. Most Zeiss customers will be paying the premium price expecting ‘Made in Germany’. Does it matter if they are made elsewhere? No, but it sets a negative expectation that the build quality tends to confirm.
Not only do the mini-Zeiss feel slightly flimsy, they are slightly inferior to the Nikons in more palpable ways too. The focuser isn’t as fluid, for one thing. But the worst is that I suspect they may be internally flimsy and susceptible to shocks. The original pair had collimation issues, but had no external signs of damage; worryingly, the collimation of my new pair seems to have gone off the boil slightly as well. All in all, these are a fine binocular optically, but concerns about build quality and robustness mean I wouldn’t recommend them and you certainly shouldn’t imagine that their quality matches larger Zeiss models like the FLs – it just doesn’t.
Not really recommended due to dubious build quality, despite their class-leading optical performance.