For many years, the Nikon E Series binoculars: a 7x35, a 8x30, and a 10x35, have represented one of the best values in high quality birding optics. Whenever I saw someone in the field with the 8x30s Es (in particular) I knew I was looking at a birder who valued function above fashion. The 8x30 Es are certainly among the ugliest binoculars ever made, and, as porro prism glasses they don't, just by wearing them, automatically evivate you to the status of "serious birder" (as almost any roof prism glass will in the eyes of most of the birding community), but if your primary concern is seeing birds and seeing them well, the Nikon 8x30 Es have always done the job amazingly well.
Of course, with the advent of the Nikon Superior E line, the Es were, as surely the naming of the new line would indicate, put somewhat into the shade. The Nikon Superior Es, the 8x32 and the 10x42, set a clear (and still unsurpassed) standard for porro prism performance, and pushed back the boundaries of binocular performance in general, giving the best roofs something to shoot at. Optically they outperform any binocular on the market, providing sharper, brighter images than even the most expensive (and considerably larger) roofs. Their handling is wonderful, perfectly balanced and designed for the steadiest hold imaginable, light around the neck and a joy in the hand. They have also proved, over several cycles of seasons in the field now, to be amazingly durable, certainly as durable as any of the high end roofs. (I have it on good authority that their internal construction is solid enough to impress even hardened optical repair technicians.)
So, what do you do, if you are Nikon, with an E series languishing in the shadow of the new glasses? Time for a revision of the venerable Es.
The new Es are physically very similar to the old. They are still ugly (the 8x30s, short and squat) or ordinary (the 10x35s). The design harkens back to pre-world-war-two glasses from Zeiss. The 8x30, in particular, looks very like 8x30 binoculars still made in Jena, from original Zeiss designs, until a few years ago. The body is still cased in no frills pebbly imitation leather. While it is hard to say what, if any, changes were made to the optical design, I can at least say that their performance is the equal of the old Es, and perhaps a bit better (see more below). The primary change seems to the switch to what Nikon is billing as an environmentally friendly glass for the lenses (I don't know if that means lead free or if the manufacturing process is inherently less polluting).
Of, course, one obvious comparison you could make would be with the Superior Es. If you take a look at the NEED chart here, you can see that the image quality of both the 8x30 and 10x35 E compares very favorably with the Superior E glasses. (The NEED test compares the distance at which binoculars, under identical conditions, will show the same amount of detail as you would see with your naked eye at your best focus distance of about 12 to 18 inches. See NEED Test Revisited for more information.) While off the mark in both cases, it is close enough so that no one using the glasses in the field is going to notice much difference. Both the 8x30 and 10x35 E give the kind of optical performance that will satisfy the most demanding birder day in and day out, dawn to dusk. The field of view of both E series glasses is slightly wider than the equivalent Superior E: 7.5 degrees vs. 8.8 for the 8x glasses, 6 degrees vs. 7 for the 10x glasses (that's 394 vs. 462 and 315 vs.368 for field in feet at 1000 yards). However, differences in eyerelief (both Es have shorter eyerelief than the SEs) make the usable field of view all but identical with my glasses. I do have my eyeglasses made to sit back as tight to my face and eyes as possiblesome eyeglass wearers would loose even more field with the Es. Both Es focus about a foot closer than the SEs (8 feet for the 8x and 10 feet for the 10x), though, for some unknown reason, the SEs seem to strain my eyes less at close focus than the Es.
When it comes to handling, my expectation, based on the apparently conventional porro design of the Es, was that Nikon had not managed to repeat the trick they used on the Superior Es to give them the same "elbows in" holding stance as roof-prism glasses. (On most porros, the placement of the focus wheel and the design of the body forces your elbows up and out, putting the weight on your muscles rather than on your bones and making it much more difficult (and tiring) to maintain a steady view. That has always been a major advantage of roof prism glasses. The Superior Es, by a using careful "chamfering" (beveling, sloping, slanting) of the prism housing, were the first porros to allow you to keep your elbows in and down while focusing.) However, experience in the field proved me wrong. Though the chamfering of the prism housing is not as radical as on the SEs, and though it slopes a different section of the body, the Es are almost as holdable as the SEs. The focusing fingers fit on the outside of the prism housing and allow for almost the same elbows in and down stance as the SEs. Whoever did this little detail on the body design deserves high marks indeed.
Nikon E 8x30
Nikon SE 8x32
Comparing one E to the other, 8x vs. 10x, I, of course, prefer the 8x. It is smaller and provides most of the performance of the larger glass, with a wider field. At the same time, the 10x35 is among the most usable 10x glasses I have ever tested, and, if I were a 10x sort of birder (or if I were spending the day at a hawk watch) it would be a very easy glass to carry and I am confident that it would satisfy the most demanding birder.
So, what are the drawbacks of the new Es. Because both glasses use extreme wide angle eyepieces to give their wide fields of view, there is more distortion across the field than in the SEs (or in most other binoculars using more conventional eyepieces). Compared side by side with the SEs the Es lack just that little edge of noticeable superiority. The view is excellent. The view is exceptionally good and very satisfying, until you pick up the SEs and then you still notice a difference. The SEs have that perfectly designed, perfectly executed view. At the same time, the new Es have to represent, once again, one of the outstanding values in high quality birding binoculars currently available. The handling is excellent, the optics are only surpassed by the much more expensive SEs and the best of the roofs, and the price is within reach for beginners, bargain hunters, and those of us on restricted budgets. The new Nikon E Series are an impressive accomplishment indeed.
Nikon Superior E 8x32.........................................Nikon E 8x30
If you caught my review of the new Zeiss Victory 8x42s in Birding Magazine's "Tools of the Trade," you know that I was less than impressed. The glasses, while among the brightest roofs currently available (due to a radical prism design that is much closer to a porro than it is to a conventional roofit has no "silvered" mirror surfaces to degrade the image), the handling and optics left something to be desired. In their favor, in addition to their brightness, the Victories are very light weight at 26 ounces for waterproof roofs. However, the placement of the strap lugs were they can't help but dig into the soft tissue between your thumb and palm when you hold them, and the very tire-rubbery armor, and the somewhat odd eyecups that leave only a very thin rubber bumper for eyeglasses to rest on when down, make them hard to love. (One feature I did not notice on the original units I tested and did notice on these is that Zeiss has provided a simple and very clever method of locking the twist up, twist down, eyecups in the up position.) The worst drawback on the original model I tested was, however, that it just wasn't very sharp and the field was noticeable distorted. Zeiss has yet to address the strap lug issue, (and I have decided I could live with the armor and might even get to like its ultra tacky hold over time), but they have tackled the optical issues head on. Apparently first production samples were not what they expected either. The optical design has been tweaked to eliminate almost all of the distortion (making it no more noticeable than any of the other high end roofs in the revised edition), and, to my eye at least, to increase overall sharpness and definition. The result, while still not the glass I think we have a right to expect from the makers of the 7x42 Classic (still, after years on the market, among the best all around birding glasses ever made), is a binocular that is definitely worth a look.
In it's favor:
The balance: Among current models, the Nikon Venturer LXs are sharper than the Victories and provide a more comfortable focus and hold, but they are considerably heavier; the Baush and Lomb Elites are not quite as bright and have a quick, close focus that you have to learn to love, but which some do indeed learn to love; the Leica 8x42s are uncomfortable in some hands, considerably heavier and show more edge distortion, but with higher center field resolution, and the Swaroski 8.5x42 ELs, while clearly optically superior, have a focus mechanism that requires a conversion experience to be comfortable with and are considerably more expensive. It is getting so that, in high end roofs, all of them offer waterproofness and durability, excellent optical performance, and an exceptional view of the bird: you select your optics by finding the one whose particular set of individual quirks (slow focus, odd strap lugs, too quick focus, weight, etc.) irritates you least (or you buy Nikon Superior E porros, protect them in downpours, and just learn to live with the second class birder image, secure in the knowledge that you are really getting a better view).
In the revised edition here, the Zeiss Victories have earned a place among the top roofs: but we are still waiting for Zeiss to design a glass that is better than, and a worthy successor to, the 7x42 Classic.