Why You Should’t Buy Another Pair of Cheap Binoculars

You do not need to spend a lot of money on binoculars, but you may spend more money in the long run if you continue to buy cheap binoculars. In the early part of my career as a wildlife biologist, I spent enough money replacing cheap binoculars that I could have had a decent pair of binoculars, but I was still using cheap binoculars.

If you only plan to use cheap binoculars to watch birds at the feeder from your kitchen table or back porch, you may be able to use them for many years. But, if you plan to take your binoculars outdoors or if you ever “throw” them into your back pack, you might as well buy a lottery ticket, because you will soon be the owner of a one-eyed pair of binoculars which you can give to your one-eyed friend.

My Recommendation for Binoculars less than $250

As a wildlife biologist, I used a wide variety of binoculars ranging from cheap and useless to extremely good quality binoculars. When I left that job, I had to buy a pair of binoculars and a spotting scope for my personal use. What did I buy? I bought Vortex Diamondback (10×42) Read Vortex Diamondback Binoculars Review. (Also if interested read Selecting a Spotting Scope.

For those that haven’t read the other posts, when I bought the Vortex Diamondback binoculars, I left home with the intention of buying another pair of Nikon Monarch Binoculars. I have used them at work (Nikon Monarch 3) for many years, so we have long considered the Monarchs to be a benchmark for a very good, but affordable pair of binoculars. But after testing the Vortex Diamondbacks, I bought them instead.

Most of us live on a budget, but we all want the best binoculars we can buy without causing us to have to do without something else. It doesn’t make sense to buy very expensive binoculars if you will have to hide from the landlord for the next two months or if your better half thinks you’re stealing food from the mouths of your own babies.
So now, when friends or family ask my advice about buying binoculars, I recommend several models of Vortex Diamondback binoculars.

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Six Vortex Diamondback Binoculars <$250

Magnification Field of View Weight Eye Relief Relative Rating
& Objective Ft-m @1000 yd-m (oz – g) (mm) Brightness 5.0 scale
      8 x 28      360 – 120  14 – 397     19.3    12.3     4.5
     10 x 28      300 – 100  14 – 397     16.0     7.8     5.0
      8 x 42      420 – 140 25.2- 714     18.0    27.6     4.6
     10 x 42      345 – 115 24.4- 692     16.0    17.6     4.9
     8.5 x 50      283 – 94.3  31 – 879     21.5    34.6     5.0
     10 x 50      283 – 94.3  31 – 879     19.0    25.0     4.6

Since I spent less than $250 on my last pair of binoculars, some may think I still buy cheap binoculars. But with the image quality I want, a “No Questions Asked Transferable Warranty and nothing extra I don’t need, I have binoculars that will do what I want and if they ever fog or get knocked out of alignment, Vortex will fix them. Plus, I had money left over to buy a spotting scope and tripod. As I write this, I have used my Vortex Diamondbacks for three years. I am just a hard on binoculars as I ever was and except for some dirt, they are just as good as the day I bought them.

Why Choose Vortex Diamondback Binoculars?

  • VIP Warranty
  • Designed for large field-of-view
  • Enhanced fully multi-coated optics
  • Phase-corrected prisms
  • Waterproof and fogproof
  • Soft tapered eyecups
  • Rugged rubber armor

Vortex VIP Warranty

  • Unlimited, unconditional lifetime warranty
  • Fully transferable
  • No warranty card needed
  • No receipt needed

Recommended Binoculars Less than $400

Each person has to choose which balance of magnification and objective lens size is best for their purposes.  Most people, but especially binocular novices seem to like high magnification, but high magnification is hard to hold steady without a tripod. We also like wide fields of view and the light gathering ability that comes with large objective lenses, but large means heavy. Rookie binocular users usually need wide fields of view to help find and keeps targets in view, especially if they are fast moving targets like birds. It can also be a challenge to follow the action of large animals and sporting events. With experience, the binocular user learns to quickly find and follow the target so larger magnification and/or smaller objectives can be used. Smaller objectives mean lighter weight and less cost.

You may have noticed that three sizes of binoculars are missing from the table of Vortex Binoculars above. I left out the Vortex Diamondback 10 x 32 and the 8 x 32 binoculars. They have been designed in such a way to maximize the field of view, but at the expense of decreasing the eye relief distance. Personally, I think anyone that wears glasses will not be happy with an eye relief distance of less than 15 mm (as well as many that do not wear glasses), so I do not automatically recommend these sizes for everyone. And it appears that the 12X50 option is no longer available.

What Do I know About Binoculars?

At one point in my life, I probably used binoculars as much as anyone on this planet. I have literally peered through binoculars from sun-rise to sun-set for weeks at a time as I counted raptors at migration sites. I have also used binoculars and spotting scopes for more than 5,000 days for a wide variety of bird and wildlife surveys.

When I used binoculars the most, I used very cheap binoculars, because as a starving college student that was all I could afford. And I was a starving college student for many years. In 1977, I bought my first pair of binoculars for $19.99 (at K-mart), which is equivalent to $102 in 2023. To help put the cost in perspective, minimum wage in 1977 was $2.30.

Many times, folks with very nice, but very expensive Swarovski or Zeiss binoculars were amazed that I could identify raptors very far away with my cheapo binos that they could not.  Of course, it was much easier for me to identify the same bird, at the same distance, in the same light with their quality optics, because the images were so much sharper and brighter. I just had more experience than they did and needed to see less detail to determine a hawk or falcon’s species and age. You know the old saying… everything is easier after you do it a thousand times.

Many Pairs of Cheap Binoculars – Don’t Do What I Did

But notice I said I had many pairs of cheap binoculars. The one upside of cheap binoculars is the cost, but one of the many down sides of cheap binoculars is they can’t take any abuse.  Sooner or later you will drop or bang them and knock them out of alignment (collimation), which means each eye looks in a slightly different direction, so the binoculars  have double vision. After that, you basically can only use one eye at a time.  I have a friend with one eye that has more binoculars than he knows what to do with and not all of his binoculars came from me.

After weeks of the frustration, eye strain and headaches trying to use one-eyed binoculars, even a starving student eventually has to buy a new pair of binoculars. Within a couple of years, I spent almost $100 on binoculars (over $500 in today’s money). I spent enough money to have a decent pair of binoculars, but was still using cheap binoculars. This is a good example that demonstrates the difference between price and cost. Some cheap binoculars even have limited warranties, but shipping costs are about equal to the cost of a new pair of binoculars and who wants to wait two or three months for a cheap pair of binoculars to be repaired?

Now that I am no longer a kid living from paycheck to paycheck, I can afford better binoculars.  I have used many different binoculars over the years and I can appreciate the quality of the best binoculars. I have to admit, it was nerve racking when I checked out binoculars at work that cost more than a $1,000 to use for wildlife surveys. I was always paranoid I would break them, even though they had lifetime warranties.

Want to upgrade Binoculars? These are my recommendations for less than $1000

Comments, Opinions, Questions?