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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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’.