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Cheap Binoculars Buying Guide

In the Cheapism range, finding decent optics is possible if you know what to look for and how you plan to use the binoculars. If, for instance, you'll be carting them to sporting events, choose a pair with a wide field of view.

The Bushnell Permafocus 7x35 (starting at $44), one of our top choices among cheap binoculars, is optimal for this kind of activity. In addition to boasting a wide field of view, these cheap binoculars are focus-free, so keeping up with the action requires no action on your part. Good all-around cheap binoculars are exemplified by the Olympus Roamer 8x21 DPC I (starting at $30), an appropriate choice for activities such as backpacking because they're small, light, and useful for short-range viewing. Additionally, the dioptric correction suits people with different vision in each eye. Likewise compact enough to take on a hike or keep in the glove compartment is the entry-level Bushnell Powerview 8x21 (starting at $14), which is also fine for bird-watching in daylight. The Vivitar CV-1025V 10x25 Binocular Digital Camera (starting at $21) completely lives up -- or down, as the case may be -- to its price. It supports a camera that takes up to 160 images, but pictures don't come out clear enough to warrant saving.

Binocular Reviews
Binocular Magnification
Compact Binoculars, Waterproof Binoculars

Specialty models designed for activities like butterfly-gazing or for use in low light conditions like stargazing will cost you more but may not be entirely out of reach (think low triple digits). The features that make up a pair of binoculars are fairly standard throughout the product category. Models are distinguished more by their specifications (and price point) than by their features, which themselves are denoted by a precise technical vocabulary. Product overviews are littered with terms such as binocular magnification, field of view, focus adjustment, prisms, and eye relief that may be unfamiliar to first-time buyers but are important factors to understand and consider before making a choice, and each is discussed below.

You should also pay attention to the size and weight of the cheap binoculars (Will they fit in your pocket? Will they be comfortable to hold for long periods?); the presence of extra features (e.g., waterproof construction); and their performance in the field (How clear is the image? How user-friendly are the binoculars? How do they hold up to normal, and even excessive, wear and tear?). Again, these matters are discussed on the following pages. All this information can help you choose the cheap binoculars that are right for you.

Big names in the binoculars market include Bushnell, Barska, Tasco, Olympus, Nikon, Eagle Optics, Penta, and Alpen Pro. Each of these producers makes binoculars at a variety of price points, but Bushnell, Barska, Tasco, and Olympus offer the largest selection of cheap binoculars.

Binocular Reviews

If you're expecting superior light transmission that allows you to use your binoculars in the dark or to see sharp, high-contrast images during daylight hours, you're bound to be disappointed with a cheap pair of binoculars. What you should be able to get in the budget price range, according to the binocular reviews we read, is a clear image, ease of handling and focusing, and enough adjustability in the focus to work with your particular eyesight.

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Binoculars Ease of Use.

User friendliness, of one type or another, is a mark of our top picks. The fixed focus on Bushnell Permafocus 7x35 Binoculars (starting at $44), for example, makes them a cinch to use. On cold winter days when you're wearing gloves, you won't need to worry about fiddling with the focus mechanism. The fixed focus is a bottom-line requirement when attending a NASCAR race, notes a binoculars review at Amazon, because it enables you to clearly and continuously see all the action without constant adjustments.

When things aren't moving as fast as cars around a track, though, dioptric lenses that focus independently and adjust to the vision in each eye is a welcome bonus. Purchasers of the Olympus Roamer 8x21 DPC I (starting at $30) point out in binocular reviews at Amazon that focusing requires a few steps, but the process is easy enough and the effort pays off in sharp viewing with both eyes, even for people who wear glasses (several users suggest taking them off first). Users also like the light 5.9-ounce weight of this model, which makes them comfortable to hold and carry.

The combination of low price and small profile of the Bushnell Powerview 8x21 Binoculars (starting at $14) seals the deal for many buyers, but it's the compact size that really calls to them. Binocular reviews at sites such as Binoculars.com note that this model is a good choice for young users -- it's particularly easy for small hands to manage -- and the folding design proves convenient for travelers and opera-goers; one adult user with macular degeneration reports it provides a welcome assist on the golf course.

The one outlier among the models we researched is the Vivitar CV-1025V 10x25 Binocular Digital Camera (starting at $21). A binoculars review at B&H asserts that the instructions on the display screen are confusing and the two lenses don't come into focus together. At Amazon several reviews gripe that the camera function is a pain to use and the captured images are blurry.

Binoculars Image Clarity.

Along this performance dimension, the models on our list score pretty high; that is, whatever you're viewing almost always looks sharp and clear.

The Permafocus feature on the Bushnell 7x35 is just what's called for when watching moving objects, binocular reviews assert. Fans of these binoculars say they're the bomb at football games where, as one reviewer comments at Optics Planet, you can sit in the end zone and see all the action clearly thanks to the always-in-focus lenses (the extra-wide view field certainly helps; more on that later). That said, several binocular reviews point out that the Bushnell Permafocus 7x35 doesn't work as well for objects that are less than 50 feet away, which is no surprise given that the fixed focus is meant for distant viewing.

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Users who posted at B&H laud the Olympus Roamer 8x21 DPC I for its crystalline images, although a review at another site states that images can appear flat; that is, two dimensional rather than three. Others appreciate the well-defined detail that comes with the ability to focus as needed on objects/scenes that are relatively close in or at a far remove.

Binocular reviews for the Bushnell Powerview 8x21, also at B&H, note the surprisingly clear images, particularly at concerts and shows, given the very low price point. One binoculars review elsewhere cautions, however, that one cost of the model's cheap price is the loss of some brightness.

The consensus opinion in binocular reviews of the Vivitar CV-1025V 10x25 is that they're fine as binoculars but -- and this is a biggie -- it's the camera feature that drew people in, and it's impossible to get a clear shot. One purchaser recounts in a review on Amazon the difficulty of lining up a shot and the mediocre photo image that resulted.

Binoculars Durability.

All things being equal, higher-priced binoculars deliver better durability than budget models. That said, the longevity of inexpensive binoculars depends on how often you use, and perhaps abuse, them. Low-cost binoculars are lightweight, which makes them great for tossing around, but dropping them with any frequency will probably knock the lenses out of alignment. Indeed, we read several binocular reviews by regretful buyers saying they wish they had spent more money for a pair that would have lasted longer than six months. On the other hand, as reviews of the Bushnell Powerview 8x21 point out, these binoculars are so inexpensive that replacing then doesn't pinch your wallet if they break. And some win points for durability. Subjecting the Bushnell Powerview 8x21 binoculars to a fair amount of stress does no harm at all, asserts a binoculars review, and a user of the Bushnell Permafocus 7x35 reports that after 15 years and some mishaps, they're still going strong.

Binocular Magnification, Focus

The primary features of cheap binoculars are the magnification and objective lens width. Binocular magnification refers to how much larger the distant object will appear, or how much closer it will seem to you. The greater the binocular magnification, the more light is needed to display the image on the binocular lenses, which in turn requires a larger objective lens. The objective lens width is the width of each of the two lenses on the binoculars. The greater the lens width, the more light is collected; the more light, the brighter the image appears.

The binocular magnification and lens width are typically included in the model name. For example, Bushnell Permafocus 7x35 binoculars have a magnification of 7x, which means objects will appear seven times closer than they actually are, and an objective lens width of 35mm. For most outdoor activities, such as bird-watching or sightseeing, a 7x or 8x binocular magnification is appropriate. All three of our top picks boast one or the other of these binocular magnifications. The Vivitar CV-1025V 10x25 provides a magnification of 10x, a level that rewards viewers with a bit more detail than 7x or 8x but somewhat crimps their field of view (see below).

For indoor activities such as opera or theater, a lower binocular magnification (such as 3x or 4x) is often preferable because the lower magnification requires less light to magnify the image. For example, the LaScala Optics Othello 3x25 Opera Glasses (starting at $30) are designed for the dim light of theater and opera performances.

Some binoculars, like the Barska Gladiator 7-21x40 Zoom (starting at $30), can change magnifications with a zoom lens so you can choose the correct binocular magnification for any situation. In this example, magnification starts at 7x and reaches up to 21x, but the flexibility doesn't impress users. Reviews of this model posted at Amazon report an inability to bring the view into focus, with serious problems arising at magnification as low as 10x. Note, though, that models with variable magnification in general perform better at lower magnification levels than at higher levels.

Binoculars Field of View.

A binocular's field of view determines how much surface area you can see in the distance. Let's say you're looking at a bird 1,000 feet away. A larger field of view lets you see more of the area around the bird, making it easier to follow as it moves on the ground or flies through the air. Similarly, if you're watching an opera performance or a football game, a larger field of view lets you see more of the stage or the playing field.

The field of view is determined in part by the objective lens width but also by the design of the lenses. You have a wider field of view with lower binocular magnification than with higher binocular magnification. Again, this is where your intended use should help guide your purchase decision. For birders, experts at Optics Planet caution against giving priority to a wide field of view because you could be sacrificing image clarity. Enthusiasts of team sports, on the other hand, may rank a wide field of view above ultra-sharp detail on their list of priorities.

Field of view is measured in the number of feet around a center point that you can see at 1,000 yards. For example, the Bushnell Permafocus has a very large field of view: 578 feet at 1,000 yards. Our two other picks, the Olympus 8x21 Roamer DPC I and Bushnell Powerview 8x21, respectively feature a 336-foot and 378-foot field of view, which is quite respectable. The Vivitar CV-1025V 10x25 is graced with a narrower 303-foot field of view.

Binoculars Focus Adjustments.

Most binoculars typically have a center focus knob and some kind of diopter adjustment. The center focus knob lets you zoom in on an object or scene, while the diopter adjustment lets you adjust the strength of the right and left ocular lens to compensate for the strength or weakness of each eye. Most cheap binoculars we researched feature a central focus knob, and the Olympus 8x21 DPC I boasts a built-in dioptric adjustment as well.

One notable exception is the Bushnell Permafocus 7x35. These cheap binoculars are designed for someone who just wants to lift the binoculars to their eyes and look at something in the distance. To keep things simple, the focus on this model is permanently set to infinity. This means that everything farther than about 50 feet away will come into clear focus. While this type of focus is not suitable for up-close viewing, it's ideal for anything with a lot of action, like a horse race or ball game.

Compact Binoculars, Waterproof Binoculars

Cheap binoculars tend to be compact, perfect for throwing in a backpack or even a pocket. The lighter the binoculars are, the longer you'll be able to hold them and the steadier your grip will be. The Olympus Roamer 8x21 DPC I and the Bushnell Powerview 8x21 each weigh no more than 7 ounces, while the LaScala Optics Othello 3x25 Opera Glasses (starting at $30) are a lightweight 4.5 ounces. Moving up the scale, the Vivitar CV-1025V 10x25 binocular digital camera hits the mark at 14 ounces and the Bushnell Permafocus 7x35 weighs in at a hefty 22.5 ounces. Experts note that binoculars this heavy are best set on a tripod, particularly for a long day of bird-watching or hunting; among those we researched, only the Permafocus 7x35 is adaptable for this use.

Binoculars Water Resistance.

If you plan to use your binoculars in wet conditions or in a boat, a pair of cheap waterproof binoculars would be worth considering. Waterproof binoculars are sealed to keep the moisture out; if moisture seeps inside the lens of non-waterproof binoculars, the image will be blurred. Most waterproof models are well beyond our price range (the ultra high-end Swarovski 10x42 EL Swarovision is one example) and we noticed only a handful that count as cheap; one is the Barska 10x25 Compact Waterproof Binocular (starting at $25), which is noted in reviews at Campmor for its solid construction and ability to keep water at bay.

Binoculars Prisms.

In addition to lenses, binoculars contain a prism that turns the image so you see it right-side up. There are two types of binocular prisms. Porro prisms are bent so the front and rear lenses are offset from the eye pieces, which enables a wider field of view and greater depth perception. Binoculars with roof prisms have a straight ocular path between the front and rear lenses (essentially, they overlap), which makes the binoculars less bulky and potentially able to withstand more wear and tear. Binoculars prisms of the roof variety are more difficult to adjust for the spacing between your eyes but are much more compact. Among the models we researched, the Bushnell Permafocus 8x25, Olympus Roamer 8x21 DPC I, and Barska Gladiator 7-21x40 Zoom (starting at $30) feature Porro prisms; the Bushnell Powerview 8x21 and Vivitar CV-1025V feature roof prisms.

Two levels of quality further distinguish binocular prisms. Most lower-end binoculars sport BK-7 prisms, which will, according to experts at Oceanside Photo & Telescope, square off a bit at the edges, yielding some distortion. BAK-4 binocular prisms offer better quality viewing -- they're more rounded, which gives better edge-to-edge clarity, and are made with higher-quality optical glass. In general, BAK-4 prisms are found in models priced beyond the Cheapism niche.

Binoculars Eye Relief.

An important factor for people who wear glasses is eye relief. Eye relief refers to the distance between your eyes and the eyepiece and the associated point at which the full image comes into focus. Basically, if this distance is long enough, you can look through the binoculars wearing your glasses and see a full image. If the eye relief distance is too short, looking through the binoculars will be like looking through a tube. Experts at REI suggest that eyeglass wearers should look for an eye relief of at least 11mm; others recommend 14mm as a starting point.

In the Cheapism price range, our two top picks meet the minimum 11mm criterion -- the Bushnell Permafocus 7x35 has an eye relief of 12mm, and the Olympus Roamer 8x21 DPC I has an eye relief of 11mm. (The Bushnell Powerview 8x21 provides eye relief of 10mm.) If keeping your glasses on is a priority (or a necessity), you might consider spending a little extra for the Nikon Action EX Extreme (starting at $113), which boasts an eye relief of 17mm, a more comfortable range for viewing while wearing glasses; users report in reviews at Binoculars.com that they do, in fact, sync nicely with glasses. Another thing eyeglass wearers should look for is fold-down eyecups (available on both of the Bushnell binoculars we researched) that bring your eyes closer to the lenses.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Binoculars
  2. Discount Binoculars Features Comparison Table
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