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Small but Perfectly Formed: New Zeiss 32mm Binoculars put to the test!

A product that has been eagerly anticipated by end users, and demanded by us at Focalpoint Optics as a dealer, for months, if not years, has finally hit the shelves – the Zeiss 32mm objective binoculars. This smaller version of the excellent, market-leading, Zeiss SF 42mm binocular comes in 8x32 and 10x32 models as would be expected. So, has the wait been worth it?! To test whether they live up to the reputation gained by their ‘big brother’ the 42mm version, Yvonne and I headed out to put them through their paces at a local nature reserve not far from the Focalpoint showroom.

We arrived at Neumann’s Flash and I decided to concentrate on the 10x model, given the fact that I usually don’t like 10x, having a strong preference for 8x in my everyday binoculars, and also I particularly don’t favour a 10x32 given the higher magnification allied with the smaller objective. Taking out my least favourite combination would be a stern test for this new model. As we walked to the hide a few butterflies shot past us in the strong August sunshine, but I was able to get onto them instantly, fix focus and track them with ease. I always had said to customers that a disadvantage with 10x32 bins was the field of view, hampering the observer in getting onto fast moving objects and following them. The Zeiss 10x32 SF has none of these shortcomings and, looking at the ‘tech spec’, a field of view of 7.4° means it fits nicely into the ‘wide angle’ binocular category and therefore was not surprising that it performed really well in this aspect.

In the hide, I had the option of resting my elbows on a shelf to aid stability or to hold the binoculars rest-free. The former mode of use was very easy, with no shake at all and a rock steady and bright image. The 10x magnification allowed me to pick out not only Little Grebes on the far side of the flash, but also to watch hawker dragonflies chasing each other in the middle of the lake. I then tried to hold them without resting my elbows and tracked the numerous Black-headed Gulls over the water. Again I encountered no stability problems, being able to age the gulls easily as I tracked their flight. For a harder test, I watched a flock of hirundines over the far reedbed as they hawked low and then climbed higher in the sky. Again, with no shake, I was able to ID these as mostly juvenile Swallows, with the binoculars giving a bright, colour-true image even when looking with the backdrop of a bright summer sky. One thing that helped the stability was the superb balance of this binocular. The weight of only 590g, a length of 150mm and the open bridge design let them sit in my hands so comfortably that I felt like I was lifting no weight at all. I could easily yomp around all day with these and at the end feel like I had carried nothing extra at all; a real benefit if carrying lots of camera gear or a scope and tripod.

As I have said in previous Blogs, I am crazy about my insects and most other non-avian subjects when undertaking surveys and nature walks, so close focus had to be tested and come up to my exacting standards before I could pronounce on this new model. They would have a tough act to follow as I currently have Zeiss 8x32 Conquest HD Binoculars that my wife and I use for insect observation, and they have a close focus of just 1.5m which is perfect for ID of ‘so called’ creepy crawlies! For a true comparison I needed to compare with the close focus ability of the 10x32 Conquest, but again this is quoted in the ‘tech spec’ as 1.5m. Conveniently a Common Carder Bee was nectaring on flowers by the hide, so testing began and initially I couldn’t focus at the distance that I would stand at with our Conquests - interesting! I did manage to focus by stepping back a little but wanted to test this feature a little more. A Mallard was by the hide ‘begging’ for food handouts, so as she approached Yvonne and I both dialled in to the closest focus and watched to see when she got too close to give a sharp image. We both estimated around 2m and, given that the ‘tech spec’ states 1.95m, I think we got it just about spot on! I was a little bit disappointed that they lost half a metre at the close focus end compared with the Zeiss Conquests but for field of view, brightness and weight they came out well above that model. Another feature of the SF 32x models that impressed me, was the ease of focussing when changing from near to far distance. This was very smooth and quick, only requiring an eighth of a turn of the focus knob to change from looking at a gull close to the hide, to watching a Grey Heron on the far island. Zeiss have developed their ‘SmartFocus’ system (hence ‘SF’ binoculars) to this end, and it does work; a very useful feature in real life situations. Other useful data from the Zeiss catalogue include the fact that the bins are nitrogen-filled and will withstand pressure down to 4m depth of water; this gives the option of immersing the optics in a bowl of water to fully clean them, or put them under a running tap or shower. If silt, dust or salt spray has got onto any surfaces then this is an effective way of removing it before a standard lens clean with a lens cloth, having the advantage of no small particles being left which could cause micro-scratching on the lens coatings.

Of course many birders will still choose the 8x32 model over the 10x32 and, having tested both, I can say that either choice would be a good one. The Zeiss 8x32 SFs are very similar in weight, balance and detailed ‘tech spec’, but have the advantage of a massive field of view at 8.8° with a very bright image too, better for dawn and dusk viewing and searching in woodlands where light gathering is at a premium. The 8x will, by definition, be easier to hold steady with their lower magnification, but the low weight of both models make this less of an issue than in heavier 42mm objective binoculars.

So, time to answer my own question, “has the wait been worth it?” My answer would be a resounding YES!! These binoculars leap straight up into the category of best 32mm objective models on the market, along with the Swarovski ELs. So which to choose? My answer is always the same, “try them for yourself”. Everyone has different requirements for when they use their optics and what for and how each person’s retina works to perceive images may even favour one model over another, so binocular choice is very personal. Pop along to the Focalpoint Optics Zeiss Day on August 16th or make an appointment at your convenience and come in to test them for yourself. Try both makes and both models of each, and rest assured that when you have made your decision as to which suits you best, you will have the best 32mm objective binoculars that money can buy.

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