Whether for bird-watching, whale-watching, hunting, or sporting events, a good pair of binoculars is essential to bring you closer to the action. Optics quality can vary considerably, but some models provide surprisingly good clarity for a low price. Cheapism.com identified high-performing binoculars under $100 for a variety of activities. Our top picks include both full-size and compact binoculars. We also homed in on some of the best binoculars for kids, a couple of monoculars, and a pair of cheap opera glasses.
Binocular Brands.Most binocular manufacturers offer products at a variety of price points. Popular brands in the Cheapism range include Bushnell, Tasco, Barska, Celestron, Simmons, Vortex, and Olympus, which also sell more expensive binoculars. Expect to pay a premium for binoculars from Zeiss, Nikon, Leupold, Leica, and Canon, which often cost hundreds of dollars; some models run well over $1,000.
Binocular Magnification and Objective Lens.The numbers typically included in binocular model names refer to the magnification and the size of the objective lens (the lens at the front, farthest from the eye), measured in millimeters. For example, 10x50 binoculars have a magnification of 10x and an objective lens diameter of 50 mm.
Magnification refers to how much larger a distant object will appear, or how much closer it will seem to you. With 10x magnification, objects appear 10 times closer than they actually are (so an object 200 feet away appears as if it's 20 feet away). For most outdoor activities, such as bird-watching or sightseeing, 7x or 8x is appropriate. Higher magnifications can be useful for hunting, or seeing precisely where a target was hit at a shooting range. But the higher the magnification, the smaller the field of view (more on that below) and the more difficult it is to hold the binoculars steady. For activities such as opera or theater, a lower magnification, such as 3x or 4x, is often preferable.
Binoculars with higher magnifications also require more light to display a sharp, clear image. The size of the objective lens determines how much light is collected. The greater the diameter of the lens, the more light comes in, and the brighter the image appears. This makes large objective lenses useful for spotting faint celestial objects while stargazing, for example, and in other low-light situations. But if you want compact binoculars that are small and light enough to stuff in a pocket or bag and hold for long periods, look for objective lenses of 28 mm or less. Most of the models on our list come in several configurations with different magnifications and objective lens diameters, albeit at different prices.
Pricey vs. Cheap Binoculars.In the Cheapism price range, it isn't too difficult to find binoculars suitable for general use. But if the goal is superior light transmission for use in the dark or for seeing sharp, high-contrast images during daylight hours, budget binoculars will disappoint. High-end binoculars feature high-quality optics as well as better overall build quality, and may include extra features such as image stabilization or a built-in rangefinder. The cheapest binoculars typically have a center knob for focus adjustment, while pricier models have diopter adjustment for fine-tuning the strength of the right and left ocular lens separately, to compensate for the strength or weakness of each eye. At the very top of the category, where prices soar into the high triple digits and beyond, superior optics are the norm, along with comfort features for the eyes, rangefinding up to 1,900 yards, tripod compatibility, and more.
Binoculars vs. Monoculars.In addition to our picks for best cheap binoculars, we reviewed two good monoculars under $50. The choice between binoculars (two lenses) and monoculars (one lens) depends largely on personal preference as well as the intended use. Binoculars generally are more comfortable to hold and use over longer periods and produce less eye fatigue. They are well suited for sitting in a blind, say, waiting for a deer to come by. There also are many more models at various price points to choose among. Monoculars are compact and more likely to fit in a pocket, and a good choice when trying to catch an image for a few seconds or while moving. They are arguably a better value, as well: According to the hunting site Reloader Addict, the optics on a monocular are generally higher quality than those on a pair of binoculars selling for the same price.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Binoculars Reviews: What We Considered
Most binoculars reviews and roundups of the best binoculars focus on expensive image-enhancing instruments. When searching for the best binoculars in our Cheapism price range, we relied primarily on the experiences of users who have posted reviews on mainstream retail sites such as Amazon, B&H, Cabela's, Dick's Sporting Goods, Best Buy, and Walmart. We also sorted through expert commentary on specialty retail and news sites like Optics Planet, REI, Reloader Addict, and Space.com.
Image clarity with the models on our list is somewhat hit and miss. Some deliver sharp and clear images, but others fall a tad short. Intermittent reports about shakiness at far distances and fuzziness, especially in low light conditions, dog all the models we researched. And yet, the many expert and user reviews we read say the best inexpensive binoculars hold their own for everyday and amateur use, providing a generally clear image, ease of handling and focusing, and enough adjustability in the focus to work with the user's eyesight.
Prism.Binoculars contain a prism that turns the image right-side up as it comes through the lenses. There are two types: porro prisms and roof prisms. Porro prisms are bent so the front and rear lenses are offset from the eye pieces, which enables a wider field of view and greater depth perception. Binoculars with roof prisms have a straight ocular path between the front and rear lenses, which makes the binoculars less bulky and potentially able to withstand more wear and tear. Binoculars with roof prisms are more difficult to adjust for the spacing between your eyes but much more compact. Consumers who don't mind using a larger pair of binoculars can generally get higher quality for the same price by opting for a porro prism over a roof model.
Two levels of quality further distinguish binocular prisms. Most lower-end binoculars sport BK7 prisms, which square off a bit at the edges, yielding some distortion. BAK4 binocular prisms offer better quality viewing -- they're more rounded, which gives better edge-to-edge clarity, and are made with higher-quality optical glass. In general, BAK4 prisms are more expensive, but several of our top picks are made with BAK4 prism glass.
Field of View.The field of view determines how much surface area the user sees in the distance. It's listed as the number of feet around a center point that is visible at 1,000 yards. For example, with a 300-foot field of view, a hunter looking for deer 1,000 yards away can search an area 300 feet wide without panning the binoculars.
Again, this is where the intended use should help guide the purchase decision. Users have a wider field of view with lower magnification than with higher magnification. Sports enthusiasts may prioritize a wide field of view for following fast action over ultra-sharp detail and a closer look at the players. For birders, a wide field of view can make it easier to find and track birds in flight.