Features November 2006 Issue

Marine Binoculars Over $300

Quality Optics, warranty: ruggedness put Fujinons on top.

What do you get when you spend big bucks on binoculars? Significantly better optics and increased durability. Another major benefit is a much longer warranty. We think these upgrades are worth the extra cash, especially if you’ll be into boating over the long haul. Top-of-the-line binoculars should provide a lifetime of service in the marine environment. We know captains who have owned one brand or another of the binoculars tested here for more than a decade without experiencing a single maintenance issue. One PS tester has owned his Fujinon FMTRC-SX binocular for 10 years.

The Steiner Commander V binocular’s soft eyecups fit our testers comfortably and eliminated unwanted side light.

WHAT WE TESTED
Pricey binoculars range from $470 to nearly $1,500. PS decided to test only those binoculars fit for use on the water. But, to include as many representatives as possible, we deleted the requirement for an internal compass and simply went with waterproof 7 x 50 binoculars. We tested one unit each from Fujinon (FMTRC-SX), Steiner (Commander V), Swarovski (SLC 7x50B), and West Marine (Marine II by Steiner).

HOW WE TESTED
Several editors tested each brand of binocular. Our initial review was done from a dock in Manatee County, Fla. Testers there used the binoculars to see across a body of open water, using details on the distant shoreline to rate visual acuity (sharpness). Comments and ratings for focusing and handling were recorded. Further review was accomplished on the water aboard a test boat, with the vessel adrift and the engine running. Testers looked at day beacons from known distances—based on a GPS—during daylight and twilight hours. After dark, testers remained aboard to use each bino to view lighted navigation markers, a few passing boats, and a long shoreline. Shoreline areas were a mix of well-lit houses and dark forests of mangrove trees.

Comments about visual acuity, color temperature, focusing, handling, eyecups, and compass use  (when applicable) were noted. One tester with known values for his slight myopia tested the diopter scale on each binocular for accuracy at his particular setting.

Each binocular manufacturer supplied specifications that we’ve listed on the accompanying table. Ratings are based on the observations of our testers. The focusing rating includes the use of the center focus or individual eye focus (depending on how each product was equipped), the usefulness of the diopter adjustment, and the comfort and effectiveness of the eyecups (with and without eyeglasses). If a particular binocular performed well in all areas, it was rated Excellent. Deficiencies in one or more areas resulted in lower overall focusing ratings.

The handling rating takes into account the quality of the supplied case, comfort of the neck strap, each unit’s weight, ease of use of the lens caps, and the shape and grip of each binocular.

Our day/night view rating includes visual acuity and how easy the compass is to use.

Manufacturers’ claims of water-proofness were confirmed by dunking the binoculars in salt water, then rinsing them with a freshwater spray, followed by an examination for water intrusion. All passed.

To determine whether there were any marked differences in magnification and clarity from long distances, testers viewed numbered navigational markers at 2,500, 3,000, 3,500, and 4,000 feet.

In the final analysis, we considered the ratings, price, and warranty of the binoculars.

FfUJINON FfMTRC-SX
The FMTRC-SX sports the traditional look of binoculars you might find on the bridge deck of a Coast Guard cutter or U.S. Navy destroyer. Bulky, brawny, and heavy, the Fujinon’s aluminum alloy housing is coated with thick, black plastic armor and features flat field lenses to keep the image sharp across the full field of view. A small, wet compass rides atop the left lens tube and is small enough not to get in the way when holding these binos. All of our male testers liked the grip and feel of this set. Our single female tester, however, thought they were too big and bulky. The Fujinon’s weight (55 ounces) was also a problem for some. Others liked the weight and size of this binocular, saying it helped them hold it steady.

Focusing the Fujinons is accomplished with individual diopter adjustments on each eyepiece. Our testers have generally preferred center focus to individual eye focus. However, an individual-focus binocular is preferable when it is used by two (or more) people. With center focus, there is no numerical scale to permit a quick reset when passing the binoculars from one person to another, and  an adjustment will normally be required. With individual focus, there are scales on each eyepiece, and each user can remember his settings so that he can easily and quickly preset the binocular for his use before raising it to his eyes.

We found the diopter adjustments on the Fujinon accurate, easy to use, and easy to read. The marks on the focusing rings range from 5 to –5 and are engraved into the surface to enhance durability. The index mark is molded into the armor coating and located on the bottom so adjustments can be easily made when holding the binocular for viewing. The focusing rings operated smoothly and held their position when set. Eyecups were round and made from soft rubber. Most testers found them comfortable.

The Fujinon FMTRC-SX was one of three binoculars to receive an Excellent rating for day/night viewing. Its optics were clear and sharp, with no color aberrations. The compass was well dampened and easy to read in daylight. In lowlight, getting a bearing was easiest when testers closed their right eye momentarily. An optional compass illuminator is available for these binoculars.

Fujinon does not supply a case with armor-coated optics like the FMTRC-SX binocular, but one is available as an option. Other handling issues were rated Good. The strap has a large neck pad that doubles as flotation, and the front lens caps fit well and were easy to use. They are hinged individually on the bottom of each front lens and fall out of view easily as soon as they are removed. 

Bottom Line: A no-nonsense design with superior optics, the Fujinon is well built and carries a lifetime warranty. Our top pick.

STEINER COMMANDER V
Compared to the bulky Fujinon binocular, the Steiner Commander V looks small and compact. According to Steiner, it features high-definition optics, and a new formulation of the blue, plastic armor coating should increase longevity. A rather large wet compass sits on top of the right-hand lens tube. Most of our testers said the compass interfered with their grip of this binocular. Weighing in at a svelte 40 ounces, the Commander is nearly a pound lighter than the Fujinon.

Focusing is done with individual diopter adjustments on each eyepiece. The diopter index and marks were accurate when set by our single myopic tester. In addition to the 5 to –5 range of the diopter scale, each eyepiece was equipped with a memory ocular. The memory ocular is a lockable, rotating ring used to remember and indicate an individual’s focus settings. Most testers found the memory oculars somewhat cumbersome. To us, it seems easier to simply remember your correction and dial it in. The diopter scale is located on the bottom of the binocular so adjustments can be made while wearing the binocular with a neck strap or holding the binocular for viewing. The focusing rings operated smoothly and held their position.

The Commander eyecups formfit the face and have a large side shield to limit light coming back into the binocular through the eyepiece. All testers said the eyecups were comfortable and did a very good job of eliminating sidelight. However, if using the Commander with eyeglasses, the eyecups must be rolled down and out of the way. 

The Steiner Commander V is one of three binoculars to receive an Excellent rating for day/night viewing. It provided a clear, sharp view with no color aberrations though a bit of softness was noted at the extreme edge of the field of view. If a user swings the Steiner’s around rapidly, then stops on a viewing target, the compass will take a couple of seconds to stop, swing about 20 degrees, then settle on the new bearing. We found the compass easy to read. The Commander V has a battery-operated compass light to improve night readings.

Steiner provides a hardsided, zippered case. The accompanying neck strap has 1-inch nylon webbing. The strap is attached to the binocular case with easy-to-use clips. The front lens covers fit well. They are both hinged at the center and can sometimes require some futzing around to move them out of the line of sight. Steiner claims the Commander V is waterproof to a depth of 15 feet. 

Bottom Line: This compact binocular offers excellent optics and rugged construction. A good lightweight choice.

SWAROVSKI SLC 7x50B
The Swarovski binocular uses a roof prism, which makes for a long, narrow, and sleek design. Swarovski claims its patented multi-coated glass optimizes light gathering, color fidelity, and sharpness even in low-light conditions. We agree. The Swarovski glasses provided a crisp, clear view under all test conditions. The exterior is coated with a tough, green plastic armor. They are not equipped with a compass. All the male testers found the Swarovski a bit narrow and small in hand. Extended fingers would overlap uncomfortably in the center. Our female tester fit this binocular well, giving it a thumbs up for grip and feel. At 40.6 ounces, the Swarovski is comparable to both the West Marine and Steiner binos in weight.

Focusing is accomplished with a center-focus knob. Another small knob in the center of the focus knob provides dioptric corrections between eyes. If your eyes are matched, you will only need to use the center focus knob. If your vision varies slightly between eyes, you’ll need to go through a simple procedure for optimal viewing. While looking through the binocular, close your right eye and set the focus for your left eye with the center focus knob. Then switch eyes and set the focus for the right eye with the dioptric correction knob. Now you can note the correction on the scale and remember it for future use. The center focus and dioptric correction knobs operated smoothly and positively. Twist the eyecups to extend and retract them. They are hard plastic barrels covered at the eye end with soft rubber. Our testers did not particularly like the screw-in eyecups, finding them difficult to get adjusted properly and not very comfortable.

The Swarovski SLC 7x50B binocular was one of three binoculars to receive an Excellent rating for day/night viewing, and, in the opinion of our testers, was the best of the best for viewing, delivering a razor-sharp image with no colorcasts. Swarovski furnishes a softsided case with this model. We found the wide-padded neck strap comfortable to wear. The front lens covers are hinged on the bottom. They fit snuggly and fell out of the way as soon as they were popped off. Swarovski says the SLC 7x50B binocular will stay watertight to a depth of 13 feet.  

Bottom Line: Sleek and good-looking, the Swarovskis provide an exceptional view but lack a compass and are extremely expensive.

The large top-mounted compass on the Steiner binocular (left), as well as that on the West Marine, interfered with our testers’ grips. The Fujinon’s compass (right) also sits on top, but it’s much smaller and is farther away from the binocular’s gripping areas.

 

WEST MARINE’S MARINE II
Made by Steiner, the Marine II is a rebranded Steiner Observer. In appearance, it is nearly identical to the Commander binocular. Noticeable differences include lack of high-definition glass, lack of clip-lock strap attachment, and lack of memory oculars. Black plastic armor coating protects the case. Like the Commander, the Marine II has a large wet compass atop its right lens tube. Most of our testers said the compass interfered with their grip. The Marine IIs weigh in at 39 ounces.

Individual diopters on each eyepiece provide a means to adjust focus. Our single myopic tester found the marks to be accurate at his correction. The diopter scale ranged from 5 to –5, but is only marked at the 0 position. The diopter scale is located on the bottom of the binoculars to provide quick and easy adjustment. The focusing rings operated smoothly and held their position. Round eyecups cap each eyepiece.

The Marine II binoculars received a Good rating for day/night viewing. Testers found they provided a clear view with no color aberrations when used without glasses, but a bit of edge softness was noted. Additionally, we found a loss of field of view when viewing with glasses. Testers also had difficulty reading the navigation marker beyond 3,000 feet.

If a user swings the West Marine’s around rapidly then stops on a target, the compass will take a couple of seconds to stop, swing about 20 degrees, then lock onto the new bearing. We found the compass easy to read.

No case is provided with the Marine II binoculars. The narrow neck strap digs into the back of the neck, and, in our estimation, would make it uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. The front-lens covers fit well, snapping in and out easily. They are hinged at the center and can sometimes require extra effort to flip them down and out of the way.   

Bottom Line: A decent binocular for the money, but not on par with the rest; backed by West Marine’s outstanding No Hassle warranty.

CONCLUSION
In our previous test (Binoculars Under $300), optical performance among binoculars was virtually identical. This time around, however, differences in optical performance came to light. The best binocular in this test offers significantly better optics and viewing than the best of the less-expensive binoculars of our last test. In that test, every unit allowed users to read channel marker numbers from a maximum of 2,500 feet.

In this test, the best binoculars allowed testers to read markers at an impressive 4,000 feet. The Swarovski had the best visual acuity, followed by the Fujinon and then the Commander V.

But sharpness is only one piece of our conclusion pie. We selected the Fujinon as our top pick because it has Excellent visual acuity, rugged construction, outstanding optics, and a lifetime warranty—all at a reasonable price.

CONTACTS

FUJINON, 973/633-5600
fujinon.com

STEINER, 800/257-7742
steiner-binoculars.com

SWAROVSKI OPTIK, 401/734-1800
swarovskioptik.com

WEST MARINE, 800/262-8464
westmarine.com

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