In a review in February, 1994, Better View Desired founder Stephen Ingraham called the Bausch & Lomb 7x26 Custom “ . . . an example of what can be done with compacts if you are willing to spend the money to get everything just about right. The Customs eke out about all the resolution, brightness, and ease of view that is possible in the compact design . . . the only compacts that I would even consider as my primary birding glasses, and, if you can’t justify the cost of the expensive roof prism pockets, they are what I would recommend to any serious birder willing to spend the money for back-up, pick-up, or secondary birding . . . (they) get about as much out of the compact design as can be gotten. The 7x26 provides a large enough exit pupil to avoid the finicky handling of most compacts, with enough power and resolution to be truly useful in the field. They have a very wide field of view and their long eye relief makes the whole field available even to eyeglass wearers. The traditional pebbled leather-like covering wrapped around a well shaped body makes them quite comfortable in the field. Even the slight extra weight is to their advantage, giving them enough mass to be steady in the hand and at the eye. Overall they are the easiest of the compacts to use for extended periods in the field – that alone should be a major selling point. I was disappointed to note that they are not fully multicoated (many full sized binoculars selling for the same price are), and I have never liked the click stop individual eyepiece focus adjustment (my eyes are always somewhere between clicks) . . . These have to be, right now, the reference standard in the compact class.”
Back to 2007. As you may be aware, for years Bushnell designed, produced, and distributed the high-end binoculars sold under the Bausch & Lomb name, such as the B & L Elites. Until 2004, Bushnell simply paid a royalty to Bausch & Lomb for the use of the B & L name and logo, and B & L was not involved with the design or production of the binoculars bearing their name. Bushnell is still making many of the same “B & L” binoculars, but now under their own Bushnell brand. One of these binoculars is the B & L 7x26 Custom that Ingraham praised above, now known as the Bushnell 7x26 Custom. I thought it would be interesting to see if Stephen Ingraham’s 1994 comments still held true, and how the older B & L Custom compares with the current Bushnell version.
I was able to compare a B & L Custom made in 1998 or 1999 (my personal auto glove compartment/backup birding binocular for over eight years) with a 2007-vintage Bushnell Custom borrowed from the Christophers, Ltd. store stock. Here’s how the current Bushnell Custom compares to its 1998 B & L predecessor and to the 1993 B & L Custom that Ingraham reviewed in ’94 and called a “reference standard.”
The 2007 Bushnell Custom and the 1994-2004 vintage Bausch & Lomb Custom seem to be mechanically and optically identical, and still coming from the same factory in Japan. That constancy is unusual, as low to mid-priced far-East optics production goes further off-shore – first from Japan to Taiwan, then to China, and now to the Philippines and beyond – to keep production costs down.
The 1993 Custom that Ingraham reviewed had essentially the same optics as the 1994-2004 version, with the only optical difference being single-layer magnesium fluoride optical coatings in ’93 rather than the multicoatings used in ’94 and later. Unless otherwise specified, the comments below apply to both the 1994-2004 B & L Custom and the current 2007 Bushnell version.
The Custom weighs 12.8 ounces without neckstrap, fairly substantial for a compact binocular. As Ingraham commented above, however, their weight gives them “enough mass to be steady in the hand and at the eye.” The weight is not a burden to carry, even with the narrow (1/4” wide) woven cloth neck strap of the older B & L Custom. The current Bushnell version uses a 1.5” wide woven cloth neck strap that spreads the weight more evenly across the neck and shoulders and further lightens the modest load.
The smoothly-curved black polycarbonate body of today’s Bushnell Custom looks the same today as it has since the B & L body style changed to it in 1994 from the blockier metal body used through ’93. Very lightly textured rubber gripping surfaces are inset into the top of the body. The curved body feels good in the hands. The reversed porro prism design puts the objective lenses closer together than the eyepieces for a very compact shape. This lets the first two joints of the middle fingers of an average-size pair of hands overlap on top of the binocular while the thumbs slide naturally into two shallow grooves on the underside of the body.
The forefinger falls nicely on the lightly ribbed rubber focus wheel at the back of the body hinge. About a third of the focus wheel circumference is accessible for focusing. The remaining two-thirds are recessed into the binocular body, as can be seen in the photo. While the focus wheel is narrow (at only a little over a quarter of an inch wide), it provides enough surface and grip for easy turning and was never uncomfortable to use.
A slight crook of the average-length forefinger puts the ball of the finger at the center of the focus wheel, allowing easy motion in either direction. Focusing is smooth and precise. It’s a little stiff, just enough to eliminate slop in the focusing so you don’t overshoot the mark when changing focus in a hurry. There is minimal hunting to find the sharpest focus once you’re on target.
Close focus on the Custom is about 7’. While not quite the equal of some of the more recent compacts (like the 26 inch close focus of the Pentax Papilios), the Custom may still qualify as a butterfly bino in many observers’ eyes. It certainly fits the bill as a backyard birdfeeder bino. A hair under one and a quarter turns of the focus wheel moves from one end of the focus range to the other. The rate of focus change is reasonable, with two strong pulls of the forefinger on the focus wheel moving from 7’ out to 100’. Two short pulls moves from 7’ to 20’.
Focusing is done by moving the objective lenses back and forth inside the plastic body shell. There is a narrow (about 1mm) gap between the circumference of the objective lens cells and the binocular body. Theoretically, dirt and debris might be able to get in the gap. However, the bottom of the gap seems to be sealed about an inch in (not even a sheet of paper will slip any further than that into the gap), so it is unlikely that debris will be able to get into the binocular optics proper. Bushnell makes no claim that the Custom is waterproof, however, so the body is not sealed to that extent.
The blockier 1993 metal-body model that Ingraham tested also focused by moving the objectives back and forth, but external to the prism housing, rather than moving the eyepieces in and out as most porro prisms do. You can see the movable objective tubes in the image of the 1993 Custom shown here.
In using the 1993 and earlier versions, I always found that one pinky invariably draped over the objective tube and fell in the space between the objectives. This was never as comfortable for me as the 1994 and later molded body that shielded the objectives and gave no valley for my pinky to fall into.
While Bushnell specifies the eye relief as 18mm on all versions, the actual usable eye relief measures 15mm. Shorter usable eye relief than a manufacturer specifies is typical of most binoculars, as the manufacturer’s technically-correct way of designing and measuring eye relief (from the last surface of the eyepiece lens to where the image forms) does not take into account the recessing of the eyepiece below the eyecup rim. In any case, vignetting was only minor when using my glasses, so Ingraham’s long eye relief comment in his 1994 review is essentially correct. Rubber eyecups are of the roll-down type. Not as modern as the twist-up type, perhaps, but effective and easy to adjust.
Both the B & L and Bushnell Customs have been fully-multicoated since 1994, so Ingraham’s comment above about the lack of full multicoatings is moot. Images are bright and contrasty, as you’d expect with good multicoatings. There’s no discernable flare from hot spots, like the reflection of the sun off a distant power line insulator, so internal reflections are well controlled. An examination of the exit pupils showed that the prisms are BaK-4 as specified, not less-expensive BK-7 glass.
Ingraham comments on not liking the Custom’s click stop diopter adjustment. While there still seem to be click stops (you can hear them faintly click as you rotate the right eyepiece), they are so muted in their effect as to be unusable for locking in a diopter correction. Either Bushnell took Ingraham’s complaint to heart, or the click stop tooling has started to wear out after making countless thousands of Customs. Either way, click stops are not an issue with the current Bushnells.
Optically, the 1998 and 2007 binoculars seem to be identical performers. Field width is 6.9° (363’ at 1000 yards, or 12’ at a more useful 100’ distance). Center resolution is excellent. The image starts to soften slightly at 50-60% of the way out from the center to the edge due to curvature of field, but it maintains useful sharpness across 85-90% of the field. At that point, tweaking the focus no longer sharpens the field-edge image, and the main component of the softness shifts from field curvature to astigmatism, with perhaps a touch of coma. Spherical aberration seems to be absent.
Chromatic aberration is very, very minor. Only the faintest trace of red fringing appears on the outer edge of tree trunks and perched crows seen silhouetted against a bright sky, and then only when they are placed at the very edges of the field. There was slightly more fringing visible in a pair of Swift 8.5 x 44 HHS Audubon roof prisms I had handy for comparison. That’s not an indictment of the Audubons (which are highly rated elsewhere on this site); simply a fact of optical life. If all other factors are equal, chromatic aberration will increase as the aperture increases. The smaller 26mm aperture of the Bushnell has inherently less chromatic aberration potential than the 44mm aperture of the Swift.
Geometric distortion is extremely low, lower even than that in a Bushnell 8x43 Elite I was testing at the same time. Straight lines remained almost perfectly straight all across the field with the Custom. There was none of the “looking through a goldfish bowl” effect you sometimes get scanning across the landscape with moderately-priced binoculars.
Color fidelity was excellent. There was a very slight warming of pure white test targets in low light, but it was subtle in the extreme and didn’t show up in the field. I’d have to call the Custom essentially neutral in its color response.
All in all, the Bushnell 7x26 Custom is still the kind of exceptional small-optic performer Ingraham described. I don’t think I can in all conscience rate it a “reference standard” as Ingraham did in 1994, not without comparing it with some of the newer compacts that use aspheric optics – but that’s another test report for another day.
I’ll be content for now to hang on to my glove compartment Custom and rate the Bushnell 7x26 a BVD Starred product – “a product in the same class as the reference standard, which some birders might prefer.” Since there is no current anointed “reference standard” for compacts, though, maybe the Custom will have to be the reference standard until someone comes along to dethrone it.
Fred Bieler, August 2007