Best binoculars 2020: for bird watching, star gazing and safari

Whether you're after Swarovski binoculars, Leica or Nikon binoculars, we round up the best for nature spotting, use at sports events, and for star gazing

Best binoculars: a man birdwatching while hiking

What are the best binoculars for birdwatching? How about for a once-in-a-lifetime safari trip, or for taking your first steps as a stargazer? Whatever your questions about binoculars, you've come to the right place.

Unlike most gadgets, a pair of binoculars are among the most versatile pieces of kit one can own. They can be used for a massive range of activities, from wildlife spotting and astronomy to simply admiring landscapes while out hiking. It’s for that reason that a pair of binoculars can make an excellent gift for anyone with an interest in the outdoors.

However, before you make that all-important purchasing decision, know that binoculars come with their own unique terminology.

For example, you’ll likely come across phrases such as ‘roof prism’ and ‘porro prism’ when looking at binoculars. We'll explain these terms in full below where appropriate. You’ll also have to choose between numbers like 10x50 and 25x100. What do those numbered actually mean? They’re measurements for the diameter of the objective lens. Prepare to become an expert!

You may not think you need to know about a whole heap of tech when buying binoculars, but there’s a huge difference between them; a pair of compact binoculars that are incredible for horse racing will be virtually useless for stargazing.

What’s more, if you narrow down the features that are truly important to you for the type of viewing you want to do, you could save yourself a decent chunk of cash. Especially since many of the best binoculars featured below are regularly on sale (and we always display the top prices for you, saving you further research).

The purpose of this buyer's guide is to help you easily narrow down the best binoculars for you, without you having to slog through endless suggestions. We'll give you some considerations to make, and gently guide you towards narrowing down what your ideal binos look like.

In a rush and want to see our Top 5 binoculars without reading the rest of the article? Here you go:

  • 1. Steiner Safari Ultrasharp 10X26
  • 2. Swarovski EL 50
  • 3. Celestron Skymaster 25X100
  • 4. Olympus Urban 8-16X25 Zoom PC 1
  • 5. Nikon Monarch 5

The best binoculars: a man uses binoculars to scan the treeline on a mountain

What to know when buying binoculars

There are two key numbers to pay attention to when it comes to choosing the best binoculars for your needs and determining whether you’re being offered a good level of specification for the price. Firstly, there’s magnification. Secondly, there's the (objective) lens size: in combination they’re written as 10x30, to give just one example. 

This denotes a 30mm lens with 10x magnification. As on a camera, the bigger the lens, the more light is let in and the brighter the image. Binoculars for handheld use may offer up to an 8x or 10x magnification, which is fine for general-purpose use. 

For more specialist pursuits, you may want something more powerful still, while being aware a higher magnification can also magnify any hand shake, unless the binoculars can be tripod mounted (via a common screw thread) or have built-in image stabilisation.

Further qualities to examine include the build and robustness, and whether they offer comfortable features such as a long eye relief, enabling the binos to be held further from your face. Naturally, the more features offered, the higher the price.

Best binoculars: a close up of waterproof binoculars

Choosing the best binoculars for your needs

Price is a factor when shopping for binos. Generally speaking, the most substantially built, powerful and optically precise binoculars will set you back a fair bit, but there are more affordable alternatives to the top brands… if you’re prepared to compromise.

That's why we’ve rounded up a selection of the best binoculars to not only match your unique viewing requirements – and help you get closer to that crystal clear, steady and magnified image – but to suit a range of budgets too.

For nature walks and rambles, consider a lightweight, portable and compact pair of binoculars that can be stashed in a jacket pocket. Some degree of weather-proofing and anti fogging might also be advisable in the great outdoors. 

For bird and wildlife watching, you’ll want to add high magnification factor to the list, as you’ll most likely be observing from a distance. Some means of tripod mounting might also be useful, to avoid hand-holding your binos for prolonged periods. For low light observation, a bigger, brighter lens is worth investigation.

You may also be offered a choice of 'roof prism' or 'porro prism' binoculars. Roof prism tends to be the most popular, as the way the light passes into and out of the prism allows for a more compact construction. That means smaller binos. 

The drawback, however, is that the surface of the prism does not reflect 100 per cent of the light. By contrast, porro prism binoculars tend to offer a brighter image at a lower cost, even if they are a bit bulkier.

Considering how the above points apply to your viewing needs should help you quickly refine your choices when buying binos.

The best binoculars to buy right now

Best binoculars: Steiner Safari UltraSharp 10x26

(Image credit: Steiner)

1. Steiner Safari UltraSharp 10x26

The best binoculars for a variety of outdoor activities

Reasons to buy
+Comfortable in the hand+Smooth focus control knob

These rubber-ribbed compact binoculars are designed for a variety of outdoor activities, whether it's watching your favourite football team from afar or getting closer to a hippo without being disembowelled. 

The Steiner Safari Ultrasharp 10x26 top our best binoculars list because they're hugely versatile and surprisingly affordable. 

Design-wise, they have a smoother focus control knob and, thanks to an ergonomic grip, feel comfortable in the hand. They also come with flexible rubber eye cups that shield the eyes from side drafts and bright sunlight. 

The UltraSharps have 10x magnification – ample for most situations – and a fair field of view.

Best binoculars: Swarovski EL 50

(Image credit: Swarovski)

2. Swarovski EL 50

The best binoculars for safari adventures

Reasons to buy
+Super-sharp and bright view+Wide field of view

Distinguished optics company Swarovski is considered to be the Rolls Royce of binocular manufacturers, and these estimable eye extenders with 12x magnification are top of our list.

The binoculars are designed with an impressively wide 50mm front element offering an excellent field of view, and exceptional brightness that makes them perfect for taking on safari.

Ever wondered why some binoculars cost £25 and others like these sell for much more? Put your peepers against these and the answer becomes clear: the lenses are so precise that the subject appears as sharp and bright as if it were three feet away.

Best binoculars: Celestron SkyMaster 25x100

3. Celestron SkyMaster 25x100

The best binoculars for star gazing

Reasons to buy
+Great clarity +Powerful

You’ll need to employ a tripod or similar to keep these heavy binoculars steady, but the rewards when spotting distant night sky objects are plentiful. 

With a sturdy construction and premium build, these binoculars are for serious star aficionados – with provision made for glasses wearers too. The 100mm lenses provide a clear and sharp view of the night sky thanks to a fantastic optical design. 

If you’re on a tighter budget, or don’t want to also invest in a tripod, take a look at the Celestron SkyMaster 25 x 70 binoculars, which are easier to use handheld.

Best binoculars: Olympus Urban 8-16x25 Zoom PC 1

(Image credit: Olympus)

4. Olympus Urban 8-16x25 Zoom PC 1

The best binoculars for long distance viewing

Reasons to buy
+8-16x zoom+Compact

There will always be occasions when using binoculars where you wish you could just reach for a zoom switch. Well now you can. 

The Olympus Urbans have 8 to 16x zooming capability which is very handy for those moments when you want to get even closer to the action. However, they do have a disappointingly narrow field of view (around 36Ëš), which is more akin to looking through a telescope.

Image quality isn't too bad but even with the eye cups extended, it's still difficult to get a nice circular image without your eyelashes getting in the way. A zoom function is a really neat idea, for sure, but we don't think Olympus has got it right just yet.

Best binoculars: Nikon Monarch 5 20x56

(Image credit: Nikon)

5. Nikon Monarch 5 20x56

The best binoculars for bird watching

Reasons to buy
+All-weather performance+20x magnifications

These rubber-wrapped glasses are extremely versatile and offer superior quality at a keen price. You'll drool over the dielectric high-reflective mirror coating and use of Extra-low Dispersion glass (ED), but all you need to know is that these binoculars perform incredibly well in all conditions.

Their 56mm objective lenses provide a massive field of view that's almost as bright as if seen with the human eye. Couple that wide angle with a whopping 20x magnification and you have one of the best-priced pair of wildlife and birdwatching binos on the market. 

The mid-size Monarch 5 binoculars are also waterproof and come with handy flip-down lens caps in addition to deep rubber eye caps.

Best binoculars: Pentax 7x50 Hydro

(Image credit: Pentax)

6. Pentax 7x50 Hydro

The best binoculars for sea-faring expeditions

Reasons to buy
+Built-in compass+Navigation bearings+Waterproof

This highly specialised 7x50 model is for the mariner who requires an integrated compass with back light, reference markings for taking navigation bearings and a waterproof rubber housing depth rated to 1.5 metres. 

Binoculars like these are a boon for off-shore sailing where you really do need to know how far that outcrop of rock is lest you miscalculate the distance and end up in a floundering situation. 

The compass is handy, too, because you never know when your GPS is going to give up the ghost. It's quite a learning curve working out how to read the imprinted one-degree graduations, but hey, you're a sailor, you probably do this stuff in your sleep.

Best binoculars: Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 Colorline

(Image credit: Leica)

7. Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 Colorline

The best binoculars for horse racing and sporting events

Reasons to buy
+8x magnification+Decent field of view

Next time you're at a sporting event, whip a pair of these colourful compact binos out of your pocket and enjoy 8x magnification and supreme ease of use.

The Ultravids ooze refinement and precision engineering, from the machined housing and pristine, razor-sharp lenses, to the gorgeously tactile leather trim.

These glasses are perfect for tracking a football game if you're sat in the nosebleeds, or keeping tabs on your favourite steed as it races around Aintree. Their bright, wide field of view makes it easy to locate your subject

Best binoculars: RSPB HDX 8 x 42

8. RSPB HDX 8 x 42 Binoculars

The best binoculars for low-light bird watching in winter

Reasons to buy
+Lightweight+High clarity

These compact binos are ideal for spotting when light levels are low, for example for winter birdwatching.  

A high level of contrast and clarity is promised thanks to the coatings found on the prisms, and there's also no need to worry about the weather conditions that winter use might inflict. These binoculars are fully water and fog proof, making them well suited to all kinds of outdoor conditions.

The ultra lightweight design also makes them one of the lightest 42mm roof prism binoculars on the market.

Comfort has been considered here too. Glasses wearers will appreciate the 3-position retractable eyecups, while the textured coating of the binoculars makes them comfortable to hold.

Best binoculars: Canon 18x50 IS All Weather

(Image credit: Canon)

9. Canon 18x50 IS All Weather

The best binoculars for winter wildlife watching

Reasons to buy
+Image stabilising tech+Huge field of view

If you find it difficult keeping your arms steady while using binoculars, consider these high-tech glasses that use Canon's tried-and-tested optical image stabilising technology to smooth out the shakes. 

The battery-powered IS system – similar to the one Canon uses on its DSLRs and camcorders – is comprised of a vari-angle prism that constantly makes adjustments to maintain a near perfectly still image. 

It's an ideal system for long-range wildlife watching and even better for marine use where a rocking boat makes it nigh impossible to keep an image steady.

The Canons have ample 18x magnification and a big, bright 50mm objective front lens that offers a wide 67Ëš field of view. Just be sure to have a couple of spare AA batteries to hand because you don't want your whale-watching exercise to end in shaky disappointment.

Best binoculars: Avalon 10 x 42 Pro HD

10. Avalon 10 x 42 Pro HD Binoculars

Best binoculars for plane spotting

Reasons to buy
+Good value +Pleasingly lightweight 

If you're looking for top quality binoculars that don't break the bank, then the Avalon 10 x 42 Pro HD binoculars could be the best binoculars for you. 

They are the world's lightest professional-grade binos, yet are very reasonably priced and come with a cleaning cloth, case and neck strap in the box. 

They are waterproof and feature multi-coated optics to provide the best possible image in a range of situations. 

We’ve picked them for plane spotting because of how light they are, as it makes holding them and tracking fast moving objects easy and comfortable. With a 10x magnification, they are good for long-distance viewing, without being so distant so as to make it tricky to keep up with a moving target.

Best binoculars: Praktica Falcon 12x50

11. Praktica Falcon 12x50

The best budget binoculars you can get

Reasons to buy
+Great value for money+Decent all-rounder

If you’re looking for multipurpose binoculars, suitable for everything including bird watching and viewing sports, then focus on the options in budget brand Praktica’s Falcon range, from which we’ve picked out the 12x50 option as good value at around £45. 

OK, so they may not be the lightest at 772g or most compact at 170x200x65mm, but, for what we’re getting, there is scarcely cause for complaint. Multi coated optics help deliver crisp detail, while fold down eye cups provide comfortable viewing for spectacle wearers.

On top of this we get a large focus knob, providing ease of use and convenience in spades, a non slip surface that makes for a steadier hold, while this binocular is tripod compatible too, so you don’t have to hand hold them for hours on end if going bird watching.

Best binoculars: Zeiss Victory SF 10x42

12. Zeiss Victory SF 10x42

Best luxury binoculars

Reasons to buy
+Ergonomic grip+Pin sharp performance

If you’re really keen to ensure your choice of binos is the very best of the best, then investigate this option from cutting edge optical specialist Zeiss, a world renowned brand whose glass can be found in premium products from Panasonic and Sony, with the Victory family of products said to be the best Zeiss has to offer. 

A seven lens eyepiece and a 10x magnification makes it suited to pretty much any pursuit, particularly the viewing of wildlife where it brings the faraway up close and delivers a performance that could be described as crystal clear. 

With a large exit pupil measuring over 5mm revealing detail in dark shadows, versatility is key when it comes to this premium option. It also provides comfort in spades via an ergonomic grip that ensures comfort even when hand holding the product for extended periods.

Best binoculars: Olympus DPS I 10x50 binoculars

(Image credit: Olympus)

13. Olympus DPS I 10x50 binoculars

The best binoculars for casual stargazing

Reasons to buy
+Great value+Wide field of view

Although having a pair of 25x100 binoculars are great for stargazing, they are very heavy, pretty expensive, and not easy to use; you have to keep really steady, preferably on a large tripod. Cue a pair of 10x50 binoculars, which are a highly practical and highly impressive size, and thus ideal for amateur astronomy.

As with many things, the best binoculars for the job are the ones you have on you. Highly portable and relatively lightweight, the Olympus DPS I 10x50 binoculars have one-up on most competitors when it comes to astronomy thanks to their multi-coated lenses.

A clearer, sharper and brighter view of the heavens is guaranteed, though just as important is their wide field of view. Measuring 6.5º, the Olympus DPS I are ideal for sweeping across rich star-fields of the Milky Way, but also for studying stunning star clusters like the Pleiades, as well as the moon and giant planet Jupiter (and even its moons).

However, away from the dark they also make for a fine pair of all-round binoculars that are ideal for leaving in your car just in case.

Best binoculars: Swarovski Optik CL Companion 10x30 binoculars

(Image credit: Swarovski Optik)

14. Swarovski Optik CL Companion 10x30 binoculars

The best binoculars for a walking safari

Reasons to buy
+Super-sharp and bright view+Wide field of view

So you love wildlife watching, and you want the very sharpest, brightest images possible, but you don’t want to carry a load of gear? Step forward the green, black or sand-brown Swarovski Optik CL Companion 10x30 binoculars, which are best summarised as great all-rounders that are reassuringly expensive.

Two lens covers that remain attached to the outside of the CL Companion 10x30 hide some truly excellent glass. Such detail, brightness and clarity are rare for a pair of small binoculars. Sporting a waterproof, dust-proof, fog-proof and drop-proof design, they also boast a non-slip covering that’s easy to hold, and the CL Companion 10x30 weigh just 515g, so are easy to use for long periods. They also ship with a high quality bag that can be fastened to a belt. That’s ideal for those off on a walking safari.

The final word:

The world of binoculars is varied, both in terms of performance and budget. The Steiner Safari Ultrasharp 10X26 are a superb choice if you want versatile binos that are just as happy whale spotting as they are when used for a day at the races, or for scoping those sweeping views when hiking. 

If stargazing is your thing, look no further than the Celestron Skymaster 25X100, which work best when paired with a tripod. They offer great clarity of the heavens and are simple enough for all of your family to use.