There are a couple of things birders look for in a top end binocular– sharp image, wide field of view, true color, accurate contrast, no chromatic aberration, close and smooth focus, good depth of field. You’ll go nuts trying to discern any big differences between the top binoculars available. So what does that leave us with? You have to try the bins out in real life, feel how they fit your face and how they feel in your hands. Each of the different brands has quite a different feel, weight, and texture and ergonomics when you are using them.
When Leica sent me 2 different models–the Leica Ultravid HD 7×42 and the 10×42– I was excited to compare them to other binoculars I’ve used. I am sort of a geek, and its been almost a decade since I bought my last binocular, so I enjoyed unboxing the two Ultravids. The Leica Ultravids come in really swanky looking silver boxes. Opening the boxes up, there are the few accessories that come with the bins (neck strap, eyecups and case) and the binoculars, all snugly protected with foam.
The neck strap is lightly padded but not bulky, enough to be comfortable for long periods of birding. The case is very basic, made of a rather thin material that won’t do much to protect the bins, but on the other hand is not so bulky that it doesn’t double the size of your bins for traveling like the cases that come with some other binoculars. The rain guards fit tightly over the eyepieces, perhaps too tightly. If you really get them on snugly, its easy to pop out the eyecup assembly, which could bring on a couple of seconds of panic before you realize that they easily snap back in. However, if you just put them lightly over the eyecups, the rain guards come right off as expected.
The actual binocular (you know, the important part!) looks amazing. The black rubber armor is smooth with just a little give to it, making the binocular very comfortable to hold for long periods. I am not sure what the newest Zeiss bin’s armor feels like, but the Ultravid HD feels premium compared to the cheap rubbery plastic feeling of my Victory FL’s. The size and shape are unique among top end optics, perhaps closer in appearance to more moderately priced optics like Eagle Optics Rangers. The design is modern though, and combined with the simple red dot logo has an understated elegance that says “yeah, I’ve got rockin’ bins, but I’m ok if no one notices.” Sitting next to my Zeiss Victory FL’s that I’ve used for the past 7 years, the Leica Ultravids look like a much smaller bin. The Ultravid HD is actually 0.5 inches shorter than both the Victory FL and the Swarovski EL 8.5×42 Swarovision, which is a substantial difference when you have them in your hands.
The focusing mechanism is a bit stiffer than what I am used to with my Zeiss Victory, but is still very smooth and easy to rotate the 1-1/4 turn that it takes to go from close focus to infinity, about the same as the Victory. The focusing mechanism is a unique “metal on metal” mechanism that relies on precision fit to provide the smooth operation. What this means for everyday use is that it operates exactly the same whether you are using the Ultravid HD to scan the duck flock trying to survive the polar vortex, or birding Tikal in the hot, humid rain. With no lubricant to get gummed up or dry out, the focus knob should operate smoothly for the entire lifetime of the binocular. The diopter adjustment is located on the focusing mechanism and works similarly to most other bins, where a quick pull will pop half of the focusing mechanism out a fraction of the inch and then allow buttery smooth adjustment for your eyes.
The rounded eyecups feel more comfortable on my face than my Zeiss Victory FL’s and aren’t dainty, as I have heard the Swarovski eyecups described. They feel solid and click stiffly in and out to 4 different distances, unlikely to move accidentally. I’ve found the views very comfortable both with and without glasses.
As to the differences between the 7×42 and 10×42 models of the Ultravid HD, I prefer the massive 420 ft field of view and the amazingly crisp detail in the 7’s. I’ve always been a fan of lower magnification binoculars, moving in order from a 10×50, 8.5×44, to my current 8×42 Zeiss. While both Ultravid models I tested are fantastic, I fell in love with the incredibly clear views I was of the feather detail in birds, and the complete lack of chromatic aberration even when I looked for it. In gray cloudy Syracuse, viewing Snowy Owls sitting up on a light pole threw off all sorts of chromatic aberration on lesser bins. The lower magnification of the 7×42 also meant that I was able to pick up details in lower light than the 10×42, although both are fantastic in this regard as Leica is known for its incredibly high light transmission.
The Ultravid HD 10×42 does have some unique advantages over the 7×42. There are times when you want that extra magnification for scanning the shorebird flocks at the local mudflats. Interestingly, the 10×42 also has a smaller close focus distance of 9.5 ft vs the 10.8 feet of the 7×42 model. This makes the 10×42 great for butterflying as well as close quarter birding.
I think many people would feel concerned that a 7 power binocular isn’t sufficient. However the difference isn’t as much as you might think. Below you can see two images that I digibinned this afternoon. Both were from the exact same location, but one photo was through the 7x and the other was through the 10x. The other advantage of the 7x is a wider field of view, and brighter image, two things that will make this binocular awesome for watching warblers and sparrows forage around in dense foliage.
Ultimately, this is a binocular that I love using every day in the field. The optics are amazing, it comes in a smaller size than its competitors, and it feels comfortable to look through even after a full day of birding.
I know this is just a review of the optics, but I think it’s important to mention some of the reasons I like Leica as a company. Leica Sport Optics has been behind several extremely important conservation efforts, notably the captive breeding program for the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In addition, they have also gone out of their way to make the birding community a better place, from sponsoring young birders camps, to supporting the Focus on Diversity conference this past November in McAllen, Texas. So not only do I enjoy using the Ultravid’s, I am proud to wear them knowing what they stand for.