Since almost six years, the Nikon 8x30 EII has been my favorite traveling binocular. Among its outstanding features are its huge field of view, its compact size and overall high level of optical performance and mechanical construction. A couple of years ago, this glass was crushing its two competitors in a similar review, leaving only the mechanical ruggedness of those military binoculars as a single feature to score against the Nikon. Not being waterproof and sealed against the elements is in fact a true disadvantage of the Nikon. But for its optical performance, which reaches up fairly close to the premium class, the Nikon is incredibly cheap, available these days for roughly 500 Euro. I consider this a very honest offer: This binocular is of no-compromise design, optically, but I don't pay for additional features like water- or shock resistance, keeping this binocular both cheap and also light.
Meopta, as a binocular maker, is still rather unknown to the world-wide community of binoculars users, but it does deserve much more attention. Its Meostar line is of very decent performance, and in a similar review of several 42mm binoculars of the upper middle class the 8x42 Meostar performed well against a stiff competition from Kowa and Vortex. After Meopta had recently introduced their new 8x32 binocular, I had the opportunity to compare this glass side by side with my Nikon EII for more than two months by now. In what follows I want to report on my experiences with these two binoculars.
Fig. 1: The Meopta 8x32 Meostar B1 (no. 901209) with its characteristic anti-slip nipples
Meopta is a traditional optics maker located in the Czech Republic, known for its rifle scopes, binoculars and spotting scopes. Its Meostar binocular line consists of 8x32, 10x32, 7x42, 8x42, 10x42, 7x50, 10x50, 12x50 and 8x56 devices, the 32mm being among their latest developments. This binocular is nitrogen purged and fully water proof, has got truly functional twist-up eye-cups (that actually stay put at whichever height they are set) and a comfortable eye-relief of 15.4mm, quite a lot for a 8x32 wide angle glass. It is delivered with a decent soft case and a very comfortable padded neck strap. Less useful, since too loose, are the front covers, but actually they are not needed at all and may as well be removed permanently. This binocular is available for less than 700 Euro, quite a bit apart from the prices currently asked for the premium class.
Fig. 2: The Nikon 8x30 EII (no. 500463), short and stubby like the classic Zeiss (Oberkochen)
Nikon is among the very few manufacturers who kept on designing new top-class Porro-type binoculars for the civilian market until the late 1990s. The wide angle Nikon 8x30 EII was introduced in 1999 along with the 10x35 EII, as a successor of the Nikon E (which was around as early as 1978). Just one year before, in 1998, another excellent Porro glass of similar specification, the Nikon 8x32 SE, had been launched, so one may ask whether or not such a redundancy on a shrinking market of Porro binoculars was a bit ambitious. Apparently, the EII binoculars did never sell well, and more than once rumors about their discontinuation came up on the Internet discussion boards. Fortunately, the EII are still available, and I can only suggest to get them as long as they are around, since there is nothing comparable left on the market. The Nikon EII is of very compact design, similar to the old Zeiss 8x30 (West, Oberkochen), and it comes with a precious magnesium body and a durable covering, but it is not waterproof. There exists an excellent review by Henry Link. Currently, this binocular can be purchased for less than 500 Euro, a bargain when considering its outstanding optical performance.
Fig. 3: The Meopta and the Nikon, elegance of the roof and the Porro
The following table summarizes some of the specifications of the two contenders.
|Real angle||Apparent angle||Eye relief||Exit pupil||Close focus||Weight(*)|
|of view (deg)||of view (deg)||(mm)||diam. (mm)||(m)||(gram)|
Angle of view: The Nikon is an outstanding performer as a wide angle binocular. With 8.8 degs. true angle, it outperforms every single 8x and even 7x binocular currently available on the high-end market. As such it remains surprisingly compact, and with 14mm its eyepiece offers a lot of eye-relief despite of its roughly 70 degs. apparent angle. The Meostar is of wide angle design as well, and with 7.9 degs. true angle it delivers a pleasant overview of the scenery. The field stops of both binoculars display crisp and well defined edges - a feature that I very much appreciate, since I dislike those fuzzy edges that are frequently found with other wide angle binoculars.
Image sharpness: All quality binoculars offer a sharp and crisp image at least near the central region of the field, and there are rarely any significant differences discernible. The star test delivers point-like images from the center up to roughly 70% toward the edge of field, quite similar in both binoculars. Beyond that, the image blur is rapidly increasing. These binoculars are decent performers here, in particular the Nikon with its even wider field, but neither of them is outstanding: If we consider that Swarovski with its Swarovision line is nowadays capable of making binoculars of similar apparent angle as the Meopta, but sharp practically to the edge, then obviously both the Meostar and the Nikon EII appear modest. However, Zeiss and Leica are not any better here, few people do actually ask for a perfect near-edge sharpness, and the price tag of the Swarovision is well above its competition as well.
Image color: The test with a white sheet of paper delivers a completely neutral color tone of the Nikon, and a slightly warmer tone of the Meopta. This is not to be confused with a "yellow tint" - when looking through the Meostar binocular, the image appears neutral as well. But the light appears a little bit milder, causing less eye-strain on sunny days. I admit that I have been inconsistent at times in previous reviews, sometimes scoring those binoculars that offered a completely neutral color rendering higher than others, and sometimes not. I am in doubt now, because I realize that those glasses with a slightly warmer tonality enable us to observe at higher accuracy simply because they allow for relaxed observations with reduced eye-strain. It is a matter of fact that we tend to use sunglasses on bright sunny days. But we don't want to wear these glasses when using our binoculars. If the binocular is damping down the outermost short-wavelength region of the spectrum, then the most aggressive and eye-straining contribution of the light is gone and the resulting image assumes a slight warm (yellowish) tone, and this does have its advantages. Those roof-prism binoculars with silver mirror (like the Meostar) deliver that feature free house, since the reflectivity of that mirror layer drops rapidly toward the violet end of the spectrum. The latest premium roof-prism binoculars with their dielectric mirrors offer a constant high reflectivity all over the spectrum and deliver a neutral image tone with slightly higher effective transmission ("slightly" higher, because the sensitivity of our eye is also dropping toward the violet end of the spectrum and a reduced transmission here does hardly affect the weighted integral transmission). The Nikon, being of Porro design, does not require any of these mirrors and is hence capable of delivering an almost flat transmission curve. Ideally, a binocular should offer the maximum possible transmission, in combination with filter threads in front of the objectives, so that the user is able to tune the transmission according to his current light and viewing conditions.
Rectilinear distortion: Both binoculars have got a slight amount of pincushion distortion implemented in their optical formula to eliminate the globe effect of the panning binocular. The amount of distortion appears to be well chosen here, the pincushion distortion is visible but remains moderate, and the globe effect is fully compensated.
Stray light: Stray light is generated whenever light finds its way through the instrument into the eye through an unforeseen path, for example as a reflex at the internal tube, a prism or lens edge. Top class binoculars often differ from their medium range competition in their ability to suppress stray light under difficult light conditions. The Nikon EII, though generally well protected against these effects, can suffer a moderate amount of stray light under very difficult light conditions. In these (rare) cases, the contrast of the image may be reduced by a hint of a "whiteout". The Meostar performs very well even under these conditions, its stray light protection is excellent and competitive with the high-end class.
Ghost images: If, at night, a bright object (street lantern, moon) is positioned into the field, reflections on the air-to-glass surfaces take place, which can lead to multiple 'ghost' images of the light source. A successful suppression of these ghosts indicates a high quality of the anti-reflection coating. Both binoculars perform very well here. The Meopta does show some of those "spikes" with bright light sources in the night: As a result of diffraction at the roof edge, a bright point-like source is producing a single "spike", and since both prisms (left and right tube) are oriented under different angles, both spikes form a cross-like structure when the light source is of sufficient intensity. The intensity of these spikes may be related to the accuracy to which the roof edge is cut, and hence it differs from instrument to instrument. Through my sample of the Meostar, the intensity of the spikes is moderately high, and I have seen better performances with other (expensive) binoculars. Perhaps, at this point Meopta could still improve, even though in most daily life situations these spikes remain entirely invisible. The Nikon, being of Porro design, does naturally not suffer these diffraction effects and it performs somewhat better under the conditions described above.
Low light performance: Here we have a minor advantage of the Meostar, mostly due to its wider exit pupil. One has to keep in mind, however, that binoculars of the 8x30 class will never be great performers under low light, and here they are vastly outperformed even by modestly priced 8x42 binoculars. Nevertheless, the advantage of 8x30 binoculars lies in their compactness and mobility, and since they are with us all over the day, situations arise in which they have to be used under low light as well. Obviously, it is not only exit pupil size and transmission that decide about low light performance, but also stray light protection that has an impact on the contrast of the (already dim) image.
Both binoculars are of similar weight, very well built and operating at high precision. I am using the Nikon since almost 6 years now and everything is still functioning just as it did on the first day after purchase (well, with two exceptions: The rubber eye-cups have turned a bit soft over the years, and the soft case made of artificial leather is completely worn down). The Meopta has got a couple of advantages, however. It is fully waterproof and has a rubber armor. As such, the range of conditions under which the Meopta can be used without possibly taking damage is extended. The eye-relief of the Meostar is also a bit longer, making it fully functional for eye-glass wearer, while the Nikon's field of view may suffer once it is used together with spectacles. The eye-cups of the Meostar are of twist-up type that lock at a single intermediate position. However, they turn very stiff and in fact they stay safely put at any other height as well. To the contrary, the Nikon just has those old fashion rubber eye-cups that are either fully up or down. Both binoculars have got a moderately fast central focuser that is fairly stiff. Some "power birder" may ask for a faster and softer focuser, but I prefer the present layout because it allows for a precise focusing, and the wheel stays exactly where it is left and does not turn accidentally. The Meopta has got a closer near-focusing distance, well below 2m to me (it does depend on the eye as well), whereas the Nikon cannot be focused much closer than 3m, and only with some eye-strain as a result of its wide separation of its objective lenses. Of course, for the same reason the Nikon offers a far superior plasticity ("3D-effect") of the image at intermediate distances with its superior stereoscopic basis. All in all one can safely summarize that the Meostar offers a lot of luxury that is absent with the Nikon, the latter being a true instrument for the purist who wants no-compromise optical performance without all those additional bells and whistles that come along with modern high-end binoculars. The following table is supposed to summarize the above observations. The best performing binocular gets two points, the other one just a single one. In case both of them perform equally well, the scores are averaged.
The 'final score' is the sum of the individual scores and is intended to serve as an orientation only.
These two binoculars are playing in the same league when it comes to optical performance. Here they differ among one another in various aspects, but all of these differences are minor and there is no point in rating any binocular significantly higher than the other. Most importantly, their distance to the high-end class is close enough to qualify them as good alternatives. The Meopta has got the advantage when it comes to ruggedness, water resistance and a couple of "luxury" features like eye-relief, eye-cups or close focus. Consequently, it is of somewhat higher price than the Nikon, that only offers excellent optics and a well built body. The Nikon is the best choice for those purists who want maximum optical performance at a moderate price, and who are able and willing to take care of their instrument (which is neither waterproof nor built like a tank - my own sample has already collected a couple of dust grains on its field lenses and may be in need for a cleaning after a few additional years of use). The Meopta offers an excellent overall package at a very attractive price, in particular if we consider how fast the prices of the premium binoculars have been rising in recent years.
The careful reader of this report may not have overseen my attempts to question some of the recent developments in binocular technology. Not everything that is new and costly is necessarily superior. Do we really need 'flat' transmission curves, i.e. maximum transmission even of the shortest wavelengths, to achieve a fully neutral image tone, and then having to wear sun glasses when observing on bright sunny days? If yes, why not at least adding filter threads to dampen/tune the light whenever necessary? Do we need a super fast and low tension focuser, perhaps at the cost of precision? Do we really want to pay a fortune just to have the circle of maximum image sharpness extended all the way to the edge of field, rather than moving the object of interest a little bit toward the center? Many people are using binoculars in order to observe distant objects. Should these people have to pay extra, or compromise performance, because there are some who would like to watch butterflies at 1.5m distance? And is a binocular incomplete if it is not waterproof? Top binoculars of the 1980s like the Zeiss Dialyt and the Leica Trinovid have not been waterproof either, and did a great job nonetheless. Should not those users who are willing to take good care of their gear have the chance to purchase high-end optics without paying extra for water sealing and shock resistance? Let us hope that the manufacturers will find the right answers to these questions and a proper balance between useful improvements and an overload of features that yield little more than a further increase of costs.