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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 when it comes to magnification and objectives, 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 – maybe 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’ near legendary 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.

At A Glance

Magnification

20x

Objective Size

60mm

Eye Relief

~11mm measured from rim of eyecup

Actual Field of View

3° (52m/1000m)

Apparent field of view

60°

Close focus

~~10m measured, 14m claimed.

Transmissivity

~90% est.

Length

272mm eyecups extd.

Weight

1640g measured

Data from Zeiss/Me.

What’s in the Box?

Despite being loaned, this pair were brand new when I got them from Zeiss, so I was able to get an authentic unboxing experience:

Design and Build

In terms of design, the Zeiss 20x60s are unique, employing a purely mechanical system to stabilise their image, no batteries required.

Instead of having a computer monitor for shakes and control actuators to deform a flexible prism, or adjust the orientation of a lens, the 20x60s have their prism assemblies mounted on springs so they 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 also means that the 20x60s are frozen in time. Their appearance, build, materials and ethos are from the 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.

A related question is whether the undoubtedly clever system of gimballed prisms really justifies the huge cost compared to almost any other binoculars. All I can say is that based on the insured value, which seems to vary a lot in percentage terms, the margin on these is high.

Zeiss’ 20x60s next to Nikon’s conventional 18x70s.

Body

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.

Focuser

Focus action is reasonably smooth and fairly light. It’s not as refined as a modern Alpha birding bino’, with a more ‘mechanical’ feel of gears and linkages and a vaguer, drier feel. 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 get a sense for some of the engineering involved 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.

Coatings appear excellent – the classic, dark pink T*.

Optics - Eyepieces

The eye lenses are small and flat by modern premium standards, more like other Zeiss designs from thirty years and more 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 use I wanted an in-between setting: extended, the cups constrict the field, at least for my eyes.

With the cups rolled back, the eye relief is just ~10-11mm, which severely restricts the field of view with glasses. Again, this is how almost all binoculars once were, but feels outdated today. I noted some blackouts (due to spherical aberration of the exit pupil) moving my eyes around the view. This is typical of wider-field eyepieces.

Accessories

The eyepiece cap is like the old fashioned 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 reasonably fluid, but feels more mechanical and less smoothly twirly than the best modern birding-bino’ focusers.

No getting away from it these are a big binocular to wear and hold.

The View

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. The mechanical system eliminates those unpleasant artefacts you get with high-powered Canons, like wandering 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.

This effect is worse at higher angles of elevation, lessened when I used them sitting and horizontal.

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.

These pull things crazily close, with the extra magnification, even compared to 18x, really apparent. Watching badgers play fighting 300 yards away they look close, but pull the binoculars away and they’re just dots, unrecognizable as creatures never mind badgers.

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.

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.

Flat field?

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).

Chromatic Aberration

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: 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 no ghosts or spikes that I could see. 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, but seems to fade quite quickly at dusk due to the 3mm exit pupil. Still, I was able to continue watching badger cubs, from the set in the copse, play-fighting in the fading light of a June evening.

In Use – Observing the Night Sky

In their wisdom, Zeiss released the 20x60s for rental at the end of May, whilst June is the only month here where there is literally no true astronomical darkness. Nonetheless, on a clear night in early June I managed some good views in the small hours, even though the horizon was still lit with a faint pre-dawn/post-dusk blue.

I generally preferred Zeiss’ mechanical stabilisation for terrestrial viewing, because it eliminates the artefacts that electronic systems often generate at high powers. However, for astronomy there is a problem: I found that the IS induced more wander in the image at high angles of elevation. This is one of the main differences compared to an electronic system like Canon’s. I found this wandering about of the image distracting, even slightly nauseating.

Otherwise, the 20x60s worked well for astronomy, with the short eye relief less troubling at night (as often the case), however the narrow field made finding things harder than I’m used to with binoculars.

Optical quality is truly excellent and the porro prisms delivered nicely point-like stars, up to the last 30% or so when astigmatism distorts them a little.

The Moon

A low early crescent yielded just a few details on a warm summer evening, but the view was otherwise crisp and steady. I will hopefully test the 20x60s further on what is an obvious target for their talents.

Deep Sky

Even without perfect darkness (think moderate Moonlight), I managed to find some brighter DSOs.

Globular cluster M3 in Boötes looked spectacular – one of the best views I’ve had with hand-helds of any kind. Again, that extra magnification showed it as much more than just a fuzzy star, with the sense that the outer parts would resolve into stars on a darker night.

With Lyra high overhead in an early summer sky, finding the Ring Nebula was ridiculously easy, despite the light sky – a great view with the smoke dot really popping out amid the stars.

Over in Cygnus, 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.

Poor timing meant I wasn’t able to test the Zeiss 20x60s as thoroughly as I’d have liked for astronomy, but first impressions were that the wonderful optics are compromised by the stabilisation. Fates willing, I’ll do a more thorough test once proper darkness returns in autumn.

Summary

I honestly didn’t expect great results from the 20x60s, suspecting they’d be surpassed by more modern designs with electronic stabilisation, ED glasses and complex eyepieces. I certainly didn’t expect them to justify their very high price. I was genuinely surprised, finding them really outstanding for terrestrial viewing, delivering a sharp, vivid and really compelling view stuffed with detail and resolution.

So are these the best hand-helds for long-distance nature viewing, as their eye-watering price suggests they should be? That’s clearly what they were designed for and on balance I’d say yes. They’re heavier than Canon’s 18x50s and much more costly, but the lack of I.S. artefacts make for a better, more relaxing view with more embedded detail, one that feels like regular bino’s but with that huge reach.

If you are heading off on safari or a polar cruise these might be a nice accessory for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, although they’re much too big and heavy to wear for long periods. Alternatively, for long distance birding, plane spotting or surveillance, no hand-held bino’s do a better job of revealing detail you’d miss with the lower power and/or jiggly view of conventional binoculars. So for situations where a fixed scope is out of the question, the 20x60s do have a narrow but compelling use case.

Sadly, I didn’t find them as convincing for astronomy. I need to do a more extended review when dark skies return, but initial impressions are that whilst the optics are fully up to the job, the IS works less effectively at high angles of elevation.

If you want the most beautiful high power terrestrial views without a tripod, then Zeiss’ unique 20x60s do a wonderful job. But it’s impossible to escape their price, weight and (in some ways) dated design. First impressions for astronomy were marred by less effective stabilisation when pointed upwards.

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