Not the most imaginative title for a blogpost, I’m sure you’ll agree.
A few weeks ago when recording a Conference Calls podcast, we mentioned that binoculars were so good nowadays that even entry level and mid price brands/models were simply incredible compared to what was available just a relatively short time ago. We suggested that binoculars under £500 really didn’t underperform so markedly in comparison with binoculars costing triple the price. Do you agree with that? Well both Avian and RSPB binoculars were mentioned in the podcast, and this got back to the people at Viking who make the RSPB models. They liked and agreed with what we said, and decided to let us loose with a pair of their 8×42 HDs. Before I tell you what I think of them, I think it’s only right that we take a moment to look at the incredible development of binoculars. It’s a piece of equipment which we birders use so often, almost like a natural extension of our limbs, but how much do we really know about binoculars? Read and learn…
The theory behind binocular construction was devised, though never realised, by Jean Charles Binoculaire, a struggling 17th century poet and inventor, who sketched the first designs for his binoculaire in an attempt to see clearly into the front room of his creative muse Mademoiselle Telescaupe, and thus have a really good look at her famous pair of televisions (Mlle Telescaupe was television mad, so much so that she insisted on having two different channels on at the same time). An early Bohemian, Binoculaire was so poor that he couldn’t afford his own television, yet he had developed an addiction to watching Friends, but he was so ashamed of this destructive addiction that he refused to let anyone know about his obsession with the worst programme ever.
To satisfy his secret Friends addiction, Binoculaire’s first invention was Le Bushe Portable or The Mobile Bush, an ingenious contraption of entwined branches from a privet hedge which he mounted on wheels and was able to roll into position in Mlle Telescaupe’s front garden close to her window. There, evading detection behind The Mobile Bush, Binoculaire spent many hours watching episodes of Friends on Mlle Telescaupe’s amazing pair of televisions, and whilst hiding wrote some of his greatest poems such as Clam Fantastique, Moist Undergrowth and his masterpiece The Sticky Puddle.
After watching that scene where Joey from Friends puts a turkey on his head, Binoculaire committed suicide at the tragically young age of twenty-two. Struck with an unshakable depression after witnessing television sink to an all time low, Jean Charles Binoculaire hung himself from the ceiling beams in his kitchen. On the table below him was his final poem Le Grande Vagine, and next to it the blueprints for his ingenious binoculaire.
The development of magnifying equipment could have been so different had it not been for Binoculaire’s blueprints coming into the possession of Galileo Galilei, the inventor of space travel and a man famously addicted to watching episodes of Murder She Wrote. Galilei had been sentenced by the Vatican to lifelong house arrest without a television, after espousing his controversial theories that the Moon was not actually made of cheese but that it was actually Richard Branson’s big face glowing brightly from his private island in the Caribbean. Confined to his house, Galilei entertained himself by trying to look into the front room of the Duchess of Tuscany who lived on the opposite side of the road, and famously owned a huge slick shiny plasma telly. The Duchess was so proud of her enormous plasma screen that she would endlessly polish it with vigorous enthusiasm.
Upon receiving Binoculaire’s blueprints, Galilei set to work immediately and quickly constructed the very first binoculaire out of clay and chicken bones. The prototype binocular was so successful that when Galilei focussed the primitive device upon an episode of Murder She Wrote, he died of sudden shock after seeing a hugely magnified Angela Lansbury solving crimes on the Duchess of Tuscany’s whopping great 65″ HD screen.
Despite claims to the contrary by today’s manufacturers of optical equipment, very little has actually changed in binocular construction since Binoculaire’s original idea, though clay and chicken bones have now been replaced by modern materials such as wood and glass. However, in these environmentally aware times in which we live, many binocular manufacturers have now stopped using wood in favour of more sustainable materials such as grated Eskimo Curlew and boiled Phillipine Eagle.
Which brings me to the Viking binoculars. Okay, enough messing about, and I have genuinely attempted to review these with a degree of respect for the people at Viking who kindly sent them to me.
I tested them out over many days in very different places and very different conditions. The first try was in the yard where I threw them at the back wall – they survived amazingly well, and only one objective lens fell out and smashed into a million bits. Whereas with my Leicas both objectives fell out, then they exploded and brought down our back wall. So that’s 1-0 to Viking! Ha! No, the first real try was watching displaying Goshawks on a fantastically bright morning, then a grotty day in Newcastle seawatching in Whitley Bay, and then a number of days in mixed conditions on the marshes and beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk.
I was constantly comparing them with my Leica 8×42, and I’ve also used Swarovski 8.5×42 a lot – but I had to ask myself is comparing the Vikings with them fair? Well in the podcast we were arguing that the gap between middle and top end brands is now so narrow that the extreme price difference is no longer justifiable (8×42 Leica and Swarovski are £1,000 more expensive than the Vikings). So here I’ve looked at the Vikings with the same expectations as I’d have for the £1,500 models. So what do I think? Is the price difference justifiable? Do you really care?
Fresh out of the box and the Vikings look not dissimilar to Leica Ultravids, and reading the specification on their respective websites, the Vikings weigh in at about the same weight as the equivalent Leicas. The field of view is also the same, but what seems initially very impressive from Viking is the close focus at 2m (Leica 3m). However, I found at 2m the Vikings were extremely uncomfortable, and I was having to force-focus my eyes to focus sharply, almost as if the two eyes were not aligned at such a close distance. About 3m distance is comfortably closest for the Vikings. The focus wheel on the Vikings has some give in it, the more you fiddle you notice that it moves a little before it alters the sharpness of the image, whereas the Leica had little if any give. Picky, and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of them.
The adjustable eyecups on the Vikings are the only real disappointment, a bit cheap and plasticky, and they don’t feel or work in line with the rest of the very high quality and slick construction of the rest of the binoculars.
No denying this, the Vikings suck in a huge amount of light, even in dull early evening light they seemed to be on a par with my Leicas, though as the light diminished, focussing on distant birds with the Vikings was not as sharp as the Leicas. Chromatic aberration was more pronounced in the Vikings with a fringing particularly obvious when I was watching Goshawks and the dark pines against a clear blue sky. What amazed me at first with the Vikings was just how bright and rich the colours were in comparison with Leica, but after a while I came to realise that the Vikings have a red hue saturating the image, artificially warming the colours. It’s subtle but it’s there, and it increases in low light conditions. Whereas the Leica reproduced the intensity of colours with near perfect accuracy and altered little in lower light. How much does that matter? Well what kind of birding are you doing? Does the accurate assessment of mantle shade on large gulls matter? How often do you have to separate Marsh & Reed Warbler? To some it’s critical to their birding enjoyment, to others it matters very little.
What you get from the Vikings is something that is great to handle, they’re quality. They’re lightweight, and the lovely smooth rubber is a high quality finish that is nice to touch. You have a sharp, bright image and good close focusing (though not to 2m). The RSPB badge is a subtle silver design, and yeah, they look pretty stylish dangling around your neck – and why, if you’re forking out a big slab of cash, shouldn’t they be aesthetically good on the eye? Single people – I would say that if you wore these out birding you could almost certainly pull with them. They are VERY good binoculars.
As good as the top end brands? Well no, and nobody really ever said they were going to be. But £1,000 inferior to the top end brands? That’s the difficult question.
I use my binoculars a lot. Sod’s law says that one day I’m going to damage them beyond repair. Am I going to spend £1,500 on a new pair of binoculars? I really don’t know. But I’m just very glad to know that if I do decide to spend £500 instead of £1,500, then there’s a pair of Viking binoculars that I’d be very happy to use.
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