Bausch & Lomb Elite 8x42 - Reviewed 10/96



Feature Chart

The Bausch and Lomb Elites have always been among the two or three finest 7 to 8 power full sized birding binoculars. After phase coating was added, their only major short-coming was the lack of any kind of weatherproofing. (In fact, in my initial review of the phase coated model, I just assumed that any binoculars that obviously well designed and made would be waterproof, and listed it as a feature in the review. The people at B&L were quick to point out my mistake, and I had to print a retraction.) With exceptional fully waterproof roofs from Swarovski and Leica on the market in the same price range, I could never quite justify the cost of the Elites; excellent glasses yes, but, surely one of the reasons you would spend extra to own and carry optically excellent roofs is their weatherproofing.

Bausch and Lomb has now introduced two new binoculars in the Elite series, a fog and waterproof, nitrogen purged, 8x42 (model 610842) and a similar 10x42 (model 614210). The standard Elites (8x: model 61284P, and 10x: model 611042P) continue in the line at a list price of $100-$150 less than the water- proofs. The new Elites offer the highest level of weather-proofness currently available. Nitrogen purging removes any remnants of water vapor from the inside of the binoculars before they are sealed, making it very unlikely that the inside elements will ever fog up, even in the most adverse conditions. Fog proof, of course, does not mean that the outside elements won't fog in cold wet weather, but a simple wipe down with a dry cloth will be all these binoculars ever need to keep going in the field. Nitrogen purging should also give them a high resistance to the growth of interior fungus, one of the most debilitating effects of using binoculars in tropical climates. And, of course, any sealing at all prevents dust from collecting in the inside of your expensive optics. Where water can't pass, dust can't either.

In the process of adding waterproofing, Bausch and Lomb took the opportunity to fine tune the optics. The new eyepieces have a listed eye-relief of 19.5mm (compared to 19 and 17 on the original 8 and 10x) and, though the published figures are the same, the close focus on the waterproofs is considerably better (with the 8x glasses I can just barely focus on my own feet while standing, and I am not quite 6 feet tall). The new eyepieces (at least on the 8x model I had for testing) also provide about the flattest, most distortion free field I have yet to see in binoculars. Many otherwise excellent binoculars can not focus the center of the field and the edges at the same time (a flaw called curvature of field) and many show noticeable distortion of one kind or another as you approach the field edge. Straight lines bow in or out (pin cushion or barrel distortion), or the whole image seems to smear outward toward the edge (coma). The new Elites show no shift in focus as you pan across an object and straight lines remain almost perfectly straight right to the edge of the field (with just visible barrel distortion at the extreme margins). The image remains perfectly sharp right to the edge as well.

The new model maintains the exceptionally clear, high-contrast, neutral image of the originals, with phase and multi-coatings doing their jobs particularly well. If anything, the waterproofs have slightly higher resolution and image quality than the originals. On my standard dollar bill test the 8x model comes in at a N.E.E.D. of 20 feet. (N.E.E.D. = naked eye equivalent distance: the distance at which I can see the same amount of detail through the binoculars as I do with my naked eye at my optimum distance of about 14 inches.) If you look at the comparison chart you will see that a N.E.E.D. of 20 feet equals the performance of the best full sized 7 to 8x binoculars I have tested (actually 8.5x), and comes close to equaling the performance of the best 10x roof prism glasses.

As I have said many times in the past, I prefer my eye-relief just on the short side for ease of viewing. The exceptionally long eye-relief of the Elites causes image black out if I am not particularly careful in placing the glasses in front of my eyes. Rolling the eyecups only part way down solves the problem while maintaining the full field of view, but I still long for the first glasses with truly adjustable eyecups so that you can set them to exactly the right distance for your particular eyes. (I have several possible design ideas for any manufacturer who is willing to listen.) Birders who need more eye-relief than I do, or who will use the binoculars without eyeglasses and with the eyecups in their normal position, should have no problems at all.

Perhaps the most radical change, and the one that will undoubtedly cause the most controversy, is the new body shape. The original Elites were somewhat ground-breaking, introducing molded in contours for the hands; the waterproofs take the concept a step further. B&L hired a well known industrial designer to create a body that fits the hands somewhat like the sculpted grip on a target pistol. Ridges on the top of the housing position the index fingers over the focus while deep molded channels in the bottom cradle the thumbs. The design is asymmetric, with the left thumb guided in front of the right. If the design matches the way you hold your binoculars, it is exceptionally comfortable and quite stable. If, however, you have developed a unique hand position and can't (or won't) adapt to that forced on you by the Elite's design, you will very likely be unhappy with the glasses. Left handed birders, in particular, should handle the new Elites before making a purchase decision. I might say here that the position assumed for your hands does an exceptional job of spreading the weight over your fingers and palms in a way that provides maximum support without introducing unwanted stress or muscle strain. I would give the design a good long trial before you decide you can't adapt to it. Bausch and Lomb has a track record of taking design risks; my feeling is that this one is going to pay off in the long run.

While we are talking body design, I should mention the strap attachment. The original Elites had one of the most intelligent strap attachments I have yet seen; the waterproofs are even better. A sturdy plastic tab snaps into a long channel in the binoculars body...push, snap...that's it. The tab can be removed from the supplied strap (a definite improvement over the original design) but given the high quality nylon and neoprene strap that comes with the binoculars you may never have the need. Another design decision that will undoubtedly cause some confusion (and some consumer resistance) is the exceptionally high ratio of the focus control. Four out of five birders who have handled the new Elites (including myself) have come away with an initial impression that the depth of field of the glasses is unacceptably shallow. (Depth of field is the distance in front of and behind the point of true focus where objects in the image are still acceptably sharp. Shallow depth makes focus more difficult and demanding, and means that you will spend more time focusing as birds move. It can also be disconcerting, giving you a moving, high-telephoto-effect, slice of reality feeling rather than a continuous image.)

Side by side testing, however, shows that the depth of field of the Elites is no different than most 8x glasses, and considerably better than most 10x glasses. What is happening here is that the focus control of the Elites moves the focus much more rapidly than most birders are used to. At normal birding distances you barely have to touch the control to shift focus forward or backward yards at a time. This makes the field feel shallow when it is not.

Is rapid focus a good thing in birding binoculars or a bad thing? At the very least it is something that most birders will have to spend time getting used to. With most birding binoculars you sneak up on focus with very fine control, at the price of having to really crank on the knob to make large focus shifts. With the Elites, the large focus shifts are quick and easy, but a light touch is required when precision focus is needed. You have to hit correct focus on the run. I have found that the more I use the Elites, the more I appreciate the rapid focus. In my opinion, the designers have come about as close as possible to hitting the exact balance between speed of focus and precision; but it is really an issue that each birder will have to decide. (By the way, the focus knob on the Elites turns around as many times as any other glass, which makes the high ratio particularly hard to spot. The higher ratio is needed, for one thing, to accommodate the extreme close focus while still reaching infinity in a reasonable number of turns. Compromise is the nature of optical design.)

The focus knob has also been moved to the top (eyepiece end) of the hinge. The original Elites still have it at the bottom. With the new body design, focus placement is easy and natural, but I will miss the front focus under the brim of a hat. The longer I use the new waterproof Elites, the more I like them. All things considered: excellent, outstanding, optics; successful ergonomic design; and complete weatherproofness; the new 8x42 Elites have earned the Better View Desired Reference Standard designation for full sized 7 to 8 power birding binoculars. They represent a distinct improvement over the original design and are binoculars even the most demanding birder should be delighted to carry into the field.

In fact, I find that I have been carrying them more often, these days, than the Leica 8x32s: the current BVD Best All Around Birding Binoculars. Will they replace the Leicas for that designation? It is too early to say. The Elites have a definite edge in extreme situations; dawn and dusk, deep shade, back-lighting, and combinations of bright light and deep shadow (as in most forest birding). They also have an edge, especially in color discrimination, as distances increase. They are, however, considerably larger and heavier than the Leicas, and, to my eyes, the Leicas have a bit easier view (see comments above on eye-relief). Will the performance edge of the Elites offset the compactness and ease of view of the Leicas? I will only be able to tell you when (or if) one or the other has grown a layer of dust by spring. Until then I can say that these are the first binoculars I have tested since the Leica 8x32s that I would seriously consider making my full time birding glasses.

Make/Model

Wt.

WdxHt

NEED

FofV

C.F.

IpD

St.Pr.

Bausch & Lomb

ft@1k yds

mm

Elite 8x42

29oz

4.75x6in

20

365

6ft

56-76

760

Reference Standard