The Best 15 Power Binoculars - Docter, Swarovski, Leica, Vortex, Zeiss Comparison Test
How low can you go? The top one is the Air Force resolution chart. The idea is to work your way down until the bars merge together into black block then note the number of the last row that you can distinguish white between the black bars. That is your score.
Coues Deer and sheep hunters. Border Patrol. Military Special Operations. Birders. Lifeguards. Snipers. Game Wardens. Forest Rangers. Counterintelligence. Backcountry law enforcement. What do all these have in common? They all need good binoculars, some need high power binoculars and that means 15s. The question is, which ones should you get. We have been discussing this for a long time amongst ourselves and decided to finally come up with an answer once and for all.
Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski, Voretex, Docter and Minox all make high quality 15 power binoculars. Some are poro prisms, the others are roof prisms. They don't make the Zeiss anymore which is a shame but fortunately we have and still use a pair that are in mint condition so they are here but I ain't never seen a set of Minox in the field or anywhere else for that matter so they didn't make the invite list to this little party.
Now, we could have made this real complicated and drawn but that didn't seem like much fun so we just went to my high school football field and set up the 5 sets of 15s on tripods and heads in the endzone. We set a couple of resolution charts on the 40 yard line and commenced to comparing one to the other, side by side by side. And that dear readers is the only way to do it right.
Home field advantage. From left to right. Vortex, Swarovski, Zeiss, Leica and Docter. You can see the charts set up down field. Light conditions went from mid day bright to low light dusk.
The judges were me, my brother and my father and since we can’t agree on anything I figured that fact and our combined 95 years of field experience qualified us for the job. The second big surprise of the day was that, without much argument, we actually agreed on the results. Here is how we unscientifically ranked them in terms of overall image quality, clarity, color, magnification, ease of use for hours at a time and just plain old opinionated likability.
Zeiss 15x60 BGAT (poro prism)- I included the Zeiss 15x60s in this contest because even though you cannot buy them new they are still out there on the resale market and we see them in the field regularly. In fact, they are still my brothers primary glasses and for good reason. All of us unequivocally chose the old Zeiss as the best. Last manufactured in 1998 these remain the gold standard in 15 power binoculars.
Docter 15x60 Nobilem (poro prism)– This was the big surprise of the day but it was unamimous. Second place was very close between these and the Swaros but we just liked these better which might make a lot of sense considering that they in many respects are identical to the big Zeiss that we chose as best. These Docters however are currently available on the retail market for about $1100. Unfortunately they do not take a quarter twenty stud for the Outdoorsmans Binocular Adapter but there is a reasonably stable work around for that. Why were they better than the Swaros? Each of us saw deeper down into the resolution chart with them, they were just a touch sharper and the poro prism design makes them easy to look through for days.
Swarovski 15x56 WB SLC (roof prism) – Generally regarded as the best 15s on the market and up until now I agreed because they are what I persoanlly have been using for the last couple of years. The Swaro 56s are smaller, lighter and have a tight, modern design. They're beautiful. They also are the best of the bunch when it comes to color and contrast. Other good things about these binoculars is that (1) they work perfectly, yes I said perfectly, with the Outdoorsmans Binocular Adapter system to create a very steady and streamlined connection between glasses, head and tripod (2) they are made by Swarovski which not only means top notch warranty and customer service but continuing commitment to product improvement and performance advancements. Case in point, the new Swarovison Technology and EL 50 models.
Leica Geovid HD BRF (roof prism) – If you want a laser rangefinder built into your 15 power binoculars then you are in luck. These are your binoculars. They are fourth in this ranking because that is where their performance with the charts landed them but I have to tell you that I was disappointed. Don’t misunderstand. They certainly were not bad to look through and I personally like the dual eye piece diopter adjustments but based on my very positive experience with the Leica 10-15x50 Duovids I expected the 56mm 15s to be that much better. They were not. Usually Leica products work well with my favorite bino to tripod interface but because of the center hinge located laser these require a less stable barrel mount that is also designed and made by the Outdoorsmans.
Vortex 15x56 Kaibab (roof prism) – Let me say first that these binoculars don’t fit me very well. I am one of those guys that has to squeeze the barrels together almost to the point where they are touching in order to get the best picture. With these I have to fully extend the eyecups and really get all the way into the glasses then squeeze them down which creates two problems for me. First, when I am all the way in there and they are pinched down on my nose I am basically connected to them which means they are less steady and that is bad since the very reason I am using 15s is because I am searching for small, stealthy things at a great distance. Steady is important.
Second, when I want to pull away from the glasses momentarily, I have to go through the open/close process all over again. Do that again and again over the course of a full day and you will be looking for another set of binoculars to use but that is not why they are fifth on the list. They are last because they couldn't get us as far down the chart as the others and also because there were some color and clarity issues. Let me reiterate an important point here, there are no bad binos in this group but when you put them right next to each other on tripods and can go back and forth looking at the same target differences reveal themselves. The Vortex are very good glasses, they just are not as good as these others but they are half the cost of some and come from a company that provides outstanding customer and warranty service. Don't dismiss them just because I have a fit issue with them.
A couple other things of note came out of this exercise;
- Side by side is the only way to effectively compare and contrast high quality optics. Period. End of argument.
- A solid, well designed tripod/adapter/mount system is critical to using 15s to finding little camouflaged things at great distances. Obviously I prefer the Outdoorsmans stuff and as you will see, the ability of a pair of binoculars to accept that system can effect its place on the list. Yes, it is that good and that important to my system. No, I don't get paid to say that.
- Poro prism binos are easier to use and more comfortable to look through for long periods of time.
- The health and stability of the manufacturer is an issue because it usually relates directly to the quality of their customer and warranty service. That is very important because despite what the marketing pukes will tell you, these are complicated, fragile precision instruments that are easily effected when even the most conscientious hard user knocks them around. Don’t believe me, call Mountain Optics and ask them how busy their repair business is.
- We are splitting hairs and we know it but we want what we think is the best. By the way, the best is a subjective thing. Eyes, age, facial structure etc vary and all effect whether one of these works better for you than the other.
- This is what we found but you need to do your own evaluations to determine what works best for you before you plunk down big bucks for a set of 15 power glasses. There are differences between these binoculars but the truth is your decision will ultimately come down to personal preference and budget.
- The Outdoorsmans Panhead is by a wide margin the best head on the market for the binoculars and spotting scopes we use. Combine this head with their Binocular Adapter, plates and the right tripod (I prefer the Manfrotto CX190PRO3 as modified by The Outdoorsmans) and you have a system that is easy, fast, durable, lightweight, quiet and stable. A system that is damn near perfect.
- Controversy among the Nelson clan. Eye pieces in or out? None of us wears glasses yet my brother and I screw the eye pieces in or fold them down. My Dad thinks we are idiots and goes the old school toilet paper roll route. Then again he doesn't know how to return a text message. To each his own I guess. How do you do it?
Given everything we learned you might wonder which ones I will recommend. Can't be the Zeiss because you can't buy them new. Can't be the Leicas because I have no use for a laser rangefinder in a 15 power binocular. Can't be the Docters because I am concerned about the stability of the company and their committment to this product. Shouldn't be the Vortex because they don't fit me right but that isn't fair to the product or the Americans that make them. So by process of elimination, here they are.
I recommend the Swarovski if you can afford them, the Vortex if you can't. There are better glasses in this class but ease of solid, stable mountability and the customer service and warranties standing behind these makes them winners.
So there you have it. I am glad we got that out of our system. I hope it was helpful to you. What's on the horizon worth mentioning? Well, while I have no official confirmation of it, I am expecting the new Swarovision Technology and HD lenses to be added to the 15s at some point which would make them about as good as you could possibly hope for. And I suppose one could always hope that the schnitzel eaters at Zeiss could crank up the way back machine one more time and give us a big fat run of 15x60s. Of course, if they are going to go to all that trouble then they might as well make 'em FL 15x60s and that would be positively wunderbar. Hey, a guy can dream can't he.
EDITORS NOTE - Some how, during or after the remodel, this particular article was accidently deleted and despite my best efforts I could not get it back. However, the wizards at Go Daddy were able to dig it up and thanks to their outstanding customer support it is back for all to use and enjoy.
Thank you to regular reader Andy S. for letting me know that it was missing, I appreciate it very much.
Sorting through the fads and fashion of the outdoor equipment industry to identify and promote the very best wilderness gear for high end recreational users, backcountry professionals and government agencies.
We can be educated and persuaded but not bought, bullied or bs'd. Hardcore Outdoor is dedicated to those who can't or won't turn back.