Why Are Binoculars So Expensive?

As a birder who also happens to be an optics enthusiast, there are few moments that elicit more anticipation on my part, than being able to see and experience a newly designed, high-end binocular for the first time.  In October, I had a chance to marvel over Leica’s latest cutting edge optical instrument which was making its North American debut at the American Birding Expo in Columbus, OH.  The Leica Noctovid is a prime example of a binocular built to a standard and specifications that would meet and likely exceed expectations held by any birdwatcher or gear junkie.  While birders may find consensus in declaring it one of the finest binoculars available, that consensus quickly falls apart when we look at the price tag and ask ourselves “Why do they cost so much and is it worth it?”

While I can’t tell you if they are worth it, I hope to shed a little light on what goes into this group of super premium optics and what’s in it for us as birders, when we decide to invest in a pair of binoculars with one of those hard to pronounce European names.

Binoculars are interesting to consider from an investment perspective, as they are becoming an increasingly rare type of commodity in today’s consumer goods market.  By and large, binoculars are one of the last holdouts among cutting edge products that are purely mechanical, and for me that’s refreshing.  I don’t consider the need for battery life, available memory, or software upgrades when I grab my binoculars and head out the door.  I’m not concerned about their mileage or wear cycle, and I know while the production of them may be quite sophisticated and advanced, the operation of my binoculars is simple and straight forward.   Because of this, we don’t experience the rapid cycle of obsolescence in binoculars that we have become accustomed to with our cameras, laptops, cell phones, and cars.  While all those goods are useful, odds are my simple and trusty binoculars will outlast them all.  Given that binoculars have a long shelf life and in most cases, lifetime warranties that cover all sorts of incidents and mishaps, maybe it’s time to consider this birding tool as fair game for a considerable investment.

The Swarovski Swarovision EL

The Swarovski Swarovision EL

Let’s start by taking a look at what goes into a top shelf pair of binoculars. To understand what these optics have that others don’t, I like to consider three design elements: innovation, precision, and process.  When a manufacturer develops advanced production and engineering capabilities, it opens up innovation possibilities.  Ideas can take those next precious steps to become reality. The Zeiss Victory SF for example, is innovative with the weight distribution and design of the lenses, putting more lens elements toward the back end of the binoculars while making the front end lighter weight, resulting in a unique ergonomic situation where the binocular will naturally tip into a user’s eyes.  As a result, users report that they feel lighter than they really are.  Swarovski innovated with their Swarovision EL binoculars, incorporating field flattening lenses that provide birders with edge-to-edge clarity as we watch warblers dart from tree to tree.  This type of innovative design is more accessible to companies that have invested in the most advanced and cutting edge production capabilities.

An innovative idea isn’t enough to turn a good binocular design into a great finished product.  For it to be successful, innovation has to be accompanied by the ability to execute that idea with precision.  We love and use binoculars for their ability to magnify.  This same aspect of binoculars which accounts for some of the shortcomings we attribute to less expensive optics.  A pair of binoculars does not just magnify the bird or butterfly in front of you, it also magnifies all the flaws and distortions of the light as it passes through the glass on its way to your eyes.   Precision allows for higher quality lens coatings and more lens coatings which maximize the light getting to your eyes.  Greater precision allows for smoother, flatter surfaces on prisms.  It helps a focus mechanism respond more accurately and immediately to the input of a birder, and all of this sums up to a better, more true to life experience under magnification.  No small task really.

Lastly, we can take innovation and precision to set the stage for something truly great to happen, but understand that process is what ultimately brings the finished product home.   Those Noctivid binoculars that I was admiring had to go through many hands between the engineers of Leica in Wetzlar, Germany where they started out as an idea, to the exhibitor hall at the American Birding Expo where I had to pick my jaw up off the floor after looking through them.  The steps that took them from idea to instrument is what I call the process, and each one of those steps in a process adds a little bit more to the price tag of your binoculars.  Let’s consider just the glass in those new Leica binoculars.

The Leica Noctovid

The Leica Noctovid

Leica states the Noctivids have “no less than 12 glass elements” in each binocular.  Every one of those elements will have gone through multiple stages of grinding and polishing, and in some instances, dozens of high tech lens coating applications on each air to glass surface.  Then there are the various quality control checks after each and every one of those steps. Think about the time that takes and the hands those lenses and prisms must pass through by the time a perfect specimen is made.  When you purchase that premium binocular, you’re not just paying for the glass that made it in those binoculars.  There is no doubt an added cost in each pair that has to cover the cost of those components that didn’t make it through each and every stage of development perfectly.  When your standards call for a flawless product and your brand identity depends on it, it’s essential that even the slightest defects and variations in these lenses are recognized and rejected.  While a few of these companies may have the market cornered on precision, nobody gets to claim perfection.  That comes at a price.  Are you willing to pay for it?

While we can now point to a super-premium pair of binoculars and understand how they may have arrived at such a high price point, the question that we, the birding consumers, must ask is “Yeah, but are they worth it?”.   Financial realities for most of us necessitate a balance between knowing what a pair of binoculars are capable of doing and tempering that with an understanding of simply what we need them to do.  “Worth it” is a relative measurement and we all have different standards.  With that in mind, I’ll do my best to try an explain what the best of the best actually gets you.

I think we can all relate to the desire of when, under the most challenging of circumstances, we want our best and brightest assets on hand to see us through, be it people, knowledge, or tools.  To put it in this context, the more challenging your viewing situation is, the more you’ll benefit from those optics that transmit just a little more light than the rest.  If you want to see the eye-ring of a back-lit flycatcher at dawn, understand that there are few binoculars up to the task at hand.  While mid-priced binoculars have evolved significantly over the past 10 years, it’s instances that challenge us most where a little extra help from those high-price optics will make all the difference.

The Zeiss Victory SF

The Zeiss Victory SF

Outside of those circumstantial moments, a birder using the latest uber-glass will benefit from the day to day comfort of better clarity and color that these binoculars can yield.  Once your eyes become used to that $2000 view, it can be hard to appreciate the enhancement you’ve become so accustomed to until you find yourself birding with a “lesser” instrument.  Better optics are just easier to use and more comfortable on the eyes.  In essence, it’s a way of getting more information to your brain.  An analogy might be like watching an old VHS cassette tape today and marveling at how poor the image quality was, despite the fact that at the time it was current technology, you didn’t know it could be any better.  The more a birder uses premium optics, the easier it is to appreciate the details you are capable of seeing (or in some instances, not seeing).

Setting aside the nuances of a better view, the other arena where these top end binoculars will beat the competition is going to be with their build quality.  With higher quality materials being used and a greater degree of precision in the manufacturing of parts, the pieces of a high-end binocular fit together better and often last longer.  The majority of professional birding tour leaders these days can be found using the best optics available, and this isn’t because they need the extra help identifying birds or that their chosen profession is so lucrative that a $2K optical investment is an afterthought.  For any individual who picks up their binoculars on an almost daily basis, the payoff over time for these binoculars is evident.  From the rubber armoring to the eyecups, the focus wheel to the adjustable center hinge, premium instruments function as they were designed to for longer periods of time.  On top of that, if you’re leading a group of enthusiastic birders on a trip into the heart of Borneo, you really don’t want to be preoccupied with your main tool of the trade wearing out or malfunctioning.

While we haven’t been able to necessarily answer the question of whether or not these top shelf binoculars are objectively “worth it”, I hope you feel a little closer to understanding why they demand the price they do, as well as how they are better.  Though you can double or triple the cost of your optics to jump to this tier of performance, it’s hard to say your view is going to be twice as good, but it will be noticeably better.  In the end, lots of personal factors come in to play such as how you use your binoculars, the degree to which they enhance your birding experience, and the financial realities of one’s bank account.  Having said that, if you are in a position to treat yourself to a pair of Leica Noctivids or another one of their optical peers, don’t hesitate to consider doing so.  For those of us who get so much pleasure from being out there with the birds, the best experiences can often be found in the details.

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