PreambleWhile I know some dislike them (to quote allbinos.com: "a real pair of binoculars starts from 28-30 mm objective diameter"), I enjoy compact binoculars. While I can readily acknowledge their optical drawbacks, I am of the opinion that the best pair of binoculars is the one you have with you and compact binoculars excel at portability. I have a pair in my glove box, always carry a pair while hiking (if the purpose of the hike is not birdwatching... if it is I would obviously bring something more capable), and also keep them stashed around near windows in case an interesting bird appears outside. While looking at my current inventory of my most used compacts, I realized some commonalities. 2 of them are ~8x25 and 2 ~6x25. One old, one new. I decided to do a brief comparison to see weather "they don't make them like they used to" or "modern technology" would win out.
8x entry level compact
Nikon Venturer II 8x23Of early 90's "Consumer Reports" fame, this model is the predecessor to the modern "Travelite" series. An entry level reverse porro prism binocular about 30 years old, mine cost me $15 at goodwill. They were out of collimation but a quick dissemble and reassembly of the LOTA fixed that.
Kowa SV ii 8x25While likely not the most popular model, I feel this represents everything a modern entry level roof prism binocular should be. Chinese made, fully multi-coated with phase coating (but no ED glass or dielectric coatings), but solid feeling and performing. Priced about the same as the venturer was 30 years ago, it is interesting to see what 30 years of advancement has brought to entry level glass.
6x reverse porros
Bushnell Custom 6x25Made by Tamron in Japan, these are some of the finer compact porros ever made. These are single coated MgF and likely date about 50 years old but still hold up quite well as we will see.
Pentax Papilio ii 6.5x21Renown for their ultra-close focusing distance (around 19"), these are not merely a novelty! Also made in China, they boast surprisingly nice optics and are likely one of the best compact porros one can get today.
Haptics, Mechanics, and Handling
Nikon Venturer II 8x23The lightest of the lot at 260g, the venturer features a plastic body covered in smooth leatherette and rubber eyecups. The eyecups are a good length and ease of view is better than the Kowa (though eye relief is on the short side, inadequate for glasses). I find the curvature of the body top fits well under my fingers but the smooth plastic flat underside is less ideal. It sports the best focuser of the bunch. It is wide (slightly over 1") and well placed, and very smooth and precise and operates via moving objectives. It feels of cheap plastic but is a joy to use with absolutely no play, even light damping over the whole focusing range which amounts to ~2/3 of a turn from ~6 ft to infinity (with an additional 1/3 of a turn past). Dioptric adjustment is achieved by rotating the entire right eyepiece.
Kowa SV ii 8x25Weighing in at 282 grams, the MIC Kowa SV ii features a double hinged "pocket" design and is by far the smallest and densest of the bunch when folded. Although not specified, these appear to be metal bodied covered in tactile green rubber which is quite nice to hold. While the double hinge design has drawbacks (IPD adjustment, durability), it also allows these to truly fit in a pocket. It features twist up plastic eyecups with no intermediate stops. For me, the eyecups are too short leading to challenging eye placement and ease of view. Eye relief is sufficient for my reading glasses The focuser is also the worst of the bunch. It is small in length and diameter and placed for middle finger focusing which I do not prefer. It has significant play (2-3mm) and takes a little over 1 turn to go from it's impressive close focus of under 3 feet to infinity with an additional 1/3 of a turn past. It focuses internally to achieve true waterproofness.
Dioptric adjustment is achieved by a rotating ring below right eyepiece.
Bushnell Custom 6x25Weighing 285 grams, the customs are the physically smallest pair from snout to tail (though wider than the SV when folded due to the porro prism design). They have an all metal body covered in grey leatherette and a classic vintage MIJ look and feel. They are a joy to use and at about 50 years old they feel as though they could go another 50 with no problem. They feature pull out thin plastic eyecups which seem by far to be the weak point in their design. They are however quite comfortable to use and eye placement is easier than either 8x binocular (the larger exit pupil certainly helps). Eye relief is sufficient for my reading glasses. Dioptric correction is achieved by rotating the LEFT eyecup. The focuser is quite thin but not problematically so as it moves freely with no free play. Focus is achieved via moving objectives and is very fast amounting to just 1/6th of a turn from the (long) close focusing distance of 12 ft. to infinity. In fact, the focuser has more travel (1/2 turn) past infinity than through its whole focusing range. However, in the field other than the long close focus there is little problem with the speed as the 6x magnification gives nice depth of field.
Pentax Papilio ii 6.5x21The heaviest of the bunch at 300g, these are by far the most complex binoculars of the bunch due to their unique close focusing system (focus is achieved via moving objectives which get closer together as one focuses closer alleviating close focus parralax). Made in china with grey tactile rubber, they feel comfortable in the hand with convenient thumb indents. They feature wide twist up eyecups with an intermediate stop which are my favorite of the bunch and have the best ease of view and eye placement. The focuser is small but smooth and precise although it gives more of an impression of damped smoothness rather than mechanical smoothness given by the custom. One interesting note is that on a 116* F day at the Phoenix Zoo, the focuser had some thermal expansion issues where at one end of the focus and one intermediate spot (about 6 ft), the focuser seemed to catch and feel stuck and need to be pushed through. I have not experienced this before or after at more reasonable operating temperatures. Focusing is quite slow (as necessitated due to the shallow FOV as utlra-close working distances) amounting to 2 2/3 turns from 17" to infinity with an additional 1/4 turn past infinity. Dioptric correction is again achieved by rotating ring under the right eyepiece. Also of note is a coated front optical window (presumably to protect the track of the unique objective focusing system) and proprietary strap connection.
Stray Light Control8x
To be honest both the Kowa and the Nikon fair quite poorly here. Both when working towards the sun lose about a third of the FOV completely to veiling glare. Examination of the exit pupils shows big bright false pupils on the Kowa and numerous internal reflections (including a full glowing ring I have never before seen) on the Nikon. The Kowa eeks out the victory with slightly more effort needed to get the glare and generally less washing out under a bright sky.
Both are quite adequate. Neither is "glare proof", but both are quite usable when not pushed to near the sun. The pentax is the worse of the two again showing a ring and some reflections. Inspecting the optical path shows some apertures but minimal baffling. The custom shows nice clean exit pupils and has extensive baffling and apertures. It likely suffers from glare more from stronger reflections due to old coatings but still turns in a nice performance.
This is one category where the venturer really disappoints. It's outdated coatings give a warm muted color representation and overall a dull image. The kowa on the other hand sports vibrant colors and good contrast with a much whiter image (slightly warm cream).
For central contrast it is very close. The modern coatings of the Pentax give it a large boon while the precise optics and baffling of the Bushnell are unmatched the other specimens. The color of the Bushnell is the characteristic warmth of MgF optics while the kowa sports near "paper white" vibrant colors with a slight pink tendency. While the smaller aperture gathers 30% less light, the modern coatings compensate.
Winner: Pentax (barely)
The Nikon displays the most of any binocular in this test. It is a little below medium in the center and high on the edge. The kowa fair better with low CA in the center and a little above medium on the edge.
The Pentax had the best performance of all binoculars in this test with low CA in the center and only slightly higher on the edge. The Bushnell is also quite good across the field with a below medium level in the center and the edge
Resolution:I should probably call this "effective resolution" or something of the sort as no charts were used. I simply looked at distant text on buildings and saw the smallest I could read with each bin and compared back and forth.
This was the largest surprise of the test. Unsurprisingly it was an 8x that took the top spot as the extra magnification affords more resolving power. However, it was an 8x binocular that also performed the worst of anything in this test being out-resolved by both the 6x Bushnell and 6.5x Pentax. In a point for team "they don't make them like they used to", the Nikon was the winner of the resolution test. The kowa was not terrible by any means, but has that characteristic Chinese mushiness I have seen in every Chinese roof prism bin, like looking through a pane of glass.
In anther win for team "they don't make them like they used to", the Bushnell bested the Pentax despite having 0.5 less magnification. While having less resolving power than the 8x Nikon, they give an immediate impression of "wow so sharp" more so than anything else in this test.
The venturer sports a modest sized sweet spot and very mushy edges. Some amount of coma and a large amount of field curvature make the outer ~10% unusable and softening begins at about half the FOV. The Kowa performs markedly better with very low coma and no amount of the FOV being unusable. There is softening in the outer 25% but it is subtle and does not detract from the viewing experience.
The Pentax sports modest edge performance with softening creeping in in the outer 25%. It has the most coma of any binocular tested here but it is not at such a level than any of the FOV is unusable. The Bushnell on the other hand has practically zero coma and minimal softening at the edge and was the best of any binocular tested here.
The modern coatings and slightly larger aperture of the Kowa do their job. Even with the ~10% light loss from a (presumably) silvered roof prism, they outclass the Nikon.
This contest is far closer. Both are porro prisms with lossless total internal reflection and while the papilio sport excellent modern coatings, the customs gather 29% more light. In the end, the Pentax eeks out the win as seen by searching for towhees in shrubbery at dusk.
While the Nikon Venturer ii shines with it's center sharpness and lovely focuser, the modern Kowa SV ii overall provides a slightly better experience without any major slip-ups while also being a true "pocket binocular".
Kowa SV ii 8x25
The Bushnell custom is a very nice binocular. It is well built, incredibly sharp, and a joy to hold and use. However, the Pentax Papilio is an incredible little device. It posted great results across the board sporting the best color, CA correction, brightness, and ease of view. To add on the incredible close focusing that has to be experienced to believe, and it is one of the best ways to spend ~$100 on binoculars today.
Pentax Papilio ii 6.5x21
While the two modern binoculars were my personal winners, it is worth noting that both vintage pairs were sharper and cheaper (substantially so in the Nikon case). While coatings have greatly improved the viewing experience in compact binoculars with limited light gathering, in some ways they do not make them like they used to. And while my mind and eyes tell me the modern binoculars are better tools, my heart still longs for the look, feel, and view of the old customs.
|Bin||Kowa SV ii 8x25||Nikon Venturer ii 8x23||Pentax Papilio ii 6.5x21||Bushnell Custom 6x25|
|Stray Light Control||2||1||3||4|
|Ease of View||1||2||4||3|
|Total (unweighted not necessarily meaning best)||17||15||27||21|