We poor humans, born into an immense universe full of reality but with only five piffling, paltry senses with which to explore it. The dog asleep at my feet can smell exponentially better than I; a two-inch Elf Owl hears magnitudes more and the smallest raptor sees thousands of times better. I would need two ten-pound eyes and a visual cortex to go with them in order to see as well as a Peregrine Falcon.
Fortunately, humans have figured out ways to magnify the few senses we do have. And if there is someone on your Christmas list who needs binoculars or a spotting scope to magnify sight to look at birds, this post and the next provide the basics of what you need to know.
By the way, we don’t have a dog in this fight. Our online store does not sell binoculars or spotting scopes. The manufacturers of optics control tightly the minimum prices at which their products can be sold. If a retailer sells below those prices that retailer can no longer buy from that manufacturer. The other thing to know about optics is that the mark up for retailers is fairly small, except for low end optics. Moreover, retailers have to buy an inventory of binoculars and spotting scopes and then wait for customers to come along and buy them. This means a substantial capital investment which can sit around gathering dust for many months and then must be sold for a small profit margin.
What that means for you the consumer is straightforward. You can search around the Web for the binoculars you have selected, find the lowest price, then go to your local retailer and get just about the same price. That means that optics are a good thing to buy locally. You not only help out the retailer, you avoid shipping charges. Just remember that no retailer can sell you a pair of binoculars for less than the minimum price the manufacturer requires.
There are two exceptions to this rule. Sometimes you can find “gray” market binoculars for sale. “Gray” market simply means that somehow or the other, the seller got his hands on those binoculars from a source other than the manufacturer. Frequently those binoculars are identical to the ones you buy at a store BUT do not come with a warranty and the warranties on optics tend to be quite good, usually life-time warranties with full replacement for broken or scratched binoculars. The other exception is for low-end products. The cheapest optics — both in price and quality — usually can be sold at whatever price the retailer wants, so you may find a better deal on-line for those. A good rule of thumb is that binoculars which retail for less than $100.00 are not price controlled by the manufacturer.
The main thing to remember about both binoculars and spotting scopes is that price correlates well to quality. The more you pay, the better the product. A $1800.00 pair of Swarovski binoculars is better than a $800.00 Zeiss. A Leica spotting scope retailing for $2000.00 is better than a $600 Nikon.
What do we mean by “better?” Basically we mean sharpness and brightness. Go to a store that sells a wide range of binoculars and look through them. As you go up the price scale you’ll probably find that the higher priced ones seem better. This is not entirely subjective either. The glass in those high-priced binoculars is better glass. It lets in more light and focuses it better than less expensive glass.
So today’s message about optics is: You get what you pay for. Which, when you think about it, is comforting. For many consumer products that is not true, but it is for binoculars and spotting scopes. Buy the most expensive optics you can afford.
In our next post we’ll discuss magnification, field-of-view, weight and the rest of the basics of purchasing optics for birders. We’ll also tell you what we use and why we selected them.