by Terry Wieland
It seems like the Dark Ages now—that long-ago period when you could name the good binoculars on the fingers of one hand, and dreamt of saving enough money to someday own one. Back then, we had Leica and Zeiss and…and…Leica and Zeiss.
I’m talking about the 1970s and of course there were other names, but nothing with the cachet of those two. If you showed up in hunting camp with a 7×50 Zeiss, you were skating big-time.
Compare that with today, when there are a half-dozen good makers in Central Europe, and who knows how many in the Far East. There are still different strata in terms of quality and price, but essentially the overall standard is in the stratosphere by comparison.
When I was a teenager, reading about hunting and trying to learn everything I could, a famous writer mentioned that your binocular was just as important as your rifle. I didn’t really believe it then, although I did start carrying my dad’s 7×35 Wetzlar everywhere I went. Once I really started hunting, it didn’t take me long to appreciate the point: Your riflescope can save you some crawling, but your binocular will save you a lot of walking and climbing.
I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth telling again. I remember, like it was this morning, the first time I held a really high-quality binocular in my hand and looked out the window of the Eddie Bauer store in Toronto onto the pre-Christmas glitz of Bloor Street at night.
That was in 1975—almost 50 years ago—and that Zeiss 7×50 was a revelation. It was like looking into a bigger, brighter, cleaner world. Of course, I couldn’t afford it. I don’t remember the exact price, but I think it was about two months’ salary. Ever since, Zeiss has been my yardstick for optical quality, even though when I’m hunting I usually carry a Leica Ultravid 8×32.
The old Zeiss 7×50 was a porro prism design, rather than the now-ubiquitous roof prism. Roof prisms are more compact. They do not, however, give the same depth perception, which is a valuable asset, especially in really low light. It makes the animal you’re studying stand out from its background, and that’s enormously helpful if you’re trying to judge antlers.
The drawbacks to porro prisms were weight and bulk. At one point, in a moment of madness that accompanies the chance to acquire something you’ve wanted since childhood, I bought a Swarovski 7×50 porro prism binocular. This was in the 1980s, and Swarovski was in the process of taking the optical world by storm—especially the perceptions of optical quality in the minds of Americans.
My Swarovski 7×50 was wonderful to look through, but inconvenient to carry, and mostly sat by the window waiting for me to look at something wandering by in the darkness.
It’s safe to say Swarovski revolutionized our views. Suddenly, a man with an 8×30 binocular, clad in pale green pebbled rubber, was seen as not only optically cutting edge but a man of taste, discernment, and money as well. The optical Big Two became the optical Big Three, and have remained so ever since.
To me, arguing the merits of one of the big makers over the other is rather pointless. Pick one, buy what you like (or what you can afford) and never look back. They’re all great.
Having said that, let me sing the praises of a binocular I just unpacked—a Meopta 8×56—which proves the point I made above: You can buy some seriously good glass these days without spending a fortune, and without having one of the three big names on it.
As well, a great deal of cross-pollination occurs in the hallowed world of central European optics, and Bohemia, in Czechia, has been renowned for glass since the Middle Ages. Meopta, a Czech company, does subcontract work of various kinds for German optics makers, so there is no question of their quality. As for price, well, the 8×56 mentioned above retails for about $800. It’s the MeoPro HD Plus, and while it lacks some of the high-tech refinements of the newer MeoStar line, it’s a thousand bucks cheaper, and two to three thousand less than a comparable Zeiss.
If the refinements, or lack thereof, bother you unduly, you can compare the MeoPro and MeoStar lines easily enough. My point is not to promote one over the other, but to highlight the fact that in buying a MeoPro for $800, I am getting all of the optical quality I could have had in that fabulous long-ago Zeiss product—and for considerably less than two months’ salary.
Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland is a self-confessed sucker for great glass wherever he can find it.