ScopeViews’ Best Buys 2020
Here are my best buys for 2020, sifted from many recent reviews, some ongoing. I update this from time to time to reflect recent product releases and new reviews.
Best Buy High-Power Astronomy Binoculars
Swarovski 15x56 SLC HD or Vortex Razor 18x56 UHD
These two models share my recommendation for the best available hand-held astronomy binoculars. But in both cases, only if you can handle their weight and high-power shakes – try before you buy. Both do work well on a tripod too, but the adapter is extra in both cases.
Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC HDs were my once my absolute favourites for astronomy. Technically, the 15x56 SLC HDs are some of the best binoculars I have ever tested, period, with a wide flat field and outstanding correction for false colour as well as very sharp optics and good eye relief. Their astronomy performance is astoundingly good if you can hold them steady – they will find things 10x50s just won’t and they cut through sky glow better too.
The Vortex Razor 18x56 UHDs were launched last summer. They are slightly less perfect than the SLCs: they have a bit more field edge softening and quite a lot more false colour. However, their view is otherwise every bit as brilliant and detailed, whilst that extra power does give them even more reach for deep sky. On the Moon they offer detail to rival a small telescope. What’s more, their unusual flared-barrel design makes them very easy to hold steady.
Runner up is Zeiss’ 15x56 Conquest HD. The Zeiss remain a great binocular, but the Swaros are smaller, better made and have a better corrected field, whilst the Vortex offer more power and are slightly lighter and comfier to hold.
Best Buy General Purpose Astronomy Binoculars
Swarovski 10x50 EL
Given that 10x50 is perhaps the ideal format for a general purpose astronomy binocular, it’s a shame there are so few premium examples to choose from. Neither Zeiss nor Nikon make a premium 10x50 at the time of writing. That’s not a problem though, because Swarovski make a 10x50 version of their Swarovision EL line and if you are prepared to spend the cash it is a superb do-everything binocular.
The EL 10x50 shares its basic qualities with other members of the EL range. It gives a wonderfully wide, flat, bright and aberration-free view. It’s not a big or heavy binocular for a 10x50 either. So if you choose to buy it you get the best of both worlds – a view like the best birding binoculars, but the night-sky reach of something larger. The only price you’ll pay (literally – they are much the same cost as the 10x42 EL) is a couple of hundred grams extra weight.
The 10x50 EL is anything but cheap, but I can justify its best buy status because it does everything so well it you could save you money by being your only binoculars.
If you want to treat yourself to just one pair of fine binoculars for birding and astronomy, make it a pair of Swarovski 10x50 ELs. If you want a bit more power, but don’t want a pair of 15x56s, then the 12x50 ELs are great too.
Best Buy Mid-Price Binoculars
Leica Trinovid HD 10x42
These newer Leica Trinovids do almost everything well. They have a great view from HD optics, comfortable eyepieces with plenty of relief for glasses wearers and a comfy hold. They are light too, focus close and have an excellent focuser. The only downsides are a bit more field-edge softening than some and a bit more false colour than Zeiss’ Conquest 10x42s.
Their European build quality (made in Portugal) is almost embarrassingly good – much like Leica’s premium models in fact. The icing on the cake is that their price is currently very reasonable – lower than the equivalent Zeiss Conquest or Nikon Monarch HGs, which helps them get the recommendation here.
Best Buy Budget Binoculars
Nikon Monarch 5 10x42
These binoculars seem to be a bit of an exception to the rule that you get what you pay for. Online you can get them for as little as £250, yet the view is very comparable with the next price bracket up which includes budget models from premium brands at over twice the price.
On the upside, these are very light weight, well made and give a bright, sharp view. The Monarchs use ED glass to kill false colour and do it as effectively as any binocular I have tested. They handle well, have good eye relief for specs-wearers and a smooth focuser too. They work well for birding, but very acceptably for casual astronomy as well.
The only downsides to the Nikon Monarch 5 10x42s are that they have a narrow field of view and a bit of astigmatism at the edges; but overall, they are an excellent binocular from a quality brand for a modest outlay.
Best Buy Travel Binoculars
Zeiss Victory 8x32 FL
If you want a pair of ‘proper’ binoculars for that special trip (or maybe lots of special trips) it’s going to have to be small and light or you’ll end up tossing it out of the case to make room for more underwear. I know, I’ve been there.
So, which is the smallest and lightest proper binocular that gives a really great view? The answer, in my view, is easy – the Zeiss 8x32 FL.
The Victory 8x32 is an old model now. It’s the last of the Victory FL range still on sale and there’s a reason: it’s still an unbeatable package. The 8x32 FL is tiny but it gives a wide, bright, sharp view, has an excellent focuser and is very rugged.
You’ll appreciate the composite body of the tiny FLs because it’ll keep your hands warmer on the deck of that ice-breaker you’re taking beyond Svalbard. And its super-bright optics will let you find the Magellanic Clouds and Eta-Carinae on that big trip down under.
Competition? Not really. Yes, the Swarovski EL 8x32 gives just as good a view, better even, but it’s significantly larger; heavier too. The Leica Ultravid 8x32 HD is just as compact and slightly lighter, but it has too little eye relief and a lower level of optical performance. The Swarovski 8x30 Companion is even lighter, but the view just can’t cut it –narrower and dimmer and not HD. The Kowa 8x33’s focuser is too stiff and its view not as sparkling.
The only downside is that the deals you could once get on the 8x32 FLs seem to have all dried up. Perhaps everyone has cottoned on to the fact it’s (still) in a class of its own.
Best Buy Travel ‘Scope for Eclipses
Takahashi FS-60Q or Questar Standard 3.5
Lunar eclipse through Takahashi FS-60Q.
The FS-60Q is a tiny portable quadruplet refractor. It is basically an FS-60 (an F6 fluorite doublet) with a special doublet 1.7x extender called the ‘CQ Module’ threaded into the OTA.
The result is superb small apochromat with a very well corrected and flat field covering a 44mm image circle (in other words you get a flat, well-illuminated field across a full-frame sensor). The extender also removes most residual aberrations, so the FS-60Q works at very high magnifications and image scales for its size.
All that makes the FS-60Q a super-sharp 600mm telephoto lens for fantastic photos of the Moon that belie its small size; it works brilliantly as a visual instrument too. It packs up into a tiny carry-on bag and will fit on the smallest mount. So it’s ideal for travelling to eclipses – both Solar and Lunar.
You can either buy the FS-60Q as a complete scope (see above), or just get the thread-in CQ module to upgrade an existing FS-60.
Since I started recommending the FS-60Q for eclipses, Takahashi have brought out another 60mm ‘Q’ telescope, the FOA-60Q. I love the FOA-60Q, so why aren’t I recommending it instead?
Although the FOA-60Q does have slightly better correction than the FS-60Q, along with larger image scale, it is significantly longer, heavier, more expensive and slower at F15.
The reason this category has two best buys is that the FS-60Q is just a telescope, whilst Questar is a complete package in a way nothing else is: a tiny carry on case that contains ‘scope, finder, mount, drive, star and Moon maps, eyepiece, barlow lens and a white-light solar filter. No, it’s not cheap, but nothing else comes close to its functionality as a travel scope. That case contains everything you need (except maybe for a camera adapter).
Optically, Questar is a long-focus Maksutov, so it’s not nearly as flexible as the FS-60Q for imaging, though perfect for eclipses.
Best Buy 3” Refractor
The FC-76 replaced Takahashi’s superb-but-big FS-78. It is lightweight, very well corrected and good for high power visual use as well as imaging (the field is surprisingly flat, even without a reducer/flattener). If you want a basic flattener, Tak’ make a cheap-but-good multi-flattener that will cover full frame and work with any other Tak’s you might own.
The FC-76 now comes in two versions; optics are the same:
· The FC-76DS weighs about 3kg and has a sliding dew-shield for maximum compactness; it looks like a Sky-90 and shares its 95mm O.D. tube and focuser
· The FC-76DCU is cheaper, has a fixed dew-shield and 80mm O.D. tube and the smaller FS-60 focuser. It is longer than the DS, but only weighs a paltry 1.8 Kg
Crucially, the DCU splits in half for easy carry-on portability and gets the nod from me.
You could get an FC-76DCU in three ways:
· Buy the FC-76DCU as a complete product
· Buy the FC-76 objective unit to upgrade an existing FS-60C
· Create a complete split-tube FC-76 from the objective unit using a third party focuser and the FS-60C to CB conversion tube.
Best Buy 4” Refractor
Takahashi’s 100mm equivalent of the FC-76 is another excellent Tak’. The FC-100D is a fluorite doublet and though it’s not quite as well corrected as the discontinued TSA-102 triplet, it is pretty good, with low false colour, a flat field and good coverage (hence the ‘D’ for Digital tag). So the FC-100D is great for imaging, with various reducers available but still good without. Surprisingly, it also works very well for high powered visual use too.
There are now four versions of the FC-100D, but unless you need the DF’s imaging focuser or the DZ’s perfect correction, get the FC-100DC – it is light, cheapish, portable and great.
Best Buy Budget Refractor
Sky-Watcher Evostar 100ED
This is easy. The Sky-Watcher 100ED Pro has excellent optics with minimal CA and a smooth dual-speed focuser. It is a proper 4” apochromat, so shows a lot more than smaller scopes, even premium ones. Yet it’s available for a very modest price, much less than the 120ED. It’s light-weight too, so you can mount it on an EQ5. And you can get a cheap reducer for imaging.
The main downsides are its length, compared with say an FC-100DC, and slightly lower performance at high magnifications.