I'm a Leica fan
It's customary to declare an interest before you begin a review of a product, and I'll say right from the outset I'm a big fan of Leica binoculars. Prior to buying the Ultravids this year I'd been using a pair of Leica Trinovid 8×42 BAs since 1991, and though the exteriors showed the wear picked up from 14 years of regular birding all over the world they were still optically excellent and didn't have a speck of dirt inside the barrels. In fact I would still happily be using them today if I hadn't left them hanging on the back of a washroom door in Rio de Janeiro airport….
When I bought the Trinovids all those years ago choosing what to buy was much simpler than it is now: if you wanted the best binoculars (and I did), then you would be looking at roof-prism models from either Leica or from Zeiss. There were no Swarovski ELs, Nikon binoculars were not in the same league then, Canon hadn't launched their image-stabilised models, and no serious birder that I knew was looking at binoculars from the US.
I preferred the Leica Trinovids over the Zeiss Dialytes because I thought that the colours were more accurate (I find Zeiss seem to have a slight bluish cast) and didn't like the way Zeiss binoculars caused "barrelling" when panning along a horizon. The Leicas were heavy but they were rugged, felt good in the hand, and were excellent in low light.
I have never regretted the decision to buy them, but, almost fifteen years later, how would I want to spend my money now?
Comparing bins by Leica, Swarovski, Zeiss and Nikon
I'm sure like many would-be buyers my first action was to check reviews on the internet. Though the Ultravids had been on the market for less than a year they were receiving rave reviews (for ergonomics, weight, contrast, light-gathering). There was a note of caution expressed by one user about excessive play in the focussing-wheel, but on the whole what I read enforced my own pro-Leica prejudices nicely.
However, reading a review is one thing – actually holding and testing a pair of binoculars is what counts. My local optics shop stocks a wide range of top quality binoculars and over the course of an hour I tried the Leica Ultravid 10x42s and 8x42s, Leica Trinovid 8×42 BNs, the Swarovski 8.5×42 and 10×42 ELs, the Zeiss 10x42FLs, and the Nikon 8x32HGs. At the end of that hour I was down to the Leica Ultravid models and the Nikon: the Swarovskis were optically magnificent but I didn't like the design particularly – they felt a little bulky and a little unbalanced – and the Zeiss were similarly optically excellent but still caused "barrelling" and a bluish cast.
Leica Ultravids vs Nikon 8x32HGs deathmatch
To be truthful as soon as I had picked up the Leica's they were the ones I wanted – for a relatively small binocular they felt reassuringly solid, were considerably lighter than my old Trinovids (890g against 790g for the 8x42s or 760g for the 10x42s), and sat perfectly in my hands. Additionally they came with an extremely comfortable, broad neoprene neck-strap (something all manufacturers should be providing in my opinion), a well-padded "soft" case, and I appreciated the fact – as a spectacles-wearer – that the the eye-cups are now made of a hard durable plastic and are twisted up or down rather than "peeled-down" like the long-since degraded rubber eye-cups of my old Trinovids.
Optically the Leicas were fabulous: pin-sharp and very bright indeed. Colours looked extremely life-like and panning up, down, or across caused no deviations in perspective whatsoever. I couldn't fault them…
As I mentioned, I was also thinking hard about the Nikon 8x32HGs. Not only are they a fair bit cheaper than the Leicas (how much will depend on exchange-rates and your haggling abilities of course), but they were perhaps a touch sharper. Colours were just as bright and though a little heavy felt good to hold. It was a difficult choice – there's really very little difference in quality these days amongst top-of-the-range products like these – but I thought I could see a little "barrelling" when I panned up the side of a nearby building (as a test analogous to following a woodpecker up a tree for example) and the Nikons didn't make me feel as "comfortable".
It's an entirely subjective factor – the 8x32HGs are as probably as good a performer as the Ultravids – but binoculars are bought for the long-term and I personally feel that the "feel-good" factor shouldn't be discounted. Birding is very much about emotion and concentration, and, from experience, going into the field with a product that doesn't feel just right is actually quite distracting.
8×42 or 10×42?
So, I wanted one of the two Leica models.The choice of whether to get an 8×42 binocular or a 10×42 will depend very much on a potential user's personal preferences. I have used 8x for most of my birding life now and don't miss the extra magnification. I tend to be birding far more in situations that require close-focussing – forests and scrub – than scanning distant horizons for raptors or seabirds. 8x binoculars are also better at gathering low-light than 10x, which is a factor to consider if you're going to be birding at dusk or in closed over habitats which can be considerably darker than open areas on the same day – though the differences between same-brand models are not so marked as they once were with the advent of ever-better lens coatings and glass manufacture.
As well as birds I like to look at insects and flowers. One area where the Trinovids did have a problem was close-focussing. I found I was often walking backwards to get an object into focus, but the Ultravids focus probably a metre closer than the Trinovids and are much more on a par with the other brands I tried. Leica have obviously worked hard to correct this problem and they've done a great job.
Perfectly balanced, beautifully designed – and performing exceptionally
In fact now that I've had a chance to use the Ultravid BRs over a couple of months it's apparent just how much better they really are than my old Trinovid BAs. They feel perfectly balanced and are beautifully designed. Optically they are without doubt the best binoculars I've ever used – clear, sharp, and with no fringing at all. Thanks to the use of lightweight materials like magnesium for the housing and titanium for the central hinge shaft I no longer feel like I'm carrying a boulder around my neck after a day in the field, and the neck-strap is as comfortable as expected.
I've used them on five continents already, at high-altitude, in strong sunlight and at dusk, in light rain and strong winds, and they have performed exceptionally well every time. They don't fog-up, they don't let in dust and – as the manufacturers booklet suggests – you can clean them by running them under a tap! I have every confidence that I could still be happily using them in fifteen years time – providing I'm careful about where I hang them up when I'm in a hurry of course…
Yes, they're expensive, almost luxury, items but they are a superb tool and I always genuinely look forward to getting into the field and using them – which when all things are considered is perhaps the highest recommendation of all…
Buy the Leica Ultravid BR 8×42 from Amazon (only US here; UK site not selling just now)