I have been a fan of Leupold & Stevens for a long time. This company (along with Swift) has consistently over-delivered by producing very high quality products at very attractive prices. When I heard that they had a brand new high end binocular, I couldn’t wait to try it. However, when I first opened the box all I could say was, “What on earth were they thinking?” “They weigh too much!” “These must have been designed by some unemployed Soviet architect.” I was, candidly, tempted to pack them up and return them without even giving them a trial. After the initial disappointment in the dull brown wrapper, I realized that Leupold is making a statement here -- one that hunters and fisherman understand, which many birders don't seem to get. Outdoor equipment (including clothing) should blend in with the outdoors. Binoculars should be unobtrusive. They should be brown, green, or camouflage -- not black.
I confess to liking (or being used to) the look of black binoculars, so it took me a while to get used to the brown armor of the Golden Rings. I got over my feelings about the appearance of these bins when I took them birding. In fact, I had one of those “wow” moments. Then I remembered the fable – the one about the plain-looking girl who, under her plain brown cloak, is beautiful and brilliant. The one who makes you happy for the rest of your life.
Comfort, Focus, and Handling: My first impression of these binoculars was that they are too heavy. At 33.5 ounces, they are 6 ounces heavier than the other top 8x42s that I have handled recently. When I called Leupold to ask about the weight, I was told that they could find nothing to shave off. The housing is magnesium, and the insides are all glass. So I decided to set my hesitation about the weight aside until I got a sense of how these bins handle in the field. Rather than using the neck strap provided, I installed a shoulder/back harness to move the weight off my neck. In the field I was immediately impressed by how well these bins handle. The front-to-rear balance is near perfect. The thumb rests are shallow and long, which allow the user a lot of flexibility in finding a comfortable hand position.
After using them for a while I concluded that the few extra ounces are certainly noticeable, but the weight is within acceptable limits. There have certainly been heavier binoculars. Several years ago the members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology World Series of Birding Team elected to use the huge and (I thought) ridiculously heavy Swarovski 10x50 SLC. Although I prefer a lighter binocular, I find that weight does add stability. Like a weighted competition rifle, a properly weighted and balanced binocular is less susceptible to hand movement than a lighter one. If you doubt this compare any full-sized binocular to an 8x21 pocket model. I find that pocket-sized binoculars are nearly impossible to hold steady because they are simply too light. Remember your high school physics? It is harder to set a heavy object in motion than a lighter one. Weight dampens vibration. As for comfort, you can deal with the carrying weight by using a shoulder/back harness as I did.
The strap lugs are very robust and well-shaped, but I found that they were located a little too close to my hands. Although the lugs are rounded I found that they occasionally got in the way, and would like to see them moved closer to the eyepiece.
The focus knob is large, well-shaped, well positioned, and falls comfortably under my index finger. It turns with what I consider to be a proper amount of resistance through 1 ½ rotations. The diopter adjustment is on the right barrel and seems stiff enough to ensure that it will stay in place.
The Golden Ring’s focus is one of the best that I have encountered. In this regard it ranks with the Nikon LX L, and the Zeiss Victory FL. It is extremely fast and precise. These bins seem to “snap” into focus with fewer manipulations, and less back-and-forth movement of the focus knob than other binoculars I have used (other than the above mentioned models from Nikon and Zeiss). Getting on a bird. and then refocusing, say from distant waterfowl to a nearby sparrow, is a snap.
The angle of view is 7.4 degrees which translates into a generous 388 feet at 1,000 yards. (This is competitive with Swarovski, Leica, and Zeiss.) The generous field of view and the outstanding focusing system make finding birds and keeping them in the binocular field seem like second nature with the Golden Ring.
The Golden Ring has solid twist-up eyecups with click stops to allow the user to adjust his or the distance of his or her eye from the eyepiece. Leupold hasshaped the eyecups so that the outer edges form a thin ridge. A non-eyeglass wearing friend complained to me that he found the eyecups to be irritating. I found that although they are serviceable, these eyecups move too easily and feel too "sloppy" for my taste. I would like to see them re-designed and given a feeling of greater precision (like Swarovski or Leica) and given a more comfortable shape. The Golden Ring has 17.5 mm of eye relief, and I had no trouble seeing almost to the edges of the field while wearing my eyeglasses (which have very thin lenses). One problem associated with a wide angle, long eye-relief eyepiece is image blackout -- the disappearance of the image when your eye is not centered perfectly in the exit pupil. Many top binoculars suffer from image blackout to some extent. You have to "learn" to use them. The current market which demands a wide angle of view and long eye relief pushes optics engineers to the limits of what is possible with current technology. Meeting these antithetical demands requires an exotic (very expensive) multi-element eyepiece, which is one of the reasons that alpha class binoculars cost so much. Manufacturers of more modestly priced binoculars commonly address the problem by allowing the wide angle to reduce the eye relief to a lower number than that included in their specifications -- a solution which makes it difficult or impossible to see the edges of the field with or without eyeglasses -- and negates some of the benefit of a wide angle of view. Leupold gets very high marks here. They rank with the best binoculars in balancing angle of view with ease of use. The Golden Ring designers have managed to produce a moderately priced binocular with a wide angle of view which causes no image blackout, while allowing the user to see almost to the extreme edges of the field.
Leupold has covered the top of the hinge with a plate which, I assume, is designed to keep dirt out of the hinge – a thoughtful feature which I have not seen before. Also unique is a knob at the bottom of the hinge which locks the interpupilary distance in place. This is a nice thought, but I found enough play in the lock to negate its usefulness. If Leupold could eliminate the play in the lock, it would indeed be a convenient feature.
Like most binoculars, the Golden Ring comes with a rain/food guard. For some reason Leupold provided their top binocular with their cheapest rain/food guard. It is made from soft rubber which feels flimsy and gives the impression that it will last for about a month. The guard is also awkward to remove. Binoculars this good deserve a better rain/food guard -- one that stays in place but pops off easily. I hope that Leupold will replace the one now being provided. The Golden Ring also comes with objective lens covers which are tethered together. Like the rain/food guard, it feels flimsy to me. These bins deserve better designed covers.
Resolution, brightness, and Image Quality:
When I mounted the Golden Ring on a tripod and tested its resolution, color fidelity, flatness of field, and chromatic aberration, I found that the objective reality matched my experience in the field. Simply stated, the image quality ranks with the best binoculars in the world -- regardless of price. Just how good are they? In my testing I found the resolution of the Golden Ring to be very close to the Swarovski ELs (which have the best resolution that I have tested).
Apparent brightness also ranks with the best. I found the image to be brilliant and crisp. They appear (to me) to be brighter than Swarovski Els, and very close to the top models from Leica and Zeiss.
As with all the binoculars I have tested, there is a small amount of chromatic aberration. In this regard, the Golden Ring out-performs the Swarovski ELs and equals the Nikon LX L and Leica Ultravids. The only bin which I have tested which has less chromatic aberration is the Zeiss Victory FL. Similarly, the flatness of the field ranks with the very best. The color rendition appears to be very natural with a slightly warm bias.
I used the Golden Ring on several birding trips with friends. (I always try to lend whatever binoculars I am testing to as many people as possible to get their reactions.) My friend, Aaron, pretty much summed up the responses. When we met in the parking lot and he saw the Golden Ring around my neck, he asked: “What’s that around your neck? Started shopping in surplus stores, have you?” Aaron was wearing an alpha-priced binocular around his neck, but I got him to stop laughing for long enough to convince him to swap for a half hour. His first look elicited a “Wow.” His second, third, and fourth looks elicited a “hey, these are sweet.” (Aaron is much younger than I am.) He then started asking what they cost and wondered how he could justify replacing his current bins with a pair of Golden Rings.
To date, I have tested several binoculars in the $800-$1,000 price range and have found most of them to be disappointing. I expect bins in this price range to be almost indistinguishable from the cost-no-object alpha class bins. Most of those which I have tested have been closer to (in some cases, not as good as) the $250-$500 bins. Until now the Nikon Premier LX L 8x32 (available for about $950), have been my under $1,000 favorite.
Leupold has its roots in the hunting market where the company developed a reputation for excellent products. Having been in the birding market for several years, binocular-savvy birders recognize Leupold as a serious contender in the mid-price ranges, but the Golden Ring is the company's first foray into the high end. Gaining acceptance as a serious high-end competitor seems to be a necessary step to capturing a bigger share of the birding market. The Golden Rings are, by any standard, a very impressive product. What you get is a binocular whose resolution, focus, brightness, balance, and lack of distortion equals the very best instruments on the market, regardless of cost. The weaknesses are in the design of the eyecups and the weight. After spending a lot of time in the field with these bins I found that I am still aware of the weight, but found it manageable. A small woman, someone with arthritis, or an older person will probably find the weight to be a problem, so I urge you to try the Golden Ring (or any binocular) before making a commitment. If you find the Golden Ring to be comfortable, you will not find better optics in this price range. If you are shopping in this price category, and find that the weight of the Golden Ring is uncomfortable for you, I suggest that you give serious consideration to Nikon Premier L XL 8x32, or the Zeiss Conquest 8x40.
Settling on a final rating for these bins was a bit of a problem for me. I was tempted to give them a starred rating, which means that a binocular is, for all purposes, a reference standard, but that a few things need tweaking. However I feel that the middling eyecups and the weight of these bins are so far out-weighed by their optical quality and handling that I finally decided that the Golden Rings really deserve the designation of Better View Desired Reference Standard in the category of full-size binoculars in the $800-$1,000 price range. In virtually every regard, the Golden Ring is an alpha class binocular which sells for $300-$700 less than their sleeker looking, lighter cousins.