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Published Sep 19, 2022 8:34 AM

If you’ve seen any of the Predator films, then you already know the advantages of thermal binoculars. They essentially give you Predator vision. For those who don’t know, the alien species Yautja, colloquially known as “predators,” see on the infrared spectrum. Comparatively, humans’ visible spectrum lands between infrared and ultraviolet light. Therefore, we need thermal imaging devices to get that same predator perspective. 

Infrared (IR) technology is designed to interpret the world by creating an image that utilizes variation in IR energy that is emitted by all objects. Night vision, by contrast, requires ambient light to be amplified for display. Night vision is hampered by low illumination environments and is useless when zero ambient light is available. Thermal optics are not limited by this and are truly day or night, all-weather capable. Due to their broad application, today’s thermal binoculars offer displays with peripheral information, an integrated laser rangefinder, and multiple color palettes to suit your needs.

Without inundating you with too much technological jargon, we will arm you with the necessary information needed to purchase what we consider to be the best thermal binoculars.

It’s no secret that Pulsar is an industry-leader in the thermal optic market. Its commitment to quality through premium components and superior performance is embodied by the recently released Pulsar Merger LRF XP50. Not only does this thermal device set a new benchmark in thermal handheld technology, but it also does so in the most ergonomically and aesthetically possible way.

The heart of any thermal optic is its thermal imaging sensor. The Merger LRF comes equipped with a 640×480 pixel core delivering stellar imaging sensitivity that can resolve temperature contrasts of less than 25 millikelvins. For the end user, this means you achieve incredible image resolution and target detection out to 2,000 yards. It gets better too — due to Pulsar’s commitment to high-end components, you get unrivaled edge-to-edge image clarity with the AMOLED display.

Pulsar protects its thermal sensor in an IPX7 waterproof-rated magnesium alloy housing with rubber armor. It has an integrated laser range finder that is accurate out to 1,000 yards. This thermal optic is equipped with a variable digital zoom out to 20x magnification. Connectivity is becoming a standard feature, allowing you to stream your thermal display directly to your phone through the Stream Vision 2 app. The internal interface is efficient and offers the user eight different thermal color palettes to choose from. Perhaps an undervalued aspect is a built-in sensor that assists in battery longevity. When you raise these optics to your face, the display comes out of standby mode without delay and returns to standby when you drop them away.

Despite its steep price, pulling the trigger on this device is much easier if you frequently use thermal imaging professionally or recreationally. With 10-plus hours of battery life and waterproof housing, the Pulser Merger LRF will keep you in the field until the first light.

Product Specs
  • Thermal sensor: 640×480 pixel
  • Display: AMOLED
  • Digital magnification: 2.5-20x
  • Battery life: 10 hours
  • Weight: 1.7 pounds
Why it made the cut
  • Pulsar’s commitment to innovation and premium products is well-established. The Merger LRF XP50 sets a new standard in thermal performance and device aesthetics.
PROS

Classic binocular aesthetic and ergonomics

Unparalleled edge-to-edge clarity

10-plus hours of operation

IPX7 waterproof rating

CONS

Expensive

Pulsar’s Trionyx T3 Multispectral Binoculars should raise some eyebrows. This hybrid device is an indicator of future trends. Pulsar integrated both thermal and night vision into the same platform, giving it unique versatility. By understanding the current limitations of each vision mode, Pulsar mitigates this with a composite “fusion” image. The displayed image is night vision with a thermal overlay. If you need further convincing, the U.S. military is rapidly fielding this capability now.

The Trionyx is equipped with a fixed-focus 384×288 pixel thermal sensor, giving you a detection range of 1,000 yards. Paired with an adjustable-focus night vision component and variable magnification, there is little that can hide from this device. The backside of this hybrid optic contains a premium AMOLED display, offering the operator brilliant image quality.

Pulsar houses these components in a glass-nylon composite frame that also has an IPX7 waterproof rating. The night vision is also equipped with an IR illuminator, providing an identification range of 450 yards. Other features include internal video recording and Wi-Fi connectivity, allowing you to share your experiences with family and friends. The updated device includes the USB-C for charging and data transfer. Can we just rid ourselves of the annoying micro-USB across all electronics?

One drawback to this device is the lack of a laser range finder. The six-hour battery life isn’t a negative, but worth noting when comparing it to similar products. For the price and capabilities, this platform offers incredible value.

Product Specs
  • Thermal sensor: 384×288 pixel
  • Display: AMOLED
  • Digital magnification: 2.5-10x (thermal), 3.5-14x (night vision)
  • Battery life: 6 hours
  • Weight: 1.6 pounds
Why it made the cut
  • The multispectral modes of the Pulsar Trionyx T3 Multispectral Binoculars can’t be overlooked. With Pulsar’s product reputation, price point, and features, this device is a steal.
PROS

Integrated thermal and night vision on one platform

Offers a composite image of night vision with thermal overlay

Premium-quality night vision mode

Rugged housing with IPX7 waterproof rating

CONS

No laser rangefinder

Fixed-focus thermal sensor

American Technologies Network (ATN) Corporation is an American company headquartered in Florida. ATN is an innovative industry-leader that has produced quality thermal optics for over 25 years. The Binox 4T 640 1.5-15x thermal binoculars are an example of ATN’s cutting-edge technological product development. ATN isn’t just committed to top-tier componentry — its products are loaded with exceptional features.

The Binox 4T boasts a fourth-generation adjustable focus 640×480 pixel thermal sensor. Sensor sensitivity can detect temperature variations less than 25 millikelvins, offering an incredibly refined thermal image. With a detection range of just over 1,000 yards and an identification range of 300 yards, this optic offers great acquisition.

ATN leverages its design and innovation prowess with its efficient user interface and features. One of the first things that really jumped out to me was the peripheral display information. As an Apache pilot, I love flight symbology, so the more information you can pump into my pupils the better. The display offers an e-compass heading tape across the top, roll and pitch angles on the sides, as well as a rangefinder and magnification data. Another unique display item is ATN radar. This feature provides a map overlay on your display or ATN radar app on your phone, allowing you to transfer data with fellow hunters equipped with ATN products. ATN also has a proprietary Ballistic Information Exchange (BIX) capability that allows you to eliminate holdovers by sending range data from one device to another for target engagement. Lastly, these thermal binoculars will give you 16-plus hours of continuous operation.

While not waterproof, this product is water-resistant. Some claim these are heavy, but even at 2.5 pounds, they hardly feel cumbersome even after using them for longer durations. This is due to an ergonomic design reminiscent of traditional binoculars. For those looking for a more budget-friendly alternative, the Binox 4T 384 2-8x offers the same features with a slightly smaller but capable thermal sensor.

Why it made the cut
  • Thermal sensor: 640×480 pixel
  • Display: 1280 x 720 x 2 (display type not listed)
  • Digital magnification: 1.5-15x
  • Battery life: 16-plus hours
  • Weight: 2.5 pounds
PROS

Efficient user interface

Detailed peripheral display information

Dual-core processor for dual-stream video

16-plus hours of operation

CONS

App software needs updating

Some claim it’s heavy

Things to consider before buying thermal binoculars

Thermal optics have a broad application, so as the consumer, you’ll need to assess your own needs and expectations for this purchase. For hunting, they offer an incredible capability in animal detection and identification. For law enforcement, it’s an invaluable piece of kit for surveillance. As a homeowner who likes to observe wildlife or check in on your garden at night, you might not feel the need to have the larger 640×480 sensor and higher digital magnifications. Try to pair your needs to the capabilities of the device. 

Thermal sensors

The quality and capability of any thermal optic start with the size and sensitivity of the thermal sensor. Sensor resolution is measured in pixels. Current premium sensor components will measure 640×480 or 384×288. Equally as important to a sensor’s pixel dimensions is its thermal sensitivity. Thermal sensitivity is measured in millikelvin (mK). This measurement, often referred to as Noise Equivalent Temperature Difference (NETD), determines the quality of an image a sensor can produce due to its ability to differentiate minute variations in thermal energy. A sensor that can detect temperature differences of 50 mK is good, but one that can detect less than 30 mK is excellent. Once that thermal information is received, it’s sent to the onboard processing unit which converts that data into an internal display, providing you with an image you’ll understand. 

Display

The back end of these devices — the end that receives the converted IR energy that our brains comprehend — is the display. Thermal optics have come a long way from the legacy liquid crystal display (LCD) that provided us with mediocre but serviceable imaging. Modern thermal binoculars utilize OLED and AMOLED technology. Having a premium thermal sensor is lost if you lack the onboard computer processors and cutting-edge display capabilities that maximize image quality. AMOLED provides superior brightness and resolution performance at reduced power requirements, further benefiting battery life. 

Features

Outside of image quality, many product features are nearly standardized. Thermal binoculars are generally equipped with a laser rangefinder and IR illuminator. These optics have varying levels of digital magnification for extending their detection and identification ranges. Most are equipped with the ability to internally record and stream both thermal video and pictures to your phone. Thermal vision is traditionally in a black hot or white hot scale, but manufacturers today offer devices with up to eight different color palettes. This gives you the ability to customize your image to suit your needs and comfort. ATN offers additional features that really cater to the shooting/hunting community.

FAQs about thermal binoculars

Q: Which is better, thermal or night vision? 

A: Thermal versus night vision is an interesting debate. Night vision offers a level of acuity that thermal devices can’t offer yet. Night vision is dependent on ambient light. As ambient light or illumination levels diminish, so does the level of detail in a field of view. 

Thermal optics do not require any light. They use IR energy that is emitted from all objects, day or night. The more sensitive a thermal device’s sensor is, the crisper and more detailed an image it can display. Premium components can differentiate between smaller variations in IR energy offering a more refined image. 

Both have advantages, so it generally comes down to application and environmental conditions. 

Q: Can thermal binoculars help with hunting?

A: Yes, and they are a tremendous asset in the field. Quality thermal optics can offer detection ranges of over 1,000 meters/yards. At closer ranges (200 yards or less), they offer a very precise image of your quarry, giving you better information on whether to harvest an animal or not. Many thermal binoculars have integrated laser range finders and IR illuminators, allowing you to range and illuminate targets for shooters using rifles outfitted with night vision scopes. These devices can also assist you in tracking and recovering animals, as well. 

Q: Can thermal imaging see in the dark?

A: Yes. Thermal imaging is not inhibited by the lack of ambient light. Because it uses IR energy, the time of day doesn’t matter. One consideration to think about is thermal or IR crossover. This is a phenomenon that occurs twice a day. Thermal crossover is the lack of contrast between an object and its surroundings. This can occur in the early morning and early evening as emitting IR energy becomes more uniform for a short period of time. Precipitation will also dampen the contrast of IR energy. 

Q: What is the difference between thermal and infrared?

A: Both thermal and infrared are generally used synonymously. Thermal energy occupies the infrared spectrum of light. Thermal energy wavelengths are measured in microns. The longer wavelengths are what thermal binoculars use to compose an infrared image. “Mid-IR” shorter wavelengths are used by common household items like television remotes.

Final thoughts

The Pulsar Merger LRF XP50 is the new standard bearer in thermal binoculars. The other optics listed are just as capable and offer their own specific set of features. The American-made ATN Binox 4T is loaded with features, and Pulsar’s Trionyx offers unique versatility with its multispectral design. Both ATN and Pulsar are on the leading edge of innovation, now if we could get to them to work on shoulder-mounted plasma casters

Methodology 

Thermal binoculars are technical pieces of gear — everything from the research and development side to the manufacturing is intriguing. Initially, I relied heavily on my personal knowledge and experiences as a U.S. Army Apache pilot. I contacted multiple manufacturers, reviewed countless spec sheets, and even had the privilege of touching base with a couple of engineers who work on thermal imaging devices professionally. 

For simplicity’s sake, I wanted to keep the information for potential consumers straightforward without overloading on details that were more “neat to know” rather than “need to know.” First and foremost, I sought out the most reputable brands in the industry. I then deconstructed thermal binoculars into their most important components: thermal sensors, displays, and features. Thermal binoculars are expensive, and quality optics will always come with a premium price tag. I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for and will prioritize respected manufacturers who stand behind their products.