When it comes to high-end binoculars, there are many fine makers, such as Leica and Zeiss, but one model reigns supreme—Swarovski's EL. "Without question, it is one of the best binoculars in the world," says Robert Lange, who heads B&H Photo's optics department in Manhattan. Lange should know. He sells more than five a week to well-heeled customers who don't mind the $1,530 price tag. "The EL uses the finest glass available," he adds, "and is brighter than many larger binoculars. It has everything going for it."
Lange's admiration for Swarovski optics is typical among avid bird watchers and hunters who want to see the natural world up close. David Allen Sibley, the celebrated bird watcher and naturalist watercolor painter whose Sibley Guide to Birds has sold over 500,000 copies, is rarely without his Swarovski ELs. "I don't treat them gently," he says. "I throw them in backpacks and they roll around the floor of the car. I even use them in the rain."
Take a look at a pair of ELs and you'll instantly see the attraction. When designing these binoculars, Swarovski held focus groups with bird watchers as well as hunters to determine the features that each wanted. The fine lenses are held in a lightweight magnesium alloy housing filled with nitrogen to prevent fogging in humid conditions, and they are waterproof down to 13 feet. The EL's body is wrapped in forest-green rubber with indentations on its underside for easy thumb placement. That's a nice touch, whether you are viewing a Cape buffalo or a downy woodpecker for long periods. Another plus? For many, these binoculars can be held and focused using one hand.
That sort of finicky attention to detail is nothing new for this company, famous for its crystal. Swarovski got its start in 1852 in the important glass- and crystal-manufacturing region of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1892 Daniel Swarovski perfected a machine that could cut crystal finer and faster than his competitors. Over the years the company has made everything from original crystal taillight lenses for automobiles to the "moodstones" so popular during the 1970s. In 1949 it started Swarovski Optic to focus on a variety of lenses. And unlike Zeiss and Leica, Swarovski is still a family-run business, many of whose 600 employees are avid hunters, bird watchers, and marksmen. To say they "live the brand" is an understatement.
Like the world of computers, the optics world is jargon-rich. Instead of megahertz and gigabytes, binocular salesmen will regale you with such nifty phrases as the "twilight factor" and "dioptric correction." Fear not. Swarovski's Web site (www.swarovskioptik.com) has a beginners glossary to help you decipher all the terms. What's more important is to understand that binoculars come in a wide range of magnifications and lens sizes. The EL is currently available in the following models: 8.5x42, 10x42, and smaller 8x32 and 10x32 versions.
When you see 10x42 or 8x32 on a pair of binoculars, the first number refers to the magnification power while the second number indicates the size of the "objective lens" opening in millimeters. The bigger the lens opening, the more light gets to your eye and the brighter the image. If you hunt or observe wildlife at dusk, opt for a larger lens. But magnification is a factor as well, because the more powerful the binocular, the harder it is to keep the image steady. Boaters typically opt for 7x power or less because they are bobbing around in the ocean.
If you decide on a pair of ELs you'll probably covet the company's spotting scopes as well. They are like a pair of binoculars on steroids. Go to a place like Yellowstone National Park and you'll notice almost everyone has a spotting scope for viewing wildlife miles away. Swarovski's $1,920 ATS-80 HD scope can be outfitted with a 20-60x zoom lens, but requires a tripod because of its strong magnification. (Tripods by Bogen/Manfrotto or Gitzo are now available in carbon fiber and are extremely lightweight. Expect to pay upwards of $500.)
Aside from image clarity, good looks, and ability to take a beating in the field, Swarovski makes a handful of accessories that other brands don't. Take its so-called "binocular booster" ($200). This nifty gadget easily replaces the right eyepiece of the EL and instantly boosts the magnification up to 30x power. It's perfect for viewing distant objects and wildlife without the hassle of carrying a spotting scope. Other accessories include camera adapters and a bright-orange shoulder strap that floats—a must for boat owners should their coveted ELs ever wind up in the drink.
As with cameras, prices for binoculars and spotting scopes vary greatly. Two suggested retail options are B&H Photo, 800-947-6628; www.bhphotovideo.com, and Eagle Optics, 800-289-1132; www.eagleoptics.com.
From boating to birding, certain binoculars are better suited than others. Here are some worth a look:
NATURE CALLS Zoom binoculars are wonderful for nature watchers and big-game hunters. The LEICA DUOVID 10+15x50 ($1,695) allows you to zoom from 10x power to 15x power by simply moving two dials in front of the eyepieces. But higher-magnification binoculars can be difficult to keep steady. The Duovid comes with a tripod adapter, extending viewing at high magnification. www.leicacamera.com.
OUT TO SEA Yacht owners lolling on the high seas should avoid buying a high-magnification binocular. A pair with 7x power is a better bet. STEINER'S 7x50 COMMANDER V ($825), coated in hard blue rubber for a sure grip, is also waterproof and fogproof. In addition, it features an internal compass with built-in illumination—the perfect tool for navigating at night. www.steinerbinoculars.com.
SITTING PRETTY If you can stomach the cost, so-called image stabilization binoculars allow you to view at high magnification without having to worry about a fuzzy image or the need for a tripod. The ZEISS CLASSIC 20x60 BS/GA T binocular has a built-in mechanical system, which doesn't need a gyro or batteries like other brands. As you might expect at $4,500, they are the best image-stabilization binoculars in the world. Says B&H Photo's Robert Lange: "Nothing even comes close." www.zeiss.com.
LESS IS MORE For the smallest optics available with a few gadgets thrown in, consider the MINOX MD 6x16 A ($222) monocular, made by the German company famous for its small spy cameras. The Minox weighs only three ounces and comes with a built-in altimeter, clock, stopwatch, and thermometer. www.minox.com.