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
(Image credit: Getty)

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.

Want to bring the faraway closer, without moving a muscle? Then you need a pair of binoculars – a perfect tool for a wide range of viewing opportunities, including bird watching, nature-spotting, or enhancing that once-in-a-lifetime safari trip, where you’d like to see the wild animals up close, but avoid their hot breath on your neck. They can even be used for stargazing (although if that's what you're after, make sure you check out our guide to the best telescopes for comparison). With many and varied options available, which are the best binoculars to suit your intended purpose right now?

As well as choosing binoculars that will match the activity you have planned – or the pursuits you most enjoy – you’ll need to first get to grips with some basic key terms. For example, binoculars are always described in terms of the size of their objective lens and the magnification they offer – so, for example you’ll see specification like 20x56, where the 20x refers to the binoculars’ magnification and the 56 is shorthand for 56mm, being the size of the objective lens in use. The larger the number provided for each, the further you’ll be able to see and the brighter the image will be.

Those are the essentials; but you might also want to consider the best binoculars that offer water-proofing and anti-fogging features, as well as rugged, rubberised housing that will withstand the odd knock or blow, along with a comfortable grip and eye cups – all making for safe and pleasant viewing. 

However, there is inevitably something of a trade off; be aware that the larger the magnification and lenses offered, typically the physically bigger and weightier the binoculars. If you just want a pair to slip into your jacket pocket to be retrieved when a point of interest presents itself, then size may be as much a factor in your buying decision as the magnification and clarity of vision offered. So perhaps it’s not such a big deal that you’ll get a lower magnification offered and a smaller objective lens, if practicality and portability is key.

With the above in mind, in this article we've put together a curated guide to the best binoculars you can buy right now. We’ve included options for a wide range of purposes to enable you to find one that best fits your particular viewing needs, without blinding you with jargon in the process. After all, when it comes to binoculars, you’ll literally be seeking clarity…

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

  • 1. Nikon Prostaff 3S
  • 2. Celestron Nature DX 10x56
  • 3. Hawke Frontier HD X 10x42
  • 4. Steiner Safari Ultrasharp 10x26
  • 5. Swarovski EL 50

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: Nikon Prostaff 3S 10x42

(Image credit: Nikon)

1. Nikon Prostaff 3S 10x42

Ultra rugged, well made binoculars for all eventualities

Reasons to buy
+O-ring sealed to keep moisture out+Reasonable price+Rubber construction for comfortable grip

Our pick for the best binoculars overall right now is the Nikon Prostaff 3S. These are rugged, non-slip rubber-armoured binoculars with a useful 10x magnification to bring the faraway that much closer, plus decent sized 42mm diameter objective lens for clarity of vision. Here we get a highly reflective silver alloy coating to the surface of the binoculars’ prism lenses, resulting in a brighter view. Though supplied by a tried-and-tested brand famed for optical excellence and a former Red Dot design award winner, the pricing suggests very fair value. 

These binoculars boast a particularly robust construction, including an O-ring that has been sealed to prevent moisture ingress, and nitrogen filled to banish fogging when out and about in the great outdoors. Fortunately, this hasn’t meant that these feel hefty – at just 575g in weight, they won't give you wrist ache. A long eye relief also offers increased comfort, particularly by those of us who wear glasses. With a decent overall spec offered by Nikon at an equally decent price, this quality option should provide years of able service.

best binoculars: Celestron Nature DX 10x56

(Image credit: Celestron)

2. Celestron Nature DX 10x56

Mid-range multipurpose binoculars for use in the wet and the wild

Reasons to buy
+Large objective lens for better clarity in low light+Robust polycarbonate construction with multi coated optics

The Celestron Nature DX 10x56 is a good mid-range candidate for the best binoculars you can buy. It will appeal to nature lovers by virtue of several of its key properties, including the fact that it’s waterproofed and nitrogen filled to avoid fogging in the cold and the damp, plus features a large 56mm lens which should prove effective in lower light conditions. The larger the lens, theoretically the more light it lets in. 

While it’s not the lightest option here at 1.13Kg, meaning an overall size that makes it one for roomier pockets or stashing the glove box in the car, the Celestron Nature DX’s closest focusing distance is three metres, we get a long and comfortable eye relief with twist-up eyecups that should suit spectacle wearers, plus a durable polycarbonate build with multi coated optics to further aid clarity of vision. A well-specified option for outdoor use in all weathers and a wide variety of light conditions, this one should prove a bright idea, even in the dim. Overall we’d suggest this is a great value option at the price.

best binoculars: Hawke Frontier HD X 10x42

(Image credit: Hawke )

3. Hawke Frontier HD X 10x42

In very hot or very cold extremes, this nitrogen-purged option will maintain clarity of vision

Reasons to buy
+Designed for use in extreme heat+Lifetime worldwide warranty

Coming next in our list is the Hawke Frontier HD X 10x42. While not a budget option by any means, this robust pair of rubber-coated magnesium alloy build binoculars is surely one of the most versatile, in being suitable for use in temperatures down to -15°C, or as high as 55°C. 

The core specification is decent too, with a 10x magnification rubbing up against a 42mm objective lens. Don’t be afraid to take this option outdoors in the rain either, as its fog proof nitrogen filled lenses feature a hydrophobic coating to repel water and the manufacturer generously offers a worldwide lifetime warranty for added peace of mind. 

High definition images and a stunning rendition of colours is further promised via fully multicoated optics with close focusing down to 2.5 metres, your image easily adjusted via a smooth and precision engineered focus knob. At a unit weight of a more than manageable 705g, there’s a distinct impression here that we’re getting what we’re paying for. This Hawke is as sharp as you’d expect.

Best binoculars: Steiner Safari UltraSharp 10x26

(Image credit: Steiner)

4. Steiner Safari UltraSharp 10x26

Comfortable binoculars for a variety of outdoor activities

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

The Steiner Safari Ultrasharp 10x26 are hugely versatile and surprisingly affordable. 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 disemboweled. 

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)

5. 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 have a well-earned place in this 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

6. Celestron SkyMaster 25x100

The best binoculars for star gazing

Reasons to buy
+Great clarity +Powerful

If you're thinking of getting into stargazing, you might want to give the Celestron SkyMaster 25x100 a try. 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. And be sure to check out our guide to the best telescopes for some more traditional stargazing options.

Best binoculars: Nikon Monarch 5 20x56

(Image credit: Nikon)

7. 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)

8. Pentax Marine 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: RSPB HDX 8 x 42

9. 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)

10. 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

11. 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: 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.