Zeiss Jena Notarem 10x40B Review

These were a bit of an Ebay impulse purchase. I was curious about older roofs and about some of the older Zeiss designs in particular, so when a pair appeared from a house clearer, who appeared not to know what they were and didnít even bother to spell Zeiss correctly, I took a punt and won.

Now in my experience, Ebay binocular purchases come in two categories: the absolutely minty as-new variety (which are fine) and the rest (which arenít). This was one of the latter. Physically they were in perfect condition, with unmarked multi-coated lenses and only very minor paint wear; unfortunately a quick look through them indicated eyestrain and collimation issues and a vague focuser. A search on the web suggested that most of these binos were put together with prism straps and focusing mechanisms that were too flimsy. Perhaps I should have read that before bidding...

Design and Build

Holger Merlitz has an image of a Zeiss Jena catalogue from the era of my Notarems on his website and it makes interesting reading. It seems that these little binos have quite a complex design, but from the outside they just look tiny and dainty for a 10x40. That is certainly a major appeal of the Notarem.They make todayís roofs look bulky and heavy. At 620g they are the weight of a modern 8x32; no modern 10x42 from a premium make weighs so little. The long barrelled design makes them easy to hold and the focuser comes nicely to hand. I really like the leatherette finish in comparison to rubber armour and that old Zeiss catalogue claims ďspecial sealing against adverse dust and climatic conditionsĒ, so they are not as vulnerable to the odd rainy day as they look.

The complex design I was referring to employs a mixture of roof and penta prisms to keep the weight down, whilst the eyepieces are 6-element, wide-field Erfles that give a field of six degrees and enough eye relief to warrant rubber folding eye cups. Considering that most binoculars of the era had Kellner eyepieces, thatís quite impressive. The focuser is clever too: both eyes are independently adjustable via the central knob, but just enough resistance is built-in to ensure that you can focus them together once youíve set them relative to each other for your eyes. This is definitely a more intuitive system than the right-eye dioptre adjustment prevalent back when New Romantics dominated the pop charts.

The design claims multi-coating and certainly the coatings have a much darker purple appearance than the usual lilac layer of magnesium fluoride. However, in terms of transmissivity, the coatings arenít up to modern standards.

Multi-coatings, but much more reflective than modern ones.

In Use

Clever compact prisms and wide field eyepieces donít mean much if the binoculars have significant problems, so the first thing was to send these off to be repaired.

Three weeks and ninety quid later, back they came, much improved. The invoice said they had been cleaned, collimated, had the prism mounts strengthened and the focusing repaired; whatever had been done, the problems were solved, so letís examine the state of the art in compact binos twenty five years ago.

The Notarems are the ďBĒ model, which means more eye relief and fold-down eyecups. They do have more eye relief than higher-power binos with Kellners and are quite usable with glasses, but you canít see the whole field. For users without glasses, the view is pleasingly wide and distortions only creep in at about 80% of the width. Focusing has a nice snap to it and is smooth and quite fast, but there is only just enough travel beyond infinity to accommodate my eyes uncorrected; Mr Magoo would need his glasses to use these. Depth of field is quite shallow, but at the other end of focus travel they focus reasonably close in. Sharpness is good and you donít immediately notice the lack of phase coatings. Brightness during daytime is good, but these get dim much more quickly than, say, Nikonís 10x42 SEs, as dusk falls. Chromatic aberration is well controlled, as well as most binoculars, and again better than many.

On the night sky the Notarems work surprisingly well, one of the better older designs I have tested. The field is nice and wide and flat; stars are pinpoint and bright with good colour. They donít go as deep as a modern premium 10x42 would, but they are basically fine for casual astronomy.

The main problem with the view is one typical of older Zeiss binoculars Ė a definite yellowish tint that is really obvious if you swap between these and a modern binocular. I donít know if this was simply the glass of the time, the coatings, or a deliberate distortion to allow better performance in misty conditions (some binoculars of the era were supplied with yellow filters).

So, overall, the view is quite decent and better than a cheap pair of binoculars today. A quick look through a pair of new Pentax Porros had me grimacing a lot more than the Notarems do. No, the Notarems are not a patch on a modern pair of Zeiss binoculars, but they are perfectly serviceable.

Summary

In 1985, when I was just finishing my student days, when a superbike had 100 horsepower and a Vauxhall Astra GTE with a 1.6 injection engine was a hot hatch, back when a home computer had 16K of memory, the Notarems must have had state-of-the-art performance. The world has changed a lot since then.

The Notarems are still a nice binocular, following the attentions of the repairer. They are very small and light, even today. By comparison, a modern Zeiss 10x42 FL is much bigger and heavier. The view is still decently wide and bright by modern standards and the focuser works as well as most and better than many. Sharpness is well down on the best phase coated roofs, but probably not much worse than cheap ones; ditto twilight performance. Optical quality appears pretty good, again better than cheap binoculars today.

So should you buy a pair? Well the good news is that if there are problems they can be readily repaired, but at a cost. After repairs these stand me at almost £200, which is probably more than they are worth. But... could you buy a significantly better pair of compact roofs for under two hundred quid? I doubt it, and they certainly wouldnít have the cachet of the Zeiss name (or the resale value ten years on).

A final thought: why doesnít anyone make a lightweight, high quality 10x40 like this these days?

The Zeiss Notarems are cautiously recommended as a usable classic, but factor in £100 for repairs when you buy.