The Perils of Cheap Binoculars

The word “cheap” can mean different things to different people. It can mean inexpensive; it can mean low quality; it can mean substandard. On the other hand, it can mean, “Wow, I got such a great deal!” But what is a good deal, really? With sport optics, such as binoculars, there are several aspects besides sticker price to consider before shelling out your hard-earned dough—such as value, quality, durability, and satisfaction.

When shopping for a binocular, we all want the biggest bang for our buck. We want a binocular that will best serve our interests, a binocular that will give clarity and detail, and one that will last. As a sport optics specialist, I know that, in general, you get what you pay for. With today’s technical advancements and precision manufacturing, $300 will buy you a much better binocular today than it could have even 10 years ago. The quality of lens coatings, for instance (a key factor in brightness of the image) has improved significantly. Waterproofing and fog-proofing are standard in even most entry-level binoculars of $100 or more. And, extra-low dispersion (ED) glass can be had at a lower price than ever before.

If you search for cheap binoculars on the Internet, you can actually find some for an astonishingly low price, some for even under $20. But when you think about what you most want in a binocular—rugged build, bright, sharp image, minimal lens distortion, good color rendition, you certainly are not going to find it in an instrument of that price. Not a chance.

Binoculars, for all their precision parts, design, and construction, are simple for the end consumer to use. There are no electronics to become obsolete, no batteries needed. In that respect, your well-made binocular can be a more lasting investment than your TV, your laptop, your cell phone, or even perhaps your car. Therefore, it’s worth it to do your homework and shop for a binocular that will serve you and your particular needs for years to come.

Do you remember your first binocular? Mine was a hand-me-down—an old Bausch & Lomb Porro prism binocular. It was quite large and heavy and, despite its considerable age, it did a fine job for my backyard bird watching. I was blissfully unaware of what I was missing, but I found out years later when a few friends, recognizing my passion, pitched in and gifted me with a binocular on my birthday. Its more streamlined roof-prism design, updated glass, twist-up eyecups, and waterproof feature made a huge difference for me. I was amazed at the improved view: more brightness, better color tone and sharpness, and even with robust rubber armoring, several ounces lighter than my old one. At just $200, this new, updated binocular was markedly better thanks to today’s improved technology.

Customers would often come in to Eagle Optics with their old beloved binocular and find out the same thing I did: that they can get a much better binocular today for a lot less than they thought. We regularly hear customers say: “Others on our birding walk were seeing color and details I couldn’t see!” and “I wish I hadn’t waited so long to make this purchase!” Many of us slog along with something we’re not happy with until we finally understand the benefits of an upgrade.

Durability and quality go hand in hand in this industry, but let’s consider the pitfalls of a low-quality binocular, say, when you’re traveling. A story we hear with regularity is from woeful travelers whose binoculars failed, in one way or another, while they were on their trip of a lifetime. Imagine the disappointment of looking through the binocular only to see internal fog, having the eyecup assembly jam or fall off, having the focus wheel disengage, or discovering dents and other damage incurred by baggage handlers, children, or your own butterfingered self. A cheap binocular, with plastic parts and less meticulous construction, is not built to last. And according to Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong will go wrong), failures seem to happen at the most inopportune times and in the most beautiful and bird-rich places. Does it make sense to spend thousands on a vacation and $80 on your travel binocular? A quality binocular is a good investment—less susceptible to mechanical faults, more ruggedly built, clearer views—all of which bring greater peace of mind. And that never hurts, either.

This brings me to the subject of warranty. As we’d remind customers, a good warranty adds to the value of a binocular. You can’t fix a broken binocular. Expert, dependable service by the manufacturer’s repair department, with specific tools for the job, is required. Look for the best warranty you can get; a limited lifetime warranty is standard from reliable optics manufacturers and covers defects, but unconditional (no-fault) lifetime warranties are available on some brands. Do your homework or ask a knowledgeable dealer. No warranty covers theft or loss—for that, additional insurance must be purchased.

Beginning birders often sell themselves short when choosing a first binocular. In my experience, they tend to buy lower quality than they should. Either they feel their budding abilities don’t yet measure up to owning a good binocular or they just want to try birding to see if they like it. But, the truth is, a low-quality binocular will deliver a much less satisfying experience. Lens and color distortions are common, and the lack of brightness, resulting in the viewer seeing less detail, is discouraging. Buy from a company that has a good return policy so you have a chance to try the binocular in your favorite birding haunts and in a variety of lighting conditions. If you don’t like it, send it back and try again.

This concept also applies to binoculars for children. Kids can be tough on equipment, so resist buying a really cheap compact or toy binocular. Fit and ease of use are paramount for youngsters. Find a binocular with decent quality glass that fits the child’s face. Make sure it is lightweight and easy to use and has low magnification. A midsized binocular is a good choice.

So, let’s get down to brass tacks: What is cheap? What is the best value for the money? First, I wouldn’t purchase a binocular priced under $100. But don’t fret: “If you can spend twice that, you’ll be getting a binocular that is easily twice as good,” optics expert Ben Lizdas says. “The sweet spot is between $300 and $500. That’s where 90 percent of your (performance) gains come from. There are a lot of people who purchase binoculars in that price range that never feel compelled to upgrade.”

Jumping to the top and buying a premium European-made binocular is quite an investment, and customers are always asking, “Is it worth it?” The answer is subjective. Nothing can compare to the experience you get when viewing through the very best. But is the extra money worth it to you?

If you want great quality but you’re reluctant to spend the money, consider this customer’s comment: “In the past, I have always purchased and used more economy-based optics, but after a few years, I was always looking for a new pair of binoculars. I stepped outside my comfort zone and parted with more money than usual, and am elated I did. The picture is crisper, and, by just handling them, I notice a big difference. I know these are a long-term investment and actually will be cheaper than my previous pairs.” This customer learned, by several upgrades, that it’s not only smart to buy quality, but cheaper in the long haul. Many of us upgrade over the years, but as this customer learned, the upgrade game costs time and money. If necessary, wait, save up, and get what you really want. When I asked Tom Hall, who lead Eagle Optics’ team of binocular repair specialists, his advice about upgrading, his answer brought me back to my first hand-me-down binocular. He smiled and said, “Do whatever makes you happy. Just pass your old binocular along to someone who will really appreciate it.”

Tips for Caring for Your Binocular

Whether your binocular is low-end or a titan, take good care of it. Good care will preserve your investment. These tips come from Tom Hall:

  1. Wear your binocular on a neck strap or harness strap, and use the lens covers.
  2. Blow or brush the lenses before polishing. Don’t over-clean the lenses, and never wipe lenses with your shirttail. Use a clean microfiber cloth and replace the cloth frequently (as frequently as you would a kitchen sponge).
  3. If your binocular gets wet, wipe it down and let it dry first before putting it away in its case.
  4. Use a can of compressed air and a toothpick every few months to clean the gunk out of the eyecups, focus knob, and other areas where dirt and grit might accumulate.
  5. Don’t carve into, paint, or otherwise alter the rubber armoring on your binocular.