The Hawke Frontier ED x43s have been a very popular models but perhaps the physical size and weight hasn't suited everyone or every occasion. This summer Hawke introduced a 8x and 10x32 model carrying the same name. I got to have a quick look at BirdFair last month and the combination of relatively small size, weight, pretty useful performance and an attractive price made it stand out a little from the competition. I'm struggling to think of another wide view, ED x32 model around the £200 mark (at UK pricing). I thought it was rather fun and definitely worth a second look and I need to thank Richard at Deben for arranging the loan of this pair for a few days to review.
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Eye Relief 15.6mm
Weight 500g, 17.6oz
Length 125mm, 4.8”
List price £220
Apart from the size, in a number of ways the 8x32 looks and feels quite similar to it's bigger brothers, the main differences are under the skin. Obviously it is a single hinge rather than a dual of course but in looks it's quite reminiscent of the rest of the family, though perhaps most like the Sapphire top hinge design. The clip in, tethered objective covers look the same and feel and handling are quite similar. Again, offered in green and black. Perhaps it's unsurprising that there are similarities as I'm told it's manufactured by the same company as the bigger Frontier EDs, but I did have my doubts initially.
When I checked them out on the Hawke stand at Birdfair my first reaction was that these would be really nice for hiking. I like that it's size and weight mean it's comfortable to walk long distances with the binocular in the hand rather than round the neck. However there is just a little hint that Hawke have the ladies in mind for this one. I'm not sure I'd be very comfortable using the case for stomping round Hertfordshire, whereas my wife's first reaction was to ask if there was room for her phone and lip gloss. The case doesn't have it's own strap though.
I found the handling good. Unusually the thumb indent was in the right place and for my hands, the grip felt natural and relaxed, no stretching for the focus and and no interference from the strap lugs. The focus is about 1.6 turns from 2m to infinity anticlockwise but 0.4 of a turn from 5m to infinity which I find a little leisurely but many will like it. Out of the box there was some unevenness in the turning resistance, but that has largely gone over the last few days and there is no sign of backlash on reversing direction which is very good. The hinge tension and the dioptre adjustment were on the stiff side which I welcomed, but my wife found a bit tight. The eye-cups extend about 7mm in two stages. The listed 15.7mm ER is probably correct and that will be an issue for some glasses wearers. It seems fine for me but there are a few caveats that I'll come back to later. Without glasses the eye-cups are nicely profiled and I thought rather more comfortable to use than some I've tried recently. Note that the 10x32 has only 8.2mm ER.
At this point in time I would want to remove the tethered objective covers altogether. These don't want to stay in place when needed and the stiffness of the material means they don't want to drop away out of the view when they're not. The rain guard is quite nice though which I find more important in practice.
When I first tried it at the show I was a bit uncertain about its optical quality, but never the less, there was something about it that made me want another look. I'm glad I did. At the £200 price mark sharpness can be an hard to find but the sample I've been sent is excellent, probably amongst the best I've seen at the price. No it won't trouble the alphas, but it is more than a match for my usual £400 pair which was a bit of a surprise, so for my eyes at least it's plenty good enough for everyday use. The contrast is particularly good and gives a nice crispness to the view which isn't always there in the competition. The CA better control somewhat better than you might expect for the price as well. It's very good in the centre and still quite modest out to the edges. Stray light management again seems very good. I'm in danger of running out of superlatives but of course there is some evidence of cost savings as well. The colour balance is quite neutral, but unsurprisingly it doesn't have the colour vibrancy you get from more expensive coatings. I don't have good comparisons for low light performance, but I suspect the transmission levels are fairly ordinary too. Of course I don't know how representative this sample this is but overall this one's pretty good!
It's not surprising that in aiming at a lower price point the Frontier ED x32s have a simpler optical configuration than the x43s. Instead of the semi-flat 426ft view you get a 400ft view with field curvature. I'm perfectly fine with that as I like the improved perceived DOF field curvature provides in lower powered models. However some will be disappointed at the size of the sweet spot as this is a particular feature of the bigger models.
In many respects this is probably one of the nicest £200 models I've tried in terms of handling and particularly the optical performance in the centre of the view. I've been using it out and about in the local countryside for a week now and it's been a joy to use and whether its watching the red kites and buzzards soaring in the thermals or trying to spot the wild guinea fowl (does that count as a tick?) playing hide and seek in the long grass, the detail and clarity has really impressed in quite challenging situations. However, when I've tried it on others, not everyone shared my enthusiasm, and I'll try to explain why.
I imagine when Hawke commissioned the design there might have a dialogue that went something like “we want a low cost, low weight, ED model with a 400ft view” and the response “we have a great design with a 380ft view. We'll just stretch the view a bit and reduce the ER and no one will notice”. Unfortunately, it seems some do. My theory might be nonsense of course but there is something odd about the edge of the view. I think the cause might be spherical aberration, which not only affects the ability to view of the edges directly but puts the field stop out of focus as well. For some it seems to creates an initial impression that the view is actually softer than it really is. It also leads to a bit of uncertainty over the ER and the eye positioning feels fussy initially. However there is nothing soft about the actual view though. I estimated the resolution at 5.8” at 32mm and 6.8” at 20mm which is impressive for this price level. The edge of the view can be refocussed to a sharp image as well. It's unfortunate the perturbations at the edges unsettle some, but if you can ignore the edges, which I normally do in practice, then you are rewarded will a view that is certainly a cut above the average. It's definitely advised to try before you buy.
The Frontier ED 8x32 wouldn't replace my bigger, heavier and more expensive pairs for my more dedicated birding outings but I found it very likeable, and for a bit of rambling, hiking or travel I would be very happy with the performance. I'd certainly recommend them as a starter binocular, particularly if low weight is a priority.