Most people have two eyes. Humans evolved to use them together (not all animals do). People form a continuous, stereoscopic panorama movie of the world within in their minds. With your two eyes tilted upward on a clear night, there's nothing standing between you and the universe. The easiest way to enhance your enjoyment of the night sky is to paint your brain with two channels of stronger starlight with a pair of binoculars. Even if you live in — or near — a large, light-polluted city, you may be surprised at how much astronomical detail you'll see through the right binoculars!
Our editors have looked at the spectrum of current binocular offerings. Thanks to computer-aided design and manufacturing, there have never been more high-quality choices at reasonable prices. Sadly, there's also a bunch of junk out there masquerading as fine stargazing instrumentation. We've selected a few that we think will work for most skywatchers.
There was a lot to consider: magnification versus mass, field of view, prism type, optical quality ("sharpness"), light transmission, age of the user (to match "exit pupil" size, which changes as we grow older), shock resistance, waterproofing and more. To choose binoculars for yourself, check out our Buyer's Guide: How to Choose Binoculars for Stargazing.
The best binoculars for you
"Small" astronomy binoculars would probably be considered "medium" for bird watching, sports observation and other terrestrial purposes. This comes about as a consequence of optics (prism type and objective size, mostly). "Large" binoculars are difficult to use for terrestrial applications and have a narrow field of view. They begin to approach telescope quality in magnification, resolution and optical characteristics.
Most of our Editors' Choicesfor stargazing binoculars here are under $300. You can pay more than 10 times that for enormous binocular telescopes used by elite enthusiasts on special mounts! You'll also pay more for ruggedized ("mil spec," or military standard) binoculars, many of which suspend their prisms on shock mounts to keep the optics in precise alignment.
Also, our Editors' Choices use Porro prism optics. Compact binoculars usually employ "roof" prisms, which can be cast more cheaply, but whose quality can vary widely. [There's much more about Porro prisms in our Buyer's Guide.]
We think your needs are best served by reviewing in three categories.
- Small, highly portable binoculars can be hand-held for viewing ease.
- Medium binoculars offer higher powers of magnification, but still can be hand-held, if firmly braced.
- Large binoculars have bigger "objective" lenses but must be mounted on a tripod or counterweighted arm for stability.
Here's a detailed look at our Editor's Choice selections for stargazing binoculars:
Best Small Binoculars
Editor's Choice: Oberwerk Mariner 8x40 (Cost: $150)
Oberwerk in German means "above work." The brand does indeed perform high-level optical work, perfect for looking at objects above, as well as on the ground or water. Founder Kevin Busarow's Mariner series is not his top of the line, but it benefits greatly from engineering developed for his pricier models. The Oberwerk 8x40’s treat your eyes to an extremely wide field, at very high contrast, with razor-sharp focus; they are superb for observing the broad starscapes of the Milky Way. Just 5.5 inches (14 cm) from front to back and 6.5 inches wide (16.5 cm), the Mariners are compact and rugged enough to be your favorite "grab and go binoculars." But at 37 ounces, they may be more than a small person wants to carry for a long time.
Runner-Up: Celestron Cometron 7x50 (Cost: $30)
Yes, you read that price correctly! These Celestron lightweight, wide-field binoculars bring honest quality at a remarkably low price point. The compromise comes in the optics, particularly the prism's glass type (you might see a little more chromatic aberration around the edges of the moon, and the exit pupil isn't a nice, round circle). Optimized for "almost infinitely distant" celestial objects, these Cometrons won't focus closer than about 30 feet (9.1 meters). But that's fine for most sports and other outdoor use. If you're gift-buying for multiple young astronomers – or you want an inexpensive second set for yourself – these binoculars could be your answer. Just maybe remind those young folks to be a little careful around water; Celestron claims only that the Cometrons are "water resistant," not waterproof.
Honorable Mention: Swarovski Habicht 8x30 (Cost: $1,050)
From the legendary Austrian firm of Swarovski Optik, these "bins" are perfect. Really. Very sharp. Very lightweight. Very wide field. Very versatile. And very expensive! Our editors would have picked them if we could have afforded them.
Editor’s Note: These binoculars are not widely available. We suggest this very similar instrument:
Honorable Mention: Nikon Aculon 7x50 (Cost: $110)
Nikon's legendary optical quality and the large, 7mm exit pupil diameter make these appropriate as a gift for younger skywatchers.
Best Medium Binoculars
Editor's Choice: Celestron SkyMaster 8x56 (Cost: $210)
A solid, chunky-feeling set of quality prisms and lenses makes these binoculars a pleasant, 38oz. handful. A medium wide 5.8 degrees filed of view and large 7mm exit pupil brings you gently into a sweet sky of bright, though perhaps not totally brilliant, stars. Fully dressed in a rubber wetsuit, these SkyMasters are waterproof. Feel free to take them boating or birding on a moist morning. Their optical tubes were blown out with dry nitrogen at the factory, then sealed. So you can expect them not to fog up, at least not from the inside. Celestron's strap-mounting points on the Skymaster 8x56 are recessed, so they don't bother your thumbs, but that location makes them hard to fasten.
Runner-Up: Oberwerk Ultra 15x70 (Cost: $380)
The most rugged pair we evaluated, these 15x70s are optically outstanding. Seen through the Ultra's exquisitely multi-coated glass, you may find yourself falling in love with the sky all over again. Oberwerk's method of suspending their BAK4 glass Porro prisms offers greater shock-resistance than most competitors’ designs. While more costly than some comparable binoculars, they deliver superior value. Our only complaint is with their mass: At 5.5 lbs., these guys are heavy! You can hand-hold them for a short while, if you’re lying down. But they are best placed on a tripod, or on a counterweighted arm, unless you like shaky squiggles where your point-source stars are supposed to be. Like most truly big binoculars, the eyepieces focus independently; there’s no center focus wheel. These "binos" are for true astronomers.
Honorable Mention: Vixen Ascot 10x50 (Cost:$165)
These quirky binoculars present you with an extremely wide field. But they are not crash-worthy – don't drop them in the dark – nor are they waterproof, and the focus knob is not conveniently located. So care is needed if you opt for these Vixen optics.
Best Large Binoculars
Editors' Choice: Celestron SkyMaster 25x100 (Cost: $300)
Don't even think about hand-holding this 156-ounce beast! The SkyMaster 25x100 is really a pair of side-by-side 100mm short-tube refractor telescopes. Factor the cost of a sturdy tripod into your purchase decision, if you want to go this big. The monster Celestron comes with a sturdy support spar for mounting. Its properly multi-coated optics will haul in surprising detail from the sky. Just make sure your skies are dark; with this much magnification, light pollution can render your images dingy. As with many in the giant and super-giant class of binoculars, the oculars (non-removable eyepieces) focus separately, each rotating through an unusually long 450 degrees. Getting to critical focus can be challenging, but the view is worth it. You can resolve a bit of detail on face of the new moon (lit by "Earthshine") and pick out cloud bands on Jupiter; tha's pretty astonishing for binoculars.
Runner-Up: Orion Astronomy 20x80 (Cost: $150)
These big Orions distinguish themselves by price point; they're an excellent value. You could pay 10 times more for the comparably sized Steiners Military Observer 20x80 binoculars! Yes, the Orions are more delicate, a bit less bright and not quite as sharp. But they do offer amazingly high contrast; you'll catch significant detail in galaxies, comets and other "fuzzies." Unusually among such big rigs, the Astronomy 20x80 uses a center focus ring and one "diopter" (rather than independently focusing oculars); if you’re graduating from smaller binoculars, which commonly use that approach, this may be a comfort. These binoculars are almost lightweight enough to hold them by hand. But don't do that, at least not for long periods. And don't drop them. They will go out of alignment if handled roughly.
Honorable Mention: Barska Cosmos 25x100 (Cost: $230)
They are not pretty, but you're in the dark, right? Built around a tripod-mountable truss tube, these Barskas equilibrate to temperature quickly and give you decent viewing at rational cost. They make for a cheaper version of our Editors' Choice Celestron SkyMasters.
Editor’s Note: These binoculars are not widely available. We suggest this very similar instrument:
Honorable Mention: Steiner Observer 20x80 (Cost: $1,500)
Not at all a practical cost choice for a beginning stargazer, but you can dream, can't you? These Steiner binoculars are essentially military optics "plowshared" for peaceful celestial observing.
Why we chose NOT to review certain types
Binoculars with active internal image stabilization are a growing breed. Most use battery-powered gyroscope/accelerometer-driven dynamic optical elements. We have left this type out of our evaluation because they are highly specialized and pricey ($1,250 and up). But if you are considering active stabilization, you can apply the same judgment methods detailed in our Buyer's Guide.
Comes with a camera?
A few binoculars are sold with built-in cameras. That seems like a good idea. But it isn't, at least not for skywatching. Other than Earth's moon, objects in the night sky are stingy with their photons. It takes a lengthy, rock-steady time exposure to collect enough light for a respectable image. By all means, consider these binocular-camera combos for snapping Facebook shots of little Jenny on the soccer field. But stay away from them for astronomy.
Take your new binoculars out under the night sky on clear nights, and you will fall in love with the universe. You will crave more ancient light from those distant suns. That may translate into a strong desire for bigger stereo-light buckets.
Caution: The next level up is a quantum jump of at least one financial order of magnitude. But if you have the disposable income and frequent access to dark skies, you may want to go REALLY big. Binocular telescopes in this class can feature interchangeable matching eyepieces, individually focusing oculars, more than 30x magnification and sturdy special-purpose tripods. Amateurs using these elite-level stereoscopes have discovered several prominent comets.
Enjoy your universe
If you are new to lens-assisted stargazing, you'll find excellent enhanced views among the binocular choices above. To get in deeper and to understand how we picked the ones we did, jump to our Buyer's Guide: How to Choose Binoculars for Sky Watching.
You have just taken the first step to lighting up your brain with star fire. May the photons be with you. Always.
Stunning Celestial Sights, Winter 2016
Below is a list of stunning night sky features to look out for this winter, from our skywatching expert Joe Rao.
The Pleiades – Also known as the "Seven Sisters," the Pleiades are considered by many to be the most beautiful open star cluster in the sky. On a clear, dark night, stargazers will initially see the Pleiades — located in the shoulder of Taurus, the bull — as a shimmering patch of light. Upon scrutiny, however, observers should be able to see at least six stars of the Pleiades with the naked eye. Some people with acute vision can count as many as 18 stars with their bare eyes alone. But overall, the Pleiades are composed of more than 500 stars and are situated 410 light-years away. As viewed from Earth, the cluster covers an area of the sky four times the size of the full moon. In binoculars, the cluster resembles a handful of tiny, blue diamonds of various brightnesses, strewn on a background of black velvet. Good telescopes will bring out nebulosity around the brighter members of the Pleiades, particularly the star Merope. These are clouds of gas glowing feebly with the starlight they reflect.
The Hyades –The Hyades make up a V-shaped open cluster of stars, marking the face of Taurus, the bull. But because the cluster is more than 2.5 times closer to us (at 150 light-years away) than the Pleiades, even when we look at them with the unaided eye, the stars appear to be spread out. The late intrepid sky observer Walter Scott Houston described the Hyades as "bright with piercing sparkle." Henry Neely, who lectured at New York's Hayden Planetarium in the 1940s and '50s, regarded the Hyades as even more beautiful than the Pleiades. "It is well worth the while to beg, borrow or steal a pair of binoculars to view them — my own particular favorite among all the binocular regions of the heavens," he said. Indeed, in binoculars, the Hyades fill the field of view in a perfect V formation. But most amazing is that the brightest star — the orange-red Aldebaran, which marks the bull's fiery eye — is merely an innocent bystander. The star is located 67 light-years away, less than half as close as members of the Hyades cluster. But thanks to the illusion of perspective, it appears to complete the lower arm of the V — one of the most distinctive of all the star patterns in the sky.
A trio of star clusters– North of Taurus is the constellation Auriga, the charioteer, which depicts one of two distinct shapes depending on how it is viewed. If you include the star El Nath, the brighter of the two stars that mark the tips of the bull's horns, you see a pentagon. However, if El Nath is left out, Auriga becomes a kite. It's also home to the sixth-brightest star in the sky, the brilliant yellow-white Capella. Located in Auriga are three pretty star clusters: M36, M37 and M38, which are easy binocular targets. M37 is an exceptional open star cluster, almost the size of the full moon in the sky. It has been described as a "magnificent object … the whole field being strewed as if it were sparkling gold dust." M38 has an unusual shape, forming an "oblique cross with a pair of large stars in each arm" and one at the center; others say it resembles an inverted Greek letter "pi." This whole region is attractive in binoculars, including nearby M36, another fine cluster that includes a double star (two stars orbiting tightly around each other).
M41 in Canis Major –The constellation Canis Major, the big dog, is marked prominently by the most dazzling star in the sky, Sirius, the dog star. Situated several degrees below Sirius is another beautiful star cluster known as M41. It's a scattered cluster, barely visible to the unaided eye. But when viewed in binoculars, these stars can be seen dividing into groups and curves, with a distinctly reddish star near the middle.
Winter Milky Way – Winter skywatchers can take a pair of binoculars and sweep up and down the band of the Milky Way galaxy. Start from just east of Canis Major and Sirius, go up to between the ruddy star Betelgeuse in Orion and the feet of Gemini, swing past the horn tips of Taurus, and move on through Auriga and up into the lopsided letter K of Perseus. You'll run across innumerable star fields and clusters; it's nearly impossible to know where to stop!
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.