Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The difference between sufficient binoculars and good binoculars: Nikon Monarch 3 review

I was hunting pigs one day with my friend Phillip when his binoculars caught my eye. They had a built-in rangefinder and they were a top brand.

"How much did they cost?" I asked.

"Three thousand," he said. Gasp!

I asked what made them worth that much, and that's when he enlightened me: "Affordable" binoculars are fine for limited use, but when you use them a lot - for example, if you're a hunting guide who scans the land with them all day long, day after day - they'll strain your eyes. A good pair of binoculars doesn't do that.

I took a look through his binoculars. I couldn't see the difference, so I took his word for it.

Yesterday, though, I took a pair of Nikon Monarch 3 binoculars for a test ride at a local wildlife area, and I finally got it.

First, I need to preface my remarks by saying I have never paid for a pair of binoculars. When I first started hunting, I borrowed Hank's binoculars. He couldn't remember how much they cost, but I'm gonna say it was less than $200.

Then another company - one known for respectable quality at an affordable price - sent me a pair of binoculars for review. At the time, they retailed for about $200, but I looked them up yesterday and found the price had dropped to $165. I liked them, and I saw no reason to upgrade.

Then, earlier this fall, a Nikon rep asked if I'd like to review the new Monarch 3, and I said, "Sure!"

I was actually kind of excited about it because I shoot Nikon cameras (for food photography and duck feather photography), and I love Nikon.

At home, I took them out in the back yard to glass the field behind my house. Switching back and forth between the Nikon binos and my other review binos, they seemed pretty similar.

Then I took them on a few duck hunts. I know, I know, we don't generally glass for ducks. But by the time I got these binoculars, I had only a day or two left in my deer hunting season, so I figured I could glass for ducks when things were quiet. Again, I had no problems with them. So far, so good.

Yesterday, though, I put them to a test that finally made the difference clear: About an hour before sunset, I took both pairs of binoculars to a nearby wildlife area that I'm hoping to hunt this season.

I hoisted the older binoculars and scanned the area, picking out landscape features near and far, looking from all different angles, including facing into the impending sunset. Yep, all good.

Then I lifted the Monarch 3s and holy crap! Looking through them was easier, no doubt about it. It was actually the last thing I expected to find, because $250 puts these at the moderate end of the binocular price range (binos at Cabela's range from $30 to $3,000). I thought I'd need a much more expensive pair of binoculars to notice that difference.

Now here's the problem: I can't tell you why they felt better. But it was a familiar feeling.

When I took up serious photography in 2007, I got a Nikon camera body and two "kit" lenses for $1,000, which is definitely cheap in the camera world. The quality of my photos was good - I was getting published in food magazines, and many of the photos you see in Hank's book (Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast) came out of those lenses.

Later, I got a $550 60 mm macro lens for Christmas, and when I upgraded to a better camera body in 2010, I also decided to spring for a new 24-70 mm lens, which cost $1,800. With these lenses, all of my photos now just looked better. More crisp, more clear, more beautiful. More professional.

That's how the Monarch 3 feels compared with my older review binoculars, except it wasn't just the quality of the image, but the ease of looking through them. My eyes just didn't have to work as hard to process the image.

You can read about all the Monarch 3 features and specs by clicking here, and if you can make sense of them, you know far more about binoculars than I do and you're probably laughing at me by now.

But I will single out one more feature I am eminently qualified to discuss: The focus knob on the Monarch 3, as promised on the Nikon website, is really smooth and easy to work - much easier than my other binoculars.

I never had any problem focusing with the other ones, but because I have arthritis in my hands, being able to adjust focus easily is a huge plus. That's actually the main reason I got a Bushnell scope for my .270 a couple years ago, not a Leupold - I found it very difficult to move the Leupold magnification ring.

Upshot: I can wholeheartedly recommend these binoculars. I'm feeling very lucky to have them.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


jryoung said...

Where I hunted in WA we didn't use binoculars all that much. When I went on my first hunt in CA (pigs) in 2009 I quickly realized the need for binoculars.

Having exposure to photography and the pretty white (Canon L) lenses, I was already biased towards the expensive stuff. But, exactly like you said, I don't have the knowledge to tell you why, I can just tell you that you can really get what you pay for in lenses.

I looked a lot at the mid (nikon, minox, vortex) and high (leica, zeiss, swaro) tiers. I think any of them would have been good choices, but I settled on a pair of Swarovski SLC 8x30 when Cabelas was letting them go for $800 and I had a $50 off coupon AND got 6% cash back through my bank. I am extremely satisfied with my purchase. After a 10 day hunt in northern BC this fall with my Dad it became clear as he was unable to glass as long as the guide and myself. We traded glass for a bit and his low level nikons really put a strain on your eyes.

I'm in the market for another pair of binos for my wife and these Nikons are on the short list. I'm interested to see how they compare to my Swaros.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Ah Glass: as that sage of outdoor kit purchase hodgeman put it ' all day through your bino's 30 seconds through your scope'

I'm used to stalking with a chap who has pikey glass - its ok, helps a bit, then I went afield with Andy, a Scottish guide, and took a look though his Swaros. Ahh! That's what all the fuss is about. Nikon make great cameras, but take a look though a Leica .....

NorCal Cazadora said...

JR, I'm gonna assume that your Swarovski's are better - if they cost that much and weren't better than a pair of $250 binos, I'd want my money back.

SBW, I think Leicas were what Phillip had, and yeah, it's probably no competition.

What you can take from my review, I think, is this: If you've got $250 to spend on binoculars, the Monarch 3 shouldn't disappoint you.

But P.S. Nikon rules! I have some Canon afficionados who were disappointed that I went with Nikon, but I sure wasn't :-).

Phillip said...

Nikon let me take a set of the Monarch V out for the 2010-2011 season, and it was with a little bit of sadness that I sent them back. They're a shade pricier than the Monarch III (which I haven't tried), but they did convince me that Nikon makes some good glass. For that lower, mid-range market they're a great choice.

Holly, you're right, my glasses are Leica and as JR mentions, the big difference comes after hours through the lens... not seconds. There's also a big difference at low light.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Did I get the price right? :-)

Mark Coleman said...

Oddly enough, I have a Nikon scope on my .270 and it's a great piece of hardware, but it takes a Vulcan death grip to move the mag ring.

hodgeman said...

There is nothing in the hunting and fishing world where dollars and quality are in direct correlation like glass.

The trick is buying as much as you need. I'd take great binos and a mediocre rifle on a hunt and feel better about my chances than with the inverse.

The Monarch series are very good for the money.

ASLEvans said...

I shoot with a lot of long-range precision shooters who won't put anything less than a Nightforce on their rifles. When I first started hanging out with them, I couldn't understand putting $2-3k of glass on top of a $2-3k rifle, but after having had a chance to look through top quality glass in all sorts of conditions, including night matches, *now* I really get it. There's just no fighting the glass when you're getting everything else in line to make that shot.

Frankie said...

Regarding Canon's and Nikon cameras, I feel compelled to state my preference. Having shot both, I like the Nikon lenses more. But I think the Canon bodies are better. The Nikon lenses are crisper, show less vignetting, brighter, and feel smoother. I also had the monarch binos, and recommend them. Nikon just makes good lenses.

Phillip said...

Holly, you were close. At the time I think I paid around $2400 for the Leicas. I checked when I was in Cabelas a couple weeks ago, and they're still in the $2500-$2750 price range. Close enough to $3K though... Pricey, but worth it so far. Support has been good too, by the way. Had to send them back after a drop chipped the lens. Replaced lens, cleaned unit, and recalibrated the laser all for free, and had them back to me real quick.

Brian said...

Leice Geovids....*sigh*....
Swaro 8x30's.....*sigh*....

Nikon does seem to make decent affordable glass. Also check out Vortex Binos. I am using a pair of Diamondback 9x36's I got through a rep. I believe they retail for about $279 and while not premium glass I think they are very good value (and great size/weight)

Anonymous said...

My information says that it is not only the light transmission through the glass, but also the alignment of those pieces of glass. If there is misalignment, your eyes and brain are going to do extra work to make the images mesh and make sense. If one eye is looking 2 degrees down from where the other eye is looking... It hurts my head just thinking about it.

All I really know for sure is that I no longer have the eyes (nor brain) that can compensate for the binos that are easier to purchase. Thus, I ended up with a pair of Kahles.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Mark: I know scope makers don't want that thing wobbling around but I don't know why they need to be so stiff. It's not just an issue for arthritics and women with less hand strength - I'm thinking cranking on those things with cold fingers would be impossible!

ASLEvans: I think most people can't afford glass that good. I do for my photography, because that's my business, and the investment pays off. I always tell people to get the best glass they can afford (or in my case, get the best glass my credit limit affords).

Frankie: I've never shot a Canon, so I can't compare (at the time I made my choice, Nikon had spot metering and Canon didn't, and I really wanted that). The one advantage Canon lenses have is their incredible interchangeability. There are a lot of Nikon lenses that won't work on my camera. That hasn't been much of a burden, though.

Phillip: Can't say enough about good support!

Brian: I know! Before I started teaching, I had a job that paid enough I could afford stuff like that, but I hadn't started hunting yet when I left. I immediately realized that the cut in pay was going to be an issue when it came to hunting gear.

Anonymous: Intuitively, that totally makes sense. And I feel you on the eyes and brain thing.

Steve Bodio said...

I have a pair of Swaros and one of old- style Zeiss (Swaros a gift). Neither are new. I had many cheap binos before them and have never needed anything since I got either. One would do but as someone who uses a pair every outdoor day the thought of backup appeals.

Something not mentioned: all the German/ Austrian glass is warrantied for life of the owner, period. I have done things like lose the Swaros off the roof of a speeding truck (laugh-- I deserve it) and never paid a cent or waited more than two weeks for repair.

As the late Betsy Huntington used to say "We are far too poor to afford to buy shit."

Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no idea there would be that much of a difference. I always assumed you were paying more for a name, not a huge jump in quality. I've been using a pair of these Bresser range finders for about a year or so and I thought dropping $100 dollars on binoculars would buy me a nice pair! I don't use them so much that it bothers my eyes, but now I'm wondering how much better a nice pair would look haha. Great post! Thanks for the information, I'll definitely be looking into those Nikons. Keep up the good work!