Leupold reserves their Golden Ring for their flagship products, and has a pioneering history of supporting them unconditionally, no questions asked. Primarily known to the hunting fraternity for the reliability of their products, Leupold has made increasingly serious overtures toward the birding market, and have attracted a great deal of positive attention with their lower and mid-priced Yosemite and Katmai binoculars. The Golden Ring HD binocular is their most recent effort to crack the top of the market.
Look and feel:
Getting the obvious out of the way first, these binoculars are heavy for their format. Most top end 8x32 binoculars these days weigh about 20 ounces while these tip the scale at 27, about what one might expect in an 8x42 binocular. They are not, therefor, anyone's choice for a backpacking optic. Used with a harness the weight is fine, but a regular strap puts too much weight on the back of my neck for my taste.
Because the design philosophy is biased toward ruggedness over light weight, these binoculars have a substantial, quality feel, and their good balance compensates somewhat for the weight. They are about average in compactness for 8x32 roof, with a pleasantly hand-filling feel. The brown armoring is firm and comfortable, with wide, shallow thumb depressions that avoid the great pitfall of always seeming to be in the wrong place. The strap lugs appear to be integral with the magnesium frame of the binoculars--very rugged--but might be a little low on the body for users with small hands.
The eyecups twist up and lock midway and again fully extended. The narrow eyecup rim shown in the betterviewdesired review of the 8x42 GRs is absent from this pair, and they are quite comfortable. The 17.5mm eye relief allows me to easily see the full field of view with my bifocals on. Focus is on the fast side, going from shoelace distance to beyond infinity in 1.5 turns. Binocular focus was obtainable at 5.5 feet, and individual barrels would focus at 3 feet. Diopter correction is managed by a ring on the right barrel which takes some effort to move, but lacking detents it adjusts exactly and should stay where it is set. The golden ring HD incorporates a novel IPD lock, which is touted as making single handed holding easier. I have a narrow IPD, and find the lock useful in keeping them from flattening out against my chest and always needing to be readjusted. This feature is a timesaver when a quick view is needed. There is a little play in the lock, but with a little trial and error I was able to find a good setting and leave them there.
Now we get to the good part. I have looked through my share of good glass in the last several years. My go-to binoculars are 8x32 Nikon SEs (which I used for direct comparisons to the GRs), and I've spent the last 6 months using a pair of Zeiss 8x32 FLs. I've owned the Swift 804 EDs and 820 EDs, the Zeiss 7x42 Classics, Nikon 8x30 E and EIIs, Nikon 10x42 SEs, Swaro 10x42 SLCs among many others, and made careful trials of the 8x32 Leica Ultravid HDs and 10x42 Zeiss FLs. The Golden Rings can hold their heads high in this company where optical performance is concerned.
My first tests were at night. I was able to resolve the moons of Jupiter easily handheld, and stars appeared with very, very little astigmatism until the outer margin of the field was reached. Viewing of the moon revealed only the thinnest perceptible fringe of greenish-yellow on one edge of the lunar disk--chromatic aberration controlled very nearly as well as the Zeiss FLs, which is to say extremely well and better than most other top roofs. The moon appeared with very satisfying detail and dimensionality. This boded well.
Daytime viewing of birds and landscapes were sharp, contrasty and saturated. Focus is crisp and snappy, and the weight of the binoculars, while a detriment in some ways, definitely aids in getting a steady view. Tracking and observing birds in flight was as easy with these as any I've ever used, putting aside the Nikon EIIs (which have an 8.8 degree field)
Last night I sat out in the evening with my SEs and the GRs and glassed the neighborhood and environs (and birds) with them, alternating from glass to glass as day faded to dusk. Tests included resolving fine details, such as counting buds and stems on remote dandilions and acorns on remote oak trees, and looking at colors and textural features in moss and tree trunks. In terms of resolution, the GRs were hard on the heels of the Nikons. Just perceptibly less sharp, but only that, and really very similar to the Zeiss FLs. The sweet spot was very wide for a roof prism, with good sharpness running about 2/3 of the way from the center to the field stop and real image decay apparent only in the outermost edge of the field. The SEs had a wider sweet spot, but surprisingly the GRs were pretty close. Color rendition was clean and saturated, very satisfying. Greens looked vivid and alive. The view was relaxed, detailed and clean. In brightness, the porro prism SEs held the edge. That's no surprise, as the Zeiss FLs are the only 8x32 roofs I've ever seen that could compare with them in brightness. The GRs are brighter than any roofs I've looked through that did not have dielectric coatings, but not quite equal to a top porro or a dielectric coated roof.
Overall, the optics of the Golden Ring HD are alpha class, the handling is very good, and the only defect that may be serious to some potential users is weight. These bins have some interesting and novel features (including being the first I know of to be purged with noble gases rather than nitrogen), and are backed by industry-leading customer support. They are built to last a lifetime, and the history of Golden Ring products is that Leupold will make sure that they do, no matter what. They come with a good, roomy field case, an ocular rain guard which is a little too deep and slow to get on and off for my taste, and objective covers that will serve until I can replace them with something better. These binoculars are available now at deep discounts and appear to be on their way out of the Leupold line, probably due to the weight issue. I was amazed to find this pair at $450--they would be a good value at twice that price. These are keepers.