Monday 17 December 2007

Bushnell 'Infinity' binoculars

JJ Vickers kindly loaned me a pair of their Bushnell 'Infinity' 10.5x45 binoculars a few weeks back. The pre-Christmas rush has made it difficult to give them a thorough test, but so far I've been hugely impressed.

In a nutshell, they are rubber-armoured, rugged, and claim to be lightweight, waterproof and fogproof. At £420 (£400 for the 8.5x45s) they're not exactly cheap, but they're not the most expensive binoculars around either. Neither are they exactly lightweight, at 723g (25.5oz in old money). I imagine that if you were mugged, they would make a handy weapon, swung by the strap - and they're that solid I bet they'd still work fine afterwards.

Waterproof? Well I was tempted to leave them in the garden pond for a couple of days, but guessed that Vickers might not be amused. They certainly look like they ought to be waterproof, and with that promise from Bushnell I can't believe they're anything but. (My Nikons never claimed to be waterproof, and sure enough they weren't, as I discovered when the dog unfortunately covered them with diarrhoea – I washed them off under the tap, and then spent a week trying to dry out the insides; they've never been quite the same since).

Back to the Bushnells: I like the focus adjustment, a large wheel that falls naturally under your fingers, and has raised rubber ribs making it easy to turn precisely. I find it useful to keep nudging the focus back and forth as I scan with binoculars, which helps with the old trick of looking through cover rather than at it. The wheel turns smoothly, and makes this easy to do.

The wheel also incorporates the adjustment of one eye relative to the other, in a rather clever way. A bit like changing the date on your watch, you pop the wheel out slightly until it clicks. Turn it a little this way and that, until the two images are correctly focused. Then pop the wheel back it, and the setting is saved for good - or at least until you decide to alter it. It's simple, it works, and it doesn't get knocked out of alignment, or messed up by the first numpty who decides to take a look through your binoculars and can't resist fiddling.

For people who wear glasses (like me) the eyepieces are easily retracted with a quick twist (about a quarter-turn) to allow a full view with glasses, or extended again to give proper eye-relief for those lucky folk who don't need glasses (and therefore aren't unduly hampered on a drizzly day!).

Other features: well, the strap attachment is rather over-engineered, in my opinion. Each end of the strap has a plastic stud, which snaps into a kind of keyhole arrangement in the body of the binoculars, with a sprung plastic latch to stop it slipping out again. It works, and it allows the binoculars to hinge on the stud. But it is bulkier than necessary, and I found it turns too easily, allowing the strap to get twisted as you put the binos down on the car seat and pick them up again, etc. I'd sooner have a simple recessed bar that the strap can pass through. Still, that's a relatively minor point. The strap itself is nice and wide, and well padded, making it comfortable to carry round the neck. I found it ridiculously long, and cut it down to a sensible length with a hot knife (sorry Vickers!).

There's a plastic cover for the eyepieces, with a ridged, flexible joining piece between the cups so it fits regardless of how far apart you've set the eyepieces. The strap passes through a slot , ensuring that the cover can't get lost. Someone has obviously put a bit of thought into this, and yet it still doesn't really work! You'd think that by now someone would have come up with the definitive lens cover for binoculars that just worked - something like those flip-up scope covers, for instance, that keep the lenses totally protected yet flips out of the way in an instant when you want to look through them. I've used all sorts of binoculars, including some seriously expensive models, and the lens covers all have their faults.

Anyway, enough beating about the bush; what are they like to look through? After all, that's what it's all about.

In a word, amazing! I've been using my pair of Nikon 8x42s for years, and I often feel smug when I compare them even to more expensive binos belonging to other shooters. The image is bright and sharp, and they seem to cut through twilight and deep shadow. These Bushnells are on another level. They are brighter, sharper, and they let me see more in twilight than I can with the Nikons - by a considerable margin. I really can spot deer etc with these some time after they've disappeared into a grey blur through my Nikons.

And that's despite the fact that these give 10.5x magnification against the Nikons' 8x, so in theory they have a smaller exit pupil and shouldn't perform so well in twilight. No doubt the 8.5x45s are better still.

The image is sharp, clear and bright right across the field of view (approx 100m @ 1000m), with excellent contrast and definition. Outstanding!

Nowadays you can buy surprisingly good optics for silly money in the high street, and many shooters choose to go that route, thinking of them as 'disposable' items that can be replaced cheaply when they fail. Then there are those (usually spending the estate's money rather than their own hard-earned) who go the 'buy the best' route.

These Bushnells fall somewhere between those two extremes. Their optical quality is outstanding, yet they're a good deal cheaper than the top-end stuff from the likes of Zeiss and Leica. For the average pigeon shooter or stalker who takes care of his gear and appreciates quality, they are going to be a very tempting option. If you're thinking of paying out serious money on a pair of binos, I'd recommend you take a look at these first.

No doubt about it, the Bushnell Infinity binos are considerably better in every way than my Nikons, dammit! Now Vickers will want them back, and I'll feel less than satisfied going back to the Nikons... and I'll end up replacing them at vast expense. Ah well, they say you can't take it with you...

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