The best binoculars for astronomy will be different to the best binoculars for bird-watching, horse racing or rambling. Fortunately, there are two figures in every binocular's specifications that will tell you everything you need to know – the magnification and the size of the lenses.
The magnification is easy to explain. This is how much larger objects will appear. This also ties in with the angle of view, though, so the bigger the magnification, the smaller the angle of view. For long-distance subjects a magnification of 10x or more is great, but for relatively near subjects, or those which move rapidly and could be hard to track, a magnification of 8x or less will be better.
The second figure is the size of the lenses on the front of the binoculars. The bigger the lenses, the more light-gathering power the binoculars will have so the more effective they will be in low light. Bigger lenses also make binoculars more tiring to hold for any length of time, though, and may not be needed in good light.
So the best binoculars for astronomy, for example, will be 7x50. This means a magnification of 7x and lenses measuring 50mm across. 7x is just about right for astronomy – any larger and you start to get arm-ache and a bit too much wobble – and 50mm lenses are larger than usual to give lots of light-gathering power, which helps you see faint objects like nebulae. (If you haven't used a good set of binoculars before, you will be amazed at what they reveal in the night sky.)
For horse racing or other sports, you can afford smaller lenses because you'll mostly be in daylight, so a typical spec might be 8x30. The smaller lenses mean your binoculars are lighter, so you can get away with higher magnifications because your arms won't tire so quickly.
Other handy but not always essential features include image stabilization, which is terrific but adds a lot to the price, build quality and durability, weight and weatherproofing.
Affordable vs premium binoculars
You don't have to spend a fortune to get a good pair of binoculars. If your budget is restricted you'll be looking for a combination of specifications, performance and value for money, so we've separated out the best binoculars for a limited budget in our 'affordable' section.
But we know there are astronomers, nature lovers and sports fans out there who want and need the very best optical performance, and are ready to pay to get it. We've put the best binoculars at any price in their own 'premium' section below.
Do note that for some uses, you may be better for going for a bigger-magnification spotting scope, or a more portable monocular. And if you are looking for something to use at theaters, then you need to check out our guide to the best opera glasses.
In the list below we've picked out some favorite models from current binocular ranges, but do note that other size variations are available from resellers, so you can choose other combinations of magnification and size.
The best binoculars in 2020
Something of a bargain, this pair of Celestron BaK-4 prism binos boasts 8x magnification and multi coated optics to prevent anything from marring your view. This isn't the only size – you can get these Outland X binoculars in other magnifications and sizes too. Suitable for outdoor use by birders and wildlife watchers, thanks not only to said magnification but also a sturdy polycarbonate build and waterproofing, the decent-sized 42mm objective lenses on offer here will aid light gathering, making these binoculars suitable for use in low light as well as regular daylight. A large smooth-feel focus wheel aids operation and a long 18mm eye relief delivers viewing comfort. Capable of being tripod mounted if desired, a strap, lens cloth and carry case comes as standard, plus a limited lifetime warranty.
Well suited to bad weather, as they’re not only waterproof, but nitrogen filled with it – Kowa’s YF30 series of binos offer 6x or 8x magnifications with a 30mm objective lens diameter. They offer portability in spades, each weighing less than 500g. For the sake of variety, we’ve opted for the 6x30 option here, which boasts an extremely wide viewing field of 140m at 1000m – so you’ll be able to observe a great deal without actually adjusting their position. The coated lenses are said to offer good resistance to dirt, too, making these binoculars easy to maintain. This is a modern interpretation of the classic porro prism optical configuration, with thick rubber armour and moulded soft contours.
To shoot for the stars, you obviously need a pair of binoculars with a high magnification factor – as well as ones with excellent light gathering abilities. We get both here with the splendidly named ‘SkyMaster’, ensuring this affordable pair is tailor-made for amateur astronomers, allowing for use at dusk, dawn and night. Multi coated lenses combine with BaK-4 prisms to allow for increased light transmission and therefore high contrast images with bags of detail. Stargazers will also benefit from the fact that this option can be tripod mounted, while it also has its own centre support rod for increased stability. A polycarbonate and aluminum build provides both robustness and portability, while we also get a product that is waterproofed and fog-proofed with it, which is especially useful on cold winter nights.
A previous Red Dot design award winner, this mid-range Nikon model with a rubber armored, non-slip construction comes in either 8x42 or 10x42 options, as here, and weighing just 575g despite its robust build, won’t give you aching wrists. It further features a highly reflective silver alloy mirror coating on the surface of its prism lenses to provide what’s claimed to be a bright and clear view, while a long eye relief enables comfortable viewing, particularly for those who wear glasses. O-ring sealed and nitrogen filled, this waterproofed pair will also deliver a fog-proof performance when used outdoors. Simply put, this is a good all-round option that delivers plenty of visual ‘bang’ for your buck.
The budget-priceed Opticron Savanna WP 6x30 binoculars are portable, waterproof and contemporary-looking porro prism binoculars, and they’re as suited to youngsters as they are adults. In fact, this range – 'Savanna', rather than 'Savannah' – is said to be usable by children aged 7+ without fear of eyestrain. As well as being compact enough for little hands, they’re relatively lightweight too, at a little under 500g, while offering a relatively wide field of view for curious eyes and minds. The 6x magnification doesn’t make them the most powerful pair of binos on the block, but you can upgrade to the 8x30 model – weighing just a few grams more – for just a little more outlay, which represents something of a bargain in itself.
While the 10x magnification factor of the Steiner 2212 10x 26mm Safari UltraSharp Binoculars is certainly impressive, what also grabs your attention is how light they are, weighing just 297g, but a glance at the specs reveals a lot of this is due to the pretty small 26mm objective lenses. Handling is excellent, however, with an ergonomic grip and intelligently laid-out controls, and optical quality is near top of the range. They're not quite at level of, say, the Canon or Zeiss (see below) binoculars, but at this price they're really nothing to sneeze at. Made with high-contrast optics that deliver an image of exceptional quality, these binoculars represent some of the best value for money on this list.
There are binoculars from Celestron’s Nature range, with even higher magnification and larger objective lenses, and likewise there are devices that cost less with smaller lenses and less magnification, so we’ve gone for a good value option in the middle that, with a 10x56 spec, ticks our essential boxes and makes for a decent all-rounder, particularly with the facility to focus as near as 3m too. As well as being great in low light, they're suitable for outdoor use, thanks to a durable polycarbonate construction filed with dry nitrogen gas to prevent fogging in cold and wet conditions. Add in multi-coated optics and this is a robust, well-specified pair of binos suitable for everyone from beginners to intermediate users.
One of the newest premium binoculars on the market comes from Nikon in either 8x30 or – as we’ve selected for our top pick – 10x30 options. The Nikon Monarch HG 10x30 binoculars are not only compact and relatively portable at 450g, the magnesium alloy build has the benefit of being water and fog proofed too. The idea is that these ape the performance of Nikon’s Monarch HG 42mm diameter version, but in a smaller body. Use of extra low dispersion (ED) glass corrects chromatic aberration that can cause colour fringing, while comfort is provided via a soft-to-the-touch neck strap. Both Nikon’s 10x and 8x options are supplied with a semi hard-type case for protection when transporting. A tripod adaptor for each is an optional extra. If you’re looking for the best compact binoculars, this pair from the camera stalwart takes the crown.
All of Canon’s current range of binoculars have the ‘IS’ suffix in their model name to denote the fact they’re image stabilized. This battery-operated option enables you to get a wobble-free image by just pressing in a button on the binoculars – and the stabilizing effect is both instant and jaw-dropping. From the broad range of Canon IS options available, we've picked the rubber coated Canon 10x42L IS WP model as the best, because – as the name suggests – they’re additionally waterproof, so ideal for an even broader range of long-distance pursuits. Also, Canon’s ‘L’ series is its premium line up, providing a super steady view in the most adverse of conditions. As well as rock-solid stability, these porro prism binoculars sit comfortably in your hand and sport a comfortably long (at 16mm) eye relief, plus a large 4.2mm exit pupil for a bright field of view. They also offer a closest focusing distance that’s closer than most, at just 2.5 metres.
Fashioned to survive almost anything, the Leica Trinovid-HD 10x42 binos get our vote for the best binoculars for bird watching right now. And they’re not just good for ‘birders’: in truth, they’re a solid all-round option as well. If you’re looking for a combination of state-of-the-art image performance and a ruggedness that will withstand whatever the outdoors may throw at you, then we recommend Leica’s impact-resistant Trinovid-HD 42 range. Their ergonomic design and steady grip allows for accurate and precise focusing, delivering both razor sharp close-ups of our feathered friends, plus long distance clarity. The performance stays consistent too, whether you’re viewing subjects at first light or at dusk. Good contrast and colour fidelity are key for bird watchers and these binoculars offer that in spades, as well as several choices of model, from 8x32 to the 10x42 we’ve selected.
This bright, sharp and reliable model from the Olympus pro line up (a new 8x42 version is also available) features nano coating for the first time in the range. Olympus is renowned for its optical expertise, so it’s no surprise that we get the same high performance Zuiko optics that it deploys with its camera systems. Indeed, the claim here is the binos’ optics offer unprecedented light transmittance for their class. Compact, ergonomically designed and of rugged construction that prevents any ingress from water if submerged at a depth of one metre for five minutes, close up performance is also impressive, with the ability to view subjects as near as 1.5m. Nitrogen filling prevents fogging while the design is slim and simple. An extendable eye relief provides comfort for spectacle wearers, as do a dioptric adjustment ring, flip down lens cap and a new strap mount. A 15-year warranty provides extra peace of mind.
Zeiss is synonymous with cutting-edge optical performance, and if you’re looking to luxuriously spend into the thousands to obtain the very best binoculars possible, then check out the Victory line up – said to be the best that Zeiss has to offer. Suitable for pretty much every pursuit, especially the watching of wildlife, the 10x magnification of our pick, the Zeiss Victory SF 10x42, not only brings the faraway up close, but the optical performance has a crystal clarity thanks in part to a seven-lens eyepiece. This particular model is also the most versatile, as well as the most premium, with an evenly balanced weight distribution and ergonomic grip making hand-holding the binos for a prolonged period a pleasure. Zeiss also claims that a large exit pupil measuring over 5mm reveals the details in dark shadows or dim dusk.
More buying guides
We've got buying guides to far more than just binoculars! Check out or list of buying guides below, for advice on everything from astronomical telescopes to opera glasses...
• The best monoculars in 2020
• The best spotting scopes
• The best opera glasses
• The best night vision goggles and binoculars
• The best telescopes for astrophotography
• The best microscopes in 2020
• Best borescopes and inspection cameras
• The best portable hides for wildlife photography