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Zeiss’ 8x42mm SFs are among my absolute favourite binoculars. How do these smaller (but hardly small) 8x32s compare?

Zeiss 8x32 Victory SF Review

Zeiss’ 8x42 SFs are among my very favourite binoculars. I like everything from their unique shape and handling, to their wonderfully bright, sharp and wide view. Most of all there’s just something easy and effortless about them. For astronomy I still prefer Swarovski’s 8x42 NL Pures, but for birding I might opt for the SFs’ lighter weight and easy handling.

Recently, Zeiss have expanded the SF concept into 32mm binoculars, pricing them as a more compact alternative, not a cheaper one. So, although Zeiss finally have a competitor to Swarovski’s 8x32 ELs, it comes at an even higher price: perhaps the most expensive 8x32s currently on sale.

So are these smaller-but-not-cheaper 8x32 SFs as good as the 8x42s, or have Zeiss had to compromise that wonderful, easy view to squeeze the SF concept into a smaller format? In this review I put them to a thorough test to find out ...

With binoculars like the SFs, it’s about the view ...

At A Glance

Magnification

8x

Objective Size

32mm

Eye Relief

19mm claimed, ~16mm measured

Actual Field of View

155m/1000m

Apparent field of view

67°

Close focus

1.5m measured.

Transmissivity

90%

Length

152mm claimed, 150mm measured

Weight

605g measured.

Data from Zeiss/Me.

What’s in the Box?

Zeiss have upgraded ... the box! Now the SFs get an even fancier one with a magnetic catch and an even more striking nature photo:

Design and Build

The SFs don’t have a Zeiss heritage like say the HTs or older Victory FLs. Instead of building on previous great Zeiss bino’s, like the Dialyts, the SFs were a totally new design when they emerged five years ago.

The SFs aren’t really like anyone else’s bino’s either. Their open bridge looks a lot like Leica’s Noctivids’ or Swarovski’s ELs’, but the SFs are a much more radical re-design than just putting an open bridge on a Victory HT or FL.

Radical in what way? The SFs have a different optical design from other premium models, as we’ll see. That optical re-think has a knock-on effect on the appearance and handling too. So the SFs have a unique style and feel and view. I’ll go into the technical details in the following sections.

Zeiss clearly see the SFs as a pure birding (as opposed to hunting) binocular, so they only make four classic sizes: 8x42, 10x42, 8x32 and these 8x32s.

8x32 SFs share styling elements with other Zeiss models.

Zeiss’ 8x32 Victory SF are not really a small binocular – compared here with Leica’s retro-modern 8x40 Trinovid.

Body

The SFs are an open bridge design like Swarovski’s ELs, with long simple barrels that lack thumb-indents or other sculpting to fit the hand.

The first thing I noticed about the 42mm SFs back in 2015 was just how long they are. The 32mm models are the same. This is puzzling, even off-putting, at first. How long? Let’s compare ...

These ‘little’ SFs are 30mm longer than the 8x32 Victory FLs they replaced as Zeiss’ top model and compared with the 8x32 Conquest HDs, they’re longer too - 16mm longer. Put it another way, they are 5mm longer than a pair of 42mm Leica Ultravids. The 8x32 SFs’ most direct current competitor – Swarovski’s 8x32mm ELs – look similar but are almost a centimetre shorter.

These 8x32 SFs are longer than the 10x model, too, at 150mm vs 147mm on my ruler (though Zeiss quote 152mm vs 150mm!)

It’s easier to show than tell, so I’ve photographed the 8x32 SFs next to a pair of Leica 8x40 Trinovids (see above).

Large the 32mm SFs may be, but like the 42mm models they’re light for their size: about the same as those Swarovski 8x32 ELs and only 40g more than the much smaller 8x32 Victory FLs. Despite being bulkier, they are actually a little lighter than the Trinovids shown above.

Zeiss’ philosophy with the SFs seems to be that weight and handling in a bino’ matter more than size for most people. They might be right.

The old Victory FLs pioneered a reinforced plastic body construction. I liked it because it was warmer to hold in freezing conditions. For the SFs, Zeiss have reverted to a magnesium alloy. Possibly plastic premium bino’s made life hard for the marketing department, but more likely it’s because the open bridge was difficult to implement in composite.

The two-finish black armour is smooth on the barrel insides, lightly textured and flattened on the outside for a more comfortable grip. The open bridge sections are left as coated bare metal, just as SW and Leica do with their open-bridge models.

The SFs armour is well fitted, only smells slightly rubbery; and whilst grippy it isn’t too much of a magnet for dust and prints. In photos it looks like the armour on Zeiss’ cheaper Conquest HDs, but it’s not – theirs is more rubbery, fluff collecting and markable.

 Like all modern Zeiss, the 8x32 SFs are nitrogen filled and immersion proof to 4m.

Focuser

The 42mm SFs have one of the best focusers and the 32mm models are the same. It’s not the very fastest, but in terms of fluidity, intuitiveness and absolute precision, they just don’t get any better.

Swapping between a pair of mid-price Conquest HDs and these, the focuser (not the view or the handling) is the first thing you notice: the Conquests’ focuser is good, but this is much more fluid and intuitive.

I measured close focus at ~1.5m, which is slightly closer than the 10x model and significantly better than Zeiss’ quoted 1.95m. They do actually merge comfortably at that distance, too. From close focus to infinity is just less than 1 ˝ turns of the outsized wheel.

Dioptre adjustment on the SFs is by a separate knob at the front of the bridge, which you pull out to adjust. It’s smooth, accurate and a has positive détente for neutral. Compared with Swarovski and Leica the only thing it lacks is a numbered scale.

 

Optics - Prisms

The SF have modern-standard Schmidt-Pechan (a.k.a. Roof) prisms, not the low-loss Abbe-König prisms of the HTs. Zeiss quote the 32mm SFs at 90% transmissivity, much the same as other Alpha roofs but 2% down on the 42mm models.

Optics - Objectives

One of the many interesting things about reviewing bino’s is finding unexpected design features and the 32mm SFs are an example. Although they seem like (and are marketed as) a scaled down 42mm SF, optically and mechanically they’re different.

Like the larger SFs, these employ a long-focal-length doublet with an Ultra-FL ED glass crown, instead of the usual triplet, to reduce weight. But instead of focusing with a moving lens behind the objective, here the objectives themselves move on a carriage behind a thin optical window.

Moving-objective focus isn’t new - most Canon IS bino’s work that way. But it is unusual in a top-line Alpha bino’. Advantages might include better false colour suppression (the focusing lens can be a source of chromatic aberration). The downside is another optical element in the light path, perhaps explaining part of that 2% loss in transmissivity compared with the 42mm model.

Perhaps the need to retain good transmission with more optical elements also explains the exceptional T* coatings: Zeiss’ signature pink, but even darker than usual. And it doesn’t stop at the optical window. Shining a bright light into the objectives, there isn’t a single reflection that isn’t dark pink, perhaps the first time I’ve seen such complete coatings.

Here, T* means something different from T* on a Conquest HD, whose pink coatings are noticeably more reflective (see below). As a an aside, I recently compared the 8x42 Conquest with the 8x42 SF and found a much more subtle difference in their objective coatings.

The lenses have micro-ridge-baffled rings, but internal baffling seems minimal, which is ... baffling, because stray light suppression seems good.

Instead of a focusing lens, the objectives move on internal carriages, seen here.

Zeiss 8x32 SF (top) and Conquest 8x32 HD (bottom) both supposedly have ‘T*’ coatings.

Complex SF eyepieces have seven or possibly eight elements (Zeiss image).

Optics - Eyepieces

The 8x32 SFs’ eyepieces have slightly smaller eye lenses than the 10x32s’ - 23mm rather than 25mm - and may be a different design because their optical characteristics are very different, as we’ll see.

Zeiss’ original SF cutaway showed seven-element eyepieces, but a recent Zeiss marketing image (see above) shows even more! All those air-glass surfaces may help explain the 32mm SFs’ 2% lower overall transmission figure.

So why, then, do these small SFs need such complex eyepieces? Partly optical performance: a combination of high eye relief and a wide, well-corrected field in a compact design. But complex eyepieces are also part of Zeiss’ ErgoBalanceTM concept: a combination of light objectives and heavy eyepieces move the balance point backwards and takes torsion off your wrists

Real world eye relief is hard to measure on these 8x32 SFs, but it’s well down on the claimed 19mm at ~15mm. It’s less than the 8x42 SFs and slightly less (I think) than the 10x32s too: whatever the exact numbers, I can’t see the whole wide field with my specs on.

Apparent field of view at 67° is among the widest of any current 8x Alpha binocular, exceeded only by Swarovski’s new 8x42 NL Pures. That translates to an impressive 9° true field (155m/1000m). Compare the 8° offered by SW’s 8x32 ELs and the old range-topping 8x32 Victory FLs.

One of the few negative things about the 10x32 SFs was more blackouts and sensitivity to eye position than I’d like. Oddly, this 8x32 model seems rather better corrected for the spherical aberration of the exit pupil that causes blackouts. Eye position seems less critical too.

Just like the 10x32s, though, the eye cup action is too stiff and rough for this class of binocular. I could only find one extended position.

Zeiss 8x32 SF eye lenses are smaller than the 10x32 model, but the stiff, single-position eye cups are the same.

SF (top) and Conquest HD (bottom) have completely different coatings on their eye lenses (Note: SF 10x32 shown).

Accessories

These 8x32s have almost the same list price as the 10x42s and their design is several years more recent. So why have Zeiss dropped the rather stylish slim case of the 42s for a much more basic Cordura item hardly different from the Conquest HDs’?

The neoprene strap is standard Zeiss, with no equivalent to Swarovski ‘Lift’ strap or ‘Field Pro’ quick release system. The caps are standard too, though for some reason, the eyepiece cap for the SFs is less flexible and rubbery than the Conquests’.

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics and Handling

Zeiss’ ErgoBalanceTM concept, that throws the weight backwards and off your wrists, worked for the bigger models and it does for these too. Those long barrels make for a secure and comfortable hold, even with gloves. And in fact, these 8x32s have a little more space to curl your fingers into than the shorter 10x32 model.

Zeiss got it right – for everyday use I’m more bothered about weight and handling than size.

Eye relief for use with specs is tighter than the 8x42s and perhaps even than the 10x32s by a small margin. I can’t quite see whole field with my specs on, losing maybe half a degree (not that noticeable, because the field is so wide). On the plus side, compared to the higher power model these suffer far fewer blackouts during panning.

As I said above, the focuser is the very best: the ultra-large wheel has a light, fluid feel and is super accurate. More importantly, the focus point is identical focusing in or out (it often isn’t).

The 8x32 SFs may be large for a 32mm binocular, but they’re still light and unobtrusive to carry. I think they look great too.

The 8x32 SFs’ long barrels give them a full-sized hold.

The View

The view is outstandingly good, especially for a 32mm bino’. It feels vivid and full of crystalline high-res detail. Brightness is excellent and colour rendition cool and natural. The most remarkable thing is that field. At 67° apparent, it’s a proper wide field, putting the field stop in your peripheral vision and giving an immersive airiness to the view.

I’ve said it before, but narrow fields are hard to go back to, especially when the wide field is bright and flat and accessible (due to good eye relief). This isn’t the wide field of their 8x30 EIIs (no disrespect to Nikon, the EIIs are currently Ľ the price of these SFs!)

Such a wide field threatens to make 7x binoculars obsolete, if you can hold 8x steady: the true field here is wider than any current 7x bino’s.

I only really started to appreciate how good the 8x32 SFs are on long walks out into the Lakeland countryside. High resolution and low false colour gave amazing views of a Buzzard on the wing, out over the valley. Looking towards the distant snow-covered mountains, winter woods are stunningly rendered, every twig resolved.

Nearer to home, birds at the feeder show every detail of feather. I watched a rare visitor to our garden – a wild Pheasant – his magnificent russet tail feathers, red head and iridescent blue-green neck, rendered in exquisite detail.

So, the 8x32 SFs’ view is very fine for a binocular of this size. But is it quite as good as the 8x42s’? In this case it’s an easy no: the view just feels slightly tighter (even though it’s actually wider) and less easy. Partly that’s just down to less eye relief, but it goes beyond that to something I can’t quantify. Or perhaps I can:

You see, these have a slightly less sharp and cut-glass view than the 10x32s, slightly less snappy focus too, and it probably comes down to worse (and different) off-axis aberrations...

Flat field?

Typically for Zeiss, these 8x32 SFs have some field curvature to make panning more comfortable, at the expense of blurring towards the field stop. So much so normal. But viewing a ruler reveals a surprisingly early start to that off-axis blurring:  it starts from just ~50% and the cm scale marks are unreadable from 70%. What’s more, unlike the 10x32 model, I can’t focus all the blur away. Testing on stars revealed why (see below): whilst the of-axis blurring on the 10x32 model was mostly field curvature, here there’s more astigmatism.

In terms of off-axis aberrations, these 8x32s are significantly worse than the 10x32 version, despite a narrower apparent field. I think this results in a less sparkly pin-sharp impression to the view.

My guess is that squeezing the SF concept – bright, wide, flat, easy – into the 8x32 size puts more strain on the eyepiece design than any other model in the range.

(Note that the widest fields like these are hard to photograph in full, which is why the FOV snap is truncated):

Off-axis aberrations are rather worse than the 10x32s’.

Chromatic Aberration

The 8x32 SFs are essentially free of chromatic aberration in normal use. Rooflines, branches, birds in the treetops – no contrast-robbing rim of false colour here. However, very bright conditions generate a blue ring around the unsharp field edge when viewing with glasses, something I didn’t notice with the 10x32s.

To discover that these do still suffer a trace of false colour after all, you have to wait for maximum contrast against a brilliant twilit sky. Then, I noticed just a trace when panning through layered branches in silhouette and around the feathers of a roosting Crow. There is a touch more false colour in the distorted edge part of the field than I recall from the 10x32s too.

Don’t misunderstand, though: false colour is still lower than most other HD roofs.

Stray Light and Ghosting

Under a brilliantly clear dusk sky I got no veiling flare at all. Contrast the 8x42 SFs which gave a little under identical conditions and Leica’s Ultravids which gave a little more.

Viewing a very bright security light generated four long dim prism spikes, but no ghosts with the light in field and no flare when viewing around it.

Viewing around a bright, low Moon generated no significant flare or other stray light problems as it often can.

In Use – Dusk

Despite the smaller objectives, these bright 8x32s function well into dusk, albeit not as well as the 42mm version and without the light-intensifier effect of large exit pupils.

In Use – Observing the Night Sky

The 8x32 SFs have an unusually wide field of view, so much so that they are among the richest field devices of all, bino’s or telescope (even the smallest astro’ telescope with the widest 2” eyepiece would fall well short of 9°). I’ve illustrated this below by showing a 9° field swallowing the whole of the main Lyra asterism.

Few binoculars give such pinpoint stellar images centre field as the 10x32 SFs I tested and these 8x32s are almost as good: significantly tighter and with less spiking than most roofs, perhaps due the absence of a focusing lens.

Off-axis, stars stay perfect until ~50% field width. After that, they begin to distort into arcs, but unlike the 10x32 model you cannot focus them back to points, turning them cross-shaped if you try – here most of the off-axis aberration is not field curvature, but astigmatism.

So in the last 20% or so of this wide field, stars become slightly astigmatic, but it’s not too intrusive for astronomy. My usual test of squeezing both the belt and sword of Orion into the field, results in only very slight distortion of Mintaka and Nair al Saif at the periphery.

In other respects, comfort is good for astronomy. The light weight and rearwards balance help reduce fatigue. I like the long barrels which allow a hold around the objectives for extra steadiness. The focuser makes finding perfect focus easy, though it’s so light that it’s too easy to nudge it out in the dark.

Zeiss SF 8x32 FOV captures a huge chunk of sky!

The Moon

A thick crescent Moon was a perfect view – sharp and contrasty, full of crater detail for the magnification, with Theophilus and Catherina easily spotted near the terminator. Even focusing through produced no hint of false colour, and minimal flare.

Mars

The Red Planet wasn’t at its brightest, but still focused down to a tiny dot, with no spikes or flare at all.

Testing the 8x32 SFs on the deep sky.

Deep Sky

Conventional wisdom would have it that 32mm bino’s can’t do deep sky, but the 10x32 SFs proved they can and these are not too far behind.

The hugely wide field means sweeping the Milky Way is addictively enjoyable, the field stop receding into peripheral vision to leave you immersed in a vast and spacious star field. It’s an effect I’ve previously experienced only with SW’s 8x42 NL Pures which share that 9° field of view.

Panning up through the Milky Way from Deneb, I found the distinct patch of misty nebulosity which is the North American Nebula. Further up, the star fields were wide and rich and expansive. I stumbled across numerous open clusters which have only NGC numbers, some just faint fuzzies, others resolved into stars.

Panning either side of orange star Mirach, I easily found the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. On Mirach’s other side, M33 was more like a faint misty patch than it had been through the 8x42s which hinted at the galaxy’s shape – these are just 8x32s after all.

Easier stuff looked good. The Double Cluster and nearby Stock 2 resolved lots of stars in a rich and super-wide field, once my eyes were fully adjusted. Panning over into Cassiopeia, I found more clusters in the star fields off Ruchbah, some just smudges at 8x.

However, on the densest star fields, the off-axis curvature showed up in a ring of blurred and smeared-out stars around the edge of the view, something that other richest field bino’, Swarovski’s 8x42 NL Pure, doesn’t do.

I struggled to resolve the clusters in Auriga – M35, M37, M36 and M38 – more so than with the 10x32s. Larger clusters like the Beehive, and the Pleaides were sparkly, with the sharpest pinpoint stars, but got kinda lost in that vast field of view. But the upside was being able to pan from constellation to constellation without looking away to get my bearings.

Orion’s sword region still looked beautiful, framed together with belt stars, even if the Great Nebula itself is small at this magnification.

One thing smaller apertures don’t do so well is star colours. The Garnet Star, a rich amber even in 7x50s, looked pale gold; ditto La Superba.

The Zeiss 8x32 Victory SFs work well for astronomy, within the limitations of their aperture and magnification, and give a huge field of view. Overall, though, its higher power and flatter field make the 10x32 model a better bet for the night sky.

Zeiss 8x32 Victory SF vs Zeiss 8x32 Conquest HD

Zeiss’ ‘budget’ range, the Conquest HDs, are a really excellent binocular, especially in the smaller sizes. The SFs are almost three times the street price, so what extra do you get for your money?

·        The SFs are larger but lighter

·        The SFs’ long barrels and rearward balance makes for a comfier hold

·        The SFs have nicer armour – less rubbery and fluff attracting

·        Centre field view is very similar

·        The SFs may have slightly higher resolution centre field, but not by much

·        The SFs have a wider, but in this case not better corrected field

·        SFs’ brightness seems only a touch better, if at all

·        The SFs appear to have much better coatings, especially on the internal elements

·        The Conquests may have slightly more eye relief: I can see their whole field with specs on, but not with the SFs

·        The SFs focuser is much more fluid and intuitive, even though the Conquests is good by general standards

·        Zeiss quote identical 90% transmission and indeed brightness seems about the same

·        The Conquests’ optical quality of both is excellent, evident on very pin-point star images

All those little refinements do sum up to make the SFs a significantly nicer binocular ... but there’s no escaping the fact that the Conquests are far better value and all you really need.

Summary

There’s no question that the 8x32 SFs are the best binoculars I’ve ever tested at this size. Smaller bino’s once had a narrower field, less eye relief and a dimmer view in return for a lower price. No longer.

The view is very wide, with a large well-corrected sweet-spot, bright and detailed. The focuser is among the very best. Handling is great: I like the long barrels for secure and steady grip, appreciate the rearwards balance point. Optical quality is very high, giving some of the best stellar images I’ve seen.

These may be the best 8x32s and the view is the equal of the 8x42 model in some ways, even exceeding it in sheer width. But there are a few areas where these 8x32s fall short. The eyepieces have a bit less eye relief than the 8x42s (and even than the 10x32s). They feel tighter and less easy than the 8x42s somehow, too. The same goes for the view: it’s seems to me just a little less bright, vivid and crystalline, maybe due to more off-axis astigmatism.

Then there is simple physics: 42mm objectives grab 70% more light than 32mm ones.

So unless you really need the 8x32s low weight, I’d buy the 8x42s which are only slightly more expensive.

If you do want the 32mm SFs – maybe for travel, trekking or long countryside walks – which model do you buy? This is harder because both are slightly imperfect but in different ways. These 8x32s are a little larger and heavier. The 10x32s have a slightly wider apparent field and more eye relief, but worse blackouts. More troublingly, these 8x32s have quite a lot more off-axis blurring due to astigmatism. So, despite the blackouts, I slightly prefer the 10x32s overall.

If you really need the small size and low weight of an 8x32, these are the best I’ve ever tested. But they cost almost as much as the 8x42 SFs and don’t quite have their brilliant, easy view.

 

Buy Zeiss 8x32 Victory SF from Wex here:

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