Our binocular review takes a hard look at a number of waterproof binoculars specifically suited to the rigors of the marine environment. A marine binocular is an expensive but essential piece of marine safety gear. Boatmen on all vessels should keep a pair close at hand whenever they are on the helm. Being able to clearly make out and classify anything that comes within range of your boat be it a ship, raft, a piece of flotsam or jetsam, or simply a nearby shoreline makes for a safe passage and peace of mind.
Experience has shown that binoculars with a maximum magnification of 7x power are best suited for the rough and tumble motion sometimes found aboard a boat at sea. When coupled with a large 50-millimeter front lens this combination has proven to be the ideal setup for viewing objects at a distance aboard a boat especially in low light conditions. That’s why our binocular review is very specific in coverage. A good pair of 7 x 50 binoculars will serve well to aid the navigator in identifying landmarks, markers, and hazards as well as provide stellar service to bird chasing fishermen. We will help you know what to look for when making a marine binocular purchase.
Boaters need and use binoculars for many reasons, the most important of which involves the safe operation of your boat. Mariners should use them to read and confirm the numbers on a navigation marker when needed or to identify navigation lights on a ship or boat at night. Fishermen use binoculars to scan the horizon for breaking fish or birds diving on bait pushed upby predators lurking below.
First, let’s talk price, what is out there and how much will it cost you. Marine binoculars range in price from about $100 to over $1000, depending on features, construction quality, lens materials, and water-resistance capabilities.
Lens Size and Magnification
There are two numbers that help identify a couple of important binocular characteristics. The first number is the magnification factor provided by the binocular. The second is the measurement in millimeters of the objective lens, the large opening at the front. The most popular marine binoculars will be rated 7 x 50, this means the magnification is seven times what you would see with the naked eye and the objective or front lens is 50 millimeters in diameter.
The higher the magnification power of binoculars, the more difficult it is to continue to get a good clear image. Odd, but true. A magnification of seven times should be more than adequate for most situations and is considered the maximum magnification usable on a small boat.
Next up is waterproof construction. Binoculars that are not waterproof will trap moisture, and the lens may become fogged, which would impede your view. Obviously this is not what you want in a quality marine binocular. Waterproof construction is a must. Most marine binoculars are indeed waterproof, but double-check the specifications to be safe. The best binocular will have the lens cavities filled with an inert gas like nitrogen as an aid to prevent water intrusion.
Also consider buying a binocular float strap, which will prevent the binocular from sinking if they fall overboard. These straps are usually a bright color to make it easier to find your wet binoculars. Top brands supply these as standard equipment.
Eye Relief—More is Better
This one is very important if you wear eyeglasses: Eye relief, measured in millimeters, is the maximum distance your eye can be from the eyepiece and still see the full field of view. Most marine binoculars have an eye relief from about 18 to 27 millimeters. A higher number is better for eyeglass wearers.
Focus and Light
The amount of light a particular binocular will allow through the lens makes a difference in the quality of the image you will be viewing. Lower-priced models will let in about 75 percent of the light to pass to your eyes, while that percentage is more than 90 with higher-quality models.
Field of view is the width of the image you see at a distance of 1,000 yards. A marine binocular with a field of view specification of, let’s say, 300 feet will allow you to see an image that is 300 feet wide at a range of 1,000 yards. Most 7 x 50 marine binoculars will have a field of view between 350 and 400 feet at a range of 1000 yards.
Ease of focusing must be considered before purchasing a set of marine binos. With some binoculars, each lens is focused individually. This can be very good if your vision quality in one eye is significantly different than the other. Center-focus binoculars use a single control to the adjust sharpness of the overall image.
Compass and Range
Check to see if your marine binocular of choice has a bearing compass. Having one means there will be a superimposed image of a compass bearing in the image that you see. A bearing compass is a useful navigational aid for the boater and fisherman.
An internal rangefinder reticle gives you the ability to calculate your distance from an object. You need to know the height of an object, and then measure the angle to its top using the rangefinder reticle. Remember that navigation charts often include heights of navigation markers that can be used as your reference height.
This wouldn’t be much of a binocular buying tips article if it failed to talk about marine binocular weight. A heavy binocular would be considered to be over two pounds in weight. Some mariners find heavy binos to be easier to hold steady and better for viewing objects on a rocking boat.
Most top notch marine binoculars are backed with at least a 25-year warranty. Some even have limited lifetime warranties.
Armor – Plastic or rubber coating that protects the binocular from dents and dings, provides a sure grip, and makes them easy to clean. A must for binoculars used in the marine environment.
Binocular – A hand-held tool used to magnify distant objects by passing the image through two side-by-side lenses joined by a hinge. Creating an image for both eyes simultaneously provides a sense of depth perception. Binoculars are available in a great variety of sizes, magnifying powers, and features to suit any purpose or preference.
Coated Optics – Microscopically thin lens coatings designed to reduce light loss and glare while increasing both sharpness and contrast. Coatings can range from a single layer on one glass surface to multiple coatings on all air-to-glass surfaces, and depending on color can affect the color temperature of the light passing through the binoculars.
Diopter Adjustment – A moveable focusing ring on the eyepiece allowing the user to adjust the focus for any differences in vision between eyes. A negative diopter value signifies Myopia while a positive diopter value signifies Hyperopia. Binoculars with a main center focus should have a single diopter adjustment while binoculars. Others forgo center focus and use a diopter adjustment for each eye as the focusing mechanism. In high-quality binoculars, the diopter adjustment is clearly marked and accurate enough to be set to an eyeglass prescription.
Exit Pupil – The diameter, in millimeters, of the circle of light leaving the binocular eyepiece. A larger exit pupil provides a brighter image and makes the binoculars easier to use in low light and at night. The size of the exit pupil is calculated by dividing the diameter of the objective lens by the magnification. The majority binos weve tested have a 50-millimeter objective lens and a 7x power rating yielding a hefty 7-millimeter exit pupil. In the dark, the average adult will only have a pupil aperture of 5 to 6 millimeters. This means the binoculars are providing more light than most eyes can use, a good thing in the sometimes dark and stormy marine world.
Eye Relief – The distance, in millimeters, the binocular eyepiece lens can be held away from the eye with the user still able to see the full field of view. Longer eye relief generally provides more comfortable viewing and is essential for eyeglass wearers. Use our reviews to qualify this number.
Fog Proof – Sealed binoculars that are nitrogen purged or filled to prevent fogging due to rapid temperature or humidity changes.
Interpupillary Distance – The distance, in millimeters, between the centers of the pupils of the eyes. The average interpupillary distance in an adult is between 58 and 72 millimeters. The hinge between the lens tubes allows a binocular to be adjusted for various interpupillary distances.
Magnification – The power of the binoculars. Nearly all the binos weve tested are 7x, meaning they make an object appear 7 times closer than it would with the naked eye. This is considered the maximum usable magnification in the marine environment.
Objective Lens Size – The diameter of the front lens measured in millimeters. A larger objective lens allows more light to enter the binocular and provide a brighter image. A binocular is commonly referred to by its magnification and objective lens diameter. The second number is the lens size.
Prism System – There are two types, Porro and Roof. Both provide for a reduction in the overall binocular size. Traditional-looking binoculars with an offset between the objective lens and the eyepiece use the Porro prism. Sleek looking binoculars with the eyepiece and objective lens in alignment use the Roof prism. Porro prism binoculars are generally less expensive to manufacture, but are heavier and bulkier than comparable roof prism binos.
Range Reticle – A vertical index line that overlays the binocular image used to determine the distance of an object if the height is known.
Waterproof – O-ring sealed binoculars capable of being submerged in water to a depth of less than one meter with no water intrusion or damage.
Mil Spec – What does it mean?
Ads for certain marine binoculars may make claims like “built to military specs” or “meets Mil Spec” or simply states “Mil Spec”. To make sure you know all about binoculars you’ll need to know the implication here is that these binos are built to some specific military design or standard.
So is this true? Well, yes and no. The binoculars are certainly not built to a military design specification but they do meet certain parts of a military standard related to environmental testing. That standard is Mil-Std-810E, which defines over 20 parameters that products supplied to the military might need to meet depending on their use.
How We Test Binoculars
Testing an IS binocular requires us to first get familiar with the controls and adjustments available on each binocular. Then we head out to sea to test in daylight with a plan to stay until well after dark for nighttime testing.
At our first test site seas were running a close 2 to 3 feet. We setup so our deep-vee Contender test boat lay beam to. Under these conditions the deck was rolling hard with significant movement up and down.
We tried each binocular by looking across open water to a set of channel markers, first from a distance of 5000 feet to the closest beacon in the set and then from 1 nautical mile. The prevailing sea conditions and substantial deck movement proved to be an excellent way to test each stabilized binocular under extreme conditions.
To get some baseline results we took a pair of Fujinon FMTRC-SX 7×50 binoculars with us. We used these binos to see if we could read the channel markers from the same distances. Even our young eagle-eyed tester could not read the marker numbers with these top-quality but un-stabilized binoculars.
Next we moved into a channel with only a light chop on the surface and viewed a house about a mile down the shoreline. Here testers purposely leaned against the boat in an attempt to pick up some of the boat/engine vibration and transfer it to the binoculars. This site did well to show each binoculars ability to handle vibration and handshake.
Ratings on each image stabilized binocular is based on the observations of our testers. We examined each binocular for viewability based on results each achieved in daylight, at night, and from both test sites.
Focusing was reviewed too and reflects the usage of center focus and the right eye diopter, the usefulness of the diopter adjustment, and the comfort/effectiveness of the eyecups, both with and without eyeglasses.
A handling rating takes into account the quality of the supplied case, comfort of the neck strap, each unit’s weight, and the shape and grip of each pair.
If a particular binocular performed well in all areas, it was rated highly. Deficiencies in one or more areas resulted in lower overall ratings.
Manufacturers’ claims of waterproofness were confirmed by dunking each pair of binoculars in salt water, then rinsing them with a freshwater spray, followed by an examination for water intrusion. All the image stabilized binoculars we’ve tested thus far have passed this test with no problems noted.
Fujinon binoculars are very popular gear at the helm of many commercial vessels. A few models from the Polaris line are also a top pick for charterboat skippers and experienced recreational anglers.
Recreational boaters will find three of the Fujinon Polaris Series to be suitable for small boat operations. Two of these binoculars carry 7x magnification and one has 8x. The larger 10x and 16x Polaris models are a better fit on a cruise ship or destroyer bridge than on any small recreational or commercial boat.
The two Fujinon Polaris 7x models are the FMTR-SX and the FMTRC-SX. This pair is basically identical with the exception that the latter model has a built-in compass and range reticle. The Polaris 8×30 FMTR-SX is also suitable for use on a small boat.
The Fujinon FMTRC-SX binocular has been around for many years sporting a traditional marine binocular look and feel, mine are approaching 15 years of service. They are bulky, brawny, and heavy with a thick plastic armor coating.
A small wet compass rides atop the left lens tube and is small enough not to get in the way of fingers when holding these binos. All of our testers liked the grip and feel of this set. The Fujinon’s weight, at 55 ounces, was also a problem for some reviewers. Others liked the mass and thought it would help steady the binoculars in heavy seas.
Focusing these Fujinon binoculars is accomplished with individual diopter adjustments on each eyepiece. Center focus may be preferred by some individuals, but we found the diopter adjustments on the Fujinon accurate, easy to use, and easy to read. This made focusing a snap especially if you wear glasses and know your correction.
You can simply set the diopter for each eye, then use the binos without glasses and they will be in focus. With glasses on that correct to 20/20 vision or if you still manage to have perfect vision set the adjustment to zero to achieve ideal focus.
The marks on the diopter focusing rings range from +5 to 5 and correspond to the same numbers issued with a corrective lens in reading or distant vision glasses. They are engraved into the surface to enhance durability, plus they are large and easy to see. The index mark is molded into the armor coating and located on the bottom so adjustments can be easily made when holding the binoculars for viewing.
We found the focusing rings operated smoothly and held their position when set. Eyecups were round in shape and made from soft rubber. Most testers found them comfortable.
The substantial eye relief (23 millimeters) provided by these Fujinon binoculars allows eye glass wearers to roll the eye cups back, leave the focus at zero, and view through their glasses if desired.
Testers gave the Fujinon FMTRC-SX binoculars an excellent rating for day/night viewing. They were clear and sharp with no color aberrations. The compass was well dampened and easy to read in daylight. In low light levels we found getting a bearing easiest if testers closed their right eye momentarily.
No case is supplied from Fujinon, but other handling issues were rated good. The strap has a large neck pad that doubles as flotation. Front lens caps fit well and were easy to use. They are hinged individually on the bottom of each front lens and fall out of view easily as soon as they are opened.
This pair of Fujinon binoculars features a no-nonsense design with superior optics. They are well built and carry a lifetime warranty. The Fujinon FMTRC-SX is the best binocular you can put aboard you boat.
The Fujinon Mariner is significantly less expensive than the Polaris class. They sport a sleek look with a smooth gray finish and are the only binocular we’ve tested to come equipped with a digital compass.
The digital compass is much smaller and less obtrusive than the wet compasses used on the other binoculars. This makes gripping the binocular much more comfortable.
Unfortunately, the digital compass proved problematic during testing. We had trouble getting it to work, but new batteries fixed that problem. Then, after the water dunking, the compass remained on and locked to a certain heading, which burned the batteries again. We tried unsuccessfully to get the compass in these Fujinon binoculars to work again.
The Mariner II features center focus with a single diopter adjustment on the right eyepiece. Our testers preferred the center focus, finding it easier to use and easier to refocus on objects at varying distances. I found the operation of the center focus knob to be a bit stiff.
The Fujinon eyecups were not a favorite; most testers disliked their hard texture. The Mariner II did receive an excellent rating for day/night viewing. They were clear, sharp, had no color aberrations. When it worked the compass was easy-to-read.
No case is supplied from Fujinon. The strap has a large neck pad that doubles as flotation. Front lens caps fit well and were easy to use even though they were anchored on the center hinge.
The Mariner II binoculars failed the drop test. It appeared that something went out of alignment in the right lens tube, causing us to see a double image when using them.
Although it initially performed well, these Fujinon binoculars didn’t work after our drop test. We didn’t like the temperamental digital compass and uncomfortable eyecups either.
Steiner Mariner II
The Steiner Marine II is a rebranded Steiner Observer marketed by marine retail giant, West Marine. As we observed in this binocular review the Marine II is nearly identical in appearance to the Steiner Commander series binocular.
Differences noted were lack of high definition glass, lack of clip-lock strap attachment, and lack of memory oculars. Black plastic armor coating protects the case.
Like the Commander the Marine II has a large wet compass atop right lens tube. This binocular is also available, for significantly less money, without a compass.
Most of our testers found the compass interfered somewhat with their grip on these binoculars. The Marine II binos weigh in at 39 ounces.
Individual diopters on each eyepiece provide a means to adjust focus. Our single myopic tester found the marks to be accurate for his correction.
The diopter scale ranged from +5 to 5 but is only marked at the zero position. The diopter scale is located in our preferred location on the bottom of the binoculars to provide quick and easy adjustment.
Testers found the focusing rings operated smoothly and held their position when set. Round eyecups finish off the each eyepiece.
The Marine II binocular received a good rating for day/night viewing. Testers found they provided a clear view with no color aberrations when used without glasses.
We found a reduction in the field of view and some edge softness when viewing with eyeglasses.
If a user swings the Marine II around rapidly then stops on a viewing target the compass will take a couple seconds to stop and lock onto the new bearing. We found the compass easy to read.
A soft zipper case is provided with these binoculars. The narrow neck strap dug into the back of the neck and in our estimation would make these binos uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.
The front lens covers fit well and snapped in and out easily. They are hinged at the center of the binoculars and can sometimes require extra effort to flip them down and out of the way.
Steiner Mariner II is a decent pair of binoculars for the money that carry a long warranty.
Canon 10×42 IS
The Canon 10×42 IS binocular represents the state of the art in the Canon IS binocular lineup.
About a decade ago Canon, world-renowned for its optics and electronics, took IS technology originally designed for cameras and moved it into binoculars.
The unit we tested, the Canon 10×42 L IS WP is sleek looking, armor coated, and uses multi-coated lenses.
They feature 10x magnification and 42mm objective lenses. Eyepieces move together or apart to adjust for each user’s individual interpupillary distance.
Rubber eyecups twist in and out to accommodate eyeglass and non-eyeglass users.
We found movement of the eyepiece twist mechanism to be smooth yet stiff enough to lock into any selected position, four position detents are provided.
Canon Image Stabilization
Canon’s IS system is called Vari-Angle Prism and claims a maximum correction angle of just under 1 degree.
Vari-Angle Prism uses two sensors, one vertical and another horizontal, to detect pitch and yaw motion. Sensors work in conjunction with a microprocessor to provide instant adjustment of the refraction angle to compensate for motion.
The Canon 10×42 IS binocular is focused using the right eyepiece diopter and center-focus knob on the top of the case. We found the center-focus knob very smooth and easy to operate with just one finger.
The diopter scale has no numerical scale but does lock into place once set. The Canon binoculars earned an excellent focusing rating.
A single button push instantly turns on the Canon IS system with an LED on top indicating the system is operating. A second button push turns the IS system off.
If you forget the system will turn off automatically when the binoculars are pointed straight down (as they would be when carried with the neck strap) for a predetermined time.
The Canon 10×42 IS binocular received a good rating from our testers for viewability. They thought these binoculars provided a fairly sharp image even though the Canon IS system could not cope with the pitching and rolling boat nearly as well as the best.
Testers were able to read the channel markers at 5000 feet but had difficulty reading the numbers on the navigation markers at the 1 nautical mile distance.
Odds and Ends
This Canon IS binocular ships with a padded zipper-lock case, objective lens covers, eyepiece covers, and a neck strap with a 2-inch wide pad for the back of the neck.
The Canons are smaller in size than the other IS binoculars we’ve reviewed. Testers found them easy to hold though with large hands your fingertips touch on top.
Access to the power supplying pair of AA batteries is through a locking door in the bottom of the case.
We found this Canon IS binocular to be the lightest we’ve tested, weighing in at just over 40 ounces.
They carry a 3-year warranty.
Nikon StabilEyes 14×40
The Canons are the smallest, lightest, and best looking of the bunch. They have the longest warranty too. Problem is, the IS system capabilities seem limited compared to others we’ve reviewed.
We found the layout and construction of the Nikon StabilEyes 14×40 binocular to be very similar to the Fujinon Techno Stabi binocular we also tested.
They offer a magnification factor of 14x coupled with 40 mm objective lenses and use black rubber armor coating in combination with a polycarbonate case, though its molded into a slightly different shape than the Fujinon.
The rear case panel looks identical. It holds a pair of adjustable eyepieces, the battery case cover release, and in the upper right-hand corner the focus knob. The interpupillary distance adjustment is the same too.
Other common features include: four AA batteries located in a latched compartment on the bottom side of the binocular case, rubber eyecups extending back from the ocular lenses that must be folded down to accommodate eyeglass wearers, and a removable hand strap that fits on either of the case.
The Nikon StabilEyes 14×40 binocular weighs in at 47.5 ounces.
Nikon Image Stabilization
Nikon uses the same sophisticated stabilization system as the Fujinon Techno Stabi binocular. However, the Nikon engineers decided to take it one step further by adding a second operational mode.
Nikon calls their system VR for vibration reduction. According to Greg Chevalier, from Nikon Binocular Marketing, this Nikon binocular has a feature that is unique compared to other IS binocularsthe dual stabilizing modes (Land/Onboard). Nikon had these modes engineered into the binocular to dampen different types of vibration and other movements.
The Land mode reduces hand-shake and other smaller vibration-type movements (to a limit of + or ½ degree) while the Onboard mode compensated for larger movements like those experienced on the water, etc. (to a limit of + or up to 5 degrees).
Our testers found the Nikon image stabilizing system performed on par with the Fujinon when operated in the Onboard mode.
Focusing is accomplished using a single diopter on the right eyepiece and a center-focus knob on the top of the case. The diopter scale is only marked with a plus, minus, and an index. No numerical scale is provided.
These binoculars are focused by using the center-focus knob with the right eye closed, and then with the left eye closed refocus the right eye image with the diopter adjustment. Once done any further focusing is done only with the center-focus. We found the center-focus knob a bit hard to turn with one finger.
A momentary press of the power button located on top of the case turns on the Nikon StabilEyes 14×40 binocular. A second press activates the VR system. You’ll know it’s working by the electric-motor whirring sound that emanates momentarily from the case. A small button centered on top toggles between the Land and Onboard modes. A momentary press of the power-off button shuts down the system.
The Nikon StabilEyes earned excellent ratings from our testers for viewability. The VR system in the Nikons held the image very steady and made viewing distant targets comparable to the Fujinon Techno Stabi binocular.
Odds and Ends
Nikon ships the StabilEyes with a padded cloth case that we found was not big enough to hold the binoculars and the padded neck strap.
These binoculars are not equipped with front lens.
Though this Nikon binocular matched the Fujinon Techno Stabi in performance the Nikon costs a couple hundred dollars more and ships with a less robust case.
We tested the Vegas 10×52 out in the British Virgin Islands and were surprised by the good quality of these binoculars. We were most surprised by the clarity of images during very little daylight.
The diopter scale is located conveniently at the bottom side of the right eyepiece with plus and minus markings. This is our preferred location making it easy to adjust when using the neck strap and using in rough waters.
We found the optical acuity to be fairly good and was consistent viewing with or without glasses. It did take a little getting use to on the waters to get a good field of view.
The central focus knob is nice and chunky allowing for ease of use and adjusting.
The objective lens caps come off and are not attached to the center hinge for security. I don’t like this feature as it makes it easy to lose the caps. The ocular lens caps are made from a rubber membrane and are connected to the neck strap. We would like to see the objective lens caps connected too.
Good optical performance performing well in the evening and early morning hours make this a good marine binocular option for sailors, boaters, and fishermen. For a reasonable price and lifetime warranty we mark this one as a buy. The customer service at Levenhuk was also good.