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Centre focus 8x30 Porro prism binoculars

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By Brin Best

 

INTRODUCTION

The Porro prism configuration of 8x30 is probably the most successful in binocular history. A magnification of x8 gives plenty of reach, yet does not bring with it the hand-shake of a more powerful instrument. Objectives with a diameter of 30mm give good light gathering power – especially when coated – and can be used with suitable oculars to give a pleasingly wide angle of view of at least eight degrees.

 

The Porro prism system makes it easier (and cheaper) to manufacture binoculars with very good optical performance compared with roof prism models, and of course the 3D picture which can delivered by those widely-spaced objective lenses is impossible to reproduce using sleek roof prism designs. Added to that, the whole package will fit easily into a handy-sized instrument that is reasonably light and ergonomically effective.

 

These many plus points have led all the major manufactures to produce 8x30 models which have correspondingly sold in their millions. 8x30 binoculars first appeared early in the 20th century and were popularised with Carl Zeiss Jena’s landmark Deltrintem/Deltrentis model which was launched in 1920 and went on to sell – more or less unchanged apart from the introduction of optical coatings – for almost seventy years. Throughout this period 8x30 binoculars have been available at a wide range of price points and continue to be sold to this day. Although never being as popular as 6x30 glasses for military use, 8x30 binoculars have also been used as part of military operations in many parts of the world, though this review confines itself to civilian models.

 

In this article I outline what I consider to be the best centre focus 8x30 Porro prism models ever made. Building on the success of this classic configuration, in the last couple of decades some manufacturers have introduced 8x32 models, which confer the above-stated benefits together with additional light gathering power. Two of these are included in this article too.

 

For each binocular a score out of 10 is given for optical quality, with the best binoculars being listed first. Also quoted is the cheapest price the author could find at the time of writing, together with some additional commentary on each model. The reader is also referred to the notes at the end of the article which provide further context and information.

 

RECOMMENDED BINOCULARS

The top four performers are all (just about) still available new at the time of writing. They consist of three Japanese-made models (two by Nikon, one by Opticron) and one hailing from Austria (by Swarovski).

 

Nikon 8x30 EII (10/10) 385GBP

Nikon is a company with a long and distinguished history, rooted in Japan’s drive for self-sufficiency in optical and photographic devices in the early part of the 20th century. Although the company makes a very wide range of binoculars – including some budget models – there is no doubt that it produces the finest civilian Porro prism models made anywhere.

 

There is simply no finer 8x30 Porro than the Nikon EII. The brightness, contrast, resolution and colour rendition is quite exceptional, and rivals the very best 8x30/8x32 roof prism models currently made, costing over 1,000GBP. It also has the widest field of view of any 8x30 currently available, at 154m at 1,000 m degrees. The quality of the image of this superb binocular is so good that I keep one as my reference standard for x8 binoculars – at any price. If a binocular can compete with this model, it is certainly a very fine one indeed.

 

The outstanding optics of the Nikon 8x30 EII are not, unfortunately, mirrored by its ergonomics and other features. It has old-fashioned fold-down rubber eyecups, is not waterproof and has no rubber armouring on any part its exterior surface. If Nikon could address these features and produce a thoroughly modern 8x30 with the superb optics of the EII, it would surely be the top binocular choice for a range of uses. Unfortunately, the latest generation of roof prism-loving binocular users mean that commercial pressures are pushing Nikon in the opposite direction and price-wise into the stratosphere, with its latest EDG models.

 

Despite the stated drawbacks, for the price-conscious binocular user, the Nikon EII provides the chance to enter the alpha class in terms of performance, for a fraction of the cost of the high-end roof prism models made by the ‘big four’ . Snap yours up while Nikon is still making it!

 

The Nikon EII is the latest evolution of a model that was launched in the 1950s when binoculars from this manufacturer still bore the additional name of the parent company Nippon Kogaku. It was designed to compete with the very best 8x30s coming out of Europe at this time, and comparisons with these rival models from this period show it did so remarkably well. The model that preceded it – the 8x30E – was also an exceptional binocular, which deserves a score of 9/10. It was not quite as bright or sharp as the later model and came with a more conventional field of view of 150m at 1,000m. There is also a 10x35 variant of the EII, with very impressive optical quality, but I do not rate it quite as highly as its smaller brother.

 

Nikon 8x32 SE (10/10) 499GBP

This is another hugely impressive binocular from Nikon. The final selection of this model or the Nikon 8x30 EII would depend on which specific features a user might prefer rather than being based on any key differences in optical quality. Both are outstanding binoculars – the SE has better edge-to-edge sharpness, though the trade-off is that it has a narrower field of view than the EII (135 m at 1,000m). I find that the SE gives a slightly brighter (or whiter) image than the EII, yet the latter binocular seems to resolve a touch more detail. The SE does comes with the advantage of full rubber armouring, surely a boon for most users.

 

While the price of the Nikon 8x32 SE makes it excellent value for money when compared to the high-end roof prism models with which it compares so favourably, it is still 20% more expensive than the EII – a price differential that I believe cannot be justified on optical grounds alone.

 

As this article was being written it appeared that the last of the Nikon 8x32 SE binoculars had been produced, with this model being reported to have been now ‘retired’ from production. While it is still possible (in the UK at least) to find new examples of this binocular at some retailers, which have remained unsold since manufacture, it is likely that this fine binocular will soon only be available on the used market. It is surely destined to be a design classic and much sought after by binocular connoisseurs.

 

Like its cousin the EII, the 8x32 SE has a big brother in the shape of the 10x42 SE (and a bigger brother still in the guise of a 12x50 model). Unlike the EII, however, the 10x42 SE is if anything is a better performer than its smaller sibling. Indeed, some people believe it to be the finest x10 model ever made, and many would say it is the best x10 Porro in existence.

 

Swarovski 8x30 W (10/10) 459GBP

This luxury Austrian manufacturer is best known for its superb roof prism models in the SLC and EL ranges, yet some of the finest Porro prism binoculars currently made still roll off the production lines in the shadow of the Alps. The 8x30 W, sometimes known as the ‘traditional’ model – is a poorly-known and under-appreciated Porro prism binocular of superb optical quality, that deserves its place among the best 8x30s ever made.

 

Significantly, Swarovski has managed to make its latest range of Porro prism binoculars waterproof (the family is completed with the equally superb 7x42 and 10x40 models), a development that has eluded Nikon in its parallel EII and SE offerings. There is also the option of rubber armouring, though all models come with the now dated fold-down rubber eyecups.

 

The optical performance of the Swarovski 8x30 W is right up in the same league as the Nikon EII and SE models and is field of view identical to the SE. The Austrian glass does tend to suffer from stray light more than its Japanese rivals, and is not quite as bright as the SE. Otherwise, it offers exquisitely detailed and colour-rich images than are unlikely to disappoint.

 

The combination of prestigious optical performance, waterproofing and the option of rubber armouring probably make this the most ‘modern’ high quality 8x30 Porro available. Added to this, the legendary build quality and aftercare service offered by Swarovski make this a sensible choice for those seeking the finest in Porro prism binoculars. Its price point places it on a par with the Nikon 8x32 SE – still excellent value considering the optical performance you are getting for your money.

 

Opticron 8x32 SR GA (9/10) 132GBP

The British company Opticron makes a bewildering variety of binoculars for all budgets and I am told that they sell more binoculars in the UK than all the other manufacturers put together.

 

I am convinced that Opticron’s strangely under-marketed 8x32 SR GA model is the very finest x8 binocular they have ever made. It also can be considered a real bargain at its current selling price of less than half the cost of the previous three models.

 

The SR GA, made in Japan, uses very high quality glass and coatings and the result is an incredibly bright and sharp image, with excellent colour rendition. Its optical performance is only marginally less impressive than the three previous binoculars and its field of view of 144m at 1,000m places it between the Nikon 8x32 SE and the Nikon 8x30 EII.

 

Tests carried out by myself and others have shown this glass to be especially good at controlling stray light. It is rubber armoured, with fold-down rubber eyecups, but is not claimed to be waterproof.

 

There are persistent rumours that this model – along with the others in its range – are about to be discontinued, so you may be best to buy now if this is the binocular for you. In value for money terms you would be hard pushed to find a better deal – at any price.

 

The next four models are no longer made, with production having stopped at least 15 years ago. However, they are available on the used binocular market and still represent an excellent choice for those seeking out high quality 8x30 Porros.

 

Bausch & Lomb 8x30 Zephyr (8/10)  150 GBP

When World War II came to an end the manufacture of binoculars by the US optical giant Bausch & Lomb could be turned away from military production towards the growing market for high quality civilian binoculars. The company had made a superb 8x30 Zephyr binocular prior to the outbreak of hostilities, but after the war it remerged with coated lenses, improving light transmission.

 

The Bausch & Lomb Zephyr range is not well known outside the USA, yet can be considered of equal and occasionally superior optical quality to the best models coming off European production lines in the decades after the war. For example the 7x35 Zephyr is considered by some to be one of the very best birdwatching binoculars ever made.

 

The 8x30 Zephyr has a wide field of 150m at 1,000m and gives very bright, colour-rich images with excellent resolution. It was produced in a standard and a lighter version, allowing weight conscious users to gain an advantage.

 

It appears that the best examples to seek out are the US-made models which are stamped ‘Rochester, New York’, prior to production being transferred to Japan. US eBay is the best place to find this wonderful glass.

 

Carl Zeiss (West) 8x30 (8/10)  200GBP

In 1954 the western division of Zeiss – now a separate company from Zeiss Jena – launched its first new binocular in the form of a newly designed 8x30 with air-spaced objectives. It was a luxury model costing twice as much as the equivalent binocular from East Germany, but also offering a better image quality and a higher standard of build than the binoculars made to the east of the Berlin Wall. This Zeiss West 8x30 continued in production for a couple of decades before being phased out in favour of the Dialyt roof prism model, which had been pioneered by another German firm Hensoldt, which Zeiss eventually acquired.

 

In terms of resolution, brightness and richness of colours, this binocular still compares well with the best 8x30s ever made. In its standard form it has a wide field of 150m at 1,000m, though a B model (with rubber eyecups) was also made which gives a smaller field of 130m.

 

It is important to note that the internal lubricant of this model can become deposited on the prisms, yellowing the image and reducing contrast. Although this can be rectified through careful cleaning, it may reduce optical performance to a level that puts this binocular below some of those listed below.

 

This binocular is much harder to find on the used binocular markets than the Zeiss Jena 8x30 and still sells for a premium price. UK and German eBay are the best places to find it.

 

Kern Pizar 8x30 (8/10) 175GBP

The Swiss maker Kern is not well known to many binocular users outside this mountainous European country, but they manufactured some formidable optical instruments before being bought by Leica. After Leica acquired Kern it continued to make a rubber armoured military 8x30 of prestigious performance, with a blue Leica badge where the Kern logo had previously been located at the end of the bending bar.

 

Kern produced several 8x30 models, but the coated Pizar was the pick of the bunch. It has superb resolution and contrast and amazing low light capabilities, and is beautifully engineered. The field of view is 140m at 1,000m, a little narrower than rival models.

 

Kern binoculars are hard to find used, even by looking overseas, but are well worth seeking out for those who want optics which are built to the highest possible standards.

 

Leitz Binuxit 8x30 (8/10) 200GBP

The German optical giant Leitz was one of a number of companies that launched an 8x30 model prior to World War II to compete with the hugely successful Zeiss Jena 8x30 which had dominated the market for many years after its appearance.

 

The Binuxit model that appeared after the war in its coated form represents one of the very finest 8x30s ever made. There is a brightness to an optically clean Binuxit which is very impressive even by modern standards, and the fine resolution and accurate rendition of colour make for a very pleasing picture. The build quality of all Leitz binoculars is very reassuring, and the bridge of the Binuxit rarely provides any ‘play’.

 

Leitz stopped producing this and all its other Porro prism models with the launch of the first Trinovid range in the early 1960s. It later put the Leica badge on all of its binoculars. The Leitz Binuxit comes up for sale less frequently than any of the 8x30s from Zeiss, and presumably sold in much smaller numbers when new. German eBay is the place to find it most readily.

 

Carl Zeiss Jena 8x30 (7/10) 125GBP

This is probably the most successful binocular ever made in terms of the number of examples sold, which must run into the millions. First launched in 1920 as a centre focus (Deltrintem) and individual eyepiece focus (Deltrentis) binocular, the Carl Zeiss Jena 8x30 was in continuous production right up until the company collapsed following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991.

 

Zeiss Jena introduced optical coatings to its 8x30 models immediately after the end of the war, this technology having been pioneered by the company in 1935 but kept as a military secret for several years. In 1978 multi-coatings were was introduced, improving light transmission still further, though some people feel they also tend to wash out the colours compared to coated versions of the same glass.

 

The build quality of the Deltrintems produced in the two decades after the end of the war was superior to those of later production. These early post-war models also had a thicker focussing wheel and a few other design differences which provided good ergonomics, which for some reason were later phased out.

 

Eager to chase much-needed foreign currency, Zeiss Jena launched a Jenoptem branded version of its 8x30 in the 1980s (along with similar 7x50 and 10x50 varieties). This was available at about 30% less than the Deltrintem despite being apparently identical in every respect! A catalogue states the ‘modern production techniques’ were used to make the Jenoptem, but it remains unclear how they could be produced for less than the Deltrintem while still maintaining acceptable standards of quality control. Even retailers had difficulty explaining to customers why they should part with extra money to own what appeared to be an identical binocular with a different name.

 

The Carl Zeiss Jena 8x30 can be considered a well-performing optical workhorse rather than occupying a place in the upper echelon of 8x30s. Its resolution, contrast and colour rendition are all a notch or two down from the previous binoculars listed above. Nevertheless, with its pleasing wide field of 150m at 1,000m and relaxed viewing, this proved to be a very popular glass, especially in Europe. For a period in the 1980s it was one of the bargains in optics, since cash hungry East German executives slashed to UK price to a meagre 40GBP.

 

The Carl Zeiss Jena 8x30 – both in its Deltrintem and Jenoptem forms – is readily available on the used binocular market. There are usually a handful on eBay at any moment in time.

 

Note that a trade dispute with the western division of Zeiss meant that the name ‘aus Jena’ was used on Carl Zeiss Jena binoculars sold in the USA for most of the post-war period.

 

There exist Japanese-made versions of the 8x30 Jenoptem which appear to have been made under license in that country after Zeiss struggled to keep up with the demand for its binoculars (the same happened to the 7x50 and 10x50 models). Often wrongly described as ‘fakes’, they do nevertheless have slightly inferior optical quality to the German-made version. The easiest way to tell them apart is the look for the tell-tale groove in the plastic focussing wheel which is not present on the European-made glass.

 

CLOSING REMARKS

If you have a little over 100 GBP to spend, then this review has tried to show that there are 8x30 Porro prism binoculars of excellent optical quality available which are likely to provide a lifetime of viewing pleasure. As with all binocular buying, however, a final choice should be made only after you have tested a range of models to ensure that the final selection is comfortable to use, as well as having good optical properties. Further advice on buying binoculars is provided here.

 

Despite its popularity in the past, trends in binocular buying mean that the 8x30 Porro configuration now appears to be in danger of extinction. Several of the models discussed in this article are either no longer being made, or are marginalised in the catalogues of the manufacturers, which are now swamped by roof prism binoculars. Fashion has driven most users to choose the roof prism route, and it is becoming increasingly rare to see Porro prism binoculars in use in such places as nature reserves.

 

This article is the copyright of Brin Best and was first published March 2009. Brin Best writes about binoculars from his home in the English Yorkshire Dales. His ground-breaking book, ‘Binoculars and People’, was published in 2008.

 

Notes

1.    The comments and scores given for the binoculars listed above solely reflect the opinion of the author. I have not been paid or otherwise supported by any binocular manufacturer in the preparation of this article. Although from time to time manufacturers have supplied samples of their binoculars for review purposes, they have been provided on the understanding that an independent judgement would be made.

 

2.    The scores out of 10 given to binoculars in this review reflect their performance relative to other binoculars of the same specification. A binocular receiving a score of 10/10 is considered to be the best or equal best-performing model of its specification ever constructed. Note that all tests were carried out with instruments restored to original optical condition. This is especially significant in the case of older binoculars, where a build up of haze can diminish optical performance.

 

3.    Prices quoted are the lowest UK internet price, in pounds sterling, from a reputable dealer at the time of writing (in the case of models still made), or the average eBay selling price for a mint example (for those models no longer made).

 

4.    This article is the copyright of the author. Please do not reproduce it without permission. Requests for reproduction should be addressed to the author here.

 

5.    Correspondence related to this article is encouraged. Please get in touch with the author here.