I thought I would add some thoughts to the “Optics Value” debate.
As I noted in another thread, I am an optics addict. It seems I am always trying, comparing, trading, buying, or selling some optical instrument. I particularly like binoculars, because like most hunters, I use them so often.
There are a ton of optics available. Every serious Western hunter will tell new hunters how critical optics are to being successful. There just is no real debate about it. It is a fact. So, new hunters often ask What is the best, $100, $200, $400, $1000, money is no object binocular? Without fail two major types of answers come up:
1) The buyer should save and save until they can afford the BEST. AKA: Buy once, cry once. By the BEST they mean one of the “Big Three” or “Euro” or “Alpha” binoculars: Swarovski, Zeiss, or Leica.
2) The buyer should buy bargain brand X because they are “almost as good” as the Alphas. This answer is especially popular behind the counter at the local sportsmart, where the salespeople work on commission and the buyer came in planning to spend money.
In my opinion both answers are partly right. The truth is the Alphas still make the best of the best, and they should. If you spend $2000 or more on a pair of binoculars, it should not have weaknesses. Also, other companies like Nikon with their EDG binoculars, Minox with their ED series, and others have products that compete with the Alphas in every way.
However, the binoculars market is one of diminishing returns. When you pay $2000, you get the best, but you do not get 5 times the performance of the $400 binocular. In the last few years, American companies have been marketing high-performance binoculars that are manufactured by giant optical companies in China. These binoculars typically perform way above their price point, and make those returns diminish all the more.
One of these companies is Zen Ray Optics out of Beaverton, OR. Zen Ray works with a major Chinese manufacturer to produce several lines of binoculars and spotting scopes. Their top-of-the-line binocular series is the Zen Ray ED2 series. These binoculars have all of the features of the Alpha binoculars including a lifetime warranty, magnesium alloy housings, rubber armoring, multi-position eyecups, BAK4 prisms, ED (extra low dispersion) objective glass, phase coating, water-repellant coatings, and dialectric prism coatings.
Several years ago, birders got pretty excited about the Zen Ray ED1, and I decided to check a pair out to keep in my pickup. I ordered the 10X43 ED1, and it arrived in a couple of days. I took them over to the local waterfowl refuge, and took them out of the box. I found myself looking at a well-made, but not polished pair of binoculars. Everything seemed sturdy enough, but didn’t exude quality like an alpha binocular. The focus wheel was OK, but had a little play, and wasn’t super smooth. Then I put them up to my eyes, and I was stunned …
The image was wide, bright, and sharp. I couldn’t see any real Chromatic Aberration (CA), even at the edges. Very impressive. I also had my Meopta Meostar 10X42s and put them up side by side. Sharpness was similar, but the Meoptas had the edge on depth of field. The Zens clearly controlled CA better than my Meoptas, and I loved my Meoptas! The Zens did have a strange halo glare around the field if I pushed the eyecups against my eye brow for stability. The focus was a tad slow, but certainly useable.
Well, I found myself taking the Zens from the truck and into the hunting fields. I didn’t quit using the Meoptas, but found the Zens were more than up to the task of serious hunting.
Two years later, after hard use, the Zen image was still spectacular, but I had a couple of cosmetic issues including the focus wheel’s logo badge had loosened and one eyecup was losing purchase on the underlying metal structure. Minor problems, but I e-mailed Zen Ray anyway, and mentioned my annoyance with the glare issue. Charles from Zen Ray emailed me back, and said to send them in, and they would fix the cosmetic issues immediately, and free of charge. Charles then offered to exchange my ED1s for the new ED2s, for a small fee. Charles stated the glare issue had been noted, and they worked with the manufacturer to fix the issue in the ED2. I went for the exchange, and thought it was a more than fair offer.
The ED2s arrived within a few days, and I took a look at the new ED2s. Literally every gripe I had about the ED1s had been addressed. The shiny logo badges were changed to more hunter-friendly matte badges. The focus was buttery smooth with a better finger purchase. And the glare was G … O … N …E. They also added the dialectric prism coatings and water-repellant coatings I mentioned above. The Zen Ray water-repellant coating is really effective.
I also have a pair of the most recent version of the Swarovski SLCneu (not SLC HD). The SLCneu is a true Alpha, nearly perfect in every way. The SLC’s image is nearly perfect with only a hint of CA on high contrast objects. They are extremely bright. The have just enough pincushion distortion to make panning comfortable. They are built like a tank with nice armor, eyecups, focus wheel, and accessories.
I have used the Zens next to the SLCs many, many times, I have mounted them on tripods and looked over deer at a couple hundred yards, deer at two miles, and elk at 5 miles. The quality of images is very, very close. The SLCs have better depth of field. The SLCs have a wider “sweet spot”. The SLCs have a little sharper edge. The SLCs are a hair brighter. The Zens control CA a little better than the SLCs. The end comparison is what the SLCs show me, the Zens show me.
While image differences are small, the build quality differences are more apparent. The SLC looks and feels like a $1600 binocular. The Zens look and feel like a $400 binocular. They are certainly comparable in build to other $400 binoculars. The accessories are not best, and Zen Ray definitely needs to improve the fit of the objective covers, they fall off easily. It is the image that separates them from the competition.
Now, the same basic binocular is sold by a lot of different companies, but the manufacturer tailors them to the individual company. Promaster, Hawke, Atlas, and others have been marketing versions for years. Now some bigger companies are releasing models that are likely versions including Vortex (Talon HD). Other companies, like Kruger Optical (also out of Oregon), have their own factories in China where they are making quality ED binoculars. I plan on getting my hands on a Kruger Caldera in the near future.
I was impressed with Charles and Zen Ray in taking feedback from their customers and quickly addressing their concerns in their products.
My conclusion is that I still love my SLCneus. They are awesome in every way. The Alphas are still the best of the best. However, I would not feel handicapped hunting anywhere or anytime with my Zen Ray ED2s.
Some people won’t ever be able to afford $1500-$2000 binoculars no matter how long they save. There are a lot of expensive things to buy for effective Western hunting, especially for a new hunter. My recommendation would be to go ahead and try one of these high-performing mid-priced binoculars, like the Zen Ray ED2, even if you are going to save for a few years for an Alpha. I think most people would be shocked with the performance and value they get.