Zeiss 20x60 S Review
It’s mean I know, but I often chuckle at Amazon reviews for cheap high-power binoculars. Perhaps understandably, folks imagine that more is more, then get a nasty surprise to find the view fuzzy, dim, narrow and jiggly.
There’s a reason why most premium binoculars have a magnification of just 8x or 10x. To get quality views at higher powers, you need the very best optical design and quality. But even then, shakes often smear out any extra resolution.
If you do want to see more details of distant targets – raptors, flocks of waders, aircraft, deep sky objects – without a tripod, one company has had a near monopoly for the past two decades: Canon.
I like Canon’s stabilised Bino’s and have owned a pair of 12x36s for years. But the highest power models suffer from some strange effects. Want the stabilised view but with no shimmering or shifting focus or jittery field edge? Zeiss’ legendary mechanically-stabilised 20x60s are literally the only choice.
I’ve wanted to review a pair forever, but have never been able to justify their price. Recently, I finally got my hands on a loaner pair to review.
Note: I’ve updated this review to reflect a second pair I borrowed with which I was able to do a lot of astronomy.
At A Glance
~11mm measured from rim of eyecup
Actual Field of View
3° (52m/1000m) (~2.2° w/ glasses)
Apparent field of view
~~10m measured, 14m claimed.
272mm eyecups extd.
Data from Zeiss/Me.
What’s in the Box?
This pair were brand new when I got them from Zeiss, so I was able to get an authentic unboxing experience:
Design and Build
The Zeiss 20x60s are unique, employing a purely mechanical system to stabilise their image, no batteries required. That’s why they don’t suffer the artefacts in the view that you get with every electronic system.
Electronic stabilisation employs a computer system with sensors and actuators to detect shakes and then counter them by deforming a flexible prism or adjusting the orientation of a lens. Meanwhile, the 20x60s just have their prism assemblies mounted on gimbals with springs to remain steady as the bino’s shake and shift.
It’s one of those ideas that sounds simple but suspiciously hard to implement. Perhaps that’s why, as far as I know, Zeiss’ system has never been copied in any other binocular (only in a related Zeiss monocular).
This unique mechanical stabilisation system may explain why the 20x60s are frozen in time. Their appearance, build, materials and ethos are from the late Eighties Dialyt era. You might expect that Zeiss would have updated them with upgrades to the optical system to account for current trends like ultra-wide-angle eyepieces and special dispersion glasses. They haven’t. Perhaps they are such an integrated optical design that to do so would mean re-designing from scratch, prohibitively expensive for such a niche product.
Whatever the reason, from what I can tell, a pair of 20x60s bought today is basically identical to an early pair, apart perhaps for better coatings.
Still, as we will see, the 20x60s do offer a unique proposition – a really high power hand-held view with fluid and artefact-free stabilisation.
The body is a single unit with no hinge, just like a pair of Canon IS bino’s: the IS mechanism makes a hinge impractical. They look big and bulky, but actual weight of just over 1.6 Kg isn’t that much more than many conventional big-eye designs.
To adjust for different eye widths, you move the eyepieces on pivots. Again, this is typical of Canon’s IS bino’s too, but here the action is stiff and I found I couldn’t easily adjust it whilst viewing.
Armour is the classic shiny rubber you got with the Dialyts – it’s not as comfy feeling as modern armour and on this (brand new) pair smells a bit rubbery too.
Removing a thumbscrew on the underside reveals a ¼-20 thread for direct fixing to a photo head. That might seem a bit redundant – after all, the main reason you might buy these is for the stabilisation. You can buy a (very) nice pair of non-stabilised high-power binos’s for a lot less! But it does mean that mounting is easy if you want to use these instead of a scope.
Focus action is smooth and fairly light. It’s not as refined as a modern Alpha birding bino’, with a more ‘mechanical’ feel of gears and linkages. But I noticed the focuser on the second pair I borrowed had freed up noticeably (the first pair were brand new) and was more fluid.
The large knurled knob feels surprisingly plasticky and basic considering this is one of the most expensive pairs of binoculars you can buy.
Close focus is hard to measure, but quite good for such a high power – maybe 10m or so, at which image merge is no problem. Close focus to infinity is about 1 ½ turns.
Optics - Prisms
Like Canon’s stabilised binoculars, these employ old-fashioned porro prisms not the Schmidt-Pechan or Abbe-König ‘roof’ prisms more common today. An advantage of porro prisms is no need for special coatings to enhance resolution and brightness.
Those porro prisms are somehow mounted on springs and gimbals to stabilise the view. You can glimpse these gimbals in this view past the objectives:
Optics - Objectives
The objectives are a doublet achromat with a very large air space and thick elements to provide better correction than a standard doublet would. This is an old design, so no ED glasses or multiple elements here. Of course, a minimal number of elements combined with the porro prisms make for the brightest possible view for the power and objective size.
Behind the objectives lies a cone with a series of ridge baffles – a sophisticated system found in some high-end telescopes.
Coatings appear excellent – the classic, dark pink T*.
Coatings: Zeiss’ 20x60s and Nikon’s 18x70s (both examples from 2021).
Barrels are lined with conical ridge baffles.
Optics - Eyepieces
The eye lenses are small and flat by modern premium standards, more like other Zeiss designs from thirty years ago. Again, it’s a reminder that this is a 1980s design frozen in time. Still, those eyepieces (likely some kind of Erfle) provide a wide 60° apparent field of view which equates to just 3° (52m at 1000m) true field, given the high magnification.
Another old-fashioned feature is the folding rubber eye cups. They are easy enough to roll down, but the choice of cup length is strange. For naked eye, the extended cups constrict the field, at least for my eyes. Meanwhile, with the cups rolled back, the eye relief is just ~10-11mm, which severely restricts the field of view with glasses.
I noted some mild blackouts (due to spherical aberration of the exit pupil) when moving my eyes around the view. This is typical of wider-field eyepieces.
The eyepiece cap is like the classic rubber one from a pair of Dialyts. No objective caps were provided. Unexpectedly perhaps, the strap is standard Zeiss, which means a fairly basic neoprene item.
These come supplied in an aluminium briefcase, but with no soft alternative. Great for travel and storage, you probably wouldn’t take it into the field.
In Use – Daytime
Ergonomics and Handling
The oval body feels quite large for my smallish hands. The 20x60s are not as heavy as they look, but you do notice the weight over extended viewing sessions.
Stabilisation is activated by the large, rubber protected and sealed, prism-shaped button on the left. The button releases those flexibly mounted prisms with a magnetic catch. Activation generates the faintest ‘clunk’ after which it’s all completely silent until you release the button with another faint clunk.
A negative point for me was having to keep the button pressed, which prevented me holding the bino’s around the objectives like I usually would.
Zeiss say you should avoid harsh movements and shocks with the button pressed, or expensive damage could occur. But if you heed that advice, the 20x60s should last a lifetime and Zeiss can repair them if there’s a fault. One very attractive aspect of the mechanical system is that these, unlike a pair of Canons, are not a throwaway electronic gadget.
The focuser is quite fast and pleasingly fluid, but feels more mechanical and less twirly than the best modern birding-bino’ focusers. The dioptre adjustment under the right eyepiece is very smooth and precise, better than most.
No getting away from it these are a big binocular to wear and hold.
Stabilisation when held flat is very effective indeed, surprisingly so and equal to a modern pair of IS bino’s, but with a really natural easy feel you don’t get with electronic stabilisation. As promised, the mechanical system eliminates those unpleasant artefacts you get with high-powered Canons, like cycling focus point and jitter in the view.
It is quite possible to pan around with the IS button pressed, but I found that it didn’t supress large, slower amplitude movements as well as the best electronic systems, leading to the view wandering about. Still, panning is very smooth and seamless.
Looking through a window you could think these suffer from lack of sharpness. They don’t. It’s just that at this magnification flaws in window glass become very apparent, like using an astro’ scope through plate glass.
Used outside it’s apparent the optical quality is of the very highest, with huge resolution and absolutely pin-sharp clarity and definition. Colours are bright and realistic, the whole view a real feast of detail. But at 20x, shimmering summer heat haze often robs more resolution than any limitation in the optics, especially for the most distant views. This downside is truly scope-like.
The high magnification, even compared to 18x, pulls things crazily close. Badgers play fighting appear nearby, but pull the binoculars away and they’re just dots, unrecognizable as creatures never mind badgers at 300 metres away.
I found all sorts of uses for the 20x60s I hadn’t expected, beyond the obvious ones of distant mountains, soaring buzzards and waders far out on the bay sands. I spent ages watching the antics of nesting gulls on islands in a reservoir; pine cones in the tops of distant trees; bumble bees swarming around my neighbours’ eaves.
Watching a plane in the airway overhead, I was astonished by the close-up detail I could see, easily able to distinguish this Airbus from a Boeing.
All in all, for terrestrial use the view is the nearest you can get in a hand-held binocular to a high-quality scope by day and is quite compelling. But compelling enough to spend so much? That’s for you to decide.
By day, the field looks pretty flat to the edge, but it does blur gradually in the last 30% or so and that blur can’t be focused away. Examining a star off-axis confirms this blur is mainly astigmatism (not field curvature).
I noted some false colour on high contrast targets, but it’s not generally intrusive. Crows in high branches do show feathers rimmed with purple and green. Much of the apparent false colour is from the eyepieces, though: you can avoid most of it with careful eye positioning and focusing through there isn’t much at all. Overall, the air-spaced doublet objectives do their job surprisingly well.
Stray Light and Ghosting
Viewing a brilliant distant streetlight produced the faintest off-axis ghost and just a trace flare – the very best you can expect from a prismatic system. Even working in challenging conditions by day – over sunlit water for example – I had no trouble with flare.
In Use – Dusk
The view is bright by day. With a 3mm exit pupil these aren’t a night glass, but still work well at dusk. I was able to continue watching badger cubs, from the set in the copse, play-fighting in the fading light of a June evening. Similarly, I could enjoy a flock of waders settling to roost in the bay in deep dusk, when I couldn’t see them with the naked eye.
Views of the Blackpool Tower Christmas lights 27 miles distant were the best I’ve had with hand-helds – showing much more of the draped red strings of lights than Nikon’s 18x70s on the same night.
In Use – Observing the Night Sky
I’m going to review these in depth for astronomy.
In their wisdom, Zeiss released the 20x60s for rental at the end of May when there’s no true darkness here, but I was able to borrow a pair again one Christmas for several extended astronomy sessions on a range of objects. I spent a lot more time with these than I usually do, as they’re a truly special binocular.
Zeiss’ mechanical stabilisation gives a very natural view that eliminates electronic artefacts. However, the system doesn’t damp large slow movements, so at first the image wandered about too much. Eventually, my eyes and brain seemed to learn to avoid this.
Perhaps the 20x60’s biggest drawback for astronomy is that the field of view is vignetted from 3° to about 2.2° with specs. This makes finding things surprisingly hard at times. Even so, the whole Orion sword region was easily visible with my glasses on, as were the Pleiades.
I found the 20x60s tiring to hold for long periods, especially for objects at high altitudes. Having to keep the button pressed prevents holding around the objectives as I usually would to steady them. I found them easiest to use when seated and/or resting on something.
Optical quality is truly outstanding and telescope-like. The porro-prism optics delivered beautifully brilliant and point-like stars, up to the last 30% or so where astigmatism distorts them just a little.
Just after the December 2022 opposition and at 16” across, Mars showed as a clear disk not a star, with no flare or false colour to spoil the view.
By resting on a sign to hold the 20x60s extra steady, Jupiter showed as a perfect disk with no flare or spikes or false colour. I could just make out hints (but that’s all) of the central cloud belts – rare through bino’s.
Saturn looked exactly like it does through a small scope. For the first time ever through hand-helds, I saw the rings as they truly are – detached from the planet with black space in between and clearly rings not just ‘handles’.
A Moon just before first quarter was just extraordinary through the 20x60s – by far the best view I’ve ever had with hand-held binoculars. With no stray light or flare at all and simply incredible contrast and resolution, absolute focus snap, it was just like the view through a fine astronomical telescope. There is just a touch of false colour focusing through the limb, but this doesn’t spoil the view at all.
The detail on view was staggering: the crater grouping of Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catherina, loads of detail in the southern highlands and the rough area west of Mare Tranquillitatis, fine wrinkle ridges and rays on the smooth Mare lavas. Shadows in craters are an absolute black, sunlit highlights perfectly defined.
The next day of the lunation was even better. There I was, exploring the Apennines in all their morning ruggedness when Rima Ariadaeus popped out – a rille, with hand-held bino’s!
Compared with Canon’s 18x50s, the extra magnification is really noticeable on the Moon, the artefact-free stabilisation delivering a finer, more telescope-like view.
If I was rich and had nowhere to set up a scope, I’d buy a pair of 20x60s just for the Moon, the view really is that good. By contrast, a fine pair of 12x50s I was reviewing at the same time seemed more like a pair of 7x42s after the Zeiss.
Even without perfect darkness in early summer (think moderate Moonlight), I managed to find some brighter DSOs.
Albireo was a huge split for binos and looked beautiful with its flame colours, blue and gold. Tracking up towards Deneb I found lots of clusters embedded in star field, despite the less-than-perfect darkness.
In winter, the Pleiades were the sparkling diamonds-on-velvet embedded in faint blue mist that only telescopes generally show. The clusters in Auriga were more fully resolved, their shapes distinct, than I think I’ve ever seen in bino’s – fuzzy smudges no longer. The Starfish Cluster (M38) was fully resolved into a mass of stars and showed off its arms. M37 was especially impressive – usually just a misty patch, it resolved into a mass of fine stars. I checked against the Nikon 18x70s and, yes, the 20x60s showed more stars and shape in these clusters.
Similarly populous and impressive were the Double Cluster and Stock 2. Even for such objects at high altitudes, the stabilisation still worked to give an excellent view.
The Great Nebula in Orion, climbing over the bay, was spectacular once my eyes fully adapted to the thick winter darkness at the end of my local prom’. The Trapezium was easily resolved. The dark cloud in the centre of the nebula, along with those edging the arms, were clearly visible and showed more structure than I’ve ever seen with hand-helds. Those arcing arms extended much further, enclosing much more nebulosity than through smaller apertures, too. Again, more detail was revealed through the 18x70s when hand-held.
The Crab Nebula was larger and more stand-out than I’ve ever seen, with a hint of its shape too.
I dragged myself out of bed on Christmas Eve 2022 to view globular clusters before dawn – M3 above Arcturus, M13 and M92 in Hercules. All looked more interesting than I’d ever seen them in bino’s, with M13 no longer just a fuzzy star but starting to resolve into icing sugar stars in its outer regions.
The Ring Nebula was easy to find. Was I imagining I could actually see it as a tiny smoke ring?
Finally, I went hunting for comet ZTF in Corona Borealis and found it without difficulty, able to make out its asymmetric shape.
The narrow FOV makes the 20x60s hard to use for astronomy and the wandering view can be distracting, but the reward is that they do reveal views of the deep sky usually reserved for telescopes with binoviewers – better than with any other hand-helds I’ve reviewed.
Zeiss 20x60s vs Nikon 18x70s
I was able to compare these high-power binoculars directly one clear, dark night Just after Christmas. Despite being larger and heavier, the Nikons are actually easier to use because you can hold them around the objectives to steady them and because they have a larger field of view, with or without specs.
However, despite the Nikons’ aperture advantage, the Zeiss reliably revealed more for astronomy due to the stabilisation: more nebular structure in M42, more stars in clearly defined arms for the Starfish cluster, stardust in the outer parts of M13 rather than just fuzz, a more telescopic view of Saturn and its rings.
The Zeiss have even better optical quality, with even more brilliant and pin-point stars.
For terrestrial, the Zeiss again just pulled in more detail and suffered less from false colour too.
You could never call the 20x60s worth the extra money, but as usual with stabilised binoculars, they do in fact show you more.
Meanwhile, though the Nikons are ruggedly built and waterproof, their leather coating isn’t very protective and marks easily compared with Zeiss thick and ugly, but functional rubber armour.
I honestly didn’t expect great results from the 20x60s, suspecting they’d be surpassed by more modern designs. And in some ways - eyepiece comfort, for example - they are outdated. But I was genuinely surprised to find them outstanding for terrestrial viewing, delivering a sharp, vivid and really compelling view stuffed with detail and resolution.
For long distance birding and nature viewing, plane spotting or surveillance, no hand-held bino’s do a better job of revealing detail. So for situations where a fixed scope is out of the question, the 20x60s do have a narrow but compelling use case by day.
My initial doubts over their astronomy performance were unfounded. They deliver brilliantly pin point stars and reveal more than almost any other hand-helds: more faint nebulosity, more fully-resolved faint stars in clusters and star fields; much more lunar detail.
However, these are not an astro’ bino’ for novices. They’re not easy to use and have a steep learning curve – heavy and quite awkward to hold, their narrow field makes finding things hard. The stabilisation tends to make the view wander about more than electronic systems and this can be distracting.
But if you’re willing to overcome their drawbacks, these are the highest performing hand-helds I’ve reviewed for astronomy. They showed me things I’d never seen through hand-held bino’s before.
Supreme optical quality and that unique stabilisation do come at a very high price here. But if you need the absolute maximum performance from hand-held binoculars these are the best cost-no-object choice.
If you want the most detailed high power terrestrial views without a tripod, then Zeiss’ unique 20x60s do a wonderful job. They take some getting used to for astronomy, but deliver amazing views for bino’s once you do: if you can learn to use them, the most capable hand-helds of all.