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Published Dec 30, 2021 8:51 AM

When it comes to optics, a good pair of compact binoculars is a great way to up your game. They’re more portable than long-distance binoculars, more usable at moderate distances than a spotting scope, and are much more publicly acceptable than a rifle-mounted optic. 

A lot of attention gets paid to the EDC gear that makes up our everyday carry, but what you keep in your go-bag or vehicle is just as important. We’re big fans of throwing a pair of binoculars in the car; the same pair of Bushnell binoculars has been riding shotgun in my trusty rusty for more than a decade. I’ve used them to spot wildlife, scout dirt bike trails, and keep an eye on roaming bird dogs. 

This list is all about putting the power of magnified optics in your hands without weighing you down. We chased down the best compact options from the best brands to keep this list short, sweet, and packed to the gills with quality equipment.

The Leupold BX-4 Pro Guide binoculars are such a strong all-around performer that naming them best overall was an easy decision. Excellent design results in a solid set of compact binoculars that outperforms many full-sized binoculars.

As the name implies, the BX-4 Pro Guide is built for hunters. That means durability is a high priority. Rubber coating on the exterior absorbs impacts, while tight seals keep moisture and dust out. Multi-coated lenses are protected against scratches, fog, and glare. At 42 millimeters, they also allow huge amounts of light in to create a bright, clear picture that most compact binoculars can’t come close to matching.

Drawbacks to the BX-4 Pro Guide are few and far between. Would we like a tether for the lens caps? Of course. These binoculars are also a bit heavy in general, but on par with other high-end options.

Product Specs
  • Magnification 10 power
  • Objective lens 42 millimeters
  • Minimum focus 7.5 feet
  • Length 5.6 inches
  • Weight 24 ounces
PROS

Excellent quality at an attainable price

Color is lifelike through the high-end glass

Sealed against water, fog, and dust

Large objective lenses offer great low-light performance

CONS

Keep track of those loose caps

Not exactly lightweight for the size

Some of your money does pay for the logo

Best Value

The Vortex Vanquish is our value pick of the group, and we were even surprised to see how far your dollar goes with this set of compact binoculars. They might not be on par with the higher-end stuff from Vortex or the other brands here, but they’re tough to beat at this price.

Waterproof binoculars with 10-power magnification aren’t usually available for this kind of money. The Vanguard is also nitrogen-purged to prevent fogging, and covered in rubber to absorb impacts. The Porro prism design in these offset tubes has its drawbacks, but it results in a lower price tag and a sharper image than many of the roof prisms found in straight tubes.

We would like to see larger objective lenses than the 26-millimeter lenses on the Vanguard. A larger lens would let in more light and be more usable in low-light situations.

Product Specs
  • Magnification 10 power
  • Objective lens 26 millimeters
  • Minimum focus 7.6 feet
  • Length 4.7 inches
  • Weight 13 ounces
PROS

Sealed against moisture and dust

Surprisingly good optical clarity given the price

Large eye box is great for use with glasses

Aggressive texture provides lots of grip

CONS

Porro prism is less durable than a roof prism

Focus dial is hard to turn with gloves

Less compact than the alternatives

Editor’s Choice

If you ever wonder what it’s like to be a trophy hunter on a private safari, the Swarovski CL Companion can give you a small taste of that lifestyle. These premium binoculars boast top-of-the-line build quality and materials that are hard to find elsewhere.

These aren’t just eye jewelry for the one percent, though. Swarovski optics are famous for their toughness. These binoculars feature some of the best waterproofing and impact protection in the business, let alone in the compact binocular segment. The 30-millimeter glass lets in large amounts of light and transmits 90 percent of it to your eyes, resulting in a bright, clear picture.

About the only thing holding us back from picking up a pair ourselves is the price. Paying more than $1,000 for an optic isn’t uncommon, but it will take a lot of use to justify spending that much on compact binoculars.

Product Specs
  • Magnification 10 power
  • Objective lens 30 millimeters
  • Minimum focus 9.8 feet
  • Length 5 inches
  • Weight 18 ounces
PROS

Bright picture even in low light

Incredibly durable and weather-resistant

Overbuilt without being overweight

Waterproof to 13 feet

CONS

Lots of good competition for less money

Can you justify paying $1,400 for compact binoculars?

Lifetime warranty is only good in North America

Best Variable Power

Variable-power optics like the Nikon Sportstar are gaining popularity, partly due to the success of low-power variable rifle optics. Having multiple magnification settings at your fingertips can be incredibly useful and save money compared to buying multiple optics.

The Sportstar includes magnification settings of eight, 12, 16, and 24 power. The top three exceed everything else on this list. Nikon designed these binoculars for sporting events and birdwatching, but we see huge potential for them as a spotting tool at the range. A 24-power optic is plenty for checking targets at the distances most people shoot.

Keep in mind that any magnification above 10 power or so is too shaky to use freehand. A lot of the criticism of these binoculars comes from people who used the higher settings without support. The small objective lenses will also struggle in low-light situations, so these are best suited to daylight hours.

Product Specs
  • Magnification 8-24 power
  • Objective lens 25 millimeters
  • Minimum focus 13.1 feet
  • Length 4.8 inches
  • Weight 11 ounces
PROS

Variable power functions like four binoculars in one

Most powerful magnification here

One of the smallest options here

Simple and easy to operate

CONS

Small lenses restrict light transmission

Not as robust as the other binoculars here

Only the lowest magnification setting is usable without a rest

Best Waterproof Compact Binoculars

If waterproofing is a priority for you, the Bushnell Prime series of compact binoculars is a great way to get what you need without paying for features you aren’t as concerned about. This affordable workhorse can slog through the underbrush all morning and be ready for action when the sun comes up.

For the Bushnell Prime, durability starts with aluminum tubes that handle bumps and scrapes better than plastic without adding unnecessary weight. We’re also excited to see big 42-millimeter lenses on something this affordable. The glass is multi-coated to protect against moisture, fogging, and scratches. If you touch the glass (which you shouldn’t), they’re also coated with an oil-deterring layer.

One downside of aluminum construction is weight, and this is one of the heavier options on our list. They’re still compact at just 5.2 inches long, though, so don’t let a few ounces deter you.

Product Specs
  • Magnification 10 power
  • Objective lens 42 millimeters
  • Minimum focus 12 feet
  • Length 5.2 inches
  • Weight 23 ounces
PROS

Oversized lenses allow excellent light transmission

Multi-coating protects glass against the elements

Waterproof (IPX7) and ready to work

Priced very competitively given the capabilities

CONS

Be realistic about image quality at this price

Relatively no-frills compared to many of the binoculars here

Center hinge is just waiting to pinch something

Best Premium Compact Binoculars

Photographers will immediately recognize Zeiss and have sky-high expectations for the Conquest HD compact binoculars. They’re right to do so––Zeiss is one of the best in the business when it comes to excellent camera lenses and that know-how translates to one hell of a pair of binoculars.

These binoculars are all about the glass. Glass quality can be hard to quantify, but the bottom line is that you’ll get edge-to-edge clarity that’s hard to beat. Colors will appear lifelike and lines will be sharp. Multiple protective coatings increase durability and ensure that you get excellent picture quality every time you put these binoculars to your eyes.

You’ll have to appreciate this level of craftsmanship to justify the four-figure price tag, but we’re sure you won’t be disappointed if this is your kind of thing.

Product Specs
  • Magnification 10 power
  • Objective lens 42 millimeters
  • Minimum focus 8.2 feet
  • Length 6.5 inches
  • Weight 25 ounces
PROS

Top-shelf color, clarity, and overall image quality

High-end coatings protect against the elements

Enjoy a bright picture in low-light settings

Backed by Zeiss’ five-year, no-fault guarantee

CONS

Premium products demand premium prices

Heavy-duty construction is heavy

Lens covers don’t fit the price tag

Why you should trust us

We’ve spent a lot of time reviewing optics. We know what works and what doesn’t, but we also appreciate the value of your money and keep a close eye on value. That approach translates to solid product recommendations, whether we’re searching for zoom binoculars that can do it all or dedicated hunting binoculars you can count on in the field. In addition to years of experience in the military and the great outdoors, we back up every single gear guide with research into the nitty-gritty so you can learn everything you need to know in one place. Why buy compact binoculars in the first place? What do all these numbers mean? What the hell is a diopter? We’re glad you asked.

Types of compact binoculars

Binoculars are built for a range of uses, and the same goes for compact binoculars. Before you pull the trigger on your next pair, make sure the positive reviews you see online are applicable to how you plan on using a set of binoculars. Allow us to hit the high points so you can make an educated decision.

Sporting

Lots of people like to bring binoculars to sporting events and concerts. It can be nice to have a magnified view of the action, especially when you’re in a large stadium that makes a massive screen look like a thumbnail. They’re also popular for checking in on a birdfeeder from a nearby window. These compact binoculars prioritize lightness and affordability.

Because sporting binoculars are used in very controlled environments, they don’t need to be particularly durable. Manufacturers reduce costs by eliminating protection against water, dust, and extreme temperatures. We wouldn’t recommend these binoculars unless you have no plans to use them in austere environments.

Birdwatching

Birdwatching is serious business. Differentiating between similar species from a distance requires realistic colors and crisp lines. In fact, some of the best resources for researching binoculars can be found on sites dedicated to birdwatching.

The binoculars built for birders are generally high-quality items that provide excellent views and can be adjusted to a wide range of eyes, with or without glasses. They’re relatively durable and feel right at home in the forest or sightseeing in a new city. They also make a great entry point for people looking for their first pair of quality binoculars because of their balance between price and features.

Hunting

Binoculars intended for hunting are held to a higher standard than most. That’s because hunters encounter severe weather, harsh terrain, and limits on the amount of gear they can carry. A clear view can also spot the difference between a trophy animal and an immature buck that needs a year or two to grow.

Hunting binoculars are also great for tactical use. Lenses are built from high-quality glass and receive several coatings to protect against fog, glare, and scratches. The air inside hunting binoculars is typically purged with nitrogen to prevent internal fogging. Rubber seals keep out water and dust that can ruin a pair of binoculars. Durable rubber exteriors provide improved grip and protect against impacts.

Key features of compact binoculars 

Magnification

Naturally, most shoppers’ first consideration is magnification. This determines how much larger an image appears, and how far you’ll be able to accurately see into the distance. Most binoculars fall into the six- to 10-power range. That’s more than many rifle scopes and less than a spotting scope.

More magnification isn’t always better, though. Increasing the power of your binoculars may lead to a restricted field of view, added weight, and a higher price tag. Using a powerful set of binoculars freehand can also be challenging because it’s difficult to hold them steady. Try to use a tripod or some kind of brace for anything greater than eight-power magnification.

Prism Style

When an objective lens magnifies an image, it also flips it upside down. Magnified optics use different methods to correct this, and the binoculars on this list feature either a Porro or roof prism to deliver a usable image to your eyes.

Porro prisms are easy to spot because they result in objective lenses that are offset from the eyecups. This style of prism transfers the image horizontally during the correction process. It’s relatively inexpensive but is considered less durable than a roof prism. Porro prisms also require more space, resulting in a less compact overall package.

Roof prisms maintain a straight line from the objective lens to the eye, creating a slimmer tube and reduced opportunity for damage in the case of an impact. This newer style is popular because of its ease of waterproofing and performance at higher magnification, but image quality can sometimes suffer.  

Diopter adjustment 

If you’ve found that binoculars never seem to look right to you, it’s possible that your eyes need individual attention. Diopters solve this problem by allowing each eyepiece on a pair of binoculars to be focused individually. 

To take advantage of a diopter (usually found on the right side), cover the right side of your binoculars and aim them at something that requires crisp focus, like a sign with text. Set the focus using the focus knob. Then cover the left side and adjust the diopter to focus the right eyepiece. The folks over at birdwatching.com have a great breakdown for more information.  

Weather protection

We’re big fans of being prepared for as many challenges as possible, so weather protection is key for any kind of optic we allow onto one of our gear lists. Binoculars achieve this in two ways. 

Rubber seals and O-rings create an air-tight assembly that’s impervious to water and dust. This also allows manufacturers to purge the air from binoculars and replace it with nitrogen gas that’s more stable and prevents internal fogging.

Coatings can also be applied to glass surfaces to prevent fogging. Other coatings protect against scratches and reduce the amount of glare that’s created by light reflecting off the objective lens. Many manufacturers stack several coatings on their glass.

Benefits of compact binoculars 

Situational awareness

Knowing what’s going on around you is key, and good situational awareness isn’t limited by your eyesight. Binoculars can extend your range of vision and advanced techniques can help you do things like see through dense vegetation.

Having a pair of compact binoculars in your vehicle or pack can make a huge difference in the wild. Being able to spot a trail, waypoint, game animal, or another member of your group from a distance can save you hours and miles. That’s a big improvement in terms of convenience and can get you out of serious trouble from time to time. 

Portability

Binoculars are great, and we’re huge proponents of owning a spotting scope that can make specs on the horizon look like they’re within arm’s reach. The trouble with both is that they’re fairly heavy and take up a lot of room. That might be fine in a vehicle or day pack, but longer journeys on foot call for something lighter. Compact binoculars solve the problem by saving space and weight in your pack.

The downside is outright power. The compact binoculars on this list max out at 10-power magnification, which is certainly serviceable but nowhere near the 80-power magnification of our favorite spotting scopes.

Ease of use

One underrated aspect of compact binoculars is their ease of use. The simple controls are easy to master while offering enough flexibility to match your eyes. They don’t require a tripod or rest and are easy to pass from one person to another to share the view.

If you’re a savvy outdoor enthusiast who can read a BDC reticle and operate any optic you lay your hands on, that’s great. You might not be able to say as much for the people around you, though. It’s nice to be able to hand off your binoculars to friends and family without needing to give them a crash course on how to use them.

Pricing considerations for compact binoculars

Budget

Shop around (or let us do the leg work for you), and you can get a screaming deal on quality binoculars. We found the Vortex Vanquish for 25 percent off, which put it just under the $100 mark.

Most of the time, though, you get what you pay for. Entry-level binoculars can get the job done, but they’re not necessarily good at it. Expect your view to be less sharp and with less realistic colors than you’d get from higher-end binoculars. Waterproofing and fog protection won’t be great, either. Budget binoculars are best suited to watching sporting events and keeping an eye on the bird feeder in your yard.

Mid-range

There are plenty of great compact binoculars in the $100 to $500 range, and a few of them made our list. This kind of money will get you into reputable brands like Leupold, Bushnell, and Nikon. For most people, this is the happy middle ground we recommend.

These binoculars offer great optical clarity, true-to-life colors, and plenty of adjustability. These attributes are hard to quantify, but they make a huge difference in any optic. Binoculars in this price range are also tough enough to knock around on the trail or in the deer stand without worrying about damaging them. Expect quality waterproof ratings and coated lenses that resist glare and scratching.

Premium

Premium compact binoculars start around $500, but the price goes way, way up from there. You don’t have to search very hard to find options that cost well over $2,000. Some of these binoculars come from high-end hunting optic brands like Swarovski. They’re the ultimate choice for big-budget hunting expeditions.

Some of the binoculars in this category are made by the same companies that produce top-shelf camera lenses. We included a pair of Zeiss binoculars, and Leica makes their own version. These binoculars might not be built for rugged outdoor use like Swarovski optics, but the optical quality is hard to beat. For crystal-clear viewing, they’re your best bet.

How we chose our top pick

There are a lot of binocular manufacturers out there, and some are better than others. Cheap optics can work in some circumstances, but we prefer gear that can take care of you for years, if not a lifetime. We focused on established brands with hefty track records of success when we set out to build this gear guide. You’ll see premium brands like Leupold and Swarovski alongside usual suspects like Bushnell. All our picks earned our vote of confidence and are welcome in our packs anytime.

FAQs on compact binoculars

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q. What do the numbers on binoculars mean?

A: Binoculars are numbered based on magnification power and size of the objective lens. A pair marked 8×26 would make the image you see appear eight times larger than it is and use a lens that’s 26 millimeters in diameter.

Q. Why is it hard to see through my binoculars?

A: Binoculars need to be adjusted to your eyes to work properly. Set the eyecups directly in front of each eye, find proper eye relief (distance between the binoculars and your eyes), and focus based on viewing distance.

Q. Can I use binoculars with glasses?

A: Absolutely! Adjustable eyecups make it possible to tweak binoculars to match your eyes. Some binoculars are better at this than others, and Best Binocular Reviews has a great article on how to make your binoculars and glasses work together.

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Scott Murdock is a Task & Purpose commerce writer and Marine Corps veteran. He’s selflessly committed himself to experiencing the best gear, gadgets, stories, and alcoholic beverages in the service of you, the reader.
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