Swift 8.5x44 Audubon

A poor man’s Swarovski EL? More than that! A redesign of a classic birding glass that provides significant handling improvements while equaling or bettering the original extraordinary optical performance.

Until the introduction of the Swarovski 8.5x42 EL last year, Swift had the only 8.5x binocular on the market: the excellent 8.5x44 Audubon. There is much to be said for 8.5 power. It gives you just that bit of extra reach you sometimes need, a slightly larger image of the bird to add you your enjoyment, and without adding so much extra magnification (optical leverage) that the image becomes hard to hold still enough to see (go much over 9x and the image bounces around with every breath and muscle tremor). In addition, the Audubon was among the first glasses designed specifically for birding and it’s excellent optics, wide field, close focus, and reasonable price have made it justifiably popular among birders just moving up to their first “serious” birding binoculars, and birders who value function (optical performance) over form (the hand-friendly design and quality mystique of roof prism glasses). It was my first full sized binocular and I have always been partial to it. Until the Nikon Venturer LX and the Swarovski ELs came out, only the Zeiss 7x42 equaled the Audubon for absolute “ease of view.” The Audubons are just easy to look through, day in, day out, bird after bird.

On the down side, the original Audubons are big. The bulk of them is just too much for some birders with small hands. The design of the body also forces your elbows up and out in what I call the seagull stance, putting the weight of the glasses on your muscles and tendons instead of supporting it with bones. And it is significant weight. The original Audubons weighed an honest 30 ounces. They were a handful, by anybody’s reckoning. What is more, the Audubons lacked any kind of weather sealing and were noted, if you weren’t very careful, for fogging up on the inside when conditions deteriorated. Finally, their pebble grained leather-like finish, while the height of fashion when they were introduced, was beginning to look decidedly dated in the field.

Taking all that into account, Swift felt it was time for a new Audubon, or at least a major revision of the old one. They poled high profile birders across the country and developed a “wish list” for the new glass, and then turned it over to there designers.

The result is a much more modern looking binocular, with improved handling, and optics at least as good, if not slightly better, than the old Audubon.

They managed to shave off a few ounces of body weight (from 30 down to 28 ounces on my scale, but many have the impression, due to the improved handling, see below, that the reduction is more than that), but the major change, though the two bodies are practically identical in size, is a reshaping of the prism housing to allow your fingers to rap securely around and reach the large focus wheel with your elbows still pretty much down and under the glasses.

Most obvious is the switch to a “rubber body armor” that has exactly the right tactile feel—firm enough for a secure hold, resilient enough for comfort, and adherent enough so your fingers won’t slip. Other changes are more subtle, and may not even seen significant until you have the glasses in your hands and up to your eyes. For instance, what appear to be purely “cosmetic” half moon notches on the sides of the housing (where “Swift” and “Waterproof” are stamped into the armor) actually turn out to relieve pressure on the upper palm of the hand where it meets the fingers just enough to increase the comfort of the hold. The little bit of golf ball texturing in the sharply angled focus channel mates with your finger tips and provides an amazingly secure and comfortable hold. The slight rollover at the top of the housing makes it possible to settle your index fingers there and focus with your longer middle fingers. The increased comfort is the sum of many tiny details—but, somehow, it is more, as they say, than the sum of its parts. The new Audubons are significantly easier to hold and more comfortable in your hands than the old.

On another cosmetic note, Swift has replaced the somewhat problematic roll down rubber eyecups (I wore out several pairs in the life of my original Audubons) with much more elegant and functional “screw in, screw out” cups, just like the expensive roofs are sporting these days.

Weatherproofing is another thing the new Audubons share with expensive roofs. The Audubons are among a very few porro-prism binoculars that are “Waterproof,” sealed against moisture. They are not, however, “fog-proof.” (Many roofs prism glasses are filled with dry nitrogen gas at the factory and sealed so that no external moisture can ever get in. Such glasses are advertised as both “water” and “fog” proof.) Even so, waterproofing is just the extra margin of safety Audubon users have always needed. The Audubons might not survive deep immersion for years at a time, but they are certainly tight enough to come in dry when you get caught outside in a heavy rain. They should even survive tropical use with moderate care.

The close focus has also been improved. These glasses focus down to 10 feet, certainly as close as any birder might need.

The optics of the old Audubon were, obviously, its selling point. Nothing else in its price category, when it was originally introduced, came close to it. In fact, for years, it represented the state of the art in porro-prism optical quality, and actually outperformed any of the $1000 roofs of the day.

Competition is somewhat stiffer today. The best of the roof prism glasses are very fine indeed, and optimized porros like the Nikon Superior E series have set a unmatched standard in optical performance.

How do the new Audubons compare: in a word (or two), amazingly well! Centerfield resolution (with the bird centered in the view) is actually better than the 8x Superior Es (see the NEED Image Quality Chart)—with the extra half power (8.5 vs. 8x) and the extra objective diameter (44 mm vs. 32 mm) the Audubons should outperform the Superior Es. The fact is, very few binoculars, in actual side by side comparisons live up to there theoretical performance. The 32 mm Superior Es easily outperform most 42 mm roof prism glasses, so the Audubon’s performance is very good indeed. A more precise comparison, of course, would be with the Swarovski 8.5x42 ELs. The new Audubons easily equal the ELs center field resolution and image quality, and, they appear just a bit brighter in most lights. (Brightness is a very subjective matter and I use the word “appears” intentionally. I have not measured the actual light transmission of either glass. I am only giving my studied impression.)

The only optical failing the Audubons have is eyerelief. Both the Swarovski ELs and the Swift Audubons are listed as having similar fields of view (430 feet at 1000 yards) and similar eyerelief (17 mm). Eyerelief is the distance behind the eyepiece your eye has to be to see the full field of view. It is important for all birders, and critical for eyeglass wearers, who can get no closer to the eyepiece, obviously, than the distance between their glasses and their eyes. 17 mm of eyerelief should be plenty for any eyeglass wearer. However, the actual usable eyerelief on the Audubons is closer to 12 mm than it is to 17. No one with glasses is going to see much more than 2/3s of the possible field of view through the Audubons. Now, I actually have a copy of the Japanese Export Institute report that testifies that the Audubons have 17 mm of eyerelief, based on measurements of the focal lengths of various components. This is simply one of those cases where the math and the matter don’t match. With my glasses (which I have, intentionally, made to fit as close to my face as is physically possible), I get a useable field of view through the Audubons of about 360 feet at 1000 yards—still pretty good, but a long way from the 430 feet that is theoretically possible.

That said, the improvements to handling, the waterproofness, the exceptional optical performance, and the classic 8.5x44 design of the new Audubons, with it's trademark "easy-view, make them a Better View Desired Starred Product, among the finest optical instruments available to the birder today. If you have lusted after the 8.5x42 Swarovski ELs, but been put off by the price, take a look at the Audubons. They provide 95% if the optical and field performance at quarter of the price (though, admittedly with out the fine nuances of handling and the mystique of the roofs). If these are not poor man’s ELs, it is because they have enough valuable features of their own to keep the comparison from being that one-sided. You might as well ask if the ELs are “extra-expensive” Audubons. If you have been looking for an optimized porro design like the Nikon SEs, but, again, found the price a barrier, you owe it to yourself to get to a Swift dealer and take a look at the new Audubons. Swift continues to respond to birder’s needs with truly “birdworthy” binoculars, and the Audubons continue to be the flagship Swift.

Swift Ultralite 8x44 ED

While reviewing the new Audubon, it seemed worthwhile to take a look at the other 44 mm Swift offering: the 8x44 ED model in the Ultralite line. The Ultralites represent some of the best optical values currently on the market, regularly rating a BVD Best Buy. ED glass in the objective of binoculars, in theory, should reduce the amount of chromatic aberration seen in the image, making colors more pure and giving the ability to separate finer shades and pick up subtle hues. All binoculars show at least some chromatic aberration in critical situations. If you look through binoculars at a dark object against a light background you see little (or not so little, depending on the model) fringes of color, generally reddish purple to green, running right along the edge against the light background. The effect is caused by the fact that a simple lens can not focus all the colors of light at the same time. Quality binocular objectives bring all but one color of light to the same focus, and it the odd color out, out of focus light that you see along the edges of objects. Unfortunately this unfocused light is all through the image, muddying all the colors—it is just easier to see at the edge of things. Every roof prism glass I have tested shows a good deal of chromatic aberration. Inexpensive roofs show the most, some of them so much that those who are extra-sensitive to the unfocused light can't use them. High quality porro prism glasses, in general, show less.The Nikon Superior Es, in the most revealing situations, show just a hair line fringe of green. The Audubons, reviewed above, show just a touch of yellow. Either glass has so little aberration that you have to really look for it to see it. I don't, in fact, advise you to look for chromatic aberration. It seems that once your eyes are sensitized to it, you see it all the time. (See the letter from David Fisher of Sunbird Tours.).

The Swift Ultralite EDs, on the other hand, are the binoculars for those with an extra measure of sensitivity to chromatic aberration. They show none at all. The colors are as pure as you are going to see, which gives them a extra measure of snap in all situations.

They have a good deal to recommend them beyond the ED glass as well. They are a delight to hold, the optics are excellent, eyerelief is very good, and field of view is adequate. Their only drawback is that they do not focus as closely as some modern glasses (they are not included in the NEED chart above because they would not resolve the target at their closest focus distance). Not the glasses for Butterflyers.

Still, if color purity is a primary consideration in your birding, take a look at the Ultralite EDs. You have never seen a bluebird until you have seen it through ED glass!

Swift Trekker 8x26

Making this an all Swift issue, here is little binocular for those of you who like to have something in the glove compartment for those birding emergencies—you know, you are on the way to the dentist when an Ivory Gull lands on the dumpster out behind the Ye Old Donutt Shoppe, or you are walking the dog when an unfamiliar warbler lets off in the bushes beside the trail. The Trekkers are just a few ounces of poly-carbonate and glass, but they provide a very satisfying view of the bird indeed. In fact, in good light, the view through them is very close to that you would get through full sized binoculars...just as sharp, just a bright. They are, as the name implies, the perfect glass for backpacking. They will fit in the outside pocket of any pack or in a jacket pocket at a pinch. Why be without binoculars?