The New ZEISS Victory SFs – Undeniably Sleek and Lightweight

Dr. Gerold Dobler (ZEISS), Gaurav Mittal (freelance photographer), and Lord Tim Appleton (Rutland Preserve UK)

Dr. Gerold Dobler (ZEISS), Gaurav Mittal (freelance photographer), and Tim Appleton (Rutland Preserve UK)

Far away, in a distant land cloaked with crimson poppies and fields of golden barley, a group of 30 birders from around the globe convened to watch birds, nosh wiener schnitzel, hoist bier mugs, shoo donkeys, and dance on tables (gallery here). But it wasn’t all fun and games. Carl Zeiss Sports Optics had invited us to the historic town of Wetzlar, Germany for a singular purpose: to tour their world-class optics factory and field test the ZEISS Victory SFs, a new premium binocular made especially for bird watching and nature observation.

Zeiss Event 2014 AUSTRIA HUNGARY GERMANY - 062

Mike Alibone (UK), Chris Watson (Australia), Andrew Stafford (Australia), Al Batt (USA)

You might wonder: where’s the room for improvement in high-end binoculars? What specifications are manufacturers scrambling to improve and are the differences at the top range ($2000-$3000) even noticeable? Dr. Gerold Dobler, the ZEISS product manager who’s driven the development of top-notch bins at Zeiss and other large optics companies, helped us understand what separates the wheat from the chaff in various binocular choices.

The ideal birdwatcher’s binocular provides an exceedingly sharp image (better than eye resolution and sharp from edge to edge), wide field of view (to see more of the bird in its habitat), bright image (high light transmission), and a smooth, fast focus that allows you to quickly get on the bird. It is also lightweight and if you’re lucky, built ergonomically so it won’t fatigue you during a long day of birding. Also, because the modern birder tends to dip into other fields such as odonates, butterflies, and wildflowers, a binocular with a short close focus is important. Finally, all this needs to be offered at a decent price that won’t break the bank (though we know that’s a relative measure).

There are some annoying trade-offs in optics development. Sharper images and brighter, better lenses often come at the expense of lighter weight. Optics engineers work at the limits of these trade-offs all the time; their goal is to engineer a version whose combined specs work for a majority of buyers. And with these concepts in mind, the  ZEISS Victory SFs were born.

Zeiss Victory SFs

For starters, the ZEISS Victory SFs stack up well against other top brands on paper. Judging from a technical comparison chart between top brands this model has a wider field of view (120 m) than the next step down, greater light transmission (92%), a close close focus (1.5 m) and lighter weight (780 g) when comparing apples to apples.

That is enough to get enthusiasts excited. But a few other features that made holding the ZEISS Victory SFs an unexpected joy.

Zeiss Victory SF Mike Abilone

Mike Alibone, Optics Editor for Birdwatch Magazine, UK.

ZEISS is promoting this model as faster, brighter, and lighter, so we headed to some of the best spring birding regions in Austria and Hungary to put it to the test. Our mission was to test the bins in various field conditions and provide feedback on how they suited our individual needs. We didn’t have other brands or older ZEISS models for comparison, plus the bins we were given were a prototype with temporary eyecups. So let’s consider this a product preview, rather than a full-on product review. If I receive a loaner pair in the future I’ll do some side-by-side comparisons with my esteemed Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42s and update this article.

Were they Brighter?
The Victory SFs have a significantly wider field of view and the quality optics offer 92% light transmission, which makes the bins the brightest in class. (The highest possible light transmission on the consumer market is 95%–but only in the ZEISS Victory HT heavyweights). I always use 8 bys, but several people in our party were impressed with the light gathering in the 10 x 42s. Several in our party talked about going back to 10 bys.

My take: The bins were super bright and the image was sharp. We used them for birding in mostly sunny or overcast daytime conditions for birds near and far, such as Great Bustards a hundred meters away, Great Reed Warblers a few dozen meters away, and a Long-eared Owl resting in a nearby tree. I’d be interested to see how they perform in low-light, rainforest conditions. I’m sure I won’t be disappointed. I wonder, though, if this 3% increase in brightness from the competing model may be beyond the limits of my detection (others may be more sensitive).

Great Bustard

Great Bustard, Austria.

Were they Faster?
Victory “SF” stands for Smart Focus, which refers to the fact that only 1.8 rotations are needed from the minimum to maximal focusing point resulting a very fast reaction. Also, the triple-bridge system (an open bridge with three connection points) extends the focusing mechanism above the focusing wheel, which results in greater stability in the hand and convenient and fast focusing.

My take: The location of the focusing mechanism was in a comfortable place relative to my focusing finger. But from memory of other bins I‘ve used, I detected no difference in number of rotations needed to focus on a bird. The number of turns caused no complaints, however.

I am VERY excited by the thing ZEISS calls ErgoBalance. By engineering the bins to have fewer, thinner elements in the objectives, it shifts the center of balance of the binocular toward the palm of your hand. This, along with their lighter weight, made for a supremely comfortable hold.

Now that I’m aware of it, this center of balance detail makes a HUGE difference. When you lift some premium binoculars to your eye you may sense a feeling of drag that comes from the center of balance being shifted downward. But with the Victory SFs, the hold was light, airy, easy, which is important since I am usually weighed down by other gear.

bins zeiss

Were they Lighter?
Handcrafted with lightweight materials, both the 8 x 42s and the 10 x 42s models are NOTICEABLY lighter (each weighs 780 grams). The difference was brilliant and a definite improvement. This made them easy to wear around my neck without using a binocular harness, of which I have grown tired. We stood near a communal nesting area of Bee Eaters for what seemed hours with no binocular fatigue. Check out this stellar image by Gaurav Mittal, a freelance photographer.

Bee Eater by Gaurav Mittal (freelance photographer at www.gauravmittal.com)

Bee Eater by Gaurav Mittal (freelance photographer at www.gauravmittal.com)

Do they Look Good?
Looks matter when you’re talking about a luxury product. The bins are sleek and sharp looking with an open hinge and very nice slate gray rubberized cover.

Zeiss Victory SFs

Did the binoculars have any drawbacks?
These are great, high quality binoculars with no obvious flaws to report in this preview. I will be curious to see how the bins perform in low light next to my Swaro’s and will be curious about the eyecups (I am a special use case in that I’m an eyeglass wearer that must have the eyecups raised in order to avoid shadow). The only thing I did not enjoy was the specially designed carrying case. The molded design was designed to offer a perfect fit for the bins with a magnetic quick release strap. However, my bins kept snagging on something in the interior and would not fit. They had an intriguing design but weren’t worth the trouble.

How much do they cost?
The bins come to market this August at the Rutland BirdFair. Here’s what you should expect to pay:

Victory 8 x 42 – $2889 (€2385)
Victory 10 x 42 – $2945 (€2435)

Are they worth it?
Zeiss Victory SFs.Only you can say! Some people on social media lamented, why would I spend $2,600 on a new binocular? If you’re asking that question, you probably won’t. And no one says you need to. But as the saying goes, spend as much as you can on optics, because you’ll get value for your money. So if you wonder what about this premium binocular might make it worthy of your hard-earned money, then consider this:

Right now, the ZEISS Victory SF is a best-in-class model that was exclusively designed for birding. The lighter weight and center of balance are two great features that, when combined with the wide field of view (even on the 10 bys) and high light transmission, could make them an excellent choice for you. Keep in mind that the value of a finely constructed binocular is partially based on the fact that it’s highly engineered in R&D for years before being hand crafted in tightly controlled conditions at the ZEISS factory in Germany (not China!). A maximum of ~10 per day are produced. If you’ve been using a mid- to low-range model for some time, but find details are a bit challenging to sort out, and you have the budget, by all means consider upgrading to a premium model like the Victory SFs. This could easily be the last binocular you will ever buy.

In the end, binoculars are a very personal choice: do your homework and feel them in the hand and to your face before you purchase. Also check out the warranty, durability, and customer service of the brand.

Finally, should you find yourself in England this August, head to the great unveiling of the ZEISS Victory SFs at the Rutland BirdFair.

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Many thanks to Carl Zeiss Sports Optics for inviting me to Europe to test this new product. I was honored to be part of this esteemed group of birdwatchers.

For more information, please visit the Zeiss Sports Optics link.

And check out that gallery again.

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Features of the VICTORY SF:

  • Triple-link bridge – the focusing mechanism extends above the focusing wheel, which resulting a more convenient and fast focusing;
  • Anti-slip focusing wheel – improves the grip and reduces slipping in wet conditions;
  • Smart Focus Concept – only 1.8 rotations needed from the closest focusing point to the greatest resulting a very fast reaction;
  • World class close focus – the closest focusing distance is just 1.5 meters;
  • Ergobalance – the focal point of the lens was shifted further back towards the eyepiece allowing a much comfortable viewing for a lengthy observation;
  • Large field of view – Class leading 148m field of view for the 8×42 models nearly matching the 150m FOV of the legendary ZEISS 7×42 Dialyt.
  • Light weight – by the use of lightweight materials, the Victory SF binoculars are the lightest in its class;
  • New Ultra-FL lens – The high quality and newly developed Schott glass allows 92% light transmission. The all new eyepiece with seven lens elements features field flattener, which creates sharp images to the edges without the ‘globe-effect’.

Laura Kammermeier

Laura Kammermeier is the creator and managing editor of Nature Travel Network. She is a writer, website producer, traveler, birder and a birding/nature travel consultant. Laura has traveled Uganda, Europe, Ecuador, Belize, Honduras, Israel, and throughout the United States Read More

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  • Andrew Siani June 18, 2014, 14:24

    This is the future binocular for most bird watcher. i love the the the design and the new system. I hope i can buy it one day.
    currently im using the Zeiss conquest 7×40 and Swarovski EL 10×42.

    The only problem is the price might be more expensive then i thought

    Reply
  • Drew Weber June 18, 2014, 18:35

    Not sure about sleek or lightweight compared to other bins (perhaps balance counteracts it being on the heavier end though with all the other top models), but I am really interested in the close focus and wide field of view, the two categories it seems to beat other bins in. The focus requires more action to get from near to far than all but the Swarovision, but that might be simply because of the ridiculous close focus. My older Zeiss Victory Fl’s only take 1.1. rotations for example.

    Reply
    • Laura Kammermeier June 18, 2014, 20:33

      Drew…yeah the 1.5 m close focus is sweet. Yet, according to data shared by Zeiss at this event, this CF matches Swaro ELs.

      If you’d like to see the technical comparison chart that Zeiss showed us, please go here:

      http://wp.me/P3krT4-1xA

      I was going to make it part of the main body of the text, but questions could arise as to how some comparisons were made. I’m not prepared to field those queries, so look at this with a critical eye.

      Is the 1.1 rotation part of the defined specs for your older bins?

      Laura

      Reply
  • Drew Weber June 18, 2014, 18:38

    Also, I wish they would cut the silly cases and pass on the savings. Those cases get shoved in the bottom of drawers and never used in my experience. I’m pretty happy with the light-weight cases that come with a Leica.

    Reply
  • Drew Weber June 18, 2014, 21:36

    The Zeiss sheet overstates the 8.5×44 Swaros by 40g, which puts it pretty close in weight to most of the other bins.

    As for the rotation on the Victory FL’s, I forget where I saw written this but I can say its definitely what I see looking at them now. That bin is also actually light at 737grams.

    From the specs, it doesn’t seem like the new Zeiss really wallops any of the other top bins in any one category, rather it is right at the very top or close to it in each category (except maybe field of view, wow). It’s always hard to tell whether the superfluous adjectives optics companies use reflect the optics or the needs of marketing.

    I am excited to try them but a bit bummed by the design, I never really got on board with the swaro style binocular despite using them at length multiple times. In fact, this new model is even longer than the Swaro, and a full inch longer than Leica Ultravid HD.

    Reply
  • Maria March 31, 2017, 04:29

    Interesting post, I need to do some research on this item. 🙂

    Reply
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