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The 54mm Victory HTs are some of the smallest and most portable ‘big-eye’ binoculars. They offer the tempting idea of one binocular to do everything, from birding through owling to full-on astronomy.

Zeiss Victory 10x54 HT Review

If I have learned anything in ten years of testing optical equipment it’s that less is more. I used to own numerous scopes, eyepieces and pairs of binoculars, but I’ve gradually whittled that over-sized collection down to a few premium items I use all the time. For me that means less overall investment, less clutter and better value.

So in theory I’d entertain the concept of just one pair of full-sized premium binos, for birding, nature viewing and astronomy (backed up by a super-compact pair for travelling and trekking), but which ones?

I would need the following boxes ticked:

·        Big objectives (50mm +) and good light transmission for dusk use and astronomy.

·        (Relatively) light weight and compact size for carrying.

·        A sensible mid-range magnification for daytime ease-of use, but still enough for DSO-hunting at night.

·        A wide field of view.

·        High optical quality.

·        High-fluoride glass optics for minimum chromatic aberration.

·        Lots of eye relief so they’re comfortable to use with my specs on.

Given how much I like my Zeiss 7x42 FLs, Zeiss’s latest Victory HT 10x54s look top contenders and could well tick all these boxes. Let’s see if they do.

At A Glance

Magnification

10x

Objective Size

54mm

Eye Relief

16mm Claimed (18mm measured).

Actual Field of View

110m/1000m

Apparent field of view

63°

Close focus

3.5m

Transmissivity

95% +

Length

193mm

Weight

1050g

Data from Zeiss.

What’s in the Box?

In their latest premium packaging, Zeiss have created impressive instant wow-factor with a 2-part box that’s almost a display case. Check these unboxing pics to see what I mean:

Design and Build

Zeiss’s range has become a bit confusing of late. There are at least three separate premium models with different body styles. The older Victory FLs are still available in the smaller sizes, whilst Zeiss have introduced the new 42mm open-bridge SFs to compete with Swarovski’s ELs. Then there are these HTs, priced as a premium binocular like the SFs, but offering a brighter view with their brighter Abbe-König prisms (like the FLs and Dialyts). Unlike the SFs, the HTs are available in a 8x and 10x magnification, both at the conventional 42mm size and the larger 54mm tested here. Zeiss don’t currently offer higher-powers (12x or 15x) in their premium ranges.

Body and Ergonomics

Zeiss have gone for smaller-than-usual 54mm objectives for a reason. If you do the maths, then 54mm objectives and 95%+ transmission (Zeiss’s claimed value for the HTs) should deliver the same amount of light as 56mm objectives with ~90% transmission (a figure typical for premium roof-prism binoculars). So in theory they should transmit as much light as, for example, Swarovski’s older 56mm SLCs, whilst being lighter and more compact. Indeed, the weight of these 10x54s is much more like a typical 10x50 at just over a kilo and they are shorter than most big-objective binos, too, at 193mm long.

So the Zeiss Victory 10x54s look and feel more like typical 50mm binoculars – lighter, shorter and more comfortable to hold than my Swaro 15x56 SLCs, with a balance point closer to centre that brings the focuser more easily to hand. The 10x54 HTs don’t have the two-part bridge of a Swarovski EL or a Nikon EDG, but the short bridge design allows you to get your hand comfortably around those flared barrels just the same. These are a really comfy binocular to hold.

External build quality is generally good, but showier than the workmanlike Victory FLs. The bridge of the Victory HTs is metal, unlike the FLs, but the finish on that exposed metal isn’t quite as uniform as it is on the Swarovski, Leica and even Nikon premium binos I’ve seen recently.

The armour has a novel two-texture finish, with the heavier texture where your hands go. The armour is thicker than my Swarovski SLCs too, but finish is slightly poorer with more noticeable seams. It’s a trivial point perhaps, but the shiny smooth section attracts finger-prints and nail-marks and I’m not sure I like the fussy styling of the two-texture armour, especially around the barrels.

Overall, design and ergonomics are first rate, but external build-quality isn’t quite as good as the best – a familiar theme with recent Zeiss bincoulars.

 

 

Zeiss armour and body are thicker than Swarovski’s, objectives more deeply recessed.

Smooth armour really attracts dust and prints after a bit of use in the field.

Focuser

The large, soft-rubber coated focusing knob falls perfectly under my fingers. It’s light and smooth in action too and feels fluid and precise – similar to the best of the greaseless focusers I’ve tried recently. Initially the focuser on this pair was noisy, making a rustling squeaky noise some (but not all) of the time. This soon quietened down with use.

The focuser is not as fast as some birding binos, taking 1 ¾ turns from stop to stop (compared to just one turn for the Victory FL’s). However, as we’ll see, it’s crucially fast enough to easily follow birds in flight and the feel is a little more fluid than the Victory FL’s focuser.

These Victory HTs certainly focus close, but they don’t merge the image perfectly at close range, leaving an impression of the two separate barrels. The Swarovski 10x42 ELs I reviewed gave a perfectly merged view at the same distance (about four metres). This may simply be down to the larger objective spacing, but it’s worth considering if you use binos as a long distance microscope for butterflies etc.

My biggest issue with the focusing mechanism is the dioptre adjustment. The Victory FLs and Swaros ELs have a system where you pull-out the focusing knob to adjust dioptre (see below). This allows dioptre adjustment to be light and fluid but avoids accidental movement: perfect! The Victory HTs have returned to simply having a separate, very thin dioptre knob opposite the focuser on the opposite side of the bridge. The knob is stiff to avoid accidental movement (it has to be because it’s exposed), but that makes it harder to adjust and less precise.

The focusing mechanism is similar to other premium greaseless focusers, if a little slower than some, but I much preferred the old Victory FL’s dioptre mechanism.

Zeiss Victorys: 10x54 HT and 7x42 FL. The FL’s focuser is faster, the HT’s smoother.

Separate dioptre knob is shared with new SFs.

 

Older Victory FL dioptre adjustment integrated with focuser.

10x54 HT objectives have Zeiss’s standard T* and Lotutec coatings.

Cut-away diagram shows the six element HT objectives and eyepieces, along with their thin Abbe-König prisms.

Optics - prisms

Zeiss have long used a special type of prism that is neither of the usuals (Porro-prism and Schmidt-Pechan a.k.a. Roof prism), but something called an Abbe-König prism. The good thing about this type of prism is that the light is bent around by total internal reflection (just like porros), with no mirror coatings required (unlike roofs). This means Zeiss HTs, like the older FLs and Dialyts, simply transmit more light than even the best roofs. Zeiss quote 95% light transmission: that’s 5% more than say the Swarovski ELs and so the view is noticeably brighter in the daytime.

Interestingly, Swarovski have gone for Abbe-König prisms on their latest big-eye binoculars, whilst Zeiss appear to have returned to roofs for their latest Victory SFs (which sure enough have a lower transmission value than these HTs)!

Optics - objectives

The Victory HTs have the high-fluoride ED glass in the optics that most premium binos employ these days. This is a good thing because it minimises chromatic aberration (false colour fringing) on high contrast parts of the view. Interestingly, though, these HTs may have two ED glass elements in objectives that contain a total of six lenses (at one time objectives had just two lens elements).

The T* lens coatings look the same as my Victory FL’s. The lenses are also coated with a hydrophobic coating called “Lotutec” that sheds water and dirt (they should work better in the rain). The quality of the coatings looks very similar to the other “Alpha” makers, but it is an unusual pinkish hue under some lighting conditions that I think gives a slightly cool colour rendition I really like.

Optics - eyepieces

The eyepieces again look exactly like those on my Victory FLs. They don’t sport the kind of huge, highly curved eye lens that you get on Swarovski’s latest ELs. Like the objectives, though, they have six elements making a total of fourteen optical elements per side including the prisms – that’s the most I have come across, one more than Swarovski’s HD SLCs, two more than Leica’s Duovids (a value I once quoted in a forum review, only to be ridiculed by the resident ‘Professor’ – you know who you are!)

Those six eyepiece lenses deliver the goods. Apparent field width at 63° is good, about the same as Swarovski’s 10x50 ELs and a few degrees more than the 10x56 SLCs, but the Victory HTs lack the field flatteners found in the ELs and so the usable field is effectively less.

Eye relief is huge: Zeiss claim 16mm, but I measured 18mm plus. That’s more than the ELs’ have in practice (though not according to the specs – those variable millimetres again) and make the whole field comfortable with specs. Even better, Zeiss have designed in low levels of spherical aberration of the exit pupil too; that means less blackouts as you move your eye around. For specs’ wearers comfort is state-of-the-art.

All that eye relief does mean you need lots of adjustment in the eye-cups and these have three positions with enough travel to accommodate the large eye relief.

 

Eye-cups have three extended positions, lots of travel, to accommodate the long eye-relief.

Accessories

The 10x54 HTs come with all the usual accessories: case, strap and caps.

The eyepiece caps are not the push-over stay-on type that the older Victory FLs had. Instead they push into the lens housing and stay on by a little lanyard that attaches to the strap lugs. They work well, though.

The case is basically the same Cordura item that came with the old FLs, except that the flap is now brown faux-leather. As before, it looks cheap and has flimsy fittings compared to the latest Swarovski EL case.

The strap is the usual Zeiss item, but I can tell you from experience that it doesn’t wear as well as Swarovski’s, tending to fray more.

 

Objective caps push-in and secure with lanyard.

Zeiss and Swarovski cases. The swaro’ case is much more refined.

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics

The 10x54 HTs are easy to hold, even for small hands. Ergonomics are first-rate.

The modest size and weight, big focuser wheel and good balance, along with the nicely flared barrels make these very comfortable to use. The focuser isn’t a fast as some, but the wheel is conveniently large and fluid, the focusing action still plenty fast and accurate enough to cope with birds on the wing.

Yes, of course they are larger and heavier than your typical birding binocular, but they aren’t the unwieldy monsters that many big-objective binos are. They don’t look ridiculous hanging around your neck either, though compared with 10x42s you would really notice the extra weight after an hour or two carrying them.

Zeiss’s compact 10x54 HTs don’t look or feel like typical big-eye binos.

The View

Novice binocular users often expect big-eye binoculars to have a wide bright view; usually they are sorely disappointed. In bright daylight, your contracted pupil stops down the objective, so big lenses don’t give a brighter view. What’s more, bigger objectives often seem to allow aberrations to creep in. I’ve tried several pairs of big-eye binos like that: great at night and in the dusk, but with a dim and soft daytime view. Even the non-HD Swarovski 15x56 SLCs were a bit dim in daytime use. The Zeiss 10x54 HTs really turn that idea on its head: the daytime view is wide, super-bright and sharp with supreme resolution. The view is just like a pair of premium 10x42s’. What’s more, comfort at the eyepiece is excellent due to the large eye relief and well-supressed blackouts.

So, for big-eye binos, these are a revelation in terms of the view. The effect is not subtle: my teenage daughter immediately commented on how much nicer the daytime view was, how much easier these are to use, than the non-HD 56mm Swaros (the new ones have a view much more like these).

I did notice one unusual feature, though: the view is surrounded by a bright ring caused by internal reflection somewhere. This doesn’t detract from the view itself, but was slightly distracting.

Flat field?

Centre field the optics are very sharp and they snap to focus perfectly, so general optical quality is clearly very high. However, if you are used to binoculars with field-flatteners like Swarovski’s latest ELs (and even Nikon’s old SEs) then you will quickly notice a lot of off-axis field curvature. Specifically, the view starts to distort from about 60% field width, getting progressively worse to the field stop where the view is poor. This is not an accident and is a feature of all the recent Zeiss binoculars, except for the SFs. The argument is that this curvature makes panning more comfortable due to the absence of a ‘rolling ball’ effect that can make some nauseous when panning flat-field binos. That curved field may also make it easier to achieve freedom from blackouts at the eyepiece (an outstanding feature of these binoculars).

Unfortunately, I have now come off the fence on this issue and I’m not on the Zeiss side – I find little problem panning a pair of Swaro’s flat-field ELs, but conversely that curved Zeiss field annoys me now that I’m used to flat-field views. I have started to find the field curvature more noticeable on my Victory FL 7x42’s since owning a pair of Swaro ELs, but the higher power and narrower field of the 10x54s makes it look worse. Even my old Swarovski 15x56 SLCs have a much flatter field than these. Interestingly, the latest Zeiss birding binos – the Victory SF - apparently do have field flatteners, so it seems that Zeiss may be changing their approach.

Does this field curvature spoil things? Just as with the Victory FLs, the answer for terrestrial use is “not really”. Yes the curvature is noticeable, no you couldn’t ID a bird on the field stop the way you could with a pair of ELs, but overall the impression is still that these give a wonderful view. In the end, it comes down to taste and what you are used to – try them and see.

Chromatic Aberration

Considering those six-element twin-ED objectives, chromatic aberration should be well-controlled and it is. Overall levels are just a little higher than the 7x42 Victory FLs, so just a trace remains but not enough to spoil the view of birds in high branches. I can enjoy a large flock of winter Goldfinches in the trees across the road, without flare and false colour spoiling their plumage. The jet-black plumage of jackdaws in flight does still show a trace of green and purple fringing against a bright sky, but not enough to ruin my enjoyment of a flock of them tumbling and messing about.

In Use – Dusk

With 95% transmission optics, 54mm objectives and a 5.4mm exit pupil you would expect the 10x54 HTs to have outstanding dusk performance and they do. These allow you to pull detail out of shadows that have already become black and featureless as night draws in. Looking at the copse across the way, the ground under the trees still looks like daytime when all is impenetrable darkness with my naked eyes.

The high optical quality and accurate focuser make focusing in low light much easier than with lesser binos where it can be a real problem.

A bright dusk sky causes problems for some binoculars, flooding the objectives with light and washing out the view. The 10x54 HTs have deeply recessed objectives and don’t suffer from this issue.

If you like hunting, birding or nature viewing in very low light conditions, or even something more specialist like owling, these are a very fine binocular. For older eyes, they may work better than a specialist dusk binocular, like an 8x56, which has a larger exit pupil than many older eyes can manage.

In Use – The Night Sky

Testing the 10x54 HTs on a frosty December night with Christmas lights invading my darkness!

In many ways, the characteristics that work in dusk should make the 10x54 HTs ideal for astronomy. Indeed, they are bright and have a deep reach, showing lots of dimmer stars. Many consider 10x ideal for astronomy, and though I generally prefer 12x, I have to admit that 10x is easier to hold steady whilst still pulling in smaller objects – clusters and nebulae. Stray light performance is exceptional, so working around streetlamps isn’t a problem and the superb optical quality means stars are tight and sharp with minimal flare.

But there is a problem. Those off-axis aberrations – noticeable but not ruinous by day – are much more intrusive on the night sky. The focal surface is curved, but the big problem is coma and astigmatism that distorts stars progressively from about 50% field width and is very noticeable by 60-70%. Near the field-stop, this smearing of starlight makes fainter stars disappear, giving a tunnel-like effect that spoils the view just a little for me.

The Moon

Ideally I prefer 12x or more for detailed views of the Moon, but even so these Victory HTs deliver a near perfect view of the Moon: hard, sharp and full of detail. What’s more, even a bright Moon produces only the slightest trace of ghosting in-field and they also suppress stray light well when working around the Moon (or streetlights) too: just an occasional dim ghost is visible.

Chromatic aberration isn’t a problem on a bright Moon in the way it is with older, pre-HD binoculars, but there is a trace of violet and purple around the limb that isn’t there with my Victory 7x42 FLs (larger apertures and higher magnifications both increase CA, so this isn’t surprising).

I got a wonderful view of a 4-day crescent through these in the twilight sky of Christmas evening, with Mare Criseum starkly shadowed on the terminator. A few days later and Theophilus and Catherina were easy to make out on the terminator, whilst the Earthlit old Moon was still easy to make out. All in all, the Victory 10x54 HTs deliver a lovely binocular view of Luna.

Jupiter

Jupiter often causes problems for prismatic optics, so much so that testers sometimes talk about ‘the Jupiter test’: mediocre optics turn Jupiter’s tiny bright disk into a flared or spiky mess. In contrast, the 10x54 HTs produce a perfectly clean view of Jupiter free from any flare. I could easily make out all four Galilean satellites lined up on one side of the planet: tiny points of different brightness perfectly separated by black space.

Deep Sky

I generally prefer a bit more than 10x magnification for finding and viewing smaller deep sky objects. Nonetheless, those big lenses and high-transmission optics give very bright deep-sky views, whilst the larger field and steadier view make them easier to use than my 15x56s.

The string of open clusters in Auriga were bright and easily resolved into stars in a way smaller objectives don’t manage. M38 showed its characteristic cross-shape to good effect. The Pleiades looked bright and sparkling and the double cluster much brighter and more populous than through 10x42s.

The Great Nebula in Orion looked bright and detailed, with a sense of the extending arms of nebulosity, but less so than with higher powers.

The view of M31 was especially good, with lots of field width to fit the whole galaxy in, but plenty of brightness to deliver a hint of the dark-lane cut-off on one side.

One thing to note is that the relatively low power doesn’t supress sky glow (and Moonlight) as well as higher powers. With a low first quarter Moon in a frosty sky, I struggled to find the Dumbbell Nebula; it took a few seconds with my 15x56s.

Zeiss 10x54 HT vs Swarovski 15x56 SLC Neu (non-HD)

Swarovski 15x56 SLCs and Zeiss 10x54 HTs.

I’ve made a number of comparisons with the pre-HD SLC 15x56s throughout this test; I’ll summarise them here. The SLCs are more of a one-trick pony than the Zeiss: weight aside, you’d happily use the impressively multi-purpose Zeiss 10x54 HTs for birding (as well as dusk nature viewing, spotting and astronomy too), whereas the 15x56 SLCs are too slow to focus, too jiggly and too dim for birding. And yet …

Overall, I still prefer the Swarovski 15x56 SLCs for hand-held astronomy. Their higher magnification, flatter field and equally good (perhaps even better) optical quality delivers much more involving views of most deep sky objects (and the Moon too).

Note: I have since tested the newer HD version of Swarovski’s SLCs in both 10x56 and 15x56 sizes. Both are a much more pleasant to use than the older versions during the day and perform as well as or better than these Zeiss 10x54 HTs in most areas and are a similar size and weight.

Summary

In many ways, the Zeiss 10x54 HTs are outstanding binoculars with class-leading features. Daytime brightness, handling and eyepiece comfort are all as good as or better than the very best of the competition. Centre-field sharpness and suppression of both chromatic aberration and stray light are right up there too. Field curvature aside, the daytime view through these is a match for most premium 10x42s, but of course they work much better in low light. For me, though, the flatter field of Swarovski’s SLC HDs or ELs  does give a noticeably better view overall.

Even so, for terrestrial use – daytime or dusk – you could make a good case for choosing the 10x54 Victory HTs in preference to Swarovski’s outstanding 10x50 or 12x50 ELs. On the one hand, the view is not as perfect due to field curvature and build quality doesn’t feel as good either, but on the other the high-transmission optical system and bigger objectives make the Zeiss 10x54s brighter under all conditions whilst being little larger or heavier. The choice would be a matter of taste: the supreme comfort and brightness of the Zeiss or the perfect view through the Swaros.

Overall, the Zeiss 10x54 HTs come closer than most to the ideal of a do-anything single pair of binos; most boxes ticked. They do generally handle and view like a smaller premium birding binocular, moving the big-eye bino experience forward a step in doing so.

But this is a website primarily aimed at astronomers and I couldn’t recommend these solely for astronomy because of the distorted stars off-axis. For casual use on the night sky they are excellent, but if you want binos specifically for astronomy, I would suggest ones with a flatter field like Swarovski’s 56mm SLC HDs.

For terrestrial use, the Zeiss 10x54 HTs are in many ways state-of-the-art big-eye binos and are recommended. They do work well for astronomy too, but I wouldn’t recommend them specifically for it – too much off-axis aberrations spoil star fields a little.

 

 

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